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Science & The Supernatural: A Discussion of the World Around us - Based on Science with an Interest in the Supernatural ...
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PostPosted: 14 Oct 2010, 12:41 
Grand Poobah
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Joined: 18 Sep 2007, 11:26
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interesting report. Lotsa hyperlinks and pics at the link. ... bbit-hole/

Beam Me Down the Rabbit Hole
By Nicole Gugliucci, on October 14th, 2010

On October 9th, 2010, I went down the rabbit hole. I went to a Mutual UFO Network conference.

The Setup
First, I’ll admit something that I haven’t talked about all that much. I once believed that aliens were visiting Earth and that there was a government cover-up. I wasn’t always so skeptical. I was, and still am, quite gullible and willing to give people the benefit of the doubt. There were several reasons for my interest in UFOs. When I was 13, we got the internet mainly for me to use for academic purposes as I started high school. In addition to deepening my interest in astronomy, I discovered the UFO culture. Possibly, getting my own television helped, for I stumbled upon the hotness that is David Duchovny and started watching The X-Files. I would watch provocative paranormal shows like Sightings on the Sci-Fi channel and eat it all up. I quietly stayed up past my bedtime to listen to Art Bell, and I freaked the heck out reading Whitley Strieber’s Communion as if it was factual. I wished to see a UFO myself but I never did, despite many hours attempting to be an amateur astronomer under the light-polluted Staten Island skies. At some point, I don’t remember exactly when or why, I yearned for better evidence and lost interest in UFOs. Additionally, conspiracy theorists were quite wrong about Y2K, and they simply made me angry when the first 9/11 conspiracies cropped up. Though I had yet to be introduced to a truly skeptical view of the subject, I simply “lost the faith.”

I do, however, remain a "Shipper" to this day.
Fast-forward to today, where I entertain the much more plausible explanations of the UFO phenomenon, from Carl Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World to Skeptic magazine. Yet, the UFO phenomenon is still fascinating to me as an astronomer, as someone who has been emotionally impacted upon meeting alleged abductees, and as someone who damn well wishes that we make contact with intelligent extraterrestrials in my lifetime. So, as a project for the Independent Investigations Group in DC, and out of sheer curiosity, my skeptical pal Brian Gregory and I set out for the Philadelphia MUFON conference this past weekend. What follows is a summary and description as best as I can write. Surely, I’ve missed something important, or mangled some memory, or neglected to follow up on an important point. For that, I apologize, and hope to follow up on my notes from the conference as time allows.

General Impressions
I had never really interacted with other believers in “meatspace” at the time I was pro-aliens-are-here, so this was to be a learning experience for me. I got out of a warm bed with an even warmer Tim at 7am on a Saturday morning to drive up to Bucks County and get there in time for registration and the first talk. The meeting room at the Sheraton was filled with nearly 200 people, so I’d say that is pretty sizable for a local meeting, especially compared to similar skeptics’ meetings. Overall, the day started off interesting, but ended up rather frustrating. I think that by the end of the say I reached the limit of logical fallacies and misused scientific terms that I can handle in one day.

I tried to tune in when skeptics were specifically mentioned by the speakers. The term “skeptic” was used interchangeably with the term “debunker” to point out where skeptics were wrong, too cynical or closed-minded. This suggests the distinctions stressed by James Randi, Joe Nickell, and others are not influential in this crowd. In one instance, CSICOP co-founder Philip Klass was singled out as having been factually wrong about the Hill case (though I haven’t been able to verify that). Certainly, skeptical treatments of the subject are not perfectly accurate, but singling out of this incident indicates an inherent distrust of all things skeptical, and also stressed to me the importance of scholarship in skepticism to reduce the capability of believers to cherry-pick mistakes.

