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Last week Larry King hosted his annual Roswell special (transcript here), with panelists including authors Don Schmitt and Thomas Carey, as well as Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell. The designated skeptic for the night was Bill Nye, who I understand is well-respected in the U.S. for his work in educating the masses about science.

Nye is a member of the Skeptics Society and a fellow with CSI(COP). Unfortunately, he had a bit of a bad night, making some howling errors (always a bad thing, when you’re supposed to be the voice of reason and knowledge). Chief among them was his assertion that adventurer Steve Fossett died in a balloon crash (while making an analogy about Roswell being balloon wreckage):

NYE: Steve Fossett, he disappeared in a similar balloon last year, right? Haven’t found the guy.

KING: Right. Still haven’t found him.

NYE: Yes, because when things crash in this kind of area, it’s rugged and they’re hard to find.

Fossett actually disappeared while flying a plane – the apparent confusion being a result of Fossett’s previous world record attempts at long-distance balloon flights.

Nye also repeatedly referred to the Roswell incident being caused by a Skyhook balloon, when the official explanation is that it was a Project Mogul balloon. Mogul balloons were actually arrays of smaller weather balloons and recording instruments, while the Skyhooks were large silver spheres. The Skyhook projects postdated Roswell. The only point of convergence is that a Skyhook balloon is often blamed for another infamous UFO incident, the Mantell crash.

Nye also claimed a photo showing a saucer-shaped object being taken from a box was faked. “That to me is not a very convincing photo…look at the words “Viking Project,” Nye said. “They’re not keystone, they’re not – they don’t have a vanishing point that’s accurate.” A subscriber to the UFO Updates mailing list pointed out that this was another terrible blunder on Nye’s part:

It was downright embarrassing to hear him claim that a photo of a Viking aeroshell being removed from a box labeled “Viking” was instead a doctored photo of a flying saucer. The photo was from one of the Air Force’s debunking reports, and had nothing to do with Roswell. The Air Force just included it to show that things that are saucer-shaped are not necessarily alien spacecraft, a fact that most people don’t have much trouble grasping.

Nye apparently combined his lack of knowledge about the subject with a belligerent attitude. Larry King asked him to let others finish on a number of occasions, and Nye’s interjections even inspired former astronaut Edgar Mitchell to fire up:

I am not interested in arguing with you. I’m telling my story. If you want to shut up and hear it, I’ll be glad to talk. Otherwise, no.

All in all, not a great effort from Bill Nye. Note that I’m not saying he’s incorrect about Roswell having a prosaic explanation, or that I agree with the Roswell cheerleaders (or find their arguments compelling). I don’t – I’m not a fan of the prominence of the Roswell incident in ufology. But as always, I do like to point out that the supposed skeptics/rationalists are often less informed than those they seek to disparage, and as such their opinions should be considered as dubious as the next person’s. Seek all the facts yourself, put your beliefs aside, and make informed and intelligent decisions (or best guesses, when the situation dictates).