Flipping through an old issue of the International UFO Reporter, I came upon a scathing review of the 1996 book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, by superstar astronomer Carl Sagan (1934-1996). The author of the review was my old UFOlogical friend Jerome Clark.
I need to admit: I’ve never read The Demon-Haunted World. Nothing I’ve seen about the book has given me much eagerness to read it—even if there’s more substance to its anti-UFOlogy than Jerry’s criticisms will allow. But the review reminded me of a much earlier book, co-edited by the genial astronomer, which was entirely devoted to UFOs. In this one Sagan was on the side of the angels.
UFO’s—A Scientific Debate (1972) was a compilation of the papers delivered at the UFO symposium of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, on December 26-27, 1969. Sagan helped organize the symposium. His advocacy for it, and for the value of discussing UFOs in a scientific forum, was an act of courage I’ll always admire—and for which Sagan got considerable flack.
The part of the book I’ve best remembered was not any of the papers, excellent though they are. It’s in the “Addendum,” written by Sagan and co-editor Thornton Page. “One of the interesting psychological phenomena uncovered in the course of arranging the AAAS symposium … was the strong opposition of several older physical scientists. These men were convinced that AAAS sponsorship would somehow lend credence to ‘unscientific’ ideas. … Letters demanding the cancellation of the symposium were written to the AAAS Board … to congressmen and even to the Vice President of the United States urging their intervention to secure cancellation of the symposium.”
Score one for Sagan. He saw clearly that the “psychological phenomena” bound up with UFOs weren’t limited to the people who saw them and believed in them. When you appeal to Vice-President Spiro Agnew to suppress discussion of a subject, it’s a fair guess that subject has you scared.
Between UFOs—A Scientific Debate and The Demon-Haunted World came Cosmos.
The series aired on PBS in 1980, and Carl Sagan was the host. “As of 2009,” says Wikipedia, “it was still the most widely watched PBS series in the world.” I have to admit (I’m doing that a lot in this post) that I wasn’t one of the watchers. But an eight-minute, twenty-second segment from the twelfth episode of Cosmos, dealing with UFOs, has been posted to YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z9VLAWxDut0. It’s very much worth watching—not least in that it shows Sagan working both sides of the street, as far as UFOs are concerned.
He begins by assuring us that “in the vastness of the cosmos, there must be other civilizations far older and more advanced than ours.” Wouldn’t we expect, then, to be visited by them? Sagan admits this is an intriguing idea, and declares that no one would be happier than himself if it were true. But is it? All that counts, he intones, is “hard evidence, rigorously and skeptically examined. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
Shift to a three-minute re-enactment of the granddaddy of all UFO abductions—that of New Hampshire couple Betty and Barney Hill, on the night of September 19-20, 1961. We see wipers clicking back and forth across a windshield, as the Hills’ car makes its way through rain and mist on a lonely two-lane road. “Remember,” Sagan warns, “we have only their word for what happened next.” But this caveat does not prevent Cosmos from depicting it in spooky, haunting detail.
They’ve been followed for miles by a mysterious light in the sky. Betty tries to find a station on the radio; all she can get is static. Their dog, on the back seat, is jumpy and apparently frightened. The light “appeared to land. It blocked the road, preventing them from driving on.” Mouthless, glowing-eyed humanoids, looking remarkably like the ski-masked terrorists from the 1972 Munich Olympics, approach the car. The handsome African-American actor who plays Barney contorts his face in terror. Then man and wife emerge from the car, walking, robot-like, toward the glowing, vaguely delineated spacecraft. Cut to the terrified dog; then back to the alien craft. And then to Carl Sagan, strolling toward us across a sunlit, grassy hillside.
He sits down for a chat with us. The “UFO enthusiasts,” Sagan tells us (he uses that phrase twice), regard the Betty and Barney Hill abduction as a classic case, proving UFO reality. With what evidence? A star map given to Betty by the UFO beings, which supposedly shows remarkable correlation with actual star configurations Betty couldn’t have known about. Confidently Sagan debunks the correlation; without it there’s nothing left to substantiate their report. “The extraordinary claims,” he announces smugly, “are not supported by extraordinary evidence.” Case closed.
The re-enactment is curious, in a number of ways. Not only does it draw us into the Hills’ story (soon to be labeled a fantasy of no significance), but it pulls every possible trick to intensify it. The Hills are depicted as far more sexy and attractive than they were in real life. (Is their having been an interracial couple a dramatic drawing card?) And why are they shown driving through a rainstorm? The night of September 19-20 was clear; the standard debunking explanation of the Hills’ sighting—that they were deceived by the planet Jupiter—in fact requires it to have been clear. But an alien encounter on a lonesome road is a whole lot scarier on a dark and stormy night.
This is what I mean about working both sides of the street. Sagan, and the people who put together this Cosmos episode for him, are sensitive to the enormous latent power of Betty and Barney Hill’s story. So they get all the mileage from it they can, use it to excite and attract their audience. Having exploited it, they turn around and dismiss it, toss it into the garbage. And we’re invited to laugh along with Sagan at the gullible “UFO enthusiasts” who take it seriously.
There’s something about this that profoundly annoys me. Not that I believe Betty and Barney were abducted by aliens; readers of this blog will be able to guess that I don’t. The mysterious light they saw has been identified convincingly far as I’m concerned, and it wasn’t any spaceship. (It wasn’t Jupiter, either.) But there was a real UFO, coming from inner (not outer) space, whose presence in Barney Hill’s unconscious was a matter of grave significance. Attention must be paid, as Willy Loman’s wife says in “Death of a Salesman.”
I won’t laugh off this abduction story, or any abduction story. And I don’t like Sagan’s using it for all it’s worth and then laughing it off. If it weren’t for the abiding gratitude we owe him for his brave stand over the AAAS symposium, I might be really ticked.
And what was Barney Hill’s UFO? What was the thing, the creatures that abducted him and his wife, and who, in my opinion, were at least partly responsible for his untimely death in 1969 at age 46?
I’m taking a break next week. I’ll post about the Hills the week after.