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Scientific Ufology

Author: Kevin Randles

Reviewer: Colin Biggs

The very expression ‘scientific ufology’ has often seemed like a contradiction in terms. The relationship between science and the study of UFO’\s has proved, since the latter’s very inception, uneasy at best, bitter and antagonistic at worst. It is this contentious relationship which is explored by Kevin Randle in his latest opus. Among his previous works may be cited A History of UFO Crashes (1995), and The Truth About the UFO Crash at Roswell (1994, co-authored with Don Schmitt), revealing his interest in that aspect of ufology concerned with the acquisition of hard, physical evidence. The main thrust of his present work is that, contrary to the opinions of may, the methods of science can be usefully employed to at least prove the reality of the UFO phenomenon, though not necessarily its origins.

Randle is not noted for a gentle, sensitive approach to his subject matter. His style is terse, very much to the point, hard hitting and confrontational, a tendency displayed to good effect from the very first paragraph, which deserves to be quoted at length:

There is a problem with the so-called science of Ufology. Those practicing it are anything but scientific in their approach t it. All to often we in the UFO community talk about applying the rigours of scientific methodology to our study and then we fail to do so. For the most part, we believe in science but all too often reject it when it doesn’t conform to our beliefs about UFOs. Scientists, on the other hand, reject Ufology because of our lack of scientific standards. To the scientific community, we fail to make our case within a proper scientific framework. (page 1)

It would be difficult to think of a more unfair comment, or one more calculated to arouse the ire of Randle’s intended readership. According to Randle, it is WE in the Ufological community who must change our ways, WE who must lift our game, WE who must tailor our presentation to suit the rigorous demands of science. If scientists persist in refusing to take the subject of UFOs seriously, then it is all our fault. Once we mend our errant ways, science will automatically embrace the study of UFOs in its collective bosom, or so the line of reasoning goes. Now while it is doubtless true that many ufologists need to lift their game, the fact that scientist may harbour deeply cherished belief systems of their own, be subject to all sorts of governmental or institutional pressures (eg. funding), and possess all the normal human foibles of inflexibility, close-mindedness, irrationality and jealousy, is barely raised as a possibility by Randle throughout the entire course of his book. In reality, scientists have rejected the study of UFOs for a good many reasons, only one of which is the alleged ‘lack of scientific standards’ in the methodology of ufologists. Slightly later in Chapter 1, Randle argues that good evidence for the reality of UFOs exists in abundance, but ‘it just has not been presented in a proper form for the scientific community’ (p. 10). This is plainly absurd. Time and time again excellent, incontrovertible evidence for the reality of the UFO phenomenon has been presented to the scientific establishment, often by scientists themselves, but all to no avail. There are deeper forces at work here than a simple lack of scientific rigour on our part.

Randle constantly makes the point that UFO investigation should be heading down the path of scientific acceptance and respectability, ‘not necessarily into the realm where we want it to go, but into the realm where the evidence leads us… we must carefully follow the evidence rather than our beliefs’ (p.9). But this is exactly the kind of criticism which can be levelled at scientists’ handling of the UFO issue, with far greater justification. What if the evidence points in a direction that scientists find very awkward and uncomfortable to deal with? I find it difficult to imagine scientists embracing with alacrity the paranormal or apparent interdimensional aspects of the UFO phenomenon, for instance. UFOs ought to be studied on their own terms. There is almost an element of pathos in Randle’s attitude to this issue, as if ufology will only achieve ‘legitimacy’ when it achieves respectability in the eyes of science. It is not that Randle is a professional debunker or spoiler where UFOs are concerned. On the contrary, he makes it quite clear in his final conclusion that he believes the UFO phenomenon to represent evidence of extraterrestrial visitation, so it is all the more curious that he lays most of the blame for scientific non-acceptance of UFOs at the feet of ufologists.

Despite Randle’s rosy-eyed view of science and its practitioners (and despite my scathing criticisms above), he has actually produced a worthwhile book exploring the stormy relationship of science, ufology and the sceptics. After such an uncompromising start, the book settles down to a review of some of the best authenticated cases in the UFO files, clearly demonstrating that science has no basis for its constant assertions that all UFO events are dubious, anecdotal, or poorly documented. The main body of the book, Chapters 2, 4 and 5, shows how some of the best cases are very thoroughly researched indeed, and should, by all reasonable criteria, have been the subject of full scale scientific enquiry, or ought at the very least to have piqued scientific curiosity.

Chapter 2 illustrates that even simple eyewitness testimony, usually considered the least reliable form of evidence, can be effectively utilised as a scientific tool if it is appropriately handled, especially if multiple, independent witnesses to a sighting are involved. If such testimony can be gathered and documented while witnesses memories of the UFO event are still fresh and unclouded, and if the various accounts corroborate and reinforced each other, there is no reason why science should disregard such evidence as worthless or anecdotal.

