It’s been 24 years since the Mutual UFO Network, or MUFON, held its annual symposium in Las Vegas, and the long interim is probably no accident. The 1989 MUFON confab easily ranks as the most raucous and colorful gathering of UFO researchers in the history of the organization, so if this week’s get-together is even half as interesting, you might want to check it out, even if you have no particular interest in flying saucers.
In the UFO world, MUFON is generally considered to be the cream of the crop, the most credible of the research organizations, a group not prone to embracing or endorsing the wackiest stuff floating around in the UFO world. The annual MUFON symposium is pretty selective in choosing its speakers. For the most part, it prefers scientific types, many of them Ph.D’s. It also allows an occasional journalist who covers UFO topics to make a presentation — and, by way of disclosure, I have spoken at a few of their shindigs.
Contrary to the dismissive statements of hardcore UFO debunkers, the people who are interested in the subject are not all toothless hicks from the sticks, or hopelessly gullible saucer nuts who think everything in the sky is a battlestar from the planet Krondak. As this year’s lineup attests, there is considerable interest within academic circles in the UFO mystery. The same is true for ex-military folks, former intelligence operatives and public figures whose names would cause your jaw to drop if I were to violate a confidence or two. A lot of these folks don’t like to admit their interest in public since no good can come from it, career-wise. But some are willing to take the plunge and have managed to survive the inevitable catcalls and clichés from less-informed colleagues.
Among the speakers at this weeks’ conference are a couple of eminent scientists who are no strangers to Las Vegas. Physicist Dr. Eric Davis was employed for a few years at NIDS, the National Institute for Discovery Science, which was founded by local businessman Robert Bigelow back in the ‘90s. Davis has worked on classified projects for a number of government agencies and is currently employed by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Austin, one of the world’s premier think tanks. His presentation will look at ideas for technologies that will allow humans to travel faster than the speed of light, including the possible use of wormholes as shortcuts through the cosmos.
Dr. Albert Harrison is a psychologist and NASA consultant who has been studying one of the oldest chestnuts in the UFO playbook — the idea that confirmation of an alien civilization might cause widespread panic or social collapse. Harrison, who also served on the NIDS board of directors for a few years, has pondered the psychological consequences of possible government disclosure, which is a fun topic to consider even if it never happens. Would people run for the hills or slit their wrists if they found out aliens are among us? I can guess where he will come down on the question.
“This year’s symposium tries to bridge the gap between mainstream science and UFOs,” says conference chairman Jan Harzen. “We’ve got seven Ph.D’s from varied backgrounds, including physics, sociology, psychology, theology and history. This isn’t science fiction. It’s science fact.”
There are, of course, many who would take exception to this position. Skepticism is a good thing when considering something so seemingly outlandish, though, in general, the term skepticism has been hijacked by nonbelievers whose disgust for the subject is every bit as rigid as that of a religious zealot and who would not walk outside to see a UFO even if told one had landed on the lawn. They don’t need to study the case files because they already know it can’t be true.
But in addition to the debunkers, the UFO believers are often their own worst enemies. They fight constantly, attack each others’ character, quarrel over turf and argue incessantly about arcane minutia so obscure as to be almost meaningless for anyone not familiar with the lingo. Take the Roswell case, for instance. Sixty-plus years later, researchers can’t agree on the date of the alleged crash, the location, whether there was one crash or two or the number of alien bodies supposedly recovered. They will argue continually over such matters.
The MUFON gatherings are usually more reserved than some of the other conferences that specialize in hearing from speakers whose claims are pretty wild and whose credentials are a little weak, but — as mentioned — the 1989 symposium was the exception.
As luck would have it, that meeting was the first UFO gathering I ever covered as a journalist, and, man, did I get an earful. As a headline for the event, a smart, respected researcher named Bill Moore stunned the gathering by admitting that he had been working with intelligence agents to disseminate disinformation within the UFO field. Moore explained he had done it in order to find out how military intelligence was able to sabotage the UFO subject by spreading lies or exaggerations. Moore was lucky to get out of Las Vegas without being lynched. The crowd got pretty nasty — and ufology is still talking about the implications of Moore’s confession.
There was another nasty flap during the ’89 gathering. The guy who was the Nevada state director for MUFON at the time, ex-CIA pilot John Lear, was so angry about not being given a speaking slot on the program that he organized a rival program wherein he and a few others presented some of the wildest conspiracy tales you have ever heard. Lear was — and is — an interesting guy, but one of his fellow outlaw speakers that year was a man who turned out to be pretty dangerous: William Cooper, whose tales of dark conspiracies grew more sinister and more grandiose each time he told them. Cooper was later shot and killed by police after a standoff in Arizona.
I seriously doubt there will be any shootouts or counter-conventions this year, but there should be some mind-bending ideas. Dr. David Jacobs, a history professor at Temple University, is one of the few academics in America who has the courage to tackle the otherwise taboo topic of alien abductions. Jacobs has taken a lot of grief over his work with hundreds of alleged abductees, but he has stood his ground. Another speaker who should be worth the price of admission is globetrotting journalist Paola Harris, with a report about an alleged UFO crash in 1945, and Robert Powell, with a review of thousands of radar reports of UFOs over Stephenville, Texas, in 2008.
Skeptics — and by that I mean people who need to see proof before they make up their minds — are more than welcome. The event kicks off on Friday and is headquartered at the JW Marriott. This is a pretty good lineup of credible speakers, but, if the whole thing degenerates into a gigantic UFO food fight, so much the better.
GEORGE KNAPP is a Peabody Award-winning investigative reporter for KLAS Channel 8.