I’m sure that most of you have noticed that things look a little different around here today. That’s because yesterday my web services provider, Weebly, pushed through an update that seriously messed up the formatting of my website and limited some functionality. When I attempted to fix the problem, I discovered that the editing and coding tools wouldn’t work right, either. Customer service informed me that the template I built the site on top of was no longer one that the company supports, so in order to work with the latest upgrade I would have to adopt a new site theme from the approved list of templates. This was, obviously, a bit of a mess since I had to transform my increasingly non-functional website in a single day. As a result, there are some changes:
I have also purged some old, broken, and unused pages. Since no one uses the Forum, that page is gone (unless there is an outcry for its return), and the old Multimedia page has been broken up, with its elements placed more logically. The free eBooks moved to Books, the videos and newsletter archives to Articles (where I also parked the old Galleries), and the merchandise that no one ever bought is sitting in the About Jason section.
Not all of the links are working right just yet, and several back buttons redirect to the wrong section. There are almost 400 pages, so I simply couldn’t fix everything in one afternoon. But I hope you like the redesign. It wasn’t what I had planned to do, but I think it came out OK. I had hoped to do a more gradual transition to a redesign where I would have had more time to test out potential layouts and pilot them on a few pages at a time before redoing the whole site, but Weebly’s choice not to make their updates backward compatible forced me to act more quickly.
Somewhere in UFO-land...
Today I’d like to talk a little bit about an interview that UFO researcher and playwright Ryan Sprague gave to horror writer Hunter Shay to promote his new nonfiction book on alien abductions, Somewhere in the Skies, a release from ufologist Richard Dolan’s imprint. I was taken aback by what Sprague said was the genesis of his investigation into the paranormal. Sprague is in my age bracket, also from central New York, and has also been interested in aliens and such since childhood. Like me, he has worked in both fiction and nonfiction, and we’ve both been interviewed on TV and in the media about paranormal topics. Heck, he even uses the same web hosting company that I do! He claims to have seen a UFO when he was twelve, much as I did when I was maybe fourteen or fifteen. I think it might even have been in the same year, 1995. The difference is that I never thought that because I couldn’t explain the silvery disc streaking across the sky that nobody could explain it. Sprague, on the other hand, became obsessed with UFOs after sighting a triangle of lights one night, and he “researched” them by reading credulous UFO books by the usual suspects. I imagine we have many of the same books in our libraries.
Anyway, now in his thirties, Sprague has moved into the field of ufology where he is gaining a following mostly by being three decades younger than everyone else. Or, as Nick Redfern put it in a blurb for Sprague’s book, Sprague brings “new, young blood, coupled with a high degree of enthusiasm.”
A bit of disclosure: Sprague and I have been Facebook friends for years, though not in regular contact.
As I mentioned, there are many similarities between Sprague and me, but the differences are also informative. I chose to investigate mysteries by developing a field of expertise and working hard to assemble primary sources and trace ideas back to their roots. Granted, this approach is limiting in that archival research will only take one so far in terms of investigating claims. Sometimes, you just have to be there to see for yourself, which is a luxury only the wealthy, or those working for cable TV, can typically afford. On the whole, however, I’ve found that it’s generally the case that researching archives is more profitable than listening to the so-called “experts” on fringe history, who suffer from all of the faults that oral relations of second- and third-hand accounts accrue.
That’s why I was surprised to hear Sprague describe how he learns about the paranormal subjects he discusses on his Into the Fray podcast:
As for Into the Fray, I am an avid podcast listener as I’m constantly commuting to and from Manhattan here in NYC, and there’s nothing better than listening to something on your headphones than to hear New Yorkers complain about their day. I remembered hearing a show about Bigfoot, a topic I never really took an interest in, and the co-host was so knowledgeable and passionate about the topic, and reminded me so much of myself when I talked about UFOs. That’s when I contacted the host, Shannon LeGro, and we started talking about how cool it would be the start a show where we literally taught one another about a topic we knew very little about.
In Somewhere in the Skies, Sprague relies heavily on what he was told, rather than what he was able to research or prove with documentary evidence, privileging the self-reported oral histories of “experiencers” and the oral statements of so-called UFO “experts.” Even when he discusses academic work on UFOs or skeptical views, it is more often through interviews rather than engagement with the literature on the subject. It is how a journalist might approach telling the story of UFOs—and his book, at heart, is a collection of oral histories documenting how people react to what they perceive as alien encounters—but it makes his book more of a report of what people believe than an evaluation what really happened. Thus, Sprague makes this statement: “The testimonies I’d heard so far were proof that whatever these objects in the sky were, they could be seen, felt, and heard.” Here is how unreliable that is: I have spoken before of the very realistic dreams I have had in which I seemed to be awake and saw, heard, and touched a frog dressed in a leather jacket with a hair-metal hairdo, sitting atop a winding blue vine that covered my bed. That does not make it real, no matter how much I claim otherwise. Yet my “sighting” of the punk frog meets every criterion of the UFO sighting, and there is no profitable way to distinguish them except through the credence one gives to visions in the shape of Greys vs. those in the shape of frogs. To his credit, Sprague does recognize that “some of this may be happening in the rocky terrain of the subconscious.” But what reason to do we have to think any of it does not? Sprague does not say, except to put trust in self-reported accounts.
Similarly, in the interview Sprague went on to discuss his influences and the people who have guided him into ufology. Would it surprise you to know that they were, to a man, the slipshod, credulous researchers who skate by on a cult of personality to give spurious credibility to bad research? He singled out praise for Jacques Vallée, whose devastatingly flawed methodology I have chronicled at length. “The man is a legend in the UFO field in so many ways,” he said, adding the Vallée’s Passport to Magonia is the best UFO book he has read. Vallée is the non-intellectual’s idea of what an intellectual might be: elegant, French, and full of big ideas.
But what is more surprising is that Sprague cites the work of Vallée while actively rejecting its foundation. Vallée’s ideas are inseparable from the ancient astronaut theory, for his views of humanity’s relationship with UFOs are predicated on the idea that modern UFO sightings are a continuation of the types of encounters that ancient and medieval people had with prodigies, supernatural beings, and other wonders of yore. Sprague, though, says that he doesn’t care about the ancient astronaut theory:
The idea that some sort of ancient extraterrestrial civilization has intervened in our history strips us of responsibility for that which we’ve created. It also opens an entire alternative history where these non-human intelligences have co-existed insidiously with us for countless centuries. Again, I have entertained the many theories brought forth by trailblazers in the ancient alien and ancient astronaut theory, but right now my attention is focused on moving my own sights towards the future of possible alien contact from a scientific standpoint, and even more ambitiously, from a consciousness standpoint.
I do not mean to disparage Sprague at all; his book is thoughtful, humane, and well-written. But his approach, eschewing the hard work of confirmation and analysis in favor of viewing UFOs through the lens of storytelling, necessarily limits the usefulness of a collection of first-person accounts of events that might never have happened.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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