Date: Mon Aug 01 1994 00:00:54 Subj: Watch The Skies UFO - Close Encounters of a Dubious K

Master Index Current Directory Index Go to SkepticTank Go to Human Rights activist Keith Henson Go to Scientology cult

Skeptic Tank!

Date: Mon Aug 01 1994 00:00:54 From: Sheppard Gordon Subj: Watch The Skies UFO ------------------------------- Close Encounters of a Dubious Kind Byline: Carl Sagan 05/29/94 THE WASHINGTON POST WATCH THE SKIES! A Chronicle of the Flying Saucer Myth By Curtis Peebles Smithsonian. 342 pp. $24.95 WHEN I WAS in high school during the '50s, the newspapers were full of stories about ships from elsewhere flying in the skies of Earth. It seemed pretty believable to me then. There were lots of stars, some of which probably had planetary systems like our own. Many stars were as old as or older than the Sun, so there had been plenty of time for intelligent life to evolve. We had just flown a two-stage rocket high above the Earth. Clearly we were on our way to the Moon and the planets. Why shouldn't other, older, wiser beings be able to travel from their star to ours? Many people seemed to see flying saucers - sober pillars of the community, police officers, commercial airplane pilots, military personnel. And apart from some harrumphs and giggles, I couldn't find any counterarguments. How could all these eyewitnesses be mistaken? What's more, the saucers had been picked up on radar; pictures had been taken; you could see the photos in newspapers and glossy magazines. There were even reports about crashed flying saucers and little alien bodies with perfect teeth stiffly languishing in Air Force freezers. And yet not a single adult I knew was preoccupied with UFOs. I couldn't figure out why not. Instead they were worried about Communist China, nuclear weapons, McCarthyism, and the mortgage. I wondered if they had their priorities straight. In college I began to learn about how science works, the secrets of its great success, how rigorous the standards of evidence must be if we are really to know something, how many false starts and dead ends have plagued human thinking, how our biases can color our interpretation of the evidence, and how often belief systems widely held and supported by the political, religious and academic hierarchies turn out to be not just slightly in error but grotesquely wrong. Everything hinges on the evidence. On so important a question, the evidence must be airtight. The more we want it to be true, the more careful we have to be. No witness's say-so is good enough. People make mistakes. People play practical jokes. People stretch the truth for money or attention or fame. People sometimes even see things that aren't there. When Travis Walton's mother was informed that a UFO had zapped her son with a bolt of lightning and then abducted him, she replied incuriously, "Well, that's the way these things happen." Curtis Peebles's readable book, a salutary antidote to the current fever pitch of credulity about UFOs and alien abductions, tells how these things really happen. In popular culture, we hear of astronauts hounded by UFOs, cattle mutilations, the Bermuda Triangle, small, gray beings with big eyes (and an uncanny resemblance to James Carville) oozing through walls and kidnapping terrified sleepers for breeding experiments, to say nothing of hundreds of thousands of dubious lights in the sky. We are bombarded with spectacular claims in bite-sized packages, but too rarely do we hear about their comeuppances. This is easy to understand: Which sells more newspapers and books, which garners higher ratings, which is more fun to believe, which is more resonant with the torments of our time - that alien beings of immense powers are toying with the human species or that such claims derive from human weakness and imperfection? Peebles's book is a chronicle of credulity, hoax, hallucination, misunderstanding of the natural world, hopes and fears supplanting evidence, and the craving for frame and fortune. It describes, for example, how the original crashed saucer story (with the little alien men and their perfect teeth) was a straight-out hoax, reporters being taken in by experienced confidence men. It is an account of how the critical thinking that we know we need when buying a used car often deserts us on matters of belief. UFO gullibility is aided and abetted by widespread mistrust of government reassurances, arising naturally enough from all those circumstances where - in the tension between public well-being and "national security" - the government lies. The least successful part of Watch the Skies! is its attempt to tie the changing fashions in UFO belief systems to trends in national and global politics. It was published before the recent book Abductions, in which Harvard psychiatrist John E. Mack describes why he believes his patients when they tell him under hypnosis that they've been stolen by aliens and sexually abused; but Peebles provides an essential historical context for stories such as these. Arguably the best refutation of Mack's book is Lawrence Wright's Remembering Satan, the gripping account of a respectable politician and law- enforcement officer convinced by his minister and members of his family that he had for years been practicing ghastly satanic ritual abuse. Wright's book contains a devastating expose of the suggestibility involved in these cases. Perhaps some day there will be a case that is well-attested, accompanied by compelling physical evidence, and explicable only in terms of extraterrestrial visitation. It's hard to think of a more important discovery. So far, though, there have been no such cases, nothing that comes close - just a long and doleful series of misinterpretations and misadventures. However, that's important to know about, too. It would be a healthy sign for the United States if books like Peebles's were commonly found in school bookbags, excerpted in supermarket weeklies, and made into television specials. But the chance of that happening may be even smaller than the chance that we're being visited. Date: Mon Aug 01 1994 00:00:56 From: Sheppard Gordon Subj: Letter, & Sagan Reply UFO ------------------------------- 07/10/94 THE WASHINGTON POST IN HIS REVIEW of Curtis Peebles's recent book, Watch the Skies! - A Chronicle of the Flying Saucer Myth (Book World, May 29), celebrity astronomer and perennial UFO skeptic Carl Sagan champions a favorite idea of his own - that the whole UFO controversy is based on nothing more than a silly hysteria infecting a credulous, brain-dead citizenry fed a constant diet of tabloid UFO tales. As Sagan points out, there has certainly been no shortage of UFO hoaxes and misinterpretations of the known as the unknown. Sagan, however, has deemed the entire body of UFO data unreliable, simply because some of the data are unfounded. Is it really fair to equate crude UFO hoaxes with sworn reports by police, military personnel, and airline pilots of apparently structured aerial craft observed at close range and verified by radar? Interestingly, Sagan does touch upon one very serious and troubling aspect of the UFO "problem," that of government secrecy and disinformation; or, as Sagan puts it, "those circumstances where - in the tension between public well-being and `national security' - the government lies." Indeed, following passage of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in the late '60s, documentation of government prevarication regarding the UFO phenomenon has come increasingly into the public domain. These documents provide a sound basis for the widely held belief that much of the most compelling UFO evidence has been purposely withheld from civilian study. A serious political effort, led by U.S. Rep. Steven Schiff (R-New Mexico) and the General Accounting Office to investigate alleged super-secret government UFO evidence is now under way. If UFOs are indeed just a modern myth, as Peebles and Sagan seem to agree, then there should be no need to keep any UFO information classified. Yet UFO researchers are denied access to government UFO files time after time under the guise of "national security." This in itself is perhaps the most compelling evidence that UFOs are more than myth. LARRY A. OUDERKIRK Carl Sagan responds: I explicitly described in my review the apparent credibility of police, military personnel and airline pilots. But when faced with unfamiliar phenomena, they may be as fallible as the rest of us. Of course there is bound to be something of scientific interest in UFO sightings - ranging the gamut from the properties of small comets to human perception and cognition - and I agree that it's time for a systematic opening of the classified government files on the subject. Because some UFO reports are bound to be due to ballistic missile launches and nosecone re-entry, to unconventional military aircraft, to spoofing of U.S. air defenses by high performance aircraft of other nations, and by balloons launched with spy cameras, among other possibilities, it seems likely there are files to declassify. But, of course, it does not follow that these files have anything to do with extraterrestrial visitations. If they do, though, I'll look forward to reading them.


E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank