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David G. Robertson - UFOs, Conspiracy Theories and the New Age: Millennial Conspiracism

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How-and why- were UFOs so prevalent in both conspiracy theories and the New Age milieu in the post-Cold War period? In this ground-breaking book, David G. Robertson argues that UFOs symbolized an uncertainty about the boundaries between scientific knowledge and other ways of validating knowledge, and thus became part of a shared vocabulary.

Through historical and ethnographic case studies of three prominent figures-novelist and abductee Whitley Strieber; environmentalist and reptilian proponent David Icke; and David Wilcock, alleged reincarnation of Edgar Cayce-the investigation reveals that millennial conspiracism offers an explanation as to why the prophesied New Age failed to arrive-it was prevented from arriving by malevolent, hidden others. Yet millennial conspiracism constructs a counter-elite, a gnostic third party defined by their special knowledge.

An overview of the development of UFO subcultures from the perspective of religious studies, UFOs, Conspiracy Theories and the New Age is an innovative application of discourse analysis to the study of present day alternative religion.

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Thanks, TheCorsair!!!! I started reading his dissertation earlier today -- which was surprisingly not so dry -- but let's hope the book is in lively prose.

Cheers, man.

I am going to be reading this one too. Whitley Strieber, David Icke and David Wilcock through the lens of an atheist religious researcher is too intriguing. I am glad my resource at Bibliotik came through (so fast)!

What's your Machiavellianism score? I got 69, just at the top end of the bell curve. I'd be curious to know what others here get?
Here is the test:

https://openpsychometrics.org/tests/MACH-IV/

What kind of test is this? Studies show that belief in conspiracy theories is highly correlated with Machiavellianism (as well as psychological projection and paranoia). Machiavellianism is a psychological trait centered on interpersonal manipulation, unemotional coldness, and indifference to morality. Psychologists Richard Christie and Florence Geis used edited and truncated statements inspired by Machiavelli's works to study variations in human behaviors. Their Mach IV test, a 20-question, Likert-scale personality survey, became the standard self-assessment tool and scale of the Machiavellianism construct. Those who score high on the scale (High Machs) are more likely to have a high level of deceitfulness and callousness.

More about the benefits of this type of study:
https://www.scimex.org/newsfeed/machiavellian-cynics-more-likely-to-beli...
People who believe in the supernatural and those who express manipulative tendencies are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, reports a new Australian study investigating the 'Dark Triad' of psychological traits: Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and narcissism. In a survey of 230 people, the authors report that alongside supernatural thinking, Machiavellian (manipulative) and psychopathic (callous, emotionally detached) traits were the strongest predictors of conspiracy beliefs. However, there was no significant relationship between narcissism and and belief in conspiracy theories. The results shed light on the origins of conspiracy theories and how such beliefs gain traction.

Or this one:
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6890261/
Odd beliefs/magical thinking, trait Machiavellianism, and primary psychopathy were significant, positive predictors of belief in conspiracy theories.

I should feel good about this result, yes? I can think of a few people who would probably get 100! I have bumped into psychopaths before, and it is true their propensity to spin many a conspiracy yarn, and likely also to believe the conspiracy, is incredible. And in many ways they're like a Debbie Downer and try to spread their miserable and paranoid view of the world!

Sure, you should feel good! I gave really honest answers and thought I would score higher so I guess you have to be very calculating, cold and mistrustful to really score high on this one. Maybe super successful business leaders would score high -- at least during the heydays of their career (Bill Gates circa his Harvard years, or Zuckerberg ripping out the platform under the Winklevoss brothers).

I scored 48

According to this test* https://www.aconsciousrethink.com/6299/machiavellian-scale-test/

"Scores can range from 20 (the least Machiavellian) to 100 (the most Machiavellian). Those scoring 60 or more are considered as "high Machs," while those scoring below 60 are considered as "low Machs.""

On that rational, you two are low Machs and I would be a high Mach. That is interesting because it does not actually support the original claim of the other study which was "People who believe in the supernatural and those who express manipulative tendencies are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories". I would consider myself *less* likely to believe in conspiracy theories and yet I scored higher on the Mach test. What gives?

In looking for a possible answer, it is worth remembering that Machiavellianism is a tendency to be manipulative and deceitful and "usually stems from a lack of respect or *disillusionment* for others". In other words, if you have no illusions about others then do you perceive webs of manipulative networks around you? If you yourself weave such webs, does it become easier to assume ("believe in") that other, larger and possibly more systemic webs exist?

I am not sure but that is my working hypothesis at the moment. If one's model for others is based on networking then, ultimately, one's very way of thinking about the world comes down to manipulable (i.e., persuadable and influenceable) networks at some level.

* This test shows your results live --> not good since you can consciously manipulate the results. So a high Mach could actually make their score even higher or lower by taking this particular test.

This study* offers this explanation:

"...researchers posit such [high mach] individuals may be more likely to believe in government conspiracy theories as they themselves would be likely to conspire if they were in that position of power."

*https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0225964

PS - I dispute the use of words in the other study: in the phrase "lack of disillusionment" the "lack" cancels out the "dis" to leave only one part of that awful phrase: illusion. As stated,, they are saying that "people with illusions" (i.e., people with a lack of disillusionment) believe in conspiracy theories. Huh? That makes no sense at all. It does make sense, though, to suggest that people with a "lack of illusions" about others might conceive conspiracies more easily for the reason just stated: no illusions about oneself or others might imply that they themselves would be likely to conspire if they were in that position of power.

Talk about the power of bad writing!

The first chapter of his book is almost identical to his dissertation. That's disappointing since I've seen good book follow-ups to PhD talks...one is for an academic audience while the other should appeal to a broader community.

Still, it's an important topic and I'm considering posting a "Coles notes" of the ideas here, for reference.

Yup, the book is basically the PhD re-packaged. That's too bad but I am in the process of compiling my notes to summarize it here for others. It is far too academically dry, I think, for general consumption. But don't worry, comrades, I shall make it comprehensible in due course :)

Separate question, Corsair:
have you or others here already discussed "Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History by David Aaronovitch"?

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B003LTOINC/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UT...

I started reading it and, while it has a very different purpose, it is *much* better written in the sense that one can absorb the info quickly. I'm doing a lot of background reading into the philosophy and psychology of conspiracies and plan to upload some of my research here. It's noticeably absent from the other large collections of conspiracy books.

I usually try to read a couple different books on the go. A chapter here, a chapter there. I just got a physical book in the mail recently too that I want to read but is very dense. I might look into alternative treatments for attention and focus, since I often do not follow through with reading a book beginning to end. Which is apparently more and more common these days because of information overload. One can now use all books as reference, search them and grab the parts they need to research.

As for Voodoo Histories - no I have not heard of that, but yet another very interesting sounding book I should look for. That is the great part of a functioning community is the information networking. Is your copy on Kindle only? I have still not figured out how to rip the DRM on those, but people over on Bibliotik definitely have!

I located an epub copy and an mp3 audiobook as well.

I have the epub (I planned to upload it here with the other philosophy/psychology of conspiracies later) but would love a copy of the audiobook, when you get a chance.

Info overload is a real thing, so much so that I have come to realize that the more information we have, the less meaning we can make. This is not necessarily a bad thing, even though it might feel bad (bad is just a value judgment, not hardwired into the universe). Likewise, the stories we tell and the meaning we feel is only a construct, it is not in the fabric of reality itself. You could say that our brain is just a storytelling tool, it is designed to see patterns and interpret things in certain ways. But at the same time we are also still pre-modern in our hearts -- we have never really moved emotionally beyond the paleolithic era, despite our modern technology. It's a conundrum, that!

And, yes, I datamine my PDF collection but I am unable to search across epubs -- was hoping other techno-savvy members here could help crack open the closed world of epubs for us. There's money to be had in it since it is definitely an app I would pay for.

I did not realize epubs were not searchable. They are my preferred format though, maybe because there are a lot of good apps that utilize them.

I will upload Voodoo Histories audiobook later when I notice your uploads go on.

Just wanted to follow-up on one point you made about attention and focus. I touched on the philosophy of meaning but I neglected to suggest any practical remedies. How very un-transpersonal of me :)

R.U. Sirius interviewed Erik Davis years ago and Davis says, "We know that information technology is changing consciousness...We find ourselves living with a more multitasking, scattered, data-rich and high-velocity mind...Attention is the key, and any practices that refine attention will become valued in a technoculture like ours."

Reading between the lines here, Davis seems to be warning us against the awareness-enhancing gimmicks that are to come under the guise of "smart drugs". So: Are there any tried and true ways of establishing focus and attention?

