High Strangeness: April 2018

Sunday, April 29, 2018

UFOs and Racism

In an interview in the February, 1985 issue of OMNI Magazine, Dr. J. Allen Hynek had this to say about the caliber of his fellow UFO researchers:
"I do not mean it unkindly, but the UFO movement today is filled basically with amateurs. Most of the investigators are not professionals, and they are technically ill equipped and lack funds. Many are also beset by preconceived notions of what UFOs ought or ought not to be."
If he were asked that today, Hynek might add that some amateur UFOlogists are beset by horribly racist and intolerant views of their fellow humans. The recent news that Dr. Chris Cogswell, the new Director or Research for MUFON, the Mutual UFO Network, had resigned his post only a few months after taking the position because MUFON was harboring a racist in its camp, has made a lot of headlines, and was just written up today in Newsweek. This is not the kind of publicity that MUFON needs, but it is the publicity it deserves.
Would MUFON have approved of Mr. & Mrs. Hill?

Why do I say this? Well, let's go back to the beginning. About a year ago, John Ventre, a high-ranking MUFON officer, was called out for posting a racist rant on his Facebook page. I won't excerpt his post here because it's too foul to be repeated one more time, but in it he specifically targeted bi-racial couples with some deep hatred and disgust. I found Ventre's views repulsive in general, but I was also personally offended by Ventre's comments, because I am in a bi-racial couple.

I did not resign from MUFON because of Ventre's words, however, because I had already left MUFON months earlier. I left when I discovered that my new Wisconsin State Director had been re-opening and revising my old case files, marking every object in every sighting report as an "Orb." When I called her out on this unethical behavior, her response was that I need more training because I'm obviously too stupid to know an orb case when I see one. Then she started pressuring me to buy a book about The Orb Invasion, written by a friend of hers. I was appalled by her behavior, and even more appalled when no one at HUFON HQ could decide how to address the issue. So I quit.

A few months later, when my biography of Dr. Hynek was about to be published, I contacted MUFON Chief Jan Harzan to see about selling my book at the MUFON online store. Despite having recently resigned in disgust, I remained hopeful that my ex-state director's horrifically unscientific methods and orb fixation was an aberration, and that there were still good people at MUFON. And I still thought that my book might have a positive impact on people who wanted to learn more about the UFO phenomenon. But, as Jan and I were negotiating a deal, Ventre's views became public and Jan's public response that the people who were offended by Ventre's words were the real haters was enough for me. I told Jan that I no longer wanted to sell my book through MUFON.

Fast forward to today. Chris Cogswell, a guy who very well could have led MUFON into a meaningful revival of serious, scientific UFOlogy, is gone. And as of today, it's national news. What does MUFON have left after this debacle? Not much that I can see.

Oh, wait, MUFON still has orbs. I imagine that invasion is still going on.

A few other thoughts:

I have often observed with my wife, who is black, that people of color (POC) don't often report UFOs. Hard to say why that is, but it seems to be true. But there are exceptions. My wife's dad once had a very strange encounter that he believes involved a UFO. And one of the most intriguing cases I ever investigated for MUFON was reported by a black man. He, too, was aware that POC don't often file UFO reports. It was a Close Encounter of the Third Kind, and I would have loved to have researched the hell out of it, but the sighting had taken place several years earlier, and the witness' wife would not consent to an interview; she just wanted to forget that the freaky occurrence had ever happened (Historic cases are tricky to begin with, because so much time has passed since the occurrence, but if one of two witnesses doesn't want to talk about it, you're basically left with nothing but one person's story to "investigate")

I don't like to think about what would have happened had John Ventre ever interviewed my father-in-law, or the gentleman who reported the Close Encounter of the Third Kind. I don't think those conversations would have gone well, and two fascinating reports would never have seen the light of day. Can we afford that?

Hint: No.

And then there's this: What the hell does John Ventre think of Barney & Betty Hill, the celebrated UFO abductees who happened to be a bi-racial married couple? Imagine what would have happened if Ventre, or someone like him, had been the first person to contact the Hills...

