Too many 

people, it 

seems, need 

to explain the

mundane in 

exciting and 





Debunking UFOs
Tilting at Windmills
 By Bill Capron 

Bill Capron, a founding member and current treasurer of Oregonians for Rationality, attended the Center for Inquiry workshop on UFOs: 50 Years of Myth this past June. He recounts the highlights of the workshop and his opinions on the state of UFO debunking.

It's difficult to decide where to start an article. This one, on my trip to the Tucson skeptics conference, UFOs: 50 Years of Myth, is no exception - so let me begin with my conclusion: The evidence for UFOs is so tenuous and insupportable that, if it were not for the denials by officials and the skeptical community, this balderdash would fall of its own weight with no more than derisive laughter.

     Even as we were finishing the conference the truth was again undermined, not by the UFOlogists, but by yet another official explanation. I almost think the government must have a stake in this game of making air windmills look substantial to the UFO Quixotes of the world, even to the general public.

     UFOlogy is a "science" built on recollections, fantasies and fabrications. As skeptics, we should be open minded, but we need not act as if we have holes in our heads! Testimonial evidence alone cannot support the claims of UFO believers. After 50 years, there is not one shred of irrefutable evidence. UFO-believers have not, after all this time and intensive effort, produced any believable physical evidence. There is simply nothing to explain.

50 years of myth

     Just days before the conference some lights spotted over Phoenix, Arizona were described as the "best UFO case in 20 to 30 years." You may have heard how the UFO community was up in arms when the governor of Arizona, Fife Symington, had the temerity to spoof the sighting by having his advisor come out at a news conference dressed as an alien. From what I could see, Symington was the only one with a real grasp on the situation - why give serious consideration to inanity.

     True disbeliever James McGaha, a retired US Air Force Major and astronomer and director at the Grasslands Observatory, opened the conference by introducing the speakers. With mention of the Phoenix lights, he discussed the history of UFO myths. "We need look no further for the harm UFO beliefs cause than two words: Heaven's Gate," said McGaha. However, I have a different perspective on the Heaven Gate's suicides. It wasn't the UFO. The Heavens Gaters were deathwishers in search of a reason - if not a UFO, it could have been flying reindeer, broomsticks or jackalopes!

     We learned from various polls that 48% of US citizens believe UFOs are real (more than believe pollsters are real!), 54% believe extraterrestrials exist and 64% believe aliens have contacted earthlings. People have always looked to the skies for meaning, said McGaha. The continuum runs from gods to myths to astrology to UFOs. According to McGaha, aliens reflect science fiction and pop culture, not the other way around. Alien spaceships look like the technology of our times. So many varieties of spacecraft, so many aliens, so little time, so much sex ... definitely pop culture.

     I can't help but wonder how the issue has gotten so much press. The illusions of UFOlogy have inflated in an atmosphere polluted with poorly coordinated, disjointed responses. Every release of a demanded classified report has only cast further shadows on the facts. The US Air Force's 1960 Project Blue Book, and later their Condor Report, each stated there was no substance to claims of advanced technologies and ET vehicles and there is no threat to national security. Yet, believers respond to nothing as proof of existence and something as proof of lying. If lack of evidence is proof of a cover-up, then one can only shiver at the skeptical community's own contradictory statements refuting UFOs' existence.

     McGaha raised a number of questions for skeptical examination: Are UFOs real? What is Area 51? How should skeptics deal with UFOs? But it was an audience member who raised the question: Why isn't the National Organization for Women demanding action against rape by aliens?

Roswell and Project Mogul

     "If UFOs were a religion, Roswell would be their Mecca," said Dave Thomas, a physicist and vice president of the New Mexicans for Science and Reason. Thomas noted that the Roswell crash was not even discussed in the 1960 Blue Book Report and did not become an important UFO event until 1978 when the National Enquirer published the story. That was thirty years after an Army publicity officer erroneously reported a saucer had crashed on the desert near Roswell. The Army corrected the report almost immediately; however, it eventually became the basis upon which the Roswell myth grew.

