Cogito

Westall ‘66: 50 years on, still stranger than fiction

This way to the Grange Westall.

Beliefs, webs, tears

Unlike Bethsheba’s husband, our beliefs about the world do not go out to face the music alone.

The most basic beliefs you can think of—say: that right now, my son is in the room with me—are not stand alone affairs. They are framed by a whole series of other beliefs: in this case, about what rooms are, what it is for one thing to contain another, what a “son” is, and my conceptions of who begat whom.

We can easily change or refine most of our beliefs, since nothing too much hangs upon them. Yesterday, I supposed it was going to rain today. Today, I see I was wrong. I submit, revise. My “web of beliefs” (to use an image from the philosopher Quine) is basically untouched. We all move on.

A web: a compelling image to depict our interlocking beliefs.

But the links and lines of these “doxastic” webs reach downwards or inwards to very basic, often unexamined views about the world and ourselves. These are beliefs we are much more reluctant to cede, since a good deal more of our sense of “the way the world is,” if not our very identities, rests upon them.

And sometimes, history tells, people have experiences that challenge not simply their least important, passing convictions. These experiences, traumatic and transformative, shake their most basic beliefs about themselves and the world.

In such cases, a person’s web of beliefs is ripped open or its moorings cut loose. It is not so easy to just move on.

A Suburban Mystery

What, for instance, could you believe if, barely an adolescent, you went to high school one fine April day—a bright morning like numberless others—and, playing cricket in the yard before morning recess, you suddenly became aware of what looked like a disk-shaped metallic object hovering above the oval? Then, before you had the chance to rub your eyes, the air around you filled with excited cries: “Look! Look! Flying saucers!

Then came the stampede of the children towards the uncanny disk, hovering now above the footy goalposts, near the electric towers. Some kids were terrified and crying: “it’s the end of the world!” After a time, the silver disk floated unevenly South over the market gardens, down to the nearby parklands.

Sketch images by Les Whitmore, from Shane Ryan’s Westall ‘66 docufilm.

So: what if, in that unreal moment, you were one of the bolder children who defied the teachers’ orders, jumped the fence and rushed towards the park? And what if, arriving there, you were one of the kids who saw the unmarked metallic craft sitting stationary for some minutes–impossible—before rising vertically, turning on its side, and disappearing at imponderable speed?

In the hours and days that follow, your teachers unite in playing down the event. Kids are punished for speaking to the media. Suited men you never saw before or since come and interview you behind closed doors: “there is no such thing as flying saucers … you didn’t see anything unusual … don’t talk about it to anyone …”

The teacher who snapped photos of the craft on the day has both her film taken away from her, and the entire camera. One of the girls who arrived first at the park (two who arrived first both fainted) is taken away later in an ambulance. She never returns to school, and you never see her again.

Then days pass: weeks, months, years. The story passes quickly from the media’s radar. The strange objects and officials never return to your school. Eventually, even the students stop talking about it. No satisfactory explanation is ever forthcoming about what you and all the others witnessed that day.

What could anyone think, in such a scenario?

Stranger than X-Files

“We needn’t worry!”, I hear you saying, “since the whole story couldn’t have been dreamt up by the writers of the X-Files!

You might be right. Yet the preceding passages are not pure fantasy. They dramatise scenes drawn from what over 100 people attest to having experienced at Westall High School in Melbourne’s outer East on April 6, 1966, 50 years ago this week.

In 2011, the witnesses’ experiences were explored in Westall’ 66, a Suburban UFO Mystery: a captivating documentary by Rosie Jones and Shane Ryan, based on information the film-makers collected from over 100 witnesses concerning the Westall “flying saucers”.

The commemorative UFO playground at Westall, April 2016.

Westall ‘66’s subtitle says it all about what remains one of the most extraordinary mass-UFO sightings anywhere in the world, amidst the literally thousands reported each year around our blue planet.

In 2013, the Kingston City council agreed to build a commemorative “flying saucer” playground at the Grange parkland in Westall. It stands near to where witnesses report the original UFO landed, leaving a “circle” of flattened, partly-scorched grass before disappearing into memory and controversy.

