13 July 2023

RELIABLE WITNESSES. A Guide to the Evidence. Part Two

V.J. Ballester-Olmos & Richard W. Heiden (Eds.), The Reliability of UFO Witness Testimony, UPIAR Publisher, 2023.

Part One of this review covered the first 17 chapters under the Case Studies section, this part reviews the 12 chapters that look at Psychological Perspectives. Part Three reviews the remaining chapters: On Witness Testimony, Empirical Research, Anthropological Approach, Metrics and Scaling, and Epistemological Issues.
Part Two
Psychological Perspectives

Faith in the existence of extraterrestrial life, rather than evidence. What evidence that supports this faith ‘is always at risk from exaggeration and distortion by biases born from faith’ according to Dr. Thomas D. Albright in his chapter, On Eyewitness Reports of Extraterrestrial Life. He notes: ‘These descriptions of alien creatures are so far beyond the ken of normal human experience that "it’s tempting to dismiss them without cause.’ Furthermore, unregulated and sensational stories are now spread quickly over the internet and this is compounded by a general disrespect for expert judgements or critical research.

Dr. Jorge Conesa-Sevilla in Close Encounters of the “Other” Kind: On the Psychology of “Alien Abductions” observes that you cannot simply use one theoretical and empirical umbrella to study witness testimony. He looks at sleep paralysis and states of consciousness as factors in abduction reports, and remarks ‘...these events seem very real to these subjects, one must, again, also have a degree of compassion and sympathize with their real-felt emotions. However, to take a person in this state and confuse him/her with improbable stories about alien abduction seems misguided at best and cruel or exploitative at worst.’ His conclusion is that we should study how our own brains work before looking for answers in the stars.

Dissociation and Alien Abduction Allegation by Dr. Olivier Dodier, makes the point that dissociation, whereby there is a discontinuity in our perceptions, memory, consciousness, identity, emotions, behaviour and motor control is a factor in alien abduction experiences. It can affect anyone but in more extreme cases leads to the development of different identities, feeling disconnected from the real environment or outside your own body and thoughts. It can also be associated with daydreaming, fantasy-prone states and sleep paralysis, and high-levels of dissociation could well cause alien abduction hallucinations and fantasies.

Dr. David V. Forrest contributes Alien Abduction: Takeaways, whose main thesis is that alien abduction narratives could be unconsciously stimulated by medical-surgical procedures. Peter Rogerson has already noted how much the interior of UFOs and the procedures onboard them is very much like those that experiencers might have had in normal life or expect in a medical setting.

Hypnotic Regression and False Memories by Dr. Christopher C. French underlines the fact that the technique of hypnotic regression produces false memories unintentionally or they can be deliberately implanted. Hypnotic regression he notes produces, ‘...often nothing more than fantasies based upon a complex mix of imagination, expectation, traces of real memories from a variety of sources (including movies, novels, and TV shows), and suggestions from the hypnotist and others.’ So it is a useless technique for recovering memories of alien abduction or periods of missing time.

Aliens, UFOs, and Personal Schemas by Dr. Stanley Krippner explains how we use personal frameworks - schemas - to perceive and understand. They serve ‘...to explain puzzling events in their lives, creating beliefs, scenarios, and worldviews at many levels - cultural, ethnic, institutional, familial, and individual.’ He details how such schemas operated in relation to a spiritual retreat he went to in Brazil in 1991, where the group saw a UFO with flashing lights. Various schemas of explanation were considered, including whether it was a balloon or the moon, and it made Krippner understand better how himself and others confront new information that does not fit everyday experience.

The Clinical Approach to UFO Sightings and Alien Abductions by HĂ©lène Lansley and Dr. Thomas Rabeyron gives us the Paranormal Solution to exceptional experiences. They say this ‘approach leads us to consider the emergence of these experiences in western societies as a metaphorical expression of existential questions about the origins of life, and gives form to latent anxieties within current society.’ Several case histories of alien encounters that have personal trauma as a factor are given, and in some cases show they can help improve the person’s self-esteem.

