The Nightshirt Sightings, Portents, Forebodings, Suspicions

A Control System (The Right to Bear Experience, Part Deux)

A theme running through all of Jacques Vallee’s writings, and expressed beautifully in my favorite of his books, The Invisible College, is that UFOs seem like a control system, a kind of thermostat that, through recorded history, has periodically kicked in to regulate the human psyche. His study of patterns of UFO waves revealed to him strong similarities to a schedule of reinforcement familiar in experimental studies of conditioning. (It’s a fascinating idea that dovetails with that of Carl Jung, who in the 1950s saw it as not accidental that the sudden cultural obsession with flying saucers came at a time when anxieties over war and the atomic age were at a fever pitch.)

I think the modern anxiety is deeper than war, and also deeper than technology. It is commonly said that our technology has outstripped our moral consciousness, and this is certainly true. But while we may sometimes be struck with awe at the technology we’re compelled to take for granted (space flight, the Internet, iPhones…), I think the anxiety, and needed psychic course correction, has to do more fundamentally with the alienation from our experience that science itself, as the new world religion, can instill.

I wrote a while back about Forteana as a response to the scientific invalidation of personal experience. Now, on rereading The Invisible College, I think that this might relate to the kind of psychic and cultural course correction Vallee is talking about. UFOs (as well as Bigfoot, ghosts, and other paranormal phenomena) grasp hold of our imagination at a time when our culture and media are inundated with scientific research undermining everything we believe about ourselves.

My day job is in the behavioral sciences, and am gratified to see that kind of research finally making headway into mainstream culture. Yet I am also constantly troubled by the way the scientific study of human behavior by definition (definition of science, that is) invalidates human experience as an “n of 1.” The metamessage of psychology is that you—you individual person, naturally thinking you understand yourself—are actually in complete ignorance about your real motives, your real emotions, your real thoughts. You don’t know the real reasons for the things you do.

In this world where the dominant worldview is that our experience is wrong, UFOs and Bigfoot represent secular champions that might win the epistemological wrestling match against cold, impersonal, invalidating science, whose method reduces the individual to a data point. Fascination with “close encounters” and other such phenomena is a way of asserting, against science, the right to bear our personal experience (on analogy with the individual right to bear arms). The resurgence of Christian fundamentalism emphasizing a personal relationship with Christ can probably be seen in the same terms.

It is often said that true believers in UFOs (and Bigfoot and whatnot), despite their clamoring to get science and the media to take the phenomena seriously, actually don’t want the status quo to change because then they’d stop having their faith; it would be replaced by fact. I think this is true: Once there is some kind of Disclosure about the UFO reality—which is inevitable given that sooner or later, in our age of camera phones, etc., there will be a mass, well-documented, well-filmed sighting that leads to popular pressure on the government—the phenomenon will suddenly become legitimate in the scientific world, and it will be like it has been snatched away from us.

I suggested in an earlier post that UFOs are a perfect symbol in the American Gnostic religion and that this will be increasingly true as UFOs become more accepted in mainstream science. I think I was exactly wrong on that. Science will invalidate them as symbol, and at that point the individual and collective mind will need to find a new control mechanism.


I am a science writer and armchair Fortean based in Washington, DC. Write to me at eric.wargo [at]

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