Those skeptics just don't accept the evidence
I noticed some odd similarities to a skeptical conference. The speakers seemed very much displeased with their treatment in the media. There were several complaints of bias, of ridicule, and of poor reporting. Skeptics are generally not happy with gullible reporting in the media and the false notion of “balance.” So, neither group feels they are getting a fair shake. Many UFO believers also found it hard to “come out” to their family and friends, or had their interests ridiculed. More than a few skeptics have complained about the same. Finally, typical for any niche community, they had their own assumptions and “in-jokes,” of which Brian and I were fairly clueless. We must have had n00b written all over us!

The prevalence of logical fallacies, anomaly hunting, and other altogether human critical thinking pitfalls were not concepts I directly picked up in my early observations of the UFO community, but they are obvious to me now. Many proponent concluded, “I can’t explain it, therefore it must be unexplainable, or at least fantastic,” whether it was crop circles, claims related to the Betty and Barney Hill abduction case, or just in defining the field in general. A clear appeal to authority was used where the testimonies of pilots, especially from the military, were considered unassailable. They thought it laughable that pilots could be mistaken in what they see, though in reality, no one is immune to faulty perception. However, other authorities, such as the UN’s “ET ambassador” were labeled unreliable. (“She’s an astrophysicist. Does she know anything about the subject?”) Examples of anomaly hunting could be seen in the attention to minute details in “elongated nodes” and “expulsion cavities” at crop circle sites. We saw a video of researchers collecting armfuls of wheat, yet only a handful of samples were shown in the results.

I really do miss this show.
The overall feeling was that *something* weird is going on, and *someone* is hiding the truth about it. They express a strong desire for “disclosure.” Though the focus may shift from lights in the sky to abductions, from spirituality to fear, from grand conspiracies to personal experiences, there was an underlying belief that at least some UFOs go beyond mundane explanation, and that the truth will soon come out.

Specific Talks
John Ventre, MUFON director for Pennsylvania, did the introduction. He was also there promoting his new book, 12/21/2012: A Prophecy, which, of course, rubs me the wrong way. (FWIW, it is presented as fiction, and, who knows, may be better than that garbage movie.) He covered several local and recent UFO news items, including the National Press Club announcement and the supposed UN ambassador to ET. It was here that some of the speakers expressed their displeasure, as some felt that such an ambassador should come from their community instead. There was no mention that this story was totally mistaken, or that the SETI community had been claiming that role for some time. In any case, I decided that it would be best to keep mum that I, too, am an astrophysicist. (Well, grad student in astronomy. Close enough.)

The first talk was delivered by Karyn Dolan. Host of a paranormal internet radio show, “Through the Keyhole,” she presented the differences and similarities between the study of UFOs and of other paranormal phenomena, such as ghosts and hauntings. This seemed like an attempt to bridge a gap between two fields that don’t always get along, but which she described as both being “beyond understanding.” Although she initially (and correctly) identified UFOs as simply things in the sky that were unidentified, and that there was actually no presupposed claim as to what they are, the very next slide defined ufology as the study of the crafts and the beings that pilot them! So, “unexplained” was narrowed down to “intelligently piloted craft” in just one slide.

However, putting aside the blatant assumptions about the paranormal reality of UFOs and ghosts, it was particularly interesting to see the comparison of UFO abduction experiences with haunting experiences. One is cold and impersonal while the other is personal and human. One is from “elsewhere” and the other is local. One is physical and the other “non-physical.” Yet, both are “beyond understanding.” She even pointed out the hypothesis, first popularized by John Keel and Jacques Vallée, that faeries and demons of the past are the same thing as ghosts and aliens in the present. Interestingly, I agree with that, but not in the way that she would think. Instead, I suspect that they are the same effects of the human psyche that have been with us all along, just shaped by time and culture. She seemed to argue, however, that these past and present phenomena were external and real.

