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UFO-Forschung - Der Beginn der belgischen UFO-Welle 1989 - Teil-6

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In defense of the psychosociological hypothesis – Another reply to Auguste Meessen / by Jean-Michel Abrassart

If evil be spoken of you and it be true, correct yourself, if it be a lie, laugh at it. (Epictetus)
In his 2011 article, The Belgian Wave and the photos of Ramillies , Auguste Meessen tries to answer some of the recent critics made by several skeptics (namely Roger Paquay, Tim Printy and myself) concerning the work done by the pro-extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH) group SOBEPS (now COBEPS) on the Belgian UFO wave. I have read the previous replies made by my skeptical colleagues in the last issue of SUNlite. Several very important points have already been made by them. I will try not to repeat them here. I’d like to focus instead on some of the logical fallacies and bad reasoning used by the physicist to try to convince people that the psychosociological hypothesis (PSH) cannot explain the Belgian UFO wave.
During his long UFOlogical carrier, this physicist has always confused his own speculations with “facts” and his opinions with “the truth”. His abstract starts in a very telling way, when he writes, “We restore the truth”. Everybody should be wary about a scientist claiming to “restore the truth” instead of simply replying to his contradictors. That kind of vocabulary is more typical of apologetic religious discourses than scientific ones. Auguste Meessen seems to be like Pope John Paul II, and wants to show us – the infidels – the “Splendor of Truth”.
Since the very beginning of his interests in the UFO subject, Auguste Meessen showed a naïve conception of human psychology. From a scientific standpoint, his influence over the years on the SOBEPS group was mostly negative, pushing them more and more toward the pseudo-scientific side of the fence. In this article, Auguste Meessen claims again that:
The psychosocial hypothesis can thus not account for the Belgian wave and all UFO observations do not result from errors or illusions!
The Belgian physicist is of course entitled to have his own opinion on the matter, but he seems to think that if he claims something loudly enough it will make it true. This is wishful thinking: there will scientific method that if SOBEPS really had proven that the Belgian UFO wave could only be explained by extraterrestrial spacecraft, Auguste Meessen & Co. would have made the cover of Nature a long time ago and would have probably won a Nobel Prize soon after that. We should also point out that all his publications did not appear in peer-reviewed science journals – as they should be in order to take part of the scientific process – but either in Inforespace (SOBEPS newsletter) or more recently on his own web site. To my knowledge, Auguste Meessen’s only peer-reviewed publication close to the subject of the Belgian UFO wave was “Le phénomène OVNI et le Problème des Méthodologies” , an article about the methodology of UFO research published in the Revue Française de Parapsychologie, a very confidential parapsychological French publication (edited by a very controversial parapsychologist named Yves Lignon), and even there it was only has a rebuttal to an earlier publication by Marc Hallet criticizing his work! Of course, some would probably not hesitate to call upon some kind of conspiracy theory to rationalize that fact instead of considering that simply SOBEPS work failed to convince the scientific community. All that to say that the condescending tone of Meessen’s publications is not matched at all by his scientific track record on the subject or, for that matter, by the evidences he can show to support his views.
He’s grossly misrepresenting, as usual, the skeptical position. Let’s take only one example of this:
The attitude of so-called “skeptics”, claiming that UFOs cannot exist, simply obstructs clarification, but purely speculative statements are also inadequate.
To put it bluntly, I do not know of any skeptic who claims that UFOs cannot exist. Those are only the skeptics that exist in Auguste Meessen’s imagination. To the contrary, we say that you know you are a skeptic when you understand what the U of UFO stands for: UFOs are just “objects” (actually many stimuli can – and do – generate a UFO observation, and sometimes stimuli are not even necessary) that subjects see and fail to identify. Since UFO testimonies exist, UFOs obviously do exist. There is an unhealthy slip of language in the physicist’s senalways be critical thinkers who won’t be convinced by his weak argumentation. Yelling insults at them won’t change that fact, on the contrary. Sometimes, like during the recent COBEPS conference (14 mai 2011 at Perwez, Belgium), Auguste Meessen tries to claim that he’s not a proponent of the ETH. This is simply not true. In his paper Où en sommes-nous en ufologie ? he wrote that he believes that there was a flying-saucer crash at Roswell, that UFOlogists should reconsider (of course in a more positive light) Ray Santilli’s autopsy movie and that there is a US government conspiracy to hide the truth. In the same article, he also speculates about Grey’s telepathic abilities or the fact that Men in Black, the chupacabra and contactees (like George Adamski or Billy Meier) are – according to him - part of a sociological experiment conducted by aliens. Thus when Auguste Meessen tries to argue that he’s not an ETH-proponent, I must confess that I’m really unconvinced.