I started reading Charles Tart's "Mind Science" book recently and he talks about "concentrative meditation". He makes some suggestions to bring your focus back if it starts to wander. He is talking specifically about meditation but I think the rule applies more generally if you want to focus to study or focus for reading: if we think of reading, studying or meditating as a kind of "ritual focus" that involves transitioning the mind toward a different state or brainwave, there are some ways to improve concentration.

First, this is one paragraph from Tart's book:

“In terms of concentrative meditation, where the goal is to learn to focus properly, anything that arises, other than paying attention to your breath, is a distraction. Don’t give voluntary energy to the distraction. On the other hand, don't fight distractions. Don’t say to yourself, “Ah! It’s a distraction, I’ve got to make those faces go away! I’ve got to not pay attention to that!” That’s actually shifting your concentration to what you’re conceptualizing as an obstacle, instead of keeping it on the intended focus of the meditation, the breath in this case. If faces come, let them come. Then gently let them go. If the gods and goddesses come and bow down to you, keep track of your breathing. It’s very tricky to try to force things out of consciousness, it’s much more straightforward to just keep gently putting the attention back on the object of meditation. Doing that, distractions tend to go on their own.”

What other things might help concentration?

  • Increasing vitamin B complex in the form of brewer's yeast might help concentration. Should notice results within a week and be back to your normal self in no-time.
  • Concentrate (i.e., study/read/meditate) in a quiet place. Loud music, people talking, a television, will pull your focus soooo fast!
  • Pick the time of day that works best for your brain. For me, my brain is most conducive to meditation when I wake up so that is the best time for me to really try to concentrate for extended periods.
  • Sit up straight. Concentrating while you're lying down or even slumped/hunched over can cause you to fall asleep, or at least be much more prone to daydreaming.
  • Practice, practice, practice. We Westerners are so bombarded, our minds don't do well with "stillness" at first. Don't expect it to happen right away.
  • When find your mind and/or focus wandering, gently bring it back to the topic of your studies as soon as you notice your awareness has wandered. Do this again, and again, and again... [This is where I found Charles Tar's tips helpful.]
  • Light a candle. Sit comfortably and stare at the flame (the blue part is easier on the eyes). See how long you can go before your mind wanders. When your mind wanders, acknowledge that it went and then nudge it back to the flame. With practice, you can get longer times and the mind will learn to still itself. One key is to not fight the mind but to direct it, gently, towards a goal.
  • Take a bath. One of the first things I leared about altered states of consciousness is that even taking a bath can induce an ASC by relaxing our body and mind. It is a good place to read, especially if you disconnect the wifi connection there.
  • Any type of repeated practice will aid in calming and training the mind. Making a ritual of doing things before entering the ritual will be a signal for the mind that it must now concentrate on what is at hand.
  • One thing that helps establish focus is to learn how to juggle. It can be used as a way to get focused or to relax. The practice of having to focus so hard combined with the repetitive motion (this is the combination of things that can produce the same sort of 'runners high' in painters, typists, etc.) may help
  • If anger breaks your concentration, visualize the memory as a lighted candle lantern you are sending down the river (chinese style) and watch it go out from view. This helps bring your attention back to the moment because the anger is what is distracting your attention
  • If worry or anxiety breaks your concentration, try to postpone the worrying: tell yourself you will slot 30-min a day for worrying and when you feel worry coming on tell yourself you will worry about it during the scheduled time, not now. This helps to let it go.

How do you focus? Appreciate any thoughts/suggestions

Quote:

"We know that information technology is changing consciousness...We find ourselves living with a more multitasking, scattered, data-rich and high-velocity mind...Attention is the key, and any practices that refine attention will become valued in a technoculture like ours."

Thank you very kindly for your very useful and well thought-out advice. The very act of using fast-paced and information rich technology like the internet and our smart phones actually re-wires the brain. I remember a very interesting book that came out a few years back called The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains that describes this. If you are constantly checking Facebook feeds and reading lots of little snippets of information, or Twitter or Instagram etc, you are slowly re-wiring your brain and causing it to lose the ability to have sustained attention and concentration. I think that is happening to lots of different people too, so your advice should be taken by them.

