Mind-Body Problem
UFO research teeters between science and insanity.

When I tell people I've done UFO research, they react in many ways, most of them interested and sympathetic. But often they ask an irresistible question. Have I heard any crazy stories?
   Of course I have. How about the guy who told me aliens put a chip in his head that made women flock to him? Even better, he said, the aliens told him to go out and use it . . . which, I have to say, I saw him doing, though I doubt that aliens were responsible.
   And then there was the woman from the Center for the Study of Extraterrestrial Intelligence (CSETI), an organization that claims to be serious and responsible but also says it's made direct contact with aliens. Its members have gone out at night, they say, blinked searchlights at the sky -- and sure enough, the aliens blinked back! But when I asked if I could see this for myself, their spokes-woman turned me down, big-time. My mistake, apparently, was asking to observe as a journalist. "Oh, no," the CSETI representative replied. "We've learned our lesson. We invited CBS, and they said it didn't happen."
   Then she told me that the government was beaming harmful rays at her.
   But amusing as all this is -- I could tell crazy UFO tales all day long -- it's not the crazy stories that matter. It's the sane ones. To understand the UFO phenomenon, you need to hear firsthand accounts, from reasonable people who aren't looking for publicity, like the woman in her twenties and the older married couple, who -- in separate incidents -- told me they saw something really huge pass overhead in silence, flying low, at treetop height, some years ago in the Hudson Valley (an area with many reports of such sightings).
   All three people described what seemed like similar patterns of metallic piping on the bottom of what they say they saw. It's that last detail that makes these sightings more than usually impressive, though I'm not going to say that these people saw spaceships. How could I? How can any of us know for sure?
   But unless they're lying, it seems that they saw something that doesn't sound much like a weather balloon, the planet Venus, or a plane, to name a few things often blamed for UFO reports. Nor does it seem like a group of ultralight aircraft flying in formation, the explanation most commonly suggested for the Hudson Valley sightings. It's true, of course, that people often make mistakes about what they think they see. But these people insist they saw real objects that darkened the sky and had a textured underside.

it's a ufo!

You'll also find sane reports from people who think they've been abducted by aliens. Budd Hopkins, a New York painter and sculptor who's America's most famous abduction researcher, at one point invited me to look through his unopened mail.
   A very few letters came from evidently crazy people. ("The aliens visit me each Thursday.") But most were simple and sincere. These writers didn't claim to have been abducted. They did think, though, that something they couldn't explain was happening. Often they sounded terrified. For most of their lives, they wrote, they'd seen unexpected lights in their rooms at night, and beings by their beds. The beings didn't necessarily seem like aliens, but the letter writers were desperate for an explanation.
   They also say their encounters left otherwise unexplained marks on their bodies. And when I've met them, I've sometimes found them saying they remember things they didn't dare to write about, like being driven by their parents to an isolated field where something like "a merry-go-round with lights" was waiting for them. What they want to know -- and they ask the question warily, skeptically, thinking that they're crazy just to write or type the words -- is whether abductions might explain what they say has been happening.
   Often, these abductees then get hypnotized, to recover further memories, and that's controversial. Most psychologists think hypnosis can't recover memory. But psychologists who write about abductions -- and I've read just about all the papers on the subject ever published in psychology journals -- make elementary mistakes. Few have ever spoken to an abductee, and yet they'll write that abductees are UFO enthusiasts (not true), who proclaim their abduction memories only after being hypnotized (also not true). The situation is far more complex than that, but whatever's going on, it's something nobody has yet explained.
   Which brings me to the craziest -- and saddest -- thing I've seen in the world of UFOs, and that's the confusion surrounding the subject. Mainstream media print misinformation -- not disinformation, not deliberate lies or cover-ups, but just shoddy, unchecked data, as if UFOs were beneath contempt, and no reporter need take them seriously enough to check historical facts. More seriously, one leading investigator of the Roswell crash, Kevin Randle, once told me that no one from the mainstream media had ever looked through his files to find out why he thinks the crash was of something alien. He let me do it, and what I found was quite convincing, though lately the skeptics have the upper hand, because some leading Roswell witnesses have been caught in lies or exaggerations.
   And within the field of UFO research, I've found a sad polarization. On one side, we have people blinking lights at aliens, and on the other, scientific skeptics who think they can explain even serious UFO reports but don't have a clue what they're talking about. The most astonishing example came from Donald Menzel, a Harvard astronomer who wrote three books debunking UFOs.
   Menzel laughed at a report from an Anglican priest in New Guinea, who said he watched beings walking around, apparently working, in a hovering UFO for more than 20 minutes. Now, I'm not going to say this really happened; I don't have a clue. But Menzel suggested -- with no evidence at all -- that the priest suffered from astigmatism, and either didn't know it, or had forgotten to put on his glasses. What he saw, said Menzel, was Venus, distorted by astigmatism into an oval shape -- and as for beings, those were the priest's own eyelashes!
   I myself spent four hours arguing with Philip Klass, the most widely published current UFO skeptic, who raged that abductees make their claims only to get on TV. That's absurd. I've met dozens of them, and they fervently protect their privacy. Only one has ever let me print his name. So I had to ask: Which abductees had Klass met? "The ones who appear with me on television," he replied without a trace of irony.
   I also talked about two airline pilots who made headlines back in 1948, reporting that they'd seen an unknown craft with windows swooping past their plane one night. This, Klass writes in his 1974 book, UFOs Explained, was "clearly" a meteor, so "clearly," in fact, that the case must be "removed for all time from the category of 'unidentifieds.'"
   But how, I asked him, could he be so sure? That the pilots could have seen a meteor is obvious enough, since (as Klass points out) in other cases people did imagine windows, when all they saw were random lights. But even skeptics can't cite any meteor known to fall that night in 1948, so how can Klass be certain?
   "Suppose something went wrong with your PC," he rumbled, chuckling, but not quite answering my question. "Would you suspect evil spirits, or would you call a technician?" Evidently UFOs were as improbable as ghosts to him, and as easily dismissable. But I kept probing, and finally he took a stand. "Since there is no proof that unknown craft are in the sky," he said, "I prefer a prosaic explanation." Or, in other words, since there are no UFOs, nobody could ever see one. File that under faith, not science.
   After four years of UFO research, I'm left with only one firm conclusion. Despite years of Star Trek , the possibility of aliens --  right here, now, on Earth among us -- is so unsettling that many people, both skeptics and believers, can't talk sense about it.

    [This was published in the semiannual "Mind/Body/Spirit" supplement of the Village Voice (one of New York's alternative weeklies), on February 2, 1999. If you'd like to read CSETI's view of  what they do, go to their website.]

back to contents