Saturday, March 22, 2014

More Museum Shenanigans

Back on Sept. 6, 2012 I wrote a Blog entry, Smithsonian-Affiliated "National Atomic Testing Museum" Promises UFO "Secrets" Revealed. It is still getting a lot of web hits - currently it's my third most-viewed entry, in spite of being a year and a half old. One would hope that in that intervening time things would have gotten better, owing to the bad publicity they received over this. Unfortunately, things seem to be getting worse.

I was at the recent International UFO Congress near Phoenix, Arizona, and so was the National Atomic Testing and UFO Museum of Las Vegas, and its director, Allan Palmer. In the dealers' room, nestled in with the Adamski Foundation and other New Age and UFO organizations, the Museum set up a table to promote itself to the UFO aficionados. Among their offerings was a discount coupon, exclusively to attendees of the UFO Congress, for entry into their exhibit on Area 51, which presumably still includes an "authentic alien artifact" from Russia, given to it by George Knapp, a frequent guest host of the all-night paranormal and conspiracy radio program Coast to Coast AM. As I wrote in my Psychic Vibrations column in the Skeptical Inquirer,  January/February, 2013, about a pro-UFO panel discussion at the museum:
 During the question and answer session, Las Vegas skeptic John Whiteside asked about the supposed “authentic alien artifact” in the Area 51 exhibit. The moderator referred the question to reporter George Knapp, in the audience, who (scandalously) was the source of that “artifact.” Knapp has made a career out of reporting on weird stuff like alleged saucers at Area 51, Robert Bigelow’s Haunted Ranch in Utah, etc.  Who had verified that supposed artifact? The Russians, and others. Who exactly? No answer.

The table of the National Atomic Testing and UFO Museum, at the 2014 International UFO Congress.

Allan Palmer (right), with Lee Speigel of the Huffington Post.

At the conference, I had the opportunity to meet the Executive Director and CEO of the museum, Allan Palmer. He is a personable sort of fellow,  and, I thought, much more of a showman than an educator. (Earlier, when he was the head of the San Diego Air and Space Museum, he brought in the exhibit The Science of Aliens.) I thought that he perhaps might be upset concerning what I had written earlier about his museum, but that did not seem to be the case at all. It's "write anything you want, as long as you spell my name correctly," I suppose.

As we discussed that controversial panel of pro-UFOlogists who presented dubious UFO claims at his museum (see my earlier Blog posting), Palmer explained the difficulties he had with the Smithsonian over his museum's use of the tag "Smithsonian-affiliated." They didn't like his use of that label when the subject matter is UFOs.

But, he replied to them, you have presented a program on UFOs yourself! And he reminded them that on Sept. 6, 1980 the Smithsonian Institution sponsored a half-day UFO Symposium in Washington, DC. 

It was held in the large lecture hall of the Museum of Natural History. Six leading UFOlogists, pro and con, were invited to participate. On the "pro" side were the late J. Allen Hynek, Allan Hendry (who at that time was CUFOS' chief investigator), and Bruce Maccabee. On the skeptical side were the late Philip J. Klass, James E. Oberg, and myself. If you're going to have a panel to discuss UFOs, that is the way to do it! (The UFO Panel at Palmer's museum consisted solely of UFO proponents.) We each gave our presentations, and took questions in writing from the audience. My presentation is on-line here. (One member of the audience who was furious at not having been selected as a panelist was Stanton T. Friedman, a professional UFO lecturer who bills himself as the "Flying Saucer Physicist." Throughout the presentations Friedman could be heard, muttering and loudly declaiming comments, whenever any speaker said something with which he disagreed.)

In November of last year, I received email from Lee Speigel, who writes Weird News for the Huffington Post. He said he was going to be giving a talk at the National Atomic Testing and UFO Museum the following month, and wanted to know if I had any photos or other information about the Smithsonian UFO Panel. (Speigel attended that panel, which is where I first met him.) I replied by sending him the picture you see below, the only one from the event I currently have, plus the link to my presentation.

Sept. 6, 1980: Yours Truly (left), with the late Philip J. Klass, and the late Michael Dennett
(UFO and Bigfoot skeptic). Photo by John Timmerman.

Armed with that information, Palmer apparently went back to the folks at the Smithsonian, and filled them in on their own forgotten chapter about UFOs. After which, he said, they told him 'do anything you want, just don't put our name on it.' So you will notice that, on the flier for the talk to be given at the Museum by Stanton T. Friedman, the "Flying Saucer Physicist," the words "Smithsonian-affiliated" do not appear. A small victory, I suppose. Very small.

