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Review: Waiting for the UFOs
"Spaceships of the Visitors"
(CNN) -- Books about unidentified flying objects generally fall into two categories. The first, and by far the larger, category is books written by UFO believers -- people convinced that there are unidentified craft whizzing around our planet carrying emissaries of alien civilizations. The second category of books is by UFO debunkers, who believe the reports of alien craft are either mistakes or hoaxes. Kevin Randle and Russ Estes try to fit both categories -- debunking some UFO sightings, yet concluding that there are alien spacecraft visiting us.
The title of their second collaboration tips the reader to their predisposition. "Spaceships of the Visitors: An Illustrated Guide to Alien Spacecraft" is not the name of a detached analysis of the UFO phenomenon. Randle has written eight other books about alien visitations and Estes produces documentaries that promote the extraterrestrial hypothesis. They are true believers.
The book begins with an overview of the earliest purported UFO sightings, dating from biblical times through World War II. That sets the stage for the postwar explosion in UFO reports, beginning with the two seminal accounts, just days apart, in the middle of 1947.
The first was a sighting by a civilian pilot over the Cascade Mountains, which gave rise to the term "flying saucer." The second was the purported crash of a UFO outside Roswell, New Mexico. These incidents, and a spate of others that year, prompted the first military investigation of the UFO phenomenon, later to be known as Project Blue Book.
"Spaceships of the Visitors" quotes liberally from military documents growing out of that investigation. Unlike many UFO believers, however, Randle and Estes don't issue a blanket condemnation of Project Blue Book as a government cover-up. Instead, they seem to understand that the Air Force wasn't interested in UFOs per se, but in assessing whether they presented a Cold War threat to the United States.
The investigators "would mention this aspect again and again," the authors tell us. "Each of the investigations ... had national security as its main concern. If national security wasn't threatened, then the question of reality became unimportant. And, as time passed, it became more likely to all those military investigators that no threat to the nation was posed."
Such background information fills less than a third of the book. The bulk of it is devoted to thumbnail sketches of UFO reports. Each offers some of the details of the sighting and -- in most cases -- photographs offered as evidence of an alien encounter.
Fuzzy and indistinct
Many of the pictures described as "sharp and clear" are, in fact, fuzzy and indistinct. The authors give each report a "reliability" ranking from zero (unreliable) to ten (unimpeachable). Only one account ranks at the top of the scale. None hits the bottom (though a couple score a reliability of "one"). Those that the authors consider obvious fakes are given their own section.
At first glance, Randle and Estes seem to be going out of their way to be fair in assessing these reports. But a closer look raises questions. The analysis of the odd lights that appeared over Phoenix in 1997, for example, contains no photograph, only a sketch -- one used to illustrate an earlier report from Belgium. Yet the Phoenix lights were widely photographed. While the authors conclude that the lights were "a case of mistaken identity," they give the sighting a reliability rating of five, implying there's a 50 percent chance that it was a real UFO.
Even more telling is the analysis of the now-infamous 1978 Gulf Breeze sightings in Florida. The photograph offered as "evidence" is patently doctored. The photographer all but admitted he fabricated it. The authors conclude, "his story, from the very beginning, was a hoax." And yet they rate his reliability at two -- not zero.
"Spaceships of the Visitors" tries to have it both ways. It claims to offer a clear-eyed perspective on the UFO phenomenon. But the judgment of the authors remains clouded by their belief that UFOs are real, and alien in origin.
In a perverse way, their book may make their case even weaker. A determined prankster could learn from the mistakes of the hoax perpetrators identified in the book, as well as from the obvious hoaxes that the authors don't dismiss out of hand, to fabricate ever more elaborate "evidence" of alien visitation. That would give authors like Randle and Estes -- who are so generous in assessing the reliability of "witnesses" -- ever more fodder for future books.
The Scrooge of Science
Simon & Schuster (Touchstone Books)
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