Bringing UFOs Down to Earth


The UFO Verdict: Examining the Evidence, by Robert Sheaffer, Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1981, 242 pp., $15.95.

A few years ago I made a survey of books on UFOs published since 1947, which revealed an 11-to-1 ratio in favor of the extraterrestrial hypothesis over the skeptical one. Since Robert Sheaffer's The UFO Verdict presents the issues from a more down-to-earth viewpoint (and the author's computer-science background is an asset), the book partially corrects that imbalance.

Many of the UFO books that periodically flood the market are as antiscientific as the "No Nukes" groups; in fact, some authors, as Sheaffer points out, go out on both crusades. (Furthermore, many details of sightings reported in the pro-saucer books are deleted or falsified, with insinuations galore.)

It is bad enough when some hack writers come out in print with such an attitude, but it is much worse when, for example, Drs. J.A. Hynek and J. Vallee advocate the ideas of fairies and "alternate realities" as serious postulates or that scientists must suspend scientific procedures in order to cope with the flying saucer phenomenon. If Drs. Floyd Ferris and R. Stadler of Atlas Shrugged come to mind, it is with good reason.

Now, this is not to say that anyone who advocates the existence of extraterrestrial life or of the possibility of alien visitation is being antiscientific. The objection is that the pro-saucer advocates are oftentimes uncritical to the point of absurd wishful thinking, and their attacks on scientists for not jumping on the bandwagon are downright odd (not to mention the viciousness of their attacks on persons critical of the visitation hypothesis, such as astrophysicist Donald Menzel). Sheaffer cites several instances of such behavior.

As to the book itself, it is well written and, thankfully, does not rehash too many old classic sightings. Instead, recent ones are investigated, including the sighting claimed by Jimmy Carter. A few observations are made on the selectivity of the press in regard to flying-saucer sensationalism, be it the National Enquirer or the overrated Washington Post.

Sheaffer does a good job of eliminating the logical fallacies offered by believers of obvious hoaxes. He comes up with little-known information about previous sightings that had been overlooked, such as the fact that the Brazilian photographer who had photographed the 1958 Trinidad Island UFO was a specialist in trick photography. And the misperceptions that he routinely points out in several cases have reaffirmed my view that anyone wanting to be a UFO investigator should first take a university course in perception psychology.

Are there any shortcomings in the book? A few. More cases should have been presented. More emphasis should have been given to solutions other than hoaxes and celestial objects (like piezoelectricity, plasma, temperature inversions, and ball lightning; P. Klass's solution to the Exeter incident, for instance, is more convincing than Sheaffer's). Lastly, the pictures in the book—this is the publisher's fault, not Sheaffer's—are of incredibly poor quality; and UFO pictures, as anyone will tell you, are what sell a flying-saucer book, not the contents.

But all this is nitpicking. The book remains a worthwhile investment and it is hoped that many more similar ones get published—and not just on UFOs. Chances are that this will indeed be the case: the publisher, Prometheus Books, has started a Critiques of the Paranormal Series, headed by Dr. Paul Kurtz, who is connected with the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. This committee has exploded the blatant hoaxes of the charlatans von Daniken and Uri Geller. Robert Sheaffer, incidentally, is a member of that organization's UFO subcommittee.

Armando Simón is a research psychologist.