Friday, December 19, 2008

Skeptologists Attack Ufologists

Friedman vs Dunning
ByGreg Taylor
The Daily Grail

     The skeptical superstar team pushing for their own (spectacularly ugly-named) reality TV series - 'The Skeptologists' - have gone out of their way this week to pick on ufology, in particular two researchers: Stanton Friedman and Chris Rutkowski (or maybe they just don't like Canadian residents?). [Trent UFO] 'Skeptoid' host Brian Dunning rushed into battle with his post "Stanton Friedman Doesn't Like Me". As Dunning points out in his own post though, Stan's probably got good reason not to like him, considering Dunning has previously labeled Stan (and continues to) “an obsessed UFO wacko."

Now, ufology has plenty of problems - there's no real 'group authority', and plenty of hucksters and deluded people. I'm not criticising them here, because basically they're hucksters and deluded people...whom most people can see right through. Skeptics on the other hand, take on a heavy burden in giving themselves that name - it means they're imposing themselves as guardians or gatekeepers to science and the collective body of human knowledge. As such, when they fail to uphold fairness, and fail to understand something when criticising it, they deserve every bit of blowback that they get. And let's be clear about this - Dunning's post is an ugly piece of personal vindictiveness. Beyond his name-calling, there's pettiness (in saying his podcast is 'kicking the ass' of the Paranormal Podcast) and innuendo (Stan is apparently more "concerned with his bank account than with reason"). I also find it amusing that Dunning tries to talk up how much Stan is earning from ufology (not much actually) in contrast to the fact that "reason doesn't pay" - while posting alongside Michael Shermer and Phil Plait!

Beyond that though, Dunning's main point was regarding his investigation of the Betty and Barney Hill case - in particular, Stanton Friedman's assertion that there were "40 flat-out false claims" made by Dunning in debunking the case. I'm not sure whether the number mentioned was hyperbole on Stan's part, but as we'll see below, there is no doubt that Dunning made some major errors (or got creative in his writing). I don't agree with Stan on a lot of things, including some parts of the Hill case, but he does know the material having dedicated much of his life to studying it. Challenging him on the evidence is no trivial matter - as Phil Klass once found out to his financial detriment. (I'll post Stan's response to Dunning's original investigation at the end of this update.)

A few days after Dunning's post, Phil 'Bad Astronomy' Plait jumped on the bandwagon in a post titled "Ufonies". In it, Phil Plait takes ufologist Chris Rutkowski to task for bad logic regarding the case of amateur astronomers and UFO sightings. I've got a lot of time for Phil's everyday postings on his blog - he does a great job in educating people regarding science and astronomy. But every time he discusses the topic of UFOs, he seems to put on a sneer and enter debunking mode - and unfortunately for him, he is really, *really* bad at it. And it makes him look petty and ignorant.

In this case, he brings up Chris Rutkowski's argument against his claims - but it's a post from 2002 regarding the facts in Phil Plait's first book, Bad Astronomy - Chris did not contact Phil about his recent article which has received much criticism. Furthermore, Phil is quick to assume that Chris "doesn't know a lot of amateur astronomers" and doesn't understand the subject. This is perhaps Phil's intellectual ego stepping in - "don't argue on the topic I know best" - but it's a real lesson in why you should learn about a subject before posting about it (especially when doing so with a sneer). Because Chris Rutkowski has spent many years heavily involved with the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada - he was President of one of the local chapters, and is a prior recipient of the RASC's 'Simon Newcomb Award' for science writing and education. In fact, Chris has a Bachelor of Science degree specializing in astronomy, and a Master of Education degree specializing in science education. He's known as one of the more 'skeptical' ufologists in the field, but is well-respected nonetheless.

Chris has now responded on his own blog to Phil Plait's attack on him (ironically, Chris writes about astronomers and UFOs in his new book, A World of UFOs):

Curiously, Phil quoted something I wrote to UFO Updates six year ago, noting that many amateur astronomers have reported UFOs but that most amateurs don't pay much attention to objects in the sky that aren't things of astronomical interest. In fact, many amateurs sit in warm-up rooms and do their observing remotely, looking at small areas of the sky on computer screens. Some are outside, but use their computers to find galaxies and nebulae automatically without looking skyward all that much.

Now, it is true that many amateurs spend nights outside comet hunting, star hopping and doing real astronomy, and in the course of these actions might see something that was a bit odd. But to report such an object would not be something most would do. In fact, astronomers like Phil would be one really good reason not to report them.

Despite this, we know from a few surveys that astronomers, both amateur and professional, do see and report UFOs, the percentage of which is variable. If they reported the same as the general population, about 10% would see them. The surveys that have been conducted have them a bit lower than this, and we could speculate on why that would be so. Nevertheless, the percentage of astronomers and amateur astronomers who have seen UFOs is significant, and not just "a handful" as Phil Plait notes.

