I was thinking about the difference between the perception of the stereotypical UFO researcher and the reality in many cases. UFO researchers tend to be categorized with conspiracy theorists and psychics. Well, it’s true that there are some strange people interested in UFOs, but there are also many quite respectable people involved.
Carl Jung probably was the first highly respectable person to make any serious comments about UFOs, but he was mostly making observations as an outsider. Jung didn’t spend decades involved in studying documents and interviewing abductees, and his views were mostly as a psychologist… and also as a scholar of religion, mythology and folktales.
Jacques Vallee would be a more serious example of a reputable scientist directly within the field of UFO research. Like many in this field, he is involved in many areas outside of UFO-logy. He is a venture capitalist and is a computer scientist. He worked on ARPANET which was the precursor to the internet and he was involved with early work on artificial intelligence. His interest in UFOs began when he was doing work as an astronomer. Working on a NASA project mapping Mars, he co-developed the first computerized mapping system for this purpose. Besides writing books on UFOs and technical subjects, he has written science fiction and his first novel won the Jules Verne Prize.
Vallee’s mentor was Dr. Josef Allen Hynek who also was an astronomer. Hynek received a Ph.D. in astrophysics and became a full professor. He originally worked as a scientific adviser for UFO studies conducted by the U.S. Air Force. In a project undertaken between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard Observatory, he was responsible for directing the tracking of an American space satellite. He started off as a debunker which was a role he enjoyed and which the Air Force expected of him. Hynek was conservative and cautious in terms of his natural personality and in terms of his position as a scientist. However, over the years he was able to study lots of data and first-hand reports from reputable sources and he came to realize that the field was worthy of more serious study than it was receiving. He came to regret his role as a debunker because he thought that the dismissive attitude of many scientists undermines the very principles of science. Later in his life, he founded and was the head of the Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS), but he still was skeptical of the extraterrestrial hypothesis. Also, he was a consultant on the UFO movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind (in which he played a brief non-speaking part).
Another big name from the 1950s and 1960s is Donald Edward Keyhoe. He had a B.S. degree at the United States Naval Academy and was a U.S. Marine Corps naval aviator. He was a manager of promotional tours for aviation pioneers such as Charles Lindbergh and he wrote aviation articles and stories for leading publications. He also wrote many science fiction and weird fantasy stories. His interest in UFOs came later. He was a proponent of independent scientific investigation and so was critical of Hynek’s acting as the governments head debunker. He tried to do careful research often using data from the government and his first book on the subject even had a positive blurb from Albert M. Chop who was the Air Force’s press secretary in the Pentagon. Keyhoe cofounded the National Investigations Committee On Aerial Phenomena (NICAP) and the research from that organization would later be included in Hynek’s CUFOS archives.
However, not all of the respectable authorities in UFO-logy are from hard science and the military. Similar to Jung’s expertise would be John Edward Mack. Besides being a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, he was a psychiatrist and a Harvard Professor in the School of Medicine. Mack was friends with the famous Thomas Kuhn who encouraged him in his interest in alien contact experiences. After realizing that his suspicions were wrong about experiencers having mental illness, he decided to study it more seriously. His clinical investigations drew negative attention and a Harvard committee was formed to investigate him, but it was never clear what he was being investigated for. With legal help, the investigation ended and he continued his work at Harvard. This incident was a perfect example of Kuhn’s theory about how scientists resist new evidence and new paradigms. Mack was exploring the area where psychology meets spirituality which was the same area for which Jung had drawn criticism in his studies earlier in the century.
Normally, scientists stay out of the field of religion and religious authorities stay out of the field of science. But some people occasionally try to bridge the two. An interesting example is Barry H. Downing. He is a somewhat significant figure in UFO research as he is a member of MUFON and was one of the earliest to research the religious angle. Downing is unusually situated as an authority. He has a degree in physics and in divinity, and he has a Ph.D. specializing in the relationship between science and religion. Interestingly, he is a mainstream Christian who doesn’t believe UFOs are demonic. Like some Catholic theologians, he sees no conflict between the possibility of aliens or other paranormal beings and God. Even more interestingly, he is simultaneously active in the UFO community and in the Christian community. He is a minister who has been the pastor for a Presbyterian church for several decades. That is quite impressive considering that many Christians are quite critical if not outright fearful of UFO phenomena.
I’ll add one more example. Keith Thompson is a more recent addition to the field. His book Angels and Aliens has brought useful perspective to what others have been writing about for decades. He is known for having done the first major inteview with Robert Bly that brought the mens movement into mainstream attention. He also has been the head of Ken Wilber’s Integral Institute and he worked closely with Michael Murphy at the Esalen Institute where he organized conferences on various topics. Michael Murphy encouraged his interest in UFO experiences and so he held a symposium where many of the experts of the field spoke. It was different than many of the other UFO conferences before it in that the focus wasn’t on the extraterrestrial hypothesis. Thompson seems to represent a new phase in UFO-logy’s increasing respectability and also he represents a new generation of intelligent researchers.
So, my point is that UFO researchers aren’t mentally unbalanced freaks and loners. They’re normal people… heck, even more respectable than normal people in the examples I provided. Likewise, alien contactees are also just regular folk. Religious people and atheists have seen lights and/or objects in the sky. Scientists and farmers have experienced aliens and other paranormal beings. Police, pilots and even politicians have observed unidentifiable flying objects. It happens all of the time. This is all a part of “normal” reality experienced by “normal” people. And many intelligent rational people find it interesting and even worthy of study.