UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens: What Science Says

UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens: What Science Says


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UFOs. Aliens. Strange crop circles. Giant figures scratched in the desert surface along the coast of Peru. The amazing alignment of the pyramids. Strange lines of clouds in the sky. The paranormal is alive and well in the American cultural landscape. In UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens, Donald R. Prothero and Tim Callahan explore why such demonstrably false beliefs thrive despite decades of education and scientific debunking. Employing the ground rules of science and the standards of scientific evidence, Prothero and Callahan discuss a wide range of topics including the reliability of eyewitness testimony, psychological research into why people want to believe in aliens and UFOs, and the role conspiratorial thinking plays in UFO culture. They examine a variety of UFO sightings and describe the standards of evidence used to determine whether UFOs are actual alien spacecraft. Finally, they consider our views of aliens and the strong cultural signals that provide the shapes and behaviors of these beings. While their approach is firmly based in science, Prothero and Callahan also share their personal experiences of Area 51, Roswell, and other legendary sites, creating a narrative that is sure to engross both skeptics and believers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253034168
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 08/10/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 480
Sales rank: 787,754
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.20(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Donald R. Prothero taught college geology and paleontology for 40 years, at Caltech, Columbia, Cal Poly Pomona, and Occidental, Knox, Vassar, Glendale, Mt. San Antonio, and Pierce Colleges. He is the author of numerous books and scientific papers including Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future and Abominable Science! Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids.

Timothy D. Callahan was trained as an artist and worked for more than 20 years in the animation industry. Throughout his life he has also had an active interest in the sciences and the study of mythology and religious belief. He is the religion editor for Skeptic Magazine.

Read an Excerpt


Science and the Paranormal


Science is nothing but developed perception, interpreted intent, common sense rounded out and minutely articulated.

— George Santayana, philosopher

September 3, 2013: It's the sixth inning of a minor-league baseball game between the Vancouver Canadians and the Everett AquaSox. The game is being played at ScotiaBank Field's Nat Bailey Stadium in Vancouver. A fan is videotaping the game (available on YouTube1), and you can hear the crowd cheering and clapping and urging the team on the field to play well. The video clip pans from right to left over a mere 26 seconds, and it zooms in on something in the distance, beyond the trees outside the stadium. For those few brief seconds, it appears that there is some sort of flying saucer, complete with a ring of bright lights flashing in all directions, flying off in the distance. Strangely, however, the videographer doesn't hold the zoom on the mysterious UFO but returns to a wide-angle view of the game, then pans farther to the right. Whatever the videographer sees when he or she zooms in on the UFO, it isn't impressive or startling enough to keep him or her focused on it, because he or she goes right back to filming the game.

Nevertheless, this few seconds of footage is soon all over the Internet, mentioned in the news in Vancouver and elsewhere. The Vancouver Sun newspaper jokingly calls the object "divine intervention" that helped the local team win the game. Everyone else seems to think that this startling image is proof that UFOs are alien spacecraft, even though few people in Vancouver seem to have noticed it. The other fans in the stands with the videographer who might have reacted much more strongly if it seemed like an alien spacecraft instead were tweeting as if it were nothing unusual. One tweet mentioned that "it hovered for a while, going up and down then gone. ... weird, but lucky, C's have tacked on 4 runs since it made appearance." The British Columbia news site The Province suggested that the "levitating shiny blue something" may have been a kite or a remote-controlled helicopter.

But this is not enough to stop the huge community of UFO believers from trumpeting the few seconds of footage as "proof" that UFOs are real — without doing any investigation or digging about what was happening in Vancouver that night. They don't even think about the fact that the videographer didn't find the image startling enough to keep filming it and instead went back to the minor-league baseball game. Marc Dantonio, the chiefvideo analyst for the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), looks at the footage and testifies that the image is not a camera trick or a computer-generated fake inserted into the video after it was filmed. Still, he finds it suspicious that "there was no reaction at all from anyone, nor the videographer." Rather, he says, "I suspect much more strongly, based on the way it was sideslipping to our right a bit while leaning slightly to that side, that this was likely either a lit up kite or a small drone-type object like we created for a National Geographic show. This object's behavior matches either one ofthose possibilities in the short video snip of it here that we can see. The stability makes this more likely a flying small hobby-type drone."

After the story has spread around the world through the internet, the culprit finally confesses. The "UFO" was indeed a drone. It is eventually revealed that the H. R. MacMillan Space Centre built the drone, shaped like its new planetarium, as a form of gonzo advertising. Working with a local advertising agent, the drone is part of an "extreme tease campaign" to generate excitement and mystery — and lots of free publicity and increased attendance at its new planetarium.

After the hoax is revealed, it continues circulating on the internet as a legitimate UFO with no explanation, even though the fakery has been exposed. Even sadder, an internet poll on Huffington Post shows that almost 34% of the people who clicked on the polling buttons still believe it is proof of a Canadian UFO sighting!

As we shall discuss in later chapters, this story is typical of most UFO sightings: something is spotted that the observer can't identify, so it becomes an "unidentified flying object," or "UFO." Then the account snowballs into a more exaggerated version as people immediately jump to the conclusion that it is an alien craft. The "unidentified" flying object is then exposed as a hoax or as some other more prosaic natural phenomenon. But even after a satisfactory explanation is given (and even when the hoaxer confesses), people still refuse to believe the truth and insist that the object was an alien spacecraft.

We will look at all these elements of typical UFO stories in later chapters. But first: how does a scientist examine the claims about UFOs and aliens?


There are many hypotheses in science which are wrong. That's perfectly all right; they're the aperture to finding out what's right. Science is a self-correcting process. To be accepted, new ideas must survive the most rigorous standards of evidence and scrutiny.

Carl Sagan

Stories such as this one raise important questions: How do we evaluate the claims? How do we decide whether they're credible? As we shall see in this book, there have been a huge number of hoaxes whenever the topic of UFOs and aliens is involved. How can we tell whether we're being conned and fooled?

In our modern society, critical thinking and science have proven to be the most consistent and effective methods of distinguishing reality from illusion. As Carl Sagan put it, "skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense." Even though many of us like to imagine that we can have a "lucky streak," and though we might adhere to superstitions such as avoiding walking on sidewalk cracks, when important issues such as money are involved, we all try to be skeptics. As mature adults, we have learned not to be naïve about the world. By hard experience, we are all equipped with a certain degree of healthy skepticism. We have learned that politicians and salesmen are often dishonest, deceptive, and untruthful. We see exaggerated advertising claims everywhere, but deep inside we are experienced enough to recognize that they are often false or misleading. We try not to buy products based on a whim but rather look for the best price and the best quality. We try to live by the famous Latin motto Caveat emptor: "Let the buyer beware." When we are dealing with important matters, science and critical thinking are the only techniques we can rely on to avoid being fooled. But what are the principles of science and critical thinking? What do they tell us about UFOs and aliens?

A big problem with our conception of science is that it is based on the classic "mad scientist" stereotypes that are so prevalent in the movies, on television, and in other media. Indeed, there are almost no depictions of scientists in the media that don't include the stereotypical white lab coats and bubbling beakers and sparking Van de Graaff generators — and the "scientist" is usually a nerdy old white guy with glasses and wild hair. But that's strictly Hollywood stereotyping, not reality. Unless a scientist is a chemist or biologist working on material that might spill on your clothes, there is no reason to wear a white lab coat. Even though one of us (Prothero) is a professional scientist, I never use a lab coat. I haven't needed one since my days in college chemistry class. Most scientists don't need the fancy glassware or sparking apparatuses — or even have a lab!

