Robert Sheaffer – It’s a Conspiracy

May 16, 2011

Robert Sheaffer is a Committee for Skeptical Inquiry fellow and author of the “Psychic Vibrations” column for Skeptical Inquirer magazine. He writes the “Bad UFO” blog and “The Debunker’s Domain” website, and is the author of The UFO Verdict: Examining the Evidence, UFO Sightings – The Evidence and The Making of the Messiah: Christianity and Resentment.

A prolific researcher of supernatural claims, Robert specializes in UFOs and conspiracy theories. Many favor the term “investigator”, but he doesn’t shy away from the label “debunker”.

In this interview with Karen Stollznow, Robert talks about his observations of pseudoscience and the paranormal over the 30-year course of his column. He presents us with a potted history of UFOs, and discusses the trends over time in both belief and skepticism. The evidence is as poor (or non-existent) as ever, but the fascination is stronger than ever.

Robert delves into the themes of conspiracy theories; what are the things “they” don’t want us to know? He speaks about how and why they emerge and how we can tackle them. He answers the question, “Have any conspiracy theories ever turned out to be correct, or is a “true conspiracy theory” really something else?”

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Monday, May 16th, 2011. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m Karen Stollznow point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. And at the grassroots level, my guest this week is writer Robert Schiefer. Robert is a Committee for Skeptical Inquiry fellow and author of the Psychic Vibrations column for Skeptical Inquirer magazine. He writes for the Bad UFO blog and the debunkers domain Web site, Jim Underdown, and is the author of The UFO Verdict. Examining the evidence and the Making of the Messiah, Christianity and Resentment, he is a prolific investigator for the paranormal and specializes in UFOs and conspiracy theories. John Roberts, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Well, thank you. 

Now you’re all skeptical. Inquirer column Psychic Vibrations has just observed its 30th anniversary. So congratulations. 

Thank you about that. Yes. I used to work very closely with Philip J. Class, and he was one of the founding fellows side cop. And then he helped me to get involved in all this. And then I started writing that column back and actually 77 or something. So we’re more than 30 years now. 

And over this time period, many beliefs and practices have changed and there’s certainly plenty of new ones. But have any actually gone away? 

Well, I won’t say that any of them actually go away, but they go in and out of favor. You know, like for a while, like in the 70s, spoon bending was all the rage and Uri Geller and, you know, that sort of thing. And we still have spoon bending from time to time. In fact, there’s a small group here in San Diego who are still doing this, but you don’t hear that much about him. And even in UFO’s, for a while, there were almost no UFO sightings. Everything was abductions, you know, was the thing because people had gotten tired of, you know, just hearing stories about seeing lights in the sky, seeing objects and whereas, you know, somebody said, well, I was abducted by creatures who came into my bedroom and beam me up through the wall and took me up to the saucer and performed unspeakable acts upon my naked body. You know, that was exciting for a while then. That didn’t go anywhere in effect. Now, lately, abductions are really. I did a blog posting on my bad UFO blog recently about abduct ology implodes. And that’s also when the psychic vibrations coming up, the major abduction is they’re really getting caught. They got their nose caught in a vice, so to speak. And but Hopkins, who is one of the really is a sort of the founding father of the current things that go bump in the night type of abductions. His ex-wife recently let loose with a piece she’d written about criticizing his methods and a whole lot of ways. And in fact, over the worst criticism was that he but Hopkins knew that one of his major cases is a woman called Linda. They were calling her Linda Cortile is a pseudonym that he knew that Linda had been lying to him at least a half a dozen occasions. And not only did he continue to promote the case, but he helped cover up the fact that she was lying. So he’s lost all credibility, too. So. So now the abductions are gone. And now that we’re starting to see videos and things like that coming up as a as a big thing. Now, every time somebody film something they can’t understand, you know, or something, it looks a little bit odd in this guy. Well, it’s a UFO because you understand, according to the first law of Sauza logic, anytime anyone sees anything in the sky that they don’t understand is to be presumed to be an alien spacecraft until it’s conclusively proven otherwise. 

