Apr 23 2024

UFOs and SGU on John Oliver

The most recent episode of John Oliver, Last Week Tonight, featured a discussion of the UFO phenomenon. I’m always interested, and often disappointed, in how the mainstream media portrays skeptical topics. One interesting addition here is that Oliver actually referenced an SGU episode, the one in which we interviewed Jimmy Carter about his UFO sighting. Unfortunately the rest of the episode was a bit of a let down.

Oliver is the first to acknowledge that he is not a journalist. He’s a comedian. But comedians often give biting satire of our culture and society, and Oliver has developed a specific niche. He essentially picks a topic and makes the point that – we’re doing it wrong, we can do better. Oliver also has a staff of researchers, so he is not jut making stuff up or giving superficial observations. In general I find he does an excellent job, giving a descent overview of a topic and making important observations. But of course many of the topics he covers are too complex to do justice in a 20 minute comedy routine, but he usually manages to hit the important points.

His piece of UFOs was very typical of his general approach. All storytellers (whether you are a journalist, blog writer, or comedian) have a narrative, some organizing point or argument that you are making. Otherwise a piece is just a list of facts or assertions. Oliver’s series has a narrative (as I said, we’re doing it wrong), and each episode has a narrative within that framework. For the UFO piece his main narrative was that the US government is doing UFO research wrong, and this is being driven by the underlying fact that most people interested in UFOs fall into one of two groups, true believers or hardline skeptics. True believers will believe anything, no matter how ridiculous, and hardline skeptics just roll their eyes dismissively, chilling genuine research.

Both of these narratives have problems. Oliver did give a descent summary of the last 70 years of UFO research by the US government, but left out some important bits and focused on those bits that fit his narrative. He mentioned Project Blue Book, which investigated 12, 618 UFO sightings between 1947 and 1969. He did not discuss, however, that this was high quality serious investigation that yielded exactly zero evidence that any part of the UFO phenomenon includes alien spacecraft or activity. He focused more on the Condon report, because that fit his narrative. This was a much smaller study, really a pilot study, to determine if UFOs deserved further serious research. Condon concluded that it did not, and Oliver’s critique focused on some dismissive statements that Condon had made about UFO believers.

The best part of the piece was his summary of the Roswell incident. I think here he did hit the main points – the government initially said it was a weather balloon, but admitted in the 1990s that it was really a spy balloon designed to detect Soviet atomic weapons research. He mainly used this story to make the point that the government lies to the public, but did seem to justify it to some extent by pointing out that they are not going to just admit that the real explanation for UFO sightings is highly sensitive classified military secrets. That point would have been stronger if he explicitly said that this does not mean they are necessarily lying about aliens.┬áHe also did a good job in pointing out that some sightings have mundane explanations, and no one is excited by that.

The weakest part of his report was the clip he showed of the navy pilots who witnessed one of the recent Pentagon videos, taking their statements at face value and calling it “chilling” – mainly that whatever they had witnessed it represents technology superior to our own. He made no mention of Mick West’s investigation of these videos, and the fact that the actual evidence is completely compatible with mundane phenomena, like distant airplanes, drones, mylar balloons, or even birds.

He came close when he discussed the “go fast” video, using it as an example of the kind of research we need more of. He referred to a four hour video doing a careful scientific analysis of the video, but his conclusion was highly misleading. He said, correctly, that the analysis shows where and how fast the object was moving, but then misleadingly that we don’t know what the object is. This was not wrong, but highly misleading without context, because it gives the impression that the object is still mysterious. He did not say that with the careful analysis he praised it is completely possible, and in fact highly likely, that the object was simply a bird (even though we cannot be entirely certain).

He also made no mention of the recent extensive Pentagon report finding zero evidence of alien phenomena or any government coverup or secret operations. You might excuse this given the limited time he had, and that’s fair enough, but given his premise it seems like a critical omission.

The second major narrative of the piece, that the UFO world is divided into true believers and hardened skeptics, is a false dichotomy. The question of how much research a topic like UFOs deserves is a complex one, and Oliver missed a lot of nuance. Again, this is understandable given the format, but the false dichotomy was a bit lazy, in my opinion, and could have been improved by framing it differently or throwing in a few caveats. First, I don’t know what he means by “hardened skeptics”. He seems to be saying, however, that the skeptical community is dismissive and ridiculing when it comes to UFOs, in a way that specifically discourages reporting and research. I would argue that this is an unfair characterization and essentially not true.

There may be individual people who consider themselves skeptical who are dismissive, but that does not describe the skeptical literature. In fact skeptics often champion careful and transparent technical and scientific investigation into fringe beliefs, specifically so that we can come to conclusions more definitively. It also is a great way to showcase the scientific method to the public over issues of great public interest. Skeptics spend way more time examining fringe topics than they deserve purely on their scientific merits. We are, if anything, the opposite of dismissive. But there is the assumption that dismissiveness and cynicism is the opposite of gullibility and belief. But this is false. Critical thinking with scientific literacy is the opposite of gullibility.

There are caveats. We would not want to waste resources that could be better spent on more fruitful research. That’s an individual judgement call. We also would always want to make sure the research is truly scientific and does not amount to pseudoscience. Further, we push back against using the fact that research is happening (rather than the results) to promote a belief that has not been established.

With regards to UFOs, that aliens exist is not impossible, and in fact is likely. That they are visiting the Earth is of unknown probability, but currently there is no smoking gun evidence that they are. And there are many other terrestrial phenomena that could be making up parts of UFO sightings that are also interesting – new scientific phenomena, changes in public behavior (like the increased use of drones, or releasing floating candles) that may pose risks to aviation, and foreign powers invading our airspace. If nothing else we will learn in more detail the ways in which pilots can be deceived by what they think they see, and the limitations of radar and other technology.

I feel that there was a narrative that Oliver and his staff could have found that would have worked with his general theme that did not unnecessarily give the impression that there is still a genuine mystery here, that something fantastical is going on. Also I would have preferred that he did not straw man thoughtful skepticism about the UFO phenomenon.


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