Wednesday, November 03, 2010


The Great (Non-)Debate About UFOs

I had been contacted some time ago by Sun Media for the series they were doing on UFOs. I was under the impression they were going to run it before Hallowe'en, but scheduling had it just start on October 31 and ran the next few days. Curiously, some Sun Media papers ran all three parts on the same day, while others chose to spread it out.

Anyway, I had been asked to comment on the QMI survey that they were doing, without knowing the results. I gave them details on the survey that Ufology Research had done some time ago, and sent them the excellent and virtually unread paper Geoff Dittman had written on UFO polls, noted here previously:

The other thing I was asked to do was give answers to a set of questions that would be posed to both myself and archskeptic Robert Sheaffer, who headed the UFO subcommittee of CSICOP.

The two-sided Q&A was published thusly:

I'll also note the text here in case the link dies (as it has for some of the papers already):


After a series of puzzling stories in 2010 concerning UFOs -- publicized sightings from Newfoundland and Montreal to China and the U.K. -- QMI Agency, in a three-part Alien Probe special report, has looked at how humans continue to contemplate mysteries in the heavens.

And in the discussion, Canadians overwhelmingly - an exclusive Leger Marketing poll revealed yesterday - believe UFOs could be connected to alien visitors.

But in this final day of the series, we thought it might be worthwhile to get a grounding in facts.

So we invited renowned American skeptic and debunker Robert Sheaffer and Canadian UFO-buff Chris Rutkowski -- a Winnipeg-based astronomer who helps keep track of Canadian sightings -- to debate the known realities.

[Here are the Questions]

Do you believe aliens are visiting our world?

Chris: The UFO question is not about aliens visiting Earth, but about sightings of UFOs, which are not necessarily extraterrestrial. But since you asked, I would say there is no incontrovertible evidence to prove that aliens are visiting Earth. All we can say, scientifically, is that astronomers haven't detected any large interstellar craft heading for Earth during the last century or two. However, it would be presumptuous to think we have the ability to recognize, let alone detect a technology that might be hundreds or thousands of years ahead of us.

Robert: No. Nor do I believe in Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, or sightings of Elvis. Just because some people think they see something strange doesn't mean it's real.

What would it take to make skeptics believe?

Chris: Again, I doubt it will happen. By definition, skeptics are doubters to the end. A debunker, on the other hand, refuses to consider evidence against his or her belief system. It's their version of religion. Some have the attitude: "Don't bother me with the facts; my mind is already made up." Some debunkers state that no scientific studies show UFOs are worth the effort, but don't mention relevant literature, such as Blue Book Special Report 14, or the annual Canadian UFO surveys, or NARCAP reports on pilots' sightings. Sometimes a debunker says that a piece of metal with a non-terrestrial isotope ratio would be convincing proof of alien visitation, but I'm sure that the testing and analysis of such a piece, if ever offered, would be so clouded in doubt and accusations, it wouldn't be worth a plugged Martian nickel.

Robert - Obviously if a UFO landed on the White House lawn, that would suffice. But it need not be something so dramatic. If hundreds or even thousands of people independently sighted, and many photographed, a large flying structured craft in daylight (not some little dot in the sky), and all these photos were consistent with a real object, it would be very difficult to say that object wasn't real. Especially if the people had no connection or common link beforehand. But that never happens. Why not? Some UFOs are reported to hang around for an hour or more. Isn't that enough time to get a TV news crew to the site, even just once?

What would it take to make believers lose faith?

Chris: In my opinion, it won't happen easily, if at all. Belief is something that cannot be changed without a paradigm shift. Pronouncements by "experts" that something is not possible or deserving of study likely only reinforce long-standing beliefs held by people who may be looking for affirmation or validation beyond authorities' insistence. And to someone who has seen a UFO, skeptics' insistence that belief in UFOs is nonsense only reinforces a distrust of science. It's like Columbus being told by skeptics not to waste his time looking for the New World because it couldn't possibly be there. Oh, wait. They did tell him that. My bad. Sorry.

Robert: I don't think that ever could happen, since most of them have a strong emotional attachment to the "faith." It's much like a religious faith, and not based on logic. No matter how many UFO sightings are shown to have a rational explanation, believers resist accepting the explanation, and claim there is a government "cover-up" of UFO secrets.

