Friday, December 13, 2013

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

Delving into controversial topics and related demographics has challenges that come with the territory. If one is inclined to research and write on matters and controversies typically receiving attention within ufology circles, various questions of ethics and integrity are destined to arise.

What responsibilities do writer/researchers have to individuals who become the subjects of their articles and blog posts? How might we assess if writers are dealing responsibly with their chosen subject matter? What challenges should writers expect to encounter when addressing such topics as the intelligence community, alleged alien abduction and claims of mind control?

I emailed writer/researchers Sharon Weinberger, Nigel Watson and Mark Pilkington, requesting permission to pose such questions. Each graciously agreed to share some experience and insight, and their time and attention is greatly appreciated. Comments provided by Sharon Weinberger and Nigel Watson are offered below, and statements from Mark Pilkington will be published in part two of this post.

Sharon Weinberger

Sharon Weinberger is an award-winning journalist and a former defense analyst. Her impressive resume includes an M.A. in Russian and East European Studies from Yale University. Her writing on such topics as national security and military technology has been published in Wired, Slate, Discover and Aviation Week & Space Technology, among other outlets. She authored Imaginary Weapons: A Journey Through the Pentagon's Scientific Underworld, a 2006 book documenting how a fringe weapons project bordering on charlatanism was repeatedly funded while producing no independently verifiable data. Weinberger took on the controversial subject of mind control in her 2007 Washington Post Magazine article, Mind Games, which provided readers insight into the lives of self-described targeted individuals and contained an intriguing interview with non-lethal weapons expert Colonel John Alexander. She is currently composing a history of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, referred to in some circles as the mad science division.

"I think writers and researchers have the same responsibilities as anyone in society: to treat all people 
with honesty and respect."
Obviously, I do think there is something useful in exploring controversial or extreme beliefs,” Weinberger recently told The UFO Trail, “not just for the people who hold them, but for the people who don't share those beliefs. But how can this exploration be done responsibly? I think writers and researchers have the same responsibilities as anyone in society: to treat all people with honesty and respect. The real question is how does this translate down to journalists or researchers interviewing people making claims that some may regard as delusional, or perhaps even indicative of mental illness. Journalists are generally not doctors, or scientists, or mental health professionals. It is not up to them to diagnose someone as mentally ill.

I can't speak for everyone, but the questions I ask myself are: Does this person understand the implications of speaking to a journalist/researcher? Does this person understand that by publicizing their claims, they could be mocked or ridiculed, or simply not believed? Do they understand the journalist/researcher is not an advocate or a believer in their claims? If I do not think someone understands the implications of those questions, I do not use them as a source (or subject) of an article. This is an imperfect standard, perhaps, but it is how I approach these topics.”

Weinberger explained that she has given a lot of thought to the ethics of dealing with people who make claims of mind control. Ever since her Washington Post Magazine article on the topic, she continues to receive what she termed daily emails from people all over the world describing their alleged experiences, now some seven years after the piece was published.

Nigel Watson

Researcher Nigel Watson is a long time self-employed writer. His interest in ufology inspired him to obtain degrees in psychology, as well as film and literature. Watson's research and resulting work has been published in such magazines as Wired, Fortean Times and Magonia. His several books and ebooks include The Flying Saucer Cinema, Portraits of Alien Encounters and his latest publication from Haynes, UFO Investigations Manual: UFO Investigations from 1892 to the Present Day. Below are questions posed to Watson followed by his responses.

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?

Dr. Leo Sprinkle
The problem with this area is knowing who to believe and what to believe. There is the famous case of Paul Bennewitz. This began in 1980 when Bennewitz attended hypnotic regression sessions with abductee Ms. Myra Hansen, conducted by Dr. Leo Sprinkle. During these sessions Hansen and her son claimed they saw aliens mutilating animals. Furthermore, she recalled being flown by a spacecraft to New Mexico, where she was taken inside an underground base. Here she saw human body parts floating in huge tanks.

It was Bennewitz’s contention that Hansen had been fitted with an alien implant that they might use to control her thoughts and actions. Using his skills as an electronics expert he attempted to intercept and block the signals he believed were being transmitted to the woman’s implant.

At one stage he used metal foil to block the signals, and then he decided to intercept electronic low frequency (ELF) transmissions. He was successful in finding ELF signals but they seem to have been transmitted by the nearby Kirtland Air Force Base in the process of conducting secret experiments as part of the SDI [Strategic Defense Initiative] ‘Star Wars’ project.

When the USAF warned him not to continue his work he was all the more convinced that he had intercepted alien signals. Indeed, he contacted anyone who would listen about the UFO threat and he created a computer program to decode the signals. In response the USAF department of Air Force Office of Special Intelligence (AFOSI) bombarded him with as much disinformation as possible to make him look like a fully certified UFO nut.

Under these pressures Bennewitz suffered a mental breakdown. Even worse was the revelation that UFO researcher William Moore confessed that he had unwittingly aided the AFOSI by passing on disinformation to Bennewitz.

The disinformation material about alien bases, cattle mutilations, implants and abductions done with the aid and knowledge of the US government also became the subject of Linda Moulton Howe’s book, Alien Harvest. Howe alleged that documents shown to her later became the evidence used to prove the existence of a secret government project called Majestic 12 (MJ-12).

This highlights how information gets transferred and transfigured, which goes beyond a single source into the mainstream of ufology and popular culture.

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?

When I started investigating high strangeness cases in northern England during the 1970's, I came across several ethical issues. One solution was to keep witness names anonymous so that they would not suffer any public humiliation or distress. That was not always easy as some witnesses made their story public before I interviewed them or had put information in the public domain. I wrote up several of the cases in my book, Portraits of Alien Encounters (VALIS, 1990), and looked at them from a psychological point-of-view. Looking back on it I feel I could have been more restrained and careful about the witnesses’ feelings. The book carries correspondence between Norman Harrison (pseudonym) and myself about our varying views. One witness infamously disliked a chapter I wrote about her alien encounters, even though her story had already been published as a book and been publicised in the media.

You can and should consult with the witness, but this can lead to the suppression of essential information. It also depends on the audience you are presenting the case to - ufologists, local media, websites. I would certainly spend more time discussing such things and their implications to witnesses.

Other circumstances worthy of consideration might include the challenges related to critiquing the work of researchers of alien abduction. Specifically, when we are critical of the actions and methodologies undertaken by researchers, we risk bringing public embarrassment and criticism to their research subjects, or alleged alien abductees. For instance, it is difficult to critically review the work of the researcher without indirectly calling the judgment of the abductee into question. Any comments on that? Any remarks on how we might most effectively address the work and ethics of the researcher of alien abduction without causing the self-described abductee undue stress and harm?

"Ufologists go from being highly sceptical to highly gullible, and discussions become personal rather than being based on the evidence."
This is a very tricky area too! Ufologists go from being highly sceptical to highly gullible, and discussions become personal rather than being based on the evidence. The abductee then becomes a ball in the game of ufology, who is kicked around to prove or disprove the reality of abductions or some finer point of ufological lore. Discussion when based on facts, not politics, should be encouraged, as there are many ways of looking at a case and new insights can be gained by sharing information.


Part two will include comments and insights from Mark Pilkington, author of Mirage Men, among other works.

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

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