Tuesday, January 22, 2008

"True" UFOs - Monster Hunting 2

In the 1980s I had a friend who was an editor at True UFO magazine.  One day, I said to him, "Mike, where did you find all those true UFO stories for the magazine?"  He replied, "We made them up."

UFO shows on TV remind me of that.  Lots of made-up stories, lots of misidentifications, lots of people wanting to believe more than they want to investigate.  Often, not much science.  The Ghost Hunters producers are soon coming out with a UFO Hunters show.  I have no idea what mix of science and credulity to expect.  UFO shows on TV tend to be, IMHO, more crackpot-filled than most other "monster based" shows.  People seem to take UFOs more seriously (and personally) than, say, bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster.  Is that an expression of our desire not to be alone in the universe?

THE REAL ROSWELL (National Geographic channel)
This is a very good show about the Roswell incident and the myths that have been built up around it since.  It starts by explaining the sequence of events as they were reported, gives background on the era of the crash, relates the history of UFO sightings, and details the Roswell story as believed by many UFOlogists.  Then the show looks at the facts and draws a very skeptical conclusion -- a conclusion which, frankly, the facts seem to support.  Standout on this show is the repeated use of eyewitness testimony and records.  They have the son of the Air Force officer who recovered the object, and tapes of the father as well.  They also have news reports and witness reports from the time.  Plus, they have at least one scientist from the top-secret Project Mogul.  Also, this is the first show I remember that mentioned Behind the Flying Saucers, by Frank Scully, a "true" story (later revealed to be a hoax) that seems a likely source for many Roswell myths -- most of which only appeared 30+ years after the actual incident.  The conclusion the show reaches is that Roswell actually featured the crash of a top secret -- and very unusual -- balloon array from Project Mogul, and not a UFO crash.

UFOS SEEING IS BELIEVING (ABC - Peter Jennings- repeating on NGC)
An interesting show combining interviews, recreations, skepticism by top scientists, and historical perspective.  Topics range from recent sightings to Roswell to alien abductions to SETI.  The late Peter Jennings does an admirable job of pulling together past and present UFO accounts.  Of particular interest are the recreations, all of which -- according to a disclaimer -- have been approved by the witnesses for accuracy.  That's a nice touch.  It's also a nice touch that the recreations are labeled as such.  (Many programs today mix "real" footage with fake and never distinguish between the two.)  Many of the eyewitness reports are very compelling and well told.  The show seems to suggest that Project Blue Book was not as rigorous as it should have been; this, of course, plays into the UFOlogist conspiracy theories.  Certainly there are deficiencies on both sides -- and Jennings's reporting points that out.  Neil deGrasse Tyson and several other scientists talk compellingly about evidence, and why eyewitness testimony is "the lowest form of evidence" in science.  'In science, seeing is NOT believing."  Maybe that seems obvious, but the dispute over that idea is what keeps the UFOlogist community and the scientific community at each other's throats about UFOs.  Overall, the show does a good job of presenting the accounts, uncovering the facts and evidence, and presenting the scientific and sociological explanations for many cases.  Does it explain every sighting?  No, nor does it intend to, but it's a good rational overview of the UFO phenomenon.  A very well produced show to start exploring case.

What do you get when you pit a dozen witnesses and believers against one lone and not-too-attractive skeptic?  You get the kind of show that passes for "news" these days.  Lots of flash and bang and very little substance.  King asks annoying and often irrelevant questions, guests spar testily, and nothing is solved or much illuminated.  What does come across clearly is that the complete inability of UFOlogists to admit when something has been debunked (Arizona lights) -- and this damages their credibility on everything else.  The skeptic's stalwart nature can be annoying, too, but what can you expect when many on the other side treat UFO myths and conspiracy theories as though they were religious scripture?  The "follow the money" principle would seem to imply that anyone making a living talking about UFOs -- and there are several on this show doing so -- are unlikely to be unbiased advocates.  Perhaps most annoying of all is the cluttering of the show with UFO footage -- some "real," much fake, and some from TV and the movies ... with none of it labeled for what it is.  When tornadoes struck Wisconsin unexpectedly this January, pictures from witnesses quickly showed up; even the "best" UFO photos are unclear by comparison.  And I have no idea from this show whether any of the photos & videos shown were actually from Stephensville.

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