Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Conspiracy Road Trip: UFOs

On Sunday night I watched my recording of the BBC's Conspiracy Road Trip: UFOs from last week.

I wasn't expecting much from the programme - and wasn't disappointed in that regard.

It was another example of the lazy programming over the last few years which seems to be a hallmark of British television allotted to the subject of UFOs. Andrew Maxwell - an Irish comedian (why him as presenter?) who has occasional flashes of comic genius - and whose star must be on the wane (judging by this show), led a group of five British people, each of whom claimed their own UFO encounter, on a road-trip through American (why not British?) UFO hotspots to effectively discredit their experiences. The climax (or should it be debacle?) was their collective experience of Area 51 which ended up being that of spending three hours lying flat on a floor with guns pointed at their heads for having trespassed onto the outskirts of the infamous military base - go figure.

The 'contactees'

I think it was no coincidence that one of these people (called Scott) had been chosen presumably because of his penchant for wearing a tin-foil skull-cap under his beanie hat when out and about and his conviction that earth was shortly to be invaded by aliens. I had a hard time believing that this chap wasn't a plant to make the programme marginally more interesting for it's one hour run-time. Stooge or not it seemed like he'd watched M Night Shyamalan's Signs more often than is healthy.

The other four 'contactees' ranged from a long-time UFO investigator from Shropshire called Darren; a wide-eyed young male bar worker called Ben - claiming to be a witness to a classic night-time lights sighting; an attractive but vulnerable looking* lady (and there's a point to me mentioning this later) called Brigitte - who claimed to have seen a classic saucer-shaped UFO over a US freeway; and another more ballsy and eloquent lady - Franky - who claimed an alien/other-dimensional vision.

The 'experts'

After listening to each person's claimed account of their experience, Andrew Maxwell attempted to debunk it by introducing them to an 'expert' offering a contrary viewpoint. Seth Shostak was the first who - quite rightly - asked for photographic or film evidence of Brigitte's encounter, which she couldn't provide.

But hang on? Seth Shostak is an astonomer isn't he? Yes he participates in SETI (which I happen to be a subscriber to through SETI@Home), which means he's considered the possibility of intelligent extraterrestrial life out in the cosmos much more than your average person in the street - but since when has he seriously studied the phenomenon of UFOs?

Another 'expert' was (if I'm correct about this) scientist and biologist P.Z. Myers who appeared to state - if I understood correctly - that it was statistically highly improbable (not impossible mind you) that another species from outside earth could - through natural evolution - develop humanoid facial features akin to our own like the ubiquitous 'grey' aliens supposedly had. But - wait a minute? Turn that on its head and there are thousands of species on this planet - apparently unrelated to humans on a genetic level - that have two eyes, a nose and a mouth. Am I missing something?

Yet another 'expert' was psychologist Michael Shermer, publisher of The Skeptic magazine who whilst correctly pointing out what the initials UFO actually stood for (and that anyone with an enquiring mind shouldn't bother to enquire further on any UFO origins - some chance!) - went on to patronise the contactees by advising them that humans were - as a whole - fallible creatures often prone to convincing delusions. Fair enough - but that would presumably mean his own world view was just as fallible wouldn't it?

The wildcard

In a rather strange deviation from the pattern being established so far in the programme, the group was then introduced to former airline pilot and wildcard in UFO circles - John Lear - who, it appeared on the surface, was a bit of own goal for Mr Maxwell - but this might have been for calculated comic effect - in that he (John Lear) banged on not only about aliens being studied at Area 51 but also about his (frankly implausible in my view) theory concerning a city on the moon.

The dubious book author

Finally, the contactees were introduced to author Annie Jacobsen , who's faced a lot of criticism for various long stretches of the imagination in her book Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base including those concerning a story that one of her sources may have been citing elements strangely similar to those in science fiction writer James Blish’s short story "Tomb Tapper". In the programme, Ms Jacobsen effectively stated that the CIA/military use UFO conspiracies as disinformation to conceal their greatest military secrets. Fair enough again - I'm sure all the Superpowers engage in routine disinformation campaigns. However, that doesn't automatically rule out the E.T. hypothesis (E.T.H.) still being a possible explanation behind some UFO encounters.

