After hearing so many accounts of how the token skeptic on a TV show gets a 30 second sound bite once the proponents of pseudoscience have had an hour to push their wares, I was pleasantly surprised to be given a fair hearing on the morning public radio talk-show "Radio Times" on WHYY, Philadelphia, last June 24th.
The topic was the Roswell Incident, so naturally the producer had turned to MUFON, the Mutual UFO Network, as her primary source of information. Possibly because of Leon Jaroff's skeptical article on Roswell in Time that week, she also contacted PhACT to present the other side of the case. That duty devolved upon me, with my zero experience of broadcasting but some dated knowledge of UFO cases. After a long telephone conversation with the producer on the Monday morning (and a somewhat sleepless night) I found myself making a rare trip into central Philadelphia on the Tuesday morning.
The MUFON representative in the studio was Tom Carey, the director of their local group. (He had once been, briefly, a member of the Delaware Valley Skeptics.) When I arrived I found that there was a disembodied third panel member, abduction guru Budd Hopkins. He was on the phone from New York. Oops, I thought, we're up against the big guns here. I would have liked some advance warning. As a former physicist I can deal with aerial crockery, but abnormal psychology is a bit out of my field.
Well, as those of you who have heard the show will know, I never got to talk about abductions. However, a skeptical view on that subject was presented by one of the phone callers, a "Bill from Bryn Mawr" whom some PhACT members may recognize. It was a moment before I did. It's lucky we weren't on TV, not having anticipated friendly fire, I had to struggle to keep a straight face. "This Napier sounds like a very sensible sort of person to me." Glad to hear it, Bill!
Tom Carey gave an account of the events at Roswell and their subsequent repercussions. It was reasonably historical except that he believes that five alien bodies were recovered. He added the party line about how witnesses were afraid to come forward. I said, in effect, that in July 1947 Kenneth Arnold's first sighting of "flying disks" was freshly in the news and thus anything strange which turned up could easily be linked to them. Major Marcel rushed to the press with his story, forcing his superiors to put out a retraction. That, as far as I was concerned, was the end of the affair.
As Tom Carey correctly pointed out, the Roswell Incident didn't really start until 1978 when UFO researchers rediscovered the tale and tried to find out what had happened over thirty years earlier. The result was the 1980 book, The Roswell Incident, co-authored by Charles Berlitz, inventor of the Bermuda Triangle. Neither proponent saw fit to point out that Frank Scully had written an embarrassingly silly hoax book about the incident in 1950.
Well Budd Hopkins didn't like my analysis but things moved on and I didn't get the chance to rebut his remarks. This was to be typical of the show. By the time I had a chance to speak, I was having to catch up on what someone else had said some minutes earlier. For example, Hopkins said that Marcel hadn't had the authority to put out a press release. I could have pointed out that it was the base press officer, Lieutenant Haut, who sent it out, but this is the sort of nit which had to be let slip in the interests of putting forward the broader skeptical viewpoint.
This is when we got an odd glimpse into Budd Hopkins' mind. According to him, the UFO skeptics are the "true believers." He says they think that, since UFOs can't be extraterrestrial, there is no need to investigate them. He dismissed Philip Klass's thirty years of serious UFO research as irrelevant since he hadn't interviewed any witnesses. This, of course, is complete nonsense as can be seen by reading any of Klass's books on UFOs.
At this point in the discussion the presenter took a four-minute call from a listener who had encountered one of the "men in black." She had also seen her room-mate in a park, being loomed over by a part human/part alien person who vanished when she, the witness, brandished an imaginary broom. She now wanted to get her story out in public because she "thought it was time." Tom Carey looked a little embarrassed but Budd Hopkins expressed a wish to investigate this lady further. This led him into the subject of the aliens' sexual interest in humans. Hopkins seemed to find it flattering!
Being asked about abductions, I started by pointing out that Hopkins' use of "believers" to refer to skeptics was an oxymoron. I said that skeptics don't assume, just because an object is unidentified, that therefore it must be an alien spacecraft. We ask for the evidence. I was cut off before I could address abductions, which may well have saved me from saying something rather rude.
Tom Carey told us about a family who were eating outside when they were circled by an orange ball which then vanished into the sky. He's going to investigate.
