Three hours ago if someone had asked me whether I believe in flying saucers I would have said, “probably not.” Now I say, “probably.” Last night I had come into Larry King Live half-way through, and I wanted to see the whole thing, which involved several sequential panel discussions about UFOs, so I hunted for it on-line. Evidently there was a sighting a month or so ago that hundreds of people witnessed, and they discussed it and the other most famous cases.
It turns out that there are countless You-tube clips purporting to show UFOs. Many of them are more convincing than the still photos one gets from searching Google Images. However, I don’t think it was the clips themselves that made me change my mind. Some of the most impressive ones evidently were created by computer. For example, I saw two spectacular clips supposedly made in Haiti. This one was best: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=up5jmbSjWkw
It shows a couple of unusual flying saucers, each with lights underneath and propelled by five circular engines below the disk-shaped craft. (See photo above, which I think was taken from that clip.) If I had been present at such a sighting, I would most certainly have been convinced, but perhaps special effects computer people can create images that are that good today. I wish I knew. (The other day when I watched Charlie Wilson's War I wondered whether those scenes of Russian helicopters being shot out of the sky by Stinger missiles had been done by a computer graphics expert. If someone who reads this can answer that question, please enter a comment below.)
But there was another impressive video clip produced by the same people who did the aforementioned one. At first I was astonished by it: a big box-shaped thing was falling toward the camera, but it swerved and showed a logo instead; something like “Wanco.” So that made me much more critical again.
There was one clip made in Florida by an older couple, to judge from the sound of their voice. It went on a very long time. The UFO looked more like a round lampshade covering a light than anything else, but its motions were jittery and it changed shape while we watched. The underneath light glowed red for a while. The couple talked about what they were seeing, and that part seemed extremely authentic. So it seems clear to me that there are many genuine sightings, but probably the majority of the accounts are faked or mistaken. Yet if you open your mind to the possibility that one or two percent of them are authentic, you face a huge challenge deciding what to believe and what to discount.
One Australian woman lost me after she had led me far into her story. She and three other cars had stopped by the side of the road to watch a craft that was on the ground. There were no photos, but the fact that there had been other witnesses bolstered her claim. Then she told us about a group of figures from the spacecraft who approached her and knocked her down with a powerful vibration. At that point, I decided she wasn’t credible. I cannot rationally justify why I will suspend disbelief only up to a certain point, and no further. I don't believe in little bug-eyed aliens.
There was another interesting video about an archaeological discovery made in 1938 in a cave in China: unusual skeletons and some discs carved with symbols, which supposedly were left by the crash of a space ship some 12,000 years ago. Well, why not? I can buy that. If aliens are checking us out now, it seems plausible that some of them were doing the same thing 12,000 years ago. That just adds to the credibility of more recent stories for me. Surely we're not the most advanced civilization in the universe.
One of the discussions on Larry King and other more analytical video clips concerned the motivation of the US government for covering up such sightings. They did not mention what I think is the most credible explanation: the desire to prevent panic.
One of the most consistent findings that sociologists find when they study disasters is that the authorities do not want to issue warnings to the public. They suppose that if people are told that a disaster is impending, they will flee in a disorderly way that will cause more harm than the disaster itself.
In some cases there are panic situations, as for example when there is not adequate room for a crowd of people to exit a theatre when a fire starts. But the usual situation is quite different. In general, people will refuse to recognize the truth of a warning or to act on it. Even if the police drive through town, warning will bull-horns that a high dam is about to break and that the inhabitants must flee immediately, they will usually ignore the warning — at least until the see actual water in the streets. Three times I have been in situations where the air raid signalswent off accidentally, notifying us that a nuclear attack was imminent. On all these occasions, people seemed not to hear the sound. I did, but nobody around me seemed to notice. It’s amazing.
So the authorities wrongly believe that for the sake of the public’s well-being, they must hide the truth to prevent havoc. And if the public actually is informed, they do not react to the warning at all, so there is no panic at all. I wish people were more aware of these two findings; we would all be safer.
But there is another factor influencing the decision not to tell people, and it may be well-founded, so far as I know. Once when I was teaching, I asked my class what they would do if they were informed that a spaceship was coming to Earth. Almost all of them assumed that the aliens were hostile and that we would have to shoot them immediately, out of self-defence.
I was astonished. I had not suggested at all that these visitors would be malign. Indeed, the possibility had not even occurred to me. But now I think we can assume that the average “Earthling“ would react very badly to news about contact with beings from outer space.
Personally, my attitude is more compatible with that of Dan Ackroyd, the announcer for one of the video clips. He said that his show (of which we could only see a short teaser) would prove that we are being watched by beings from other civilizations who are deeply interested in supporting our well-being. Ackroyd and I are not expecting Star Wars, as are many of our fellow Earthlings.