BOOK: J. Allen Hynek, "The UFO Experience"
J. Allen Hynek: The UFO Experience: A Scientific Enquiry. London: Corgi Books, 1974. (First ed.: Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1972.) 0552094307. 336 pp.
Prof. Hynek was an astronomer who is nowadays chiefly remembered for his interest in UFOs. I don't remember when I first heard of him, but I suspect it must have been on some UFO-debunkery type of web site, for I remember that the writer of that web site went out of his way to imply, between the lines, that Hynek wasn't much of an astronomer and, presumably, that his interest in UFOs was just a way of compensating for his lack of scientific ability, and thus his work in UFOlogy isn't worth taking seriously.
That was several years ago. I wasn't ready to entirely accept that web site's point of view, but nevertheless, when I now started reading this book by Hynek, I approached it with a certain caution, waiting all the time when the wacky stuff would make its appearance. But, remarkably enough, it never did. I found this book to be impressively sober, measured, balanced, carefully considered — much more so than I would have dared to expect from a book about the UFOs. I don't know if his later work on the subject of UFOs is more wacky than this book, but if it isn't, I cannot help but conclude that Hynek is being unjustly maligned by the radical anti-UFO crowd.
Hynek's association with UFOlogy
As is well known, the first big waves of UFO sightings in the late 1940s made enough of an impression on the authorities that the U.S. Air Force started an official investigation into the phenomenon, mostly with a view to finding out whether the UFOs presented a threat to U.S. security (p. 212; e.g. if they should turn out to be a Soviet secret weapon). These investigations went through several changes of names (Project Sign, 1947–9; Project Grudge, 1949–52; Project Blue Book, 1952–66) but somewhere relatively soon along the way, the Air Force pretty much lost interest in these matters.
It became clear that the sightings were not due to a Soviet secret weapon, or indeed to anything else obviously hostile, and by establishing that, the Air Force felt that it had done its job and didn't have to keep on scratching its head in an effort to find out what the sightings were actually caused by (pp. 213, 216). At the same time, due to increasingly lurid coverage of the UFO phenomena in the press, the idea of studying the UFO sightings seriously had quickly lost whatever tiny amount of respectability it may have initially possessed. Thus, the Air Force investigators eventually stopped their efforts to seriously study the UFO sightings that were being reported to them, and were content to just ridicule and explain away each sighting as quickly as possible, e.g. by concluding that the observers really saw Venus/a meteor/an airplane/a baloon/etc. and mistakenly thought it was something unusual (such as a flying saucer); p. 219. “[P]articularly puzzling” cases “were frequently evaluated as ‘Unidentified’ and put aside. The objective had been attained: the UFO had been identified as ‘Unidentified’.” (P. 220.)
Hynek's association with these projects started when they hired him as an external scientific consultant for Project Sign — they anticipated that many UFO sightings were actually misidentified astronomical phenomena, so they wanted an astronomer to help them evaluate the reports of the sightings. This book, The UFO Experience, is based on Hynek's observations during the course of these projects, and ultimately on his disappointments with the way these investigations eventually turned out.
The message of this book
Basically, the main message of this book is that, in Hynek's opinion, the UFO sightings are a subject worthy of a proper scientific investigation (and not of being simply ridiculed and ignored, which is how most scientists tended to treat them), and that they weren't being given this treatment by the Air Force's Project Blue Book.
I entirely agree with the first half of this message — in my opinion, even if it would turn out that the UFO sightings are nothing but misidentified baloons, hallucinations and outright lies, this would still be a subject worth investigating, simply because the sightings are so numerous and attract such attention on the part of the public. Regarding the second half of the message, the part about the problems with the way Project Blue Book and related efforts functioned (or rather failed to function as it should have), I of course don't have any other information about these projects, but I see no obvious reason to doubt Hynek's claims here.
They certainly seem convincing enough. As far as I'm concerned, the only people whom I'd expect to dislike the book would be the hardline debunkers who want to simply treat the subject of UFOs with ridicule and are determined to laugh at every other approach to this subject, no matter how careful or unbiased.
Criticism of Project Blue Book
In several places in this book, Hynek points out problems with the way the Air Force's UFO investigations were organized. (See ch. 11 and appendix 4, containing Hynek's detailed criticism of Project Blue Book, which he wrote for Col. Sleeper from the US Air Force.)