And that reminds me about that Stan Romanek case going. 

Oh, yeah. He was a guy who in Colorado who had this video of what he said was an alien peeking in his window. 

And I don’t think you look very impressive, but I think the best answer to that was within like a week, a whole bunch of people had posted to YouTube their own video use of aliens, speaking in their windows and sprinkling. Some of them looked even better than the one he had produced. 

And did that set off any copycats sighting? 

Well, yeah, because like I said, there are people posting all these things. Satiric problem. 

I mean I mean, any any claims, any real claims. 

Well, I’m not aware of any specific. I mean, other than the videos. I’m not aware of any. Any follow ups on that? But, you know, there’s always strange claims being made. If you look at some of the claims that are being made like from Mexico. There she and humanoids all over the place down there. This guy, Helmy Himy son from Mexico City, who is a journalist. He’s sort of like the Mexican equivalent of Stanton Friedman, only even worse. And, you know, he’s got, you know, all kinds of videos of strange things and supposed to be glowing extra terrestrials and whatever else. But I don’t think that they were specifically triggered by Stan Romantic. Hmm. 

And some you’ve said that waves of UFO sightings are a thing of the past now, but interest is stronger than ever. 

So they have been, but now they’re coming back because, you know, other things. And also crash claims after abductions start to get a little bit old hat, then, you know, became a very big thing about Roswell and around the fiftieth anniversary, which is 1997. And, you know, it looked like, you know, this you know, Roswell and other so-called UFO crashes were going to provide the evidence that UFOlogists want because, you know, it’s like the Holy Grail. They’re convinced that this grail is out there somewhere. And if they can just find it, then it will prove to all the world that they have been right about the aliens. And we have all been wrong and they’re going to bask, you know, in their triumph. But, of course, that never happens. And so, yeah, the crashes were going to provide evidence. And now with this Roswell thing, it’s a whole lot of people who had at one time been considered prime Roswell witnesses or shown to have been lying. Unfortunately, a lot of them have been. Not all of them, but but several of them. And so now that’s kind of going away. And now looks like, you know, UFO sightings and and UFO videos are coming back. And of course, now that everybody’s got all kinds of video cameras and little ones and their cell phone videos and things, we’re starting to get all kinds of weird stuff that, you know, somebody will post to the Internet. And, of course, what you really have to be wary of is anything that’s posted anonymously. You’ve got to figure there’s a reason for it to be anonymous. Probably because the story that, you know, would be made up to support it wouldn’t hold water. And we see that with this this famous Jerusalem UFO video that was just made so many headlines in the last month or so started in January. And then they were immediately copycats. I guess some of some of the new videos were from the same individual and others were other people trying to, you know, do their version of it. And so that set off quite a craze that that only seemed to last about a week or so, although people are still talking about it. I did up on my blog. I did a analysis of this and showed that, you know, how there is obvious digital processing effects in this in the first video of the Jerusalem video that shows the like a ball of light coming down onto the what is it, the Dome of the Rock. You know, which is a to Moslems is a very holy shrine. I’s a shrine where Mohammed is the point where allegedly Mohammed started his night journey into the heavens, where he went up past the seven spheres and went all the way up to heaven and talked to Allah himself and then came back to earth. And so there what better place, you know, for UFO to visit. But you can clearly see the digital processing effects in that video, you know, showing that it was not simply taken from a camera and posted onto YouTube, but rather was taken from a camera, put through a digital video editing software and certain effects added and then posted. Mm hmm. 

And so you’re talking about skeptical explanations. And I know that ball lightning was once a very common natural explanation for UFO phenomena, but now it seemed to play only a minor role as an explanation. 

