Sunday, March 12, 2006

Scientists and the UFO Phenomenon

Within the world of ufology there are more than a few people who rail at "science" and "scientists", as if they were the source of all evil.

This blinkered approach ignores all of the nuances within both "science", and "scientists". There is no one model, there is no one template, there is no one sterotype, that is completely accurate.

A useful basic typology of scientists can be found at pp. 258 - 260 of "Politicking and Paradigm Shifting: James E. McDonald and the UFO Case Study", a 1975 Phd. thesis by Paul McCarthy (doctor of philosophy in political science). It is, like Ann Druffel's Firestorm, a must-read for anyone interested in the serious scientific study of the UFO phenomenon in general, and McDonald in particular (it can be found online here, courtesy of Project 1947).

The relevant excerpt:


Let us begin by assuming that not all scientists are equally political. For purposes of discussion they can be differentiated on the basis of the amount of political behavior they engage in, the issues they study, and the political tactics they use. This will enable us to talk about different types of scientists, issues, and tactics. Although this conceptual breakdown is lacking in precise operational determinants, it nonetheless is useful in taking an initial look at the phenomenon I am calling the personal politics of science.

It is assumed that all practicing scientists are political and that the apolitical scientist is a myth. This does not mean that all scientists are as political as McDonald, but it does imply that each in his own way initiates behaviors which are not part of the scientific method and yet are intended to further the scientists' research activities. If we are to accept the apolitical scientist concept we must believe that scientists exist who do not consider the social implications of their research and do nothing to foster their own professional interests except their work -- trusting solely in the community of scholars to reward them on the basis of merit. Because this entire line of reasoning appears counterintuitive there is no further discussion of such hypothetical individuals here.


However, three different types of scientists are suggested. The first type engages in average amounts of political behavior. That is, he is the normal scientist who does not attempt to wheel and deal in his discipline or pursue revolutionary breakthroughs. [1] He does his research on normal issues and where necessary employs normal political tactics to achieve his ends.


The second type of scientist takes part in above-average amounts of political behavior. He is one of the prolific members of his discipline and/or a scientific statesman. The former requires that he always has a book or an article "in press" and the latter that he sits on and organizes associational panels in his discipline and functions on the editorial boards of journals. In either case he is constantly tending to his own upwardly mobile interests within the scientific community. This individual gravitates toward "fashionable" topics of research that exist on the periphery of paradigms but which do not threaten the assumptions of the paradigms themselves. In so doing he utilizes considerably more in the way of normal political tactics to achieve his ends than our Type I scientist.

Within this category there is a subgroup which because of my value orientations I will call the "reactionary extremists." They are successful Type II scientists who take it upon themselves to use extreme tactics to do battle with Type III scientists over potentially revolutionary issues.


The Type III scientist, "the progressive extremist," unable to obtain satisfaction through labor in the vineyards of "normal science," is attracted to potentially revolutionary research areas. He focuses an enormous amount of political behavior on these topics and does not hesitate to bring extreme tactics into play. For the sake of a breakthrough he will venture to the borderlands of science in the hope of returning with a new view of reality.

The scientists of both polar persuasions, then, share several characteristics which seem aberrant and justify the label of extremist. Both the "progressive" and the "reactionary" are attracted to borderland areas of research. The former as an active iconoclast and the latter as an upholder of authority. Each in his own way exhibits traits which Rokeach has called dogmatic. Lastly, both groups are willing to substitute political tactics for the process of verification."

James McDonald, clearly, was a "progressive" Type III scientist. So too are people like Colm Kelleher, Stan Friedman, and Jacques Vallee. Eventually, J. Allen Hynek moved from being a Type II scientist to a Type III.

Stan's old classmate Carl Sagan was a Type II scientist using this model. I think the SETI leaders could also be described in this way, as could scientists like Michio Kaku, Peter Sturrock (photo at left) and Stephen Hawking.

Edward Condon was a type II scientist, but of the "reactionary" sub-group identified by McCarthy.

The point is that "Science" is not the monolithic entity that some within ufology like to portray it as being. While the majority of scientists probably fall into the Type I category, there are still plenty of Type II and Type III scientists around from whom a core group dedicated to the serious scientific study of the UFO phenomenon could emerge - should a leader come forward with the vision of a James McDonald, the communications skills of a Carl Sagan, and the realism of a J. Allen Hynek. All three are needed in order to move forward.

Paul Kimball


Don Maor said...

Good article!

Paul Kimball said...


Thanks. McCarthy's paper is a must-read.

One prominent ufologist, however, has pointed out to me an area of disagreement with McCarthy. In a private e-mail, this person writes:

"There are, contrary to McCarthy, the naive Type 0 scientists who naively believe that science is a meritocracy and that they need do nothing but do their research and its merits will become known to all without having to do any politicking. I have met many such scientists so I know they exist."

So, perhaps a Type O scientist needs to be added to the mix.


gordon said...

"There are, contrary to McCarthy, the naive Type 0 scientists who naively believe that science is a meritocracy and that they need do nothing but do their research and its merits will become known to all without having to do any politicking. I have met many such scientists so I know they exist."

Couldn't agree more. I work with 300 ~ 400 other scientists in the one organisation, and there are quite a few "type 0" fellows around. However, other than their lack of 'politicking', they would not fit easily into the suggested classification scheme. Some are wildly "progressive extremist", a la type III, some are reactionary and some just plod along. Which tends to suggest that this type of classification is more the product of a political science background than any useful metric for the identifiaction of practitioners of science.



Paul Kimball said...


McCarthy's Phd is in philosophy (political science). However, much of science these days, as always, is driven by political and financial considerations, so this seems appropriate.