Despite my interest in consciousness and spirituality, I am actually not very adept at meditation because I have a very active and looping mind. As many of us do, but mine might be a bit more than others. Especially because I have not perhaps taken steps to ensure I focus on breath and let thoughts go. It could be so easy that it's difficult. But in these days meditation isn't just good for higher states of consciousness (and/or contacting ETs if you believe Greer et al.), but it's very necessary just for positive mental health. Psychiatrists certainly do not teach patients about meditation - but they should. Most of my lessons have been from taking pills and having side effects!

I think also in a data-rich environment like public and private BitTorrent trackers where everything is free, the tendency to want to collect (or hoard) is also quite prevalent. Although I am sure most people have books in their collection they have never read, but just enjoy having in case they may want to reference it or read it at another time. I also obviously like sharing information that I deem useful and/or important - even if I am violating copyright and the like. But more time digesting the information itself, particularly in books because that is where a higher concentration of information can be shared, is probably a good idea. I think the best format for sharing information is documentaries, which are increasingly more popular these days. The hot/cold medium that Marshall McLuhan talked about. I think he anticipated the technological shift especially when television became popular.

TheCorsair00 wrote:

I remember a very interesting book that came out a few years back called The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains that describes this.

https://concen.org/content/shallows-what-internet-doing-our-brains-2010-...

As promised, here is my overview of this book. This should hopefully be simpler to read than his entire work which would have greatly benefited from more rewriting and editing. Nobody should be allowed to just re-package their PhD as an e-Book!

“Metaphysical Conspiracism - UFOs as Discursive Object Between Popular Millennial and Conspiracist Fields” by David Robertson, 2014.

To summarize this book I am going to focus on two things in his title: "metaphysical conspiracism", on the one hand, and "discursive object", on the other. What the heck does he mean by those things, anyway?

Robertson's Primary Goal

Robertson wants to make sense of the bizarre mix of conspiracy stories in the world that feature UFOs and the very different millennial stories for personal transformation that also feature UFOs. What role do UFOs play in stories about unseen malevolent agents in the world, on the one hand, and stories about the goal of all history, on the other? A goal which could either lead to the end of the world or simply to personal or planetary transformation?

He points out, rightly, that “there is nothing intrinsic about the UFO narrative as it developed in the late 1940s which meant it would continue for more than sixty years; rather, it has continued because it has proven useful in certain discourses. More specifically, it has been useful in conspiracist and popular millennial discourses, as it symbolises and perhaps validates the use of counter-epistemic strategies.”

Sadly, he takes a great amount of time to unpack all of that. The last point about symbolizing "counter-epistemic strategies" is probably easiest to tackle first: belief in UFOs is necessarily political since it stigmatizes you. Nobody is going to subject their self to ridicule unless they have a reason for maintaining that viewpoint, right? So Robertson makes an appeal to two changes occurring at this time: there seems to be widespread doubts about the merits of scientific consensus, on the one hand; and there is an equal craving for alternative means to know things, on the other. This is what he means by “counter-epistemic strategies”: channeling, intuition, finding hidden codes, etc., which all add up to a larger way of “knowing” something about this world. And the UFO discourse fits neatly into this pattern of alternative ways of knowing things.

But, so what? How has validating counter-epistemic strategies been useful?

To answer that question he introduces a new term: he calls this all-in-one narrative about the goal of history, the promise of knowledge about salvation, and the threat of hidden malevolent agencies “metaphysical conspiracism”.

Metaphysical Conspiracism

In “metaphysical conspiracist” discourse, he tells us, utopian narratives of a better world to come are mixed with accounts of humanity’s imminent destruction; the government is actively working against our “spiritual development”; and extra-terrestrial beings created religions to enslave humanity. UFOs stories were instrumental in this change of narrative (he says) and acted as a bridge by which ideas crossed between conspiracist and popular millennial fields.

The result was that the conspiracists’ battle against powerful, hidden agencies increasingly incorporated popular millennial narratives of personal and planetary transformation. On the other hand, these same hostile agencies provided a ready answer to why the predicted “New Age” had—thus far—failed to materialize.

So that is part of his answer: “metaphysical conspiracism” offers a unique perspective on the interplay of knowledge, power and the construction of the other in contemporary popular discourse.

But that still doesn't explain how this happened, or why it is important. To answer that question we have to unpack a difficult idea about "discursive object".

Discursive Object

When I first came across Robertson's title (UFOs as "discursive objects") I thought he was talking about the fact that a UFO is a physical "object" but that is not what he means at all. He is simply stating that stories about UFOs have transferred from one narrative (read: "discourse") group to another; in this case, the “object” is just the UFO "topic".

