Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Ethics of Exploring the Fringe, Part Two: Mark Pilkington on Deception Operations, Witness Claims and More

The activities of Mark Pilkington have remained of interest to those following fringe culture since his days of making crop circles right up to his more recent venture of delving into the actions of spooks in ufology. He is a writer, publisher, curator and musician. Pilkington has written articles for The Anomalist and Fortean Times, among other publications. He is the author of two books, Far Out: 101 Strange Tales from Science's Outer Edge and Mirage Men, the latter of which was adapted to film. Pilkington's comments provided to The UFO Trail follow the questions below.

What kinds of challenges might writer/researchers expect to encounter when delving into the intelligence community and its relations to UFOs, manipulating public opinion about UFOs and similar subject matter?

The most immediately pressing is that of national security. Researchers should ask themselves whether they might be probing an area considered sensitive by the agency/organisation that they are engaging with. 

In the case of UFO research/investigation, it's evident that some UFO sightings, encounters and stories have arisen from misidentifications of government projects, operations or technologies. If your research or investigation has led you to government/military installations, your presence, for obvious reasons, may not be welcome there, especially with cameras or other recording equipment.

"While these UFO-themed operations are probably quite rare, the UFO community has to take on board the fact that they have happened, and that their purpose, and their methods, 
are necessarily obscure."
In an extreme situation, you may, unwittingly, stumble into a disinformation/deception operation of the sort that snared Paul Bennewitz, Linda Moulton Howe and others back in the early 1980s (and, it looks likely, other investigators before and after that period). While these UFO-themed operations are probably quite rare, the UFO community has to take on board the fact that they have happened, and that their purpose, and their methods, are necessarily obscure.

Should you engage with the military or intelligence communities on the subject of UFOs, you may be courted as an asset or exploited as a 'useful idiot'; you may also find yourself under investigation on suspicion of being a subversive or even an enemy operative. I would imagine that the latter is unlikely once you have been 'checked out' and your interests in UFOs have been shown to be genuine, as John Keel in the 1960's and Lee Graham in the 1980's appear to have experienced.

The exploitation of UFO lore in deception operations raises a number of further questions. How many people are privy to these operations? Are records and reports about their intentions, methods and results made and kept? Who is deceiving who, and why? Are you being caught up in a counter-intelligence operation in which you can only be a minor player at best, or at worst a victim? Or are you just falling foul of one agency or department's practical joke on another?

"Another important point: when engaging with military or intelligence community members on the UFO subject, you must always remember that UFOs represent a belief system like any other."
Another important point: when engaging with military or intelligence community members on the UFO subject, you must always remember that UFOs represent a belief system like any other. UFO experiences can be extremely powerful for those who witness or engage with them, but interpretations of these phenomena remain a matter of choice, belief, and ultimately faith, because, quite frankly, nobody really knows what's going on.

You are going to find people who subscribe to aspects of the UFO mythology in every walk in life, from the White House to White Castle. Military or intelligence 'insiders' are often just repeating hearsay from colleagues in their line of work, hearsay based on more rumour and speculation.

While somebody's status within the military or intelligence community may give them access to specialist or need-to-know information, for the most part, the 'insiders' are reading the same UFO material you are. Information regarding the UFO subject is nebulous at best, and even the most dedicated, UFO-positive 'insiders', like Colonel John Alexander, have not been able to get to the bottom of the USG's knowledge, or more probably, lack of knowledge, on the subject.

How might researchers most responsibly and ethically deal with members of controversial demographics, such as alleged alien abductees and self-described mind control victims, while writing about the reported circumstances?

A broad range of experiences have been grouped together under the alien abduction/contact umbrella, and some of these go on to be identified as mind control scenarios. Some of these experiences might well represent anomalous phenomena outside of our current understanding. My approach would be to document a subject's experiences as faithfully as possible, without editing, colouring or discounting any aspects of their memories, or their interpretations of the events.

Mark Pilkington
Alongside this, it is entirely reasonable, and responsible, to draw upon known natural phenomena, psychological, physiological and neurological states and conditions that might produce analogous experiences. One must also consider the folkloric (UFO/ET/conspiracy, etc.) or popular culture tropes that are reflected in your subject's experience, how and when your subject may have been exposed to them and what kind of impact they may have made.

