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SETI Know-Nothings and the Teachable Moment

May 9, 2004


by Richard Dolan


Our current era of exploration on Mars has got some people thinking about that old bugaboo of NASA and SETI: the dreaded “Face on Mars.” Regarding SETI, in particular, it seems that whenever the media spotlight turns on them, the organization feels a compunction to attack the entire issue of UFOs.


With the landers “Spirit” and “Opportunity” traversing the Martian surface in search of water, signs of possible ancient life, and maybe an exciting glimpse of Earth’s own desert-like future, the SETI people are busy propagandizing to the max. Understandably, they want to make sure that the billions of tax dollars going into exploring the dead — I mean Red — planet are not wasted. They need to make sure that some of the money goes back into the fundamentals, like drumming up popular support for the next sinkhole of public expenditures.


In order to do this, however, they have to set their priorities in order. The first thing to do is distance themselves from anything that smacks of what they love to call “pseudoscience.” By this, they basically mean belief in UFOs.


Edna DeVore, the Director of Education and Public Outreach for SETI, is doing her bit by setting us straight on what she calls “Mars and the Teachable Moment.” (See It’s a good time to employ critical thinking in the classrooms, she tells us, by debunking the myth about the so-called “Face on Mars” and explain the structure for what it really is: a naturally formed mesa.


This is ever more important in our current dark age, in which science in the classroom is in retreat and belief in – gasp – aliens ever marches forward among our nation’s bored, lazy, and gaming-addicted youth. Teachers can start by showing students the old 1976 photograph of “The Face,” which by all accounts surely looks like a face. Then the far more precise images taken 25 years later by the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS), which doesn’t look all that much like a face. The naturally formed mesa, DeVore tells us, may be a little less sexy than an honest-to-goodness face, but it will give students an opportunity to study evidence and participate in the scientific process.


Now to be honest, I’ve never gotten very excited over the whole Face On Mars issue. Some people think I’m supposed to, since I write about topics like UFOs and conspiracies. But there are only so many controversies to which one can attach oneself. I’ve tried to be choosy about my battles, and this isn’t one of them.


So Ms. DeVore can have all the glory she wants by telling us it’s a natural formation. What I find intriguing is how she lumps the entire topic of UFOs into the bin of pseudoscience. I’ve never encountered writing by any SETI author that demonstrated a cursory knowledge of the basics of UFO literature. So why start now?


Thus, according to her, the only reason the uncritical kids and adults of the world believe the so-called evidence of aliens is that it’s all “carefully gift wrapped by the creative television producers who crank out dramatic programs depicting these events with well-trained actors and elaborate sets.”


Ohhhhh. We learn something new every day. I guess I never realized that’s why so many of us believe in that stuff. THOSE DAMNED TV PRODUCERS! Undermining science, no less. Thanks a lot, Hollywood.


Unfortunately, a brief column is not the place to provide a full education on the topic of UFOs to Ms. DeVore and the folks at SETI. Although I’m a writer and historian on this topic, I’m not an evangelist, and I am certainly not going to spend my time holding the hand of an unwilling pupil.


But I can provide her and her friends with a teachable moment. My subject, unfortunately, has nothing to do with Hollywood. It does, however, have to do with a history of the UFO phenomenon, especially in its relation to American national security. What I can tell her is that, beyond any doubt whatsoever, the UFO phenomenon has engaged extreme levels of interest from the highest levels of the U.S. national security establishment for the last 50 years.


Science is a wonderful thing, but so is history. And while an analysis of genuine historical documents does not prove that UFOs are the product of aliens, they do prove a couple of other things.


1. That UFOs are real phenomenon


2. That the topic is highly classified.


3. That most of the difficult cases involve observations of technology


4. That the observed technology appears to be vastly beyond any official human capabilities then or now


5. That many of these UFO encounters have involved military personnel.


6. That many of these military-based UFO incidents are of an alarmingly provocative and confrontational nature (violations of sensitive airspace by objects doing what should be impossible).


Such cases have happened not once or twice, but hundreds of times, according to the information that we now have, much of which is thanks to the Freedom of Information Act.


We know the topic was taken seriously 50 years ago, as when the FBI wrote in a classified memo in 1949 that:


“Army intelligence has recently said that the matter of ‘unidentified aircraft’ or ‘unidentified aerial phenomenon’ otherwise known as ‘flying discs,’ ‘flying saucers,’ and ‘balls of fire,’ is considered top secret by intelligence officers of both the Army and the Air Forces.”


Why would this topic be considered top secret?


Or an Air Force Intelligence report from 1951, describing the encounter of an F-51 pilot with a UFO. The object was described as “flat on top and bottom and appearing from a front view to have round edges and slightly beveled … No vapor trails or exhaust or visible means of propulsion. Described as traveling at tremendous speed…. Pilot considered by associates to be highly reliable, of mature judgment and a creditable observer.”


Or (one of my personal favorites) a 1952 memo to the Director of the CIA, General Walter Bedell Smith, from the CIA’s Chief of the Office of Scientific Intelligence. The memo stated:


“At this time, the reports of incidents convince us that there is something going on that must have immediate attention…. sightings of unexplained objects at great altitudes and traveling at high speeds in the vicinity of major U.S. defense installations are of such nature that they are not attributable to natural phenomena or known types of aerial vehicles.”


Anyone care to explain just what those objects might be?


Or the report by an RAF fighter pilot from 1954. “It was silvery and color, had a bun-shaped top, a flange like two saucers in the middle and a bun underneath, and could not have been far off because it overlapped my wind screen.”


Or the statement in 1955 by CIA Director Allen Dulles: “Maximum security exists concerning the subject of UFOs.”


Why would “maximum security” surround this topic?


Or the public statement by former CIA Director Roscoe Hillenkoetter, in 1960: “Behind the scenes, high-ranking Air Force officers are soberly concerned about UFOs. But through official secrecy and ridicule, many citizens are led to believe the unknown flying objects are nonsense.”


Or the amazing reports from several American Air Force Bases in late 1975, when objects that remain unknown to this day violated base security and hovered directly over nuclear weapons storage facilities? Objects which could hover like a helicopter but accelerate like a jet plane, and do so silently? Most spectacular were the events at Loring AFB in Maine, Wurtsmith AFB in Michigan, and Malmstrom AFB in Montana.


A classified Defense memo from 1975 described the cat and mouse game that ensued between UFOs (seen visually and tracked on radar) and F-106′s which attempted (and failed) to intercept them. The memo noted that the intruding objects “could not be intercepted.” Most interesting was the statement that “Personnel at 4 SAC sites reported observing intercepting F-106′s arrive in area; sighted objects turned off their lights upon arrival of interceptors, and back on upon their departure.”


And so it goes. Frankly, it gets much stranger than this, strange because the sources are extremely reputable, and the actions taken by the U.S. military as a result have appeared to be very serious.


The fact is that citizens around the U.S. and the world are well aware that there is a vast gap in what they are told to be the “official truth” of UFOs, and what real evidence says is the truth – not the Hollywood productions that Ms. DeVore likes to write about, but documents by responsible people in government who have been trying to keep on top of this matter, but as a matter of policy have systematically lied to the public for years.


And a docile scientific establishment, eager to suck at the teat of public tax dollars in the competitive world of fundraising, plays its part of the game. Let me quickly add that I do not accuse these people of being dishonest, or even cynical. They simply learn the correct organizational behaviors, down to the correct manner of “Right Thinking.” Theirs is not a world for renegades.


I will leave Ms. DeVore and her SETI friends with the words of one of their own. A man famous for doing something that has helped keep SETI (and its space buddy, NASA) in business all these years.


“A few insiders know the truth . . . and are studying the bodies that have been discovered.”


Those were the words of Apollo 14 astronaut, Dr. Edgar Mitchell, earlier this year. He is one of 12 men to have walked on the Moon.


The fact is that the UFO problem is a ticking bomb, because a full disclosure of its reality would indeed turn everything upside down, especially the cozy little world of SETI, where all the aliens are safely “out there.”


I suggest they turn their gaze downward a tad and do some elementary reading. Many teachable moments await them.

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