Saturday, March 02, 2013

Project Contour and Alien Communication

As I was doing some research the other day, I came across some information from Mark Shippey (or information attributed to him) about a classified Air Force program known as Contour. This is how he explained it:
Today I met an old retired Air Force officer who claims that in the 1960s the Air Force conducted secret projects concerning possible communications with alien life forms…
He said one project was called “Contour”. He said that this project involved understanding “linguistic fundamentals of communication between different species”, and that one part of the project focused on understanding how “primates such as a gorilla might be taught to communicate.”
According to this retired officer, the Air Force was publically disregarding UFOs,” but privately was involved in “intense research concerning inter-species communication.”
He explained how one fascinating part of the project involved taking a gorilla that had been raised amongst humans and taught “basic sign language” back into the field to see how it related to and communicated with wild gorillas and if the domesticated gorilla could act as a “go-between” to communicate between the researchers and the wild gorillas.
All of this was supposed to have happened to, “help us learn fundamentals of language that could be helpful in communications with alien species.” 
I won’t go into the problems with this scenario as described, from the point that gorillas aren’t very receptive to new arrivals, to the point that the domesticated gorilla would not understand the wild gorillas’ communications having not interacted with them. Sort of like taking a baby of Japanese heritage raised in Oklahoma, for example, and dropping him or her into Tokyo and expecting some sort of psychic connection with the Japanese. The Oklahoma person would have no real connection with the land of his or her heritage and would be as out of touch with the Japanese as anyone plucked from another culture would be. The shared heritage might facilitate some interaction, but it really would have little impact on the meeting.
No, the problem with this tale, and I’m sure some of you recognize it, is because it wasn’t an Air Force project, but a plot point in a novel. Here’s what was written about it in the novel:
Pearl’s thesis attracted considerable attention, and funding from the U.S. Air Force, which had supported linguistic research since the 1960s. According to one story, the Air Force had a secret project called CONTOUR, involving possible contact with alien life forms. The official military position was that UFOs were of natural origin – but the military was covering its bets. Should alien contact occur, linguistic fundamentals were obviously critically important. And taking primates into the field was seen as an example of contact with “alien intelligence”; hence the Air Force funding. 
Now before we all take off on tangents to suggest this tale might be true, or have the elements of truth in it, let me point out the linguistic similarities between Shippey’s report and the paragraph in the novel. Let me point out that Shippey’s story surfaced in 1999 and the novel was published in 1980. Let me further establish that I have been unable to find any other references to Contour as a real project, even one with a different purpose.
And yes, I did try to find a Frederick Pearl who matched the description in the book. Yes, there are a couple of them. One, called Fritz, died in 1970 but was a gestalt psychologist and the other is an anthropologist, but is too young to have been writing papers on linguistics in the 1960s. The name seems to be an invention by the writer to advance the story and refers to neither a real person nor a real thesis.
At least this tale has not gotten wide spread circulation inside (or outside) the UFO community. There is no evidence that such a program ever existed, and for those who might suggest absence of evidence, well, they are required to produce some of it.
Oh, the novel? Congo by Michael Crichton…


Ross said...

The real-life "gestalt psychologist" to whom you refer is the late Friedrich ("Fritz") Perls (note spelling), the creator of gestalt therapy.

In addition to writing non-fiction, you are also a novelist. Have you ever encountered any of your fictional material recycled as "fact"?

KRandle said...

Ross -

I mentioned him simply because the pronunciation of the name might lead some to believe he was the source of the paper. I probably should have made it clear that his named was spelled differently. But then, if someone had heard the name, rather than having seen it written out, they might have misspelled it. Perls, or Pearls, is not important here because none of them authored any sort of thesis about inter-species communication. If I was going to bet on who it was, I'd bet on the anthropologist... but then, he was too young.

My science fiction doesn't deal with alien visitation in the sense that UFOs do... for the most part. I have seen nothing that I invented for a novel reappear in another arena as fact.

Kurt Peters said...


...I prey, Doctor R., please be aware of my disclosure that while I do not claim to be an expert on the world of the old west, nor will I strain to perceive the Andromeda galaxy, try to curtail any great robbery of trains, park anywhere near the Jurassic exhibit at the Field Museum (in my travels), worry tomorrow during the rising sphere of the sun about any Roswell disclosure about our current timeline, NOR exist in a state of fear the next time I fly in a Boeing airframe to my next lost world, OK?

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iPadCary said...

@Kurt Peters
Give this pirate some latitude, it has a micro chance of being true! lol

What Kurt & I referring to is that THERE IS NO "PROJECT: CONTOUR".
Michael Crichton made it up in his book "Congo" to show since the Air Force was funding ways to communicate with aliens, they funded communicating with gorillas, too, because they considered it princelply the same thing.

Hence, all tne Michael Crichton book title mentions EXCEPT for "Congo", thereby surriotiously drawing the reader's attention to it.
Get it?