17 February 2018


Donald R. Prothero and Timothy D. Callahan. UFOs, Chemtrails and Aliens: What Science Says. Indiana University Press, 2017.

Despite the pretentious ‘What Science Says’ subtitle, which rather suggests that Prothero and Callahan have somehow been appointed official spokespersons for ‘Science’ - whatever that may be as a single entity – this book is actually a pretty fair review of the sceptical approach to the subjects listed in the title.
The counter-augments to the mystery-proponents are presented with a great deal of evidence, and there is less of the de haut en bas sneering which distinguishes some sceptical writers’ arguments.

Prothero has taught geology and palaeontology and Callahan is an artist who has worked in the film industry, so they are equally as qualified to discuss UFOs and aliens as a Chartered Librarian, or someone who worked in the computer section of the Meteorological Office. But what is lacking is any indication that the writers have done any actual fieldwork, and they are working entirely from what we must now refer to as ‘texts’. The exception is their revealing accounts of visits to the US Government's 'top secret' bases like Area 51.

I have often thought that one of the most significant differences between American ‘skeptics’ and British sceptics – in the UFO field at least – is that the majority of British UFO sceptics have ‘worked their passage’ as UFO investigators and have come to their sceptical positions via the evidence, or lack of, that they uncovered in their investigations. This has also allowed them to maintain a tolerance of the ambiguity inherent in the subject, and thus avoid the ‘k’ in skeptic.

Many US skeptics seem, like Prothero and Callahan, to have emerged, fully formed, from academia. This seems to mean that they are less aware of the existing sceptical attitudes present throughout the fields they are discussing. In his Fortean Times review of this title, Ian Simmons pointed out the total lack of any recognition of British sceptical ufologists such as Jenny Randles or Dave Clarke. I would add to that the notable absence of sceptical American researchers working from inside the field, such as Allan Hendry, Dennis Stillings and even Jerome Clark.

It is only by ignoring such writers that the authors have needed to spend so much time debunking the claims of figures such as Adamski, von Daniken, Claude ‘Rael’ Verilhon, and Eduard Meier, who is subjected to a detailed but entirely unnecessary debunking of his bizarre claims. These people are almost totally ignored by today’s UFO researchers, even the eager-believers, and, it all seems a little bit passé. The amount of space devoted to claimed ‘alien skulls’ is totally disproportionate to their importance to serious UFO research.

What is scarcely touched upon is why and how various individuals come up with their claims, and just why such ridiculous claims have attracted so many believers, other than that people are ‘unscientific’ and need to be better educated, presumably by books like this.

Throughout the assumption is made that if you are able to show how ‘the science’ disproves a claim then it can be safely filed away as ‘explained’, and there is no need to search for the reason why that claim was made in the first place. Now I suppose it could be argued that looking for the ‘bigger picture’, especially the psychological or sociological background, was not the authors’ main remit, and to be fair they do present a comprehensive account of how popular culture, mass media and the UFO narrative have fed off each other over the past century. Much of this seems to be based on the work of Martin Kottmeyer, and at least result in Magonia getting a couple of mentions in the book’s references!

I would take issue with some of the propped explanations for UFO close encounters. The account of the Travis Walters case is very over-simplified and although conscious fraud remains a possibility – even probability – exactly who was perpetrating a fraud against whom is still very much open to debate. Similarly the Cash-Landrum case needs more careful treatment than is given here.

I wonder who exactly this book is aimed at. It might perhaps be a useful reference for a college course on critical thinking, although I can’t help thinking it is a case of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut (pun probably intended). Although there is nothing very much that I would disagree with in this book as a whole, I cannot help but think that there are other better – and shorter - sceptical analyses of the UFO phenomenon, written by people who have a more nuanced view of the whole UFO field. – John Rimmer.

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