Natural science editor of the Christian Science Monitor Washington Flying saucers are as real as misperceived earthly phenomena, hoaxes, and a scattering of unexplained sighting reports.
There is no credible evidence yet that this intriguing unexplained residue is due to outer-space visitors or eruptions from some kind of "altenative reality." But enough insight has been gained for the conservative Smithsonian Institution to hold a day-long symposium Sept. 6 to discuss what little progress has been made in trying to unravel this persisten mystery.
Six leading scientific investigators of UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects) couldn't agree on whether the unexplained reports may hide something of startling impotance. Nevertheless, they did agree that a few things have been learned some 33 years after Kenneth Arnold gave UFOs their colorful nickname "saucer" when he saw what he took to be flying disks:
* Three decades of study have shown that 90 to 92 percent of UFO reports consistently and on a worldwide basis can ultimately be explained as misidentification, or lack of identification, of natural or manmade phenonmena -- including hoaxes. The remaining reports are simply not explained. That is a better record than most detectives have in solving local murders, noted Philip J. Klass, a senior editor of the magazine Aviation Week and Space Technology, who studies UFOs on his own time.
* So-called hypnotic regression -- during which people supposedly recall experiences blocked from conscious memory -- is unreliable. It has been used to enable people allegedly kidnapped by aliens to remember their abduction. However, the technique involves mental suggestion.
J. Allen Hynek, the astronomer who has devoted more than a quarter of a century to UFO investigations, pointed out that the slightest clue by the hypnotist will be taken up and elaborated by the subject. People known to have had no such experience -- and who know they had no such experience -- will recall UFO abductions under hypnosis. Thus, hypnosis has no place in scientific study of the UFO mystery. Indeed, there is no scientifically credible evidence that anyone has been kidnapped by aliens in flying saucers.
* The UFO phenomenon -- that is, widespread reports of what appear to witnesses to be strange things in the sky -- is not mainly due to hoaxes, lurid imaginations, dogmatic belief, or the propaganda of UFO buffs. It is a genuinely grass-roots phenomenon in which ordinary people see what they take to be extraordinary things. Whether or not the unexplained cases imply a larger mystery, there is a puzzle of human perception here that begs for better scientific understanding.
Besides Dr. Hynek and Mr. Klass, the symposium panel included Allan Hendry, chief investigator for the Center for UFO Studies, of which Dr. Hynek is scientific director and founder; Bruce S. Maccabbee, Navy physicist and chairman of the Fund for UFO Research, Inc.; James E. Oberg, engineer and UFO columnist for OMNI magazine; and Robert Sheaffer, another veteran UFO investigator and author. Mrss. Klass, Oberg, and Sheaffer are members of the UFO subcommittee of the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.
These are not your run-of-the-mill UFO romantics. All six have substantial records as critical investiators. While there are dsagreements among them, they all insist on the need for hard-nosed adherence to scientific procedure in investigating what can be a goofy subject.
Even their disagreements represent a rather narrow spectrum of opinion compared to the wildly speculative and gullible nature of the general UFO discussion. As Klass put it, "you could hold a debate among serious scientific UFO investigators in a pup tent" -- their numbers are so few and their desire for solid investigation so similar.
The main point of disagreement at the symposium seemed to be over what to do with the 8 to 10 percent unexplained reports -- the true "unknowns." Hard-core skeptics, such as Klass or Sheaffer, would dismiss them, believing they, too, woul likely turn out t have prosaic causes if there were enough information or a thorough enough investigation.
Others such as Drs. Hynek, Hendry, and Maccabbee still see a challenging mystery to be solved. They are "skeptical of the skeptics," as Maccabbee put it , when skepticism becomes an excuse for turning one's back on this challenge. Even Oberg, who does not believe UFOs have an exotic cause, said skepticism should only be a tool to aid investigation.
In fact, none of the panelists, skeptical or not, wanted to halt the studies. And, Hendry acknowledged, his experience shows that many witnesses tend to see what they think they should see -- a fact that he sais "does not augur well for our 10 percent unknowns."