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Uncritical Publicity for Supposed ‘Independent UFO Investigation’ Demonstrates Media Gullibility

News & Comment

Robert Sheaffer

Volume 22.5, September / October 1998

On Monday, June 19, 1998, all of the major media outlets were suddenly filled with accounts proclaiming that an independent panel of scientists had taken a fresh look at the UFO question, and had concluded that the matter needed to be taken seriously after all. The Washington Post wrote glowingly of “the first independent scientific review of the controversial topic in almost 30 years” that supposedly found “cases that included intriguing and inexplicable details, such as burns to witnesses, radar detections of mysterious objects, strange lights appearing repeatedly in the skies over certain locales, aberrations in the workings of automobiles, and irradiation and other damage found in vegetation.” ABC News reported, “A panel of scientists is conducting the first independent UFO investigation in nearly 30 years.” The Associated Press reported that “an international panel of scientists” was convened to conduct “the first independent review of UFO phenomena since 1966.”

While finding that eyewitness testimony about UFOs was of little scientific value and “there was no convincing evidence pointing to . . . the involvement of extraterrestrial intelligence” (a major point widely underplayed by news reports), the panel had concluded that “the physical evidence in some UFO sightings merits further serious scientific review.”

However, what virtually every major news organization completely overlooked is that this was far from an “independent” review of UFOs. The Society for Scientific Exploration, sponsor of the panel, is not a “mainstream” scientific organization. Instead, it is a group inclined toward belief in paranormal phenomena, albeit one with many scientists among its membership. This could have been easily determined by any reporter who would have taken the trouble to peruse their Web site, or to interview them meaningfully. For the past eleven years, the Journal of Scientific Exploration been publishing articles suggesting that at least some paranormal claims are true, and have been verified scientifically. On the SSE Web site are found papers purporting to demonstrate that dowsing has been verified, that young chicks have psychokinetic powers, and that reincarnation is not only verified, but that past lives are often indicated by the presence of birthmarks. The Web site proclaims the journal’s intention to publish supposedly scientific papers on “UFO and related phenomena, clairvoyance, precognition, telepathy, psychokinesis, out-of-body and near-death experiences, cryptozoology, evidence suggestive of reincarnation, alternative medical practices, astrological claims, ball lightning, crop circles, apparent chemical or biological transmutation (alchemy), etc.” Despite the impressive jargon and in some cases the impressive academic degrees of the authors, these papers have been absolutely unconvincing to mainstream scientific journals and organizations, and, far from pointing the way to further research, they have been quite deliberately ignored.

The SSE UFO Panel invited only pro-UFOlogists to present supposed “evidence"; the skeptical viewpoint was evidently felt not to be worth considering. The panel was funded by Laurance Rockefeller, whose previous financial support for pro-UFO organizations is well-known. The scientific sessions of the panel were moderated by David E. Pritchard, professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harold E. Puthoff, director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Austin. Puthoff is well-known in parapsychological circles for his experiments with Uri Geller at SRI International during the 1970s, which are now viewed even by most parapsycholgists as hopelessly flawed. He is currently researching “Zero-Point Energy,” i.e. supposed techniques for extracting useful amounts of free energy from the vacuum of space. (see “Zero-Point Energy and Harold Puthoff,” Skeptical Inquirer, May/June 1998, and the subsequent exchange between Puthoff and Martin Gardner in this issue, page 60.) The Journal of Scientific Exploration has published Puthoff’s writings on that subject. Pritchard was one of the organizers of the 1992 Abduction Study Conference at MIT, along with Budd Hopkins, Dr. John Mack of Harvard, and David Jacobs of Temple University. This conference, which was overwhelmingly slanted toward the pro-UFO and pro-abduction position, was intended to provide scientific credibility for the Hopkins-Jacobs-Mack abduction hypothesis, which centers around a supposed alien plan to breed part-human, part-alien hybrids. The conference not only failed to sway the scientific community, but has become something of an embarrassment to UFO believers as it made public for the first time some of the more outlandish claims and practices of the UFO abductionists.