     Let me digress here. How many of us really remember events - even really important ones - from thirty years ago? I mean remember accurately, as they actually happened? I, for example, can recall very little of events that were seminal in my life. If I worked at it, I could develop scenarios and descriptions, but they would probably be more a reflection of the person I am now than the person I was then. Aside from the newspaper articles and military briefs filed when the weather balloon crashed, the Roswell story is based entirely on personal accounts given after the 1978 National Enquirer article.

     The myth has further exploded in the last year as we have been bombarded with fictional accounts of the Roswell crash. The television movie Roswell not only got its facts wrong, said Thomas, it also had the chronology wrong. In the movie The Rock Sean Connery says "I know what the government doesn't want known ... Area 51." Then there is Independence Day, of which no more need be said. These are nothing compared to the assault of new movies, many launched from the premise of an Area 51, which will be released as we approach the new millennium.

     During the discussion period, the statement was made that "scientists modify hypotheses to fit data; pseudoscientists modify data to fit hypotheses." As skeptics we believe this, but tend to forget that refuting UFO beliefs is not science. I think we need to stop developing hypotheses to explain non-data. Testimonial evidence is not data, and using science to explain it is a futile exercise.

     Skeptics also need to keep in mind that their testimonials provide no more evidence than do testimonials from UFO believers. For example, at one point McGaha said, "I am convinced, by what I know of USAF procedures" that something did not happen the way it was stated. To my thinking, these kinds of statements have no more credibility than whatever it is they may be refuting.

A UFO tour of Mexico

     Freelance writer Robert Sheaffer is a CSICOP fellow, co-founder of the Bay Area Skeptics, author of The UFO Verdict: Examining the Evidence, and a long-time skeptical UFO investigator. He described his experiences as an undercover reporter with a group of UFO believers on tour to examine the evidence for UFOs in Mexico. In a wonderful example demonstrating how beliefs are culturally based, Sheaffer said that while Mexicans report seeing UFOs, they could not believe the Yanqui [Yankee] abduction stories. This was surprising considering their belief in the Chupacabras, a spirit form which supposedly kills farm animals and abducts children.

     Sheaffer gave simple, but well thought out explanations for a number of UFO photographs. But most of his presentation focused on the movement's money-makers and the scientists who support them. One national newsperson makes as much as $8,000 a lecture and claims he has scientific backing for his hypotheses. Sheaffer described meeting these "scientists" and his efforts to identify the bases of their proof. He described all kinds of mumbo-jumbo from these meetings, including spectral analysis of photos! But when he asked for actual data to support their UFO claims, it was promised but was never forthcoming.

     Sheaffer also discussed the Roswell Fragment. This odd looking metal piece was said to have been retrieved from the alien space craft that crashed at Roswell. It was obtained by the Roswell UFO Museum in 1996 and held up by believers as incontrovertible proof of UFOs - a metal not of this earth. But alas, much to the believers chagrin, the fragment was tested and shown to be earth-based, produced by a Southwest artist using a special technique for layering copper and silver to produce a wood-grained metal. Sheaffer praised the Roswell Museum for having the guts to get the fragment and have it analyzed. Notwithstanding this proof of its earthly origins, the fragment continues to make the rounds as "evidence" to attract more credulous believers.

The further reaches of credulity

     Robert Baker, media watcher and professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Kentucky, covered the farther reaches of human credulity in a slide show of strange and wondrous UFO stories found in the press. He explained why so many people believe abduction stories. Individuals who have had hypnopompic hallucinations may believe they've been abducted by aliens because they have no other explanation for their experience. Not knowing about the hypnopompic phenomenon, they are not limited in any way in trying to interpret it. Too many people, it seems, need to explain the mundane in exciting and interesting ways. Then, of course, there are the "15 minutes of fame" seekers and the money seekers. These abductees are normal people like you and me: they want respect, fame and money.