The next caller pointed out that any viable solar system is a long travel time away. Tom Carey and Budd Hopkins share a belief in investigating reports without letting such "theoretical problems" get in the way. Luckily I was able to squeeze in a version of Occam's Razor; that theoretical considerations point to which of several possible explanations should be favored. This led Hopkins to again deride Philip Klass as a "true believer" for not investigating since he "already knew the answer." This gave me an excuse to defend Phil and his thirty years of fruitless searching for even one real UFO. This time it was Hopkins who was cut short.
A caller wanted to know where the "typical" alien image had come from. Hopkins admitted that it dated back only to the film Close Encounters. (It must have been tough on the aliens, being forced to emulate Spielberg so that people would recognize them. Did they send all the big grey aliens home?)
Tom Carey was asked how one goes about investigating UFO reports. His description sounded reasonable, indeed I would have liked to ask him on-air whether, since PhACT also investigates things, we could run a joint investigation. I talked to him after the show and this seems to be a real possibility. If any PhACT members are sufficiently interested, let me know.
Hopkins cut in to claim that the closer an object was, and the more data was collected, the more likely it was to be "unidentified." I couldn't quite follow the logic of this. Historically, the more detailed a sighting, the more likely it is to turn out to be a hoax, as the Gulf Breeze photos witness. Hopkins related the case, reported in his book Witnessed, of an abduction in New York in 1989. He alleges that a woman was seen floating up to a UFO in a beam of blue light, accompanied by three small non-human creatures. We were challenged to explain this. (Apparently the aliens were trying to force then UN Secretary-General Perez de Cuellar to publicly admit that they exist. See Jeffrey King's review of Hopkins's book in the March/April Skeptical Inquirer. )
Tom Carey continued his explanation of how he trains people to investigate UFO reports and how he generally passes cases on to the appropriate expert.
Then came the call from "Bill from Bryn Mawr." Bill asked about abductees' memories being recovered by hypnotism. Hopkins described this process as "fleshing out" conscious memories. He is quite happy with the idea of abductees being floated through solid walls but doesn't know how it is done.
(Some day I must finish my article on alien technology. The atomic structure of our walls and our bodies does not permit their co-location, whatever the aliens may be able to do with their walls and their bodies. The abduction experience is adequately explained by the not uncommon hypnopompic dream. There is nothing in the "abductee" reports which requires that aliens exist.)
The presenter then asked me if I was so arrogant as to believe that we are alone in the universe. This was an excellent chance to point out that life elsewhere in the universe is possible, but that the chance of there being an intelligent civilization near us, right now, is quite small. As I said, skeptics look at the evidence. We don't claim that UFOs can't possibly be due to alien intelligences. On the other hand, we can only investigate reports. We can't investigate alien intelligences until someone produces an alien, or a piece of alien hardware.
Budd Hopkins asked if I had done a personal investigation. I replied that, for the last ten years, I had treated UFOs as a dead issue since the first thirty years of the UFO phenomenon had not led to anything interesting enough to warrant further investigation. With time running out, I mentioned PhACT's phone number and our Web site.
The last caller thought skeptics had the travel time question backwards since, at near the speed of light, the journey would take hours or days. There was no time to reply. (It would take a year to reach light-speed and another to slow down. On top of that, time on the aliens' home planet is unaffected by time dilation. They had better not want to go back home again.) As the program closed the other two were plugging books. I managed to mention Kal Korff's skeptical book on Roswell.
I found the radio experience a lot more enjoyable than I had expected. The other guests were reasonable, apart from Hopkins' confusion over the "true believers." Everyone was polite, except to the absent Philip Klass. My tendency to say silly things on the spur of the moment failed to evince itself. Considering the topic, and that the other two guests were the real stars of the show, I got a decent share of air time.
I had nothing to offer which could compare with the razzmatazz of a spectacular UFO sighting but, by being there, I showed that there was another side to the issue. My only regret is that the format did not permit my mentioning the other fun things which PhACT does.
Still, a few thousand Philadelphians now know we exist and where to find us. And, for what it's worth, PhACT has established friendly contact with MUFON. Perhaps we can give them a pointer or two.
Books on UFOs written by Philip Klass:
- UFOs: The Public Deceived
- UFO Abductions, A dangerous game
- Bringing UFOs Down to Earth
The latter, just released, is intended for children 9 and up. All three books are available from Prometheus Books, 1-800 421-0351.
If you want to keep up with the latest scoop on UFOs, Philip Klass will send you his monthly Skeptics UFO Newsletter for $15 a year. Write to him at 404 "N" St, SW, Washington, DC, 20024. Make checks payable to Philip J. Klass.