The world of the UFO "believer"

Personal observations of Royston Paynter


Broadly speaking, there are two flavours of UFOlogy - a serious kind, practiced by means of the scientific method, and what I shall call "popular UFOlogy", the kind one finds on the bookshelves in the "New Age" section. There can be no doubt that UFOs really do exist - but "UFO" means "unidentified flying object", and as far as I am aware, there is no tangible proof that any UFO was an alien space ship. But it is undeniable that some people really do see (or think they see) things in the sky that they do not recognize. To call these things "UFO"s is perhaps prejudicial - because the words "flying object" imply a nuts-and-bolts apparatus such as an alien space ship. A better term would be "unidentified aerial apparition", the scientific study of which has led to the discovery of a number of unusual natural phenomena, such as "Earth lights", a kind of atmospheric discharge caused by geomagnetic activity.

In this essay I want to address popular UFOlogy, which, in North America, means the belief that some UFOs are alien space ships. Why do so many people (at least half of Americans questioned) believe such an incredible thing, and on the basis of such scant evidence?

The simple answer is that they believe it because they do not consider it to be incredible, or the evidence to be scant.

How so? To find the answer we must step through the looking glass into the world of the "believer", where we will find a self-consistent universe full of alien life forms, science-fiction technologies, and political intrigue.

Possibility is inevitability

We must start with the question of the existence of alien life, for without a belief in that popular UFOlogy could not even get off the ground. What are the facts as we know them?

If we put aside the claims of popular UFOlogy itself, we find that there is no evidence whatsoever that intelligent alien life even exists. The various SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) projects, that sweep the sky with powerful radio telescopes, listening for alien signals, have turned up nothing. Whereas Mars may once have harboured unicellular organisms, according to the Viking probes that landed there, it is now a dead planet. As far as science is aware, therefore, we are alone in the universe.

Nonetheless, one would be hard pressed to find an informed scientist who is willing to argue that life is unique to the Earth. On the contrary, most scientists believe that alien life probably does exist, out there, somewhere, because, the universe is so darned BIG. Even if intelligent life is a one-in-a-billion proposition, there are so many billions of stars out there that it would frankly be astonishing to find that alien life did not exist.

The believer takes this to mean that alien life definitely does exist. His next challenge is to get his aliens to Earth.

One can construct arguments about how difficult interstellar travel would be based upon physics as we know it. Frank Drake, for example, argues that the expenditure of energy and resources required to move 100 aliens to a nearby star system would provide a luxurious standard of living for 100,000 aliens were they to stay home, and that therefore, any alien race that could count would figure it a waste of resources to attempt an exploration of the galaxy (except by radio communication.) One can also argue that the distance between stars is just too great to be traversed in a meaningful time.

However, in the view of the "believer", such arguments are closed-minded. To the "believer", the "light barrier" will some day be broken, just like the sound barrier. He might even point to Alcubierre's "warp drive" paper and conclude that, because possibility is inevitability, aliens have access to "exotic matter" and use such a trans-light technology. His final argument will be that "science does not know everything", that the laws of physics as we now know them are a transitory approximation to a set of laws known to, and exploited by, our alien visitors.

It is undeniably possible that aliens exist, and that they could even visit the Earth. There is no point to arguing that such a feat of technology would be impossible for humans, because, well, these are aliens, and who is to say that they do not have a "warp drive" or 10,000-year life spans? Skeptics must concede the possibility of alien visitations, I believe, but not their inevitability. The proof, surely, must be found in the pudding. The crucial question that popular UFOlogy must answer is: where is the physical evidence that aliens are visiting the Earth?

Where's the beef?

The lynch pin of a belief in alien visitations has to be a conspiracy theory - the notion that the physical evidence of alien visitations is being kept from the general public by the government or by the aliens themselves. Without a conspiracy theory of some kind a belief in alien visitations is simply untenable, because, in the public domain there is no physical evidence whatsoever that aliens are visiting the Earth.

"Believers" will argue that there is a mountain of evidence - sightings, reports, and even physical evidence like crop circles, mutilated cattle and marks on the ground. But all of these examples of "evidence" are really just claims - it is claimed that what was seen was an alien space ship, or it is claimed that a cow was mutilated by aliens, but there is never any properly scientific proof that aliens were actually involved.

In fact, popular UFOlogy consists entirely of claims, and it is only these claims that are available for study. We simply cannot study the UFO itself (it is unidentified by definition and a transitory phenomenon) and we cannot reproduce the sighting in the laboratory. But we have a mountain of claims about aliens and no physical evidence whatsoever that aliens even exist!

