Robert Sheaffer is a long-standing American UFO sceptic, whose blog, also called ‘Bad UFOs’ has been a voice of reason in the US online UFO world, forensically explaining (not ‘debunking’) many famous UFO sightings.
Sheaffer begins with an overview of the US UFO scene, which he divides between the ‘Science Fiction’ and the ‘New Age’ factions. He considers that the ‘New Age’ tendency evolved from the early contactee movement and is based on personal testimony and revelation, rather than presenting any scientific evidence, whereas the ‘Science Fiction’ tendency comes from a military background and at least attempts to present some sort of objective proof of their claims. Both factions ignoring the fact that the supposed evidence they present usually runs counter to current scientific principles. If the conflict becomes too blatant then accepted scientific knowledge is expected to change to accommodate the evidence.
I am a little dubious of the idea that there was a great difference between ‘scientific’ (what Peter Rogerson calls ‘secular’) ufology and the contactee movement, and feel that there was considerable cross-over even from the very beginning, which continues today, most noticeably in the ‘exopolitics’ movement.
This introductory chapter also examines the methods and techniques of ‘organised ufology’ in the US and how it has itself created the UFO phenomenon through the emphasis that its participants have given to different aspect of the subject and the methods they have used in examining it. MUFON and its relationship with the Bigelow organisation is given as one example of how research has been manipulated by particular individuals.
Subsequent chapters look at different types of UFO evidence, with chapters on basic sighting reports, photographic and video evidence, and crash-retrievals. Most of the well-publicised cases are analysed and Sheaffer provides plausible explanations for them.
In discussing abductions Sheaffer takes a long look at the Hill Case. Many might think that more than enough time has already been expended on examining and re-examining the Hill’s narratives, but Sheaffer provides a good summary of how the story developed, both between Betty and Barney, and between Betty and the researchers who subsequently attempted to analyse and explain the case. It is clear that there is no one, standard, continuous time-line narrative of the events of that night in 1966.
Sheaffer was a participant in the colloquium in September 2000, organised by Karl Pflock and Peter Brookesmith at the Indian Head location in New Hampshire, close to where the Hill's abduction experience began. He gives an insight into the issues which were discussed, in remarkably well-tempered conversations, between the participants. This meeting was funded by the semi-mysterious Joe Firmage, who appeared not to have been very impressed by the way the event turned out.
In considering the later development, and subsequent virtual collapse, of the abduction industry Sheaffer covers much of the ground described in Jack Brewer’s book, previously reviewed. However he also examines the abduction claims of Whitley Strieber, which Brewer does not cover in depth, and reports a remarkable television encounter between himself and Strieber, in which Strieber, uniquely amongst authors on a promotional book tour, insisted that no mention of his latest book should be made on-air!
In his section on UFO Conspiracies, Sheaffer trawls the fringes of the ufological Internet so that we don’t have to, and I thank him for saving me the trouble of encountering characters such as Al Bielek and Duncan Cameron. He also gives an amusing account of Nick Pope’s problems with reality, which led to him being denounced as an agent of ‘Disinformation and Counter Intelligence Programs’ rather than a mid-level Civil Service desk-jockey.
But entertaining and informative as this book is to sceptical ufologists, we have to ultimately ask is it going to have any effect on the subject, or are sceptics, like the eager-believers, just talking to themselves in confirmation-bias echo chambers? Sheaffer touches on an uncomfortable truth in his final chapter: “After one has been in the ‘UFO business’ for a while, one realizes that, with a few rare exceptions, nobody on one side ever converts anyone on the other side …skeptics remain skeptics and proponents remain proponents.”
He suggest a number of reasons why the UFO belief system is so strongly attractive to many people; principally overconfidence in the idea of ‘reliable witnesses’, particularly so-called ‘expert witnesses’ like police or military personnel who may be very expert on one form of observation, but are as unfamiliar as anyone else with the observation of events outside their immediate experience.
In many cases there is also an ignorance of basic science and an underlying assumption that is any event is demonstrated to breach basic scientific principles then it must be the science that is at fault, rather than the description of the event or the testimony of the witnesses.
Sheaffer claims that this is the first sceptical book on UFOs published in the USA since his previous title, UFO Sightings, in 1998, whilst noting David Clarke’s UK title, How UFOs Conquered the World. Perhaps that gap of eighteen years is just too long, and the nature of UFO criticism has changed. I am beginning to wonder whether there is any real need for further books of this kind. Clarke’s book was a sociological overview of ufology, rather than an analysis of individual cases and theories. If Sheaffer is correct that sceptics and proponents rarely if ever switch sides, the ‘what did they see’ type of UFO explanation is better replaced with the ‘why did they see it’ analysis, which Clarke provides.
Most of the knockabout of arguing about individual UFO cases is now conducted over the Internet, and as human attention spans seem to diminish, so does the length of time that any UFO incident attracts the attention of either the proponent or the critic. Most of the cases that Sheaffer analyses have already been thoroughly debated in the literature, and the most recent examples seem to be imaginative use of digital photography and collapse almost as soon as they have taken off.
It sounds a little bit like I’m damning this book with faint praise, but I have found it an interesting and entertaining read. It not only presents a rigorous defence of sceptical ufology, but also a critical and often humorous insider’s account of the strange world of American ufology. Definitely one for the Pelican’s library. -- John Rimmer.