You can visit the playground with its information boards about 6 April 1966 to this day, beneath the whispering pines.

Yes, but, and …

I remember being told about the Westall UFO as I grew up by my father. We used to drive nearby the Grange and the Westall School when dad took us to work during term breaks. The story somehow stuck in my memory—like a penny in the pudding, or the penny in your throat.

As a trained academic it still fascinates me how people respond to reports of such uncanny events. There is a whole sub-area of epistemology (the theory of knowledge) which considers the oblique but revealing light extraordinary episodes like Westall ‘66, and the explanations people come up with to narrate them, can throw on how we come to know about our world.

What makes Westall so striking, from this philosophical perspective, is the stark confrontation it involves between what we usually take to be two of the surest sources of reliable knowledge about the world.

On the one hand, the response Westall witnesses have mostly had to face up to since April 1966 has, predictably, involved flat-out dismissals: ‘what drugs were you all on?’; ‘you’re crazy’; ‘you were all just kids’, etc.

Such responses, you can imagine, are deeply hurtful for many of the individuals involved. “I really felt for them,” Ryan comments in Westall '66 : “They had this extraordinary experience that they then tried to share and a lot of them had a lot of trouble doing that.”

The Dandenong Journal, April 1966.

Such dismissals nevertheless reflect the fact that what the Westall witnesses claim to have seen challenges so many of our other, basic and firmly-corroborated understandings of the world: inner links in our webs of beliefs.

The alleged characteristics of the craft(s) in question—for around one in five witnesses report seeing not one but three objects, two of which landed in the paddock West of the School, leaving their own “circles"—are unlike those of any plane, helicopter, swamp haze or hot air balloon. They moved in ways which would require a form of propulsion we can scarcely imagine. Their appearance and behaviour at Westall in April 1966 suggests forms of applied science that beggar most contemporary understandings of what is technologically possible, even 50 years after the disputed facts.

Easier then to shoot, scorn or shun the messenger than accept a message that seems to bring with it so much riot for our wider sense of the way the world is.

On the other hand, experiential testimony corroborated by over 100 witnesses about an event that took place in broad daylight on a clear sunlit day …—all these characteristics ought to rank the Westall UFO sighting pretty highly, in considerations of the kinds of bases upon which people form justified true beliefs.

Many widely-accepted beliefs in different cultures have been founded on far less well corroborated historical stories.

An information board at the Grange playground.

50 years after Westall, then, we do seem left with the hundred-fold testimony, its violence to our "common sense”, and a thousand unanswered questions. Or do we?

“Nothing to it”?

But so many of the witnesses were children’, “sceptics” will jump in, as they have jumped the 50 years since Westall.

Yes: but can’t it be argued that children, having less “Hollywood-shaped” expectations about flying saucers than their older contemporaries, would have been in 1966 the best witnesses in such a case? “From the mouths of babes …”

Many of these children were, besides, in their teens: so hardly infants. There are no good reasons to question their reliability, certainly not in the numbers involved, and given the level of corroboration of so many different accounts.

And not all the Westall ‘66 witnesses were schoolchildren. Alongside the teachers mentioned, Ryan has interviewed local market gardeners, Westall residents, and university students who in following days came to investigate the scene. Each of these witnesses relate different but consistent perspectives of the event and its aftermath.

Westall High School, a School like any other.

‘Still, what these people are asking us to accept is just impossible! Intelligent life on other planets, for instance—since that is the only possible explanation for what they claim to have seen …?’

Not necessarily, although an extra-terrestrial origin for the craft is the predominant “inference to the best explanation” amongst Westall witnesses concerning what they saw, and the authorities’ subsequent responses.

Another possibility considered by Ryan in the film is that these craft were experimental, high-tech devices gone AWOL. One interviewee in Westall '66 recalls officials suggesting to students that this was what they must have seen.