The UFO “experts” who were invited to present supposed evidence to the SSE UFO panel were: Richard Haines, psychologist and longtime pro-UFO researcher; Illobrand von Ludwiger, director of the Central European branch of MUFON; Mark Rodeghier, director of the Center for UFO Studies, Chicago; John Schuessler, Deputy Director of MUFON; Erling Strand, one of the directors of UFO Norway; Michael Swords, Scientific Director of CUFOS; Jacques Vallee, the author of many UFO books, who has repeatedly suggested that UFO reports signify something momentous precisely because they do not make sense; and Jean-Jacques Velasco, the Director of SEPRA, the French Space Agency (CNES) UFO Study. Not one of these investigators is a skeptic in any sense of the word; all of them have long-standing positions of UFO advocacy.

Amazingly, the cases that the panel found so impressive are old ones that have long been touted by UFO promoters and have failed to convince skeptics inside or outside the scientific community. One of their principal cases was an alleged UFO “landing trace” case in Trans-en-Provence, France. The soil appeared to have been compacted, and traces were found of iron, zinc, and phosphates. However, the connection of the alleged ‘landing trace' to any aerial event rests upon the testimony of just one individual. If he is either hoaxing or deluded, then the incident proves nothing about UFOs no matter how many tests might be performed upon soil samples.

The Cash-Landrum case of 1980 was presented as evidence of physiological effects upon witnesses. Exposure to a flaming UFO is said to have produced blisters, digestive disorders, burns, hair loss, and other dramatic effects. However, the accuracy of these claims is impossible to assess, as only selected portions of the medical records of the individuals involved have ever been released. Furthermore, no other witnesses in this suburban area of Houston reported seeing anything at all, and no effects of the UFO’s supposed heat and/or radiation were detected on any animals, plants, or inanimate matter. The witnesses’ claim that the UFO was being pursued by exactly twenty-three large dual-rotor helicopters (which if true would certainly have attracted a great deal of attention and would have been verifiable afterward) raises serious issues concerning witness reliability and candor. As before, the link between a “physical effect” and any alleged UFO is quite tenuous. Jacques Vallee made presentations concerning a number of alleged “artifacts,” none of which can be excluded as ordinary terrestrial objects. One of the cases Vallee presented was the supposed UFO crash in Aurora, Texas, in 1897, which has long been dismissed as a hoax even by many pro-UFOlogists.

The fallacy underlying all of the panel’s “evidence” is that no matter how indisputably real any measurement may be, its relationship to any alleged aerial phenomenon is merely anecdotal. The late J. Allen Hynek was fond of citing in his lectures supposed animal reactions to UFOs as proof that the case for UFOs does not rely solely on fallible eyewitness testimony: animals, he assured us, do not suffer from mass hypnosis. He never seemed to understand the objection that our knowledge of the animals’ supposed actions rests entirely upon uncorroborated testimony.

It has not been a good year for the giants of American journalism. CNN and Time were forced to retract, and even apologize for, an unfounded story that the U.S. military used nerve gas against defectors. The New Republic fired one of its reporters, and the Boston Globe saw one of its reporters resign under pressure, both for fabricating stories in whole or in part. The Associated Press reported the death of Bob Hope while the famed comedian sat at his home, calmly eating breakfast. Close on the heels of these embarrassments comes a gaffe in which nearly every major news outlet uncritically heralded as an “independent scientific review of the UFO phenomenon” an in-house study from a fringe organization whose conclusion, because of the group’s very makeup, was never in doubt. While perhaps not as egregious as the other examples, it illustrates all too plainly the tendency of the contemporary American news media to leap before they look.

Robert Sheaffer

Robert Sheaffer's "Psychic Vibrations" column has appeared in the Skeptical Inquirer for the past thirty years. He is also author of UFO Sightings: The Evidence (Prometheus 1998). He blogs at www.badUFOs.com.