Read Wonders in the Sky Online
Authors: Jacques Vallee
and Their Impact on Human Culture, History, and Beliefs
JEREMY P. TARCHER/PENGUIN
Published by the Penguin Group
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Copyright Â© 2009 by Chris Aubeck and Documatica Research, LLC
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Wonders in the sky: unexplained aerial objects from antiquity to modern times and their impact on human culture, history, and beliefs / Jacques Vallee and Chris Aubeck.â
1st Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin ed.
Includes bibliographical references.
1. Unidentified flying objectsâSightings and encountersâHistory.
2. Unidentified flying objectsâPsychological aspects.
3. Unidentified flying objectsâReligious aspects. I. Title.
TL789.3.V354 2010 201024720
While the authors have made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the authors assume any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
I will show wonders in the sky above, and signs on the earth beneath; blood, and fire, and billows of smoke.
There shall be Signs in the Sun, and in the Moon, and in the Stars.
The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.
âAlbert Einstein, “What I Believe,”
, October 1930
and Their Impact on Human Culture, History, and Beliefs
by David J. Hufford, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus of Humanities and Psychiatry
Penn State College of Medicine
Adjunct Professor of Religious Studies
University of Pennsylvania
The Terror That Comes in the Night
In 1969 I was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, pursuing a Ph.D. in the field of Folklore. My primary interest was in what was called “folk belief.” This term was, and still is, generally reserved for beliefs that are at odds in some way with the official modern worldview. I was taught that such beliefs were both non-empirical and non-rational, that they were cultural fictions that reflected local concerns and functioned to support community values and psychological needs. The experiences on which they claimed to be based were, to use the term popularized by Thomas Kuhn's landmark work,
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
From seeing a ghost to the alleged cures of folk medicine, the events described in folklore seemed to contradict the paradigm of science, the gold standard of modern rationality. For this reason they were, as Charles Fort had said, “damned” (1919), forbidden entry to the corpus of valid knowledge. However, I was pursuing the heretical idea that folk belief traditions might actually incorporate accurate observations, and that if they did they might point to important new knowledge.
I was already frustrated by the way that widely held folk beliefs, beliefs common to many distinct cultures, were dismissed without investigation or argument. I had, in fact, already seen that investigation of the possible validity of folk belief claims was subject to an intimidating array of sanctions. I was thrilled, therefore, to find Jacques Vallee's book,
Passport to Magonia: From Folklore to Flying Saucers
I considered UFOs to be a part of contemporary folk belief and, given my questions about valid anomalous observations, I had been reading the UFO literature. I had read Vallee's
Anatomy of a Phenomenon
(1965) and knew him to be both scientific and open-minded. More than most of the popular UFO literature, Vallee's
provided a convincing case for the objective reality of anomalous aerial phenomena. In
Passport to Magonia
he continued to strengthen the case for there being real phenomena behind UFO reports, but linked these reports to older reports of fairies, ghosts, angels, demons, and so forth in a compelling and fascinating way. He recognized the difference between the core phenomenology of reports and the local language and interpretations that clothed that core in traditional accounts.
This is a sophisticated distinction that I had rarely found among scholars of folk belief, and in
Vallee laid out the conceptual basis for using this distinction in the cross-cultural analysis of reports of strange aerial phenomena and the events often associated with them. Criticizing conventional UFO investigators for “confusing appearance and reality” he said that “The phenomenon has stable, invariant features, some of which we have tried to identify and label clearly. But we have also had to note carefully the chameleonlike character of the secondary attributes of the sightings: the shapes of the objects, the appearances of their occupants, their reported statements, vary as a function of the cultural environmentâ¦” (1969: 149).
In 1971 I traveled to Newfoundland, Canada, where I spent four years teaching and doing fieldwork for my doctoral dissertation on folk belief. Vallee's ideas went with me and were repeatedly confirmed by the folklore that I studied there. Ghost ships, Jackie-the-Lanterns, and weather lights comprised a very old set of folk traditions and were constantly reported around the island, often in very UFO-like terms. In one small village a series of strange aerial sightings was described and interpreted in old fashioned terms by older residents, while the young people in the community simply called the lights UFOs. In Newfoundland I also found the tradition that they call “the Old Hag,” a terrifying nocturnal paralysis accompanied by a frightening entity that Newfoundlanders associated with witches or ghosts.