The Blue Book staff was too small and usually lacked scientific training (p. 312); and it had to spend too much of its time on public relations and too little on actually investigating the reports of UFO sightings. Some problems were due to the strictly hierarchical organization of the military.
For example, typically a project such as Blue Book would be led by a relatively low-ranking officer who was chiefly interested in promotion and/or retirement (pp. 232, 327). Once it was clear to him that the higher-ups regarded the whole UFO business as ridiculous and weren't interested in seeing it investigated seriously, he naturally tended to discourage rather than encourage his staff from investigating the UFO reports seriously — why should he risk his promotion by annoying the people higher up in the hierarchy?
Additionally, since the officers involved with Project Blue Book were all relatively low-ranking ones, they had little influence when it was necessary to work with other parts of the air force (“a captain cannot command a colonel or a major at another base to obtain information for him”, p. 227; see also p. 328).
The Blue Book investigators often neglected to gather more data about their sightings (p. 221), e.g. by interviewing witnesses (such interviews might provide valuable additional details about the sightings), or did so only after a considerable delay; they rarely visited the locations of the sightings personally; when talking to witnesses, their tone often left no doubt of the fact that they thought the whole matter inane and that in their view the witness must have been imagining things, or making them up (“ ‘Tell me about this mirage you saw’ ”, p. 135).
And: “obvious cases of misinterpretation [. . .] Blue Book would take some pains to establish for the record;” but cases “which were open to question and contained the possibility that something ‘genuinely new and empirical’ might be contained in it, were treated with little or no interest.” (P. 139; see also p. 222.)
The project also worked in an unnecessary atmosphere of secrecy, even though many of the UFO reports didn't contain any sensitive military information (p. 216). They didn't even let Hynek, their own scientific advisor, browse through their files — he was allowed to receive a UFO report after requesting it explicitly, but how to learn that the report existed in the first place was entirely up to him. Similarly they refused to let him make copies of the reports on their xerox machine (p. 311).
The Blue Book team initially classified many cases as “possible/probable aircraft/balloon/etc.“; but later, when compiling their statistics, they simply counted such cases as if they were definitely identified — as if classifiers such as “possible” didn't imply a considerable amount of uncertainty! (P. 313.) Similarly, for some cases they concluded that insufficient data was available; but they didn't count these among the unidentified cases when compiling their statistics (p. 315). This allowed them to brag to the press that as little as 5% (or less) of their cases remained unidentified (p. 315–7).
Another thing which Hynek emphasizes several times is that an individual UFO sighting can always be somehow explained away as a fluke, an error, a hallucination; but when you get lots and lots of similar reports, patterns start to appear and they aren't explained away so easily any more. He suggested that they should store some information about the sightings in a computer for easier analysis (this sort of thing would be called data mining nowadays), but such suggestions were “summarily turned down” by the air force (p. 229), nor was the Condon committee much more welcoming (pp. 248–9). (He calls again for more statistical analysis on pp. 269 and 280.)
“So certain is Blue Book of its working hypothesis [i.e. that nothing
unusual is going on behind the UFO sightings] that it reminds one of the doctor
who was so certain that all abdominal swellings were the result of
tumors that he failed to recognize that his patient was pregnant.” (P. 321.)
Criticism of the Condon report
The air force's involvement with UFOs officially ended with the Condon report, published in 1968, which investigated less than a hundred UFO reports (out of thousands that were available in the Blue Book files) and concluded that nothing about them suggests that the subject is worthy of further study. Here in The UFO Experience, Hynek includes some fairly serious criticism of the Condon committee and its work (ch. 12).
Had they studied a larger number of cases, and not just recent ones, patterns would become evident, which their approach overlooked (p. 242). They didn't discard, from their sample, cases that are easily explained as misidentified astronomical or meteorological phenomena; while, of course, the interesting thing for a UFO study are only those cases that *cannot* be easily explained in this way (pp. 242, 253–4). They downplayed the number of unexplained cases, e.g. by “playing down or ignoring what was unexplained and playing up possible explanations even when the detailed analysis all but rules them out” (from a paper by W. T. Powers, p. 260).
Hynek even includes a letter of resignation from one of the committee members, Mary Louise Armstrong, indicating that Bob the project coordinator was doing a very poor job and wasn't really interested in investigating the UFO cases seriously.
In several places in the book, Hynek mentions how unfortunate it is that, with the termination of the Air Force's projects, there is no central place to which people could submit reports of their UFO sightings. He says that with some colleagues they will be accepting such reports for purposes of scientific record (pp. 72–3, 270) — well, soon after the publication of this book, he took these efforts a step further and founded the Center for UFO Studies, which is apparently still active.