     Baker showed how aliens and their technology reflected the technology and/or the science fiction of their times. If UFOs were real, they'd look the same from one generation to the next, but if you peruse their history, you see clearly their images and technology have evolved.

     Stories, too, evolve. Robert Sheaffer followed the evolution of the Barney and Betty Hill abduction story from its original disjointed telling until it emerged years later as a fully-formed narrative. If you meet Betty Hill she is believable, but she's explaining something that never happened, Sheaffer said. The only research that can be done on a case like this is psychological, since there is no empirical way to divine the truth.

     When the first post-war UFO report came out it was big news. Kenneth Arnold, a pilot flying over the Cascade mountain range near Mt. Jefferson in Washington, reported seeing nine saucer-like objects in June of 1947. Arnold reported his story though science fiction writer and publisher Ray Palmer who at one time published seven paranormal magazines, including the magazine Fate. Palmer and Arnold eventually developed a close working relationship. Palmer was the first flying saucer investigator and government conspiracy theory activist.


     I'd like to comment briefly on the environment of the CSICOP conference and the tone of the speakers. I no longer have an open mind about UFOs, so to me true believers are either credulous, crazy or disingenuous. I obviously couldn't lead a session like this. Skeptical speakers, supposedly addressing the topic with an open mind, resorted to a variety of ad hominem attacks, raising the specter of "if you can't debate the subject, attack the believers." Had I been a believer, nothing that happened at the Tucson conference would have dissuaded me.

     Upon my return from this stark encounter with UFO reality, I watched a long TV news segment about a UFO investigator who began by claiming that UFOs must exist and then went on to explain how he was weeding out the most unlikely reports. Once again this is the news media's view of a skeptical investigator. It was a kick in the heart!

     Then just this morning (August 3), I came across an article in the Sunday Oregonian telling me, "CIA reports military lied about UFO sightings." More than half the reports of UFOs came from airline pilots. The military had lied to keep our U-2 and SR-71 spy aircraft secret. Is it any wonder people believe conspiracy theories when each disclosure reveals the government as a liar on the subject?

     I am disappointed by how little our arguments against UFOs have progressed in the last ten years. The last time I took an interest, believers and disbelievers were butting heads to no useful end other than to remind themselves that without each other they'd have no reason to exist. One individual at the conference observed that this battle is fought for the small audience of true believers and disbelievers. The larger audience, though capable of being influenced, is far less important to the results. In other words, if we can defeat the believers on the field of ideas, we will sway the masses. I disagree. But maybe the battle must be fought anyway.

     I am obviously of two minds here. On the one hand I believe the topic almost too ludicrous for discussion. On the other hand, I believe that no matter how badly we're losing, we must always fight battles against ignorance. The difference today from bygone eras is the media. Television has the ability to promote ignorance, credulity and psuedo-science to levels unprecedented in the past. And it does so, even in fictional programing.

     It's not that we don't have the facts on our side, we do. It's just that no one cares. Being skeptical, even at its most interesting, is really boring. If sex sells, then UFOs are like hard-core sex and skepticism is like your mother saying "no!" What is less exciting than raising objections - the same objections - over and over, no matter how diverse the charlatans. Once you have made one interesting show on skepticism, there is little more to say.

     As I said in my opening, I think we are tilting against windmills that don't exist. We are concocting rebuttals and explanations for events that never happened. As UFO myths become more elaborate, we end up constructing ever more intricate and contradictory rebuttals. Embellishing fantasy is no crime, but building ever more convoluted explanations looks like clumsy avoidance. It fuels the conspiracy theories.

     We need to continue the fight with fewer and more powerful weapons - and begin fighting on our own terms. If there is no evidence, it's not worthy of refutation and we should say so. If there is evidence, it must be corroborated or discounted. Otherwise we risk "protesting too much."

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 2001 Oregonians for Rationality