NY Times Best-Selling horror novelist Whitley Strieber talks about what it is like to publicly expose his real out-of-this-world experiences while trying to maintain a career as a novelist. And then… the out-of-this-world happens….
Not So Fast on the UFO Warm Fuzzies
by Guest Blogger,
Ellen Tarr, Ph.D.
On Feb. 19, Motherboard posted an article by Daniel Oberhaus entitled, “This Neuroscientst Wants to Know Why People Who See UFOs Feel So Good.” The interview with Dr. Bob Davis discussed recent results of the FREE (Foundation for Research into Extraterrestrial Encounters) study. Information about the study as well as results from the Phase 1 and Phase 2 surveys can be found on the FREE website. The finding highlighted in the article and in their first paper is that of 3,057 people studied who have conscious memory of “contact with a physical craft associated with some form of non-human intelligence,” approximately 85% “are being transformed in a very positive behavioral or psychospiritual way.” This is an interesting finding, and even Davis points out that is wasn’t what was expected. However, there are a number of reasons these claims should be interpreted with caution and at least a little skepticism.
First, it is unclear from the information available how many people were really included in the study. Phase 1 and Phase 2 results show 2,658 and 1,792 respondents, respectively, although most questions were not answered by this many individuals. It is unclear how they arrived at the 3,057 people mentioned. The total from both phases would be 4,450, but it is likely some of the respondents participated in both phases. This could result in the lower number, but the section of the paper describing the methods does not include this information. It is standard practice when reporting survey results to report how many people answered the survey as well as how many surveys were used in the data analysis. It isn’t unusual to have exclusion criteria, but they need to be stated. The Appendix gives an N of 2,990, also with no explanation of how the number was obtained. To give benefit of the doubt, let’s assume for the remainder of this article that surveys from 3,057 unique respondents were analyzed in the study.
Second, the authors need to differentiate between the “study population” and the number of people responding to a given question when reporting their results. For example, 85% of the study population would be 2,598 individuals. This “major positive behavioral transformation” was represented by an answer of “strong increase” to items, including: concern with spiritual matters, desire to help others, compassion for others, appreciation of the ordinary things in life, ability to love others, concern for ecological matters, an understanding of “What is Life all about,” understanding of others, and conviction that there is life after death. I identified 28 items in the Phase 2 study that seemed to directly address these issues. These had an average “strong increase” response rate of 49%. Similarly, “strong decrease” responses to some questions was also evidence of a positive transformation: concern with material things, interest in organized religion, and fear of death. The average “strong decrease” to six items I identified was 42%. It is possible that different respondents answered “strong increase/decrease” for different items, such that 85% of individuals responded this way to at least one of the questions, but the provided data don’t address this. The average overall response rate for these questions was 77% of the 1,792 Phase 2 respondents, so even if all of them had answered “strong increase,” it would not be enough to be 85% of the study population (3,057 respondents).
In the paper that is available from the website, they specifically report state that, “Overall, 50.9% reported a ‘Highly Positive Effect’ and 21.7% reported a ‘Slightly Positive Effect’ on ‘changing their life’ directly from their UFO-NHI interaction. In contrast, only 4.3% reported a ‘Highly Negative Effect” and 6.7% a “Slightly Negative Effect’.” These appear to be the responses for Q415 of the Phase 2 survey, which had only a 74% response rate. Combining the two positive responses, the reader might think that 72.6% of the 3,057 respondents (2,219) reported a positive impact on their life when instead, it is 72.6% of 74% of 1,792 (Phase 2 respondents), which is 963 individuals. Q99 on the Phase 1 survey was similar, and approximately 64% gave a “positive effect” response; the overall response rate for the question was 48%, so this was only 31% of the Phase 1 respondents.
A third major issue is the lack of controlling which respondents answer follow-up questions. The results are supposed to be for people “who have reported to have had unidentified flying object (UFO) related contact experiences with non-human intelligence (NHI).” However, it isn’t clear that analyzed responses were only given by people who claim to have had this type of experience. Only 924 people claimed there was a craft or ship associated with the ET contact experience (Phase 2, Q41), and only 553 and 708 claimed to recall being on UFO in Phase 1 and Phase 2, respectively (Phase 1, Q97; Phase 2, Q42). Only 1,275 claimed to have observed and NHI entity/ET (Phase 1, Q79), and 1,850 claimed to have seen an intelligently controlled craft in the sky or on the ground (Phase 1, Q14). There are numerous cases within the survey where more people responded to follow-up questions about a specific type of experience than had claimed to have had the experience. For example, 211 respondents reported having sex with an ET and 236 gave answers regarding what type of ET they had sex with. The likelihood that many items include responses from people who did not have the experience calls many results into question. Survey programs (such as SurveyMonkey used in the study) provide the ability to use skip logic to allow only those who respond a certain way to one question to see related questions. This problem could have been avoided if the authors had just taken the time to design the survey appropriately.
