Let’s start with Redfern, whose views are the less developed of the two. Redfern explains that over the past two decades he has gradually abandoned the idea that UFOs and their occupants are extraterrestrial in origin, adopting the “ultra-terrestrial” view of John Keel and Jacques Vallée that the beings are supernatural shape-shifters who merely appear to be aliens. (This view is derived from Theosophy, whose beings from parallel lunar and Venusian dimensions stand behind the so-called ultra-terrestrial hypothesis.) He bases this on the “evidence” gleaned from the stories of alleged witnesses to alien activity and UFO abductees, all of which is of course highly suspect and unsupported by physical evidence. The same evidence, for example, on the basis of Roman mythology (e.g. Ovid, Metamorphoses 8:621-96) could equally well support the existence of the Roman gods if you chose that as your belief system. In other words, lacking proof, the claim tells us more about the culture of the claimant than about the reality it pretends to describe.
Redfern argues that the descriptions we have of alien beings strongly suggest that the creatures are going out of their way to put on a show for us, acting out the role of “scientist” and telling contradictory and overly helpful stories about where they come from and why they’re here. “But, they all seem perfectly comfortable with the Earth’s gravity, temperature, oxygen levels, etc. Doesn’t that strike you as a bit odd?” he asks. Well, yes, but you don’t need to propose trans-dimensional beings to explain that when more prosaic explanation such as altered states of consciousness, cultural expectations, and fraud better fit the evidence, with many fewer assumptions.
That’s one reason that it is frustrating to see Redfern write that “Gods, angels, demons, the ‘little people,’ and – today – aliens: it’s all one and the same” without recognizing that all of these creatures are more likely to be fictitious than “real” in an objective sense, products of altered states of consciousness rather than travelers from other realms. It’s hard not to think that Redfern’s view, like that of Keel and Vallée, simply externalizes an internal phenomenon, searching the physical world for evidence of the imagination. Keel and Vallée wrap their ideas in pseudoscientific appeals to interdimensional beings, but ultimately they leave no way to distinguish between extraterrestrials, beings from another realm, or Jupiter and Mercury popping down from Olympus to test our morals. As such, they are imposing a cultural reading—based in a pop understanding of what “science” means—on stories.
On a similar note, Hanks, who is soon meeting with Redfern to map out an approach to ufology over coffee, has concluded that there is too little physical evidence to support the idea that UFOs are alien spacecraft. He even comes close to my position when he feints toward understanding that the various facets of the UFO myth may only be connected in the minds of ufologists, and that the UFO phenomenon may be nothing more than a cultural expression. Unfortunately, he lacks the courage of his convictions and doesn’t take the idea to its logical conclusion. Instead, he takes a swipe at skeptics and insists that there is a UFO phenomenon, even if he is unable to define it or present evidence for it: “For the modern skeptic, this lack of clarity on the subject is roughly equivalent to no subject at all, rather than an apparent phenomenon that remains ambiguous.” He concludes that the only way to solve the mystery is to “think outside the box.”
And there is the problem: Hanks is trapped deeply within the “box” because he can’t divorce the study of the modern UFO phenomenon (however we define it) from the UFO culture in which he participates. To put it in the more formal terms he’s fond of using to obscure his lack of intellectual rigor, Hanks cannot distinguish between etic and emic approaches to ufology and mistakenly concludes that emic views, originating within the UFO culture, are as likely to be true as etic approaches, originating from outside the UFO culture, despite what he admits to be at least five decades of failure of those emic approaches to yield results. The “UFO phenomenon” is only a singular mystery within UFO culture; historically and academically, its various overlapping facets are not necessarily connected except in the minds of believers. As I wrote in 2013, to find the “answers” one must escape the mindset that the post-1961 UFO myth is necessarily unitary rather than a collection of partially related or unrelated parts thrown together by convenience, a cultural expression that gives shape to visions from altered states of consciousness and ambiguous physical events that aren’t otherwise connected to each other.
Hanks decides that there is “nothing truly conclusive” about the UFO phenomenon, but that he essentially agrees with Jacques Vallée, whose views I specifically challenged in my 2013 article. On the plus side, Hanks is coming ever closer to the understanding of UFOs that I and many skeptics share. On the down side, if it took fifty years’ worth of failed ufology to get him that far, we may have a long wait before he realizes that interdimensional trickster gnomes are as redundant to understanding UFOs as phlogiston was for understanding fire.