“There are no such things as flying saucers. The government has told you that. … If you believe in Donald H. Menzel, President Eisenhower, and Government announcements you need have no fear of being frightened by this story. Read it on a stormy night, or in the middle of a graveyard if you wish. Your equanimity will not be challenged.”
–Gray Barker, They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers (1956)
And that’s how, dear reader, I first heard about the existence of Harvard astrophysicist and UFO debunker extraordinaire Donald H. Menzel. From the opening lines of Gray Barker’s classic book on the predations of the Three Men in Black.
It was 1960; I was 12 years old. I didn’t read Barker’s book in the middle of a graveyard but in my warm, well-lighted bedroom. It scared the living daylights out of me nevertheless. But that’s another story.
To the younger UFOlogists in our midst, Donald Menzel is no doubt a distant memory, known if at all for his alleged presence on the “Majestic 12” team, an honor bestowed upon him posthumously by some 1980s forger with a droll sense of humor. Even before his death in 1976, Philip Klass had begun to eclipse him as UFOlogy’s leading attacker. But when I was a lad Menzel was the archenemy, the man we all loved to hate and intermittently to respect.
Menzel’s first book on UFOs came out in 1953, simply and elegantly titled Flying Saucers. In it he advanced his theory of UFOs as “temperature inversions,” a sort of sky-borne mirage, often challenging in the process the Air Force’s less sophisticated efforts at debunkery. At times, indeed, he seemed nearly as critical of the Air Force as of the UFO believers.
As a teen-age UFOlogist, I knew Menzel was wrong. He had to be wrong–UFOs definitely and absolutely were intelligently guided craft, no doubt from outer space. And yet his book was impressive.
After more than 50 years, and without having Flying Saucers on my shelf to consult, I still can quote its three-part credo. “Flying saucers are real / People have seen them / They are not what people thought they saw.” “Real”–since a mirage, Menzel insisted, “is a real thing. It is not a hallucination like a pink elephant.” (Quotations from memory.)
In 1963, just when he’d kept quiet long enough that it seemed safe for me to assume the directorship of a group called the New Jersey Association on Aerial Phenomena (NJAAP)–the previous director had retired to go to college–Menzel struck again. In collaboration with a “Mrs. Lyle G. Boyd,” whose contribution to the book I’ve never understood, he published The World of Flying Saucers: A Scientific Examination of a Major Myth of the Space Age. The title echoed (unintentionally?) Carl G. Jung’s Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies, which had come out in English translation four years earlier. But unlike Jung, when Menzel called UFOs a “myth,” he didn’t mean that as a compliment.
No longer the maverick, no longer wedded to “temperature inversions” as the open sesame for UFO sightings, Menzel now marched forward as an articulate scientific champion for the Air Force’s case against the UFO. It was only recently that I realized why: political changes in the Air Force’s Project Blue Book, which had made Menzel for the first time persona very much grata at Blue Book headquarters. (Details in Jerry Clark’s entry on Menzel in The UFO Encyclopedia.) That made The World of Flying Saucers a frustrating book. You’d read Menzel’s account of some classic UFO case, indisputable proof of alien visitation, that differed from any you might have seen in the UFO literature. It was Menzel’s divergent details that made the case soluble on his terms. Then you’d look up the endnote, and find always the same three-word source citation: “Air Force files.”
This annoying habit helped me dismiss Menzel’s second book as unconvincing, even though deep down I knew he’d planted a few seeds of doubt in my mind. I know from letters I received at the time that I wasn’t the only teen UFOlogist whose convictions were at least transiently shaken.
In 1976, the year he died, Menzel’s third book on the subject came out–The UFO Enigma: The Definitive Explanation of the UFO Phenomenon, co-authored with a man named Ernest H. Taves. It was only a month or so ago that I finally read it, as part of a cache of UFO materials loaned to me by my friend Professor Diana Pasulka. Turns out I hadn’t missed much.
This book is so mediocre, so diffuse, so unoriginal–large chunks of it are recycled verbatim from Flying Saucers–that it’s not clear at first sight why the ailing Menzel thought it was worth writing. The real “UFO enigma,” as usual, is not the things in the sky but the people for whom the whole subject is a psychic tar baby. In this case, Menzel and perhaps also Ernest Taves.
So who was Ernest H. Taves? And what’s he doing sharing a byline with Donald Menzel?
The jacket blurb calls Taves “a psychoanalyst who has also done extensive research in parapsychology and visual representation. He has written science fiction for such magazines as Playboy and Galaxy.” An obituary in the online journal boston.com gives more detail: he served in the Army Medical Corps from 1946 to 1948, chief of neuropsychiatry in a military hospital in Japan. After his discharge he established a practice in psychoanalytic psychiatry, first in New York City, later in Cambridge, which was presumably where he met the Harvard astrophysicist. By 1972 he’d given up his practice to pursue fiction writing.
“Many of his stories,” says the obituary–Taves died in 2003, at age 87–“appeared in various periodicals during the 1970s and he published numerous book reviews, two books on the history of the Mormon Church, and ‘The UFO Enigma,’ a book examining the UFO phenomenon from a psychoanalyst’s and astronomer’s perspective.”