I think that it’s hard to know what to say about ball lightning either after all this time. You perhaps know that when Philip Class first got into ufology, his very first book back in 1966 was called UFO was Identified in which he thought that UFOs were glowing balls of plasmas that were caused by, you know, electrical fields and things like this. And at first that seemed kind of plausible. But then, you know, as we looked at it and he looked at it, a number of problems started to be to become obvious. And one of the things was that he we detected in especially class, as you know, interviewing a lot of these witnesses and things that he found that there was a great deal of hoaxing and lying going on concerning some of these cases. And he had quite a nose for hoaxes and. So as soon as he would see that he would, you know, immediately become suspicious. And so it didn’t take him very long to realize that this so-called plasma hypothesis or, you know, ball lightning or in this case, I guess, controlled small scale ball lightning or whatever, really wasn’t a very good explanation for very many cases. If any of them at all. 

And you’ve written two books about the evidence with UFO sighting, UFO sightings. 

Yes. UFO verdict was the first one that was published back in 1981. In 1998, I did a revision. It’s partly the same as the earlier book, but with a whole lot of new material and revisions added to it. This is called UFO sightings, which is currently available from Prometheus. 

And you make a distinction in the books about soft versus hard evidence. And I’m wondering, what are those classifications? 

Well, it’s I don’t know that I would say that we have anything that could be called hard evidence of something tangible, something, you know, pretty much that you can. Yeah, that that that you can analyze in a lab or even a really good series of photographs, independent perspectives and so on. All we have are claims and even the more reasonable of the ufologists, the pro ufologists, those who are not completely delusional, those who are, you know, maintained, at least to some extent a scientific outlook that will they will admit that we don’t have any solid evidence, that all we have are reports. And really, if you think about that, it just violates all laws of probability that a thing like this could go on for. Now, we’re past 60 years of UFO sightings. It was 60, almost 60. We’re coming up on the sixty third anniversary of UFOs given Arnold sighting in 1947. And yet, in every single case, they reported UFO has been able to slip away before the evidence of its visits becomes sufficiently convincing. And that’s just there’s there’s no way that that could be real. So and some ufologists even admit this. And, you know, acknowledge it and try to come up with some sort of work around Heinicke toward the end of his life and just valet talking about the edge of reality and how UFOs represent something from a sort of a reality that science doesn’t know anything about, that it could be parallel dimensions, you know, in this kind of thing. And because you really you have to get into that kind of nonsense, because even if you admit the possibility of, you know, nuts and bolts craft flying here from elsewhere in the galaxy, the UFO is just don’t you don’t cut it even as solid objects that, you know, have to go from point A to point B. 

And so that 1947 sighting, that was the very first sighting. I thought they went farther back than that. 

Well, it’s the beginning of modern ufology. That’s the one. Kenneth Arnold, a private pilot up in Washington State who is flying near Mount Rainier. And he said he saw these what is a nine objects in formation and he thought they were traveling supersonic, Lee and so on, based on his distance estimates and whatever. Yeah, I mean, people have been reporting oddball stuff in the sky for many years and centuries, even in the previous centuries, they were often had religious interpretations. They say, well, I saw a flaming sword in the sky and an army of God coming march on us or something. And really what they mean was they saw the aurora borealis. And that’s how they described it. You know, that sort of thing. But. Modern Ufology begins with Kenneth Arnold because that was the day that it was picked up by the news services. It went nationwide and worldwide. And then, Alison, everybody was seeing UFO is within a very short period and within a few days of Kenneth Arnold UFO were not just in the vicinity of Mount Rainier in Washington. They were everywhere being reported. So and that you know that and we’ve had this media circus concerning UFOs ever since. So that’s what we mean. We say that the modern UFO era began then. 

I think we get that a lot in skepticism, whether it’s cryptozoology or or other areas. Saw the copycat sightings. 

Yes, exactly. 

Now, many skeptics, including James Randi, enjoy nickel shy away from the term debunker. However, you really embrace that term, infects your website is debunker dot com? 

