STATEMENT BY DR. ROGER N. SHEPARD
2. Prepared Statement
|BACK to Contents|
DR. ROGER N. SHEPARD
Unpredictability of UFO Phenomena
UFO Phenomena as Psychological Problem
Three Extreme Case Types
Potential Contribution of Psychological Techniques
Reconstruction by Recognition
Convergence of Independent Reconstructions
Use of Concrete Stimuli
Photographs as concrete Stimuli
UFO Photographs as Evidence
Assessment of a Set of Test Materials
Use of the Computer
Indeed, by contrast with astronomical phenomena, those loosely classified together as "Unidentified Flying Objects' ("UFO's") or (with perhaps somewhat less commitment implied as to their real nature) "Unidentified Aerial Phenomena" sometimes appear almost inaccessible to scientific study. Certainly phenomena that are rare and fleeting are difficult enough but, if in addition they are totally capricious and unpredictable when they do occur, then the scientific method is to no avail and we are reduced to awaiting each new happening in the same primitive state of uncomprehending docility.
The repeated successes of science, however, have encouraged us always to search for pattern and order even when none at first appears. And, although a scientific study does of course become enormously more difficult when the occurrences of the phenomena do not fall into any predictable pattern in space and time, it remains a possibility so long as some regularity exists within the phenomena themselves -- whenever they do happen to occur. Thus, in the field of psychopathology, even if it were the case that some psychological phenomena (such, say, as psychotic episodes) occurred wholly unpredictably -- striking any person at any time, quite at random, we could still study the internal patterns of such episodes when they do strike. We might for example find that when symptom A appears, it is usually accompanied by symptom B, but seldom by symptom C, and so on. This, too, is a kind of predictability and can even lead to a degree of understanding and perhaps, eventually, to a method of treatment.
It is the principal purpose of this note to propose that, despite the relatively primitive state of development of psychological science, psychological and social scientists and even, indeed, law enforcement specialists have devised some techniques that could as well be applied to further the scientific study of UFO's.
I do not mean to suggest by this that most reports of UFO's can probably be shown to arise from purely psychological aberrations such as illusions, hallucinations, delusions, after-images, and the like. On the contrary, a careful examination of most of the best-documented cases has convinced me -- as at least one psychologist who has studied rather extensively into the fields of normal and psychopathological perception -- that very few such cases can be explained along these lines. Indeed, I have the impression that the claims that the UFO's reported even by seemingly responsible citizens represent lapses of a basically psychopathological character have generally come from people who have neglected to study closely either into the literature on psychopathology, or into that on UFO's, or (in many cases, I fear) both.
Of course there always are ambiguous cases which are difficult to place certainly within the triangle defined by the three, psychologically distinct "corners" representing the deluded contactee, the conscious pranksters, and the involuntary but responsible witness of some real but puzzling phenomenon. However, as has often been remarked, the existence of twilight does not deter us from distinguishing between night and day -- nor should it.
In fact, science generally proceeds most rapidly by focusing first on the purest and most clear-cut cases, and by leaving for later any "mop-up" operation of dealing with the remaining cases that are to varying degrees complicated, mixed, messy, borderline, or obscure. Thus the social scientist who is primarily interested in studying the formation and perpetuation of delusional belief systems will do well to focus precisely on the members of the "contactee" cults, the archetypal examples of which are situated in the south-western United States and are heavily constituted by persons (often predominantly women rather past middle age) who have relatively little formal education together with a history of professed beliefs in the mystical, the spiritual, or the occult. Likewise, a clinical psychologist interested in the ways in which socially responsible adult behavior emerges or fails to emerge out of the play and testing behavior of childhood may learn something from an intensive study of any of the almost canonical cases of adolescent boys who, often in pairs and in accordance with an almost tiringly regular pattern, attain at least transitory notoriety by submitting their photograph of a "flying saucer" -- replete with dome, antenna, and, perhaps, portholes and fins.
Just so, if we are, as here, primarily concerned with the possibility of unexplained but objective phenomena taking place within our atmosphere, then we should eschew not only the two pure sorts of cases just mentioned, but also the
Even though our primary interest is, then, on the unexplained objective and presumably physical phenomena that may give rise to such UFO reports, our problem remains as much a psychological as a physical one. For, the vast bulk of the data upon which we must base our scientific investigation comes -- not from physical recording or measuring devices -- but solely from one or more human observers. Moreover these are observers who were not, evidently, selected for their powers of observation or description and who have good reason to be reluctant as well -- particularly in view of the likelihood of ridicule, often encouraged, curiously, by the very investigators who profess to be seeking the truth (cf., Fuller, 1966, pp. 211-220; Weitzel, 1967).