A psychoanalyst’s perspective? There’s no hint of that in The UFO Enigma.
The book does offer a few psychological observations. These do not precisely dazzle with their profundity. Entirely typical is the conclusion to the chapter entitled “The Liar, the Believer, and the New Nonsense.” “The current interest in occultism and nonsense is an attempt, by a substantial segment of our population, to survive in a world that would otherwise be too difficult and too threatening to cope with.”
The endnotes credit Taves with having written one chapter, the one entitled “UFOs and the Media.” This chapter is written in the same style as the rest of the book, and on the same level of superficiality. The psychological insights you might expect from a man who’d spent more than 20 years seeing analytic patients are nowhere in evidence.
So if Taves wasn’t enlisted to provide the book’s non-existent “psychoanalytic perspective”–what was he there for?
The answer may lie in one part of Taves’s background that the boston.com obituary never mentions, and which his survivors may have been embarrassed to mention. For several years before his Army career, he was an active participant in the parapsychological research associated with the name of J.B. Rhine.
I learn this from the excellent The Elusive Science: Origins of Experimental Psychic Research (1980), by Seymour H. Mauskopf and Michael R. McVaugh. Taves’s involvement with parapsychology began in the fall of 1937 when, as an undergraduate at Columbia University, he was given an appointment to do psychic research at Columbia under the supervision of Rhine’s associate Gardner Murphy. “The experiments involved a sort of card-guessing by unselected subjects … and had yielded mostly chance results by June 1938, when Murphy and Taves reported on their work,” say Mauskopf and McVaugh.
Not too impressive. But apparently Taves wasn’t turned off to parapsychology. In 1939 he became managing editor, under Murphy, of the Journal of Parapsychology. In June of that year he and Murphy published a major article on their research, calling their findings “markedly suggestive” but no more than that. When Rhine’s Extra-Sensory Perception After Sixty Years was published in 1940, Taves reviewed it for the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research.
By 1976, however, Taves’s views on his one-time colleagues had soured. He was thus able to do for The UFO Enigma what no other potential collaborator could: badmouth parapsychology from the inside.
There’s a chapter called “UFOs and Parapsychology,” founded on the authors’ somewhat shaky assertion that “ufology and parapsychology are closely related fields.“ They write that “one of us (EHT) is directly and intimately aware, because of several years of experience in parapsychological research (while both an undergraduate and graduate student at Columbia University), of the extent to which the entire enterprise has been tarnished by fraud, deceit, trickery and gullibility.” Which, they suppose, makes it impossible to grant “parapsychology’s right to a respectable place in the academic community.”
For Menzel and Taves, the Rhine experiments are “the so-called ESP experiments conducted at Duke University by J. B. Rhine and others in the nineteen-thirties.” Explaining why the University of Colorado was reluctant in 1966 to take on the UFO study associated with the name of Edward Condon, they speak of “the tarnish brought to the reputation of Duke University by the presence in Durham of the much-publicized work of Dr. J. B. Rhine and his staff in the Institute for Parapsychology.”
I am not a great advocate of parapsychology. If human beings really did possess faculties like telepathy and clairvoyance, it seems to me that after more than a century of research and experimentation we’d know it by now. But the intelligence, integrity, and scientific bona fides of Rhine and his associates are beyond question. For Taves to have dumped on his former mentors as he did, in order to make a polemical point, was just scummy.
And why? Why was this non-entity of a book written at all?
The answer lies almost certainly in the authors’ rhetorical assault on what they call “the New Nonsense,” the “current interest in occultism and nonsense … by a substantial segment of our population.”
The UFO Enigma was published in 1976, parts of it at least written in October 1975 (p. 232). It was a time when much of the American scientific community was worried about what Wikipedia calls “a growing tide of irrationalism” about to overwhelm Western society. In the wake of Middle Eastern war, oil embargo, and energy crisis, this was not a preposterous concern.
What seemed to me absurd then, and still does, is what the scientists chose to blame this “growing tide” on. Newspaper astrology columns.
In that same autumn of 1975, The Humanist published a manifesto against astrology signed by 186 scientists. “We are especially disturbed by the continued uncritical dissemination of astrological charts, forecasts, and horoscopes by the media and by otherwise reputable newspapers, magazines, and book publishers. This can only contribute to the growth of irrationalism and obscurantism.”
(Carl Sagan refused to sign the manifesto, on the ground that “the tone of the statement was authoritarian.” Which it certainly was. But when do we ever see the beam in our own eye as clearly as the mote in other people’s?)
The following spring, the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) was founded, to sustain the manifesto’s assault not only on astrology but on other forms of the “irrationalism and obscurantism” by which civilization was menaced. Like parapsychology. Like UFOs.
My guess is that sometime in 1975, as this assault was being planned, the old crusader Menzel was summoned back into battle–with the disenchanted parapsychologist Taves as his squire by his side. And so The UFO Enigma came to be. A pity. Unlike Flying Saucers, unlike The World of Flying Saucers, it’s a book that does neither of its authors’ memories one ounce of credit.
by David Halperin
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