Yes, it is. While the name skeptic dot com had already been taken, but the name the bunker was still there, so I thought I should grab it while, as Phil Glass always said, he thought there was nothing wrong with debunking effect. He always like to say that I think it only be debunked if it’s filled with bunk to begin with. 

Mm hmm. Mm hmm. Well, I still strongly think that we debunk when we disprove something. So then we have debunked it. And I think we should be reclaiming the term somewhat. 

I think so, yes. 

And so you’ve also got a considerable interest in conspiracy theories and you’ve said that they’ve become extremely popular in recent years. So why is that so? Why have they become more popular? 

And it’s hard to say. I’m not sure that they’re more popular now, but only maybe that they’re more publicized. I think, you know, conspiracies have have a long and rich history. You know, there have been alleged Masonic conspiracies for many years. You know, people thought that the Masons were secretly controlling, you know, society in the country and whatever else. And. And you can come up with all. Well, the Illuminati was believed to also be in charge of this and that. And of course, there were any number of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that used to be very popular and still are. 

Haven’t gone out to bleakly still believed by a lot of people. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and so on. Polks document that, you know, shows how Jews are plotting to take over the world. And so more recently than, of course, we have these alien conspiracies. There’s a whole group called Exile Politics, which is. It’s so it’s so weird. I don’t know where to start, but it seems they have a reasonable number of followers these days. Exile politics is supposedly is the study of political relations between U.S. governments and alien beings. Now, that’s almost like, you know, studying, you know, demonology or something. As for first, you know, step one, find a demon and study it. Well, the same thing with actual politics, but they they’re convinced that they not only the aliens are here, that they take that, as you know, that’s a given and that the government has entered into some sort of secret treaty with them where, you know, we each have you know, we’re going to allow them to abduct earthlings if they promise not to harm the earthlings. And in return, they’re going to give us secret technology or some such thing. And there’s claims that, you know, the U.S. government has all this teleportation. In fact, they’re teleporting people back and forth between earth and secret base on Mars. And so, yeah, there’s just all kinds of strange stuff like that out there. 

Yeah, there’s always been a very strong link between conspiracy theories and UFO theories. 

Yeah, yeah. Well, because, I mean, the whole UFOs started to get interesting in the sense of of a pursuit and us and something that, you know, one could could really get one’s teeth into when they started to make the claim. 

It’s one thing to say, well, UFOs are flying around up there and nobody knows what they are. It’s another thing and this happened really in the early days of ufology, starting with a major keyhole. Donald Kiho in the early 50s, late 40s and early 50s. Was that not only of the UFO flying around up there, but that the government, the Air Force, knows far more about them than they’re willing to tell us. But just as they’re about to say something, you know, and they’re always hushed up, and that’s where the story about the men in black came from was that, you know, in the movies, they were good guys protecting us from aliens. But in the original stories, the original conspiracy UFO conspiracy claims the men in black were they were they were very sinister creatures. You did not want to see them come by if you’d had a a sighting of a UFO or you’d taken a picture, let’s say they come by and they’ll demand that, you know, that you give them the negative photos or else, you know, you’ll do that if you know what’s good for you and you won’t tell anyone about your sighting, if you know what’s good for you. And then off they go. 

And so what are some of the most common themes to conspiracy theories? What are the things that they don’t want us to know about? 

Usually it has to do with with alien visitations. At least, you know, in the UFO realm, you know, and the fact that, you know, a UFO. But often there’s, you know, very scary stuff like, you know, they are abducting people and maybe there are even some of the ones who get abducted don’t come back, you know, and they’re, you know, cut up for experiments or whatever else. But often it’s it’s a lot of other things. I mean, the so-called 9/11 truth, which is that, you know, the U.S. government planned the attacks on 9/11 and that there was no airplane hit the Pentagon. It was a cruise missile and a airplane that went missing. You know, who knows where what happened to that flight that was hijacked that didn’t hit the Pentagon? I mean, it all makes no sense. But usually it’s when somebody has a group that you don’t like and you don’t trust. And so you you hypothesize that this group has done something very nasty and is planning to do even worse. And then you come up with a rather flimsy, you know, evidence trying to support that chem trails and other conspiracy. That’s very popular. 

