UFOs & Alien Contact: Two Centuries of Mystery, by Robert E. Bartholomew & George S. Howard; 1998. Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, US. ISBN 1-57392-200-5

Readers of NZ Skeptic will have seen R.E. Bartholomew’s article “The Great Zeppelin Scare of 1909” in last autumn’s issue, no 47. This covered the same event as one of the chapters in this book. Several other chapters describe similar episodes which occurred in other times and other places, and in a final section all these are woven into a coherent story. Each chapter is supported by a copious list of references, most of them newspaper reports pubished during the development and decay of the case concerned.

In addition to detailed factual accounts, each episode is placed in its social and historical setting, with an explanation of why the different experiences took the form they did.

Previous psychological commentators have labelled the “experiencers” of the events described in this book, mostly on very little evidence, as in some way mentally sick. Bartholomew and Howard disagree; their careful psychological analysis of over one hundred such people found no evidence of psychopathology, but rather “Fantasy Prone Personality” (FPP).

“While functioning as normal, healthy adults, FPPs experience rich fantasy lives, scoring dramatically higher…on hypnotic susceptibility, psychic ability, healing, out-of-body experiences, religious visions, and apparitional experiences. In our study, “abductees” and “contactees” evidence a similar pattern of characteristics to FPPs.”

The experiences of these individuals mirrored the concerns of the society in which they lived. Thus, in late 19th century, United States, the achievement of powered flight was thought to be imminent, and a host of “airship” sightings were reported.

Just before World War I, when the British were very nervous of Germany’s growing military strength especially its lead in airship development, zeppelins were seen by thousands all over England.

In Sweden in 1946, fear of the German V-rockets recently acquired by the USSR was widespread, and hundreds of reports of missile sightings were published. And so for other cases, including, of course, the 1947 sighting of “flying saucers” in the western US and all that flowed from it.

The objects in the latter case were described by aviator Kenneth Arnold as skipping along “like a saucer would…across the water”, and this gave rise to a deluge of “flying saucer” sightings, although Arnold had said the objects he saw were crescent- not saucer-shaped.

These objects were at first almost everywhere considered to be of terrestrial origin, as secret weapons or aircraft, either “ours” or “theirs” of the cold war. Only after a few years did belief suddenly switch to an extra-terrestial origin; the authors ascribe this to two best-selling books.

Wherever and whenever the events described in this book occurred, some common features are apparent. Firstly, the technology imputed to the “visitors” is just a little ahead of contemporary achievement. Thus:

  • the US airship sightings of the 1890s preceded the Wright brothers’ flight by almost a decade
  • early reports of aeroplanes were all sightings at night, at a time when night flying had barely been attempted
  • the New Zealand Zeppelin scare of 1909 occurred many years before flights of such dirigibles in the Antipodes were possible

A second common theme is the way these stories wax and wane. Initial incidents were widely reported, and the numbers rose rapidly. After a while, as physical evidence obstinately refused to reveal itself, editors denounced the reports as hoaxes or the reporters as deluded (despite the prominence many of these same editors had given the initial reports).

Following these skeptical editorials, the number of incidents being claimed fell greatly — were they still being experienced, but by people now shunning ridicule, or did the editorial expressions of disbelief change the FPPs’ inclination to fantasise?

The extent and depth of the newspaper reports on which most of this book is based are truly amazing. Think of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of papers in the UK and US of similar circulation to the Geraldine Guardian and Clutha Leader (both quoted largely in the chapter on the New Zealand Zeppelin Scare), think of over 100 years of publishing, and contemplate the enormous database which provides these stories.

The reliance on this local reporting has one disadvantage — the notoriously monoglot English-speaking world gets told in this book very little of UFOs and “aliens” as reported in foreign language newspapers.

The main impression left by this book is to confirm the conclusion that our minds and senses can easily deceive us. So often “seeing is believing” should be read “believing is seeing”. The bizarre examples described here provide a wide background of rationality against which to view, and judge, the further phenomena which are sure to be presented to us.

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