Monday, June 25, 2012

The National Geographic Channel's "Chasing UFOs" - How Credible Will It Be?

The National Geographic Channel is premiering a new "reality TV" series, Chasing UFOs, on June 29. 
"A team of trained investigators sets out to uncover the truth about UFOs. But they’re not just looking for more stories on extraterrestrial activity—they want answers. Risking it all, this team of scientists and UFO researchers investigate and dissect some of the most mysterious sightings on the planet to unearth stunning new evidence. The data they collect on these adventures paints an entirely new picture of what we know about these strange lights in the sky."
To judge from this teaser video,  it seems that investigating UFOs involves a lot of car chases and extraterrestrial spotlights. As best I can tell, this video has nothing to do with the real world.

There are three principal "investigators":

  1. Ben McGee, Physical Scientist, THE SKEPTIC. The world of  skeptical UFO researchers is pretty small, but I've never heard of this guy. There isn't a lot about him on the web, either. " A space-minded geoscientist, Ben is engaged in the development of xenoarchaeology - a speculative form of archaeology exploring possible alien life and culture....A respected field researcher with experience in nuclear rocketry, planetary geology, hydrology and glaciology, Ben's job is to gather evidence at proposed sites of unexplained occurrences and scientifically determine its origin." Wikipedia says that Xenoarchaeology is "a hypothetical form of archaeology that exists mainly in science fiction works concerned with the physical remains of past (but not necessarily extinct) alien life and cultures. It is not practiced by mainstream archaeologists." It's not the same thing as "Ancient Astronauts," but the latter is included within it.
  2. Erin Ryder, Tech and Recon THE 'SKELIEVER'. "Lara Croft.  Amelia Earhart.  Dana Scully. Whether in fiction or nonfiction, there are few hard-hitting, tough-as-nails females as fearless as Erin Ryder... Ryder is a force to be reckoned with not only for her brains and brawn, but also for her industry-leading knowledge of all things tech.  Her years of experience investigating unsubstantiated claims make her an expert in the field of alien/ghost-hunting technology.  Ryder "geeks out" over thermal cameras, Geiger counters and night vision scopes and can't wait to use the latest technology to investigate new and old UFO cases alike."

    3. James Fox, UFOlogist THE BELIEVER. Well, here is somebody who has a track record in UFOlogy. He is a documentary filmmaker, an associate of UFO author Leslie Kean. He's the guy who claimed that Buzz Aldrin was followed to the moon by a fleet of UFOs, but was paid off by Paul Allen to not tell his story.

More worrisome still, the series website is filled with misinformation about UFOs. Here are a few examples, by no means a complete list:
  • "Astronaut Buzz Aldrin has stated on multiple occasions that his crew saw a UFO outside their shuttle during the Apollo 11 mission." Not true. Wikipedia says of Aldrin, "In 2005, while being interviewed for a documentary titled First on the Moon: The Untold Story, Aldrin told an interviewer that they saw an unidentified flying object. Aldrin told David Morrison, a NASA Astrobiology Institute Senior Scientist, that the documentary cut the crew's conclusion that they were probably seeing one of four detached spacecraft adapter panels. Their S-IVB upper stage was 6,000 miles away, but the four panels were jettisoned before the S-IVB made its separation maneuver so they would closely follow the Apollo 11 spacecraft until its first midcourse correction."
  • "Former president Jimmy Carter reported seeing an unidentified flying object while working as a peanut farmer in southwest Georgia." Highly misleading.Way back in the Humanist magazine, July/August, 1977, I wrote "President Carter's 'UFO' Is Identified as the Planet Venus." So this fact has been known for more than thirty years. Even UFO proponents like Jerome Clark accept that Carter's "UFO" is simply a misidentification of Venus. Disingenuous UFO proponents love to mention the Carter sighting, but conceal its explanation. For example, Leslie Kean. That's one easy way to tell which UFOlogists are trying to fool you: if they present the Carter UFO as "unexplained," they are either totally incompetent, or else they intend to misinform.
Of course, we haven't seen the first episode yet, so we don't know if the show will really be as unrealistic and misleading as its advance publicity suggests.


  1. Looks like an attempt to rip off the format of The UFO Hunters... and make it worse.
    As you say, if James Fox is involved, you know what you're going to get. And it isn't Pulitzer prizes.

    1. I watched some of the program before having to turn it off in disappointment and disgust.

      Which is sadder? That you and others knew the likely value of this program before the premier or that some viewers will believe this entertainment in some way reflects the conduct of real science?

  2. Time to recirculate a datum I received years ago from a colleague in sleuthing Soviet space secrets. In one conversation which was NOT about UFOs, Gene launched into a 'war story' of how a hapless, hopeless 'intelligence officer' forgot how it was his job to collect and forward raw 'intelligence', not jump to an interpretation of what it meant that then colored and pre-edited ALL his subsequent data collection and reporting.

