The UFOs are back… on network TV

Following the cool YouTube video that was aired on New Mexico public television, we here at the NRAO got another email about the VLA being on TV. This time, segments would show up on ABC’s Primetime. Awesome! So I asked the boy to record it for me, and went about my day. Later at night, I was flipping though my DVR, deciding what to watch. And I catch the title of a show about UFOs. And I wonder, “who recorded this?” Then I realized, it was the Primetime episode I had asked for a recording of. It was about UFOs. Ugh… this cannot be good. Didn’t they do this a few years ago? (In fact, this review of the 2005 show could fit almost exactly the material used in the 2008 show! I’m sure it IS the same material.)

So I decide to watch it anyway. I used to watch “Sightings” and other credulous UFO shows all the time when I was younger, and I believed it all. I read Whitley Strieber’s “Communion” and every once in a while would tune into Art Bell’s “Coast to Coast AM.” I was fascinated with the notion that extraterrestrials were possibly visiting us. However, the more I researched it, the more unlikely it seemed. Now, a bit older and better equipped as a scientist and skeptic, I gave this show a go. And, I wanted to see how the VLA fit in.

The show started off with clips of forthcoming interviews, most of whom where UFO witnesses, but there were also blurbs from one of my favorite astronomers, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and famous physicist, Michio Kaku. It is slightly worrisome when interviews with science luminaries are used in shows promoting pseudoscience, but, whatever, let’s not criticize before the show has begun. The main theme of the show was stated in the title, “Seeing is Believing.” The host starts off the show at the Very Large Array. The reason given for this is tenuous. The VLA looks at stars and planets, and UFOs may be craft piloted by intelligent beings from other planets. Riiiiight. Okay, so they needed a pretty backdrop and want to give some air of scientific credence. Also, New Mexico is home to the UFO mecca, Roswell.

The show continues with an appearance by none other than Art Bell. (Hasn’t Noory taken over the show?) And he states that when someone sees something in the sky that they cannot explain, a ufologist is born. Here, he and thousands of UFO witnesses are falling into the logical fallacy that if they cannot explain something, that is it unexplainable, or at least has a fantastic explanation. We hear from witnesses of an event in Texas in January of 2008, with the usual sighting of weird lights “that just could not be planes.” Witnesses insert their own narrative into what they think the craft were doing. This show is turning out to be nothing unlike what I used to watch as a kid, only now I see how far the truth can be stretched. In fact, this reminds me of the “Phoenix lights” that have been thoroughly debunked, as the current Skeptic magazine (v14#2) reminds us…. oh wait, that’s the next segment! (I must be psychic.) Around this point, I lost video since our cable has gone wacky, so the rest is based on the audio.

Finally, we meet our first skeptic. James McGaha is a retired Air Force pilot and astronomer who gives the realistic explanation of this 1997 sighting, a formation of aircraft and a set of dropped flares. Of course, his testimony is followed by more credulous statements of believers who swear they saw a huge extraterrestrial ship. Sorry folks, anecdotal evidence is not evidence to the skeptics.

The show’s host goes on to correctly note that seeing is not believing to scientists; evidence is necessary. They go on to talk to NASA astrobiologist Chris McKay about the search for microbial life in the solar system and elsewhere, and Peter Smith of the Phoenix team about water on Mars. Neil Tyson gets to comment on how awesome it would be is Martian life was discovered, and how that would imply that universe is just teeming with life. This is a really fun and informative segment, but it would be better if it wasn’t placed just so in order to lend credibility to the belief that aliens are hanging around right now. Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist, reminds us that interstellar travel could be feasible to a civilization that is millions of years ahead of us that uses wormholes to travel. He neglects to mention that this is a very, very far-out concept with no actual physical basis, just a cool product of the mathematics. This is taken, by the narrative of the show, to imply that extraterrestrial visitors could be here.

The show goes on to point out that evidence of UFOs is scarce and sketchy. The real evidence comes down to eyewitness accounts. I say that eyewitness accounts are the least credible forms of evidence around! (I’ll never be picked for a jury.) Surely it is never accepted in science, even though this may be one of the most important questions facing mankind! A fellow from MUFON goes on to say that fear of ridicule is a problem, and that more credible witnesses need to come forward to encourage the rest that aren’t reporting. Okay, for one, ridicule is the consequence when after years of outrageous claims, the UFO community has produced no hard evidence. And two, how are reports from the like of pilots and police officers any more credible than the common man or woman? Are they any more skeptical or scientific? And isn’t this all just “argument from authority” to begin with?

I kind of filtered out most of the rest, since it’s nothing new to a seasoned viewer of such programs. The governments of UK and France have released their UFO investigations; the history of the flying saucer craze in the US during the Cold War; Roswell; alien autopsy film (although they did correctly state that it was a hoax); etc.

There was, however, another science segment that caught my attention. This one focused on SETI, or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. It may not strictly be considered science, but it is a scientific approach to the problem of searching for intelligent life. And, after all, isn’t it worth a little bit of telescope time if it could change human history? The segment is littered with scenes from the lovely movie, “Contact” with that unmistakable sound of the signal. SETI scientist Seth Shostak is interviewed, as is Jill Tarter, who both advocate the searches. The Allen Telescope Array is mentioned. Also, they talk to Frank Drake, who started searching for extraterrestrial signals in Green Bank, WV. I am fortunate enough to work there often, and have been there a bazillion times with camera flashing away. The famous “Drake equation,” or the attempt to quantify our ignorance about the number of extraterrestrial civilizations that we can communicate with, was penned there.

Of course, ufologists wonder why such time is devoted to SETI when the aliens are already here. All three scientists mentioned above go on to emphatically state that if they thought there was any reason to believe that aliens had visited here, they would much rather be working on that project and seeking that evidence. But none are convinced. It has not been proven, does not have the data to back it up, and it’s not verifiable. A signal coming in from space, however, would be all those things.

The heartbreaking abduction stories soon follow. I am reminded of Sagan’s “Demon-Haunted World” where he makes the case that “alien abductions” are a problem no matter which way you look at it. Either an extraterrestrial species is taking people from their homes and experimenting on them, which is atrocious, or a large number of people are suffering from delusions or false memories, which is also quite terrible. Just as I begin to wonder how these people can be better helped, a psychologist, Susan Clancy, is brought on the show. She talks about her research at Harvard with abductees. Her hypothesis is that hypnosis, often used to retrieve “repressed” alien abduction “memories,” is implanting false memories and that these people are actually suffering from sleep disorders. So it seems as though someone is skeptically helping these people.

Near the end, Kaku is brought back in, and he weighs in that some fraction of UFO cases are truly unexplained and require further scientific investigation. We must not rule out extraterrestrial visitors. Although I agree with the spirit of his statement, I think that when a sighting is reviewed scientifically, the believers are not swayed in any case. Also, his credentials as a physicist are being used to again give credulity to the 80 million people that believe that aliens are among us.

All in all, I was disappointed to see my favorite telescope being used in this advertisement for belief in extraterrestrial visitation, and a show that combined all the usual tricks of credulity. To its credit, however, the skeptics weren’t completely lambasted, and a bit of discussion was reserved for the science of astrobiology and the excitement of SETI. Apparantly, a completely science-based show won’t be aired, or won’t get good ratings, according to ABC. I think that the science coming from the VLA, radio astronomy, and heck, all the sciences, deserve more attention than they get.

For now, I’ll stick with the Discovery Channel.

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