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Another sad example of SETI looking bad because they choose to associate themselves with CSICOPian skepticism: on the most recent SETI Institute “Are We Alone” podcast episode (titled “Saucer’s Apprentice“), SETI’s Seth Shostak and skeptical guest Ben Radford discussed the UFO topic with Leslie Kean, author of the recent bestseller UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record. And, to borrow a line from comedian Bill Bailey, “the whole scene unfolds with a tedious inevitability”. Billy Cox tells how it all went down at his DeVoid blog:

It became immediately clear that Shostak (“I have an open mind”) not only wasn’t interested in evidence, he probably hadn’t bothered to read the book.

In his subsequent discussion with Radford, Shostak stated: “The other argument that’s frequently made is that scientists simply dismiss this phenomenon out of hand, that they won’t look, and this is one of the arguments in the new book by Leslie Kean … that there may be something real here and nobody will look at it …”

“Well, there’s a couple of errors right there,” Radford replied. “First of all, UFO sightings have been investigated. The claim that the U.S. government has never looked into these things is patently false. They have looked into these things …”

Whoa, time out. Kean mentioned Project Blue Book, the USAF study, in On the Record. Who claimed Uncle Sam “has never looked into these things”? Nobody. Except maybe Radford. Shostak, who didn’t bother to correct him, is a clever guy who really knows how to bait the hook. Here’s how he opened the Q&A with Radford:

“Ben, in your long career as someone who has investigated UFOs and sorted through the evidence, has there ever been a case that convinced you that aliens have visited the planet?”

Who said anything about aliens? Kean’s book dealt with an extraterrestrial hypothesis — the hypothesis that keeps SETI in business — but as she told Shostak earlier on the show, “I’m not even willing to assume that these are aliens.” On the Record deals with radar data, military reports, analysis of plant and soil damage, photo analysis, etc. Reviewing the data doesn’t amount to endorsing aliens. Shostak knows that. And yet, his tortured contortions to avoid said evidence are becoming cartoonish.

Apart from putting words in Kean’s mouth, Shostak also incorrectly dismissed the ‘flying saucer’ phenomenon by citing a skeptical favourite:

You say a lot of them are disc-shaped, but isn’t the fact that we call them flying saucers, that we expect them to be disc-shaped, simply due to a reporter’s error back in 1947, when Kenneth Arnold…said he saw objects that moved across the sky like saucers skipping in water, he wasn’t describing the shape of course, he was describing the motion, and ever since, people have seen saucers — that strikes me as a little odd.

No, not “of course” – though many claim Arnold actually saw ‘boomerangs’ based on his later testimony, the initial reports tell a different story. As Martin Shough points out in his excellent article in Darklore Volume 5, “Return of the Flying Saucers” (available to download as a sample article from the Darklore website), Kenneth Arnold does seem to have initially described the shape as flat and saucer-like (though ‘shovel-shaped’ would be more technically accurate):

What he saw remains uncertain and controversial. But what he said he saw appears to have been described in 1947 with rather good internal consistency, and we lack significant evidence that he did not see it as he described it. And whilst the origin of the “saucers” remains complex and intriguing, we can with some confidence put those bamboozling “boomerangs” back in the box of ufological canards they came from.

And, if a picture is worth a thousand words, an accompanying diagram from his original report to the Air Force:

I like Seth Shostak, and I like SETI – though more for the idea than the execution. I don’t understand their alliance with CSI(COP), except perhaps as a way of keeping the rabid skeptics off their back by pulling an Obi-Wan and saying “we aren’t the crazy alien-seekers you’re looking for…” But at some point I’m just going to have to assume they’re just as close-minded as their ‘skeptical’ allies and give up on them, because they seem to do as much research on these topics as other ‘skeptics’. That is, approximately zero.

Previously on TDG: