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The Stranger Side Of Life
Beyond Weird, 7th December 1998.
It's amazing the sort of things you get up to as a kid. Many people cringe
when they remember the time they dressed up as a ghost when Halloween came and
be blissfully unaware of the fact that, since the "costume" consisted of a net
curtain tied to you so it was all bushy, it was actually almost totally
transparent and people could see you in your vest and shorts.
This, although embarrassing, can be simply written off as being the
actions of a naïve six year old.
Believing in aliens and flying saucers when (allegedly) being a grown
man is another kettle of fish entirely. To begin at the beginning…
Vampire Hunters, Exorcists And Saucer Watchers
It was 1992. I was gearing up for my A-Level exams and could have used a
distraction or two from text books, the contents of which stopped interesting
me twelve months previously. At that time, an intelligent disc jockey (a rare
combination back then) called Nicky Campbell had a night-time show on BBC
Radio One. Aimed at the more intellectual person, he interviewed various
guests from a vast range of walks of life. You had the traditional guests -
Members of Parliament, actors, authors, comedians, etc.… - and the
not-so-traditional - ghost hunters, vampire hunters, exorcists and saucer
watchers. With a combination of an educated interviewer, interesting
interviewees and quality records in between sections of the conversation, the
show was a winner.
Of Ufology And Ufologists
One night, Campbell was interviewing Timothy Good, a member of the London
Symphony Orchestra by day, "ufologist" in his spare time. I wouldn't be
surprised if you've never heard of the term "ufologist", it was a term
invented to try and give the subject a scientific-sounding name. "Ufology" to
the layman sounds as respectable as "biology", "meteorology", and dozens of
other "ologies" that he knows the names of, but doesn't ACTUALLY understand
what they are. Once he eventually reads about the subject of ufology, he'll
realise that the subject isn't a genuine science at all. But more about that
Good was a ufologist, not a saucer watcher, which basically meant he
went around collecting reports of UFO sightings, interviewing the people who
made these sightings and generally trying to make sense of it all. Ufologists
are a funny bunch. One of the first things that any scholar of ufology will
discover is that there are NO FACTS AT ALL in the subject which supports any
hypothesis, apart from the hypothesis that nothing extraterrestrial is
happening in our skies. The reason that there are none of these facts about is
that there is plenty of raw data about, but the accuracy and reliability of
which means that there is plenty of scope for dozens of hypotheses to be
derived from it, but nothing provable. With no accepted points of reference
and so many hypotheses and pet theories floating about, the subject is
infested with enough in-fighting to last until the end of the NEXT millennium.
And the sad thing is, in the absence of any reliable data which would sort
this mystery out one way or another, the arguments in the debate more often
than not turn personal.
The ufology debate has been going on since the term "flying saucer"
was first coined by a journalist in 1947. Over fifty years later, the debate
is still going.
Cover-Ups, Conspiracies, Alien Bases and Abductions
Anyway, back to Good's interview. He was publicising his latest book on
ufology, "Alien Liaison", which described possible contact between the United
States Government and a few alien races.
Ahem. You DID read that correctly.
When talking about this in public nowadays, I always make a little
comment that I plead naivety to all charges you can make about me at this
time. I add that I was just stepping out into the "real world" for the first
time and that I was a little TOO open minded about the various things that
could happen in it.
Privately I say I was a bloody fool who should have known better and
done something more constructive with my spare time instead. You live and
I listened to Good's tales of cover-ups, conspiracies, alien bases and
abductions with a combination of terror and excitement, scaring myself silly
in the process. Good was a great story-teller, he captivated all who listened
to him and read his books. It was the tales of above Top Secret bases like
Area 51 that employed American scientists who analysed captured alien craft in
an effort to reverse engineer them that piqued my interest in the subject.
These were such fantastic claims, I just HAD to know more. I headed to the
library to borrow this book, couldn't find it, but found Good's previous book,
"Above Top Secret". At about three inches thick, it made a great book-end, but
in ufological terms I'd hit gold dust.
It turned out that "Above Top Secret" is one of very, very few books
that almost all ufologists say is essential reading. I also support that
claim, but for different reasons which will come apparent later on in this
essay. The book contains hundreds of sightings made by both the public AND
various government agencies and armed forces. One thing that this book had in
its favour was that many of the government sightings were backed up with
released documents, and these documents were reproduced in the appendix of the
book. It was fascinating reading: verified reports of Royal Air Force and
airline pilots who saw and came close to UFOs whilst flying; reports of
several near-misses, and a few collisions; reports of landings of UFOs. There
were also a few tales of sightings of actual aliens and alien abductions. I
Spooking For Dummies
All this happened before "The X-Files" was to become a major hit on
television. I'd found a subject which I could talk about to other people and,
provided I was more conservative about the various claims, could keep them
interested without being open to TOO much ridicule. The subject hadn't had
that much publicity in Britain, so I could safely talk to people without fear
of, and excuse the pun, alienating them. I also expanded my field of knowledge
to include various paranormal subjects, like ghosts and poltergeists, for
instance. This was to become invaluable knowledge when Halloween came around
when I'd forgone the transparent ghost costume in favour of telling ghost
Telling a group of people a few ghost stories at Halloween (or indeed
any other time of year) was doubly satisfying: most of the people would get a
little spooked if you told the story the right way, and then the girls in the
group would be on edge afterwards so that almost anything would make them howl
in shock. Tip of the day: work with someone else whilst doing this. You become
the prime focal point, tell your story in a method that everyone hangs on your
every word. Meanwhile, your accomplice watches the more, how shall I put this,
frightenable people to see how hard they clench their cushions to themselves,
how wide open their eyes are and how far their jaws have dropped. Once one of
them has got sufficiently spooked, just tap them on the shoulder, or pass them
something innocuous quickly into the edge of their field of sight. A quick
yelp by them is a great tension breaker!
Fighting Your Corner
Usenet, the set of forums that's part of the Internet, was another thing which
I went into before it became extremely popular. It was the start of 1993 and I
discovered a few forums dedicated to ufology and the paranormal. One of the
main claims about Usenet is that, as there's very, very few rules and
regulations, you can say ANYTHING and be listened to by THOUSANDS of people
around the world. A benefit of this is that you hear views from the whole
paranormal spectrum, from hardened skeptics through to people who'll believe
anything you tell them. This benefit soon turns into a hindrance when you
realise that every claim and counter-claim in the many debates are unchecked,
so you learn nothing but add to your own beliefs.
The result of this is that everyone acts like your typical ufologist:
the data pool is the same, the unreliability of the data is increased since
more and more anecdotal evidence is added, and every debate tends to be
unresolveable, usually ending with things turning very, very personal indeed.
Factions are formed, and very little changes from year to year.
Like the books on ufology, the dead-end nature of the subject is
revealed. At least ninety-five percent of all UFO sightings have mundane
explanations found almost immediately. As every year passes, more information
is found about the remaining five percent which convince investigators that
they too have mundane explanations. Unfortunately, due to the ufologists
dividing themselves into factions, more often than not one person will simply
ignore another person's work because it doesn't fit in with their own beliefs.
All that happens is that the ufologists keep on fighting their corner. One
cannot help but get the feeling that the subject isn't progressing.
Becoming The Believer
And here's the crux of the matter: A UFO is just that. An Unidentified Flying
Object. Calling it anything more exotic like "alien spaceship" brings belief
into the equation, and that line of thinking leads to nowhere in the quest for
a solution. I went down the belief path for a few years. I actually wrote a
mini-online-encyclopaedia on the subject since at that time there were very,
very few UFO web sites on the Internet. Called "The UFO Guide" it had quite a
good reception by the online community. You can now find it on dozens of sites
on the web. I even made some money on it when it was translated into French
and included in a text book on the subject. Reading through it now it shows
that I was more than a bit naïve at the time, believing many tales on the
basis that I liked the sound of them. Any skepticism back then was, in my
The two main cases that caught my eye subsequently turned into the two
most publicised tales in ufological history. The first was The Roswell
Incident. If you haven't heard this story, then where the hell have you been
in the past five or so years? This case has probably been covered or mentioned
in every mainstream newspaper and magazine and television station in the past
five years. In case you've missed it, Roswell, New Mexico was the nearest town
to the site where a flying disc was meant to have crashed in the beginning of
July 1947. The US Army quickly moved in and recovered the craft, plus
occupants, and spirited them off to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where all
recovered alien technology is meant to be stored.