It is obvious to anybody familiar with thescientific method that if SOBEPS really had proven that the Belgian UFO wave could only be explained by extraterrestrial spacecraft, Auguste Meessen & Co. would have made the cover of Nature a long time ago and would have probably won a Nobel Prize soon after that. We should also point out that all his publications did not appear in peer-reviewed science journals – as they should be in order to take part of the scientific process – but either in Inforespace (SOBEPS newsletter) or more recently on his own web site. To my knowledge, Auguste Meessen’s only peer-reviewed publication close to the subject of the Belgian UFO wave was “Le phénomène OVNI et le Problème des Méthodologies” , an article about the methodology of UFO research published in the Revue Française de Parapsychologie, a very confidential parapsychological French publication (edited by a very controversial parapsychologist named Yves Lignon), and even there it was only has a rebuttal to an earlier publication by Marc Hallet criticizing his work! Of course, some would probably not hesitate to call upon some kind of conspiracy theory to rationalize that fact instead of considering that simply SOBEPS work failed to convince the scientific community. All that to say that the condescending tone of Meessen’s publications is not matched at all by his scientific track record on the subject or, for that matter, by the evidences he can show to support his views.
He’s grossly misrepresenting, as usual, the skeptical position. Let’s take only one example of this:
The attitude of so-called “skeptics”, claiming that UFOs cannot exist, simply obstructs clarification, but purely speculative statements are also inadequate.
To put it bluntly, I do not know of any skeptic who claims that UFOs cannot exist. Those are only the skeptics that exist in Auguste Meessen’s imagination. To the contrary, we say that you know you are a skeptic when you understand what the U of UFO stands for: UFOs are just “objects” (actually many stimuli can – and do – generate a UFO observation, and sometimes stimuli are not even necessary) that subjects see and fail to identify. Since UFO testimonies exist, UFOs obviously do exist. There is an unhealthy slip of language in the physicist’s sentence between UFOs and extraterrestrial spacecraft (these words seem to be used in a synonymous fashion by him, which is also very telling), but I also don’t know any skeptic who claims that extraterrestrial spacecraft cannot exist. What skeptics really say is that there is no proof of extraterrestrial spacecraft visiting the Earth. There are some discussions about the a priori plausibility of the ETH, involving the Fermi paradox and other things like that, but skeptics are skeptics a posteriori, after looking at the UFO literature and assessing the presence or absence of proof.
In his article, Auguste Meessen uses the rhetorical strategy know as the reversal of the burden of proof. He states:
He (Jean-Michel Abrassart) simply postulates that all UFO observations have to result from perceptual errors or imagination, facilitated by rumor propagation. He cannot and could never prove that this is true.
An emeritus professor in physics should know that it is not to skeptics to prove a negative. It is to claimants to prove their claims. In the UFOlogical context, it is Auguste Meessen who makes extraordinary claims, not me: he is thus the one who has the burden of proof, not skeptics. And as the late Carl Sagan elegantly put it: “Extraordinary claims need extraordinary proof”. Needless to say, we haven’t seen anything in his writing (or in any other SOBEPS team writings) that proves the ETH. To prove it, you would need either (a) a sample of biological material that is beyond doubt from extraterrestrial origin and/or (b) a sample of technological material that is beyond doubt from extraterrestrial origin. Auguste Meessen has presented none of those to the scientific community. He mainly has witness testimonies, AKA anecdotes. But, as skeptics often say, the plural of anecdotes is not data.