Just to add insult to injury, Jacobsen then regurgitated (from her book) an old chestnut concerning the crashed Roswell disc being a Stalinist Russian device carrying deformed or mutilated human passengers in 'spacesuits'. Other versions of this story cite children having being found aboard - again an element possibly pinched from the science fiction story referred to above. Jacobsen claimed she had a reliable but anonymous 'source' to confirm this. But this story is no more plausible than the E.T.H. - and what if her 'source' is feeding her disinformation?

My conclusion?

In my view, the arguments put forward by the sceptics were just as flimsy as the evidence for the five contactees' encounters. Where were the representatives of MUFON, NARCAP or even BUFORA? Where was Fife Symington III, Leslie Kean, Nick Pope or any of the speakers at the recent Secrets of Area 51 event (you could see this event's logo in the background at one point suggesting that Andrew Maxwell and co. were at the National Atomic Testing Museum during filming)?

None of the above people were on hand to give a balanced appraisal of these claimed encounters (or at least make the five people on the show not feel completely humiliated) - and I think I can guess why. Where they did rope in one 'ufologist' - author and UFO investigator Christopher O'Brien - half-way through the programme, it was only in an attempt (ultimately fruitless) to make his theories appear more outlandish to the contactees than their own.

At the end I couldn't decide whether Andrew Maxwell's own crisis of conscience at putting Brigitte - whom I presume he liked because she was 'attractive and vulnerable-looking'* (I told you there was a reason I mentioned it earlier) - through a polygraph test, only to intervene and stop it, was genuine, ill thought out, or just patronising.

Actually - I did decide.

We never got to find out whether Brigitte would have passed or failed. But the results wouldn't have mattered anyway. If she genuinely believed she'd seen a flying saucer - even if in reality she hadn't - I doubt that a polygraph test would have revealed anything significant either way. Maxwell was convinced she would fail (an arrogant assumption to make) and so wanted to 'protect her belief system' (another arrogant assumption) and consequently protect her supposed 'fragile state'. Just how patronising can one Irish comedian be towards a grown woman?

Of course it was never the programme makers' intention to give credence to anything these people said or had apparently experienced. Even if they had, that's not how it came out in the final edit. And each individual had probably been hand-picked just as they would have been for an episode of Come Dine With Me, Coach Trip, or a myriad of other 'reality' shows, with the point being for the relevant, casual audience 'demographic' of this type of show to indulge in voyeuristic schadenfreude.

So - given the attention deficit, dumbed-down programming like this that many appear to accept - we're unlikely to ever see a quality documentary exploring this subject in-depth on British television anytime soon, where:-
  • credible witnesses in the military and civil aviation, the police and other emergency services of different countries worldwide come forward and are interviewed; 
  • individuals such as Stanton Friedman, Leslie Kean, Timothy Good and Nick Pope have been shown to be writing about the subject rationally and with rigor (and for far longer than I suspect Andrew Maxwell has been bothered about the subject); 
  • sceptics have an opportunity to have their say but also be roundly challenged by opponents including those named above;
  • documentary evidence such as MOD case files and other hard evidence - including radar, radio, photographic and film records, imply a significant number of UFO incidents that still remain unexplained to this day;
  • and whether we like it or not, the same documentary evidence points - in a number of cases - to something or someone (not necessarily E.T.) with apparently very advanced technology penetrating (and causing many potentially lethal near-miss incidents in) the airspace of the UK, US, China, Belgium, France and Sweden to name but a few.


Guilty as charged?

Anyway the full programme is below if you haven't already seen it. Let me know what you think...


  1. Great post! well said and totally agree.

  2. I agree also. What a travesty & so patronising to the participants and viewers. I think if Bridget had taken the polygraph she may well have passed which would have upset the applecart (it would have probably have been left out).