INTERVIEW: MUFON's 'mad scientist' Chris Cogswell's scientific approach

New kid on the block Chris Cogswell has been a household name the past month in Ufology, as MUFON's new Director Of Research has been making the rounds introducing himself and his science-first idealogy  to the field fascinated with how he can help grow the study of the phenomena. 

Cogswell's credentials are impressive; a PhD in chemical engineering (with a focus on nanomaterials ) from Northeastern University, bachelor's degree in  chemical engineering and philosophy from the University of New Hampshire, and an avid interest in history and "fringe science" with his Mad Scientist podcast. 

Cogswell's approach in his position at MUFON will steer clear of fringe, and focus on research and results.  He also has some interesting takes that will surely spark debate and  earn acceptance with some. 

Q: How did your appointment of new director of research at MUFON come about? What as the process like?

 Chris Cogswell currently resides in Saint Paul, Minnesota. (Handout)

Chris Cogswell currently resides in Saint Paul, Minnesota. (Handout)

COGSWELL:" I had initially e-mailed MUFON about becoming active as a scientific consultant, and seeing what use they may have for someone with my academic training. In talking about various projects and ideas, it became clear that there was a lot of great information in the MUFON backlog that had never made its way out to the public, or had never had anything worthwhile done with it really. And so I kept making suggestions; asking for access to the data, asking to be put onto teams that were doing the sort of work I thought would be valuable, and that eventually led to my asking if the open position for Director of Research was available to relative newcomers to MUFON. I then submitted my resume to the Executive Director Jan Harzan, spoke with various luminaries on the MUFON board, other functional directors, and others in the UFO field who had differing opinions from my own so that they could vet me and my background, as well as my plans for the future. Finally, after about 2 months of interviews, questions, and phone calls I was told that I had secured the position, and should submit a 6 month and 2 year timeline for what I was hoping to accomplish."

Q: How did you get interested in "fringe science" and why do you think it is referred to as "fringe?”

COGSWELL:" I’ve always been interested in the areas of science where science fact meet science myth; both in terms of science fiction ideas, but also with historical cases of magical or paranormal thinking. It’s in these areas that, in my opinion, we can really learn about the mechanisms of science versus non-science, how to make our current scientific quests better, and how to combat pseudoscience and other misinformation campaigns. I would say my earliest interest in the subject probably came about through ghost stories and religious sort of cases, stuff like exorcisms and witchcraft, which was a part of my upbringing being Roman Catholic and having a family from the old country (in our case Yugoslavia and Italy), but which was always talked about in hushed tones at church and Sunday school. As I got older and started reading about these cases, I found out that science had a lot of answers to many of them, and so that just sort of got me hooked. And as I read, the types of cases of weird stuff that seemed to have the best evidence for them were UFO encounters. I think in general they are considered fringe topics because they are literally at the very edges of acceptable scientific thinking, either in that they deal with things that science has long considered to be disproven (ghosts, magical incantations, etc.) or things that science believes are too far out there to consider seriously (UFO style propulsion systems, alien civilizations, wormholes, Artificially Intelligent Robots, etc.). In many cases these things are rightfully placed by science as being incompatible with the evidence at hand, but science like any human endeavor also has a tendency to ignore those topics that aren’t seemingly valuable or viable in terms of their economic potential. For example, the discussion of possible alien civilizations is not on its surface interesting in terms of potentially useful applications here on Earth, however they are useful in my opinion as philosophical, sociological, or anthropological questions, potentially telling us more about ourselves than they ever could about an alien civilization with which we have had no contact."

Q: You are compiling some texts and essays on futurism, UFOs, and other scientific studies for a MUFON project. Can you share some more details on what this will consist of and why it is important?

COGSWELL: "We are trying to create a much more academically rigorous view of the UFO question, not just from the nuts and bolts approach of 'what are these ships, where do they come from,' but a larger scope of the field. So for example, what sort of trends do we find in the data on UFO reports, how do these trends relate to other 'fringe' beliefs, is there underlying trends in the data to suggest that this is a real phenomena and not a cultural meme of some sort? With this initial grouping of papers I am hopeful that we will look at the UFO phenomena with a serious eye and in some ways approach the theories and ideas out there about these cases with a more nuanced approach. Instead of asking 'What sort of alien civilizations exist?', which is at the moment a question without an answer no matter how many books on the topic are written, we can ask 'what sort of alien civilization might we expect to find out there?'. Instead of discussing warp drives and other things some believe the government is hiding from the public, we can have an actual discussion on the types of propulsion systems the brightest minds in physics are pursing and thinking about. In this way MUFON can act as a truly useful tool to those who are interested in these subjects and the people who trust us to investigate their personal experiences."