In some instances it might be best to admit that your subject's condition requires the involvement of a mental health or medical professional. This is obviously a delicate issue requiring a lot of tact, but it is also something that you should certainly suggest if you believe it to be necessary, even at risk of upsetting or distressing your subject. 

One cannot ignore the fact that some self-identifying abductees or mind control victims might be suffering from mental health issues, though this should never be assumed. That said, if your subject *wants* to be an alien abductee or a mind control victim, and this role, and their association with others in their respective communities isn't harming them or their dependents, then it's probably best to let them get on with it – who are we to contradict or intervene in somebody's chosen belief system, even if we don't agree with it?

How prone to exploitation and manipulation (by self-described ufologists and writers suffering from research bias) are alleged abductees and mind control victims?

For some people, being part of the alien abduction/contact or mind control community can be a fulfilling, if unsettling, experience –  it can provide both meaning and purpose to their lives. While the role of the mind control subject is, necessarily, that of a victim, with the negative associations inherent to that role, being an alien abductee or contactee also has the potential to be a powerfully positive experience for some people.

"One important thing I think that the history of these subjects has shown us is that hypnosis is too powerful and unruly a tool to be used responsibly by alien abduction or mind control researchers who are not already highly trained and experienced clinical psychologists or therapists."
One important thing I think that the history of these subjects has shown us is that hypnosis is too powerful and unruly a tool to be used responsibly by alien abduction or mind control researchers who are not already highly trained and experienced clinical psychologists or therapists. As with any clinicians or therapists, it depends on who you go to see. If, as a suspected abductee or contactee in America in the late 1980's or early 1990's, you had been to see the late John Mack, you would be considerably more likely to regard your anomalous experiences as a positive force in your life, one in which the 'aliens' were here to help you and our planet. Whereas if you had taken a similar set of experiences to David Jacobs, you might more likely cast yourself as a victim of a malevolent ET presence here to plunder our genetic materials. I know which story I would prefer to be a part of.

Write It

The participation at The UFO Trail by Sharon Weinberger, Nigel Watson and Mark Pilkington is most appreciated. The value of the time and attention offered is acknowledged, and the previous and future contributions of the three to the fringe culture genre are respected and recommended for further exploration.   

We have certain obligations to conduct ourselves in responsible manners as researchers and reasonable members of society. Best practices should be conducive to revealing truth while encouraging the pursuit of good mental and physical health.

The nature of fringe culture and, specifically, the UFO community, with its inherent conspiracy theories and promotion of paranormal-related beliefs, is riddled with challenges. Effectively and healthily navigating its cliques, organizations and personalities while pursuing accurate information – and then sharing that information in responsible manners – can be difficult, but it is not entirely impossible. Moreover, circumstances surrounding the conspiracies and various events are indeed worthy of interest and research.

Similarly, it is certainly reasonable to inquire into the methodologies and goals of self-described investigators of alleged alien abduction. It is also reasonable to expect transparency and cooperation from those investigators, as well as nonprofit public charities and similar organizations involved. Managing to execute and write about such inquiries, often met with resistance, without offending self-described experiencers and without damaging any number of relationships in the process, however, are other matters entirely.

There are many individuals readily accessible who believe themselves to have experienced interactions with a non-human intelligence, involuntary involvement in state-sponsored covert research programs and wide varieties of phenomena they do not understand. People and events on the fringe can be intriguing, as can their stories, but there is much of which to be cautious for many reasons.

Erika Hayasaki wrote a recommended article, How Many of Your Memories Are Fake?, recently published by The AtlanticShe quoted journalist Richard E. Meyer, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, who suggested faulty memory is among the reasons to be cautious. It is not, however, justification to altogether fail to research and write. There is no guarantee of truth in a nonfiction narrative, Meyer explained, but added that writers have an obligation to get as close to the truth as they possibly can - “and the only way to do that is to report the living hell out of it.”

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Ethics of Exploring the Fringe, Part One: Sharon Weinberger and Nigel Watson on Responsible Reporting

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