Manuel Jimenez and the Perception of UFOs: Hypotheses and Experiments by Claude MaugĂ© studies cognitive psychologist Jimenez’s study notes on psychological perception for GEPAN in the 1970s and 1980s. These include looking at specific cases, a study asking people to draw a UFO to understand how people mentally represent such objects and experiments on how people perceive and evaluate visual stimuli. As a result of these studies Jimenez found that witnesses try to identify what they see rather than describe its behaviour and characteristics. The probability that a vague or nebulous stimuli like a light in the sky will be interpreted by the witness as a UFO is higher if they have more information and expectations about UFOs before, after or during the sighting.

Cognition and Memory Distortion behind UFO Testimonies by Dr. Subhash Meena and Dr. Surabhi Das examines the cognitive processes, biases, and memory distortions rationalising sightings of UFOs. This looks at how we are influenced by our social environment to develop our belief systems, especially the impact of the media in spreading UFO stories. Fantasy-proneness combined with a belief in UFOs can result in false memories of abductions, plus they note how dissociation is also a factor. As they note: ‘An individual who is spellbound with a fantasy will read and dwell on resources in support of the thought or fantasy, and through this it will become a truth.’ That’s something we should consider when looking back at the Betty and Barney Hill case.

Clinical Evidence in the Italian Phenomenon of Alien Abduction by Dr. Giulio Perrotta asserts there is no scientific evidence for abductions and he regards them as psychopathological experiences. As a consequence, he has produced a Perrotta Alien Abduction Scale (PAAS) to determine the severity of the symptoms. The scale starts at Level 1 with voluntary mystification running through delusions, false memories, dissociative factors to Level 7 altered states caused by psychotic personality profiles. His clinical study confirmed the psychopathological nature of alien abductions and suggests that abductees could be helped by psychotherapeutic and pharmacological means.

Dr. Scott R. Scribner and Dr. Gregory J. Wheeler in From “I Witnessed…” to Established Hypothesis: UFO Cultures and Contexts make the salient point that the UFO in-group mentality avoids critical evaluation of evidence by saying to newcomers ‘this is the evidence you decide.’ In this manner, by accepting this information you are initiated into an informal group agreement. They state: ‘Taking into consideration the interactions of reality testing, fantasy imagery (imagination, hypnagogia, dreaming), and media influences, the difficulty of determining witness reliability can be profound.’ They are wary that giving credence to contactees and abductees whom they call ‘storytellers’ could cause social upheaval based on unscientific claims. Therefore, they argue for higher stands of investigation.

Matthew J. Sharps in the last chapter of this section writes about Forensic Cognitive Science and the UFO Phenomenon. He bluntly states there is not a shred of physical evidence for UFOs or aliens, yet large numbers believe in their existence. Sharps looks at the cognitive processes that support these beliefs, including dissociation, preconceptions and the will to believe. His conclusion is that psychological dynamics are perfectly adequate to explain the UFO phenomena.

Part Three

Part One of this review covered the first 17 chapters on Case Studies, Part Two covered the 12 chapters on Psychological Perspectives, and here the remaining chapters are reviewed: On Witness Testimony, Empirical Research, Anthropological Approach, Metrics and Scaling, and Epistemological Issues.

On Witness Testimony

UFOs: The Role of Perceptual Illusions in the Endurance of an Empirical Myth by Manuel Borraz Aymerich, looks at how the residue of UFO cases that remain unexplained are just a hodgepodge of incidents that have insufficient data to explain them. The earlier chapter by Tim Printy about the Weinstein Catalog seems to back-up that viewpoint. Aymerich notes that the social phenomenon of UFO belief has been sustained and grown without any true anomaly, or anomalies, He details a list of visual and perceptual illusions that ufologists tend to ignore or dismiss and in that manner keep the UFO myth alive.