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Mystery of the UFO at the Cabin

There's nothing worse than knowing that you have some really important information in your research notes and not being able to find them.

I was recently chatting with Paul Hynek, the second-youngest of Dr. J. Allen Hynek's children, and I mentioned the time his dad saw a UFO while at the family vacation cabin in Ontario, Canada. The story stuck out to me for a couple of reasons: first, I just love the image of Dr. Hynek standing out on his pier on the lake, miles from nowhere, watching a strange light in the sky; second, I love the irony that Dr. Hynek was miles from the nearest telephone when he saw the UFO, so he couldn't call it in to the nearest air base--here's the world's most qualified UFO witness and he's unable to report a sighting because he's in the middle of nowhere!

UFO photo taken by Dr. Hynek through the window of a commercial airliner.
Then Paul surprised me: he told me that he didn't remember his Dad having mentioned this sighting, and when he checked with several of his siblings he found they didn't recall it, either. They all remembered their Dad's sighting from a commercial airline, it seems (see photo), but no one remembers the cabin sighting! I thought that was pretty odd, so I told Paul I would find the reference I had used in the book. Then I quickly discovered that I had no idea where I had found Hynek's description of the cabin UFO! A year and a half after finishing the manuscript of The Close Encounters Man, my mental organization of my mountains of research material has seriously degraded.... Did he mention it in an interview or a speech? Is it in this book or that one? In this file or that one? On this thumb drive or that one?? 

Ugh. My first step was to review The Edge of Reality, co-authored in 1975 by Hynek and Jacques Vallee, as well as Dr. Vallee's published journals. Made sense to me that this was a story Hynek would likely have shared with Vallee at some point, and I did come up with some helpful info. In Volume 2 of Vallee's journal he mentions the following exchange with Hynek:
"I wonder how old you were when you saw your own UFO..." I said in jest.
To my surprise (Hynek) answered me seriously: "I must have been eight years old. It wasn't a saucer, mind you, just something that passed in the sky. I saw it from my doorstep. It made a big impression on me, because of the absence of sound."
So that's three sightings, right? I am not sure how I missed this when I was writing the book!

I also remembered a 1980 radio interview in which Hynek mentions having seen two unidentified objects in his life but doesn't go into any detail. Then a conversation with Hynek's longtime colleague Jennie Zeidman got me a little further. While she didn't remember the cabin sighting specifically, Jennie reminded me that Hynek also mentioned his sightings in the Introduction to his 1972 book, The UFO Experience:

"On two separate occasions in the past 20 years," he wrote, "I have seen an object and light, respectively, that I could not readily explain..." That means these two sightings took place between 1952 and 1972, while the sighting that took place when he was eight was in 1918. That brings us to three UFO sightings in all for Dr. Hynek!

But details about the cabin sighting remain elusive. Over the past week I have re-scanned a whole bunch of my materials and checked in with several of my most trusted UFO historians, and still haven't solved the mystery. Still, two of Hynek's CUFOS colleagues have confirmed that Hynek did report seeing a UFO at the Ontario cabin, so I know I'm on solid ground here.

And I know I've got the goods somewhere in my office... It's just a question of where.

Monday, April 16, 2018

UFOs and the Pulitzer Prize

Well, my biography of Dr. J. Allen Hynek, The Close Encounters Man, did NOT win the Pulitzer Prize for biography. Are you surprised to learn that it had been nominated?

Don't be: I nominated it! Myself!

It' a funny little secret in the literary and journalism worlds that to be in the running for a Pulitzer, either you or your publisher can nominate you. I just found this out last fall, and when I realized that the deadline was only days away, I asked my editor at Dey Street Books what he thought of me entering my book. He thought it was a great idea and a deal was struck: he said that if I paid the entrance fee, he would ship a box of books across Manhattan, from his office to the Pulitzer office at Columbia University! So, that day I got a check for $50 out to the awards office and then settled in for a long wait...
The strangely disc-shaped Pulitzer Prize

Now, you may wonder why I would think that a biography of a scientist and UFO researcher would appeal to the Pulitzer people, and the honest answer is that I really had no idea. It occurred to me that my book was most likely outside the norm of what they usually consider for the Prize. But I thought that maybe, just maybe, their judges would be tired of bios of dead presidents and literary figures, and this could be the year they said, "Let's do something completely different and unexpected and give the Prize to this nifty biography of J. Allen Hynek." This year could have been the year to shake it up. It could have happened.

