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Close Encounters

In response to:

The Third Coming from the January 26, 1978 issue

To the Editors:

Masters of rhetorical overkill must know not only where to place the howitzers but more importantly, how to shackle one’s enemies to highly visible straw men. In his January 26 piece entitled “The Third Coming,” Martin Gardner gave a seamless demonstration of these skills. He didn’t like the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind and used it to attack a recent book, The Hynek UFO Report, one of the three items listed as being under review in his article. The author, Dr. J. Allen Hynek, is introduced simply as “professor of astronomy at Northwestern University…. He started out as a debunker, but now is firmly persuaded that something paranormal—he doesn’t know just what—is behind the UFO flaps.” Then Gardner fires his howitzers, an informal and unimpressive magazine interview with Hynek, published elsewhere, being the target for his attack. Gardner also presents as evidence for the foolishness of the UFO phenomenon this information: “…after twenty years of investigation the Air Force finally decided that nothing extraordinary was going on overhead.”

The innocent reader might have liked to know that for those twenty years this very same Prof.Hynek was the Air Force’s scientific consultant on UFOs, that he spent a number of those years as the leading official debunker—remember “swamp gass,” one of his less inspired explanations?—and that he takes the UFO phenomenon very seriously now precisely because of the persuasive evidence accumulated by this twenty-year Air Force investigation.

Another thing Gardner could have told us about the book he was allegedly reviewing was its subject. The Hynek UFO Report is a study and statistical analysis of the Air Force’s own files on UFOs, a review of the 13,134 reports collected during the twenty years Hynek served as consultant. As such, the book is a narrowly focussed and important document, written by a participant.

Concealing the subject matter of the book under review and neglecting to mention its author’s unique credentials and vantage point are bad enough, but Gardner’s use of a movie he didn’t like to attack something as complex and multi-levelled as the UFO phenomenon is absurd. It’s a little like using the banality of Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones to discredit the southern civil rights movement, or marshaling Méliès films and H.G. Wells’s fictions to belabor NASA’s more complicated projects.

Misinformation and rhetorical sleight of hand abound in Gardner’s review: “the Condon report…can be summarized in one sentence. There are no UFOs that can’t be explained as hoaxes, hallucinations, or honest misidentifications….” The fact is that over 25 percent of the UFO reports studied by the Condon scientists remained unidentified. The case conclusions studied one by one are particularly revealing, as in this example: “although conventional or natural explanations cannot be ruled out, the probability of such seems low in this case, and the probability that at least one genuine UFO was involved appears to be fairly high.” Again, “It does appear that this sighting defies explanation by conventional means.” And a marvelously sophistic “solution”: “This unusual sighting should therefore be assigned to the category of some almost certainly natural phenomenon which is so rare that it apparently has never been reported before or since”—in other words, I don’t like the implications of this report so I’ll invent a “natural” miracle in place of a disturbing, possibly “unnatural” one.

Gardner’s article also implies a consensus among scientists that the UFO phenomenon is beneath contempt, but again this consensus is a rhetorical invention. Recently the 2,611 members of the American Astronomical Society were sent questionnaires about the UFO issue. More than half responded; 53 percent of these said the UFO phenomenon “probably” or “certainly” deserves scientific study (17 percent said “probably not” and a mere 3 percent said “certainly not”).

Gardner’s assault involved an attempt to tie the UFO phenomenon to everything from Christian theology to the tooth fairy, but the problem is that Astronauts Slayton, Cooper, and McDivitt reported UFO sightings, not the tooth fairy. President Carter so far as I know has never claimed to see an angel, though he did, while he was governor of Georgia, file a UFO report. No full-scale scientific inquiry, to my knowledge, has ever been launched to investigate elves or ghosts, nor would the hundreds of astronomers mentioned above suggest such an investigation “probably” or “certainly” should be undertaken. Mr. Gardner finds it more comfortable to view Spielberg’s film as if it, rather than the Air Force data Hynek presents, constitutes the UFO problem. He should have skipped the movie and read the book.

Budd Hopkins

New York City

Martin Gardner replies:

Budd Hopkins’s most glaring bit of verbal obfuscation is one that I tried to clear up in my review. It is one thing to say that an object in the sky is “unidentified,” and quite another to call it an extraterrestrial spacecraftUFO buffs are forever pointing out that astronauts have reported UFOs. This sounds impressive until you realize that it means nothing more than that they reported seeing something they couldn’t identify. In this literal sense, almost everybody, including Jimmy Carter, have seen UFOs. I myself saw an awesome one at the age of about ten when I was lying awake one summer night in Oklahoma and gazing out a window. My guess now is that I saw a fireball (it split into two parts, each of which continued through the sky), but how can I be sure?

Hopkins’s blurring of the distinction between “unidentified” and “extraterrestrial spacecraft” is behind his objection to my summary of the Condon report. I did not say that this report said that all data had been explained. I said, correctly, that the report concluded that all data could be explained. I went to considerable pains to give reasons why it is the nature of the case that there be many sightings for which information is insufficient to pinpoint an explanation. It no more follows that these UFOs are alien spacecraft than it follows from unidentified noise in a radio telescope that aliens are trying to signal us.

My assertion that it is a consensus among scientists that UFOs are not alien spacecraft is not in the least belied by the astronomers who replied to the questionnaire cited by Hopkins. On this survey see the criticisms of Philip Klass and John Robinson in the current issue of The Zetetic, with replies by P.A. Sturrock, the ufologist who made the survey. Among those who troubled to respond to the multiple-choice quiz, 23 percent thought the “UFO problem certainly deserves scientific study,” 30 percent thought it “probably” does, 27 percent checked “possibly,” 17 percent checked “probably does not,” and 3 percent checked “certainly does not.”

Had I taken this quiz I would unhesitatingly have checked “certainly deserves.” No one doubts that there is a “UFO problem.” I believe it deserves serious study by psychologists and sociologists, as do all such longlasting belief manias. Hopkins does not add that another part of the same questionnaire offered astronomers a choice of eight explanations for UFOs. Ninety percent thought they had “prosaic/terrestrial” explanations, 7 percent checked “a cause which respondent cannot specify,” and 3 percent checked the extraterrestrial technology hypothesis. Note the exquisite balance. Three percent were true believers like Dr. Hynek, and 3 percent thought it a waste of time to investigate UFO reports.

Hopkins’s use of this survey to give the impression that 53 percent of American astronomers share Dr. Hynek’s wild views is a sterling instance of how the results of the survey have been distorted by believers, and about which Sturrock himself complains in his replies to his critics. Readers interested in this exchange, or in responsible appraisals of UFO reporting during the great 1978 flap triggered by Close Encounters, can subscribe to The Zetetic (the only periodical in the world devoted to the investigation of pseudoscience) by sending ten dollars to Box 29, Kensington Station, Buffalo, NY 14215. Three issues of the new quarterly have appeared. The fourth will be a humdinger.

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