Thursday, September 17, 2020

Book Review: "The Close Encounters Man" by Mark O'Connell

Book Review:

by Mark O'Connell

New York: Dey St. Publishers (an imprint of William Morrow), 2017. 404 pages, $17.99.

Dr. J. Allen Hynek (1910-1986) was an astronomer and a professor of astronomy, but today is best remembered as a UFO expert because of his role as scientific consultant to the U. S. Air Force Project Blue Book. He lived in the center of the UFO controversy for much of his professional life, and seemed to relish it. He wrote several books on UFOs, and coined the now-ubiquitous phrase "Close Encounters." But as for the claim that Hynek "made the world believe in UFOs," I would not go that far.

My photo of Hynek at one of the telescopes at Northwestern, taken about 1970 
O'Connell, a screenwriter who also teaches screenwriting at DePaul University in Chicago, has written a solidly-researched biography of Hynek. Based on Hynek's own writings, his papers in the Northwestern University archives, and interviews with Hynek's surviving colleagues and relatives, O'Connell has assembled an impressive and highly-readable account of the life and career of an unusual and fascinating man, Hynek's only biography so far as I am aware.

I read this book with greater than ordinary interest, because I had been a student of Hynek's when I was at Northwestern from 1967 to 1972, and I got to know him somewhat well. We had numerous discussions about UFOs. I tried to convince him, based on historical examples of "extraordinary popular delusions," that reliance on the kind of eyewitness testimony he found so impressive has in the past led investigators astray. Perhaps the most telling example was the attempt by Joseph Glanvill (1636 - 1680), an empiricist and member of London's prestigious Royal Society, to document the reality of witchcraft on purely empirical grounds:
We have the attestation of thousands of Eye and Ear-witnesses, and those not of the easily-deceivable and vulgar only, but of wise and grave discerners; and that, when no interest could oblige them to agree together in a common Lye. (see Chapter 7 of my 1998 book, UFO Sightings).
As Hynek often said, credible persons reporting incredible things.
I was on the Geraldo Rivera Special in 1976 with Hynek and Travis Walton.

We read of Hynek's early career at Yerkes Observatory and Ohio State University, whose location near Wright-Patterson AFB made it a natural place for the U.S. Air Force's Project Blue Book  to seek astronomy expertise. Because many Blue Book sightings received considerable publicity, Hynek became a familiar figure on TV explaining and commenting on such sightings. By all accounts, Hynek enjoyed this.
Hynek's association with Project Blue Book continued while he was at Northwestern, where he basically put together an astronomy department from nothing, hiring professors and establishing courses. Karl Henize (1926-1993), astronomer and astronaut, preceded Hynek, but was called away in 1967 for astronaut training. Henize did not go into space until the Spacelab 2 mission STS-51 on the Challenger in 1985. Henize didn't have much use for Hynek's UFO theorizing. I met Henize once or twice when he was taking a break from astronaut training and came back to Evanston. The book does not mention Henize, who died of altitude-related respiratory failure while trying to ascend Mount Everest at age 66

Hynek eventually founded what was supposed to be a scientific organization, the Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS). Unlike membership UFO organizations like NICAP or MUFON, CUFOS was supposed to consist of  expert researchers, who would finally place the study of UFOs on a solid footing. CUFOS published a number of papers for a number of years, but somehow nothing much was changed in UFOlogy.

O'Connell tells us an important part of the Hynek story that I don't think has ever been published before, concerning Hynek's move to Arizona and what happened there. Hynek took his retirement from Northwestern in 1978, and spent much of his time working with CUFOS. In the summer of 1984 he was persuaded to move down to the Phoenix area by two gold mining entrepreneurs, Tina Choate and Brian Myers, who promised Hynek financial backing from a rich British businessman, Geoffrey Kaye. As might be expected, the deal never worked out as promised. Kaye only committed to pay startup funds for a few months, not nearly enough money to run a UFO organization, although he allowed Hynek to operate out of his "spectacular hacienda in the sun." Worse yet, Myers and Kaye had their own UFO agenda to promote, and  it included sensationalist, unscientific material like the Billy Meier UFO contact hoax. Hynek and his backers soon had a falling out. By this time Hynek's health was beginning to decline, and he died in April, 1986.

The UFO panel I moderated at the 1984 CSICOP Conference at Stanford University:
Hynek, Sheaffer, Andrew Fraknoi, Philip J. Klass, Roger Culver. (Photo by Gary Posner).

Every factual statement O'Connell makes about Hynek and his activities is correct, so far as I am aware. But here is where I disagree with O'Connell's interpretations:

O'Connell has entirely too much enthusiasm for "classic" UFO cases that are largely discredited today. He opens with a vary favorable-sounding account of the "crashed spaceship" story from Aurora, Texas in 1897. While he does allow it to slip out that the case is believed by many to be a hoax, why distract the reader by it? We also hear favorable-sounding accounts of Captain Mantell's plane crash while pursuing a flying saucer, the Newhouse film, the Washington, DC radar sightings, Betty and Barney Hill (he calls the Fish map "unexplained"!), the Coyne helicopter case, Pascagoula, etc, Golden Oldies every one.  All this makes me think that O'Connell is very much uninformed about what has been happening in UFOlogy since Hynek's day. He seems unaware of any skeptical critiques of any of these cases, and does not even mention arch-skeptic Philip J. Klass, who sparred with Hynek on numerous occasions (and who Hynek resolutely refused offers to debate). O'Connell makes much of a supposed running feud between Hynek and Carl Sagan, which frankly is overblown.