Chris also points out that contrary to Phil's view - and that of most 'skeptics' - ufology is not made up simply of "true believers" who think UFOs are extraterrestrial spaceships:

First of all, no serious ufologist believes that the majority of reported UFOs are flying saucers. Neither Stan nor I nor anyone else involved in serious research has ever held that contention. In fact, we provide evidence to show that most reported UFOs are either misidentifications or have insufficient evidence for a conclusion. It's nice to see that Phil has arrived at the same view as we have, only 40 or 50 years behind.

It's a good point from Chris - the 'skeptics' have their straw man and they are happy to bash it good without looking at the entire topic in a scientific manner. Why not blog instead about this year's Channel Islands UFO investigation? It's too often about shooting fish in a pond for the skeptics - identify some whackos, generalise to the whole field, and write it off without letting science do its thing. Good for stroking your intellectual ego, not so great for investigating a topic objectively...

One final note: in response to a critical comment I left below his blog posting, Phil noted that "I have researched this, and the overwhelming majority of pilot reports are objects like meteors and Venus. Even the report that started the craze — Kenneth Arnold in 1947 — is now understood to have most likely been a fireball breaking up." I don't know what Phil's source for this is - the only mention I've heard about the Arnold sighting being a fireball breaking up is Phil Klass's debunking effort more than a decade ago, which didn't get much attention (for very good reasons). I certainly haven't heard that this sighting is "now understood" to have been a fireball - sources please Mr Bad Astronomy!!

Returning to Brian Dunning and Stan Friedman to finish, as promised I've posted Stan's response to the Dunning debunking below (Update: See also "Friedman on the Skeptologists":

Misrepresentations about the Hills

By Stanton Friedman

     "I am sure that everybody who has been following the US election campaign is well aware that much of what has shown up on the internet simply wasn’t true. Clearly some was intentionally posted to deceive. It has also been true that much that has been written about UFOs has been false. A fine example of ignorance or intentional deception appeared in a “skeptical” piece by Brian Dunning which appeared as Skeptoid No. 124 on October 21, 2008. It was sent to me by a guy who occasionally sends nasty comments after I appear on Coast to Coast...the title is “Betty and Barney Hill: The Original UFO Abduction”. It can be found on

It is truly a splendid textbook example of propaganda and misrepresentation. BD does get the date right, Sept. 19, 1961, but very little else. “Near the resort of Indian Head they stopped their car in the middle of Rte. 3 to observe a strange light moving through in the night sky. The next thing they knew, they were about 35 miles further along on their trip and several hours had elapsed”. Talk about omissions. There was more than one stop. The large object (hardly a light) was within a few hundred feet. Barney observed it through binoculars from outside the car. He observed a double row of windows through which he could see about 10 individuals, red lights on fins on the outside, etc This was conscious recall and was described to NICAP Investigator Walter Webb during a six hour interview on October 21 1961. No hypnosis was involved.

“Then Betty began having nightmares two weeks later; in her nightmares she described being taken aboard an alien spacecraft and having medical experiments performed. As a result of these nightmares, Betty and Barney decided to undergo hypnosis.” This is absurd. Barney had developed hypertension, bleeding ulcers, was unable to sleep. He was in therapy . The original thought, that these symptoms were related to his having moved to NH leaving his sons, was dispelled by the therapist. At one session he noted that he and Betty had been searching for the location where they had seen the UFO. Then he was referred to Psychiatrist Dr. Benjamin Simon, an early expert in treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder using medical hypnotic regression with amnesia induced after each session.

BD States “Innumerable books and movies were made about the Betty and Barney Hill abduction… you almost never hear a critical treatment of their story”. He mentions none of the books . I know of three (Ref. 1, 2, 3) and one movie, NBC’s 1975 “The UFO Incident” starring James Earl Jones and Estelle Parsons. There have been loads of very critical treatments, for example, by Carl Sagan in the bestselling “Cosmos”(Ref.4) and in an article in Parade magazine (Ref.5). BD goes on “Much of the Hill story is said to be based on these separate hypnosis sessions.. In fact that turns out not to be case at all..It is important to note that that it was more than two years after the incident that the Hills underwent hypnosis. During those two years Betty was writing and rewriting her accounts of her dreams. All of the significant details you may have heard about the Hills medical experiments came from her two years of writing “. This is a total lie. There was no writing and rewriting as can be seen by reading what she wrote, for example, in “Captured!” and the comparative analysis between the dreams and the hypnosis material.

She did dream of a star-map, but it was on a roller like maps at school and was not 3D. BD has the gall to claim “Betty probably told the story to Barney over and over again until his ears fell off over a period of two years before they ever had any hypnosis”. I have no idea what the source is for this nonsense. Nor for this ridiculous comment “When they first saw the light, Betty said she thought it was a spacecraft. Barney always said he thought it was an airplane”. Without hypnosis they described seeing it close-up near their car with a double row of windows and barely moving and without any noise. This is an airplane?