The other story was Area 51. Again, if you haven't heard of this
place, then you must have stayed away from every media source in the Western
world. In 1988, a physicist named Bob Lazar claimed to have worked in Area 51,
a formerly super-secret US research and development facility based in the
Nevada desert. So far so good, the base actually exists and was where the US
developed the Stealth Bomber, along with many other "black project" aircraft.
Lazar claimed to have worked on spaceships given to the US government by an
alien race in return for permission to abduct as many people as they wanted.
Ahem. The reason I believed this story was that it sounded possible (if
implausible) and that there hadn't been any negative coverage of the case.
My belief had been formed: "they" had arrived, and had made contact.
Seeing The Light
A few years passed. I'd gone through university and entered the private sector
as a computer programmer. I'd got bored with the subject - there's only a
finite number of books you can read to reconfirm your belief system before you
reach overkill. Then I discovered a magazine called "Saucer Smear". This was
an American booklet published every month or two and is the ufological
equivalent of Britain's "Private Eye" magazine. It was light-hearted in
nature, highlighting the politics of the subject, the absurdities of various
people's claims and cases, and generally opened my mind to the skeptical side
of the subject. So, I hit the library, and also the Internet (which had at
this point developed so that you could find almost anything you want if you
know how to look for it) and read what the "other side" had to say.
I was astounded.
Ufology had more flaws than just the internal politics and lack of
facts. All the studies of the subject were undermined by the revelation that,
if a ufologist discovered something which disproves part of their hypothesis,
they merely IGNORE it, cover it up and carry on as if nothing happened.
Roswell was a prime example of this. This is the most
over-investigated case EVER. The crash was meant to have happened in 1947, yet
it was only discovered by two ufologists thirty years later. The whole case
rests on thirty-year-old memories (at the very least) of a few dozen people,
and each account appears to conflict with most of the others. This was perfect
for ufologists: to get Roswell to support their own hypothesis, they had a
vast data set to pick and choose from. As things stand at the moment, there
are at least FOUR crash sites, various amounts of debris, between two and
seven aliens recovered (with various appearances) and the crash happened on
various dates in June and July 1947. Roswell suddenly appeared to me to be a
jumble of questionable facts from ufologists with huge egos.
Then the facts arrived, courtesy of a combination of the US Air Force
and a group of skeptics and believers. The crash debris found were the remains
of a balloon-train that carried radar reflectors from a classified project
called Project Mogul, a project designed to attempt to monitor Soviet nuclear
tests. The reports of bodies were assumed to originate from a separate project
in the 1950's which tested crash test dummies dropped from balloons. As the
whole case relied on old memories, it's not inconceivable that the dates got
mixed up by the witnesses. The ufologists read the reports and came to one of
two conclusions: either this was proof positive that the Air Force is
continuing its cover-up; or they just said that they'd disagreed with the
report and continued their life as if it never happened.
To Wish Upon A Star-Like Object
Roswell wasn't the only UFO crash case in ufological history. Depending on who
you believed, there have been over TWO HUNDRED UFO crashes in the past fifty
years. Even taking into account that there's bound to have been top secret
experimental aircraft in amongst that number, it makes you realise that there
are many people who believes that the skies of Planet Earth is some sort of
Even Britain has had a few crashes, the most prominent being an
incident outside the (now decommissioned) RAF Woodbridge, by Rendelsham Forest
in Suffolk at the end of December 1980. Flashing lights were seen within the
forest, so a few officers went inside to investigate. They ran through the
forest, chasing after a flashing light, until they lost it. They then saw some
"star-like objects" in the sky which stood motionless above them. They
returned to the base and within hours rumours about the event spread like
wildfire. These rumours reached local ufologists and soon tales about contact
with a triangular craft flying in between trees in the forest by brave
officers, culminating in contact with an alien race, were published in books
and the tabloid newspapers. The lack of information about the incident from
the government strengthened the idea that Her Majesty's Government was part of
a global conspiracy.