Calibrating the Instrument: How Reliable Is Eyewitness Testimony? by Dr. Thomas E. Bullard, accepts that eyewitnesses can be fallible and specifies the factors that can influence witness perceptions. Nonetheless he thinks many witness reports are faithful to observable facts. Sampling UFO data he finds that the ‘best cases’ indicate fast departure and fast-slow movements by UFOs that might represent an anomaly.

In Bizarre Accounts: Remarkable Missile Sightings from the Canary Islands in the 1970s by Dr. Ricardo Campo PĂ©rez, notes: ‘UFO stories were a foretaste of the postmodern overvaluation of personal experiences, of ever-present emotivism, of the vindication of relegated discourses and of the fabrication of minority identities.'

The following chapters also detail the psychological and social influences on witnesses: Some Considerations About the Behavior and Reliability of UAP Eyewitnesses by Luiz Augusto L. da Silva; UFO Myth Propagation before the Arrival of Social Networks by Marcel Delaval; Witness Reliability: Accuracy - Reliability of Pilots - Personal Honor by Dr. Richard F. Haines; Memories Are not Documentaries: The Weakest Link in the Chain of UFO Evidence by Jochen Ickinger and Three Simple Tests of Eyewitness Reliability by Ulrich Magin.

The possible causes of abduction experiences are reviewed by Dr. Daniel Mavrakis in his chapter Reliability of UFO Witness Testimony in Extreme Close Encounters: 'Abductees' and 'Contactees'. An autobiographical approach by Dr. Richard Noll in Satanists, Aliens and Me looks at how the satanic ritual moral panic and recovered alien abduction stories ran in parallel in the 1980s and 1990s. Both of them were based on highly subjective preconceptions that had potentially adverse effects on ‘clinical, cultural and social movements.’

Witness testimony is again looked at in these chapters: The UFO Testimony Reliability from 2000 GEIPAN Reports by Xavier Passot; Data are Worth a Thousand Accounts by Julio Plaza del Olmo and The Objectivity of Witnesses and the Subjectivity of Testimonies by Cláudio Tsuyoshi Suenaga.

This section closes with Aliens Are Good to Talk With by Dr. Luise White. White looks at not whether UFOs are real but at what hidden meanings these stories tell us about our broader individual and social anxieties. In the case of abductions they focus on our concerns about human reproduction and the future of our planet.

Empirical Research

Alien Delusions: Some (Real) Clinical Cases by Dr. Carles Berché Cruz looks at case histories of psychiatric patients and details the types of delusions that can influence our thinking inline with social trends and beliefs.

Memory Distortion in a Social Judgement: People who Report Contact with Aliens are More Susceptible by Dr. Stephanie Kelley-Romano and Dr. Amy Bradfield Douglass uses an online experiment to determine how experiencers go from having a vague idea of an alien abduction or encounter to a firm memory of such an occurrence. One of their major findings was that ‘...experiencers’ memory distortion is not limited to recollections of being abducted by aliens.’

The following chapters look at how mundane phenomena can be interpreted as being extraordinary: It Was as Large as the Full Moon by Hans-Werner Peiniger; When a Fire Balloon Transforms into a UFO by Hans-Werner Peiniger. Chapter 7 of this section is about the Abilities and Limitations of Eyewitnesses Assessed on Atmospheric Entries of Meteoroids and Artificial Satellites by Dr. Jean-Pierre Rospars.

Other topics covered include: Bedtime Alien Abduction Stories: A Checklist to Detect its Dreaming Nature by Michael Raduga and Fantasy Imagery and UFO Testimonies by Raoul RobĂ©. The former looks at a study of sleep paralysis and lucid dreams, and provides a list of indications that the abductee/experiencer probably entered one of these states. RobĂ©’s chapter shows science fiction imagery could well be a factor in influencing ‘real’ UFO stories and gives some convincing examples.

