Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Ufology and the "REM Syndrome"

Over the past couple of days, my pal Nick Redfern and I have been having a friendly little back and forth amongst ourselves about ufology's future, and the nature of the qualifications required to be a "ufologist". Here are some excerpts (with Nick's permission to post):

Kimball to Redfern:


... Training is essential to investigation. As just one example, which I've used before at the blog, most "ufologists" who interview alleged witnesses, or anyone else, have no idea how to conduct a proper interview, what types of questions to ask, what types of questions not to ask (arguably more important than knowing what types they
should ask), and so forth. It doesn't take a law degree to be able to ask questions properly, and conduct a proper interview, but it does take some training - a journalism degree is helpful, as is a history degree where the person has taken at least one course, preferably at graduate level, in oral research methodology...

Until "ufology" and "ufologists" take stuff like this seriously, no-one is going to take them seriously.

And yes, there is LOTS of evidence out there, if you know where and how to look (as you do). Is it definitive? Nope. But circumstantial evidence is also important in building a case, or determining the truth.



Redfern replies:

"Hi Paul,

I do agree totally re the interviewing angle. And interview-training is fine and a very good thing (and particularly in abduction-hypnosis research/interviewing).

But, my main criticism is against those who specifically use scientific credentials and such training as evidence or proof that they are "real" ufologists and that such is a requirement to enter the field. When people imply that having a background in astronomy, or something similar, or related somehow, makes them a better trained ufologist than someone without such credentials (particularly when we don't even know that the origin of the real UFO puzzle has any "astronomical" or "outer space" connections to it at all), is where I have a problem.

And this applies to those in the sceptical camps too, such as the debunkers and sceptics that always surface when the TV news people want someone to go up against a ufologist. Again, if a sceptic has a background in science that proves UFO's can't break the speed of light and can't therefore get here: well, so what? If the UFO puzzle isn't reliant on "aliens" coming from "there" to here, then that sceptics' scientific credentials for making such a statement are rendered pointless.

So, while I do agree completely on the interviewing angle, the benefit of having credentials and training in other areas (such as the above) is very moot I think. And as per my previous email, as the "U" in UFO still stands for "Unidentified," we simply don't know which disciplines and training would best suit a ufologist...


I respond:


Hey - I hit 40 in less than a year now, so I'm no spring chicken either! :-)

By the way, re: a recent comment of yours on Updates, I'm all for "ufology" becoming more elitist. The whole point of having a discipline of study, or activity, is that it IS elitist, and requires people to be trained and educated first. After all, not just everyone can practice law, and not just everyone can work as a nuclear physicist.


As he usually does, Nick raises many valid points.

My point, however, which I've made more than once before, is that if "ufology" ever wants to be taken seriously, then it needs people with the proper training, it needs legitimate peer review, and it needs an oversight organization - in short, exactly what every other profession or field of study has.

There is no course of study one could take in "ufology", because the study of the UFO phenomenon cuts across many subjects, from physics to psychiatry, from history to engineering, and an awful lot of stuff in between. I suppose one could be a "ufologist" in the same way that a doctor can be a general practitioner, who refers a patient with anything more serious than the common cold to a specialist, and in many respects that is what most people who call themselves "ufologists" are today. The problem comes when they step beyond the boundaries of "general practice" and claim a sort of specialized, all-encompassing knowledge about the UFO phenomenon that anyone outside "the field" just doesn't have. That knowledge just doesn't exist. What the "field" really needs are "specialists", but this would only be truly effective with central organization, which can only come after a thorough weeding of the wheat from the chaff.

No, what is needed are not courses in "ufology", but courses that deal with aspects of the UFO phenomenon, taught within existing disciplines. Thus, one could take a history course in the "history of the UFO phenomenon". They could even graduate with an area of specialization in "UFO history" - a course of study which would include courses in oral research methodology, and American history, and so forth. Not every course would have to be about UFOs - indeed, my area of specialization when I did my honours degree in history was World War II / military studies, but I also took courses on a wide range of other topics. Ditto law school, where I focused on criminal and family law, but took courses on a range of topics, from Admiralty Law (which, I admit, didn't have much practical use), to Legal History, to Labour Law. At grad school, my thesis work (alas, still 1/2 chapter short of completion) was on 19th century New Brunswick evangelicalism, while my course work focused, again, on a number of areas that had nothing to do with my specilization. And so forth.