How can we reconcile the claims with the lack of evidence? Skeptics adopt an open-minded approach and put aside the claim of aliens in order to determine the true nature of the phenomenon. The problem, as I have said above, is that most of the time the only "phenomenon" left to study is the claim itself, the UFO having long since departed.

To a "believer", however, there is no distinction between the words "claim" and "evidence". If somebody claims to have seen an alien space ship the "believer" simply asks "is this a reliable witness?", whereas the skeptic would ask "was what he saw an alien space ship?". The "believer", knowing full well that aliens exist and can visit the Earth, takes it for granted that a police officer, or fighter pilot, can recognize an alien space ship when he sees one.

But can he? Try asking somebody that claims to have seen an alien space ship, how he was able to determine that what he saw was (1) a space ship and (2) alien. A small minority will claim to have good reason to have drawn such a conclusion, for example, a conversation with the alien occupants, or a visit in the space ship to an alien planet. But the vast majority of claimants simply saw a light dancing in the night sky, and have no basis whatsoever for concluding that they saw an alien space ship. When questioned they will become defensive ("I know what I saw") or even mildly abusive ("you are closed-minded".)

It is unfortunate that the small minority that do get to meet aliens close-up never, ever, come away from the encounter with any tangible proof that it really happened. Even the "abductees" never manage to swipe so much as an alien ash tray from the interrogation room. It is the complete absence of physical evidence that perplexes skeptics - surely there ought to be something alien left lying about as proof of all these alien visitations?

But the "believers" can explain it easily, and tie everything up in a self-consistent bundle that encompasses everything in a manner that supports their belief. There is a world-wide conspiracy to conceal these alien visitations, operated by the aliens themselves or by a secret government, or both. Every scrap of physical evidence is immediately seized by the agents of this awful conspiracy (perhaps the sinister "Men in Black") wherever it may turn up around the globe. People with dangerous knowledge of this truth are intimidated into silence or made to disappear. Of course, the government denials of knowledge about any alien visitations (such as the recent congressional investigation into the Roswell Incident) are simply a part of the cover-up and any evidence that turns up to weaken the cover-up theory is "disinformation".

A skeptic might well be excused for considering this idea to be a little paranoid and for objecting that it constitutes a non-falsifiable hypothesis, but once the "believer" has swallowed this magic pill then he is free to believe anything he wants. It does not help the skeptics that thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, proponents of the conspiracy theory now have access to documents that mention UFOs, written in a time during the cold war when paranoia about the "communist conspiracy" was very real in American politics and in the military. One must expect the American military to have taken a special interest in reports of unusual craft in the skies during the cold war period, be they real, misapprehended or imagined, but "believers" seize upon them as proof of a cover-up and of alien visitations, for there is no smoke without fire.

Ten million flies can't be wrong

At the heart of popular UFOlogy exist a few dedicated individuals. Some of them genuinely believe that aliens are visiting the Earth, based upon a personal experience. Some of them are cynically milking UFOlogy for what they can get out of it. But most "believers" are not like either one of these prototypes. They have simply read a number of books about UFOs, in which claims are presented as fact, and have reasoned that with so many books and magazines and TV shows about alien visitations and with 50% of Americans believing them, there must be something to it.

What harm does it do to believe such a thing? In the majority of cases, probably none. Personally, I don't see a real difference between somebody who writes about alien visitations and somebody who casts horoscopes or runs a "psychic hot line" as "entertainment for adults only". People really want to believe such things for some reason, and are willing to pay to be told what they want to hear. In the final analysis it does not really matter whether 50% of Americans believe in alien visitations or not. If we are not, as some of them think, on the brink of an alien invasion, and if our tax dollars are not being wasted on tin foil hats to keep out alien brain waves, then I see no harm in a bit of fun about little green men, or grays, or whatever.

Furthermore, the notion of a universe teeming with alien voyagers is downright entertaining, and has led to entire genres of art and literature that have been enjoyed by skeptics and believers alike.

There are a couple of exceptions that I would mention, however. The first is the practice of "recovering" memories of alien abductions by hypnosis. If these tortured souls are not really being abducted by aliens (and I note that not a single one has managed to prove it yet) then one has to question the methods and ethics of their hypnotists. One would have hoped that the practitioners of hypnosis themselves would have taken steps to regulate its use, especially in a society as litigious as the United States of America.

The second, and more obvious, case in which the claims of popular UFOlogy do actual harm to people is that of "UFO cults". Of course, UFOlogy is not the only religion to have led to a mass suicide, but unlike most religions UFOlogy claims to have a grounding in scientific research. In fact, there is much to criticize in what passes for "science" in popular UFOlogy, and the advocates of the notion that alien visitiations are supported by properly scientific evidence need to pay attention to what such exaggerated claims can lead to.