But it didn't. The winners were announced today, and the top dog in the biography category was Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, by Caroline Fraser, a bio of that "Little House" gal, Laure Ingalls Wilder, who, I am quite sure, never saw a UFO in either the prairie or the big woods. Just to be clear, I have nothing against Mrs. Wilder. Her books have been family favorites in our house for many years, and Nellie Olesen is one of the most compelling villains in literary history, as far as I'm concerned. So, hats off to Ms Fraser for her win.

Still, it's not like nobody's ever written about Laura Ingalls Wilder. And the finalists in the biography category were a bio of Richard Nixon -- like anyone was asking for that -- and a bio of a poet with bi-polar disorder. Aside from William Butler Yeats, a poet who has been described as "brilliant but peculiar," I'm not a big poetry fan, so I have no comment on the poet bio, but I'm pretty sure Hynek's story is way cooler and way, way more positive than Nixon's.

If I wanted to, I could start describing my book as a "Pulitzer Nominee," which some authors and publishers do, but the Pulitzer people frown on that practice, for obvious reasons. You might as well put a "Pulitzer Loser" sticker on the cover of your book.

So, while I'm bummed that I didn't win the big Prize, I take some comfort in knowing that, statistically speaking, at least one of the Pulitzer judges has probably seen a UFO, and that person maybe, just maybe, enjoyed my book and maybe, just maybe, cast his or her vote for The Close Encounters Man.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Strange Case of the Left-Handed UFO -- Part IV

As far as I'm concerned, if it's on a historical marker, it really happened.
A while I back I became kind of fixated on this odd detail in the famous 1961 Barney & Betty Hill alien abduction case: throughout their descriptions of their experience (given while under hypnosis, and without either of them being aware of what the other said), both Betty and her husband described actions and perceptions experienced to their left. It made me wonder whether there was any way to determine whether humans experience inexplicable, incomprehensible events through our right brain hemispheres, because that's the only way our perceptions and memories can deal with the information? It also made me wonder whether this apparent bias could be created or influenced by the hypnotic process...

I am very good at asking questions like this, but not very good at answering them. That's why it's a very good thing that I have a wonderful reader who sent me this amazing letter after reading my Left-Handed blog posts. Here's what this reader had to say about my observations:
I'm a long-time reader of your blog (and your book, which I greatly enjoyed). I'm also a mathematician, and for once that's actually relevant. Regarding the surplus of lefts in the Hill case, there are mathematical tests that can determine if this kind of pattern is statistically significant:


For a situation like this, the math would actually be pretty straightforward. The tricky part would be designing the rules for doing the data collection without introducing subconscious bias. (Ideally, one would get some undergraduates who don't know what you're expecting to find to do the actual counting.) But if you're interested in pursuing this rigorously, the math exists.
I was pretty amazed by this explanation, but, sadly, my reader's "pretty straightforward" math did not appear so straightforward to me. So, my reader kindly wrote again to explain further, and I reprint it here in the hopes that it might trigger some thinking among more of my readers:
We can never prove that any sequence of lefts and rights isn't anything more then a weird coincidence, at least not with math alone. But we can calculate what the probability that we would see a sequence that extreme is if left and right are equally likely. If that probability is very low, we can conclude that left and right are probably not equally likely. By tradition, a probability of 5% is usually used as the threshold for rejecting the hypothesis that they're equally likely.
It's basically like flipping a coin. We can never prove that the coin is bad from coin flips alone. But while a hundred heads in a row could be coincidence, we would still be justified at that point in deciding that the coin is bad.

