Sceptical Verdict

Robert Sheaffer. The UFO Verdict. Prometheus Books, Buffalo, 1981.

Sheaffer is one of a small band of UFO sceptics who are following in the footsteps of the late Dr Menzel. He sees ufology as an irrational anti-scientific movement which can be defeated only by investigating UFO reports and showing them to have normal explanations. He expresses the hope that, after reading the book, "...the reader will come away with a more accurate and rational perspective on UFOs..." But is Sheaffer's perspective on UFOs accurate and rational? Well, so far as the UFOs themselves are concerned, it almost certainly is. He demonstrates the weakness of the evidence for the 'nuts and bolts' interplanetary UFO but he seems to have little appreciation of the approach which defines ufology as the study of UFO reports.

It is not his debunking of spurious UFO reports which is irritating to the ufologist, but his literal-mindedness and his over-simplified version of the nature of ufology today. "The present-day UFO movement can be broadly divided into two major factions: those who believe that UFOs are nuts-and-bolts spacecraft built by some extraterrestrial intelligence... and the 'new wave' who view UFOs not as spacecraft but as a paranormal phenomenon related to ghosts, telepathy, fairies and psychic healing."

He seems unaware that many of the 'new wave' ufologists regard the UFO as a social and psychological phenomenon and that this explains their lack of concern as to whether or not a particular report is of a genuine 'nuts and bolts' UFO.

Shaeffer apparently does not appreciate that some UFO literature is written to entertain rather than inform, for example Ray Palmer's absurd yarns about 'holes in the poles'. (Surely he doesn't think that Palmer ever actually believed such nonsense?) He also seems unaware that some authors deliberately take a subjective approach, attempting to describe to their readers what it feels like to be a UFO witness, rather than looking for 'natural explanations' of every UFO report. John Keel is such a writer, whose ideas have proved very stimulating to those ufologists who appreciate that he is describing, in his own peculiar style, human perceptions and emotions rather than the physical 'reality'.

Keel comes in for a lot of stick from Shaeffer, who insists on taking him literally, word for word, and then saying that his writings, and the work of those who write in a somewhat similar manner, are absurd and irrational. Indeed, he devotes a whole chapter to the 'Men in Black' as an example of the sheer credulity of ufologists. Yet how many ufologists, whether 'nuts and bolts' or 'new wave', take the story of Al Bender and Gray Barker's They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers literally, or even seriously? Gray Barker's friend James Moseley has also written plenty about the MIB and Shaeffer notes that '...Moseley's sense of humor is almost legendary'.

Mosely is not the only ufologist with a sense of humour, but Shaeffer does not press the point, as he is looking for credulity rather than fun or that pleasant suspension of disbelief by which many people enjoy reading improbable yarns about UFOs. He has no difficulty in finding credulity wherever he looks in the UFO field. Everybody is credulous apart from himself and his small band of sceptics, who include Philip Klass and James Oberg, who faithfully follow the trail blazed by the revered Dr Menzel. "Not until 1966-68, when Philip J Klass became active in UFOlogy was the title of 'No 1 UFO skeptic' lifted from Dr Menzel's weary shoulders'.

However it is admitted of Menzel that " many instances his reliance on elaborate explanations involving extraordinary and implausable mirage phenomena seriously weakened the credibility of all attempts at rational analysis of UFO sightings".

Not only are the sceptics fighting a desparate battle against the credulity and irrationality of the ufologists, but they also have to contend with the mass media and their lust for sensationalism. Curiously, the sceptics' experience of the media is just the opposite that of the 'credulous' ufologists: the media are alleged to prefer sensational UFO stories to rational explanations. Shaeffer asserts that "...many of the publications and news organisations that do such a dismal job on UFOs usually apply the highest standards to 'real' news stories and would never stoop consciously to publishing unverified assertions as fact in those stories". Surely he cannot be so naive as to really believe this?

This book is a good antidote to those who may be misled into thinking that we are being visited by aliens in 'nuts and bolts' spaceships, but it is necessary to take into account the implicit assumptions made by the author. He obviously believes that the pursuit of rationalism will bring happiness, as did the philosophes of 18th century France, and that science and technology will gradually lead us to a utopian society. He seems not to accept that human nature is a mixture of the rational and the irrational and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. He thus sees ufology as one of "...the rising irrationalisms that threaten a new dark age". -- Reviewed by John Harney, from Magonia 8, 1982.

No comments: