Each year, Phoenix, Arizona hosts the International UFO Congress, the largest annual gathering dedicated to the study of this phenomenon, otherwise known as ufology. One of the most striking things I noticed while speaking with attendees at this year’s congress was their insistence on the reality of UFOs, even before I had expressed any doubt. Ufologists always seem to be on the defensive, a conversational tic that is undoubtedly learned from years of speaking with skeptics.
In other words, ufologists will always be the first ones to let you know that they don’t believe in UFOs, they know they are real. But the gap between belief and knowledge is a large one, a chasm that separates the scientific and the pseudoscientific. Since ufology became something of an organized field of study, albeit a fringe one, in the 1950s, the overwhelming majority of the scientific community hasn’t hesitated to label the field as pseudoscientific, much to the ire of ufologists.
Although the US government has launched formal inquiries into the UFO phenomenon, little has changed in the last six decades to indicate that ufology will ever be anything more than pseudoscientific. But Bob Davis, a retired neuroscientist and self-described “UFO agnostic,” wants to change that. I caught up with him at the International UFO Congress to find out why he thinks ufology can become a serious scientific discipline. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Motherboard: Hey Bob! You’re a retired neuroscientist, but most scientists don’t take UFOs seriously. What gives?
Bob Davis: I’ve been a closet ufologist my whole life, I guess because of the fear of ridicule by others. When my wife and I visited Sedona, Arizona a couple of years ago, we happened to see two orange orbs in the night sky. I’m not entirely sure what that was all about, but that motivated me to start writing a book: The UFO Phenomenon. Now I’m a member of the Dr. Mitchell Foundation for Research into Extraterrestrial Encounters, which is exploring the essence of that phenomenon.
What kind of research does this organization do?
We have studied 3057 individuals who have claimed to have conscious, explicit memory of contact with a physical craft associated with some form of non-human intelligence.
What did you find based on this research?
Ufologists have always thought that this phenomenon was a negative or hostile experience, but we’re finding just the opposite. What we’ve found is that about 85 percent of the people who are experiencing this phenomenon are being transformed in a very positive behavioral or psychospiritual way. Generally, people become more humane, experience a oneness with the world. They become less interested in organized religion, they become more spiritual, they have less interest in monetary values, and become more sensitive to the ecological welfare of our planet, among many other psychospiritual outcomes. It is a real and powerful outcome that is generally ignored by the UFO community.
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Any idea why?
We believe, but we don’t pretend we have the answer, but we feel that the quantum holographic theory of consciousness outlined by Dr. Edgar Mitchell, the co-founder of FREE, provides a possible explanation of the essence of the phenomena. We base that again, in part, on the transformative aspects the experience has on the individual. People are reporting that they become aware, based on their interaction with the phenomenon, that there is indeed a multi-dimensional reality, that there is life after death. We’re trying to apply, in other words, is a scientific explanation, but not claiming we have the answer.
Has the psychological community acknowledged this research?
Our results will appear in two journals later this year, the Journal of Consciousness and The Journal of Scientific Exploration.
Journal of Consciousness isn’t peer reviewed, and The Journal of Scientific Exploration is considered pretty fringe by most scientists.
We’re not saying we have irrefutable evidence of what this phenomenon is about, we simply want to present our results and increase public awareness, especially that of the mainstream so they can take this topic much more seriously. Once we publish our results in these journals, hopefully it will stimulate more interest and attention, and hopefully research that builds upon our preliminary findings.
Did you notice any similarities between people who were reporting these experiences?
The obvious question is whether these individuals might be having an illusion or a fantasy proneness, some aberrant psychological pathology that might give rise to their contentions that they’re behaviorally transformed. That’s discounted to a large extent because if they were in fact having some type of psychological aberration to begin with, it would be very unlikely that they’d report such positive behavioral outcomes as a result of their interaction with this phenomenon. The fact that so many, about 85 percent, say the same thing, also diminishes the possibility that there is an underlying psychological aberration associated with it. Unfortunately we didn’t have the time and money to screen all individuals for some psychological problem. Future research should look at that component of the individual who is reporting this kind of experience.
It sounds like a religious experience that these people are describing.
Many of these positive transformations are similar to a spiritual awakening. Call it psychospirtual, call it religious, call it whatever, but the vast majority of these people are transformed in a very positive way.
Do you think UFOs are extraterrestrial in origin, or unexplained earthly phenomenon, like a military craft or something?
Most ufologists claim that this phenomenon is extraterrestrial in nature, but science has to look at other explanations. Unfortunately it will probably still continue to be viewed as a pseudoscience by the general scientific community, which is highly unfortunate because this phenomenon is valid and is impacting of thousands of people worldwide. Without question we have to make it more scientifically rigorous. The confounding variable is that we don’t, at the present time, have the scientific principles to apply to help answer the underlying essence of what governs and regulates this phenomenon. We’re probably not going to ever have irrefutable evidence to what this phenomenon is all about. We can only indirectly make conclusions. Maybe over time these principles will evolve, and that can be more specifically applied as a means to qualify and quantify largely anecdotal evidence which is what we have from thousands of experiences. Anecdotal evidence can’t be measured in a laboratory and most scientists want tangible data.
What would that look like in this case? Actually capturing a UFO?
That would be the smoking gun. Many contend we do have UFOs being housed wherever. People contend they have the answer, but we don’t know who or what to believe. Ufology is littered with such disinformation, people that make up conclusions without sufficient evidence. It’s very hard to separate fact from fiction, sense from nonsense, which is largely why most scientists consider it at best a pseudoscience and don’t want to become involved. Plus there’s no granting agency that is going to provide funding for scientists to engage in this type of research, so that also turns off a lot of the scientific community, especially in the academic setting.
You spent 30 years as a neuroscientist, but now you don’t doubt ufology as a legitimate area of study. What would it take to convince other scientists to take this seriously?
There are many scientists who are interested in the phenomenon and take it seriously. But it needs to be more so, a research effort by researchers from many scientific disciplines working in a collaborative fashion to study this phenomenon with much more serious intent. There’s an obvious fear of ridicule, so people don’t reveal interest in this area. It’s unfortunate because the scientific community should be more engaged rather than being largely dissociated from studying the phenomenon. Although Organizations like the Mutual UFO Network devote a lot of time studying UFOs, but continuing to analyze this phenomenon in the manner that they do, which is a retrospective analysis of prior events, is not going to advance our understanding of the phenomenon. We need to apply more rigorous scientific protocols, using a multi-disciplinary approach. I believe that’s going to be the only way we’re going to gain greater insights into the phenomenon.
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