Apr 21 2009

Edgar Mitchell on UFOs Again

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Someone should tell CNN that Edgar Mitchell claiming the US government is concealing evidence for contact with extraterrestrial life is not news. I know it makes for eye-catching headlines, and of course that is the point, but really – Mitchell has been going around to UFO groups making the same claims for years.

The only thing that separates Mitchell from your average UFO believer is that he is a former astronaut.  This gives his claims a superficial air of authority, but when you actually examine his claims you find that they are not based upon his tenure as an astronaut. It is not as if he met aliens while he was in orbit. He has been a bit coy about how his time at NASA plays into his claims. He leaves open the suggestion that he was privy to inside information about UFOs in NASA, but has nothing concrete to give. (NASA, of course, denies any cover up.)

Actually, the stories he is pushing lately have more to do with the fact that he grew up in Roswell, New Mexico. He claims that the citizens of Roswell were bullied by the US government to be silent about what they know – Roswell being the site of an alleged UFO crash in 1947. He says:

“(They) didn’t want to go to the grave with their story. They wanted to tell somebody reliable. And being a local boy and having been to the moon, they considered me reliable enough to whisper in my ear their particular story.”

Wow – uncorroborated second-hand anecdotes. That is just what UFO claims need to gain credibility. And that is really all he has – second-hand stories. No evidence. He explains the lack of evidence by invoking the big, dark, government conspiracy, involving at least NASA and the Pentagon.

There are many reasons to be skeptical of Michell’ claims. The first, of course, is that there is no compelling evidence of a crashed saucer at Roswell in 1947. All of the hard evidence is compatible with the official story (which was initially covered up for national security reasons) – a crashed weather balloon carrying a corner reflector that was being used by project Mogul to spy on Soviet nuclear testing.  The crashed saucer story was sparked by the off-hand remarks of an army press officer, but quickly died as the truth (actually a more plausible lie – the secret project Mogul was sold as a regular weather balloon) came to light. The story was resurrected decades later by UFO authors, and as UFO mythology evolved the details were retrofitted into the Roswell story.

In general UFO believers, like Mitchell, find the stories that some people tell about Roswell, long after the fact, to be compelling, while skeptics do not. In my opinion this stems largely from an inadequate appreciation on the part of the believers for how stories can be manufactured and propagated, how memories can morph over time, and how mythologies can spontaneously come into existence, spread, and evolve.

The Roswell tale has all the hallmarks of a modern mythology. That does not mean, however, that part of the story cannot also be true. Historians deal with this conundrum all the time – every culture has its stories and legends, but which ones are based upon historical events, and how have those events been distorted. What we need are objective pieces of evidence that can confirm specific elements of the Roswell story. And that is exactly what we do not have.

We have claims that such evidence exists, but that it is being covered up by the government. But we don’t have the evidence itself. There are no pieces of a spaceship with extraterrestrial alloys, no alien bodies, not even any photographs or video of these things. We do have photographs of wreckage that looks like a mundane corner reflector, however.

As I have discussed in other contexts before, I also do not find claims for a massive conspiracy compelling.  This is too casually used to explain the lack of any compelling evidence, and to dismiss evidence that supports non-UFO conclusions. To clarify (I always have to do this), I do not categorically dismiss the possibility of a cover up or conspiracy. Clearly they exist – and in this case the US Government covered up Project Mogul for years.

However, conspiracies become harder to maintain the larger they become. A crashed saucer and aliens at Roswell would require a huge conspiracy of silence over many decades, agencies, and administrations. I frankly don’t think our government has the capability of maintaining such a large cover up for so long. There would be too many opportunities for hard evidence to leak out. You would also have to believe in a shadow government, free from the oversight of elected officials, to accept such a conspiracy.

I have also never found compelling the motivation for such a cover up. OK – initially the feds may have panicked and decided to cover up a crashed saucer until they figured out what it meant and what they should do with it. But 60 plus years later – what’s the motivation? The standard reply, which Mitchell repeats, is to avoid panic in the streets. This excuse becomes less and less credible over time. What if the government is hiding an ongoing relationship with the aliens? This just broadens the conspiracy, makes the cover up more massive and therefore more implausible.

I also find it implausible that an alien race would have the technology to build a ship that could travel to the Earth from another stellar system, only to crash.

Of course none of this proves there was no crashed saucer at Roswell – these are a plausibility arguments. It contains assumptions, but I think they are reasonable.  They are reasons to increase our level of skepticism, which in practice means that our demands for hard evidence are increased before we accept the claim as probably true. What we have are severe plausibility issues with an absence of any hard evidence, and a highly plausible alternative explanation that explains all available evidence well. The Roswell story also fits well into our understanding of how mythologies are generated, spread, and grow.

Until some concrete evidence comes to light, there is simply no new news here. Mitchell repeating the same-old tired claims of the UFO community is not news.

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