The tricky part is designing the rules to decide what counts as a left and what counts as a right, and implementing them in a fashion that avoids subconscious bias. For example:

1. If an event occurs in the book that has no direct relationship to the Hills - e.g., John Fuller mentions passing a diner on the left as he's driving home - is it counted?
2. If a left occurs that implies another left - e.g., the alien stands at her left side and then touches her left arm - is that one left or two?
3. If the same event occurs in two different sources - e.g., the alien stands at her left side in two books - is that one left or two?
4. Which sources do you use?

These questions really need to be answered before doing any counting. In an ideal world one would get hold of some undergraduates willing to work for course credit and have them do the counting without knowing what you expect to find, but I'm assuming that resource constraints prohibit true double-blinding.

To be completely open about my own views, I'm about 95% convinced that the Hills' experience was entirely the product of false memories induced by hypnosis. But given my tendency to grumble about insufficient scientific rigor, I felt it would be hypocritical not to make the suggestion.
Still fascinating, but still a a few levels of complexity above my non-mathematical mind. The part I did understand, about getting grad students to make sense of the Hills' data without needing to be paid, is outside my present capabilities. So, my wonderful reader sent a third letter:
The math part of the analysis really isn't hard to do. There are online calculators that will do it in your web browser - I've done some Googling to see if I can find a good one, but most also include a bunch of extra bells and whistles that make it seem more complicated then it really is. For example, there's this one:
To use that, enter:
1. The total number of both lefts and rights under n.
2. The number of lefts under k.
3. 0.5 under p.
And hit calculate. The number you're looking for is "the probability of exactly, or more then, K out of N". So for example, if there were 15 lefts and 5 rights, then n=20, k=15, and the probability of observing this event by chance is 0.02069. Meaning that, if the pattern is not real, there is a roughly 2% chance that we would observe that many lefts by pure coincidence. That's under the threshold of 5%, so we can conclude that this may be a real phenomenon.

The tricky part, like I said, is deciding what to count as a left or a right. For the most part it shouldn't really matter what you decide as long as you're consistent.
Strangely enough, by the time I read this third letter, I felt myself starting to understand, if even just a little bit. Knowing that Dr. Mark Rodeghier, the scientific director of the J. Allen Hynek Center for UFO Studies, did a lot of work with statistics, I ran this saga past him, to get his take on it. Mark did not let me down:
I haven’t come across any bias such as this before with the case details in an abduction (or any case, for that matter). Your statistician can dream up methods to test this, but as another data/stats guy, I say you need more data, i.e., you need to look at other abduction cases to see if you can find something similar, or not. You would need to choose cases with lots of detail, such as Travis Walton, or Pascagoula, or maybe a few of Budd Hopkins’ more detailed cases. Or the Allagash abduction from Maine.
This makes sense to me, and when I read through the thoughts of these two very smart people, I can start to see some way to study what I perceive to be the left-handed bias of the Hill case. Not sure where I'll ultimately go with this, but there's a lot to think about, and I'd love to hear from other readers on this.

Before I do anything more on this, though, there's another twist to the story that I need to process. The other day I was searching for a reference in The Edge of Reality, the 1975 UFO book co -authored by Dr. J. Allen Hynek and Dr. Jacques Vallee, and I came across a fascinating comment from Dr. Hynek. He was describing his experience in 1966 when he had the opportunity to interview the Hills after they had been hypnotized by Dr. Benjamin Simon. Barney and Betty were seated side-by-side on a sofa while under hypnosis, with Betty seated to Barney's left. As the questioning began, Barney was recounting his and Betty's drive home on the night of their alleged abduction, with Barney behind the wheel of their Chevy and Betty in the passenger's seat, watching an odd light in the sky...
"In the experience I had when they were hypnotized for an hour and a half, a remarkable thing was the incident in which Betty was sitting to Barney's left, and Barney said to Dr. Simon, 'Something is funny. I know that Betty is sitting here [to his right, where she would have been since he was driving] but why is her voice coming from the other side?' So, he arranged their seats and Barney was happy."
Wow... I don't know about you, but I find this detail arresting. This right-left switcheroo may not help to understand the apparent left-handed bias in the Hill case, but it tells us a lot about the efficacy of hypnosis. This interview took place in Boston in 1966, but Barney was also back in his car driving along that New Hampshire highway in 1961...