Very often, in ufology, claims are bandied around so frequently that they become accepted as truths. This applies across the board. Some of these ufological tropes are spouted by true believers, others by die-hard debunkers, and some by the agnostics. Accepting clichés as being true without challenging them is bad in terms of critical thinking, so in this column, in no particular order, I’ll examine and deconstruct some of the most popular false claims that one hears about UFOs and ufologists.
“Why would UFOs need lights?” – This one is often trotted out with a knowing sneer by people whose point is that if UFOs are alien spacecraft, there would be no need for them to display lights. However, even if we accept that UFOs are extraterrestrial spaceships, we have no idea what the alien agenda might be, so we can make no meaningful assumptions about whether or not UFOs would emit light. It might be for reasons we could understand (anti-collision lights, a byproduct of a power source, etc.), or it might be for some reason we could never fathom. Assumptions about what UFOs and extraterrestrials would or wouldn’t do are inevitably rooted in anthropocentrism, and should almost always be avoided. As the UK’s Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, once said, when speculating about extraterrestrials, “Just as a chimpanzee can’t understand quantum theory, it could be there are aspects of reality that are beyond the capacity of our brains … the problem is that we’re looking for something very much like us, assuming that they at least have something like the same mathematics and technology.”
“UFOs wouldn’t come all the way to Earth and then crash at Roswell”. The assumption here seems to be that with sufficient technological advance comes a sort of magical point at which accidents never occur; parts never fail, operators never make a mistake; etc. We only have one model to look at (our own), and everything in our own human experience suggests that however more advanced our technology becomes, we’ll never be able to design, for example, an aircraft that would never crash.
“Aliens wouldn’t come all the way to Earth and then [give an anal probe to some redneck/make a strange pattern in a wheat field/insert any other number of ufological clichés here]”. Again, if we’re being visited by intelligent extraterrestrials, we have no idea what their agenda is. Thus, we have no idea what they would or wouldn’t do. Add to this, we may be misinterpreting the experience. As John Mack, a former Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, once observed, many abductees report what appear to be medical procedures, but even if all the abductee accounts are truthful and accurately recalled, all we could really say with any degree of confidence is that the things being described sound similar to some medical procedures. The reality, as Mack pointed out, may be that what’s going on is something entirely different.
“Astronomers don’t see UFOs”. Yes they do. Google is your friend. On a related issue, being an amateur astronomer does not make someone an expert on UFOs, any more than knowing a bit about UFOs qualifies someone to start lecturing astronomers about titanium oxide production in K-type stars. Bear that in mind the next time you hear an amateur astronomer trying to convince you that they’re an expert on UFOs. This is a logical fallacy known as “an appeal to inappropriate authority”. Just because someone knows something about x, it doesn’t follow that they’re an expert on y, even if x and y might – at first glance – seem to have something in common. So just because someone can point out the location of the planet Venus in the night sky, it doesn’t follow that they can determine whether or not a particular UFO witness misidentified Venus.
“It would be arrogant to assume that we’re the only life in the Universe”. If I had a dollar for every time I’d heard this pro-alien life, pro-UFO argument, I’d have a lot of dollars. It’s a nice sound-bite, and this quote (and a number of variations on the theme) is actually a corruption of rocket scientist Wernher von Braun’s observation that “It would be the height of presumption to think we are the only living things in this enormous immensity”. However, neat sound-bite though it is, there’s probably a stronger argument, which goes beyond mere numbers. The point could probably be better made thus: “Given that the laws of physics and chemistry seem to be constant in the observable Universe, the same processes that gave rise to life on Earth should occur on countless other planets, meaning that unless one thinks life on Earth is some sort of cosmic miracle, the Universe should be teeming with life”.
“People on the UFO circuit are only in it for the money”. A few may be, but most aren’t, and if they are, they’re in for a rude awakening. If you see someone in the vendors’ room at a UFO conference, selling their own books and DVDs out of a cardboard box, the chances are they’re not getting rich from it. Most UFO books are self-published, or put out through publish-on-demand firms, or small, specialist New Age/paranormal presses. And so far as the handful of books with more mainstream publishing houses are concerned, the days of six figure advances for UFO books are long gone. But if ufologists do make some money from their books and DVDs, what’s wrong with that? They’ve done the research and produced the material. Does making a profit somehow invalidate one’s work? “I’m sorry Professor Hawking, but I can’t take any of your scientific achievements seriously, because you’ve written books about your work”. See how crazy this sounds?
“There’s no money in ufology”. This one sounds like the opposite of the previous point, and it’s equally false. Of course there’s money in ufology. It’s just that, for the most part, it’s not being made by ufologists! There are, however, plenty of TV networks, film companies, advertising agencies, PR firms and book publishers who make money from the subject. Try working out how much Steven Spielberg made out of UFOs.
In summary, always challenge the clichés that crop up so frequently in ufology, and bear in mind that just because you hear something all the time, it isn’t necessarily true.
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.