It's just like a religious person talking to people who are already converted." That's how J. Allen Hynek, respected student of unidentified flying objects, described last weekend's conference of UFO researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
The comment, made by the best-known figure at the meeting, typified Dr. Hynek's outspoken view that UFO studies are often too inbred, too amateur, and too much based on faith at the expense of scientific method. Despite the exalted academic surroundings of MIT, the sessions, in their overall dearth of hard data and scientific analysis, did not dispel the image of 35 years of UFO studies as a preoccupation of believers with less than definite evidence.
Conference participants, describing, among other topics, extraterrestrial kidnap cases and government cover-ups, did not generally voice much enthusiasm for Hynek's call for more professionalism in their field. In turn, he noted between sessions that he was present mainly in hopes that some "good seed" might fall on "fertile soil" -- that some investigators might see the need for more science and less "religion" in their study of unknown aerial phenomena.
At the session, sponsored by the Mutual UFO Network, most speakers were part-time UFO investigators. Some have written books or lectured on the topic. Most are outside mainstream academia.
Unprofessional UFO investigations, according to Hynek, director of the Center for UFO studies in Evanston, Ill., embrace "the crackpots, the charlatans, and the mentally tilted" who provide "a marvelous excuse to dismiss the whole subject."
He said hypnotism, a method employed to garner evidence from supposed "abduction" victims, was an example of this. While useful in the right hands, as a means of obtaining information about a traumatic experience, it could wrongly influence supposed UFO witnesses, he maintained.
"Today, everyone's unconscious and conscious are jammed full, whether he knows it or not, of all kinds of information on UFOs" gained from the news media , he said. Hypnotism, he claimed, can draw this information out, causing troubled individuals to recite imaginary abduction stories.
Hynek's mandate for good ethics in his field: The professional should study phenomena, not hold to theories based on incomplete evidence.
"It may be that UFOs are someone else's spacecraft, but I don't think one should come to that conclusion yet. I made a plea for examining the phenomena rather than any particular hypothesis."
Hynek claimed that of the 100,000 entries of UFO sightings from 140 countries , which his organization maintains on a computerized data bank, about 15,000 seem to be unexplainable "in a normal manner", suggesting that, psychologically or physically, some UFOs may be "beyond our present scientific paradigm."
Other speakers discussed sensational cases of the alleged kidnapping of humans by UFOs. Hynek said that in som cases something extraordinary -- physically or psychologically -- seemed to have happened to the supposed witnesses, and such instances could not be written off either as hoaxes or as proof of space travelers. Other scientists are more doubtful about the validity of such incidents.
"Maybe it's a question of mind over matter," he mused on the strange mixture of subjective and objective evidence given by witnesses in such cases. "Maybe some intelligence out there is projecting a thought force. We're just beginning to understand the power of the mind."