What's your best theory behind a long history of UFO sightings around the globe?

Chris: The simplest theory is that not everyone can identify what they see in the sky. Nevertheless, UFO sightings represent a historical, persistent and global phenomenon, and for that reason, it seems reasonable that science should be studying it in more depth. UFOs are either physical phenomena, or psychological or sociological phenomena, so that in either case, scientists should be studying UFO reports.

Robert: It began in the frenzied post-War and early Cold War atmosphere of rapid progress in aeronautics and rockets, and of the atom bomb. Exciting and sometimes frightening new things were happening all the time. Once a certain percentage of the population believed that UFOs were something real, reports of UFO sightings in the mass media were enough for the phenomenon to feed on itself. Every time people saw something in the sky that looked a little strange, "It's a Flying Saucer!" became the conclusion.

Do you believe world governments are withholding important information on UFO sightings?

Chris: Most countries' governments withhold some information from their constituents. Why should the subject of UFOs be exempt? It is reasonable to think that data on certain UFO cases would have been collected through intelligence channels that are classified, and for that reason would be withheld from public scrutiny. There are many circumstances under which FOIA (or in Canada, AI) requests about would be denied, and we wouldn't even know the documents existed.

Robert: No. There undoubtedly are a few reports in the secret files from pilots or military personnel on a special mission who think they've seen a UFO. Stuff like that. But documents that "reveal" the "startling truth" about what UFOs are, where they come from, etc. -- nope.

We seem to be going through one of those periodic upswings in the number of UFO news stories. What should people take away from these reports?

Chris: Well, for one thing, this tells us there are many qualified observers who have seen and reported UFOs. It has been said that pilots make mistakes of observation as much as anyone else, but let's face it: Their observational abilities are relied upon every day for making judgments that keep our lives safe. If a military pilot with 10,000 hours in the air says he saw something that mystified him, it's worth talking about.

Robert: That even trained personnel can mistake ordinary phenomena for something strange and exotic. They're human, just like the rest of us. And none of these people have any actual proof that they witnessed something mysterious, it's just their interpretation of what they saw. So many sightings, so little evidence.

A few things to note:

I was described as a "UFO buff" - not the most accurate term, but something that anyone who studies the UFO phenomenon seriously has to live with. I take some comfort from the fact that J. Allen Hynek was also often called a UFO buff.

Also, on Twitter, after a member of the Ottawa skeptics tweeted a link to the debate, he was asked who "won" the debate. He replied, not surprisingly, that the skeptic did, because the "believer" attacked skeptics in his answers. Two things arise from that. First of all, debunkers often resort to attacks on supporters of UFO investigation in print, and it's considered fair game. Secondly, calling me a "believer" is curious. What, exactly, am I "believer" in? Interestingly, if you examine what I said in print, nothing there is at odds with conventional science. I made no claims about invasions by little green men, alien intervention in government activities, nor the existence of pod creatures in our neighbourhoods. In fact, I was very careful to simply argue that the UFO phenomenon should not be dismissed by science but studied scientifically and objectively.

I think that my being labeled as a "believer" was a result of my opponent being called a skeptic, and so for a debate, I had to have an opposing or contradictory viewpoint. But if you look at our two answers, they are mostly in line with one another. That thwarted a really juicy American-style political debate, but it did accurately give readers a sense of where serious ufology makes its stand. (And I'm often called a "skeptic" in the UFO community because I don't buy into a lot of what's touted as ufology these days.)

So, given that I must be wrong because the skeptic is right, my statement that there is "no incontrovertible evidence to prove that aliens are visiting Earth" must be in error. Ergo, aliens are here.

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Interesting post about both the media, and the views of sceptics/believers.

On the blog at my fellow blogger, Keith Basterfield & I have been taking a look at the role U-2 USAF flights over Australia in the 1960's played in creating UFO reports -under Operation Crowflight.

We have received negative feedback from some UFO researchers who ask us why we try and explain UFO reports, when everyone knows they are UFOs. Also some sceptics have congratulated us for explaining UFO cases. Actually, all we did was follow the evidence.
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