It is here, surely, that we have been most glaringly remiss in our attempts to put the investigation of UFO's on a scientific footing. We have, simply, failed to make anywhere near full use of the one recording and measuring instrument at our disposal; namely, our unwitting human witness.
Now it is true that one of the more exotic psychological techniques, hypnotic regression, has already been attempted with interesting -- if considerably less than conclusive results in at least one UFO case of a rather sensational nature (Fuller, 1967). However, although astonishing claims have sometimes been made for the kind of detail that can be recovered under hypnosis (e.g., by McCulloch in von Foerster, 1952, p. 100), the results of controlled experiments on accuracy of recall have generally been less impressive (Reiff & Scheerer, 1959). More reliable, in my opinion, are some techniques based on certain psychological facts of a more mundane but better understood character.
Over and over again, witnesses of "UFO's" have provided descriptions that, while they strongly suggest that a clear view was obtained of some well-defined but extraordinary object or phenomenon, leave the investigator frustratingly in the dark as to its precise appearance or behavior. A closely viewed, "spinning metallic" object is said, for example, to have been "mushroom-shaped," or to have resembled "an inverted top." But what does this mean? What sort of mushroom? With or without the stalk? And what on earth (!) is referred to, precisely, by "a 30 foot inverted top?"
This problem is already implicitly recognized in certain situations of more obviously pressing practical concern. Investigators in cases of homicide do not rest content with the weak and fuzzy descriptions typically offered by a witness but, in addition, may employ a skilled artist (such as Richard Kenehan of the New York Police Department) to work with the witness in an attempt to reconstruct a usable likeness of the murderer's face. The witness may be asked to select eyes, eyebrows, nose, mouth, or ears from series that are systematically graded in size and shape. The witness can then help to adjust their positions on an outlined face. This will generally provide a sufficiently concrete stimulus to enable the witness, finally, to become reasonably explicit about further refinements concerning hair, complexions, lines, scars, asymmetries, and so on. In a number of cases (such as the recent one in which Richard Speck was charged with the murder of several nursing students in Chicago) a likeness constructed in this way from a single surviving witness has proved remarkably accurate and, in more than one instance, has actually led to the apprehension of the criminal (cf., Schumach, 1958).
This provides perhaps the most directly pertinent substantiation for the one central point that I want to leave with those concerned with the investigation of UFO's. Briefly, it is this: Even when an event occurs without warning, leaves little time for careful observation and, indeed, occasions extreme fear or anxiety, the average witness often retains an accurate, almost photographic record of the event -- a record, moreover, that can be largely recovered from him even though he lacks the words to describe it himself. Possibly then, in allowing our investigations to depend solely upon our informant's inadequate, his misleading and, yes, his sometimes even ludicrous choice of words, we have done both him -- and ourselves -- a telling disservice.
It is only when there turns up an otherwise inexplicably close correspondence between the information furnished by two or more independent witnesses that the evidence becomes at all compelling at the public or scientific level. But we do not provide for even the possibility of a close correspondence unless we elicit sufficiently detailed information. Thus, when one person reports a "glowing mushroom-shaped object" while another, remote witness refers to the passage of an "inverted top," we have little basis for evaluating the likelihood that they have both observed a physical object -- let alone the same physical object.
Now it is true that certain rather suggestive regularities have already emerged in the more or less spontaneous reports of observers. Among the very most common, for example, are the frequent references to disk-like shapes, to extraordinary velocities, to abrupt simultaneous changes of color and direction and, perhaps most strikingly, to the so-called "pendulum" or "falling-leaf" type
The point, here, is that such more detailed information is needed not merely for its own sake. It is needed, even before that, because the establishment of the very validity of the information in question hinges upon the demonstration of the kind of point-for-point correspondence between reports that becomes possible only when those reports are sufficiently detailed. If two, unrelated witnesses both claim to have seen a disk-shaped object at about the same time and place this is not sufficiently compelling. (Evidently! For it has already happened many times.) But, if artists working with the two witnesses, independently, construct pictures of what appears to be the very same object or, alternatively, if the two witnesses independently point to the very same drawing or photograph in an array of 50 or more different pictures of such objects, then the coincidence becomes more interesting. (And, of course, if the pictures reconstructed or singled out in this way just once turned out to coincide, also, with an actual photograph taken at the time, we should at last have opened the door for the more precise measurements of physical science-including the sophisticated and powerful photogrammetric methods being developed for the analysis and interpretation of lunar photographs.)
