- 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.
- 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
- 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.