Hynek did not have a "brilliant yet largely ignored career as an astrophysicist." In reality, Hynek was sometimes the butt of jokes among astronomers, some of which reached me.  (For a more realistic picture of Hynek's relations with his colleagues, see John Franch's interesting article in the January/February, 2013 issue of Skeptical Inquirer, "The Secret Life of J. Allen Hynek.") Hynek taught only first and second-year astronomy courses at Northwestern, for which he was qualified and quite effective. In fact, when I sat down to code certain calculations for the initial version of my real-time astronomy program RTGUI,  I worked directly from class notes I had taken in Hynek's Introductory Astronomy class. I just coded up the algorithms Hynek gave us. However, Hynek did not teach any graduate-level astronomy courses, or courses for upperclassmen.

A more sober assessment of his career was given by Hynek himself in an interview published in The New Scientist, May 17, 1973:
When I look back on my career, I've done damn little that was original. I seem to have had the ability of seeing the value of an idea and bringing other people together to do something about it. I've never launched any new theories; I've never made any outstanding discoveries. I guess I am not very innovative.
Hynek was gullible. O'Connell informs us of Hynek's fascination with Rosicrucianism, an ancient and absurd metaphysical doctrine, as well as Rudolf Steiner's mystical "spiritual science."  Both seem oddly out-of-place for a late twentieth-century scientific thinker. Hynek also met several times with Michel and Francoise Gauquelin, who were attempting to put astrology on a scientific basis. Jacques Vallee writes in his Forbidden Science (Vol. 1 p. 341), "Yesterday Hynek went back to see the Gauquelins to discuss astrology and destiny." However, Hynek was consistent in denouncing run-of-the-mill claims about astrology.

Another indicator of gullibility was the way Hynek leaped with both feet into the flaky UFO promotional deal in Arizona. A prudent man would have checked everything out and ensured solid financial arrangements before accepting the deal and essentially becoming a celebrity to be marketed. But perhaps the most embarrassing example of Hynek's gullibility is his endorsement of several obviously fake UFO photos produced in 1974 by an eleven year old boy in a Chicago suburb, with help from his ten year old friend. This was broadcast on an NBC-TV documentary, UFOs - Do You Believe? on December 15, 1974. The six photos show an obviously flat, two dimensional object, probably painted on the negative. Unfortunately, the negatives were "accidentally lost" by the boy.  Hynek investigated in person, and found "no reason to believe that they were hoaxing or lying." He concluded that the boy had "a real UFO experience." (The full story is in Chapter 9 of my 1981 UFO book, The UFO Verdict.)

Hynek did not "make the world believe in UFOs." Before there was CUFOS, there was NICAP, headed up during its heyday by the flamboyant Major Donald E. Keyhoe, author of Flying Saucers from Outer Space and other exciting books. Before NICAP came contactee George Adamski (and several others), who received great publicity over their claims of being good friends with visitors from other planets. Before Adamski there was Frank Scully, whose 1950 book Behind the Flying Saucers fooled many people about a crashed flying saucer hoax. Hynek obviously played a role in getting large elements of the public to take UFOs seriously, but he was surely not the sole, or even the major, player. 
But in the end, Hynek's attempt to convince his scientific colleagues that UFOs represent a great mystery ended in failure. Much attention was given to Hynek's letter published in Science ( 21 October 1966) "UFOs Merit Scientific Study", in which he famously wrote,
"I have begun to feel that there is a tendency in 20th Century science to forget that there will be a 21st Century science, and indeed a 30th Century science, from which vantage points our knowledge of the universe may appear quite different than it does to us. We suffer, perhaps, from temporal provincialism, a form of arrogance that has always irritated posterity."
The reply to Hynek's letter in Science by William Markowitz, Physics and Metaphysics of Unidentified Flying Objects (15 September 1967), explicitly pointed out some instances of Hynek's inconsistency in his UFO claims, and concluded
We can reconcile UFO reports with extraterrestrial control by assigning various magic properties to extraterrestrial beings. These include ‘teleportation’ (the instantaneous movement of material bodies between planets and stars), the creation of ‘force-fields’ to drive space ships, and propulsion without reaction. The last of these would permit a man to lift himself by his bootstraps. Anyone who wishes is free to accept such magic properties, but I cannot.

Markowitz is not mentioned in the book.

The real problem was that Hynek firmly believed he could determine if a person is lying and if a person is credible, simply by talking with them and looking them in the eye. I heard him say this on more than one occasion. I am sure that any professor of psychology can explain how completely wrong this is. This led Hynek to place far too much confidence in the value of eyewitness testimony, and ignore critical concerns such as Occam's Razor.

Nonetheless, if you overlook O'Connell's enthusiasm for tired old UFO cases, as well as a couple of small errors (APRO was headquartered in Tucson, not Phoenix; Nova Herculis 1934 was nowhere near bright enough to be seen in the daytime), I can strongly recommend his biography of Hynek, and its accompanying fascinating tour through UFO history. 
This deflated balloon tells us something about Hynek's penchant for showmanship.