Dunning then notes that Betty’s written description of the beings in her nightmare was different from Barney’s under hypnosis But when reliving the moments together their descriptions of events matched.. “After Betty Hill heard these sessions suddenly her hypnosis accounts began to describe the same kind of character”. The simple fact of the matter is that Betty and Barney were each hypnotized separately and amnesia was induced after each separate session so they could not talk with each other about what came out under hypnosis .Betty could not have heard any of these sessions until Dr. Simon finally played the tapes for them.

Dunning then tries to relate the characters described in the hypnosis session to aliens who appeared 12 days prior to Barney’s first hypnosis session in February 1964 to an experience on the Outer Limits TV program called The Bellero Shield. As a matter of fact, they do not match. Dunning admits “The Hills stated they did not watch it”. As with most of Dunning’s claims, no basis is given for claiming they did. It should be noted that nowhere does Dunning bother to note that Betty was a social worker and a supervisor in the Welfare Department of the State of New Hampshire. Of course he doesn’t mention that Barney was on the governor’s Civil Rights Commission. Nor does he give Dr. Simon’s name or background such as that he ran a 3000 bed hospital for shell shock war veterans and that he was featured in an army film “Let There be Light” about his successful treatment of these veterans, using hypnosis in the same fashion he used with Betty and Barney to recover missing memories..

Dunning claims “Betty had commonly spoken of UFOs even before 1961, including one story she often told of her sister’s own close encounter in 1957.” Again no source is given. The fact is that her sister’s daughter, Kathleen Marden, co-author of “Captured!” has stated this is false. Betty mentioned it once to Barney and he didn’t believe in UFOs and that was the end of that.

Dunning then gives this strange summary “So here’s what we have so far: A woman who clearly had an obsession with UFOs [no evidence whatsoever] saw a light in the sky that her husband described as an airplane [when it was farther away].She then spent two years writing an elaborate story [totally false] and no doubt telling it and retelling it to her husband [totally false]. Later under hypnosis Barney was asked about the events described in Betty’s story, and surprise, surprise he retold the story she already told him a hundred times [totally false] and added a dash from the Outer Limits”

Dunning mentions radar sightings included in the Blue Book file and dismisses them naturally excluding some important data such as the supposed weather balloons having a very low radar profile. He tries to throw out measurements made on Betty’s dress by unnamed “crop circle enthusiasts” but ignores the important work done by analytical chemist Phyllis Budinger, employed by a major company for 35 years. He claims that anything found on the dress was the result of its being in the closet for 40 years. Phyllis actually had a very similar dress (her wedding dress) kept for that long and not having any of the same stuff. on it.

Dunning is equally cavalier in trying to toss out the star map work done by Marjorie Fish. Surprisingly he mentions her by name, then totally misrepresents what she did . He says she read a book [Of course he doesn’t mention that it was John Fuller’s “Interrupted Journey” and that she visited Betty to get more data] “It’s seven or 8 random dots connected by lines”. More nonsense, there are 15 dots. The lines make sense: nearest star to nearest star. “She then took beads and string and converted her living room into a 3 dimensional version of the galaxy based on the 1969 Gliese star catalog”. The fact of the matter is she built 26 different 3D models of the local galactic neighborhood, out 55 light years, at most, from the sun. The biggest model was a 3foot cube.. hardly living room size, and was used as a teaching tool by Dr. Walter Mitchell, Chairman of the Astronomy Department at the Ohio State University. He and Marjorie and Betty are all in the movie“UFOs Are Real” (Ref. 6) The galaxy is about 100,000 light years across. Most of the work was done before the Gliese catalog was published. Nobody doing what she did before the Gliese was published could have identified the stars because the correct distance data had not been available.. Of course he says Zeta Reticuli when there are 2 stars, Zeta 1 and Zeta 2 Reticuli.(The constellation is Reticulum). He makes no note of the facts that they are the closest to each other pair of sun-like stars in the neighborhood (1/8th of a ly apart), and a billion years older than the sun and 39.3 light years from Earth and that all the pattern stars are sun-like though only 5% of those in the neighborhood are, and that all the sun-like stars in the 3D volume represented by her models are part of the pattern and that they are all in a plane. He claims that anybody could have made a crude drawing using the Gliese data.. not published until 8 years after the event!! He makes claims about Carl Sagan and other astronomers’ comments, but neglecting to say they don’t stand up to careful review such as provided by Astronomy writer Terence Dickinson (Ref. 7 and 8)

He concludes this mockery of journalism and science: “The Betty and Barney Hill abduction story has every indication of being merely an inventive tale from the mind of a lifelong UFO Fanatic. It is unsupported by any useful evidence and is perfectly consistent with the purely natural explanation.”.

I have been unable to find any biographical data about Dunning though there is a well known flautist with the same name. His piece (There are many other false claims besides those noted above) stands as a monument to laziness, misrepresentation, bias and ignorance. It is almost pure baloney, an inventive tale from the mind of an anti-UFO fanatic. No, I have no idea why he and other debunkers are so determined to ignore the UFO evidence."

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