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eighth moon
Interview II

          Diana Walsh Pasulka’s American Cosmic has chapters that read like a true-adventure story. It also has chapters that make scholarly comment upon similarities between UFO sightings and purported miracles, and upon the ways in which media representations of UFOs enter the conscious and unconscious minds of media consumers (that is, all of us). In chapters like these, Pasulka is an intellectual seeker, raising questions that she does not resolve. And yet in the course of her book’s narrative, she comes to accept the conclusion that UFOs are real things, really haunting the skies, and expressing the intention and will to make contact with humans.

          Pasulka, a professor of Philosophy and Religion at the University of North Carolina, was skeptical of UFOs’ existence when she began her research into the UFO subculture, in 2012. But while working alongside “Tyler,” a NASA engineer who has given up his public identity in exchange for top-level security clearances, and “James,whom she identifies, below, as Stanford immunologist Garry Nolan, her perspective changed dramatically.

          In one scene in American Cosmic, Pasulka and her scientist colleagues search in the New Mexico desert for fragments of a flying saucer believed to have crashed there decades earlier. Their discovery of unusual metallic debris seems to suggest that all the persistent rumors of a crashed UFO being recovered in the Southwest – i.e., the Roswell story – might have some truth to them.

          I think of Cosmic, which was published in early 2019, as an answer to The New York Times’ 2017 article, “Glowing Auras and ‘Black Money’: The Pentagon’s Mysterious U.F.O. Program.” (This wasn’t Pasulka’s intention). That piece shifted the conversation about UFOs – in America, at least – by establishing that claims of unknown technology seen in the sky are (sometimes) factual, and of concern to the military. Given that sightings have been both multiplely witnessed and radar-confirmed, and given steps recently taken by Congress and the Pentagon to address this mystery, the most conservative position currently supported by publicly available evidence is that high-tech, aerial objects with unknown origins in fact exist.

          But since this admits a claim that was officially denied and ridiculed for half a century, it also calls other denials into question. Because if it turns out that there is extremely sophisticated tech flying around above us, then you have to ask what other, associated claims might also be trueAbduction stories? Tales of telepathic communication between humans and aliens? Suspicions that aliens mutilate cattle? Conspiracy theories that Lockheed Martin reverse-engineers UFOs at Area 51?

          In the midst of the UFO saga are American military and intelligence agencies, which have both misled the public about actual UFO events, and confirmed – or created and disseminated – UFO stories that are untrue. We do not know what these agencies know,  or what they do and don’t want us to know,  or the nature of their interest in this subject.  And although the Pentagon and NASA have lately been addressing the topic with greater transparency, past decades of disinformation still make it impossible to be sure where UFO fact ends and UFO myth begins, and the boundaries of our knowledge – or deludedness – continue to shift.

          Pasulka’s intellectual leadership is instrumental today in moving our understanding of the UFO phenomenon forward. Although many questions remain, her work is clarifying – and unexpected. 

          Her next book, Encounters: Experiences with Nonhuman Intelligences, will be published this November, by St. Martin’s, an imprint of MacMillan. –MS

          Max Scheinin: Taking into account that multiple disciplines might take an interest in ufology, and have different takes on the subject and on different parts of the subject, what would you say is the present status of ufology in academia, and is that changing?


          Diana Walsh Pasulka: Yes!  So actually I was just talking to colleagues  about this yesterday, and we were talking about how just in five years it’s changed.  We can use as a barometer the work of John Mack. 

          So John Mack is writing about this in the eighties and the nineties. He’s the Harvard professor who wrote about his research,  and he was a full research professor at Harvard,  yet his university decided to investigate his research into UFO what-he-called-abductions.  He was also ridiculed in the press. [Ed.: For context, see Timeline, 1990 - 1994].

          That was then.  Today, you have [had] two significant cultural events in the United States: the 2017 release of The New York Times exposé on the government programs,  by Ralph Blumenthal and Leslie Kean,  and then,  a couple of years later,  in 2021,  the recognition by the government that UFOs are a real thing.  They’re trying to redefine them as UAPs [Unidentified Aerial (or Anomalous) Phenomena]  –  and we can talk about that, too, why they’re doing that.

          And by the way, I’m in a position, because of my position, of reviewing manuscripts that come in through Oxford University Press, Rutledge – you name it, they’ll ask me to review it. So I get to see what’s coming through the pipe and what’s going to be out there. And I also get to comment on it and either suggest publication or deny publication – and say, I don’t think you should publish this, and these are the reasons why.

          So it’s a change, it’s a huge change, 180 degrees.  When I wrote my book [American Cosmic], between 2012 and 2017, I was already a full professor, I was the chair of my department, I’d already won research awards at my university – I felt fairly safe to write about UFOs.  But I would never have done that unless I had been in that position.  Now, you have assistant professors and even graduate students wanting to attend graduate school or publish about UAPs, and you have a lot of people all over academia clamoring to get on the UAP train.

          Part of the reason for that is that now there’s government funding for it, and there’s a lot of private funding for it as well. So whereas before, even five or six years ago, it would be the death of your career to be associated with UFOs,  now it’s the niche, in thing to be associated with.


          MS: Do you see this happening equally in the humanities and the sciences?


          DWP: Yes.


          MS: Wow. Because as someone not in academia, with an interest in the subject, who will watch podcasts with physicists who’ve been studying it, I’m aware of a small set of physicists who go on these podcasts and talk about their interest in it. But it’s becoming broader, or those are only the best-known names of people who are involved with it?


          DWP: Yeah – there’s a huge sea of individuals who have not yet been published, but they’re starting to get published now, because the publication process is so long: it takes a year, sometimes more, to get peer-reviewed and that kind of thing.


          MS: These days, do you ever find yourself wondering whether belief in UFOs might still be wishful thinking, or whether something is seen, but a more mundane explanation still has to be possible?


          DWP: All of the above.  I think that indeed, we are guided to view things in the sky through the lens of entertainment media.  And now, since entertainment media is so enmeshed with news, because news is now entertainment media, I think that it is really difficult to separate what’s going on – what is the true UFO?

          The thing about the government report [DNI 2022 Annual Report on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena] is that it’s isolating what it thinks is completely anomalous, and cannot be explained, and that’s helpful.  But there are also data sets that are not governmental that confirm this autonomously – in other countries as well.

          There’s American ufology, but then there’s global ufology. And it’s a community that tends to speak to one another.  I see right now what’s happening is that this global ufology, where people tended to support each other, because they were all marginalized, is now being supplanted. There’s a parallel group in American ufology – people who are interested in ufology, professors or scientists, who do not know the history, and so they think that they’re doing this for the first time.  It’s a very strange position. And they’re not very nice.  Whereas before, there was kind of a camaraderie about it,  now,  that’s gone.

          MS: That’s another question I have – people think they’re doing it for the first time, and yet there are all these documented UFO flaps, definitely going back to the forties, arguably going back to however long you want to say.  But certainly there seems to be adequate documentation and evidence to say that it’s a phenomenon that has been explored and studied a number of discrete times in the past.  And yet every time, it’s almost as though the memory of it, the cultural memory or the collective memory of the work that was done before, gets wiped away.  So now, as you say, you have people acting as if they’re doing it for the first time. 

          Do you think that ufology as a field moves forward and makes discoveries and develops, or do you think that it’s ultimately in a kind of holding pattern over time?


          DWP: This is such a multilayered question.  This is where it gets into the field that I’m in,  which is religious studies,  and you see the historical record.  And what I’ve found recently is that there are traditions of studying what we now call UAPs.  They go back two thousand, even three thousand years.  And the information gleaned from this is kept in an oral tradition, which oftentimes is strangely compartmentalized – even two thousand years ago, it was compartmentalized.

          Let’s talk about the Merkabah tradition, which is the Ezekiel’s Wheel tradition – basically, seeing these kinds of things in the sky, where you have some kind of engagement with them.  It’s a Jewish tradition, it bleeds into Christianity,  and it’s still around.  And it’s passed down through oral tradition. 

          Basically, it’s an engagement-with-angels tradition.  And the engagement with these angels was dangerous, and it had to be ritualized, and it was based on your character:  you had to show good character in order to be initiated into this tradition.  Some people who I’ve spoken with, who are initiated into this tradition and are scholars also – who will not go on record saying this, but I can say it – believe that this was the tradition that – are you familiar with the Christian tradition?


          MS: Christianity broadly?


          DWP: Yes, just broadly.


          MS: Sure.


          DWP: So you have Saint Paul, who’s this guy who falls off his horse and he has this otherworld journey: that comes straight out of the Merkabah tradition. And that he changes his name from Saul to Paul, same kind of thing.

          And then you have this guy in the desert, John.  So John is part of a Merkabah tradition community, and he initiates Jesus into that tradition.   So you have these traditions, where these people, if you look throughout that historical record, there’s all kinds of goings-on between people and angels, all throughout the Jewish and Christian texts, and Islamic texts as well.

          So when I started to do my study, I found there were these traditions in the intelligence communities.  So to answer your question,  there is a tradition, and  –  I use the term “fight club” to talk about this, the don’t talk about it  –  there’s this injunction of not speaking about this tradition,  and therefore the people who think they’re doing ufology every century,  or every decade, they’re redoing it and redoing it and redoing it, and no, there’s no transmissible history there.  They just don’t know how to do it.


          MS: Wow, there are so many questions that arise from this.  I think for a lot of people, myself included, what the 2017 New York Times story did in terms of giving permission to be interested and curious about the subject, was to point out the fact that there’s radar confirmation,  there’s video confirmation,  and then there are multiple eyewitnesses,  people who seem to be as credible and as sober as you could hope for.  So you have all this kind of you-can’t-really-deny-type information.

