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Dark Skies Uses Pseudo-Sagan to Recast Astronomer’s Motives

Media Watch

C. Eugene Emery Jr.

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 21.5, September / October 1997

Only five months after his death, astronomer Carl Sagan was turned into a government conspirator in the worldwide UFO coverup by the NBC television drama Dark Skies.

The show, which airs Saturday nights, recasts major historical events, beginning with the Kennedy assassination, as part of a UFO invasion and coverup, asserting in the opening credits that “History as we know it is a lie.”

The May 24 episode, set during the Vietnam War era, suggested that Sagan’s lifelong quest to find evidence for extraterrestrial intelligence was fueled, in part, by a secret meeting with the director of the top-secret Majestic-12 project. In the Dark Skies version of history, a young Sagan comes face to face with a living space alien, learns that extraterrestrial parasites have been seizing control of humans, and develops a way to identify people who have been infected with one of the parasites.

“How many planets are out there, doctor? How many galaxies, how many worlds?” the Majestic chief asks Sagan as he stares at the alien.

It’s an excuse to get the Sagan impersonator to say “billions and billions.”

“Well, somewhere out there is the planet that thing came from,” the director says. “I need you to search the stars, doctor, to find that planet.”

The encounter is supposed to explain why Sagan became such a proponent for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program.

The show was riddled with errors. It made a reference to the Planetary Society (which wasn't founded until 1981), cited Sagan’s doctoral dissertation at Cornell University (he got his doctorate at the University of Chicago), and credited him with the idea that our radio and television transmitters are sending signals into space (a theory Sagan embraced but did not originate).

But those are minor compared to the way the show’s executive producers, Bryce Zabel and James D. Parriott, shamelessly chose to turn Sagan, who passionately argued that there was no convincing evidence that UFOs were extraterrestrial spacecraft, into a hypocrite and government conspirator.

Even if the show had aired before his death, it is not clear that Sagan, a public figure, could have done anything about the Dark Skies portrayal. To successfully sue, public figures must prove malice, which is extremely difficult. Dead people cannot be libeled.

Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, said before the program aired that she was unaware that Sagan was going to be portrayed on the show. She later called the episode “terribly silly,” in part because of the errors.

“When you think of what’s possible with the media, and then see what impoverished and pathetic programs we actually get,” she said, “it’s really dismal.”

Dark Skies was not renewed for NBC’s fall schedule.

Carol Araujo must have been one of the proudest women in Rhode Island last Mother’s Day. She had been named “Mother of the Year” after her thirty-three-year-old autistic daughter, Tammy Galuska, submitted an essay explaining how Mrs. Araujo “sacrificed a year of her life to teach me how to communicate.”

“She has given me a new life. I reached a time in my life where she was the only one who believed that I could learn to communicate. Mere understanding is death to a non-verbal person.” These were the winning words Tammy wrote.

Or did she?

At the age of two, Tammy showed signs of retardation and was eventually diagnosed with Retts Syndrome, a severe brain disorder that only affects girls.

The 154-word essay was created using facilitated communication (FC), a questionable technique in which a helper (or “facilitator”) holds the hand, wrist, or finger of the person and “helps” them point to letters on a board or keys on a computer. Test after test has shown that it is the facilitator, not the handicapped person, who subconsciously determines what letters will be touched.

When WPRI-TV in Providence did a Mother’s Day feature on Mrs. Araujo and Tammy, the reporter showed Mrs. Araujo grasping three of Tammy’s fingers and bringing the young woman’s index finger to a specially designed computer so a key could be pushed. Tammy’s job coach, Andrea Healey, a caseworker with RI ARC, a Pawtucket, Rhode Island, association that helps the handicapped, was the one who held Tammy’s hand when the essay was written.

Testing a person who claims to be communicating through FC is easy: See if the person can identify a simple picture when nobody else in the room (especially the facilitator) knows what it is. In 1994, when I tested four Rhode Island people who supposedly were spelling out messages through FC, all four lost their ability when the facilitator didn't know the correct answer. One of them was Tammy.

Unfortunately, too many people — including reporters, contest judges, and folks who work with the handicapped — aren't even aware of the controversy surrounding FC and wouldn't know how to conduct a proper test.

“Tammy’s touching story moved the hearts of the judges to choose Carol Araujo,” according to a news release from radio station WARV, the chief sponsor of the contest. Station spokesman Emanuel DaCunha later reported that neither the station nor the judges were aware that there was controversy surrounding the technique used to created the essay. The station learned the circumstances of Tammy’s life by talking to Healey, an avid believer in FC.

In an interview, Healey said she is aware of the controversy but believes Tammy is truly communicating even though Tammy has never passed a simple double-blind test.

“Tammy doesn't want to hear a word about validation or anything else like that,” said Healey. “Tammy gets highly insulted when she is put in a position of having to prove anything to people who are skeptical.” Healey’s information about what Tammy is thinking, of course, comes from the FC messages.

Carol Araujo’s unshakable conviction that she has helped her daughter reestablish communication with the world may make her worthy of a Mother of the Year award. But there was a second-place finisher in the contest who lost a richly deserved honor because people don't know a bogus technique when they see it.

Finally, let’s have a moment of silence for the media professionals of the Denver Press Club. Never has a group of journalists worked so hard to lose a Pulitzer Prize.

It seems the press club building has been haunted for at least eighty years by four now-deceased reporters whose interest in poker has persisted long after they officially cashed in their chips.

After putting up with a toilet that seemed to flush by itself and miscellaneous knocking sounds, club officials brought in “psychic Cleo of Spirit Clearings” and her sidekick, Eshaya, on September 23, 1996.

Cleo sensed the presence of the poker players and also claimed to get vibes from (a) the ghost of a woman murdered twenty-five years earlier, (b) a hanged body (one too many changes by copy editors, perhaps), and (c) a reporter standing lookout at the club.

Now, in anybody’s book, being able to produce long-sought proof that an afterlife exists would be the scoop of the century — if not the millennium.

But how did the reporters of the Denver Press Club react?

According to the January 18 Editor & Publisher (pp. 8-9), they asked Cleo and Eshaya to get rid of the ghosts! (Colorado’s crooked politicians must love being covered by a press corps that destroys the evidence.)

Fortunately, although the spirit of the murdered woman was sent “home” to her final rest, the poker players and their lookout refused to shuffle off, according to the E&P article.

Thus, the journalists in Denver still have a chance to redeem themselves.

With the spirits still floating around, and with the press club “documenting” the ghosts with fuzzy infrared photographs (available on the Internet at, perhaps one of the club’s members will recognize the importance of this discovery, call in a team of real scientists with infrared detectors, find proof of the hereafter, and get that Pulitzer for investigative reporting after all.

C. Eugene Emery Jr.

Gene Emery is a science and medical writer. His weekly computer software column appears on the Reuters news service. His address is 46 Highland Street, Cranston, RI 02920.