Sunday, 23 September 2012

BUFORA's 50th Anniversary Conference

Yesterday I attended the first day of BUFORA's 50th Anniversary Conference at the Holiday Inn, Kings Cross, London. 


It's the first time I'd attended an event of this type, so I went pretty much with an open mind as to what to expect. Having given presentations myself and attended numerous seminars in my former (Govt) capacity I was able to look at these speakers with an experienced and critical eye. On the whole - and the usual minor technical upsets notwithstanding, I'd say it was was a good experience for anyone not very conversant with the whole UFO subject, as well as a happy and familiar experience for those with much more grounding in it. The main speakers (detailed below) gave good presentations, each of which centred on different aspects of the UFO phenomenon. In fact, I would go as far as saying that one speaker especially easily matched some university lectures I have seen for quality of content and professionalism in presenting. It seemed to me that attendance at the event was good. It appeared to peak during the middle of the day with something like up to 70-80 delegates (at a guess) packed into the small conference room.

BUFORA is run by a hard working and dedicated group of volunteers who genuinely want to find the truth behind the persistent enigma of the UFO phenomenon, irrespective of whether what they find fits in with popular public perception or not. It is clear that they are definitely not sensation seekers and are professional and unbiased in their search for explanations behind UFO incidents. It is a testament to their serious commitment to 'Ufology' that BUFORA has lasted half a century whilst other similar such groups have appeared and vanished over a (sometimes much) shorter timespan.

What impressed me was their broad consensus that the majority of UFO cases they had investigated had conventional explanations (which I agree with), and that they possess a wealth of hard data and experience to support this. This of course makes those few cases where all the usual explanations are ruled out more compelling, but I liked the assertion that - as more than one of the speakers pointed out - just because we don't yet have definitive answers to such cases, we shouldn't automatically turn to the E.T. hypothesis for a solution.

It is apparent too that BUFORA have, over the years, garnered respect amongst other agencies/communities involved to a lesser or greater extent in the UFO phenomenon such as astronomers and civil aviation professionals. It is also worth noting that they gather witness testimony from civil aviation and military personnel (in confidence of course) in addition to members of the general public.

Consequently, I would strongly encourage anyone with a serious interest in UFOs to check in and register with BUFORA. And I say this in my blog without having had any financial incentive from them to do so.

And so to the speakers 
(please scroll to the relevant bio in the BUFORA link provided for the first four speakers)

Lionel Beer

Lionel Beer was a founder member in 1962 of BUFORA. He shared some interesting anecdotes about BUFORA's beginnings and some of his personal experiences, as a precursor to the other presentations. Of note was his meeting with none other than Dr. J. Allen Hynek with photographic evidence to prove it.

Heather Dixon

Heather Dixon's presentation was a good overview of the fallibility of human memory and recall in terms of witness testimony - and how we do not yet fully understand the workings of the human mind to be confident, especially when attempting to explain UFO encounters or 'high strangeness' events generally. For example, she touched on hypnagogic and hypnopompic stages of sleep which can leave a witness in an 'altered state of reality' and vulnerable to experiencing things that may be subjectively, as opposed to objectively, 'real'. It could be argued that many - but not necessarily all - abduction cases could be explained by this altered state of consciousness, especially if there is no external evidence i.e. multiple witness testimony or other physical evidence available to investigators. What was also made clear in her talk was the unreliability of regression hypnotherapy as a form of witness testimony, which is still open to debate and which is why BUFORA has a policy of not using it to gather evidence.

John Spencer

In my view, John Spencer's presentation was the most engaging. John covered the growth of the modern UFO phenomenon from the days of the Kenneth Arnold sighting to the present and how media reportage, cinema treatment and patterns in UFO encounters often mirror world events or influence public perception. An example cited was George Adamski's alleged encounters with the 'Nordic Aliens'. To paraphrase John, the benevolent 'Nordics' gave advice about the dangers of atomic weapons (very much an issue at the time of Adamski's alleged encounters) but did not appear far-sighted enough to mention other significant threats to humanity such as global warming. In other words, many of these 'close encounters' involved aliens telling various humans about issues that were hardly prophetic and already widely known. What was also interesting was John's theory about the Americans' recurrent theme of 'dual identity' in life or 'hybridisation' in their UFO encounters. He noted that a sizeable number of US abduction cases featured aliens seeking insemination with human DNA to create some new hybrid race, and that this reflected recurrent themes of the hybrid human/alien, human/robot, human/mutant, human/vampire etc. in the majority of American science fiction and fantasy, something which - interestingly - is not so prevalent in British SF and fantasy.