          And then you proceed to a point along this where ultimately what you get to is, either these things are hanging around in the sky and not apparently interacting with us, or if they are interacting with us and engaging our history, then we have to take certain people’s word for it, because we don’t seem to be able to get the degree of confirmation of the abduction phenomenon as we can get for the simple presence of unexplained objects in the sky.

          So, (a) is the abduction phenomenon something that you see as the modern equivalent of the Merkabah tradition, and (b) do you think that it’s inherently the case that you reach a point where a certain degree of faith is required to proceed forward learning about it, and it can’t be quite as empirically documented at that point?


          DWP: Okay, let’s start with that question first.  So that idea of taking it on faith  –  no, no, no, no.  But  –  don’t we take on faith matter

          Alain Aspect just won the Nobel Prize in 2022 for showing superposition of particles and electrons – in the sense that we don’t actually have an ultimate material thing.  Matter is really slippery.  We take it on faith, though, don’t we?  We take a lot of things in science on faith, and we just keep going, anyway.


          MS: We act as though they’re true.


          DWP: We act as though they’re true because they appear to be true, but we can’t identify how they’re true.  So I think we need to do that here. Because we just have too much evidence to suggest that it is the case.  And if it is the case, we have to go to those communities who have had age-old traditions  –  Star Nation people, contact with that, and see if they’ll talk to us.  I doubt they will, but just see if they will.  And then maybe get some information.

          In my book American Cosmic,  I’m talking about Garry Nolan and “Tyler,” who’s in the Space Force and interfaces with this phenomenon.  Both of those men are mystical in many ways:  they’re initiates,  [but] not of institutionalized traditions of protocols and things like that,  which helps them with their UFO/UAP research. 

          So my suggestion is that if it looks very similar to that, why aren’t we looking at that? And actually, people are looking at that, but they’re not talking about it.

          In the first chapter of American Cosmic, I said that I brought academics together with the people in the [government] programs who studied UAP, and I found out that this group  [government employees]  couldn’t talk and this group  [academics]  was all about talking. This group was completely transparent and this group was absolutely not transparent – there was going to be a problem there.

          And so my suggestion is that that problem’s not going away.  That’s why this group that wants to be transparent about their scholarship and show their sources is not going to make any progress, in my opinion.  Whereas there is a whole tradition  –  we do have programs of people who know about this.  They’re just not going to go on the podcasts and talk about it.


          MS: Garry Nolan – is this who you refer to as “James” in the book?


          DWP: Yes – he’s a Stanford professor.


          MS: One of the things that surprised me in your book is that he and “Tyler” – as you’re saying, they’re kind of mystic initiates, and they actively pursue strands of ufology that I might have thought would be considered somewhat disreputable,  whether that’s the abduction phenomenon,  the idea of alien-human telepathy,  or of course,  the legend  –  or not-legend  –  of a saucer crash in New Mexico. 

          Are these guys also interested in or open to the so-called “high strangeness” aspects of the phenomena – claims of men in black, of appearances of strange creatures like Bigfoot in conjunction with UFOs – is this something that’s of interest, or is that a bridge too far?


          DWP: Yeah – it was really remarkable for me to see these guys who both are at the very top of their fields in the world – definitely open. Let’s put it this way – they don’t make conclusions. They’re open. 

          One thing that I noticed about Tyler was that,  in his job,  which was in one of these programs, there was a room called “The Room of the Impossible.”  And they would go into this room,  and nothing was off of the table.  They could say or think about anything,  and they weren’t stigmatized for it. 


          MS: Are these motifs that come up in the conversations that you have with people in these traditions?


          DWP: Absolutely – I want to know just as much as you do! [Laughter] I’m like, what’s what! I mean, it really freaks me out.


          MS: What about the viewpoint that part of the reason for alien or angel or numinous-entity contact with human beings is to foster things like psychic abilities, or some kind of change in [human] evolution? How does that enter your thinking and their thinking?


          DWP: I used to think of it like that. Actually, because my specialty is in Catholic history, I looked at recent papal encyclicals, which are just for Bishops and not for general audiences, on angels. And I noticed that Pope John Paul II had a really good encyclical where he basically told his Bishops, “These angels exist. It’s not fashionable to believe in them now. But they exist, they always have, and they’ve always intervened in human history.” And I was like – okay, that sounds exactly like what’s going on here, with the belief systems of Tyler and James.

          When I addressed this to them, and suggested that perhaps this was the reason, they were open to it. But I’d have to now understand it in retrospect, because that was a few years ago. 

          I think that we can’t know. This is a nonhuman intelligence, or a superhuman intelligence, or something like that. It’s basically beyond our comprehension in terms of reasons. I don’t know why this is happening. All I do know is that if you look at human culture, even cultures that are non-written – like, some indigenous cultures don’t commit their lore to text, for various reasons, but if you go and you talk to them, you find the same thing as you find in written cultures: there’s always been, as long as human societies have been around, there’s always been this interface with nonhuman entities, gods, deities, whatever you want to call them.

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Interview II: The Scholar

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