Discursive objects can be differentiated from discourses themselves because discourse is about how a certain object is constructed, whereas the object is the object of discourse (what is talked about). For example, the discursive field “shamanism” contains “healing, soul, nature, therapy, or consciousness” as discursive objects. But in his thesis, he analyzes how “UFO” has acted as discursive object in conspiracist and popular millennial discourse, thereby facilitating a discursive transfer between them.

Why does this matter? Discursive statements and practices of individuals and groups grow out of concerns which are held in culture more generally and those which benefit them in some way or address specific concerns that they have. In a discursive transfer, the meaning of a particular term is negotiated and often transformed when it becomes part of the discourse of more than one field.

Robertson argues that Strieber, Icke and Wilcock each demonstrate a discursive transfer between popular millennial and conspiracist fields via UFO discourses:

  • Although Strieber had an established involvement will popular millennialism, his apparent UFO abduction brought him into contact with conspiracist narratives, particularly through the Majestic-12 narrative of a governmental conspiracy to cover-up UFOs and abduction.
  • A historical discourse analysis of Icke’s writings shows a similar transfer, with Icke’s theosophical millennialism drawing on conspiracist material encountered through UFO literature to produce the reptilian thesis, in which the conspirators this time are constructed as extra- terrestrial.
  • Wilcock’s work demonstrates the continuity of “2012” and “Ascension” popular millennial narratives with “New Age”. Wilcock constructs the earthly conspiracy as a part of a larger battle between benevolent and malevolent ETs.

So his central thesis is that UFOs are the primary discursive object (“topic”) in metaphysical conspiracism, as a result of symbolizing the perceived limitations of scientific and traditional epistemic strategies.

The last point to address is, Why is this important?

Why Does This Matter?

Robertson demonstrates that as UFOs are talked about in conspiracy groups and millennial groups a shift has occurred, a discursive shift (read: “shift in discourse”) in interpretation of the UFO narrative away from physicalist and interplanetary interpretations, towards more ambiguous interdimensional and/or supernaturalist ones:

  • Back in the 1950s, the burning question among UFO researchers was, "Do they come from Mars or do they come from Venus?"
  • in the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s, the question became, "Well, do they come from Zeta Reticula 4, or do they come from Alpha Centauri?"
  • Now it’s the 2000s, the question is, "Do they come from another planet, do they come from another solar system, do they come from another galaxy, do they come from another dimension, do they come from another time?"

This shift is partly physical and materialist: that is, the stories have shifted from a physical craft, whether military or extra-terrestrial in origin—to a supernaturalist construction wherein UFOs and their occupants are interpreted as beings from other dimensions or times, or as “spiritual” beings.

And this shift is also partly more removed from the everyday: the stories of UFO narratives over seven decades have shifted and their pilots have grown more distant. At first UFOs were said to come from other planets, then other stars, and finally other dimensions or times.

This shift in physicality and materiality is consistent with a greater claim to other ways of “knowing” things (the counter-epistemic claims).

I can only offer my own speculation at this point as to why that may matter but one quick observation is that people are craving a gnostic way of knowing things, today. We are no longer content to just have "faith"; we wish to "know"!

The last question Robertson asks is, Why is the idea that malevolent extra-terrestrials secretly run the world attractive?

Robertson’s answer is that by adding a conspiratorial counter-agency to popular millennialist discourse, metaphysical conspiracism offers its subscribers a theodicy. A “theodicy” addresses injustice: if the universe is proceeding according to the plan of some benevolent agency, why does suffering exist, and why is it apparently distributed unevenly? Theodicies attempt to resolve the tension “between the expectations that world-views create in people and the experiences they actually undergo”.

There is lots of good stuff there about Icke and the others, for those interested in such things. My goal here is just to re-state his overall argument more sensibly and in a straight-forward way.

i should add that if you are interested in Icke, Robertson summarizes Icke's career this way:

Early Period—Theosophical ( ie, tradition of hidden masters)
Middle Period—Conspiracism
Late Period—Metaphysical Conspiracism

so we can see how Robertson's new term can be useful in this case

one update to the above
his phd refers to this as "metaphysical" conspiracism BUT his book refers to it as "millennial" conspiracism...
same meaning, though: he is talking about when conspiracism joins league with New Age ... "malevolent agendas" become tropes in "2012" discourses, etc