Chapter 3 considers radar cases as a form of physical evidence, especially where fully trained personnel and multiple radar sets are involved, and where visual confirmation of the radar anomaly is obtained from sources both on the ground and in the air. All these criteria were satisfied by the famous series of UFO events over Washington D.C. In July of 1952, for example. Chapter 4 examines the evidence of photographs and film, while Chapter 5 explores the kind of evidence presented by actual landing traces of alleged structured craft. These four chapters, constituting the central core of the book, feature excellent examples from the UFO files selected by Randle to emphasise the point in no uncertain terms that sufficient evidence already exists, and has existed in the public arena for a long time, of extraordinary events taking place in our skies fully deserving the most serious scientific scrutiny.

Chapter 6 attempts to rebut those sceptics and debunkers who continually adduce some form of psychological explanation to account for most manifestations of the UFO phenomenon. Randle uses as his principal example the well-known ‘‘Chiles and Whitted’ case, in which two American commercial airline pilots reported that an apparent structured craft complete with portholes streaked past their aircraft on the night of July 24th, 1948. Sceptics often maintain that a sudden streak of light can give rise to a subjective impression of such a craft on the part of an observer, without citing any evidence from the literature of psychology to prove their point. Randle took the simple step of conducting his own experiments, under proper laboratory conditions in a university setting, which clearly demonstrated that the arguments of the sceptics in this regard had no basis in fact. For once, the methods of science were used to disprove the claims of the sceptics.

Chapter 7 is devoted to a brief review of the role played by hoaxers in clouding the serious study of UFO’s. among Randles’ conclusions as stated in his final chapter 8 is the accurate observation that sceptics resolutely try to discredit all UFO events as tainted with ‘hoax, misidentification, delusion or illusion.’ (p. 223) Randle counters this assertion with the all too true claim that ‘skeptics create the controversy around the cases, often with little more than speculation and innuendo, and then complain because no case is without that controversy.’ (p. 223)

So what do I make of the book as a whole? It seems to me that Randle is arguing at cross purposes throughout its entire length. On the one hand ‘Scientific Ufology’ can be described as one long, desperate plea for recognition from the scientific establishment in the face of excellent, incontrovertible evidence which already exists in abundance, and which science persists in ignoring or belittling. On the other hand, Randle is unwilling to ascribe any blame whatever to scientists for this sorry state of affairs, laying it all at the feet of ufologists for allegedly failing the test of scientific rigour. He can’t have it both ways. This refusal to even lightly rap the knuckles of scientists for their role in the long standing impasse between science and ufology is perhaps the books greatest flaw.

Given that the maim purpose of ‘Scientific Ufology’ is to demonstrate just how far science can go in proving the reality of the UFO phenomenon, I suppose it is unfair and a little churlish of me to complain that Randle does not present the other side of the coin, though he does hint at the limitations of science at several points throughout the book where he makes the very cogent point that although scientific methodology can be successfully employed in proving the UFO reality and establishing its legitimacy as a genuine scientific enigma, ultimately it cannot provide answers concerning the origins or purpose of the phenomenon; eg. is it of ET origin or not? (i.e. in terms of the types of evidence Randles is considering in his book). One senses that he has missed an opportunity here to really come to grips with this whole issue. In my estimation, the most revealing exploration of this theme which I have encountered is contained in a hard to obtain book appropriately titled ‘UFO’ as and the Limits of Science’ (Ronald Story, 1981), in which its author convincingly argues that, for the most part, the UFO phenomenon does not manifest itself in such a way as to be susceptible to sustained scientific analysis, and thus falls largely beyond its purview. The methods of science cannot properly be applied to a phenomenon which is generally fleeting in appearance, non-reproducable at will, and relying almost totally on observational data, however meticulously gathered and documented.. even Randle admits that of the vast number of cases in the UFO files, only very few actually satisfy the criteria of susceptibility to proper scientific analysis. If such is the case, should we, in fact, be heading down the path of achieving scientific respectability, as Randle maintains, or would some alternative strategy or mode of inquiry prove more suitable to analyse the UFO phenomenon in its entirety?

Despite its flaws and shortcomings, I still think ‘Scientific Ufology’ is a worthwhile addition to anyone’s UFO library. The central core of the book is basically sound and, if nothing else, shows the positive results to be achieved by adherence to rigorous standards of data collection, a point which should be taken to hearty by many ufologists. I would therefore recommend it as a good read for anyone interested in our subject.

Categories: Reviews

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