(On April 19, 1978, the Smithsonian had presented a debate on the existence of ESP, between the celebrated Joseph Banks Rhine, and skeptic and humanist Paul Kurtz, which I attended. Again, a perfectly-balanced discussion by experts. Apparently the transcript of this debate was published by the Smithsonian Institution Resident Associate Program as "Key Issues in Science Today - The Paranormal: Science or Pseudoscience?" Where might we get a copy of this?)

The Museum is now sponsoring a talk by The Flying Saucer Physicist himself.

I was interested to see in the March/April, 2014 issue of the Skeptical Inquirer, a short News and Comment piece, "Pseudoscience Creep: Science Museums, Universities Host Pseudoscience" by Jessie Haynes. In it, she notes how in 2005, the Smithsonian Institution hosted the screening of an anti-evolution film by the Discovery Institute, in return for a $16,000 contribution from that organization. She also notes other dubious presentations by museums and schools, concluding "Pseudoscience is rampant in museums and schools across the United States, and unfortunately the media and likewise the public don't seem to care."

The entrance to the National Atomic Testing and UFO Museum

A coupon for discount admission to the Area 51 Exhibit, for UFO Congress attendees only.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

MUFON Jumps the Shark

From the Urban Dictionary:  
To jump the shark: The precise moment when you know a program, band, actor, politician, or other public figure has taken a turn for the worse, gone downhill, become irreversibly bad, is unredeemable, etc.; the moment you realize decay has set in.

MUFON, the largest UFO organization in the United States, presents itself as being dedicated to the scientific investigation of UFOs. Its website describes "MUFON's Use of the Scientific Method":
In the reporting and investigation of UFO sightings, MUFON strives to use the scientific method....In order to augment scientific research into the study of the UFO phenomenon, MUFON created a Science Review Board (SRB) in 2012. The SRB consists of 8-9 scientists with backgrounds in electrical engineering, physics, chemistry, geology, biology, computer science, and astronomy.
MUFON has just debuted a TV series on the cable channel H2 (History Channel #2, placing it in the august company of shows like Ancient Aliens and The UFO Hunters), and in it the Scientific Method is nowhere to be seen. The series is called Hangar 1 the UFO Files, where "Hangar 1" is supposed to be the place MUFON's supposedly vast collection of UFO data (or UFO stories) is kept. Since MUFON does not exactly own buildings or anything, and its headquarters keep moving as its directors change, some folks are quite skeptical that there even is such a place as "Hangar 1" (think of that huge storage building at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.)

And what exactly does MUFON serve up from its precious archives? Some of the most preposterous, unsubstantiated stories in the UFO literature. I was going to write up a long review of all of the nonsense in just the first episode of this clunker, but there is no need to. UFO blogger Jason Colavito has described the absurdities and fabrications quite nicely.  Some highlights: 
 Seriously: This is the absolute worst H2 “documentary” I have yet seen. It actually makes America Unearthed look responsible and Ancient Aliens seem accurate. Hangar 1 S01E01 “Presidential Encounters” opens with a note that the “following incidents are taken from real case files.” This reminds me of the opening the Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which claimed to be based on true events; however, I have no doubt that “these are actual UFO investigations” as the next slide informs us. That doesn’t make them true, of course... It seems, too, that this show has its own catchphrase: “MUFON files suggest…” This is almost as good as “ancient astronaut theorists believe…” from Ancient Aliens, but not quite...
The dateline is February 20, 1954: Palm Springs, California. Dwight Eisenhower vacations in Palm Springs “for no reason,” according to MUFON official John Ventre. Apparently MUFON official is this show’s version of “ancient astronaut theorist” on Ancient Aliens. A UFO historian tells us that Eisenhower “disappeared” for twelve hours during which time he allegedly met with aliens at Edwards Air Force Base. Dwight Equitz does not believe the official story, given out the next morning, that the president had emergency dental surgery even though the dentist himself made an appearance. Equitz has a self-satisfied smirk when he reports that the Air Force base was shut down to outsiders during Eisenhower’s trip to Palm Springs. He does not present the obvious: that it was shut down because of the President’s trip, perhaps as a secure retreat zone for the presidential party, or to house the presidential aircraft. Instead, he insinuates that the shutdown was to allow for aliens to land...
Here’s the MAJESTIC-12 language attributed to “Chapter 5: Extraterrestrial Biological Entities” of the Group Special Operations Manual dated April 1954, reformatted on this show to fabricate a “1 March 1954” memo, by computer, in Times New Roman. I quote from Stanton Friedman’s Top Secret/Majic, an unimpeachably pro-UFO source: “Any encounter with entities known to be of extraterrestrial origin is to be considered to be a matter of national security and therefore classified TOP SECRET. Under no circumstances is the general public or public press to learn of the existence of these entities. The official government policy is that such creatures do not exist, and that no agency of the federal government is not engaged in any study of extraterrestrials or their artifacts. Any deviation from this sated policy is absolutely forbidden.” This is the same text Hangar 1 uses, but they excerpt only some sentences from the MJ-12 manual in crafting their own fake memo. The whole thing we see on screen appears to be a complete fabrication from this passage of the fictional MJ-12 documents, and no one on this show acknowledges or addresses the deception involved in creating this fake document as an “illustration.” I’m sure as far as the show is concerned, it’s just another “reconstruction” like reenactments featured during the show, but they present it as though it were true, quote from the fake document as real, and give a fake date not supported by the “actual” files in the MUFON archive.
Read that carefully: MUFON has fabricated documents to look like genuine secret government UFO documents, and presented them in Hangar 1 as if they were authentic, with no explanation or disclaimer. If that isn't downright dishonesty, I don't know what else to call it.

