On Thursday, ABC aired a two hour UFO special presented by Peter Jennings, called Seeing Is Believing.
Usually when subjects like this are covered, only the “believer” side is presented, presumably because this results in higher ratings. If the skeptical side is included at all, it is often in a token out-of-context way, so that they can claim “balance”, while in reality promoting the believer viewpoint. An example would be the way ABC abused James Randi on their recent disgraceful “John of God” segment. ABC did no credit to itself on that item.
However, Jennings has in the past shown himself to be a journalist of integrity. In particular, I remember his special a year or so ago, where he debunked the more hysterical claims about the club drug Ecstasy. After this program, Jennings was accused by the Republican politician Mark Souder, of lacking moral compass. (Funny, I thought a moral compass would point you to telling the truth. Perhaps that’s why I’m not a Republican.) Anyway, with Jennings in charge, I had high hopes for this program, and in the main I wasn't disappointed. The program made an honest attempt to express the skeptical viewpoint. The UFO eyewitnesses and “alien abductees” were allowed to tell their stories with dignity and without any attempt to ridicule them, which is how it should be. But in virtually all cases an alternative natural explanation was offered.
It wasn’t prefect. The “Project Blue Book” segment gave a little too much credibility to the one scientist on the team who ended up believing in ET. Some of the “gee wiz” eyewitness accounts were allowed to stand without a direct counterpoint. But the general weaknesses of eyewitness accounts were explored. Neil deGrasse Tysen, Director of the Hayden Planetarium, explained that although most people in a court of law would view eyewitness evidence as strong, in the “court of science” eyewitness evidence is the lowest form of evidence. Michael Shermer was also there to explain that eyewitness accounts are unreliable.
Is it a bird, is it a plane?
In line with the program’s title, there were numerous examples of people who had seen strange objects in the sky they believed were alien craft. A lot of time was spent on people who had seen the Phoenix lights – a string of lights in the sky that many believe was one huge UFO. An amateur astronomer was interviewed saying that these lights were almost certainly flares, and that the eyewitnesses had literally “connected the dots” to make a huge alien spacecraft. Other investigators have shown that the lights were really aircraft flying in formation. Whatever they really were, believers in ET are committing the same error in reasoning as creationists who cite irreducible complexity: they say that if we don’t know what it is then it must be..... (and here they insert their own preferred explanation. Creationists insert “designer” or “God”; ET enthusiasts insert “alien spacecraft”). They are using a lack of knowledge to arrive at a conclusion, but you can’t draw any conclusions from a lack of knowledge. Most ET “evidence” is of this kind.
During this segment, I couldn’t help noticing inconsistencies. Why were some ETs invisible to radar (due no doubt to cloaking technology), while some were seen on radar? Why were some ETs silent while another had rocket flames propelling them? Why were some saucer shaped, some cigar shaped and yet others triangular? And why were so few seen in broad daylight? Most were seem as extremely bright lights at night. What gives – if the aliens want to remain undetected why do they keep their high intensity landing lights on at night? Of course, none of this disproves the ET hypothesis, but these phenomena are consistent with unidentified objects of a non-ET kind.
Do aliens still use balloons for inter-stellar travel?
The Roswell “mystery” was explored pretty well. It is now known that what crashed in 1947 was a top-secret spy balloon, and Jennings unambiguously called the Roswell crashed ET story a “myth”. Especially compelling was the photo of a radar reflector on the balloon, animated to show how it would break up to fit the shape of the wreckage in the newspaper photo.
Jennings could perhaps have spent more time explaining Roswell. I was a little disappointed that he did not state that the “alien autopsy” film is known to be a fake (although it’s hard to see how anyone could think otherwise, watching the obviously faked dummies being worked on). But it is also true that some people will never accept that Roswell wasn’t an alien crash, no matter what the evidence to the contrary. As one of the scientists pointed out, Roswell is an item of faith among the ET believers: “it happened, don’t bother me with the facts”. A myth, indeed.
“They extracted my sperm”
Several “alien abductees” were featured. Almost all of these can be explained without resorting to ET abductions: Susan Clancy and others showed that sleep paralysis is a better explanation. Sleep paralysis is the condition that occurs just before dropping off to sleep or just before fully awakening from sleep. The victim typically awakes from a period of REM sleep with the body still paralyzed and incapable of movement (a feature of REM sleep that prevents us from acting out our dreams, running around in our sleep, and so on). The person can be very scared by this, and often feels there is some sort of presence in the room. Of course, this is real to those who experience them, although they are actually the product of fantasy or imagination. It was also stated that sleep paralysis is probably responsible for stories of succubi, incubi and other demons throughout the ages. These same experiences today are viewed through the filter of popular culture and stories of aliens, and so these days are reported as alien abductions.
It was notable that by my count, five of the six “abductees” described their experience starting “I awoke”, or “I was lying in bed” or “in the middle of the night”, or similar. (The sixth interview was very short – it was not possible to tell if the “abductee” was in bed or not.) One person said the aliens were “three feet eleven inches high”, which seemed a pretty precise estimation, more consistent with imagination than an actual event. Another feature of these “abductions” – remembering the beginning and the end of the experience, but being hazy about the middle – is also entirely consistent with the experience of dreaming.
Unfortunately, these stories are often strengthened by the introduction of hypnosis to supposedly recover lost memories. One person was shown saying that through hypnosis he “realized that (he) was in a spaceship”. It is known that hypnosis if a very unreliable method for recovering what actually happened: the person being hypnotized is highly susceptible to suggestion, and will unconsciously manufacture “memories” to please the hypnotist, especially if these “memories” fit the preconceived belief of alien abduction. The memories “recovered” under hypnosis become even more real than the previous memories, thus strengthening the false belief further. The program did a pretty good job of explaining this, although it is perhaps a pity that Elizabeth Loftus, an acknowledged expert in false memories, was not interviewed.
Still no signal
The comparison was made with the real scientists at SETI, who have been searching for extra-terrestrial signals from distant stars for the last 45 years, without success. Unlike UFO enthusiasts, the scientists are not claiming that they have actually made contact, but when and if they do, they will say exactly where they found it and exactly what to look for. In other words there will be data, and they will actively encourage other scientists and anyone else with the equipment, to check the data for themselves. The difference between real science and UFO pseudoscience could not have been any clearer.
The program concluded by saying that only contact will resolve the mystery. Well, of course. Nearly 60 years since Roswell and not one piece of hard evidence – not one piece of crashed spacecraft, not one piece of unknown material, not one piece of alien technology has been recovered, just blurry photos and lights in the sky. Of course, to the conspiracy theorists that’s just proof of a cover up. (Conspiracy theory: the only type of theory where a lack of evidence is considered to be the strongest evidence for the theory.) But to realists it means we have no reason to suppose we have been visited by aliens.
Of course, not all sightings have been explained and some can never be explained. That always leaves the door open to the possibility that aliens might have visited Earth. All in all, however, I find it hard to see how a genuine open-minded person, interested in the truth, could come away from this program thinking UFOs must be extra-terrestrial.