In a previous UFO Digest column I examined the reasons behind the apparent difficulty that ufology has in attracting young people, and offered a few suggestions. I finished by pointing out that many of the ‘big names’ in the field (the ones most frequently seen on TV and the ones most often invited to speak at conferences) are white men in suits, usually middle-aged, if not considerably older. Ufology is hardly the only field where this is the case, but to see such an unrepresentative group of people may put off young people and deter them from attending conferences or otherwise getting involved in ufology.
If this apparent preponderance of middle-aged (and older) white men in suits puts off young people, does it have the same effect on women and ethnic minorities? And without wanting to downplay the under-representation issue, which is a problem in itself, is there anything else about ufology that is (or might be perceived as being) unwelcoming to women and ethnic minorities?
I shouldn’t overstate the problem in relation to women. There are certainly plenty of high-profile women in ufology, and a number of UFO conferences do have a pretty good male/female mix. That said, I can’t help but think that the “Women in Ufology” website wouldn’t be necessary if there wasn’t a problem here.
Even if there isn’t overt sexism, there are some more subtle situations that are nonetheless worthy of mention. To give an example, there was a time a few years ago when the area of alien abduction research was largely dominated by three charismatic individuals: Budd Hopkins, David Jacobs and John Mack. A disproportionate number of the abductees were female. Nobody is suggesting that Hopkins, Jacobs and Mack were sexist, but inevitably, the situation perpetuated stereotypes of women as victims and men as the powerful and heroic rescuers. Even if this is an oversimplification, the power dynamic was clear.
Let’s not for a moment suggest that this is some sort of ‘believer’ issue. As it happens, the skeptical movement (and the separate but related atheist community) is having huge problems at the moment with various issues related to feminism, including accusations of out-and-out sexism and possible sexual harassment on the part of some of some of the best-known personalities in the field. But saying that a problem is universal should never be an excuse for not trying to do something about it.
Getting back to ufology, and turning now to ethnic minorities, at least one host of a US talk-radio show that majors on UFOs and the paranormal has been accused of anti-Semitism, while a UK-based ufologist who runs a UFO discussion list also runs an anti-Semitic blog. On the specific issue of anti-Semitism, the crossover between the UFO community and the conspiracy theory community is particularly worrying, because while many conspiracy theorists genuinely believe the world is secretly run by a small group of families and a small cabal of international bankers, such phrases are often coded references to Jews. Within the conspiracy theory community, some of those who believe 9/11 was an ‘inside job’ suggest the attack was orchestrated by the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, while others persist in believing the lie that Jewish workers in the Twin Towers were warned to stay away work on the day of the attack. In the UFO community, you’ll often hear people talk about media complicity in a UFO cover-up, and at a UFO conference in the UK I once heard this thought segue into “The Jews run Hollywood”. And this brings us full circle, because there’s no getting away from the fact that a number of high-profile ufologists are Jewish.
With regard to other ethnic minorities, I occasionally see disgusting and ignorant posts on UFO discussion forums where someone suggests that white people are descended from Nordic-looking aliens, whereas the other races are descended from apes. Given the nature of the internet, it’s difficult to tell if this sort of thing is the work of an isolated idiot (or a very small number of racists) posting under multiple identities, or whether there’s a more widespread problem here.
With the above point in mind, and at risk of offending a lot of people in the UFO community, I can’t help but wonder whether the whole ‘ancient aliens’ meme has had a part to play here. The idea that our ancient ancestors were incapable of technological achievements such as the pyramids, and that such works were actually undertaken (or at least made possible) by extraterrestrials is, arguably, a borderline racist theory itself.
Issues of sex and race are often complex, and always contentious. It may be that there are other factors that explain why women and – to a greater extent – ethnic minorities aren’t represented as much as one would expect in ufology, and it may be that there are other examples of direct or indirect sexism and racism in the field – this short article is not intended to be definitive. But if we don’t at least ask the question “Is there a problem here?” we can’t begin to look for any solutions. I’m not arguing for any sort of positive discrimination here. Such a move would probably be divisive and counter-productive. But I think that at the very least, the UFO community should ask itself some hard questions here and at least have a discussion about an aspect of the subject that most have chosen to ignore.
Nick Pope is a former employee of the UK Ministry of Defense. From 1991 to 1994 he ran the British Government's UFO project and has recently been involved in a five-year initiative to declassify and release the entire archive of these UFO files. Nick Pope held a number of other fascinating posts in the course of his 21-year government career, which culminated in his serving as an acting Deputy Director in the Directorate of Defense Security. He now works as a broadcaster and journalist, covering subjects including space, fringe science, defense and intelligence. Nick Pope’s latest book, Encounter in Rendlesham Forest, co-written with John Burroughs and Jim Penniston, was published by Thomas Dunne Books on 15th April and is available via Amazon and all good bookstores.