from Curt Collins'

In a sense this is nothing new. When the notorious Gulf Breeze UFO hoax photos first surfaced in 1987, MUFON's director Walt Andrus embraced them wholeheartedly, resulting in the resignation of some of MUFON's best-known investigators. Andrus was so protective of that hoax that when some of MUFON's most respected investigators checked it out it first-hand and declared it a hoax, Andrus' reaction was to fire the investigators, and keep the hoax (see my book Psychic Vibrations, p. 60, also see "Gulf Breeze" in index). And the reason was obvious: these dramatic but hokey photos were enormously popular with MUFON's subscribers, who wanted to see more "red meat" in UFOlogy. And propelled by the momentum of the Gulf Breeze hoax, MUFON grew significantly.

Unfortunately, given the success of such trashy cable TV shows like Ancient Aliens, Hangar 1 probably will be a commercial success. It gives viewers what they want - exciting stories about alien encounters that sound credible because they are presented in an extremely biased and inaccurate way. And it probably will be successful in bringing new members to MUFON, who will demand more UFOlogical "read meat" lest their attention wander. So look for plenty more such absurdities to follow. Such is the dynamic at work in "Retail UFOlogy": Numerous, uncritical followers gather around a person or organization that gives them the UFOlogical "red meat" that they crave. (See, for example, Steven Greer, or Whitley Strieber.) More cautious organizations, for example, MUFON under James Carrion, do not excite and retain their followers nearly as well, and tend to lose membership. They don't want to hear about caveats and uncertainty. But when the organization follows the spotlight and ignores proper skepticism, it defines itself as fringe, "crackpot" organizations, and is laughed at by anyone who understands science.

What is really interesting is that the people who seem to be the most upset about the absurdities of Hangar 1 are not skeptics, who expect pro-UFO organizations to act irresponsibly, but instead the group I call skeptical believers: those who believe that some UFO incidents might represent genuine mysteries beyond science, but who recognize that the great bulk of UFOlogy consists of error, exaggeration, and humbug. And the "skeptical believer" is just as ready to denounce humbug as is any skeptic. After all, the only way to convince science that the UFO phenomenon is worth studying would be to toss aside all of the accumulated humbug, and accentuate the (hopefully) solid cases. So when MUFON gives itself over to humbug without reservation, it destroys all hope of presenting a convincing pro-UFO case to the skeptical scientific world. So much for the "scientific method!" In a very real sense, the skeptical believers, along with skeptics, are allies who can be characterized as realists - those who care very much what the facts are about UFO cases and try to stick to the facts as best possible - as opposed to unrealists who are ready to embrace any absurd UFO tale if it is exciting, and ignore all facts to the contrary.

There are still some fine investigators in MUFON, who do not make claims beyond what the data will allow, and who are ready to denounce hoaxes and humbug wherever encountered. People like these cannot possibly be happy about MUFON's plunge into tabloid sensationalism, and can scarcely afford to have their names associated with such trash.

And finally, we learn from John Ventre, a MUFON state director and one of the "stars" of Hangar 1, that the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was abducted by extraterrestrials. What is MUFON coming to?