Kathleen Marden
Next up was Kathleen Marden, niece of Barney and Betty Hill, the now infamous first case of alleged alien abduction. I was particularly interested in this since I had used details of this case in my “Life Beyond Earth” class at the University of Virginia. Marden was obviously convinced of their abduction account, as she co-authored a book on it with Stanton Friedman. She was just 13 when the event occurred, and heard the Hills’ stories as they told it to her mother, Betty’s sister. Most of the accounts were derived from hypnosis sessions that the Hills began over two years after the alleged event. Their experiences with a weird sighting of lights in the sky, health problems, and bad dreams turned into the landmark abduction story that seems to have spawned countless others. The American Psychological Association does not support the validity of most supposed repressed memories, as can be tragically demonstrated in far too many false accounts of child abuse.

Marden pointed out many instances where the hypnotic session of each matched, but neglected to show where they did not match, such as how Betty heard them speak English while Barney thought they communicated telepathically. Nor do I remember her ever saying that the hypnotist, Dr. Benjamin Simon, decided in the end that the memories were not real. She did, however, note the glaring difference between the human-like abductors in Betty’s dreams and the archetypal “greys” that they described in the hypnosis sessions. The unreliable results of hypnosis and recovered memories likely did not reflect reality, so that throws out most of the first-hand accounts, though the audio may be emotionally moving. After undergoing hypnosis, the Hills really believed that they had been abducted and experimented upon, as do the few abductees with whom I’ve spoken while in New Mexico. The suffering is almost palpable, but the real cause is likely not extraterrestrial or inter-dimensional. Betty’s torn, 40-year-old dress is not convincing, and neither is the alleged star map, though my astronomical curiosity will likely lead me towards a second look.

After lunch, we were late for the talk by Bill Birnes about History Channel’s UFO Hunters, since the hotel restaurant clearly underestimated how many people would show up for a UFO conference and was severely understaffed. And, they overcooked the ahi tuna. Shame! Anyway… the talk by Birnes was really hard to follow with no visuals and, as far as I could tell, no thread to tie it together. It was story after factoid after report after name… I’m really at a loss to describe it. I was tempted to ask his opinion on the Morristown UFO sighting, which he claimed was definitely “real,” yet hoaxers confessed not too long after. However, I didn’t want to “out” myself so early in the day. He did offer his “three landing legs” of evidence for UFOs being a serious phenomenon, and I admit, I appreciate the metaphor. The evidence, however, was not convincing, consisting of boat-loads of eyewitness accounts (the plural of anecdote is not evidence), a “path of legitimacy” in government documents (which don’t seem to offer any “proof” other than usual security concerns), and physical trace evidence (which doesn’t seem to be enough to convince scientists.)

Evidence for the paranormal, or meaningless anomalies?
Next was the talk that really blew my brain wide open. It was a very well-crafted talk by Jen Stein, crop circle researcher. Heavy on the jargon, she showed examples of “elongated nodes” in flattened crops and “expulsion cavities.” The working hypothesis of cereology seems to be that some sort of microwave-like effect bursts the water out of wheat stems. Only a few examples of “control” and flattened crops were shown to have these characteristics which made me wonder how rigorous their collection methods and statistics really are. Although it is clear to Stein that some crop formations are man-made, the idea that all crop circles are perpetrated by humans was simply unbelievable to her. Never mind that they blatantly showcase their work, or that crop circle enthusiasts often can’t tell the difference between a “real” and “fake” formation.

But that wasn’t the head-asplodey part. I finally had my breakdown when she got into the possible explanation for crop circles. They were not man-made, nor were they the artistic works of ET. Instead, they were caused by ionospheric disturbances. What followed was such an awful mangling of scientific concepts that I had to rest my poor head on Brian’s shoulder for support. I don’t fault Stein specifically for repeating the hypotheses put forth by others, and I can’t fault her for misunderstanding scientific terms. But someone in the cereology community managed to amass just enough knowledge about physics, or at least physics jargon, to come up with this mishmash and display it as science, and that is disheartening to a scientist and educator. Especially one whose thesis relates directly to ionospheric disturbances. The “iono-speric plasma’s” were caused by x-rays spiraling around magnetic field lines and producing electrons and strengthening the magnetic field and being drawn to certain sites in England…. Oh, it was just a mess. (FWIW, electrons spiral around magnetic field lines and produce photons across the electromagnetic spectrum, and also slam into the atmosphere creating aurora. Not frakking vortices.)

