Monday, August 24, 2009

It came from outer space: UFO symposium convenes



When it comes to whether or not you believe in UFOs, it seems open-mindedness makes the difference. But then there are those who get all up in your face to insist that UFOs, piloted by aliens, are here and watching us. You'd get uppity too if you were kidnapped to outer space, probed by cold alien equipment and then returned home with no scars to show for your ordeal other than the hidden mental kind that are only exacerbated by the fact that nobody will listen.

As the 40th International UFO Symposium lands in Denver, Colorado today, those people will finally find themselves surrounded by plenty of believing faces -- maybe even alien spies.

The event, presented by the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) at the Marriott Denver Tech Center, runs through August 9. It is, in the words of its organizers, "an annual gathering of some of the top speakers in their respective fields presenting evidence and research concerning new UFO sightings in the U.S. and Canada, the scientific search for extraterrestrial life, UFO photo analysis, and why we still struggle with full disclosure on this highly controversial subject."

So... are they nuts? It's the first question everyone who knows I'm working on the story asks me. It's underlying everything I read, pro and con, and the questions I ask James P. Carrion, MUFON's International Director.

"We're actually skeptics ourselves," he says. Carrion is a computer expert from Bellvue, Colorado who has been involved with MUFON since 1996, and has served in his present position there for three years. "What we are not is skeptical leaning toward debunking. Too many people dismiss it outright because it doesn't fit their outlook. We want people to take the time to listen and examine the evidence."

The mission statement of MUFON declares that its purpose is "the scientific study of UFOs for the benefit of humanity." The symposium's schedule of events includes seminars on such topics as "MUFON's 10 Step Investigation Process in Detail," "Pseudoscience of Anti-Ufology," and "Politics, Religion and Human Nature: Roadblocks on the Path to Disclosure." (Please note that the symposium is not free - see MUFON's Web site for details.)

Carrion says, "We are a public service, non-profit scientific research organization. We do quality research - we are a very professional organization." The symposium will place an emphasis this year on what is refers to as "the dawn of a new era in UFO research," according to Carrion, including new evidence, new investigation techniques, and the release of formerly classified documents that will bolster the group's databases.

An evangelical tinge seems to color the activities of ufologists. Decades of disbelief and derision have shaped the attitudes of those who assert that the proof of extraterrestrial visits to Earth is there for those whose eyes aren't closed to the possibility.

Take, for instance, the story of John Putnam. He was an author living in Sand Rock, Arizona who spent his evenings engaged in amateur astronomy. In June of 1953, he and his girlfriend, schoolteacher Ellen Fields, were stargazing when they witnessed what they thought was a large meteor strike in the nearby mountains.

The next day, the two hired a helicopter from the local airport to investigate the area where the object fell.

They found a large crater, and Putnam scrambled excitedly to the bottom of it. There he found what he later described as "a huge ball rammed into the side of the crater," which was buried under a rockslide shortly afterwards.

Putnam's story was disbelieved by local residents. The town newspaper ran a story with the headline, "STAR GAZER SEES MARTIANS!" A university professor Putnam convinced to examine the site declined to dig into the crater for evidence.

If this report of a UFO encounter sounds familiar, it's because it's the plot of the 1953 film, "It Came from Outer Space," written by famed science-fiction author Ray Bradbury.

You see the problem? Popular culture has already hijacked the tropes of brave scientific pioneers and the disbelieving mob. Like Bradbury's protagonist, ufologists are treated by mainstream society as prophets without honor. They are asserting what is popularly assumed to be impossible, and stand outside consensual realities.

Does it make them frauds? Not if they are sincere. There is comfort in the idea of the Unknown taking an interest in little old anthropocentric us. Famed psychiatrist Carl Jung published a book in 1959, "Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky," in which he writes, "Something is seen, but one doesn't know what. It is difficult, if not impossible, to form any correct idea of these objects because they behave not like bodies but like weightless thoughts."

But delusion takes many forms. In "It Came from Outer Space," Putnam says angrily to the professor, "I don't know what's odd and what isn't anymore. But I do know I expected you do be more open to the idea than the others. You're a man of science! ... Not witchcraft, Dr. Snell! Imagination! Willingness to believe that there's lots of things we don't know anything about!"

If it's the rest of humanity that's enchanted into disbelief, then the ufologists are braver than we can imagine. Thinking beyond the possible, looking over the edge of reality, is terrifying and thrilling at the same time. There's a sense of righteousness, too, associated with the certainty of knowing a supposedly suppressed truth - an undercurrent of thought that claims that governments and religious organizations are putting the lid on disclosing UFO information for fear that it would release their control of the public.

And is my biased perception springing from my conditioning - namely, "It Came from Outer Space"? "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"? "Contact"?

At one point in the film, Putnam says, "Can I prove it? Even to myself?" More famously, French mathematician and astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace said, "The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportional to its strangeness."

Meantime, MUFON sets up its exhibits and prepares for the advent of the faithful and the curious.

"MUFON continues to provide the best evidence for Unconventional Flying Objects," its press release states. "These respected speakers will provide well researched information on the scientific study of UFOs that will help you to decide for yourself."