Here's an example from pp. 103–4, Hynek's somewhat exasperated summary of the conclusions of a certain Project Blue Book report: “the observers were reliable, the radar operator was competent, and the object couldn't be identified: therefore it was an airplane. In the face of such reasoning one might well ask whether it would ever be possible to discover the existence of new empirical phenomena in any area of human experience.”
Hynek's classification of UFO sightings
Anyway, apart from these things, the main part of this book presents Hynek's efforts to analyze the UFO sightings that reached him during his years of involvement with the Air Force's projects. After discarding the sightings that could be explained as planets, meteors, airplanes, etc., there still remained a nontrivial number of reports that weren't so easy to explain. To these he tried to assign a “strangeness rating”, measuring “the number of information bits the report contains, each of which is difficult to explain in common-sense terms” (p. 42) and a “proability rating” (measuring how likely it is that “the reporters could have erred” in their claims, depending on what we know about them and about the circumstances of their sighting; p. 43). In the remainder of the book he focuses on sightings with a sufficiently high probability rating; for example, most of the time, he deliberately excludes reports that involve just one witness rather than several, no matter how reliable the single witness in question is.
In terms of content, he divides the sightings into distant and close encounters. The distant ones can be summarized as either “nocturnal lights” if seen at night, or as “daytime discs” if seen during the day; additionally there are some radar-only sightings, but he ignores these because it would be too difficult to assess their reliability.
For close encounters, he describes the now-classic division into close encounters of the first, second and third kind — if I understand correctly, this is in fact the first book where this division was employed. First kind means that the UFO was just observed; second kind means that some physical consequences were also noted (e.g. car breakdowns seem to be especially common, but he also mentions scorched areas of vegetation, p. 165, and even landing marks, p. 167); third kind means that occupants were reportedly seen in the UFO. (He treats this latter group, close encounters of the third kind, with great skepticism, especially reports of contact with the aliens, which he says invariably come from lunatics.)
He then dedicates a chapter to each of these different groups of sightings and describes a few typical examples. One thing that I find particularly commendable is his emphasis on “hard” data, i.e. things such as how quickly the UFOs moved, and in what direction; how large they were, what color, what shape, what sort of lights did they have, etc.
There's a particularly amusing case of a close encounter of the first kind on pp. 130–4; on April 16, 1966, a UFO was seen by several people in Ohio, including several members of the Portage County police department, some of whom even chased it in a car “at speeds sometimes as high as 105 miles per hour” (p. 133).
Of the close encounters of the third kind, the one that I find the most interesting involved a missionary and a number of natives on Papua New Guinea on June 26–27, 1959 (p. 186). Hynek also includes an appendix in which Donald Menzel argues that the whole thing could be explained as a misinterpretation and a sighting of Venus, but Hynek points out several problems with Menzel's argument (p. 191).
In the conclusion of another case of the third count, Hynek says: “We are not, of course, justified in concluding [. . .] that real humanoids were seen. As in other aspects of the entire UFO phenomenon, the call is clearly for more study.” (P. 196.) See also pp. 242 and 247, where he makes it clear that UFOs do not have to mean that we are being visited by extraterrestrial intelligences; and, above all, we don't have enough data to either prove or disprove the ET hypothesis (p. 274). I'm emphasizing this to show how sober this book is: Hynek doesn't commit himself to any pro-alien views, he just argues that the UFOs as a phenomenon merit a closer study. This is also the main message with which he ends the book (ch. 13 and the epilogue).
Jacques Vallée: Passport to Magonia: From Folklore to Flying Saucers. Mentioned here on p. 196 as discussing the resemblance of aliens (as described by people in encounters of the third kind) to the ‘little people’ of various kinds, found in the folklore and mythology all over the world.
Charles Bowen (ed.): Humanoids: A Survey of Worldwide Reports of Landings of Unconventional Aerial Objects and Their Occupants. Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1969. Mentioned on p. 205.
David Saunders, Roger Harkins: UFOs? Yes!. Mentioned on p. 263 as containing “[t]he membership of the [Condon] committee and an illuminating history of its two-year existence”. Saunders was fired from the committee by Condon.
David Branch, Robert Klinn: Inquiry at Redlands. A close encounter of the first kind, seen at Redlands, California, 4 February 1968 (pp. 321–2).