Sunday, July 20, 2008

Skepticism: Ufology is "mostly harmless," but not entirely.





From today's Sunday Gazette, in Schenectady, New York, another piece by yours truly.

http://www.dailygazette.com/news/2008/jul/20/op-ed-column-story-ufo-watcher-raised-some-disturb/


Op-ed column: Story on UFO watcher raised some disturbing questions
Sunday, July 20, 2008
Peter Huston

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Donna Grethen/Tribune Media
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July 10th’s Gazette reported on James G. Bouck, Jr., local UFO enthusiast. Although I’ve never met Bouck, 10 to 15 years ago, during my “hard-core skeptic” phase, the UFO scene interested me greatly.

During that time, I wrote two books dealing in part with ufology, served as officer and newsletter contributor to the local skeptics group, and contributed to national media, including an article on UFO abductions for “Hustler” magazine. (“More anal probes!” they demanded.)

I attended local and national conventions of UFO believers, and even interviewed the late Betty Hill, a charming yet eccentric woman and the world’s first UFO abductee to be taken seriously, as well as our most prominent local abductee, a sincere man with a history of mental illness and homelessness who considered his alleged UFO experiences a mark of distinction.

Although burn-out eventually struck, it was a long, strange run.
Mostly harmless

Today, I find UFO enthusiasts “mostly harmless.” Like many such things, however, there’s a depressing, ugly, icky undercurrent in the field if one looks deeply.

Without question, I do not believe UFO sightings are evidence, much less proof, in any way of alien visitation. Instead I believe ufology is a movement fueled by a network of enthusiastic people who share ideas and reports, reports gathered with widely-varying degrees of professionalism and care, and then interpreted to fit pre-conceived views and a desire to believe they are unveiling great cosmic mysteries.

After 60 years plus of frenzied effort, ufologists still have not assembled enough evidence of anything to obtain a decent government grant, prepare a satisfying exhibit in a reputable museum or provide a single, solid chapter in a legitimate school science textbook.

If one explores the history of modern UFO belief, there’s an evolution and shifting of claims rather than consistency. For instance, although most ufologists agree that modern UFO sightings began in 1947 when a small plane pilot witnessed “flying disks,” the concern of the time was if they were of Soviet or renegade Nazi origin. Ideas of space aliens pilots came years later.

But today’s ufology involves much more than lights in the sky. Although the original proposition, occasional odd sightings in the sky hint at something of extraordinary importance, still remains unproven, ufology’s enthusiastic network has produced (equally unproven) claims of alien abductions, crashed saucers, crop circles, cattle mutilations, government conspiracies and more. The claims grow, the proof still eludes.

Don’t get me wrong. Generally speaking, I don’t dislike ufologists. Even if at times their logic is a bit convoluted and the standards of evidence slipshod, they consider themselves serious amateur scientists. A surprising number are accomplished amateur astronomers.

But there is a hard, ugly edge within ufology.

My last real contact with organized ufology was spring 2000. Discovery channel filmmakers, wishing to hear my opinions, paid my way to attend a UFO convention in the Bronx. Aspects left me deeply concerned and disturbed.

First, much programming involved reports by “UFO abduction survivors,” their therapists, UFO abduction support group organizers and abduction investigators.

Abduction claims often involve hypnosis or other memory-altering techniques. There are some truly frightening people, licensed and unlicensed, practicing psychotherapy. They often do serious damage to fragile humans.

Convincing people they are UFO abductees is harmful and increases social isolation. After all, how many really take a self-proclaimed UFO abductee seriously? Aside from Betty Hill, who was delightful, the ones I’ve met have been sad people.

Bud Hopkins, prominent UFO investigator, author and artist by training, announced his latest “discovery.” People, he announced, should be alert to hidden signs of UFO abduction in themselves. They should also, he said, be alert to signs in their children. He sold a videotape describing the signs.

Parents should not hand their children to amateur psychotherapists to treat unproven conditions such as abduction trauma from space aliens, yet, depressingly, some actually do.
Alien implants

Also praised was the work of Roger Leir, a podiatrist who surgically removes what he claims are “alien implants” from patients.

Remember, when someone wishes to cut you open with a scalpel to find something he deeply wishes to find, that no reputable person in his profession feels is really there, get a second opinion. Yet some people obviously don’t.

Ufology can get scary and weird if you dig deeply.

In conclusion, the Gazette article was balanced. Having never met Mr. Bouck, I cannot criticize him personally. The fact that he admits to having proved nothing after years of work, indicates to me that he is probably doing his UFO investigations more rationally and thoroughly than many.

Yet ufology, after 60 years, still resembles an odd, quasi-religious social movement rather than a scientific endeavor. And although ufologists are “mostly harmless,” “mostly harmless” implies occasionally harmful.

Peter Huston lives in Scotia. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

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