In last month’s column I examined various clichés, tropes and often-repeated mantras, debunking a few myths and misconceptions, and probably upsetting a few people in the die-hard debunker and true believer camps alike. But the whole purpose of this column is to be provocative and to stimulate lively debate, so with that in mind, this month I intend to put some more claims under the microscope and see if they hold up to scrutiny. With apologies, as with last month’s column, this may make uncomfortable reading for some.
“Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a skeptic myself.” If you’ve got skeptical credentials, it’s sensible to state them, and if someone like science writer Michael Shermer uses this phrase, and then goes on to tell you about his belief in something anomalous, that’s fair enough. But this statement, or a variation on the theme, is all too often trotted out by the most wide-eyed true believer who’s just about to tell you about their faith in some particularly dubious claim or sighting. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a believer, so there’s no need to falsely claim skeptical credentials, just to appear a little more discerning.
“I take a scientific approach to ufology”. Unless you routinely (and correctly) use phrases like “testable predictions”, “false-positives”, “confounding factors” and “falsifiable”, you probably don’t. What people who claim to take a scientific approach to ufology seem to be implying (sometimes correctly, sometimes not) is that their research and investigations are thorough. They may well be, but that’s not the same as scientific.
On a related issue, we have people who lie about or exaggerate their credentials when it comes to science. So we get two or three skeptical ufologists who are amateur astronomers, and not only do they misrepresent themselves as scientists, but they seem to expect their ufological peers to afford them the same respect as Galileo. Sorry, but respect has to be earned. One ufologist, who’s a college lecturer, misrepresents himself (or allows himself to be misrepresented) as a professor. Another ufologist, who’s a convicted drug supplier, once tried to bill himself as a “cultural historian”. Yet another ufologist, who runs an anti-Semitic blog and also claims that he once served in the military, would doubtless label himself as a “political analyst” if he thought he could get away with it. On this latter point, when any ufologist (skeptic or believer) claims to be ex-military, I strongly recommend that people verify their military background before even considering their UFO-related pronouncements.
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. Yes, we know.
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary investigation”. Yes, we know that too.
“Hello, I have my own radio show”. OK, this is the one that’s really going to upset a few people, but it’s time ufology faced the facts about this, so I’m going to major on this one. The proliferation of (largely internet-only) radio shows in the field is getting out of hand. There are a tiny handful of radio shows such as Coast to Coast AM that are professionally run and genuinely reach a large audience. But there are a myriad of other shows which are essentially just one man bands; vanity projects with a host who wants to be a star, and guests who think they’re already celebrities. That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of shows out there that are perfectly well-intentioned, where the host and guests simply want “to get the information out to the people”, to quote another cliché. However, “Welcome to the Billy-Bob Bowman Show, with your host, Billy-Bob”, followed by three hours of some guy with a blog waffling on about his theories on the New World Order isn’t going to achieve much, especially when many such shows have poor sound quality, poor production values, and considerably less listeners than they’d have you believe.
The lack of listeners is the real “inconvenient truth” here. Why do people think it is that few of these shows take calls from listeners? Post a UFO-related, internet-only radio show on YouTube, and see how many views and comments it gets. The clues are there. Related to the fact that few people tune into these shows is the fact that virtually nobody outside of the core audience of believers tunes in, and certainly not the sorts of “influencers” that these shows should aim to reach. As a personal example, I get a lot of mainstream media requests, but I’ve never once been contacted by a researcher or a producer who’s said something like “I heard you on the Billy-Bob Bowman Show last night and want to know if you’d be available to come on Good Morning America next week”. The sad truth is that outside of the alternative belief community, nobody’s listening.
Why is any of this a problem? There are two obvious reasons. Firstly, there are a lot of good people out there wasting an awful lot of time that could far more productively be spent elsewhere. Why do I say it’s time wasted? Because not only are very few people listening to most of these shows, but of those that are, most already believe the output. It’s a classic example of preaching to the choir. The second problem is that lone voices can have a disproportionate effect. I was recently asked if I could comment on the “controversy” surrounding my latest book, “Encounter in Rendlesham Forest”, and in particular, the theory that it’s part of a sinister government disinformation campaign. It turned out that the supposed “controversy” was almost entirely generated by a single individual who doesn’t like the book, appearing on a handful of internet radio shows and simultaneously making a lot of posts on Facebook. When there are allegations of systemic CIA torture, that’s a genuine controversy. When somebody doesn’t like a book, that isn’t.
The tragedy here, as I said earlier, is that so much of this is well-intentioned. Be that as it may, the time is long overdue for the UFO, paranormal, conspiracy theory and alternative belief communities to take a long, hard, critical look at the internet radio phenomenon, and ask what real, tangible benefits it brings.
Nick Pope is a former employee of the UK Ministry of Defence. From 1991 to 1994 he ran the British Government’s UFO project and has recently been the public face of the ongoing initiative to declassify and release the entire archive of these UFO files. Nick Pope held a number of other fascinating posts in the course of his 21-year government career, which culminated in his serving as an acting Deputy Director in the Directorate of Defence Security. He now works as a broadcaster and journalist, covering subjects including space, fringe science, defence and intelligence. Nick Pope’s latest book, Encounter in Rendlesham Forest, co-written with John Burroughs and Jim Penniston, was published by Thomas Dunne Books on 15th April and is available via Amazon and all good bookstores.