A few weeks ago, I discussed a lecture and a forthcoming book about UFOs by Prof. Diana Walsh Pasulka, and now Pasulka has given an interview to Robbie Graham of Mysterious Universe, with whom I have also expressed my differences. Their interview is interesting, but perhaps not for the reasons they imagined. So far as I can tell, the two believed they were discussing the UFO phenomenon and its profound effects on society, but beneath that surface they seemed to actually be discussing the will to believe and the efforts that humans go through in order to create meaning from ambiguous inputs.
The nut of her analysis comes in response to a question about the role of the media in shaping perceptions of UFOs. Regular readers know that I place quite a bit of weight on the idea that pop culture shapes how people interpret unusual events. Thus, for example, the silver flying disks of Theosophy and the Shave Mystery gave shape to what people imagined lights in the sky to be in the first years of the UFO era, and The Outer Limits did as much to create the template for alien abductions as anything. Pasulka has similar thoughts:
My work reveals how media is able to create “reality,” if you will, by using specific mechanisms that, in a sense, “trick” the mind into believing certain things. So, hoaxes, documentaries that make use of computer generated imagery, etc., can create belief that has far reaching cultural effects. The creation of films that use the research of cognitive scientists to insure that every scene lights up the pleasure points in our brains is just one case where the public consumes media that might have unintended effects. We watch movies that are obviously fictional and assume that we will, on all cognitive fronts, know that they are fiction. But, contemporary media technologies pervade our minds in ways that are not expected. They can form memories of events that never happened, for example. We don’t bargain for effects like this when we watch movies, read books, play video games, etc.
There is little to disagree with here, but for the fact that Pasulka seems to have an almost mystical view of UFOs. While claiming not to have an actual position as to whether they are physical objects, she nonetheless feel that they have a spiritual dimension: “I won’t go into this here, but, on one level I feel that UFO sightings and belief are ‘alerts.’ They alert us to pay attention to technology (because they are perceived as advanced technology) and to things we cannot understand. I think it is okay to be confused by them.” But this position says nothing because all human beliefs reflect the concerns, preoccupations, hopes, and stresses of the people who imagine them. We would not believe in something that holds no meaning for us. The problem here, as in so many UFO studies, is separating out the cloud castle of “belief” (which is really modern mythology) from whatever physical inputs give rise to it.
Here I like to give the example of the myth of “giants.” The ancient Greeks believed that giants existed, and so they interpreted the bones of fossil elephants as those of long-dead Heroes and Titans. They counted any large ceremonial object from the preceding Mycenaean era as archaeological proof of this vanished race’s furniture, and they claimed that only giants could erect the great walls of the Mycenaean, even though the stairs and doors were human-sized. The physical inputs—bones, bronzes, and stones—were real, but not related to giants. It was the myth that made them so.
Starting with the assumption that “UFO” is a single category is as big a mistake as assuming that elephant bones and Bronze Age stones are part of a single category.
Pasulka, however, goes beyond this. She has a postmodernist view that truth cannot be known and therefore should not be pursued. She tells Graham that she had no reason to try to find out whether there is an objective truth to UFOs because in religious studies, one explores the expression of belief and not whether the divine is objectively real. This method, she says, “leaves us in an excellent position, as we are given the keys to study the phenomena without having to make hard conclusions about it, which will inevitably be found out to be wrong, in my opinion. We can say that, when absolute truth is a moving target, we need to be flexible with our theories.”
No. This is wrong. Full stop.
Pasulka has confused methodological concerns with the question of reality itself. Yes, in studying human belief systems, adopting a methodologically agnostic viewpoint is a scholarly expedient that helps to reduce the risk of bias and preserve a veneer of objectivity by pretending that all belief systems are equal and can be studied independent of their physical foundations. But that doesn’t mean that reality is unknowable. Imagine if someone suggested in the 1400s that the western hemisphere is unknowable, and that the western continents, if any, are a moving target about which we can know nothing with certainty. But we can study what people believe about the western hemisphere, and that would be just as good as actually sailing across the ocean to find out whether any of those beliefs correlate with reality.
With all of that said, Graham and I agree on her final point, which is that the belief system surrounding UFOs—irrespective of whether there are any flying discs from other worlds—is essentially a “religion in formation,” an all-encompassing belief system with a spiritual hierarchy and a salvation narrative. But she treats this as a fun lark—“It’s pretty cool,” she says—whereas I see the dark side of the intentional creation of a belief system. It’s not all sweetness and light. UFO beliefs are closely aligned with political extremism, racism and Anti-Semitism, and a general paranoid hatred of government and elites. I wouldn’t really call this an “electrifying experience,” as Pasulka does.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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