Now, you know, the what an aircraft goes over and most of the time you can’t see it that well because the contrails are are small and they disappear pretty soon. I’m talking about high altitude, you know, aircraft going over passenger jet. But depending on the conditions of of temperature and humidity sometimes condenses. That is very thick, wide trail now. And these these, of course, are contrails, but they call them chem trails. They claim that these this is not a passenger jet. It’s some sort of a military experiment where they are spraying. Poisons or something on us. And it’s always a mystery as to exactly what they’re spraying and why they’re spraying it to subdue us somehow. 

Yeah, that’s it. 

Well, you know, they may be testing biological agents or or whatever. 

And so in all of your years of investigating conspiracy theories, have any criteria emerged? So other any lists of features as we’ve developed for colts’? 

Well, I mean, I suppose and I haven’t developed anything specifically like that. I mean, more than just that. We know that a lot of these cults have their own, you know, belief systems that are out outside of, you know, normal logic and also, of course. But what’s very common is a doomsday belief. You know, that, you know, we’re gonna be you know, the end is near. I mean, I’m starting to collect some of these instances of when the end was near believing there’s a lot of them for some of your listeners. 

Will maybe you’re not aware. Everybody’s worried about 2012. The question we’ve all heard about that, but a lot of people don’t realize we may not even make it to 2012 because the rapture is supposed to begin in approximately three months. Again, that’s according to the Reverend Reverend Harold Camping of Family Radio, who has calculated using very precise methods of biblical numerology. And he comes up with May 21st of 2011 as the time when the rapture begins. So you see all this 2012 talk is is really unnecessary, scaring people because we’re not going to make it that far. I guess, you know, the the the holy people will be up in the sky by, you know, May 22nd and the rest of us will but just be down here and I’ll fire and brimstone or something like that for a thousand years or however that works. I don’t know. We’ll find out. Kushi I. Before anyone gets too scared about that, he did. Camping did previously predict that the Rapture was supposed to be in September of 1994. And that doesn’t seem to have happened. So I suspect it his, you know, his biblical calculations may be a little bit off. As for the exact date Milliyet, maybe he’s correct about this next one. 

Well, he could be. And if so, that we should all start to worry. 

But so what about the believer behind the conspiracy theory? Are these people insane or paranoid? Or are we all open to this kind of thinking? 

Well, that’s a good question. I don’t think that insane well, insane might describe a few of them. I think it has to do a lot with mistrust of certain individuals and certain groups and also, you know, feeling that one is being taken advantage of by. You know, by by an establishment. It’s yeah, it’s it’s kind of hard to to characterize it. You do see these people, you know, some of them as the typical paranoid conspiracy person who doesn’t want to speak much. And who’s, you know, suspicious, doesn’t want to eat any, you know, food or something for fear it might be poison. You know, this kind of thing that, you know, I will only eat my food. You know, that I prepare myself because somebody else might, you know, have contaminated it or whatever there is. I guess you’d have to ask a psychologist about that sort of thing. I can’t really tell you that much about it. 

So and have any conspiracy theories of it turned out to be correct or is a true conspiracy theory really something else? 

Well, I’m not aware of any. If you call conspiracy real conspiracy theory, there’s grand conspiracy theories as opposed to small ones. I mean, conspiracies occur all the time. I mean, you know, organized crime is a conspiracy. It’s a conspiracy to commit, you know, extortion and racketeering and murder and so on. I mean, there was a conspiracy to kill President Lincoln and his cabinet. Real conspiracies do exist, but but not grand conspiracies. Grand conspiracies are the ones in, you know, the theories. It’s sort of welday the Masons are planning this or, you know, there’s there’s always some shadowy group who you can’t really point to or you can’t really say who’s involved and when they’re, you know, putting poison in the vaccines or something like that. 