Jenny Randles

Jenny joined the conference by video link and also gave an engaging talk about how important it is to not jump to conclusions about a given UFO event until one has as much available evidence as possible. She then cited a classic case where film evidence of a glowing UFO orb subject to multiple witness sightings was in fact a rare - but not unknown - 'ball' of superheated fuel from a test fighter plane experiencing engine trouble and engaging its afterburners to rectify the problem.
Consequently, she explained that serious investigators have to be mindful of and rule out a huge variety of conventional explanations before a case ceases to be one of an Identified Flying Object (IFO) and subsequently becomes a UFO. In fact, Jenny said that BUFORA tend to use the initials 'UAP' (which can stand equally for Unidentified Atmospheric Phenomena - as for Unidentified Aerial Phenomena) when engaging with external agencies such as the police, military or CAA, as a way of engendering confidence and being an effective disassociation from the stigma attached to the initials 'UFO'.  I don't think their organisation's name would have quite the same ring to it if they called it BUAPORA though!

Given the above, Jenny has co-authored a book about supposed UFO encounters that ended up having conventional explanations, called 'The UFOs That Never Were'. I plan to get my hands on a copy as soon as I can.

The Reverend Lionel Fanthorpe

Lionel was a reasonably well-known UK household name in the nineties having presented Channel Four's Fortean TV. He is a colourful and charismatic character, most notably being an Anglican priest, keen motorcyclist and a 3rd Dan martial arts instructor. He and his wife Patricia have decades of experience in the paranormal world and do not devote themselves exclusively to just the UFO phenomenon.

In his very stimulating talk, and in addition to sharing some fascinating anecdotes, Lionel laid out his - and his wife's - six key theories concerning explanations for the hard core of inexplicable UFO encounters, in that they could be:-

1. 'time ships' - vehicles or devices from the future with technology far in advance of our own;

2. 'dimension ships' - vehicles or devices that have crossed over into our universe from a parallel one;

3. 'extraterrestrial' visitors - as in visitors from another planet;

4. vestigial ancient technology - as in devices from hitherto unknown or long-vanished former human civilisations;

5. secret Government/military experiments; and

6. psychic or psychological phenomena which is as yet not fully understood.

Clearly number 3. is the most popular theory and more recently there has been an acceptance of the first two, which - unsurprisingly - has developed in line with cutting edge thought in the mainstream scientific community. Number 5. is popular with conspiracy theorists of course and I imagine number 6 is in the list because of Lionel's own experience.

I found theory 4. to be something I hadn't seriously considered before. There are more than a few 'ancient alien' proponents who believe humanity was given advanced technology by extraterrestrials thousands of years ago - but not many of these appear to consider the possibility that humans, through their own ingenuity, might have already achieved advanced levels of technology during the 200,000 years it is currently estimated we have been on the planet (as Homo sapiens or humans). A big problem with this theory however is that one would have expected some archaeological evidence to support this, given that we are still unearthing dinosaur fossils that are far older by several tens of millions of years.

Clas Svahn board member of the AFU

Clas Svahn was given the longest slot of the conference by far (it felt something like 90 minutes without a break) which was asking an awful lot of the delegates in terms of attention at the end of quite a long day. I suspect that this was less his doing and more to do with BUFORA giving him such latitude because: a) he had travelled the furthest of all the speakers (from Sweden) to be there and b) it became apparent that the body he represents (AFU) has given a great deal of support to BUFORA, and the relationship between the two bodies is a strong one.

Clas talked about the history of the body he represents and the frankly staggering amount of work his group of volunteers undertake in recording and documenting UFO cases worldwide since the start of the modern UFO phenomenon - which I applaud. What also stood out for me was that they have a very good working relationship with the Swedish military, which still has its own 'UFO desk' (unlike Britain) and which uses the AFU's database to record their own UFO incidents. 

Clas then gave delegates a fascinating insight into the long-standing 'Ghost-rocket' phenomenon in Sweden which is too extensive to elaborate on here. Please follow the link for a general explanation.

All in all, BUFORA staged a very good event for those interested in the UFO phenomenon.  Long may their good work continue until (perhaps one day) the whole mystery is comprehensively explained.

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