Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Greatest Story Ever Told

Long ago, someone was sent to Earth bearing messages for mankind. Of course today there are many doubters, but those of true faith never doubt. The birth of the Christ-child? Of course not, that's just made-up stuff. I'm talking about the UFO crash at Roswell, New Mexico.*

Although the Roswell myth's origins have much common with other such accounts, the reasons for my recent reflection on the matter are a) I visited Roswell 2 days ago and b) my recent post, in which I referred to one folk-sociology theory about why there has been such a profusion of conspiracy theories since the early 1990s. The whole Roswell legend is of renewed interest to me because at age 18** I was an enthusiastic consumer and spreader of Roswell- and Area 51-related materials. This was in the days when you would actually dial directly to someone else's PC to download files from them. (I remember around that time, the new big thing was bronze tools.)

The point is that I was way into the whole Roswell thing and I'm a little embarrassed at how un-skeptical I was about the whole thing. Until passing through Alienville itself, I hadn't thought of it for years. An interesting thing about beliefs is that they don't get edited until they're loaded back into short-term memory. Ever suddenly remember something you told someone twenty years ago and think, "Now why would I have said or believed such a silly thing?" (Sadly, it's the same thing that happens after a loved one dies, and for months or years you're continuously encountering objects or habits that remind you of them and have to be updated with that person's absence before they're stored away again.) So it was that upon calling all my stored-away Roswell data back into short-term memory I realized to my chagrin how sloppy and uncritical I'd been. I've long been an atheist, but was probably not a very good skeptic until 5-10 years ago. So I resolved to look it up somewhere that had real sources. Rather than recite the Wikipedia article, I'll tell you about the predictions I made about the Roswell story before looking it up. It turns out that in a world with lots of BS, you get a lot of practice observing, BS and consequently you get good at predicting its patterns. See if any of them look familiar!

- Prediction 1: the story probably hadn't become The Story until years later and was written mostly by people who had nothing to do with the original event. (Come to think of it, just like the New Testament.) Bingo: first book published in 1980. Actual journalism (interviews and research) outside of the Roswell Daily Record's original stories didn't occur until 1978. The event, whatever it was, happened in 1947.

- Prediction 2: what original contemporary sources there were would be spotty and overblown. Bingo - it turns out there was even less written at the time than I thought. The original sources that did report, at the time, that it was a "flying saucer" or extra-terrestrial in origin were that bastion of journalistic integrity the Roswell Daily Record, and one Air Force major. There are excitable people in the military just like there are in any other walk of life; and no offense to the Roswell Daily Record, as I'm sure it was a fine newspaper for a 1940s small town - but do journalists study the Daily Record's 1940s writing as an example of journalistic objectivity? I don't know for sure, but I bet not.

- Prediction 3: in fact there would be nothing to the story that couldn't be well-explained by the military's story of a crashed observation instrument. Read the account yourself. Bingo - Yes, there was weird metal. Yes, there was code on the pieces. Nothing that can't be explained as features of an instrument you don't want the Soviets getting their hands on and understanding. And still to this day there is a weapons and aircraft test site just over the mountains to the west. Any surprise that people see weird things in, and falling out of, the sky around there?

- Prediction 4: the story probably doesn't even have the location right and it probably didn't happen that close to Roswell. Bingo: it happened out in the MOFN* even by New Mexico standards, closer to Corona than Roswell. (*MOFN = Middle Of Nowhere)

Of course (conspiracists will counter) I buy into the military's story because I'm "gullible" (Steven Novella's observation of a favorite adjective abused by JFK-assassination conspiracy theorists). Or, even better, because I'm part of the conspiracy and I'm trying to inject doubts into the hearts of True Believers! In fact in these respects, the alien conspiracy people (here's a forum) are just garden-variety conspiracy theorists, though skeptics pay less attention to them because they're less harmful than the anti-vaxxers or creationism-in-public school lobby.

A lamppost in Roswell. Yes, really. Most of them are like that. And amazingly the Bilderburgers apparently haven't yet shown up at a City Council Meeting to demand the removal of these decorations that give away their otherwise air-tight conspiracy. Image credit Capn Scurvy's Treasure Chest.