Cool kids sit up front
We stuck it out for one more talk about the “national security state” and the world “after disclosure” by Richard Dolan. He has written several books on what he believes is a huge conspiracy, mostly by private interests but with some government influence, to cover up ET crashes, landings, beings, and technologies. Though he gave brief mention to abductions and the spiritual aspect of close encounters, his focus was clearly on the political and economic motivations, and was highly speculative. Although he claimed that there is a paper trail of military interest in UFOs, his list certainly seems to thin out significantly after the 1960s, when the Air Force determined in Project Blue Book that the UFO phenomenon was no longer worth investigating. He crafted a compelling story, but to me, it was just a story. Perhaps he was just here to sell books, but I really do think he passionately believes that some monumental change is coming in our society, and it will involve the disclosure of the UFO secret in the coming decades. At one point, I experienced what Daniel Loxton has called “skeptical vertigo.” I lost my grip on my skepticism and thought, “oh my goodness, what if it’s all TRUE?” My worldview would certainly be shaken if a cover-up of this magnitude really was in play, and just for a moment I was transported to a universe where this was true. It was pretty scary, and that, I think, is what finally broke my brain for the day.

However… there was one more mind-bending experience yet to be had. The conference was followed up by a performance by a band called the Bambikillers. Ventre had allowed them to play, though he didn’t know anything about them other than the fact that at least one band member was a MUFON member. I was particularly excited to see an all-girl punk band rock out about aliens, but what actually happened topped off the day in a way that I thought only happens in sitcoms. It was just bizarre. Despite the hot, spacey outfits, their “playing” was terrible! I imagined George Hrab’s head exploding somewhere in Texas as the drummer eeked out a boring rhythm and the singer tried to waver her voice. If you want to experience some of the badness, do check out Brian’s video. But beware, your little punk soul will cry out in agony. Of course, it wasn’t just one song. Oh no, it was a whole set and performance piece. Once they started crawling over each other, eating fake human body parts smeared in fake (I hope) blood, we made a beeline for the hotel bar. Needless to say, the other conference attendees and presenters were not impressed and, in some cases, were outwardly annoyed. Live and learn, I guess!

Lessons Learned
After I sufficiently recovered, I could finally begin to organize my thoughts about this conference. I expected a learning experience, and I certainly got one. My “rabbit-hole” feeling reminded me that it is not too unreasonable for someone to slip into a belief like this, especially one not armed with skeptical tools, as I was so unarmed at 13. These people believed, experienced, and formed a community around a fringe belief, and still are going strong after so many years. I don’t expect them to be dissuaded any time soon.

Interestingly, we also discovered that MUFON members can become investigators once they join by studying a rather thick manual and being tested on it. A very helpful gentleman explained this to us, and said he was about to start his first case. Clearly, MUFON has set itself up as the go-to organization for people who have had sightings or experiences. Since they are so well-established, it is going to be difficult for skeptical and scientific investigators to get their foot in that door.

Although the logical fallacies hurt my brain, I do not hold that these people are crazy or lying. They seem curious, sometimes suspicious, and overwhelmingly honest about their beliefs. Most speakers were intelligent, well-spoken, kind, and generous with their time in the lobby. There is a sense of comfort and community in being with fellow believers. Though many may never be swayed by skeptical arguments, I worry more for those in the middle, neither believers nor skeptics, that see these claims and start to get sucked in by the story. And for that, we need to know what these claims are and why people make them. This experience was just a taste of that for me, and though in some ways it scared me, it also renewed my interest in investigating the phenomenon, only this time with a scientific frame of mind.

Chloride and Sodium: Two terribly dangerous substances that taste great together!

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