Summary: The signs are not good. UFO sightings are less numerous than for many years. Close encounters seem to have been abducted or vanished into some parallel universe. Many longstanding groups and magazines are struggling, if they have not been abandoned already. UFO book authors are finding it next to impossible to persuade publishers that there is a viable market for what until recently was a steady stream of books (good, bad and indifferent). And there is an overall feeling of lethargy, if not apathy - perhaps a post Millennium blues caused by the psychological realisation that nothing spectacular happened, ET did not land and the world drifts on much as it ever has.
The signs are not good. UFO sightings are less numerous than for many years. Close encounters seem to have been abducted or vanished into some parallel universe. Many longstanding groups and magazines are struggling, if they have not been abandoned already. UFO book authors are finding it next to impossible to persuade publishers that there is a viable market for what until recently was a steady stream of books (good, bad and indifferent). And there is an overall feeling of lethargy, if not apathy - perhaps a post Millennium blues caused by the psychological realisation that nothing spectacular happened, ET did not land and the world drifts on much as it ever has.
Indeed, some media sources have positively relished in announcing that UFOlogy is dead. When the BFSB (British Flying Saucer Bureau) closed its doors 18 months ago the news was beamed around the world as a near apocalyptic message. It was easy to over exaggerate this event intosomething far more significant than it was and boy did they do it.
Whilst the BFSB was the oldest of Britain's UFO clubs (an offshoot of the MIB obsessed American Bureau founded amidst all kinds of wacky tales during the McCarthyite witchhunts) and it did have impact on l950s UFOlogy in the UK it was probably almost unknown to 90% of British UFOlogists by the time of its closure and, frankly, had not been in much evidence for at least a decade. A number of far more influential UFO groups have ceased trading in recent years without even a murmur from their local press. So the 'shot heard around the world' when BFSB decided to wind down its already minimal activities was somewhat amusing, had it not been for the rather unseemly way in which journalistic skeptics used the event to promote the view that it was a symbol of the end of the nutty cult of the UFO.
Indeed, even in recent weeks I have seen the BFSB story resurrected by a high circulation national newspaper evidently unaware (or more likely uncaring) as to how misleading this is about the true state of UFOlogy in the UK.
Then, of course, came the great Fortean Times convention debate in April 2002 during which the death of UFOlogy was announced and trumpeted in newspapers and on TV. Once more - probably not entirely the fault of FT itself - this was made into a far more important story than it truly merited and its impact was greatly exaggerated. It is a bit like the announcement that the world is about to be hit by a 'massive meteorite' when in reality a one inch pebble plops down out of the sky.
Yet that sense of anti-climax may be fitting, for it mirrors the deflation felt by those anticipating the coming of the great moment when the truth would be told and an alien would be interviewed on News at Ten. That wait went on - and on. It never happened and the truth has dawned on increasing numbers of disillusioned folk that it likely never will. All UFOlogical bluster to the contrary there are no great truths awaiting revelation. We are indeed in something of a post nuclear holocaust reality.
Ashes to ashes?
That said UFOlogy is not dead. Of course, it isn’t. And I say that having once tried to kill it off myself - presenting a lecture (deliberately provocatively) entitled 'the death of UFOlogy' at one of the then regular Sheffield conferences a decade ago. My point then was to make UFOlogyrealise not that it was an ex-subject - in true Monty Python style - but a subject in need of a radical rethink. And that is the true message of today's rush to pronounce our subject DOA. Even though few people, be they in the media or in UFOlogy, seem to be aware of this important distinction.
Yes, this is a lean time. But it is not, I suspect, terminal decline - merely a major hiatus. UFOlogy has always gone in cycles, following, as it does, cultural interest levels. During the late l950s and early l960s there was a period of almost a decade (sometimes referred to as 'The Dark Ages') when serious interest was minimal and you would be hard pressed to find much ongoing activity or continuity of research. But something (probably the Kennedy inspired space race) reawakened that dormant interest and UFOlogy took off again like a Saturn V , becoming by the late 60s more popular than ever.
I expect that the same will happen again. Eventually something will spark humanity's desire to know about these things, which any prolonged absence of wide public reporting will fuel. Who knows what event will prove the trigger - some mass sighting perhaps, or a dramatic piece of seemingly probative evidence. Possibly our imminent visits to mars, or the moons of Jupiter, seeking evidence of primitive life, will turn out to be successful. The finding of an alien rodent burrowing in the Martian sands would almost certainly provoke huge speculation about whether those wild UFO stories were true after all and revive the moribund from out of its slumber.