The establishment of a pre-tested and standardized procedure for reconstructing information by the sort of psychologically oriented techniques envisaged here, moreover, would be incomparably cheaper than the implementation of other more physically oriented schemes that have sometimes been proposed -- such as the construction of a far-flung network of automatic radar-and-camera stations. For, instead of having simultaneously to cover all possible sites in advance, we could simply move in to recover the desired information after an incident is first reported.
There is, however, one unavoidable aspect of the psychologically oriented type of approach proposed here that I, anyway, regard as quite regrettable. To the extent that any detailed pictures reconstructed by these techniques are made publicly available, we cannot guarantee that pictures obtained from subsequent witnesses will be suitably independent for our purposes. Consequently, rather tight security precautions would have to be imposed on the more detailed reconstructions, if the purely scientific purposes of the investigation are not to be compromised.
For these reasons and for reasons of feasibility, convenience, and economy, it would be preferable to develop a standardized set of materials containing suitably representative and graded series of shapes to which each witness could independently respond. Some such materials would be needed, in any case, in order to provide stimuli suitable for tapping the witnesses' powers of recognition. Possibly even separate arrays should be constructed for distinguishable parts such as "domes" or other projections (just as separate series of eyes, or mouths may be helpful to the witness in criminal cases). By means of suitable standardization and control in the preparation and presentation of such materials, then, we could be reasonably sure that the responses of one witness are not unduly influencing the choices of another. Moreover, since each witness would make his choices from a pre-tested, fixed set of alternatives of known size, we would be in a favorable position to assess the probability that any coincidences of choice might have occurred merely by chance.
All things considered, the best procedure might be to divide the questioning of a witness into the following three distinct phases: first, the recording of the
The effectiveness of the proposed procedure would depend very heavily upon the amount of thought, care, skill and, above all, pretesting that went into the preparation of the materials. The arrays of alternative shapes should of course include all types of shapes that have been clearly described, sketched, or (allegedly) actually photographed by some previous witness of at least reasonable reliability. One helpful attempt at systematizing the kinds of shapes that have been reported has in fact already been published (see Hall, 1964, p. 144). However, more extensive and refined work would be necessary in order to cover the great variety of reported shapes, and to do this in a sufficiently concrete and realistic manner to promote recognition and, possibly, further specification by witnesses.
The accompanying figure reproduces drawings in which I have tried to portray, as accurately as I could, representative objects from 63 of these photographs. The greater contrast of the drawings renders them more readily duplicatable than the original photographs. Moreover, I was also able in this way to reduce them all to uniform size and to eliminate background details which, although useful for estimating size or gauging authenticity, are only distracting for present purposes. Some of the photographs are from well documented or widely publicized cases while others are of more obscure or dubious origin. At least two cases have subsequently been admitted to be hoaxes, while circumstances surrounding some of the others make them difficult to dismiss in this way.
Another example, involving several different sightings, is shown in the upper right. G1, G2, and. G3 present three successive views of the same object purportedly taken by a photographer, Ed Keffel, of the Brazilian publication "O Cruziero" while he was accompanied by a journalist, Joao Martins, near Rio de Janeiro in May, 1952. The edge-on view, G1, is almost indistinguishable from another photograph, represented in F1, allegedly taken from an Argentine pursuit plane in late 1954. The "top" view, G2, seemingly resembles F2 (the left edge of which was cut off by the boundary of the original photograph), which a 15-year-old boy, Michael Savage, claims to have taken near San Bernardino, California in July, 1956. It also somewhat resembles the lighted object, F3, allegedly appearing in a color photograph taken by Joseph Sigel near Waikiki, Hawaii in June, 1959. And, finally, the "bottom" view, G3, presents the same general sort of configuration as that shown in G4, which is based upon a photograph purportedly taken by Yukuse Matsumura outside his residence in Yokohama, Japan in January 1957 (although the relative dimensions of the features appear slightly different in these last two photographs).