    Date: Thursday, July 03, 2003 3:04 PM

    [snip] ... Years later, I'm told by somebody [Gene Tighe, now deceased] who was a student at the DIA Intelligence School (over in the Anacostia Annex to the Navy Yard in DC for many years -- I worked there in 1973-1974) in the mid-1950's, that Marcel's 'crashed disk' was a 'case study' for future intelligence officers in how NOT to handle an anomalous recovery or event -- jump to a sexy conclusion right away before full analysis. Tighe told me that Marcel's freaking out over what he was sure he had a hold of, was held up as a counter-example of what a good intelligence officer is NOT supposed to do.

  3. The show is probably intended more as entertainment than as science. But let's wait and see. A 'skeliever'? I hope this does not become the latest new word!

  4. 'SKELIEVER'? Where does that put the Forteans?

  5. Hold on - perhaps we're taking this too literally. What if it's actually a send-up, like Ghostbusters? UFObusters, perhaps?

  6. Ian,

    I don't think it's a "send-up." Review copies of the first few episodes have already gone out. One person who has seen them told me, "It is as bad as you can possibly imagine."

    cda says "The show is probably intended more as entertainment than as science." Perhaps, but people will take it as "science" because it purports to be reality-based. The first episode is about the Stevensville, Texas sightings, which was certainly a real event. Explainable, but real.

    1. I think one has to approach this with a sense of humour. There's no point us taking it seriously since they obviously don't.
      Of course, if they start faking Rendlesham stuff like The UFO Hunters did, then I might get mad...

  7. Anyone who thinks we went to the moon in a space shuttle needs to take American Spaceflight 101 over again.

  8. They found a "ufo skeptic" that we don't know about, when our group is really small. 'nough said. It's gona be BS all the way down the rabbit hole.

  9. It doesn't matter whether it's intended as a "send-up." Our nation is scientifically illiterate and this is anti-science in the worst degree. Perhaps you remember the recent Nat Geo channel program Diggers! No? Well that might be because they pulled it after the first episode in part due to a strong coordinated protest campaign by the archeological community against the program, which glorified a couple of buffoon metal detectorists looting at archeological sites and selling the recovered artifacts for top profit. However, the channel is basically unrepentant, and who knows if the program will reappear. (An even worse variant of the same idea, called American Diggers, is on SpikeTV.) This show (UFO Chasers) & others like it demean the reputation of the National Geographic Society, which still has a scientific mission. Impressionable kids will watch this show, kids already receiving a lousy science education. This harms the public AND the image of science by dispensing misinformation dressed up as legitimate scientific investigation.

  10. Not a likely viewer or fan of this show, but xenoarchaeology is not Ancient Aliens. It is part of a larger (though still quite small) group of researchers and theorists interested in space archaeology. Most of those who do space archaeology are interested in studying and preserving the material culture and practices of the space age and specifically space activities, including launch facilities and theoretically landings such as the Apollo missions. One smaller subset of this is theoretical work on how one might go about finding archaeological evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations, ranging from the possibility of sifting through moon dust for evidence of anything that might have fallen there and preserved over the years (think of bits of plastic washing up on the shore, it would be the material culture equivalent of radio SETI, something I'm skeptical of, but hey), to looking for realistic evidence of extraterrestrial structures or craft in space (not Face on Mars stuff). I've even seen one or two attempts at "Well, how would you go about looking for evidence of a UFO crash, if you had a credible case), which was parallel but similar to the archaeological project contracted by the Sci-Fi Channel in New Mexico some years ago to investigate the Roswell legend (they didn't find anything).

    So the show's "skeptic" may well be skeptical, but interested in the topic.

  11. Here's a paper of his on the topic, it doesn't seem too out there, but it is largely a hypothetical exercise (again, like SETI).

  12. Ahtzib, Wikipedia describes "Xenoarcheology" as "a hypothetical form of archaeology that exists mainly in science fiction works concerned with the physical remains of past (but not necessarily extinct) alien life and cultures. It is not practiced by mainstream archaeologists."

    "Other names for xenoarchaeology, or specialised fields of interest, include Probe SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), extraterrestrial archaeology, space archaeology, SETA (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Artifacts), Dysonian SETI, Planetary SETI, SETT (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Technology), SETV (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Visitation),[2] extraterrestrial anthropology, areoarchaeology and selenoarchaeology.[3]"

    "Vicky Walsh argued for the existence of "exo-artifacts" using the principle of mediocrity and the Drake equation. She proposed that a theoretical and speculative field of archaeology be established in order to test outlandish claims, and to prepare for a time when undeniably extraterrestrial artifacts needed to be analysed.