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Let’s examine now the most insulting part of the article, when he’s calling into question my ethic as a psychologist. Contrary to what Auguste Meessen claims, I simply never said that:
Jean-Michel Abrassart did that for the beginning of the Belgian wave, since he claimed that the two gendarmes – who attentively observed an unconventional flying object during more than two hours – are not trustworthy. He stated even that they have “fantasy-prone personalities” and called them “schizotypical”. A psychologist who qualifies persons in such a way, without any thorough examination and without even having talked with them, violates all professional ethics.
I actually wrote:
However, there is nothing to suggest that, because a person is a policeman, this disqualifies him from having a fantasy-prone personality or even from being schizotypical. Now, the SOBEPS never submitted them, or any other witness to the Belgian Wave, to any kind of psychological testing. After all, it’s not worth looking into the psychology of witnesses when the only thing you’re after is proof in favor of the extraterrestrial hypothesis!
I was thus referring to the current state of scientific literature. One of my main points in my previous article (that August Meessen simply didn’t address) was that we don’t know anything about the psychology of Von Montigny and Nichols (or any other witness of the Belgian UFO wave for that matter), because SOBEPS did such a bad job investigating the wave. Because of their prior belief in the ETH, they didn’t think that it was important to document the psychology of witnesses. Thus, we miss today a lot of very important information to really understand why and how this wave happened. Auguste Meessen doesn’t have anything (except his own opinion) to back up his claim that because the witnesses are two policemen, then we should take them more seriously than the usual witness, so he’s only making an ad hominem attack against me, hoping that it will convince his readers that he has good arguments in this debate. We shouldn’t be fooled by such lazy thinking.
Auguste Meessen also likes to use mathematics and diagrams to impress his readers. This is a rhetorical strategy that skeptics call “math intimidation”. This tactic can only work on the layman who doesn’t know much about the scientific method and/or the UFO phenomena. I asked Nicolas Gauvrit, a mathematician, to look at his new argument against the psychosocial contagion. You’ll find his analysis on page 12. Mathematics based on bad reasoning doesn’t prove anything.
During the recent COBEPS conference, Meessen stated that skeptics believe that the Belgian UFO wave was a rumor effect. If you read my paper about the beginning of the wave, you know that I never spoke of a rumor. On the contrary, I talked about a psychosocial contagion, as defined by the late Philip J. Klass. This is just a straw man argument. Meessen tries to refute the SPH by posing how he thinks a sociological contagion should work (as a rumor effect), then he shows mathematically that the Belgian UFO wave didn’t work that way (even if nobody claimed that), before finally concluding (what he already believed in the first place anyway) that he has falsified the SPH. Of course, everything relies on how he, as a physicist and ETH-proponent, thinks that a sociological contagion should work. If a sociological contagion can happen in some other fashion than the way he thinks, then he’s rejecting the SPH on baseless ground. An important point you should note is that he doesn’t refer to any research at all in psychology (or any other human sciences) about other sociological contagions or mass hysteria: he seems to think that he doesn’t need to read the scientific literature on the subject to knowhow it should work. The only paper he refers to is the one published by another SOBEPS team member, Michel Bougard (a chemist and ETH-proponent), in Vague d’ovnis sur la Belgique I (VOB I): “Media et phénomène OVNI. Approche statistique sur un éventuel effet de rumeur” . We can thus say confidently that the mathematical model applied by August Meessen in his article has never been applied successfully to any other sociological contagion, to show that it describes it properly. His whole attitude shows not only his lack of expertise in psychology, the fact that he doesn’t shy away to make bold claims in fields in which he has no qualification whatsoever, but also his deep disdain of human sciences. Of course, his model is fairly simplistic, when social phenomena are known to be messy and complex. It is obvious that objective phenomena – like for example what kind of mundane stimuli can been seen in the sky at what time – will influence the sociological contagion. A mass hysteria doesn’t happen in a vacuum, where one testimony simply generate other testimonies in a straightforward causal way. The Belgian UFO wave wasn’t a rumor effect. There are mediating variables, like for example the quantity and quality of media coverage, that will fluctuate on top of the objective amount of observations at any time according to journalists interest in the subject, the number of observations that were not collected by SOBEPS, the mundane activity in the sky at any given time, the weather that will influence if something can be seen or not, and so on. On the other hand, other aspects of the wave, like the geographical localization of it clearly points to a sociological contagion – but the Belgian physicist only considers aspects that conform to his prior belief.
