On Tuesday, Sarah Scoles published They Are Already Here: UFO Culture and Why We See Saucers (Pegasus, 2020), and to promote the book, which I have not yet read, she published an excerpt in Wired magazine. Mostly the excerpt is a fairly standard description of the first two decades of the modern UFO era, from the Kenneth Arnold sighting to the Air Force efforts to investigate and debunk saucer sightings. I am, however, interested in Scoles’s sociological approach to the question of flying saucers. In the excerpt, she asserts that even without Kenneth Arnold, UFO culture would have emerged anyway:
If Arnold hadn’t said a word, history probably would have nevertheless been set on a similar course. Someone else’s sighting would likely have catalyzed a similar flap—a year later, maybe two, or five. All events unfold in a cultural medium, after all. And the medium of Arnold’s time—colored by the fear of outsiders, fear of invasions, and awe of technology, just like today—was fertile ufological ground. Perhaps, in a world without Arnold’s encounter, people would have described “the phenomenon” differently. Perhaps we wouldn’t have the term “flying saucer” at all. Maybe it would have been pancakes or spheres. But Arnold and saucers are what we’ve got. So the flap that followed—and, really, all flaps to follow—bear his imprint, however faint.
If find this an interesting question, but not for the reasons Scoles does. It is perhaps true that someone somewhere might have seen strange lights or objects in the sky. World War II pilots reported seeing “foo fighters” in the sky, after all, and Theosophy had already spoken of Venusians who flew to Earth in shiny, fiery ships. But Arnold’s sighting didn’t become major news simply because he saw something in the sky and reporters thought it was amusing enough to write about. If that were all it took, any number of amusing weird news stories should have yielded similar results.
Arnold’s sighting really took off because Amazing Stories editor Ray Palmer jumped on the story in order to use it to help promote his science fiction products, notably the Shaver Mystery titles. Palmer sent a letter to Arnold on June 26, 1947 in which he told Arnold that he had a collection of similar sightings and wanted to publish Arnold’s account, which he did. Within days, the FBI was investigating Richard Shaver’s science fiction as a possible origin point for the flying saucer flap, and by the end of the summer of 1947, they concluded that regardless of whether Arnold actually saw anything, the entire complex of related ideas tying lying saucers to space aliens was the work of Palmer’s promotional machine. There remains no reason to doubt the FBI’s conclusions about the origin of the myth of flying saucers as alien spacecraft.
This aspect of the story, missing from Scoles’s account, suggests that we can’t simply assert that broad social forces inevitably created the myth of the UFO. Instead, it was the deliberate work of specific individuals who imposed a story on ambiguous events. That this is the case can be found in early FBI reports of spook lights and flying saucers in the wake of the Arnold sighting. The descriptions are all over the map, including a large number that were supposedly the size of saucers, not just the shape of them. Only after Palmer begins the process of codifying the myth of the UFO as alien space transport do we see that reports of flying saucers begin to coalesce around the idea of alien spaceships. In other words, Arnold’s sighting certainly encouraged imitators, as almost any popular news story does, but the form taken by those imitations and how the media began to understand them wasn’t just a spontaneous product of the zeitgeist—which, at any rate, had 112 years of newspaper claims of aliens to work with—but instead a specific development from the unique and deliberate alchemy of the pulp fiction world and its stew of science fiction and Theosophical speculation.
Jerome Clark newspaper cuttings
3/5/2020 09:37:44 am
Jerome Clark on a website reproduced news-cuttings of reported sightings from June 1947 that matched Kenneth Arnold's 26 June 1947 sightings, but without reproducing the dates with said articles from the newspapers, very sloppy
The East Oregonian 1947
3/5/2020 04:46:16 pm
The East Oregonian 1947
3/5/2020 04:55:05 pm
Stop posting fake articles
3/5/2020 08:48:41 pm
I'd appreciate more information about it being a fake article
3/5/2020 09:00:51 pm
Joe Scales no longer answers questions directly. You’ll have to contact him through his attorney who is being paid by Joe’s homeowner’s insurance carrier.
3/5/2020 09:31:49 pm
So the statement that the article was fake wasn't serious
3/5/2020 10:00:51 pm
There are other such similar statements.
3/6/2020 09:38:33 am
Fake Joe Scales above. Diluting the brand...
Balloon Boy Meets the Slender man
3/5/2020 10:33:50 am
Broad social forces caused specific individuals to do the deliberate work of imposing a story on ambiguous events. There are no non-specific individuals. Just like the flight attendant who supposedly brought HIV to the U.S. was a specific individual but someone else would have done it if not him. The Los Angeles Blitz? A classic case of broad social forces causing specific individuals to impose a story on ambiguous events.
3/5/2020 02:40:44 pm
Even while Arnold was flying around that day, news stands were selling an article by Vincent Gaddis talking about “alien” UFOs seen throughout the world. It’s highly likely we'd have been discussing UFOs and the ETH with or without Kenneth Arnold's sighting. They just wouldn’t have been plate-shaped.
3/5/2020 04:30:01 pm
Thanks for the link Chris Aubeck
3/5/2020 10:42:38 pm
But that's the question: Would random reports of things in the sky have become a national sensation about aliens in the skies if not for Ray Palmer collecting and publicizing them and helping to drive a minor media flap into a sustained story?
3/6/2020 12:04:03 am
It's not a question at all. The answer is "yes". Your answer seems to be "no". So we disagree. Oh, well.
3/6/2020 02:30:02 am
It’s impossible to know whether alien UFOs would have become an international obsession. However, the convergence between plurality of worlds beliefs and possible sightings was picking up speed. Just look at what happened the previous October in San Diego, and that was instant ETH, no dancing around with theories about foreign technology or natural phenomena. https://borderlandsciences.org/project/etheria/press.html
3/6/2020 11:17:47 am
@Chris Aubeck: Of course you are correct. In a counterfactual there is no true or false. What if The Tyrant Lincoln had not been assassinated? What if Lord Balfour had been told to go screw? What if Churchill and Roosevelt had been recognized as the incompetent alcoholic warmongers that they were? Of course one could go on.
3/8/2020 10:50:23 pm
There was already the infamous 1938 Orson Welles's radio drama adaptation of the War of the Worlds that created a pretty big sensation; and less than 10 years prior. This and other science fiction stories related to aliens was already rooted in the culture, so it's not surprising that the public would seize on this particular zeitgeist.
3/6/2020 01:49:57 am
This is a great thing, I think everyone feels this information is very valuable, thank you
3/12/2020 02:19:34 am
I have suspected for some years the the ufo craze was entirely artificial with no hard evidence in support. Your latest book shows one of the political forces behind ufo's and fake religions. Your article is admirable in the same way
3/12/2020 04:04:14 am
Plenty of hard evidence, you just gotta look.
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