My fourth point relates to exclusion criteria. The methods section states that, “All subjects included in this study reported that they have never been diagnosed with a mental illness by a licensed mental health professionl [sic].” This is the only exclusion criterion mentioned, although there is no explanation of how many respondents were excluded for this reason. It seems unlikely that no one with a mental health diagnosis even tried to take the survey. While it is understandable to exclude those with mental health issues, it has direct implications for interpreting the results regarding positive impact of contact. Individuals who have had UFO/ET contact that has been very negative, even traumatic, may be more likely to have PTSD, anxiety (including a panic disorder), and/or depression. Excluding these individuals has a high probability of biasing the results toward individuals whose experiences were less negative/traumatic.
For my final point, I’m going to overlook the myriad problems with the survey itself and the analysis (much of it not discussed here), and accept for the moment that the “positive transformation” finding is valid. A positive transformation can, however, occur following a negative experience. One can imagine a renewed appreciation for life and what it has to offer following a serious accident or major illness. Should the accident or illness itself then be interpreted as a positive experience? I hesitate to advocate for that interpretation.
While it is tempting to conclude from these survey responses that contact experiences are overwhelmingly positive, negative experiences should not be ignored. As SNL points out, for every two people having these positive experiences, there is a Ms. Rafferty saying, “Yeah, a little different for me.”
Breaking Out of the Bubble
by Guest Blogger,
A Review of
The UFO Phenomenon: Should I Believe?
by Dr. Robert Davis
Dr. Davis has taken on an extraordinarily challenging task; outlining the many and disparate elements linked to UFOs and providing a broad perspective on the issues surrounding them. The literature of ufology is vast, but he manages to condense each area into cogent summaries. His writing is clear and concise and he has carefully referenced his sources. A thoughtfully crafted, thoroughly edited product, this book offers some of the background and controversies of each topic from a somewhat neutral and mostly scientific perspective. Dr. Davis is explicit he remains agnostic as to whether currently inexplicable UFO events reveal the activities of a non-human intelligence. Consistent with this stance, he examines the topic in a manner that will provide readers some appreciation for the controversies that plague the field.
One of the most interesting things Dr. Davis does is to combine his overviews with insightful assessments of the situations. Convinced a fundamentally more scientific approach and formally organized governance of the new efforts are the way forward, he offers specific recommendations for future work to improve understanding.
Ufology has fallen far behind the times and bringing new-found information to the fore should be a priority effort. Although farsighted, Dr. Davis failed to escape the bubble that has suffocated ufology. Insular and hostile to criticism this field collapsed into scientific stasis a long time ago. As long as investigators remain reluctant to accept the verdict of data, acknowledge the implications when it is conspicuously absent or even gauge its overall reliability, they will continue circling the same ground endlessly. Unfortunately, Dr. Davis overlooked some critical developments such as the Innocence Project and offers readers scant detail on revolutionary new DNA analysis technologies. These interrelated topics pose a substantial challenge to ufology and failing to address them adequately is a major oversight.
The Innocence Project (1) has upended the justice system completely by using DNA evidence to exonerate persons convicted of serious crimes. These efforts have forced a fundamental reconsideration of the accuracy and reliability of eyewitness testimony. How far can such evidence be trusted? In his book, How UFOs Conquered the World, David Clarke describes experiments which reveal eyewitnesses may produce accounts that differ from actual events (“Purple Lights and March Foolishness” chapter). These findings – relatively new and not-so-new – pose a significant challenge to the field and have never been integrated into the canon of ufology.
A failure to exploit new scientific advances may have contributed to the persistence of hypotheses in an absence of corroborating evidence. The prime example is alien abduction investigation which is now more akin to a literary genre than scientific research. Several investigators have issued specific claims that are potentially verifiable through genetic testing. Uncorroborated accounts of missing pregnancies, breeders, hybrids and more have been published and presented at meetings for years. The means to validate the claims have existed for years and still no one can deliver the genetic evidence or simply provide samples for independent analyses to prove them. Suggesting investigators document the validity of alien hybrid babies is a weak call-to-action that simply ignores the obvious failures and apparent refusals to conduct truly scientific investigations. Alien abduction writers have no incentive to get off the amazing stories treadmill until their books stop selling. Life in a bubble has been good for their business.
Scientific progress hinges on integrating new developments that open up new vistas and opportunities. Scientists and physicians have leaped on new DNA analysis and sequencing technologies to employ them in new situations. The pace of advancement is furious. In contrast, ufology abduction writers have been clinging to the same clearly problematic investigation methods for decades. This sad situation has not been appreciated within ufology although a number of investigators, authors and experiencers including Jack Brewer, Philip Klass, Kevin Randle, Carol Rainey, Jeff Ritzmann, Jim Schnabel, Jeremy Vaeni, Emma Woods and more have published devastating critiques of the methods and conclusions of abduction researchers.
Perhaps the UFO experience is like Plato’s Cave where we play the role of prisoners imputing motivations and deducing ‘facts’ from shadows cast on walls. The ambiguous nature of the phenomena may have enabled the non-human intelligence narrative to endure in an otherwise unsympathetic environment. Ignoring contradictory information and methodological challenges has kept unsubstantiated ideas alive far beyond their scientifically productive lifespans. Dr. Davis has provided some background material and suggested approaches that may help some readers decide if UFOs have any deeper significance. However, the scientific community abandoned UFO study half a century ago and nothing that has come forward since then has altered the consensus. Unless new ideas penetrate and new ways of conducting research take hold, ufology will remain voluntarily imprisoned in a static void.