Auguste Meessen still doesn’t understand the importance of the time of the reporting to SOBEPS versus the time of the alleged observation. He writes:
Moreover, we notice in figure 1 that UFO observations occurred already before the official start of the Belgian wave on November 29, 1989, but these observations remained unreported until later on. The reason is that these witnesses could not make sense of what they saw!
One of my main point in my previous article is that observations that have been collected after the media started talking about the wave cannot be considered independent because they have been (and I think heavily) influenced by the media before the time of the reporting. The physicist states that these witnesses simply could not make sense of what they saw. It shows that he still underestimate the power of suggestions on human testimonies. When those witnesses saw the news in the media, it didn’t just help them understand what they saw, it reshaped their memories of what they saw and their subsequent testimonies. The quote above supports my position much more than the one of the physicist, even if he completely fails to see it.
One of the favorite arguments of proponents is the alleged consistency of the testimonies. He writes:
This is confirmed by its later evolution and by the fact that so many witnesses consistently reported a new type of UFOs.
Auguste Meessen tries here to convince us that the fact that the Belgian UFO wave displayed triangle-shaped UFOs instead of the classical flying saucer is an argument in favor of the extraterrestrial origin. It’s a neat rhetorical trick, when you think that in fact it fits a lot better with the PSH! First, does he really think that extraterrestrials have changed design for the wave? Before they liked saucer-shaped craft, but in 1989 there was a new fashion in alien spaceship design? Or is it a new species, the Grey enjoying the saucer shape but the newcomers preferring the triangular one? And let’s not forget that Kenneth Arnold saw objects in a boomerang shape, but the flying saucer took off in testimonies only after a mistake made by a journalist (see the article “The Truth Is, They Never Were ‘Saucers’” by Robert Sheaffer for more on this). Anyone who looks objectively at the UFO phenomena knows that the consistency argument doesn’t hold any water. For example, “The Field Guide to UFOs” has eight categories of shape reported in UFO testimonies: lights, spheres, discs, ellipses, cylinders, rectangles, triangles and shape shifters. The change at the beginning of the Belgian UFO wave happened following the pattern we all have seen in science-fiction. And of course, there have been triangular-shaped UFOs in science-fiction a long

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time before the beginning of the Belgian UFO wave. Secondly, triangles are easier to generate by misperception, because any tree points in the sky who are not in line look by definition like a triangle. Witnesses tend to fill in the gaps and usually see a black shape between the dots. The triangular shape is much better suited than the saucer one for a psychological contagion. Thirdly, that shape was reported a lot by witnesses because it was the shape they could see in the media all the time. Fourthly, the alleged “consistency” of the testimonies Auguste Meessen is talking about also comes from the way SOBEPS investigated cases. I’m quoting here Jacques Scornaux, addressing this very point in an interview he gave to me for the podcast “Scepticisme scientifique : Le balado de la Science et de la Raison” (my translation):
Since they [author’s note: the SOBEPS team] received thousands of phone calls, they had to select some of them. They couldn’t investigate every single case. Thus some cases were removed on the only basis of what the witness said on the phone. When the witness described a simple ball of light in the sky, they didn’t do any inquiry because of the lack of time. On the other hand, if the witness talked about a triangle on the phone, then someone would investigate. That’s how triangular cases became – through a very simple process – the majority. Again, I believe they did that innocently. They didn’t realize that the proportion of triangles was artificially augmented that way, by the way messages left on the answering machine were selected. (…) And thus the proportions of different kinds of observations (…) were altered unconsciously by the action of the SOBEPS.
To conclude, I will simply say that, even if it’s highly unlikely that he would listen to me, I would strongly advise Auguste Meessen to turn down the condescending tone and to stop making claims that he can’t back up. He should especially stop claiming that he has proven beyond any reasonable doubts that the psychosocial hypothesis can’t explain the Belgian UFO wave, because it is clearly not the case.
Select Sources:
Meessen, A. (2011). “The Belgian Wave and the photos of Ramillies”. Available on Auguste Meessen’s web site (www.meessen.net/AMeessen/).