Unfortunately, I suspect that most in ufology today don't really want to be taken seriously - not if it means ceding their place in the small pond to others more qualified to lead and work in a bigger pond. In many ways, it reminds me of what I used to call the "REM syndrome" when I was a musician - it happens when a band with a cult following suddenly breaks into the mainstream with a hit. This is inevitably followed by accusations from many of their earliest followers that they've "sold out", when, in fact, it's really more about the jealousy of the orginal followers than any "sell-out" by the band. They are unable to share, and cannot adjust to a new, bigger world. Opponents of globalization have the same general problem.

It happened when Bob Dylan went electric, it happened when REM and U2 hit it big in the 1980s, and when Steve Earle garnered a whole new audience with "Copperhead Road" - and it will happen to ufology some day, if there is ever to be a serious, sustained study of all aspects of the UFO phenomenon.

This change will come much to the chagrin of the close-minded, and the jealous - but much to the delight of those who have the true spirit of discovery, and who really want to get answers.

Unlike UFO Iconopests and their ilk, however, I recognize that this approach leaves plenty of room for the talented amateur, as well as the self-taught, hard-working, dedicated-to-the -subject researcher, just as most fields of study have always done (some excellent histories have been written by people without a degree in history, much less a doctorate). The difference is that it doesn't place them at the center of things.

But if ufology is ever to "grow up" it's the only way forward.

Paul Kimball


Anonymous said...


Old Gary said...

Iconopests? Now that's funny, you maven.

Paul Kimball said...


I try.



It strikes me that you're under 40! That makes you one of those guys I've been talking about, i.e. the "wave of the future".

Keep up the good work.


Anonymous said...

I'm by no means a "UFOlogist" nor even a rocket scientist. Other than rank curiosity, I follow UFO news because I once - and only once - saw something for which I can think of no other explanation.
It was in 1978 in the summer. We were camping out in central Oregon near Bend but at higher elevation and far from any population center. It was late night, perhaps 11:00 PM under a dry and cloudless sky. We were lying outside the tent looking at the stars and talking of mundane matters. As we spoke I watched a point of light which I supposed was a high flying aircraft or even a satellite traverse the sky from more or less South to North. Nothing remarkable about it. Until it executed a 90 degree turn to the East. It did not circle to the right, it simply changed direction in a true 90 without evident loss of speed. I don't think any flying craft we know about can do that.

Paul Kimball said...


Thanks for stopping by, and sharing your sighting. You're one up on me - I've never seen anything even remotely anomalous in the sky.

If what you describe happened as you describe (a caveat I always use when dealing with witness cases where I have no idea who the witness is, and no way to assess credibility, etc - no offense), then I think it's safe to say that whatever you saw wasn't an aircraft made here - unless we can make aircraft A LOT more advanced than the ones the public knows about!



Anonymous said...

Thanks for the thoughtful reply.
In 1978 I was 35 years old, former Navy gun fire control technician, working as a sales manager and husband and father. I'm still all those except no longer a sales manager nor 35 ( sorry to say about the age). I've never seen anything else remotely anomalous - except a green meteor last year here in Nevada. It burned out long before it reached the ground.
Oh, yeah: ball lightning when I was a kid in California. It went north on the fenceline outside my bedroom window, about 30 feet away. Looked like it was rolling along the barbed wire.
That's it. No spooks, telepathy nor contact with anything non-terrestrial.

Paul Kimball said...


Let's see - you were 35 in 1978, and it's now 2006, so that makes you... ha ha, just kidding.

Sounds like you had a genuine UFO sighting. Did you report it to anyone at the time?


Anonymous said...

Report? To whom?
No, I just asked my wife if she had seen it: she hadn't.

Nevertheless, I saw it.

Sorry if it doesn't help.

Paul Kimball said...


No worries! :-)

You're quite right - who would you report it to?? The police? Nothing they would care about, way up there. Perhaps MUFON or some other UFO group (APRO was still around back then) - you could have filled out a report, which would be one of thousands, and...

Y'know, come to think of it, I wouldn't report it either! I'd just sit there, as you did, share it with whomever was nearby, and wonder what it was.

Now if a UFO landed in front of me, that would be a different story... maybe!

Thanks again for popping by, and sharing your sighting. As I said, you're one up on me... and Stan Friedman, too.


The Odd Emperor said...

You two certainly make a good widget argument. (A company CEO is approached with a proposal to manufacture a certain type of widget, will probably respond with “how can I make this profitable?”) My question is. How could a professional UFOlogest be assured of enough income (or any income) to undertake enough schooling to become qualified? This ignores the question, who would qualify them, other professional UFOlogests? Who are they and what makes them qualified to pass judgment on aanyone?

MKJessup said...