Anthropological Approach

Inside a Spaceship: Cognitive and Social Aspects of an Alien Contact by Ignacio Cabria, details how a circle of friends in Spain formed Grupo Aztlánin in 1975. This contactee group expected cosmic guides to save us from a worldwide holocaust, and most of their contacts were via Ouija board. Members were also lifted up to spacecraft on the astral level, and on 25 January 1992 they even had a physical contact on a mountain top in Tenerife. Cabria regards this as the culmination of a conscious consensual memory, fortified by expectation, hypnosis, imagination ‘...and a narrative socially generated in the group work.’

Alien Big Cats and UFO Testimonies: Similarities and Questions by Dr. Frédéric Dumerchat looks at how rumour and legend can shape these narratives, and we must put them in their social and cultural contexts to understand them better.

Rounding off this section is Belief in Aliens and the Imaginary: A Transdisciplinary Approach by Carlos Reis. He contends that: "Ufology goes around itself. Its liturgy resembles a script of science fiction, and often fantastic fiction, with all elements of fantasy, mystification, and mysticism amid much naïveté, farce, and deception." Reis notes that the UFO phenomenon is not objectively real but it does speak to us using a symbolic language of "...signs, symbols, and representations." The application of psychoanalysis and semiotics are therefore useful guides to understanding the underlying reasons for UFO beliefs on a social and individual level.

Metrics and Scaling

Measuring the Subjectivity of UFO Testimony by V.J. Ballester-Olmos and Miguel Guasp. provides a handy guide for field investigators that consists of four detailed criteria to measure the subjectivity of UFO testimony. The Reliability of the UFO Sighting Story by Marc Leduc, considers the different methods that have been used or proposed by ufologists to determine the strength and weakness of UFO testimonies.

Epistemological Issues

On the Fallacy of the Residue by Dr. FĂ©lix Ares de Blas, like Manuel Borraz Aymerich in his chapter UFOs: The Role of Perceptual Illusions in the Endurance of an Empirical Myth, he is sceptical that the residue of unexplained UFO cases represents anything anomalistic. He differentiates between fake residues that have insufficient data to explain them and true residues that elude explanation now but might be in the future without evoking any anomalies such as spacecraft into the equation. Blas concludes with the view that the ETH is not a falsifiable hypothesis and that talk of any residue of unexplained UFO cases is simply based on ‘unfounded beliefs’ and is not scientific.

Scientific Case Studies: Research Guidelines for Dealing with the Lack of Reliability of UFO/UAP Testimonies by Dr. Leonardo B. Martins notes we mainly have to rely on verbal expressions of UFO experiences and as such are at best reasonable approximations to experience. Such testimonies are influenced by the beliefs of the witnesses and investigators, and he warns we need to concentrate on the characteristics of the phenomenon distanced from our own worldview.

Details of the contributors and acknowledgements complete the book.

Much of what is written here has been discussed in the pages of Magonia decades ago, but as promised in the Introduction by co-editor V.J. Ballester-Olmos this 714 page volume exhibits "...a state-of-the-art in the scientific examination of UFO tales, measured mainly, but not exclusively, from the perspective of social sciences."

The contributions are provided by 60 writers in 14 different nations so this is a good antidote to the dominant US-centric view of the subject that thoroughly embraces deadly hypersonic UAPs, abductions and retrievals.

Given that the reliability of UFO witnesses is mainly approached from a psychosocial perspective, ufologists might dismiss this volume as the ultimate in debunkery and scepticism. Yet, as co-editor Richard W. Heiden puts it in the Foreword: "Skeptics are knowledge-seekers. Admittedly, our knowledge often leads us to conclusions that are uncongenial to believers…"

Whatever you believe this is an essential reference book for anyone interested in understanding this subject beyond the realms of sensational headlines and TV documentaries.
  • Nigel Watson

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