Q: How does your background in the study of nanomaterials and chemical engineering factor in on the study of UFOs? Are you more concerned about the science behind how they work or why they are here?

COGSWELL: "I would say that the study of nano materials is particularly applicable to the questions of advanced civilizations and space travel. Twenty years ago only those at the highest reaches of academic science were really discussing nanotechnology in any serious way, and its only recently that the public is beginning to get a glimpse into the types of advances that this technology could bring. So I would argue that if an advanced civilization is out there, they are likely utilizing the same nanotechnological tools that we are, although their tools may be significantly more advanced obviously. I would say that it is my background in both philosophy and chemical engineering that I hope will make me an effective MUFON research director, and in particular my own research interest in these areas of fringe science and how they shape our view of hard scientific fact. I can say that I am interested in all aspects of the UFO question; from the ships themselves, to potential civilizations and beings, to the cultural memes and potential for sociological answers to some of the changing trends we see in UFOlogy. If aliens are really visiting this planet it is going to change every aspect of what we do, in all the sciences and studies out there. And so if we are going to do a good job of looking at the UFO question, we must allow for questions and research into all of these various fields."

Q:What are your thoughts on the study of  zero gravity, ley lines, and dark matter and how this factors into UFO research?

COGSWELL: "I think there is zero evidence to support the notion that ley lines are an interesting phenomena. I would be happy to be convinced otherwise, but as it stands now there is very little to support this claim. Zero gravity thermodynamics is a fascinating field that we already know does in fact create novel crystalline structures compared to those we have on the surface of the earth, such as the material phases we find within asteroids and are currently studying for their use in various applications. So that is one area that I think we should definitely look too for some interesting questions and answers in Ufology. The same is true for dark matter in theoretical physics, although again this is an advances and nuanced topic that must be treated with the correct approach! One of my largest frustrations in all of these fringe science communities is the reliance on magical thinking, and the use of scientific buzzwords to fill in the gaps when 'magic' would suffice. So for example, 'the reason that aliens can fly here though space is quantum mechanical entanglements that create two separate but coexisting points in space that allow for immediate travel due to the collapse of the wave function field.'All of that sounds great, but its gobbledygook, with none of what I just said having any correlation to the real natural world or the way physics works. But it sounds good, and might help me sell a few more copies of my DVD or book, and certainly sounds a lot better than 'aliens can fly here through space utilizing magic that we don’t fully understand.' We need to get rid of arguments like that from Ufology if we are ever going to find any real answers, or even ask better, more interesting questions."

Q:What are your thoughts on what many people say / have reported about UFOs and how they can operate via the mind, and other examples that defy the science we currently know?

COGSWELL: "Operation via the mind is only outside the realm of science we know if we believe that it is a purely physical, and not biomedical or bio-engineered methodology. We are already in the process at labs across the country creating devices that operate via the electrical impulses of the brain, for example prosthetic hands that can open and close.  I see no reason that an alien civilization wouldn’t of figured that out as well, and be much better at it than we are, but this is a perfect example of where a serious scientific look at UFO claims or ideas could be fruitful for discussion."

Q: Thoughts on the recent Pentagon videos , To The Stars Academy of Arts and Science, and other new research organizations?

COGSWELL: "I honestly don’t know what to think, although I am hopeful. I believe that there being a Pentagon team that was investigating these things shows that it is a useful endeavor and one to be taken seriously. At the same time, I hope that the folks over at To The Stars Academy are taking this as seriously, cautiously, and rigorously as they ought to. The UFO field, and the public at large, is placing a lot of faith in this team of researchers and the results they may put out there. Therefore if one of them, or one of their pieces of evidence, is shown to be lacking, or flawed, or if there is even a question of mishandling or something then it could damage the entire field. So far they seem to be doing a good job of being careful with information and sensitive to the importance that will be placed on what they say, so I am very hopeful for the future. But I t still think that it is particularly important that there be more UFO organizations out there doing this research, so that if one of us falls the entire field doesn’t collapse. "