There are several other instances in which photographs taken by apparently unrelated individuals might be of the same object. Another view (not included in the figure) showing more of the "bottom" of the object displayed in E4 resembles the object shown in G5 and, even more closely, an object apparently hovering over a seaplane in still another photograph (also not included) of unknown origin. In a number of instances (e.g., F5, 6, and 7 or D6, 7, and 8) the degree of correspondence is more difficult to assess owing to the relatively poorer definition of the images.
Of course even very close similarities do not in themselves guarantee authenticity. Consider, for example, C2 and C3 which are strikingly similar despite the fact that the object in C2 appears over a mountain near Riverside, California in the original photograph reportedly taken by a 21-year-old man and two friends in 1951, whereas the object in C3 appears over a flock of grazing sheep in the photograph submitted by an Australian rancher in 1954. But, since the object in C2 has subsequently been admitted to be none other than a 1967 Ford hubcap, the object in C3 is presumably the same. (Another photograph later confessed to be fraudulent is represented in B6, and somewhat suspicious circumstances also surround several other photographs, including those represented in A9, B1, B8, B9, C1, and G8.)
Perhaps the safest attitude to adopt is that recommended by the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (cf., Hall, 1964, p. 86); namely,
Even though an extensive effort is made to represent every sort of shape that has been reliably described, sketched, or photographed, the possibility will remain that the collection of proposed test materials will not be sufficiently representative. Certain types of completely fraudulent shapes may unnecessarily inflate the already unwieldy collection and, more seriously, some significant types may still be missing. There are, however, ways of assessing the representativeness of any proposed collection of shapes. One is, simply, to have people describe these shapes and then to look for any pronounced departures of the relative frequencies of the various descriptive terms used from the corresponding relative frequencies in reports issuing from actual sightings of UFOs. My research assistant, Miss Shelley Meltzer, carried out an exploratory attempt at this sort of thing that may help to illustrate some of the relevant considerations.
From our total sample of photographs, 75 that seemed suitably representative were selected for this preliminary study. These included most of the 63 already portrayed in the accompanying figure, but those that were known or strongly suspected to be fraudulent were eliminated and a number of others of less sharply defined shape were added (since many reports indicate that the shape was not clearly visible). Each of 19 subjects, mostly students at Harvard University, then looked through one of three subsets of 25 of these photographs and, for each, attempted to describe the pictured object in their own words. (Immediately following that, each subject then looked through another subset of 25 and, this time, indicated the appropriateness for each photograph of each term in a fixed set that we had listed in advance on a standardized rating sheet. However this part of the experiment will not be considered in any detail here.) Of most immediate interest are the descriptive labels spontaneously produced in the 19 x 25 or 475 subject-photograph encounters.
These could now be compared with the descriptive labels appearing in a sample of 206 different representative reports of actual UFO sightings that Miss Meltzer had already extracted (for a different purpose) from a number of sources (mostly Edwards, 1966; Hall, 1964; Michel, 1967; Olsen, 1966; Ruppelt, 1956; and Vallée, 1965). The accompanying table lists those descriptive terms that pertain to visual appearance but, for purposes of comparison with the mostly black-and-white photographs, excludes the many references to (chromatic) color. With one exception (#33), only terms that appeared at least twice in the sample of 206 actual reports are included, and these arranged in order of decreasing frequency of occurrence in that sample.
Number of occurrences:
(excluding chromatic colors)
|in 206 actual UFO cases||in 475 photograph descriptions||Appreciable discrepancies|
|6.||Starlike (point of Light)||14||6||-|
|7.||Cigar shaped||13||1||- -|
|11.||Trail of vapor or smoke||10||13|
|12.||Portholes or windows||10||0||-|
|13.||Pattern of lights||9||0||-|
|14.||White filaments emitted||9||0||-|
|29.||Two washbowls rim-to-rim||2||0|
|30.||Two plates rim-to-rim||2||0|
|33.||Hat shaped||1||35||+ +|
The remaining positive and negative discrepancies of appreciable size are indicated by the plus and minus signs in the right-most column. Some of these are probably explainable in terms of the two-dimensional, achromatic, and stationary character of the photographs (e.g., #10 & 13), or in terms of differences in vocabulary to be expected between the unselected witnesses and the college-educated subjects of the experiment (e.g., #9 & 15). Other discrepancies, however, suggest either that some shapes, such as the so-called "cigar" (#7), were not adequately represented in the sample of photographs, or that some shapes, such as those most frequently said to resemble a "hat" (#33), are especially likely to have been of fraudulent origin. (Among the objects included in the above figure that were often said to be hat-like are C3, which we already noted is almost certainly a 1937 Ford hubcap; E4, which doesn't seem to fit very well with the usual descriptions of UFOs; and G2, which, although it too doesn't coincide with at least my notion of a "flying saucer," does however correspond rather closely with several other photographs.)