What makes someone a scientist is not a white lab coat or lab equipment but rather how he or she asks questions about nature and what thought processes he or she employs to solve problems. Science is about suggesting an explanation (a hypothesis) to understand some phenomenon, then testing that explanation by examining evidence that might show us whether the hypothesis is right or wrong. Contrary to popular myth, most scientists don't try to prove their hypotheses right. As British philosopher of science Karl Popper pointed out long ago, it's almost impossible to prove statements true, but it's much easier to prove them false. For example, you could hypothesize that "all swans are white," but no matter how many white swans you find, you'll never prove that statement true. But if you find just one nonwhite swan (such as the Australian black swan, Fig. 1.1), you've shot down the hypothesis. It's finished — over — kaput! Time to toss it on the scrap heap and create a new hypothesis, then try to falsify it as well.

Thus science is not about proving things true — it's about proving them false! This is the exact opposite of the popular myths that scientists are looking for "final truth" or that we can prove something "absolutely true." Scientific ideas must always remain open to testing, tentative, and capable of being rejected. If they are held up as "truth" and no longer subject to testing or scrutiny, then they are no longer science — they are dogma. This is the feature that distinguishes science from many other beliefs, such as religion or Marxism or any widely accepted belief system. In dogma, you are told what is true, and you must accept it on faith. In science, no one has the right to dictate what is true, and scientists are constantly testing and checking and reexamining ideas to weed out the ones that don't stand up to scrutiny.

Since Popper's time, not all philosophers of science have agreed with the strict criterion of falsifiability, because there are good ideas in science that don't fit this criterion yet that are clearly scientific. Pigliucci proposed a broader definition of science that encompasses scientific topics that might not fit the strict criterion of falsifiability. All science is characterized by the following: (1) Naturalism: We can examine only phenomena that happen in the natural world, because we cannot test supernatural hypotheses scientifically. We might want to say about something that "God did it," but there is no way to test that hypothesis. (2) Empiricism: Science studies only things that can be observed by our senses — things that are objectively real to not only ourselves but also any other observer. Science does not deal with internal feelings, mystic experiences, or anything else that is in the mind of one person and that no one else can experience. (3) Theory: Science works with a set of theories that are well established ideas about the universe and that have survived many tests.

What is a theory? Some ideas in science have been tested over and over again, and instead of being falsified, they are corroborated by more and more evidence. These hypotheses then reach the status of some idea that is well supported and thus widely accepted. In science, that is what is meant by the word theory. Sadly, the word theory has completely different meanings in general usage. In the pop culture world, a theory is a wild guess, such as the "theories" about why JFK was assassinated. But as we just explained, in science, the word theory means something completely different: an extremely well supported and highly tested idea that scientists accept as provisionally true. For example, gravity is "just a theory," and we still don't understand every aspect of how it works — but even so, objects don't float up to the ceiling. The germ theory of disease was controversial about 100 years ago, when doctors tried to cure people by bleeding them with leeches — but now people who get sick due to a virus or bacterium will follow modern medical practices if they want to get well. Nevertheless, there are people who don't like what science tells them (such as creationists who reject evolution), and they will deliberately confuse these two different uses of the word theory to convey the idea that somehow evolution is not one of the best-tested explanations of the world that we have. Yet these same people do not reject the theory of gravity or the germ theory of disease.

Scientists aren't inherently sourpusses or killjoys who want to rain on everyone else's parades. They are just cautious about and skeptical of any idea until it has survived the gauntlet of repeated testing and possible falsification, then risen to the level of something that is established or acceptable. They have good reason to be skeptical. As discussed herein, humans are capable of all sorts of mistakes and false ideas and self-deception. Scientists cannot afford to blindly accept the ideas of one person, or even a group of people, making a significant claim. They are obligated to criticize and carefully evaluate and test it before accepting it as a scientific idea.

But scientists are human, and we are subject to the same foibles as all mortals. We love to see our ideas confirmed and to believe that we are right. And there are all sorts of ways we can misinterpret or overinterpret data to fit our biases. As the Nobel Prize–winning physicist Richard Feynman put it, "the first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool." That is why many scientific experiments are run by the double-blind method: not only do the subjects of the experiments not know what is in sample A or sample B, but neither do the investigators. Samples are coded so that no one knows what is in each, and only after the experiment is run do they open the key to the code to find out whether the results agree with their expectations.