Mm hmm. And so how do we best fight conspiracy theories or educate people? 

Well, I think we just have to to show what they entail and how how weak and how implausible the evidence behind them is. While at the same time, you know, should just just try and trust trying to step through the logic. But you have to do it in an upbeat sort of a way, because unfortunately, some of our skeptical publications do tend to get occasionally on the deadly dull side, even though there’s a lot of good stuff in them. And I guess, you know, the dull stuff needs to be written and needs to go on the record and needs to be there. But that’s not what people are really going to want to read. They’re going to want to read the more interesting stuff, such as stuff that, you know, that you’ve been writing and, you know Ben Radford and, you know, and so on. And to be able to show these, you know, to show an entertaining way or look at, you know, you look at Penn and Teller, all that they’ve done with their their bullshit show. And, you know, this is the kind of this is this is the way that you need to reach the public rather than just say, you know, point one, point two, point three. You know, I mean, that stuff this the stuff that’s strictly logical has to be there. You know, as a reference. But you’re going to go out and try to to explain to people what it’s all about. You know, you have to have, you know, very interesting or or like, you know, fill plate in his his bad astronomy. That’s great stuff. 

And so just finally, Roberts, I always like to ask my guests to provide a bit of wisdom concerning their area of expertize. So do you have a sound bite for us about UFOs or conspiracy theories from point of inquiry listeners? 

Oh, that’s a tough one. Let me think. I’m not very good at coming up with pithy wisdom at the drop of a hat. I will say that, you know, as far as UFO is, they always managed to slip away before the before the evidence becomes too convincing. As far as conspiracy theories, well, I think we just have to have to look and see. You know, if it can be any. You know, if it if it can be debunked, I mean, certain certain things must also be true. Like this mystery missile that they said were seen off Los Angeles a couple months ago and it was an aircraft contrail. But they were so convinced that it was, you know, a secret missile and people are still claiming as well. But, you know, where would the missile come from and who would launch it? And how would it be launched? Well, it came off a submarine, you know, or whatever. Well, no. 

Mean lots of people jump to conclusions about that one. Yeah. 

Well, the interesting thing is, though, that they found that some people on the East Coast started to photograph some of these contrails also. There was a Cottrell’s photograph in New York, but they were not seen to the east over the ocean. They were seen to the west over the land. And the conclusion to be drawn from that is they now have figured out how to make submarines operate on land to launch these missiles. So so you just have to follow them down. Really, it’s a it’s a it’s a process of reductio ad absurdum. But you have to follow the logic and you have to do it in such a way that people could see it and people can make the journey with you, you know, rather than just standing back and saying, oh, well, that’s you know, that’s preposterous. You say, well, if this is true, then this must be true and this must be true. And then, you know, pretty soon you’ve got submarines sailing up rivers or being hauled around on trucks or something, you know, in order to produce these contrails of these missiles. Or the alternative is they’re you know, they’re not missiles and they’re just aircraft. And people are jumping to conclusions, especially because of perspective effects. You know, where the it appears to be coming right over. You know, if it’s off to the side, it’s going to look more like an aircraft. But if you’re standing directly under the flight path of an aircraft and it comes toward you, that trail is going to look vertical. But it’s just a perspective. It’s it’s horizontal, of course. But from your perspective, it’s going to look vertical. 

And then Ockham’s Razor comes into this. Exactly. Which. Well, Robert, thank you so much, it was a pleasure to speak with you. 

I enjoyed speaking with you, too. 

Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. You can find out more about Robbert at bad UFOs, dot blogspot, dot com and debunker dot com. And you can read his articles on the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry Web site endian Skeptical Inquirer magazine to participate in the online conversation about this show. Please join our discussion forum at point of inquiry dot org. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Adam Isaac in Amherst, New York. And our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Waylan. Today’s show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, Karen Stollznow. 

Karen Stollznow