Several witnesses report that the military who arrived to inspect and flatten the “circles” left by the craft included men in blue uniforms unlike any worn by the Australian Armed Forces of the day.

A circle of flattened grass, like to that which many Westall witnesses report.

This “experimental craft gone AWOL” explanation brings a different kind of epistemological price. For, if the Westall craft was man-made, its shock appearance in full suburban daylight—then subsequent official denials—would show that relevant authorities are willing and able to keep secrets from their own populations, even about technologies many decades ahead of what they publically avow commanding.

For many people, such a “conspiratorial” suggestion (to use the dismissal masquerading as a descriptor “sceptics” wield in such cases) is a priori more absurd than claims about life on other planets, or the scarcely-imaginable technologies required to project a craft at many thousands of times the speed of light across the vastnesses of space.

Whether such a response is reasonable or not, one thing is certain: the “experimental craft” explanation does a good deal less violence to most peoples’ world-understandings than claims about extra-terrestrial visitors to outer metropolitan Melbourne.

I hasten to add that this observation in no way legislates that such an explanation “must be” true, any more than “sceptics” can prove categorically that it “just cannot” describe what transpired that clear blue April morning in Westall, 50 years ago this week.

“What do I know?”

‘But we have to be scientific’, our sceptic insists, ‘and the kind of claims Westall witnesses ask us to accept are deeply unscientific.“

All credit to this "sceptic”, but the view of science here is flawed. The adjective ‘scientific’ describes less our presently-best-attested claims about the physical world than the most reliable, proven methods our society has developed over the last 400 years for discovering new things about the physical world. Many times, these scientific methods, duly followed and applied to new evidences, have yielded the kinds of revolutionary theoretical upsets we associate with names like Newton or Einstein, and before them Copernicus.

Since the inception of the empirical sciences around the first decades of the 17th century, there has scarcely been a year in which our presently-best-corroborated views about the natural world have stood comfortingly still. The distance between Western understandings of biology in 1600 and 2000, for example, is perhaps scarcely smaller than the gap separating our present physics from the kind of physics that might be required to engineer intergalactic travel.

Corroborating information board.

‘But many people who believe in stories like this are crazy, and crazy people use such unusual, apparently credible episodes to leap to the most incredible, contestable conclusions.’

Both true: but the fact that people infer badly on the basis of well-attested beliefs in no way casts doubt upon these beliefs: only the inferences. Most “crazy” people share many of our sane beliefs, without discrediting each or all of these. On the other hand, many people who believe that they have witnessed extraordinary things are manifestly not “crazy”, including (as all the evidence suggests) the witnesses at Westall, who after all never before or since concocted any tale as high or tall as that in which they found themselves embroiled on 6 April 1966.

‘So, what? Next you will all be saying that we should believe in little green men, reversed-engineered-alien-technologies, and all of the other crazy theories that circulate online!’

In no way. Faced with an uncanny event like Westall ‘66, I think we instead could do worse than recall the older meaning of the term “scepticism”, before it morphed into what seems to be becoming today: namely, a description for an attitude belligerently closed to the possibility that there may be “more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your pale philosophy,” or than our common sense, wishes and knowledge at present comprehend.

‘What do I know?’ Montaigne’s reminder to self.

For the Greek philosophers, by contrast, a “sceptic” meant someone who loves to inquire. Rather than passing judgement without weighing all the evidence, a skeptikos was more inclined to “suspend his judgment” and keep his eyes open. Such a sceptical stance, recovered along with many of the ancient sceptics’ texts in the Renaissance, had a big say in shaping our scientific culture in the first place, despite ample this-worldly and other-worldly opposition—albeit all of a decidedly human kind.

Perhaps, indeed, the most likable sceptic of all said what I mean to convey best, thinking again about Westall this week, 50 years after the uncanny day. Michel de Montaigne, the sceptical French free thinker had inscribed across the beams of his library a singular question. The question sounds across the centuries a perpetual caution against intellectual complacency, faced with the almost infinite variety of human experiences, up to and including the seemingly impossible.

His question is simple and profound: “what do I know?”