Our sample of only 206 actual UFO cases is really too small and haphazard for the purpose of ensuring that all types of reported shapes are adequately represented in any proposed recognition array. Many descriptive terms that have repeatedly been used (such as "doughnut," "ring," "mushroom," flattened ball," "double-convex lens," "bullet," "blimp," and "submarine") didn't happen to appear more than once in our particular sample). Ideally, for this work, one would like access to a centralized library of all reasonably documented cases -- suitably coded for retrieval via computer. Indeed, at present the scientific study of the UFO problem is greatly hampered by the circumstance that the thousands of reported sightings have not been adequately coded or systematized in any uniform way and are, in fact, still scattered among such diverse and often mutually hostile organizations as the U.S. Air Force, NICAP, APRO, and the University of Colorado Project -- not to mention a number of more-or-less private files assembled by individual investigators both here and abroad.
Recent developments in computer technology -- particularly in computer graphics -- could be utilized, also, in the construction of arrays of shapes for a recognition test. Thus for any specified shape, the computer (together with suitable graphical output equipment) could automatically generate alternative pictures of the same object as viewed from any desired angle (e.g., Noll, 1965; Zajac, 1964); and could even generate other test shapes intermediate between that shape and some other specified shape. (In fact, as on-line graphical facilities become more widely available, even a relatively unartistic witness, seated in front of a suitable display device, should be able to reconstruct his own object by techniques of these general sorts.)
For the present, however, perhaps the most promising use of the computer in this connection would be in finding an optimum arrangement of the alternative test shapes in the recognition array. This is a matter of real concern owing to the large number of shapes that should be included. (Even the 63 exhibited in the above figure fall far short of covering all the varieties that have been sketched or described.) If the alternatives could somehow be arranged so that similar shapes are close together, then the witness could quickly narrow down to the most relevant region of the array in order to make his final, most refined discriminations.
In order to do this we would first need to obtain some measure of the perceived similarity between any two shapes. One could of course obtain a direct, subjective judgment of similarity from experimental subjects. However, it might be more convenient to obtain a derived measure of similarity based upon the frequency with which different subjects will sort the two shapes into the same pile, or upon the overlap in their application of the same descriptive terms to the two shapes in the kind of task described in the preceding section (cf„ Rosenberg, Nelson, & Vivekananthan, in press).
Once we have any such measure of similarity for every pair, we can apply powerful new computer-based methods for mapping the objects into a two-dimensional arrangement in such a way that their similarities are preserved, in so far as possible, in the spatial proximities among them (Kruskal, 1964 Shepard, 1962; Shepard & Carroll, 1966). Moreover, these same methods could yield a quantitative metric of similarity that would then enable us to specify just how similar an object identified by one witness is to the object identified by another witness. Indeed, they could even tell us something about the basic dimensions along which UFO phenomena differ or, with the help of recently perfected methods for "hierarchical clustering" (Johnson, 1967), they could provide an indication of the basically different classes into which these phenomena undoubtedly fall.
Possibly, some of these classes of unidentified aerial phenomena will turn out to be of purely natural origin. I once even ventured to suggest this for certain puzzling types of cases myself (Shepard, 1967b) -- though, admittedly, attempts to develop such explanations in terms of known principles of atmospheric physics, generally, have run into competent and serious criticism (McDonald, 1968). Still. even if some of the phenomena are of natural origin, a more complete and accurate characterization of their appearance and behavior should be of some interest to the physical scientist -- indeed, all the more so to the extent that they appear to conflict with known physical principles.
In any case, it appears that techniques now exist that could provide the basis for a psychologically oriented, but genuinely scientific investigation into unidentified aerial phenomena, whatever their nature may ultimately prove to be.
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