A new age:
Of course, there are things that are different today from the gap years of the early l960s. These are not insignificant differences either. Unlikethen UFOlogy has not all but disappeared from public perception. Even in these dark days it continues to be reported. There are so many TV channels that shows on the subject are available virtually every day somewhere on British TV - a phenomenon of the past five or six years of television catering for individual tastes via hundreds of small scale channels. So there is not the same hunger for UFOlogy. It can always be satisfied if you are determined to look.
Moreover, the same period has brought the explosion of the internet - which is now on tap to millions and is positively drowning in UFO web sitesand chat lists. These are what have killed off the traditional UFO group and many magazines and indeed the vast output of UFO books and they will continue to do that come what may. After all why pay £20 for a book or to join a group that meets once a month in London (if you live in Hull) or subscribe to a dozen UFO magazines to stay in touch when you can press a button once a night and learn the latest seemingly (although, of course, not actually) for free.
So UFOlogy will never go back to the way it was. It has changed, forever, and the UFO community that once controlled what was said and donehas lost the say in its own subject. Indeed, UFOlogists have almost become an irrelevance - at best lumbering behind a litany of advertisers,hype merchants, web site designers, and sci-fi entrepeneurs.
Indeed that latter point is the most ironic aspect of all, for UFOlogy and sci-fi have never had a close relationship. It is almost as if they have competed for the same psychological investment by human beings - that aspiration to seek new life and civilisations. You can either do that by dreaming (Star Trek style) or by alleging it is all true. Both sides are inevitably suspicious of each other - the UFOlogists see the sci fi buffs as demeaning their 'science' by images of anorak weirdos who love Mr Spock and the sci fi buffs regard UFOlogists almost as magicians do Uri Geller - someone muscling in on their turf claiming things to be literally true that they want people merely to believe in as open to speculation or real in a sleight of hand sort of way.
Yet in the post modernist UFO society it is the TV sci fi series that have hijacked UFOlogy left right and centre. Even Star Trek made an episode about Roswell. So now has Futurama. And half a dozen sci fi series are built around premises that were once the province of UFOlogy alone -from Dark Skies to Seven Days. Indeed the Sci Fi channel on TV has become one home of UFOlogy. It funded (with the BBC) the documentary that I wrote on UFOs in l996 (Britains Secret UFO Files) and it is currently funding to the tune of many millions of dollars a TV mini series being made by Spielberg, no less, dramatising the alien abduction phenomenon (TAKEN - due on air this Christmas).
So, UFOlogy in its traditional sense may have gone forever, but these days it is in the hands of its former enemies and being exploited rathermore ruthlessly than any UFOlgists ever thought able to do. We are in a new world, but not one where UFOlogy is deceased. Only one where it awaits reanimation as it is shamelessly used as a marketing exercise to sell cars or to root wild fantasy fiction in something akin to the real world.
The big question to me is whether the current depression should be considered bad news. It may be for a UFO writer such as myself, in a purelymonetary sense. But that is irrelevant when put alongside the opportunity that I believe it affords for ourselves as a subject to put our house in order. We can, in effect, reinvent the wheel. Sadly, nobody seems much of a mind to do it.
TVs 'X Files' has both interesting parallels with UFOlogy and also a lot to answer for. When it began a decade ago it was seen as a fascinating look at how the FBI struggled to cope with stories of UFOs and the paranormal. For a few seasons it told and retold the conspiracy riddled plot lines about government cover ups, alien intrusions and abductee experiments that were fresh to the public but pretty old hat to we UFOlogists. Yet it began to lose steam faster than a rusting loco and by the late 90s was recycling the same stories over and over and losing attention and viewers fast. It finally closed shop in May 2002 because it had begun to wander and yet really never gotten anywhere towards clear answers and viewers had cottoned on to the fact that it probably never would.
I think many of those attracted to UFOlogy X Files style - seeking proof of massive conspiracies and expecting earth shattering cover ups and revelations - are drifting away from the subject. That’s fine by me. They were not really a sound basis for progress because they were like exam cheats. They had started with the answers and were now yelling them out to a disbelieving world. Whereas sensible UFOlogy needs one to collect the evidence, determine what questions need to be asked about it and then look for a range of viable answers.
You might think that is pretty obvious. But it is not what happens most of the time in UFOlogy. Much of it is dictated by efforts to vindicate a pet theory - most often, of course, the ETH. Indeed the UFOs are spaceships theory is so interwoven with the UFOlogical pursuit that nearly everyone outside of our numbers sees no distinction. To them being a UFOlogist is about chasing spaceships. Of course, it is not. And it is that massive misconception that is at the heart of most of our problems.
