Saturday, February 20, 2010

Ignore the Toblerone: The Reasonable British reponse to UFO claims

Here is a NYT article about the recently released British Ministry of Defense's (MoD) response to claims of UFO sightings. What is odd is that the article is almost taking a mocking tone regarding the fact that MoD pretty much ignored such claims. There is a better article in the Guardian that reserves its mocking for the claims - and not the MoD reaction. Hmm...I'm perplexed by the tone of the article. But it will provide a good discussion material for the Alien class I'm teaching this semester: Aliens - Close Encounters of a Multi-Disciplinary Kind (syllabus here - pdf). In any case, here are some bits from the article:

If you’ve ever been kidnapped by aliens from outer space, don’t complain to the British Ministry of Defense.

“Abduction is a criminal offense and as such is a matter for the civil police to handle,” the ministry advised a constituent from Lancashire. “The police can only investigate allegations of abduction if there is evidence to suggest that such a crime has taken place. As to date, the M.O.D. is not aware of any evidence which might substantiate the existence of extraterrestrial life forms, the matter of abduction by ‘aliens’ remains a nonissue as far as the M.O.D. is concerned.”

On Thursday, the British National Archives released thousands of pages of the government’s classically understated responses to sightings of flying saucers and other unidentified flying objects (which, a summary explains, some experts prefer to call “unidentified aerial phenomena” which “does not imply the existence of an ‘object’ of extraterrestrial origin”).

In one case, when local farmers reported seeing a mysterious disc-shaped object on the grounds of an electronic signals monitoring base operated jointly with the United States, the ministry issued this unequivocal and straight-faced denial: “No U.F.O./flying saucer has landed in the vicinity of Menwith Hill and the base had no connection with U.F.O. research.”

In the records, there is also a letter written by Sagan in 1996 asking the government to declassify its records regarding crop circles. Anyone who has read The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark would know that Sagan is not coming from believer's perspective, rather that it would help debunk the crop circle phenomenon. But the NYT article sandwiches the Sagan line in between two UFO stories:

That has not stopped people from reporting them. A Birmingham man saw a triangular one (they generally range in shape from traditional saucers to elongated cigars and Toblerone chocolate bars) hovering over his backyard. It left a “silky white substance,” which he collected in a jar, on his tree tops.

In 1996, the astronomer Carl Sagan wrote a letter asking whether the government was involved in a cover-up of crop circles.

Strange rotating red, blue, green and white flashing lights seen by police officers in the English towns of Boston and Skegness and also detected on radar turned out to be nothing more unusual than bright stars and “a ‘permanent echo’ created by a tall church spire in the Lincolnshire Wolds.”

Read the NYT article here.

The Guardian article takes a more appropriate starting point:

Reports of flying Toblerones, close encounters of the second kind, and ­attempted alien abductions in the latest batch of UFO files released today by the Ministry of Defence demonstrate that the British public's appetite for matters extraterrestrial shows no sign of abating.

More than 650 reports of UFO sightings reached the MoD last year – the highest for 31 years – before it took the decision to close its UFO desk, known as Air Secretariat 2A1, in December.

The latest files released at the National Archives cover the period from 1994 to 2000 when sightings were running at 200 to 300 a year. The MoD intends to make public the files for the last 10 years by the end of 2011.

The files show that most reports are filed by "overzealous ufologists", and for the first time officials have released files based on reports from those they call "persistent correspondents".
And they also mention Sagan's letter:

However the files also include a 1996 letter from the cosmologist Carl Sagan to the MoD asking for official comment on the then widespread conspiracy theories about their alleged role in debunking the crop circles phenonemon.

Alongside the ufologists, many of the reports are simple sightings by members of the public. A West Lothian electrician said he had spotted a "Toblerone shaped" UFO hovering over a field and included a quick on-the-spot sketch.

A UFO sighted by the Boston and Skegness police was captured on film and reported to the coastguard, who alerted ships in the North Sea, where a crew saw more UFOs. The investigation which followed suggested the lights were the planet Venus rising.

Damn you, planet Venus! Why do you have to be so bright??

Okay, so here is an even more amusing story of the formation of crop circles from last year:

Australian wallabies are eating opium poppies and creating crop circles as they hop around "as high as a kite", a government official has said.

Lara Giddings, the attorney general for the island state of Tasmania, said the kangaroo-like marsupials were getting into poppy fields grown for medicine.

She was reporting to a parliamentary hearing on security for poppy crops.

Australia supplies about 50% of the world's legally-grown opium used to make morphine and other painkillers.

"The one interesting bit that I found recently in one of my briefs on the poppy industry was that we have a problem with wallabies entering poppy fields, getting as high as a kite and going around in circles," Lara Giddings told the hearing.

"Then they crash," she added. "We see crop circles in the poppy industry from wallabies that are high."

Case closed. And the Wallabies are also happy. Read the full story here.


Dr. M. Akbar Hussain said...

The story about the 'missing' opium blaming wallabies is hilarious :-)

(Just a random comment)
Salman, I was wondering if you ever came across this news in Dec last year about firing the teacher from job on telling the truth to pupils about, not in Saudi Arabia, but in UK.

Salman Hameed said...

Ha! Didn't know about the Santa story.

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