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UFOs – The One or the Many

Author : Colin Biggs ©

“Given the diversity of true UFO’s, it seems the height of folly to expect that only one type of phenomenon is responsible for all the inexplicable reports.” D.T.Barclay, 1998

“Unless researchers are on their guard, they may end up treating as alike phenomena which are only superficially similar. Clearly this is what has happened with the UFO phenomenon, which is surely a number of separate phenomena lumped together.” R. Moyes, 1990

If there is one constant feature which has characterised the modern UFO phenomenon it is the remarkable diversity of its manifestations. UFO’s have exhibited a bewildering variety of shapes, sizes, colours, lighting configurations, motions and behaviours. Add to this the amazing variety of occupants and entities commonly associated with them, plus various ancillary phenomena such as abductions, contactees, men-in-black etc. and it is no wonder that UFO researchers are often driven to despair in trying to make sense of it all. It is somewhat surprising therefore, to find an enormous amount of mental energy expended on the search for grand theories and single explanations to account for all this diversity, which on face value would seem to indicate a number of distinct phenomena assembled under the common label ‘UFO’. This is, after all, only a convenient catch-all term we use to describe lights or objects seen in the sky for which no mundane explanation is available. Warren Aston, in his excellent article in the July/Sept issue of this journal, referred to this tendency as “the search for the single answer”, briefly alluding to its role as an obstacle in the search for understanding of the UFO phenomenon.

Many grand, unitary theories of great ingenuity have been proposed over the years, but all of them suffer from the tendency, indeed the necessity, to suppress, downplay, or explain away that portion of the total evidence not in accord with the proposed theory. For instance, those insisting that all UFO’s are physical spacecraft of extraterrestrial origin must ignore the undeniable paranormal aspects associated with at least part of the phenomenon, while those that choose to stress the paranormal or apparitional aspects must downplay the hard physical evidence associated with another part of the overall phenomenon. Some researchers, like Jacques Vallee, have managed to transcend this dichotomy by positing the existence of some multi-dimensional, cosmic control system able to manifest in both physical and non-physical realms, but even the likes of Vallee must resort to a purely subjective assessment as to which aspects of the UFO phenomenon are to be stressed and which are to be accorded less importance.

Some researchers, however, go much further than this. Not content with reducing the entire UFO phenomenon in all its multifarious guises to a single agent or stimulus, they also declare that this same stimulus is responsible for other anomalous phenomena. J. Dormer, for example, sees close connections between UFO’s, ghosts, fairies, angels, Bigfoot, lake monsters, ancient gods etc. All of these, he maintains, are but “part and parcel of one single, underlying phenomenon” (J.T. Dormer, 1993). Perhaps the ultimate in this direction is represented by crop circle researcher T. Meadon, who ascribes to his “plasma vortex” theory nearly every anomaly, past and present, that one can imagine, including UFOs, crop circles, angels, religious visions, mystic experiences, sightings of the Virgin Mary, the star of Bethlehem, Moses’ burning bush and will-o-the-wisps (R. Noyes 1990).

I wish to point out at this juncture that there is nothing inherently wrong or misguided in attempting to reduce all anomalous phenomena to a single explanation. Given the rudimentary state of our knowledge in these matters they may even be right. We must ask, however, if the available evidence necessarily lends itself to such an interpretation. My response to this question would have to be a cautious ‘no’. The ‘search for a single answer’ depends on finding a pattern of connections between different phenomena, and this in turn is a highly subjective process dependent on human judgement and the criteria one uses to establish points of sameness or difference. When making comparisons, the researcher must first (subjectively) note points of apparent similarity, then decide on this basis if the comparable phenomena are ‘essentially the same, with minor surface differences… essentially different, with coincident thematic parallels’ (K. Thomson, 1990) The tendency to lump various anomalous phenomena together on the basis of perceived similarities has been called ‘stewpot thinking’ by abduction researcher Budd Hopkins. To demonstrate the potential pitfalls involved in making judgements based on points of perceived sameness, let us imagine a group of expeditionary ETs viewing certain of Earth’s wildlife for the fist time, and given the task of determining animal relationships based solely on surface features and behaviours. A horse and a zebra are compared. One school of thought among the ETs argues that the zebra’s striped colouration renders any close relationship with the horse unlikely while another group argues the reverse position base on common behaviour and shared general morphology. Whish group is correct? This exercise doubtless oversimplifies the complexities involved, but serves to illustrate the uncertainties inherent in comparing the unfamiliar.