It is a good thing if the hangers on who gravitated towards the phenomenon convinced that this was the truth - maybe after watching the exploits of Mulder and Scully - have lost faith. Because they have the least incentive to realise that the new UFOlogy must go back to basics and treat this as a phenomenon in need of explanation, rather than an explanation in search of any evidence to support it.
In my view that one sentence summarises why UFOlogy for 50 years has failed.
Blueprints for a wheel:
What we must not do is reinvent the wheel ITV style! In June 2002 they announced that the long running series 'Peak Practice' is to be cancelled after a 10 year run. This news was of interest to me as the show is set in the Peak District of Derbyshire near where I live. It concerns a countryside GPs surgery in this picturesque area. ITV decided it does not work so they are replacing it in 2003 with 'Sweet Medicine'. This stunningly original show is, er, a medical drama set in a countryside GPs surgery in the Peak District. Talk about the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Yes, of course, you do not change things for the sake of change alone. And you do learn lessons from the past. But equally you need the guts to see when something is not working and take radical steps to do things differently when required.
So how can UFOlogy rebuild itself? It will start with a leaner, smaller base of researchers. That is no problem, because the need for large scale UFO groups holding meetings once a month in every major city is dead. All UFOlogists are becoming part of an interacting community via the net and this is what needs to be exploited. The net does not need big budgets, mass memberships, bureaucratic committees running things as if they are the board of ICI. It simply needs coordination and mobilisation.
I have ideas on how we might take steps from here. But first, of course, we need to assess the things that we need to achieve. I will set out some of these below.
I feel that we need stronger links with science to allow rapid investigation of any physical evidence. This is only achievable if we prove rational objectivity and a desire to stay out of the public limelight because most scientists will not touch UFOlogy in large part due to its tainted public image.
I feel that we need to start some active research - for example planning a serious scientific investigation of a window area - not merely some haphazard skywatch but a well thought out attempt to garner hard evidence from a location where UFO activity is supposed to be prolific. We are far too passive as a movement - waiting for Joe Bloggs to report that they have seen a white light over Puddletown three weeks ago - rather than taking equipment to Puddletown and seeking to record physical parameters and hopefully obtain hard evidence whilst a white light chances to fly by.
I feel that we need to use the net to mobilise our resources far better. We should be getting all the active UFOIogists together to design and implement a series of accessible web sites that could - for instance - provide data bases of IFO cases (allowing cross referral with any ongoing case) - diagnostic tools suggesting options to be investigated during a sighting - even a series of communal net data bases. If we all knew where to turn to find every sighting in Lancashire, or every car stop case - on a series of well constructed interlocking web based and interactive data repositories - all of our lives would be made easier. This takes effort - yes. But it takes far less money and simply relies upon getting UFOlogists to work together to a common goal. In the days when rival groups were fighting one another that was never going to happen. But those days are dead. We have the chance to start again.
I also feel that we need to completely revamp the idea of UFO conferences. We do not need to hold these to plug our wares by churning out identikit lectures to a handful of half curious people off the streets. We need events that set an agenda - have a very specific theme - and challenge UFOlogists to do new work within that field to try to provide new answers. Conferences should only be held to try to further research and to ask and answer actual questions about UFOlogy. Today all they seem to be are a group of professional lecturers emulating rock stars by touring the world playing their greatest hits to a gaggle of groupies.
I do not pretend that any of these things will be easy. But they are perhaps more possible today than they have ever been and we surely need to make the effort to try to achieve some of them rather than let UFOlogy fizzle out or settle back into its comfy armchair once again.
A simple first step would be to call an unprecedented congress of British UFOlogists. Literally bring together all who care about where we go from here - regardless of allegiances, backgrounds or personal views - giving everyone a chance to offer their suggestions within a framework of ideas to progress our weary subject. This should not be held by any group - it should be a coming together of UFOlogists who want things to change without destroying any existing faction. This is not a call for revolution. Just a suggestion that the time is ripe for evolution. And it is about time that we had a convention of all UFOlogists to have their say about what we are doing right and what we are doing wrong.
Whilst an actual congress would be ideal since it allows for ease of debate and interaction, I am sure that it is not beyond the wit of UFOlogy to arrange this electronically in some way. Even a chat list set up just for this purpose with no other topics allowed and whose address is given to everyone who wants to participate would be a start. We could set aside a UFO weekend as a sort of virtual UFO congress and use it to let us throw out all those ideas and discuss them amongst ourselves that just might reveal a way forward.
What do we have to lose?