So if scientists are human and can make mistakes, then why does science work so well? The answer is testability and peer review. Individuals might be blinded by their own biases, but once they put their ideas forth in a presentation or publications, their work is subject to intense scrutiny by the scientific community. If the results cannot be replicated by another group of scientists, then they have failed the test. As Feynman put it, "It doesn't matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn't matter how smart you are. If it doesn't agree with experiment, it's wrong."

The mad scientist stereotype that prevails in nearly all media is completely wrong not only because of the stereotypical dress and behavior and apparatuses that are shown but also because the "mad scientist" is not testing hypotheses about nature or experimenting to find out what is really true. In a famous cartoon widely circulated on the internet, someone interrogating a "mad scientist" asks, "Why did you build a death ray?" The mad scientist says, "To take over the world." "No, I mean what hypothesis are you testing? Are you just making mad observations?" The "mad scientist" responds, "Look, I'm just trying to take over the world. That's all." The interrogator continues, "You at least are going to have some of the world as a mad control group, right?" As the cartoon says, he's really not a scientist at all — he's just a "mad engineer." (Although engineers might understand some science, their goal is not to discover truths about nature but rather to apply science to make inventions or practical devices.)


The public is happy to admire science as long as they don't have to understand it deeply. Sham inquiry plays to the admiration of science by the public. A lack of familiarity with how science is supposed to work is a major reason why the public has trouble recognizing counterfeit science. Add an '-ology' to the end of whatever you study and it acts like a toupee of credibility — to hide the lack of substance. The public is vulnerable to pseudoscience that resembles real inquiry and genuine knowledge.

— Sharon Hill

Because of the prestige and trust that we attach to science, there are lots of con men and zealots out there who try to peddle stuff that looks and even sounds like science but that doesn't actually pass muster through testing, falsification, experimentation, and peer review. Yet it often sounds "sciencey" to most people or imitates the trappings of science, becoming what geologist and skeptic Sharon Hill called "sham science" or "sham inquiry."

A classic case of mistaking the trappings for the real thing are the famous "cargo cults" of the South Pacific islands. During World War II, many of these islands hosted U.S. military bases, and their native peoples came in contact with the advantages of western civilization for the first time. Then the war ended, and the military left. But the natives wanted the airplanes to return and bring their goodies, so they used local materials to build wooden "radio masts," "control towers," and "airplanes" and other replicas of the real things, hoping that they could summon the planes.


Excerpted from "UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Donald R. Prothero and Tim Callahan.
Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Prologue: Consider the Following
1. Science and the Paranormal
2. The Believing Brain
3. Area 51: What is Really Going on in There?
4. The Roswell Incident: What Really Happened?
5. Close Encounters of the Second Kind: Physical Evidence of Alien Contact
6. Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Direct Encounters with Aliens
7. Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind: Alien Abduction
8. The Mythos of Ancient Aliens
9. Praying to Aliens
10. Ancient Myths and Modern Media
11. Cloud's Illusions
12. Are They Out There?
13. Why Do People Believe in UFOs and Aliens?
14. The Verdict

What People are Saying About This

"UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens is a model of scientific reasoning, rational analysis, and elegant prose that reveals a phenomenon every bit as interesting as the possibility of alien life landing here on Earth or existing somewhere out there in the cosmos—the fact that we can conceive of such a concept, study it scientifically, and understand that we are part of the universe as evolved sentient beings capable of such sublime thought. "

Michael Shermer

UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens is a model of scientific reasoning, rational analysis, and elegant prose that reveals a phenomenon every bit as interesting as the possibility of alien life landing here on Earth or existing somewhere out there in the cosmos—the fact that we can conceive of such a concept, study it scientifically, and understand that we are part of the universe as evolved sentient beings capable of such sublime thought.

Michael Shermer]]>

UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens is a model of scientific reasoning, rational analysis, and elegant prose that reveals a phenomenon every bit as interesting as the possibility of alien life landing here on Earth or existing somewhere out there in the cosmos—the fact that we can conceive of such a concept, study it scientifically, and understand that we are part of the universe as evolved sentient beings capable of such sublime thought.

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