UFOlogy - a religion or "science entertainment"?

I define a religion as a belief system based upon non-falsifiable hypotheses. An example would be the assertion that each of us possesses an immortal soul, or that an unknowable God created the universe. These hypotheses are non-falsifiable because we are unable to test them, even in principle, because of the way "soul" and "God" are defined. They cannot be measured in the laboratory, and so, we cannot perform an experiment to prove that they do not exist (if they don't)

To define what I mean by "science entertainment" I need to refer to the world of professional wrestling, otherwise known as "sports entertainment". It is a kind of sport in that it is a display of athletic prowess but it is different from a true sport in a number of crucial ways. Most importantly, it is not competitive. There is no real struggle between the wrestlers, but rather, a kind of improvisational stuntsmanship. The matches are at least planned ("booked") beforehand and often rehearsed, and the wrestlers must in fact co-operate with one another, "sell" each other's moves, the loser "jobbing" to put the winner "over". In professional wrestling jargon, fans that believe the matches to be real are "marks".

Most UFO buffs earnestly believe that aliens are visiting the Earth, it seems to me, and I have been trying to figure out why. Those that have seen a UFO themselves, believe in alien visitations as a kind of religion, as far as I can tell. They go to great lengths to justify the fact that not one scrap of real physical evidence for alien visitations has been found - ever. The hypothesis of alien visitations is rendered non-falsifiable either by the invocation of a world-wide conspiracy or by saying that the aliens are so advanced technologically that there is no way for we mere mortals to prove their presence among us.

It is easy enough to draw superficial parallels between UFOlogy and a conventional religion. For example, UFOlogy has its Holy Grail (physical evidence), gods (the aliens), prophets (Lazar, Friedman, Good, etc.), and Roswell, New Mexico has even been declared a "sacred site" by UFO buffs. Non-believers are demonized as "debunkers" or as agents of the Government Conspiracy. Not to believe the testimony of the "experiencers" is an act of stupidity or perfidy.

But such parallels are perhaps too easy to draw, so let us now compare UFOlogy and professional wrestling. Are UFOlogists really doing science, or are they just going through the motions?

I believe that there is a second kind of UFO buff, who may not have had a UFO sighting of his own, but who has been impressed by the "science entertainment" contained in the popular literature on the subject. The causal reader should ask himself "why is it that career scientists, almost to a man, ignore UFOlogy completely?" Are they stupid? Are they closed-minded? Or are they able to tell at a glance the difference between real science and "science entertainment"?

In real sport there is a real athletic competition, and in real science there is a real competition of ideas. Real sport has strict rules, in "sports entertainment" the rules are bent to enhance the spectacle and in UFOlogy the rules of science are bent or ignored in order to justify a continued belief in alien visitations. Flying saucer "marks" really do exist, ignorant of how science really works and of why the arguments put forward to justify the belief in alien visitations violate the basic principles of the scientific method. It may look like real science, but it isn't.

Of course, occasionally, a pair of professional wrestlers will stop co-operating for some reason and a "shoot" fight will break out. And perhaps one day, aliens will land on the White House Lawn. In the mean time, if UFO buffs want to believe in alien visitations as a kind of religion, fair enough. I happen to believe that everybody has the right to believe any religion he chooses. But please, let's stop pretending that a belief in alien visitations is real science.

UFOlogist Karl Pflock has done what is seemingly impossible these days -- he has come up with a pro-UFO theory that is actually new.....

More than a few veteran UFOlogists are unhappy with the sensationalism and low quality of UFO cases in recent years (although the majority seem not to notice or to care). They long for the Good Old Days back in the 1950s and 1960s, when UFOs and their occupants behaved like nuts-and-bolts spacecraft and living spacemen were supposed to behave (instead of today's typical report of aliens floating in through bedroom walls and "beaming" a sleeping victim up to a distant craft for dreamlike sexual activities). Why have the type and kind of reports changed? Skeptics of various stripes have tended to put forth socio-psychological explanations: the reports do not describe real events, and the reports have changed because society has changed. But Pflock sees it a different way: He suggests that the aliens were here during UFOlogy's Golden Age, but they've since left.

Pflock is the author of Roswell: Inconvenient Facts and The Will To Believe (Prometheus Books, 2001), a skeptical look at the alleged Roswell saucer crash. Pflock would say that the aliens probably were indeed here at the time of the supposed crash in 1947, but based on the evidence he lets them off the hook for this incident. He also writes a "fifth column" for James Moseley's UFO gossip sheet, Saucer Smear.

