Of course, suggesting the functional necessity of a UFO taboo to maintain the smooth functioning of the modern state is one thing, maintaining it is quite another. Wendt and Duvall make clear that they do not believe this is “the conscious work of a vast conspiracy seeking to suppress ‘the truth’ about UFOs, but the work of countless undirected practices that help us ‘know’ that UFOs are not extraterrestrial and can therefore be disregarded.”
But this is a tricky business. In the old days, “the visions of shamans and prophets were taken to be authoritative, in the modern world we know things by making them visible and trying to explain how they work – which in the UFO case would be self-subverting because it could lead to the validation of the extraterrestrial hypothesis.” So, how to go about “making UFOs ‘known’ without actually trying to find out what they are,” is the question.
A good start involves “authoritative representations, or descriptions of what UFOs are, as provided by those having the authority to stipulate what defines official reality – governments, the scientific community, and the media.” Such representations tend to be expressed along the following lines: (1) science simply knows that UFOs have “conventional explanations”; (2) UFOs “are not a national security concern,” which permits states to dismiss the matter as unworthy of further attention; (3) any effort to study UFOs “is by definition pseudoscience, since UFOs do not exist”; and (4) it’s all science fiction, “which displaces the existentially scary aspect of a potential extraterrestrial encounter into the safety of the imagination.”
Again, the authors are not saying that this is all being done as the conscious expression of the workings of a fevered, Trilateral Commission-style cabal having their way with an unsuspecting world. It’s just that such representations tend to reinforce an “authoritative consensus that UFOs should not be taken seriously.”
Another approach seems to turn the charge of pseudoscience “on its head.” Wendt and Duvall are here referring to “officially sanctioned but problematic inquiries into UFOs like the 1968 Condon Report, the purpose of which was to give the appearance of an objective, scientific assessment while reaffirming the dominant view that there is nothing to such phenomena.” The Condon Report has been widely criticized for an “ideological bias” that “led to gross errors of research design and empirical inference, as well as to an Executive Summary that completely rejected the extraterrestrial hypothesis even though conventional explanations could not be found for fully 30 percent of the cases that had been studied.”
Despite the exercise of some good science in the report, it was ultimately not much more than a “show trial,” choreographed with sufficient brow furrowing to provide cover for the larger scientific community and the U.S. Air Force “to disengage publicly from the UFO problem, which is what it wanted to do for some time. That such a flawed report could be embraced so readily attests to how deep-seated the ‘will-to-disbelieve’ is.”
“Another factor sustaining the taboo is pervasive official secrecy about UFO reports involving military personnel, the effect of which is to remove from the system knowledge that might bolster the argument for taking UFOs seriously, thereby (at least implicitly) reinforcing the skeptical case.” Because “most governments do not release UFO reports as a matter of course,” one can hold little “confidence that we know the complete universe of cases.” Or whether what is known about many cases, to which the public is privy, really is all that is known.
The concern of the authors here is “not with the particular content but only the effect of official secrecy, which helps to reinforce the UFO taboo by removing potentially contrary knowledge from the system.” Wendt and Duvall actually feel that, if anything, the state is not hiding any definitive evidence about the existence of aliens, but much more likely “hiding its ignorance, but who knows?”
And finally we come to what may be the most effective mechanism in maintaining the UFO taboo: Discipline. By this “we mean techniques for ordering thought and action that rely not on rational appeals to science, but more nakedly on social pressures and power.” An exceptionally “prominent form,” within the context of the UFO question, “is the social dismissal of people who express public ‘belief’ in UFOs – through ridicule, gossip, shunning, public condemnation, and/or character assassination – so that it is not just the idea of UFOs that is dismissed but the person advocating the idea whose credibility is called into question.” Since individuals naturally desire “approval, reputation, and professional advancement, an expectation of this kind of discipline leads to self-censorship.” This, in turn, tends to fuel a “spiral of silence about UFOs that makes it so hard to speak out in the first place.”
Against this awesome phalanx, it would appear “that with respect to the UFO taboo, ‘resistance is futile.’ ” But the authors see three weaknesses in these redoubtable defenses. One is simply the UFO itself. Despite all the efforts to deny its reality, “UFOs stubbornly keep showing up.” So, in the “face of continuing anomalies, maintaining such nonrecognition requires work.” And in such work success is not permanently guaranteed.
Secondly, “another weakness lies in the different knowledge interests of science and the state.” Though allied today in “authoritative anti-UFO discourse, ultimately the state is interested in maintaining its skeptical narrative about UFOs as certainly true, whereas science recognizes, at least in principle, that its truths can only be tentative. The presumption in science is that reality has the last word, which creates the possibility of scientific knowledge countering the state’s dogma.” In other words, science may yet repent of its shoddy treatment of the UFO issue and recover its, beg pardon, “soul.”
And, lastly, there is the “essential core” of modern government itself, liberalism. “Even as it produces rational subjects who know that ‘belief’ in UFOs is absurd, liberalism justifies itself as a discourse that produces free-thinking subjects who might doubt it.”
(Part 5 of 6)