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Critical Thinker's Dictionary

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Roswell

On or around Independence Day, 1947, during a severe thunderstorm near Roswell, New Mexico, an Air Force experiment using high altitude balloons blew apart and fell to the earth. This minor event in the history of reconnaissance turned out to be the Big Bang of UFOlogy. UFO enthusiasts have come to see that 4th of July as the day an alien spaceship crashed on Earth. Some UFOlogists  claim that aliens were taken away by the U.S. Air Force and other government coconspirators for an interrogation or an autopsy. Some claim that all our modern technology was learned by analyzing and copying the technology of the aliens.

The actual crash site was on the Foster ranch 75 miles north of Roswell, a small town doing a big business feeding the insatiable appetite of UFO enthusiasts. Roswell has a UFO museum, The International Museum & Research Center, and hosts an annual alien festival. Shops cater to this curious tourist trade, much as Inverness caters to the Loch Ness crowd. This seems a bit unfair to Corona, New Mexico, which is actually the closest town to the alleged crash site.  Roswell is the nearest military base, however,  and that is where the remains of the alien craft and its occupants were allegedly taken. Why the aliens were not taken to a superior medical facility remains a mystery.

William "Mack" Brazel, foreman of the Foster Ranch, along with 7-year-old Dee Proctor found the most famous debris in modern history. They had never seen anything like it before. Millions now agree: the stuff was strange. Actually, it was pretty mundane stuff, including a piece of reinforcing tape whose flower-like design was taken to be alien hieroglyphics. But the Air Force was not consistent in describing the debris and has suggested that ardent UFOlogists have had a little trouble with their source memory. Perhaps what people are recalling as a single event is actually a mixture of several events that occurred in different years (such as weather balloon and nuclear explosion detection balloon tests, airplane crashes with burned bodies, and dumping of featureless dummies from airplanes). The likelihood that Roswell is a reconstruction involving many events over many years is supported by the fact that Roswell was ignored by UFOlogists until Charles Berlitz and William Moore published a book on the subject in 1980, more than thirty years after the event.

The National Enquirer also brought Roswell to the forefront in 1980 with a story featuring Jesse Marcel, the Army Major who, in 1947 may have been responsible for a press release that claimed our military had possession of parts of a flying disk, the kind that Kenneth Arnold had reported seeing just a couple of weeks earlier. (Others say the press release came from Walter Haut.) Roswell was one of hundreds of such "sightings" reported shortly after the news media spread the word of Arnold's "flying saucers." The success of the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) probably also contributed to the atmosphere that led to the rising of Roswell like the Phoenix from alien ashes to the top of the UFO myth list some three decades after the alleged fact.

UFO buffs trust Berlitz and others with fantastic stories based on 30-year-old memories. That the government made errors and was inconsistent is taken as sufficient evidence that there is a massive conspiracy by the government and mass media. They are trying to conceal the truth from the general public that the aliens have landed.  Some even believe that the U.S. government has signed a treaty with the aliens.

Skeptics agree that something crashed near Roswell in 1947, but not an alien craft. Skeptical explanations have varied from weather balloons to secret aircraft to espionage devices.  Current conventional wisdom among skeptics is that what was found on the Foster ranch was part of Project Mogul, a top secret project testing giant, high-flying balloons to detect Soviet nuclear explosions.

To skeptics, Roswell is a classic example of what D.H. Rawcliffe called retrospective falsification. An extraordinary story is told, then retold with embellishments and remodeled with favorable points emphasized while unfavorable ones are dropped. False witnesses put in their two cents, such as mortician Glen Dennis (Gildenberg 2003). In the case of Roswell, we also have a few unreliable  characters who add their delusions, such as Whitley Strieber, Budd Hopkins and John Mack (see the alien abduction entry). There is also Robert Spencer Carr, the high school graduate who liked to be called "Professor Carr." Carr is a hero in the UFO literature, but his stories of flying saucers and alien creatures were all delusions. His son has written: "I am so very sorry that my father's pathological prevarication has turned out to be the foundation on which such a monstrous mountain of falsehoods has been heaped" (Carr 1997). It was that mountain of falsehoods that became part of the UFO memory, fixating conviction in a remarkable tale. It happened at Fatima (during a time when the only aliens thought to be visiting our planet were messengers from some god) and it happened at Roswell. One might think, however, that unlike the belief in our Lady of Fatima and other apparitions from the supernatural world, Roswell might be settled some day since it involves testable hypotheses and refutable claims. Don't count on it. UFO enthusiasts are every bit as devoted to their belief system as religious devotees are to theirs. Evidence and rational argument are of little concern to those who consider science fiction to be a wiser guide than science, logic and reasonable probability.
 
See also alien abduction, Area 51, Aztec UFO hoax, and UFO


reader comments

further reading

books and articles

Bartholomew, Robert E. and Benjamin Radford. Hoaxes, Myths, and Manias - Why We Need Critical Thinking (Prometheus  Books 2003).

Carr, Timothy Spencer. "Son of Originator of 'Alien Autopsy' Story Casts Doubt on Father's Credibility," Skeptical Inquirer, July/August 1997, pp. 31-32.

Frazier, Kendrick. (ed.) The UFO Invasion : The Roswell Incident, Alien Abductions, and Government Coverups (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 1997).

Gildenberg,  B. D. "Duke." "Roswell Explained - How a Modest Military Adventure was Turned Into a Great Whopper of a UFO Tale in 1978." Skeptic, Vol. 10 No. 1, 2003, 60-73.

Klass, Philip J. The Real Roswell Crashed Saucer Coverup (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus, 1997).

Korff, Kal K. The Roswell UFO Crash - What They Don't Want You to Know (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus, 1997).

Peebles, Curtis. Watch the Skies!: A Chronicle of the Flying Saucer Myth (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994).

Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World - Science as a Candle in the Dark, ch. 5, "Spoofing and Secrecy" (New York: Random House, 1995).

Saler, Benson. Charles A. Ziegler, Charles B. Moore. Ufo Crash at Roswell: The Genesis of a Modern Myth (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997).

websites

The Klass Files (Archive of Skeptics UFO Newsletter)

The New Bogus Majestic-12 Documents by Philip J. Klass, Skeptical Inquirer, May/June 2000

Balloon Research Findings

The Roswell Incident and Project Mogul by Dave Thomas

The CB1 Roswell Resource Centre

Scientific Skepticism, UFOs, and the Flying Saucer Myth - Royston Paynter

Skeptics and Their Arguments

Last updated 12-Sep-2014

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