Pflock isn't willing to commit himself to a hard and fast date for the last authentic UFO case, but he suggests the following scenario as a "working hypothesis":

Based on the data, I'm subjectively certain that we have been visited by nonhuman intelligent beings--to my 1950s-conditioned mind, most likely from an extra-solar planet of our galaxy However, we do not yet have proof of this--as opposed to very strong evidence pointing to it--though such proof very well may be in the data already in hand, as yet unrecognized as such.

I use the past tense advisedly. If I am correct that some sightings were observations of such visitors and their vehicles, I suspect that they were here and left some time ago--arriving in the early to mid-1940s, departing in the late 1960s or early 1970s.... They studied our entire system and us quite closely. Once in a while a couple of grad students got out of hand and buzzed the natives. On occasion some ambitious scientists overstepped a bit and interfered with the local....

Pflock suggests that the strongest evidence of alien visitation are cases like the "classic" Trent photos of 1950 and the Nash-Fortenberry airline pilot sighting of 1952. He also is big on "the famous, and in my considered opinion, real 1961 abduction of Barney and Betty Hill," although the psychiatrist to whom the Hills first told this story didn't believe it, and Betty Hill has since gone on to report--among other things--seeing entire squadrons of UFOs in the skies over New Hampshire, babysitting a ghost, and watching a truck levitate. Pflock's own experience as a youth seeing a "strangely behaving light in the sky," along with four other people, has also contributed to his belief that at least some UFO sightings were real, even if none of them seem to be today.

Pflock suggests 1973 as a tentative date for the alien departure, which happens to coincide with the last great wave of UFO sightings, at least in the U.S. The implications of his theory for UFOlogy are enormous: Every UFO sighting and abduction claim occurring from about 1974 onward is totally, 100 percent bogus. This would invalidate such UFOlogical classics as the Travis Walton "abduction" (Pflock has elsewhere noted that Walton's account seems to have "borrowed" from Heinlein's science fiction); all of the "bedroom abduction" accounts put forth by Budd Hopkins and "the threat" to Earth as discerned by David Jacobs; the Mexico City sightings and videos; and all of the Space Shuttle "UFO videos," to mention just a few.

One possibility to consider is that the aliens did not leave Earth, but simply migrated to the South American country of Chile. Because the locals have reported so many UFO sightings during the past two decades, Miguel Marquez, the mayor of the Maipo River region near Santiago, has declared his region an official "UFO tourism zone. He plans to have two observation centers erected, mark the sites of local sightings, and even offer workshops on important subjects such as how to photograph alien visitors. One Chilean astronomer suggested that people were confused by seeing the bright center of the southern Milky Way, or else the Southern Lights owing to Chile's southern latitude. A better suggestion comes from UFO skeptic James Oberg, who notes that Chile "is on the ground track of satellite launchings from Russia's Plesetsk space center, and rocket reboost firings and fuel dumps have been regularly occurring over that part of the world for about thirty years."

Meanwhile, here in the U.S. the entire UFO field is presently very quiet, compared to just a few years ago. Veteran UFOlogist James W. Moseley writes, "Let's face it, folks: Things are slow in UFOlogy these days. Most of Farish's December 2001 issue [a UFO newsclipping service] is devoted to crop circles and other overseas matters, as there just isn't enough going on, here on this side of the pond." John Velez, the Web master of the Abduction Information Center writes that "the number of reports that I receive directly has gone from a whopping five to fifteen reports a day to maybe one or two a week," and this is in spite of a steady increase in visits to his Web site. Mark Rodeghier of CUFOS has also recently noted that the number of abduction reports they receive has been steadily declining over the past few years. Velez speculates, tongue-in-cheek, "Have the 'Bugs' finally collected enough human DNA? Are the 'aliens' through with us? Has 'Phase Two' of whatever the hell it is 'They' are up to been completed/accomplished?" Perhaps the recent decline in abductions is further evidence that the aliens have departed, although Pflock would place their departure much farther back than about the year 2000.

The recent cancellation of The X-Files is probably a reflection of the public's satiation with UFO abduction and conspiracy tales, which can only titillate for so long until the fickle public taste clamors for some novel entertainment. UFOs will almost certainly be back--they've gone into hibernation several times before--although it will probably require some new angle or new "blockbuster" conspiracy claim to revive them. It's also possible that UFOs might be supplanted by some entirely new and unexpected form of conspiracy-related fantasy entertainment that gives the public the same vicarious thrill of imaginary but exciting unknown powers.