Using Vallee's approach I was able to immediately recognize in the Old Hag the “bedroom invader” experience that I had encountered in popular UFO literature (Keel 1970). This phenomenon, known to sleep researchers as “sleep paralysis,” has “stable, invariant features” that in reports are surrounded by culturally shaped language and interpretations. Among the stable core features of sleep paralysis is the anomalous presence of a frightening entity. This experience, like the experience of strange lights and aerial objects, has wandered through a great variety of traditions around the world: witchcraft, ghosts, vampires, and UFOs. In the 1992 booklet
Unusual Personal Experiences
(Hopkins et al.) UFO abduction investigators Hopkins, Mack and Jacobs report a large national survey intended to determine how many humans have been abducted by aliensâtheir number one index question asks whether the respondent recalls “Waking up paralyzed with a sense of a strangeâ¦presenceâ¦in the room” (p. 26): sleep paralysis.
Anomalies are a threat to the intellectual status quo. They are powerfully resisted, and that resistance often seems to co-opt the efforts of those bravely investigating the anomalous just as much as it recruits the efforts of intransigent skeptics. As Thomas Kuhn's ground-breaking work showed, this cultural dynamic is inseparable from more obvious data in the effort to makeâand to understandâscientific progress. The initial response of a paradigm to anomalies is to ignore or, when reports become too numerous, to assimilate. Both of these strategies are facilitated by the distribution of anomalous reports across a large number of apparently disparate conceptual categories. This process is facilitated by investigators who rush to theories, such as the extraterrestrial spaceship explanation of UFOs, that divide large sets of anomalous reports into smaller and more numerous subdivisions.
UFOs do not seem like Newfoundland weather lights or Will-o'-the-Wisp or the burning ship of Ocracoke Islandâuntil you strip away the culturally elaborated language and secondary interpretations, leaving “anomalous aerial phenomena.” Just as “sleep paralysis,” “the Old Hag” and UFO abductions don't appear similarâuntil you strip away the cultural layers and find “Waking up paralyzed with a sense of a strangeâ¦presenceâ¦in the room.” This is the beauty of the approach pioneered by Vallee in
Wonders in the Sky
extends this with the huge corpus of additional early reports assembled by Chris Aubeck and his colleagues through The Magoniax Project. The willingness of these authors to cast a very wide net, and not to allow the particular cultural interpretations of events to limit their view, offers us a remarkable opportunity to seek patterns that may lead to new understandings.
Those with a view of these matters narrowly focused on a particular interpretation, especially the extraterrestrial idea, may be annoyed by the mixing of the aerial and the religious, the political and the mystical and more. Enthusiastic advocates of various anomalous phenomena tend to oppose, even to be offended by, the kind of rigorous methodology found in
Wonders in the Sky
. Not only does this method refuse to accept particular theories as a starting point; it also has much in common with the method of debunkers. When Dr. Hynek invented the “marsh gas” explanation for UFOs (which he later recanted) he implied that he was stripping away layers of cultural elaboration to find the “stable core” of the phenomenon, just as skeptics have used “
sleep paralysis” to debunk UFO abduction reports (and a variety of other anomalous events). The work of Jacques Vallee and Chris Aubeck is especially steadfast and courageous in two respects. While seeking a core phenomenology that requires the stripping away of layers of cultural elaboration, they nonetheless systematically attend to the data. After they have removed “spaceship” as a core feature of an observation, they do not proceed to remove all anomalous features. The problem with “spaceship” is not that it is anomalous; it is that it is an interpretation rather than an observation. This is true open-mindedness, and it suggests that we are seeking to understand aspects of the world that are deeply strange.
Their rigorously scientific insistence allows Vallee and Aubeck to retain the most challenging and interesting aspects of these events without the distraction of premature commitment to any particular interpretation. That, I believe, is true science: to follow the data wherever they lead, and to move away from established theory when it fails to deal adequately with the data. As philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend pointed out (1975), what he called the “consistency principle”âjudging a theory or hypothesis on the basis of its fit with well established prior theoryâensures the survival of the oldest theory, not the best theory.
The other beautiful innovation in Vallee and Aubeck's work is the combination of science and scholarship. A willingness to combine documentary research, the heart of humanities scholarship, with physical and astrophysical knowledge is rare. To do this in an open-ended search for elusive truth without needing to offer a theory of their own is rarest of all. To do this in a way that harnesses the possibilities of international scholarly collaboration through the Internet offers a view of truly 21
century inquiry. When I met Jacques Vallee for the first time at Esalen, almost 40 years after I read
Passport to Magonia
, it was truly a peak experience. To have learned that with Chris Aubeck he was preparing the successor to
just added to my delight. When Jacques asked me to write a foreword to the new book I felt the sense of completion when an aspect of life comes full circle.