Indeed. A more sober look at this episode provided much more
information. Unsurprisingly, after all the publicity they've had from the
case, and the thousands of book sales resulting from it, the ufologists are
still pondering whether or not to ignore these discoveries.
All the book accounts and all the newspaper reports were based on
interviews given months after the event. In that time, the rumours around the
base had died down, and no one, not even the witnesses to the event, could
remember what exactly happened at the time. One ufologist, James Easton, then
discovered the witnesses' original statements, written mere hours after the
event. They told a totally different story, more or less completely stripped
of all the sensationalism that has since been attached to it. The flashing
lights were identified on the night. The ufologists originally thought that
since the lights flashed on and off at a constant frequency, then they MUST be
unnatural, so be proof positive that there was non-human involvement. And then
someone spotted a lighthouse in the direction the flashing light came from…
The claims of "star-like" objects didn't fare any better. The reason why these
objects were "star-like" became obvious: they were stars.
The Area 51 case fell apart on closer inspection. Bob Lazar was found
to have no credentials whatsoever. None of the PhD's he claimed he had checked
out, and his memory was so faulty that he couldn't remember the names of ANY
students who shared his lectures. He COULD remember the name of a single
lecturer, but that name could only be matched to a scientist who never worked
at the universities Lazar claimed to study at. Lazar and his supporters
naturally see this as proof positive of a cover-up, and therefore proof of his
claims. Belief had entered the equation, and belief would outweigh ANY
evidence that would, in the real world, disprove them. As all the other tales
were centred around Lazar's claims, Area 51 seems to be nothing more than a
secret test site. To the believer, though, this is a base full of benevolent
aliens helping mankind to develop advanced technology, and who ate nothing but
strawberry ice cream.
The UFO Bandwagon
I'd been converted. No longer was I a believer, I became what is known as a
skeptic. I tried putting forward the other point of view in the debates, but
was brushed aside. There is no truth in ufology, only opinions, and unless you
support the cause, then you are sidelined. It is now my opinion that if
ufologists EVER discover "the truth", they wouldn't recognise it as such, and
they wouldn't agree to the solution. There are FAR too many vested interests
in the subject. UFO books can sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Authors
receive obscene amounts of money from them, often running to six figures. The
skeptical books sell relatively few - who'd be interested in a book that
removed the sensationalism of the subject?
And now the rest of the media has jumped onto the UFO bandwagon - you
can now choose between about a dozen periodicals on the paranormal, there are
many "X-Files"-wannabe shows on television. Everyone knows at least one
conspiracy, and as a result distrusts their own government. And as the end of
this millennium approaches, many more kooks and crackpots are beginning to
come out of the woodwork. Heaven's Gate was only the start of it, I predict
many other cults to arise and probably more suicides as a result. The "silly"
subject of ufology has now taken a sinister turn.
Agnosticism rules, OK?
I am now an agnostic: there may be aliens flying through our skies, there may
not be. There ARE some intriguing cases, but these could be explained as a
test flight of secret aircraft. Nothing is certain anymore, and I don't think
ANYTHING will settle things. We now live in the age of "open government".
Governments now always tell the press, freely and frankly, ANYTHING that they
can easily find out some other way. Reality doesn't mean anything in today's
world, merely the PERCEPTION of reality. Those with a propensity to believe in
conspiracies of any kind will continue to do so. Those who make money by
publishing best-selling books on mysterious subjects will continue to ignore
anything that makes the subject less of a mystery.
Mendoza's Maxim Number Forty-Two states that ufology is a branch of
Maxim Forty-Three states that ufology is a branch of show business that
is in denial.
There's never been a truer word spoken.
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