It is interesting that experience and expertise may or may not be of value in ufology, depending on what the phenomenon turns out to be. The fact you are a pilot or air traffic controller carries no real weight if we are not dealing with airborne technology. Being an astronaut carries no weight if we are not dealing with extraterrestrials. Being a police investigator is only of value if the phenomenon has some physicality.

We are left in the odd position of not being able to acertain who would make a good investigator because we cannot even begin to put reliable parameters around the phenomenon.

How are we to address this?

Paul Kimball said...


I think you're missing my point - I don't think there should be professional ufologists. Indeed, I think the term "ufologist" is ridiculous. It's really just an attempt, as is the term "ufology", to add a veneer of respectability to the people who have researched, with varying degrees of competence, the UFO phenomenon over the years.

The study of the UFO phenomenon is a multi-faceted endeavour - ergo, a historian could study the history of the UFO phenomenon in the same way that historians study the history of WWII, using the same methods and tools. Courses could be taught, books written, and so forth.

Similarly, sociologists could study the human element, scientists of varying types could study evidence that might relate to their particular field of expertise, and so forth - UFO reports could be deconstructed by a wide range of scientists, in varying fields, to try and provide mundane answers. If nothing else, if they can't do that, then you have at least exhausted the limits of contemporary scientific inquiry, which leaves you with a genuine unknown.

But the "ufologist" just doesn't exist - never truly has, and never truly will.


Paul Kimball said...


Actually, the fact that you are a pilot carries a great deal of weight if you happen to be a witness. It makes you more credible, in the same way that it would in a trial (either criminal or civil), because you are presumed to have a greater familiarity with things that fly around up there.

Similarly, a sighting by a police officer should probably be accorded more weight than one by an average citizen, as police officers are trained to note details more carefully. And so forth.

Further, in terms of investigating reports, which often begins with interviewing witnesses, a nuclear physicist would not be the right choice, but a police officer, or private investigator, or historian / sociologist etc. trained in oral research methodology (or some combination of the three), would be proper choices. It's all about knowing how to ask questions, and what questions to ask. There are standardized reporting forms that could be effectively used, and expanded upon.

What ISN'T needed are more people interviewing witnesses who don't have a clue as to what they're doing.


Anonymous said...

Ufology is not the study of UFOs. It is the study of reports of UFOs and of UFO witnesses themselves. So I agree with Mr Redfern that a grounding in journalism is probably the most useful training for any would-be Ufologist. A grasp of the basics of Psychology and Sociology would probably also be useful, although neither of these are 'hard' sciences of course.

In the rare cases where the report is accompanied by possible physical evidence - for example, ground traces or medical effects on the witness - then a relevant expert should be called in to examine it - whether that be a plant biologist or medical doctor, or whoever.

But it's pointless to compare Ufologists with lawyers and physicists, or to hope that Ufology could ever be a structured, rational scientific discipline. Theres a very good reason most scientists dismiss Ufology as nonsense - theres nothing concrete to actually study. And until there is, how can we possibly say what the best way to study it might be?

The Odd Emperor said...

Of course I was comparing UFOlogy with something like dentistry. UFOlogy is more like studies on quantum mechanics. On the surface the field seems quite absurd but underneath there is lots of useful data which has direct applications to our daily lives.

The big problem with UFOs is that, outside of the splendid mystery there does not seem to be any application to them. The craft (if they are craft) don’t seem to follow physical laws and most occupant stories have an amorphous, dreamlike quality coupled with a lack of physical evidence. The mechanics and sociological aspects are themselves fascinating but the illogical aspects of the whole subject are such that is seems to actively chase away those with the necessary skills to pursue the subject.

How about this; a peer reviewed journal on UFOs? By peer reviewed I mean one written by “UFOlogests” but reviewed by a team of sociologists or people in one or more of the psychology and engineering disciplines. I don’t know of one outside of Inexplicata and it looks like they haven’t published since 2004. Do you think people might be interested in something like that?

Paul Kimball said...


Pointless to compare ufologists with lawyers? Yes, that's true, in the sense that lawyers are professionals, who are educated and then trained to do what they do, operate under a stringent set of rules and ethical guidelines (for which they can be punished when they break them), are capable of governing themselves (in Bar societies, acting under government legislation), and who understand how to argue a case without descending into personal attacks on other lawyers.

Yup - ufologists have nothing in common with lawyers. Alas.

Of course, your comment completely ignored the real thrust of my point, which is that lawyers, with their ability to analyze and understand evidence, and to ask the right questions (abilities shared with historians), possess exactly the right talents required of people investigating UFO reports with witnesses, which are the vast majority.