    "If it is possible to construct an abstract archaeology that can be tested and refined on earth and then applied to areas beyond our planet, then the claims for ETI remains on the moon and Mars may really be evaluated in light of established archaeological theory and analysis".[10]

    Ben McGee similarly proposed the creation of a set of interdisciplinary, proactive xenoarchaeological guidelines, arguing that identifying suspected artifacts of Astrobiology is all that is required to justify establishing a methodology for xenoarchaeology. He emphasized the necessity of proactive xenoarchaeological work in order to avoid future bias, mischaracterization, and information mismanagement, and he cites three scenarios under which such a methodology or set of guidelines would be useful, those being "Remote sensing" of a potential xenoarchaeologial artifact, encountering an artifact during "human exploration," and "terrestrial interception" of an artifact.[7]

    Greg Fewer has argued that archaeological techniques should be used to evaluate alleged UFO landing or crash sites, such as Roswell.[11]"

    So you're correct that "xenoarchaeology" is more than just "ancient astronauts," but it seems to include the latter.

    1. That definition also covers fiction. You'll note that those actually interested in this as a real field (I'm an archaeologist, and have a cultural interest in paranormal beliefs, but am not someone doing or terribly interested in xenoarchaeology as a thing), are not misinterpreting human material culture through the lens of UFOs and such, which is how I'd describe Ancient Alien "theorists."

      I know, online, Greg Fewer, and have read his paper on the topic. In fact I suggested it when a flack from the SciFi channel emailed me back in 2003 I believe, asking if there was anything out there like this (I had a website on crashed saucer legends, now part of my blog Spooky Paradigm). Now, I don't think Roswell, or any other claim of a crashed UFO, is worth doing archaeology because I think they are easier to explain historically as either legends or fabrications. But Fewer's paper was an exploration of "well, what would we expect, and how would one go about doing it." His methods were largely mirrored, IIRC, by the project SciFi contracted, led by University of New Mexico archaeologist William Doleman, to investigate Roswell, a project Fewer was not aware of until I mentioned it.

      Any crank can call themselves anything they want, and archaeologist is a title that is often taken for reasons I'm writing up for a paper. But in this case, lumping these purely hypothetical but reasonable intellectual exercises with the likes of von Daniken is, I'd argue, incorrect.

  13. Ben McGee's paper is on-line here:

    He says the term "xenoarchaeology" is "reserved speci´Čücally for the study of material evidence of astrobiological activity," in other words, what EBEs do.

    "astrobiology research concerns the study of potential alien life itself, not the hypothetical material evidence of such life." Clearly, by "xenoarchaeology" McGee means the hypothetical material evidence of alien life (and not necessarily intelligent life).

    Basically, in this paper he's just arguing it's necessary to proceed cautiously in such matters. No disagreement there.

    I have changed the text of this posting concerning Ben McGee.

  14. "Xenoarcheology" akin to "cryptozoology?" Having a degree in biology, I seem to miss out on that gig.

    I noticed from the trailers that some, if not all, of the show appears to be shot at night. Will we be treated to similar antics of "Ghost Hunters"? People chasing at shadows and asking the all important question: "What the hell was that?"

    National Geographic fully in line with that of the History Channel. What next? "Cajun UFO Hunters" deep down in the bayous?

    1. Whatever Cajuns hunt, they will catch, kill, and eat it. They don't run confused in circles in the dark. You want to catch something, anything, ask a Cajun.

    2. That's my heritage...use to spend entire summers with my grandparents in Louisiana. Grandfather use to take me out in the bayous to set his crawfish traps. If he'd have dropped of a heart attack, I would have been thoroughly screwed. I learned not to ask what dinner was made of...just ate it and left it at that.

      Oh, while out in the swamps, I never saw anything out of the ordinary...ufos, cajun version of Big Foot, etc.

  15. Somewhat off topic, but since the discussion has wandered into xenoarchaeology... does anyone know of a chap called Prof Bob Brier, aka Mr Mummy? Seems he is researching the links between the Rendlesham Forest case and ancient aliens. Or so he says.

  16. I had hopes for the show but after seeing their "investigations" I won't be watching the show again. Do you really go to a potential landing site to investigate at night with camera's pointing into your face for the "Blair Witch Project" effect? Not if you’re a serious investigator. Going into a tunnel again with the ‘green light’ effects but not telling the viewer that it is part of a hydro-electric plant till the very end of the show? Entertainment, not a scientific investigation.


Keep your comments relevant, and keep them civil! That means no personal attacks will be allowed, by anyone, on anyone. Commenters are welcome to disagree with me, or with other comments, but state your arguments using logic, and with a civil tone. Comments in violation of these rules will be deleted, and offenders banned.

Comments should be in English, although quotes from foreign-language sources are fine as long as they're relevant, and you explain them. Anonymous postings are not permitted. If you don't want to use your real name, then make up a name for yourself, and use it consistently.