Meessen, A. (2000). “Où en sommes-nous en ufologie?” Inforespace, n°101, p. 4-56.
Meessen, A. (1998). “Le phénomène OVNI et le Problème des Méthodologies”. Revue Française de Parapsychologie, vol.1 n°2, p.79-102.
Hallet, M. (1997). “ La prétendue Vague d’OVNI belge…” Revue française de parapsychologie, vol. 1, n°1, p. 5-23.
SOBEPS (1994). Vague d’OVNI sur la Belgique I – Un dossier exceptionnel. SOBEPS.
Bougard, M. (1994): “Media et phénomène OVNI. Approche statistique sur un éventuel effet de rumeur “, Vague OVNI sur la Belgique (VOB2), SOBEPS, p. 323-386.
Sheaffer, R. (1997). “The Truth Is, They Never Were ‘Saucers’ “. Skeptical Inquirer, vol. 21, n°5.
Stacy, D., Huyghe, P. (2000). The Field Guide to UFOs: A classification of various unidentified aerial phenomena based on eyewitness accounts. New York: HarperCollins.
Jacques Scornaux’s interview, in Scepticisme scientifique: Le balado de la Science et de la Raison, épisode #67: “La vague belge d’ovnis”, 11 septembre 2010.

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An example of mathematical intimidation in UFOlogy

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The UFOlogist and anti-skeptics August Meessen published recently on the Internet an article about the Belgian UFO wave. His goal in it was to refute arguments from skeptics, according to whom many UFO testimonies during that wave can be explained very well within the sociopsychological hypothesis theoretical framework: misinterpretations associated to sociological and media effects can lead to that phenomenon. According to skeptics – advocating this approach – misinterpretations (i.e. to take a balloon for a flying saucer or to think that a secret military aircraft is an alien spaceship), when they generate enough media coverage, lead to more mistakes of the same type and also to testimonies from people that thought first that they had seen something mundane but to whom it is suggested that the extraterrestrial hypothesis is plausible.
Amongst the different arguments put forward by Meessen, we can find, at the bottom of page 4, the unsupported claim that the sociopsychological hypothesis need the evolution of the number of testimonies to follow a logistic distribution, aka a solution to the differential equation dN/dt = aN(1-bN), where N is the number of testimonies, and a and b parameters.
This claim by Meessen seems weird, or at least based on very shaky ground.
What Meessen proposes is to use in 1. order to represent the number of testimonies a Verhulst model. But this model has not been design to model the spread of beliefs but the evolution of populations in a given area. The hypothesis that supports it in part in demographics is that when the population increases, it is blocked when it reaches the limit (carrying capacity) above which the space becomes insufficient. The situation is completely different when it comes to beliefs, which tends on the contrary to increase when there are more believers...
The Verhulst 2. model is not, in any case (including demographics), a theoretical necessity. This law is purely an empirical law, as you can read in J.S. Cramer (2003) “The origins and development of the logit model” (available on the internet here : http://www.cambridge.org/resources/0521815886/1208_default.pdf), an article about the history of the function and of the logistic distribution.
And lastly, they are mathematical 3. models that could be a priori adapted to the situation, but that Meessen doesn’t even discuss. Those are contagion models. Nevertheless, those models, created to modelise the evolution of diseases, but also of beliefs or socio-economical behaviors, are still heavily debated by specialists. There is no emerging agreement, as you can read in Doddsa & Watts “A generalized model of social and biological contagion” (available on the internet here: http://research.yahoo.net/files/d_w_JTB.pdf), an article presenting some of those models.
In conclusion, it is clear that the claim made by Meessen is completely unsupported, and is only a case of “mathematical intimidation”: the author counts on the lack of knowledge of the reader to impress him with mathematical formulae. We can also ponder why the name of Verhulst or the words “logistic distribution” are not written even once. Is it to avoid that the reader could easily have more information on the subject?
Editor note: I have to humbly admit that a great deal of the math involved here is beyond my limited education. The documents listed here are mathematically “intimidating “ to those who are not familiar with the materials.

Quelle: SUNlite 4/2011

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