J. Allen Hynek, PhD, an Air Force consultant, would have classified the subject of Arnold's report as a close encounter of the first kind: the reported UFO is seen without environmental interaction. A close encounter of the second kind involves physical effects; a close encounter of the third kind involves the presence of occupants in or about the UFO.
On May 6, 2000, the panelists at the Year 2000 UFO Abduction Conference at the New York Hall of Science discussed close encounters of the fourth kind: personal contact initiated by the occupants of a spacecraft, usually involving the transportation of the individual from his terrestrial surroundings into the craft, where the individual is communicated with and/or subjected to an examination before being returned.
The setting seemed appropriate. The hall was built in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Queens, for the 1964-'65 World's Fair. The AIA Guide to New York City describes the building as "an undulating tapestry of stained glass set in precast concrete panels..." Immediately outside the hall is a collection of secondhand American spacecraft: Mercury and Gemini capsules atop their rockets, standing like obelisks.
The Intruders Foundation that sponsored the conference was founded in 1989 by Budd Hopkins, the bustling, white-haired sculptor/painter/UFO writer. The foundation's stated goals are providing sympathetic help, understanding and personal investigation for those reporting UFO abduction experiences; systematically researching the abduction phenomenon; mounting a campaign of public education; and developing a cadre of trained professionals in various fields to carry out this work.
The conference's atmosphere was ordinary. A few vendors peddled books and tapes on abductions and UFOs. Thankfully, there were only two or three overweight guys with poor personal hygiene and weird t-shirts bearing images of spacecraft, lights in the sky or Grays.
Even ufologists concede most UFO incidents are natural phenomena misinterpreted by the observer. The government hoped for any plausible explanation: weather balloons, cloud formations, even sightings of our own secret weapons. (For example, the Navy had spent a great deal of money developing a saucer-shaped aircraft. Unfortunately, like Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose, the Flying Flapjack left the ground just once.) However, some are anomalous. Carl Jung famously observed of UFOs, "We have here a golden opportunity of seeing how a legend is formed." Perhaps, as the scientist played by François Truffaut in Close Encounters says, it is "an event sociological."
The Air Force kept trying to bury the stories with implausible explanations. Then Vietnam and Watergate taught most people that government simply could not be trusted. Period. Chesterton observed that a man who believes in nothing will believe in anything. Thus, opinions among ufologists now range from cover-up to the real fringe: the government is in contact with the EBE (extraterrestrial biological entities), permitting abductions, cattle mutilations and other incidents in exchange for higher technology. As one ufologist quipped, "Where do you think all those kids on the milk cartons really went?"
Speaker Nick Pope was reassuringly ordinary, soft-spoken, good-humored and unexcitable. He is a British civil servant assigned to the Ministry of Defense. His assignment for three years included investigating UFO sightings and incident reports for possible defense significance. He admitted to me that he had taken the job to get out of another part of the Ministry. He must have been desperate to become the Queen's flying-saucer man. Although a skeptic, Pope took an agnostic view: the true significance of any UFO report is unknown until studied. He was surprised by the people who reported UFO incidents to the Ministry of Defense. They were largely "embarrassed and sorry for taking up my time. The vast majority did not believe in alien civilizations and wanted to avoid publicity at all costs." Pope eventually concluded that at least some UFOs were "technological objects of unknown origin." Two years after his tour of duty ended (and only after review of the manuscript by the Ministry) he published Open Skies, Closed Minds, which simply sets forth his observations and conclusions. It became a bestseller in Britain.
Another speaker, Dr. Bruce Maccabee, a Navy scientist whose hobby is authenticating UFO films, photographs and videos (he has repeatedly exposed faked and bogus material, which lends him credibility when he confirms a handful as showing anomalous events), ran several videotapes of UFOs. As usual, no one seems to have a decent camera when these things pass by. Nevertheless, two tapes seemed difficult to refute. When played at normal speeds, these tapes apparently showed a saucer, hovering in a clear blue sky and then vanishing as if a light had been turned off. When the tapes were replayed at a much slower speed, the craft rather appeared to accelerate within a tenth of a second to an amazing speed, streaking out of the frame.
Still, the subject of the conference was the abduction phenomenon. I was struck by the ordinariness of the abductees. The most impressive was a successful horse farmer and breeder, a blunt, plainspoken, levelheaded woman. She seemed utterly sane and down to earth. If one believes her story (I do not, although I believe she is telling the truth as she understands it), she has been repeatedly abducted by aliens, studied and subjected to intrusive examinations, often of a sexual nature, for motives that remain unknown, and then returned home, her memories distorted or erased by her abductors. Her memories were recovered under hypnosis. The Greeks told us no two objects can occupy the same place at the same time. Yet this woman, in common with other abductees, spoke of entities that both move and can transport abductees through walls and roofs into their craft. "I hate seeing my attic as I go through the ceiling of my room," she said.
Conferences on the abduction phenomenon date back to 1992, when Dr. John Mack, the Harvard psychiatrist who won a Pulitzer Prize for A Prince of Our Disorder?a superbly constructed and beautifully written biography of Lawrence of Arabia?organized one at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This was not a great career move: a committee of his peers almost censured him in 1995.
Mack also spoke at the Year 2000 Conference. He's a slender, abstracted man. I asked about the aliens' motives. He replied that he had no answers about the intent or motives of the aliens; he knew nothing of them beyond the consistent data elicited under hypnosis, which had persuaded him of their existence. He murmured that he did not know even if the entities had individual consciousnesses or were projections of another consciousness. To him, it was not important. What was important was understanding the effect of the phenomenon on human beings.
The folklore of abduction is hermetic, or better, tautological. Half a century after Arnold's report there is no known physical evidence of UFOs' existence. According to Dr. David Pritchard, one of the sponsors of the 1992 MIT conference, his analysis of an alleged implant recovered from an abductee's penis in 1989 evidenced no unknown compounds or elements. A dermopathologist found cotton fibers, perhaps from the subject's underwear.
What remain are grainy photographs, poor videotapes and anomalous reports of crushed vegetation and altered radiation counts. We do not have even the alien equivalent of a cigarette lighter. Moreover, the personal credibility of the abductees at the conference is not enough. Reliance on testamentary evidence elicited through hypnosis is troubling. Such evidence is generally inadmissible in courts of law. Even a skillful therapist risks confabulating his client?creating false memories.
Moreover, as Dr. Pritchard noted after the MIT conference, his sample of abductees apparently had suffered child sexual abuse at a level some 40 percent above the general population. So, though the abductees' trauma is profound and real, the source may be far less celestial than a Gray.