Thinking about UFOs

Do you think that there is any possibility that those who claim to have seen UFOs are actually encountering, well, you know, actual alien spacecraft that have come from another solar system? I know that sounds absolutely crazy to even ask such a question, and if you follow this blog, you know that I am, generally, a Michael Shermer-style skeptic and, in terms of God-belief, an agnostic. You may also have noticed that, in the past, I’ve sassed UFO claims on this blog (see here).

But I’m asking the question with all seriousness because yesterday my father, who is retired and is a bit of a UFO buff, asked me to sit down with him and watch a YouTube video which, I must frankly admit, surprised me for its seriousness, and made me think that the claims of UFO enthusiasts might well have something behind them (though maybe not what they infer). After watching the YouTube I came away much less certain than I was before that there is absolutely nothing to UFO claims. I actually found the video curious enough that I submit it here for others to ponder.

The video consists of people offering their UFO testimonies at the National Press Club back in 2001. While any one of the testifiers, in isolation, would seem to be, however sincere, relatively easy to dismiss as a crank, the cumulative affect of so many earnest and apparently honest testifiers struck me as actually intriguing. I won’t say that their cumulative testimony is, for me, compelling. I’m not a believer in UFOs, even after watching the video. But I am, after watching the video, no longer a completely confident  non-believer in UFOs. These people put doubts in my mind. And even if what they say is completely false, there is entertainment value here, like watching a good creepy movie (like The Blair Witch Project ):

I’d like to add a few additional thoughts. It seems to me that UFOology consists of three elements:

  • the encounter experiences themselves
  • the claim that governments are concealing information for purposes of security
  • the claim that the aliens could solve our energy and environmental problems, and give us novel accesses to consciousness

Of course, these three elements, if seriously believed, constitute a kind of all-encompassing worldview, a religion. I think it’s fair to call full-on UFO belief a contemporary form of gnostic religion, with true believers in possession of unique testimonial experiences that have transformed their lives and that they feel compelled to share with others.

Something that I found quite interesting is how, after the “spell” of the line of witnesses had worked its effect, and you might have been sympathetically softened up and predisposed to believe what had been said, how nevertheless easy it was for the journalists present to punch holes in the UFO thesis with just a few direct questions. I thought that the questions asked by the journalists in the last twenty minutes or so were, frankly, near devestating to the claims being made. It is not because the journalists asked tough questions—but because they asked simple questions that yielded improbable, obfuscating, or nutty answers—that dashed to the ground the whole event’s credibility. In other words, the scripted part had its spellcasting moments, but once the witnesses started ad libbing, it got a bit, shall we say, weird. Based on the response of one of them, for example, you couldn’t help but wonder if the poor man was simply delusional. 

I’d also like to note that I found Daniel Sheehan’s testimony in the above video most unsettling. (Sheehan’s testimony begins at the 1:20:19 mark.) I have had a long respect for Sheehan, and still do. He is a Harvard graduate and is a long-time public advocacy lawyer (akin to Ralph Nadar in his liberal “purity” and devotion to democracy and openness). I had absolutely no idea that he was a supporter of this movement for UFO government disclosure, and I take him to be a very credible witness. I believe that Sheehan is telling the truth about what he believes that he saw.

Sheehan’s involvement also explains to me why Peter Coyote, another well know voice on the Left, narrated a documentary exploring UFOs (titled Out of the Blue ). I have not seen this documentary, though I’ve heard that it is the most “intellectual” of the videos out there. It appears that the notion that the government might be hiding something about UFOs arouses the righteous instincts of liberals like Sheehan and Coyote, who want to see what the government in fact has on these matters. I’ve ordered Out of the Blue  from Amazon and will probably review it at this blog within a week or two.

We are not alone?

NOTE: Perhaps you’re wondering why The National Press Club would give its prestige and microphone to a fringe group like this. Well, it appears that the journalists who compose the club can “sponsor” events, and a senior member, White House correspondent Sarah McClendon, sponsored the group. Sarah McClendon has a long history of endorsing conspiratorial beliefs, going back to JFK assassination speculation, and her Wikipedia biography is here.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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5 Responses to Thinking about UFOs

  1. santitafarella says:

    Does anybody have a good book recommendation on this subject? I’ve never given it serious attention, and I’m wondering if there is a good academic book by an academic publisher on the subject. My cursory Amazon check didn’t turn up anything but “true believer” books.

    —Santi

    • monnowman says:

      The closest I think you’ll get is Richard Dolan’s “UFOs and the National Security State: Chronology of a Coverup, 1941-1973”.

      He’s a “true believer” but his thesis is sane, rational and backed up by lots of evidence. Possibly too much – it can be quite an exhausting read!

  2. wreckage says:

    Hello, Santi.
    I think you will find the books of Jaques Vallee to be of a balanced nature. As for finding any scholarly works on UFOs, I have never found any that aren’t written by ‘true believers’. Vallee has always taken a realistic viewpoint on the subject, and is a scientist to boot.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacques_Vallee

  3. santitafarella says:

    Wreckage:

    Thanks for the author suggestion. It certainly is strange that so very few academics have worked with this phenomenon. I found a professor of folklore who has a chapter at the end of her book that discusses UFO testimony in the light of folklore. I ordered it from Amazon. I also watched a DVD on the Harvard psychologist who used to work with abductees called “Touched” that I thought was rather wonderful.

    —Santi

  4. santitafarella says:

    Monnowman:

    Thanks for the book recommendation. I’ll check it out at amazon.

    —Santi

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