Another point often adduced by the ‘single explanation’ camp is the observed tendency for different anomalous phenomenon to overlap. As P. Harper stated, “one kind of apparition inevitably leads to or shades into another… as if there were a single principle at work capable of manifesting itself in a myriad of forms.” (P. Harper, 1994) A classic instance of this strange, hybrid class of event is Fatima, combining elements of UFO sightings with a series of visions of the Virgin Mary. There is also a noticeable tendency for different kinds of anomalous phenomena to cluster together, in both space and time, prompting some to argue that they are all the product of one underlying, shape-shifting agent. Witness a series of strange events in a small Californian town in the mid 1970’s, featuring numerous sightings of UFO’s and small entities, multiple abductions, alien animals, mysterious fogs, poltergeist activities, gravity anomalies and men-in-black. (J. Vallee, 1990) Some of these features are susceptible of other explanations not dependent on a single underlying agent, not the least of which is that our universe is a strange, multifaceted, complex abode filled with otherworldly denizens, realms of being and mysterious forces to a degree that we humans have barely begun to comprehend. We must resist the temptation to impose rigid classification systems on these phenomena and remain open to all the potentially weird and wonderful manifestations – and multiple combinations thereof – which the universe is capable of producing.

The ‘search for the single answer’ is an activity fraught with pitfalls, for the reasons outlined above, and for others not discussed here. Can we even be certain that any one anomalous phenomenon considered in isolation represents a single discrete set of events? Let us consider UFOs alone. Based on the plethora of diversity that they have so far presented us with, I am forced to agree with biologist Ivan Sanderson that “UFOs are probably… as varied, if not much more diverse in origin, than, for instance, all the loose and independent objects that might be garnered from the whole Atlantic Ocean, ranging from amoeba to fish to pebbles and submarines’ (J. Clark, 1992). This is especially relevant when considering distant light sources – which after all constitute the majority of reported UFO sightings. In close encounters, some kind of structure craft is usually perceived, but a distant light source could be anything. The circumstance and context of such a sighting combined with the observers assumptions, attitudes or beliefs determines if such lights are interpreted as ET spacecraft, psychic or religions manifestations, ball lighting or living creatures in their own right. It is highly likely that the set of observations to which we affix the single label ‘UFO’ actually encompasses a wide variety of distinct phenomena- the possibilities are endless.

That many anomalous phenomena are related in some sense at a higher level is indeed possible, but ‘related’ is not the same as ‘identical’. At our present state of knowledge, it would seem wise to treat each anomalous event or phenomena on its own terms as essentially separate, at least on a provisional basis until definite evidence to the contrary is forthcoming. In the end, it probably comes down to individual preference as to whether one favours the ‘single answer’ or multiple mysteries approach. I can do no better than conclude with the words of Jim and Coral Sorenzen:

“It may be comforting to some people to have only one big mystery rather than face the possibility that this is a universe full of mysteries.” J & C Sorenzen, 1976

D.B.and J.M. Barclay (eds) UFOs, The Final Answer, Blandford 1993
J. Clark (ed), The UFO Encyclopedia, Vol 1, Omnigraphics 1992
J. Clark (ed), Unexplained, Visible Ink Press 1993
P. Harpur, Daimonic Reality, 1994
C and J Sorenzen, Encounters with UFO Occupants, Berkely 1976
R. Noyes, The Crop Circle Enigma, Gateway Books 1990
K. Thompson, Angels and Aliens, UFOs and the Mythic Imagination, Addison Wesley 1991
J. Vallee, Confrontations, Ballantine Books 1990

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