Other observations:

- Looking at that picture above - have you ever noticed how you can break down compartmentalized thinking just by forcing yourself to consider the mundanities of concrete time and place and process? That is, once someone stops to think: "How exactly would the vaccine conspiracy work - where would they meet, how would they cut the checks" etc., or "How did the books of the modern Bible end up as part of the collection? Who convened the committee and set the agenda when they met, what did they have to eat at lunch the first day, what day of the week did they first meet and what was the weather like?" The concrete is the enemy of the credulous.

- Back in Roswell, there was one small-town paper reporting the event. No one else seemed too interested. No, in those days news moved more slowly, but for important things (you know, like front page stories of aliens crashing) they had phones and telegrams, and maybe someone from the NYT might have shown up if anyone thought it was something besides excitable small-town tabloid fodder? For comparison: a real genuine well-studied government cover-up, i.e. the a-bomb test near Alamogordo, about 100 air miles from Roswell, did generate press coverage, at least for the parts of it that were observable off the test site. A massive flash in the pre-dawn darkness and farm windows blowing out miles and miles away required explanation, and the military gave it - ordinance depot explosion - and it was well-reported by the press as such. The UFO landing got one article. It almost reminds you of no one else in the world corroborating three days of darkness when Christ entered Jerusalem.

Above: artist's rendering of the alien landing at Roswell.

- If this is really a "conspiracy" or "cover up", it's an even worse one than the "conspiracy" to cover up creationism. By that I mean: IT'S IN EVERY GODDAMN MOVIE SINCE 1995 AND ON FOX SPECIALS AND EVERY BUSINESS IN ROSWELL IS ABOUT ALIENS. THE FRICKIN CREDIT UNION IN ROSWELL HAS A UFO IN THE LOGO. That's a conspiracy? With the economy of a whole town transparently dependent on the public knowing about the conspiracy, the game would seem to be kind of up. (Side note: if you're in that part of the country, spend your time in the awesome Carlsbad Caverns and then eat some green chilis. Don't waste your time in Roswell. Going to the UFO Museum as a skeptic has the same result as going as a credulous mark: $20 less in your pocket and $20 more in theirs.)

- Conspiracy theorists of all stripes seem to believe that if their particular hidden truth were exposed to the public, then - exactly what? - would happen? Eternal peace on Earth? Dogs and cats livings together? (Sometime if you're bored, ask this to a 9/11 Truther online and watch the conniption begin. Mean but fun; alas the two are often linked.) Here again, thanks in part to the Roswell city government, everybody knows about the conspiracy. And - exactly what? - has happened?

Long story short: whatever happened at Roswell, somehow at the time no one cared, and somehow the legend magically and suddenly picked up steam three decades later, almost as if driven by people who weren't there but who had a profit motive. (All of which sounds very, very familiar to atheists.) In the end the whole thing tracks other myths and conspiracy theories so closely that I think one can be forgiven for thinking that it's just another one on the pile. But the alien conspiracy people are among the least harmless cranks we skeptics encounter so I guess I'm a real grinch for raining on their parade (not to mention on the good merchants of Roswell, NM). For this reason I'm sure it's just a matter of time before Bill O'Reilly and Bill Donohue appear on TV to tell you I'm waging a War on Roswell.

*Full disclosure: I do think it's likely life has evolved elsewhere besides Earth and I think we'll even find evidence of it inside our solar system (my reasoning is here.) Note the future tense: we have not yet found it. We especially haven't found it in Roswell.

**Supposedly Area 51 is at Groom Lake Air Force Base, which the U.S. only admitted existed about ten years ago. (This is kind of silly because you can actually see it from public areas, including from the top of Mt. Charleston west of Las Vegas, though my crappy cell-phone camera in these photos didn't do it justice.) During my freshman year in my un-skeptical youthful indiscretions, a friend and I dared each other to call Groom Lake and ask about the aliens. I never did it, but this other maniac had already started calling up people who were named in the Warren Commission and asked them who really killed JFK. (Seriously.) Not only is one of these people now in medical school, the other is already a practicing psychiatrist.

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