Jacques Vallée Still Doesn’t Know What UFOs Are

After six globe-trotting decades spent probing “the phenomenon,” the French information scientist is sure of only one thing: The truth is really, really out there.

Vallée has written 12 books on what he and others call “the phenomenon,” the range of surreal experiences that includes UFO encounters. He considers the work a hobby and shrinks from the pseudo-archeologists, credentialed grifters, and conspiracy bros who tend to populate the field. There are beaucoup de bozos in this clown car, and Vallée is a cautious driver. As he sees it, the phenomenon represents both a scientific and a social frontier. When you study it, you must harness numbers, databases, pattern-hunting algorithms—but you must also have an ethnographic streak, an interest in how culture molds understanding. You have to endeavor, in other words, to weigh both hard and soft data, despite the modern scenario “where the physics department is at one end of the campus and the psychology department at the other end.”

Vallée’s papers, entrusted to Rice University, will ultimately include files on some 500 anomalous events that he has personally investigated, from the abduction of Betty and Barney Hill on US Route 3 to a landing that paralyzed a farmer in a Provençal lavender crop. Yet he likes to joke that he is the only ufologist who does not know what UFOs are. He doubts that they are interstellar SUVs—would be disappointed if they were. The truth, he believes, is almost surely freakier than that, more baffling, and more revealing of the nature of the universe. This is why, long ago, when Steven Spielberg consulted him for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Vallée pushed against the final scene, in which the aliens emerge from their spaceship. Too proscriptive, he thought. Spielberg memorialized Vallée as the film’s French scientist character, played by François Truffaut, but he went with the meet-and-greet ending. It appears to have been what the public wanted: Close Encounters beat out Star Wars at the box office just days after the Council Bluffs incident.

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