UFOs, The Internet & guinea pigs2004, Aug 1st | Emner: UFOs
by Barbara Mervine, edited by Evelyn Mervine
How did I, an artist, become an online UFO expert?
No, that aliens resemble furry, grass-eating South American rodents isn’t some new trend, likely as that may sound based on other far-fetched descriptions of supposed extraterrestrial beings. Rather, one day I was searching for some online information on the care of orphaned guinea pigs. One site that ended up providing some great answers was AllExperts.com . I read the short descriptions guinea pig experts had posted about themselves and posted my questions. Answers came back in a matter of hours, and I began feeding my little orphans kitten’s milk from eyedroppers.
Looking closer at the site, I noticed that merely by posting a short description of my own expertise I, too, could become an “expert!” There is no test or interview. Which made me think: if anyone can sign up as an expert, are the people actually signing up experts? I had certainly taken the guinea pig advice without question and, fortunately, the little pigs survived. I decided to test the site, though, by looking at one of my favorite topics: UFOs. I found, to my horror, that the UFO “experts” were not scientists giving balanced, objective answers asked but rather non-scientist believers who mostly confirmed people’s sightings and gave additional information on the types of ships and aliens most often sighted!
Having just read Phillip Klass’s book “Alien Abductions: A Dangerous Game” I knew just how dangerous and scarring it is to give misinformation to people who think they have had some sort of encounter with a UFO or aliens. Exaggerating an unusual experience instead of trying to provide a plausible, simpler explanation can lead to permanent fear and psychological damage to people who believe that they’ve had an “encounter.” As I said, I am an artist by trade but just from being a skeptic and from reading all of Mr. Klass’s books as well as Phil Plaitt’s “Bad Astronomy” I figured I knew more hard science than any of these other alien “experts.” There was a dire need for a balanced view or ANY view that didn’t support the alien myth exclusively.
I posted the following description on allexperts.com:
” I can answer questions on what the thing was you saw in the sky and what happened to the missing twenty minutes while driving home and basic UFO questions in general. I can help explain the 90% that is explainable.”
I tried to keep it short and friendly. I wasn’t sure anyone would ask me questions. But soon, the questions came.
Now that I’ve been answering questions for about a year, I recognize that most of the questions I receive can be put into one of three categories. The first is the “I saw something in the sky, what was it?” category. The second type of question is from someone obviously scared. These people generally had some sort of experience that frightened them, years and years ago. This type of poster is the one who can most easily turn into the poster who asks the third type of question-a person who is mentally insane and who genuinely believes, because of psychological problems, that they have seen UFOs and been abducted by aliens. I have only received one joke question that involved everyone’s favorite planet, Uranus. I thought it best not to respond to that one.
“What was it I saw?”
The first type of question, “What was it I saw?” is the most straightforward. Often, I know right away from my readings what, most likely, a person saw. Birds, Venus, airplanes from far away. I tell a person to go outside and look at the night sky. I live in the country, and I am familiar with how strange a clear night sky can sometimes be. I always see UFOs! A UFO is nothing more than an unidentified flying object. I like to describe UFOs as anything you see in the sky and say to yourself, “what the hell is that?” As a skeptic, I’m able to accept that there is a hell of a lot out there in space that I’m not able to explain. I’m also able to accept that if I don’t know what it is, someone else probably does. The point I try to stress in my responses is that the more familiar you become with astronomy and the more you look at the night sky, the less crazy and mysterious the night sky seems. If you are from the city and rarely see a dark sky, you’re very likely to be amazed. The night sky is beautiful and complex. It’s very unlikely that one person can understand it fully, but there are people out there with answers.
When I receive a difficult question that I cannot answer off the top of my head, I rely on help from my friends at The James Randi Educational Foundation forum site. I also sometimes email Phil Plaitt and highly recommend his website BadAstronomy if you have questions about the night sky. To give an example of a more challenging inquiry, I recently received this question:
“Hi, about 2 years ago some me and some friends were walking to another friend’s house and me and another person saw something in the sky. It was about 10pm and it looked like 2 brightly-colored objects (brighter than stars) were rotating around each other. At this point everyone was watching and what was so weird was that these objects started rotating the other way around each other. This must have lasted for 15-20 seconds and then these objects flew off and faded in different directions. Have you any suggestions about what we saw that night? Some people I have told suggested it could be a satellite doing something.”
To be honest, I initially had no idea. I suspected birds, planes, and spotlights. I called on help from the JREF forum members and from Phil Plaitt. What we came up with was many guesses. Difficult as it is to tell someone, “I don’t know,” sometimes it is necessary. What you have to do in cases such as this is give a person some good, scientific possibilities. Even if these guesses are wrong, they at least start a person thinking in a scientific manner. The worst thing a person in such a situation needs is for another “expert” to give advice such as, “Oh, that’s typical UFO behavior” or, “The aliens must be trying to contact you, keep watching the skies.” If one sets oneself up thinking in this manner, then every little strange color or movement in the sky will become an alien UFO. For instance, try this: Don’t think about a white elephant. Can you do it? Not after just reading that sentence, you can’t. The same is true with alien UFOs. If you’re looking for one, you’re likely to convince yourself you’ve found one.
The Scared Question
The second type of question, the scared question, can be quite moving. These questions are from people who have experienced something unsettling. One person, for instance, described a trip she had taken into the country while a high school student. She said that she saw “two glowing eyes” and that her boyfriend, who was driving, told her “not to look” and sped away. He then told her that she had seen an alien. I immediately recognized this case as one familiar in UFO stories. Being a city girl, she might have not been familiar with owls, who have startling glowing eyes. Perhaps she had simply seen an owl sitting on a branch, perhaps in dense undergrowth. When her boyfriend told her “not to look” and then told her it was an alien, her imagination ran away with her. The saddest part of this story is that this person, now an adult, is terrified of driving in the countryside after dark. I encouraged her to look up her old boyfriend and ask what really happened. Since the boyfriend did not share this incident with anyone else, I am guessing it was a hoax, a teenage prank of a boyfriend teasing his girlfriend. Simple enough, maybe, but still harmful. This example shows that even such a simple “alien encounter” can scar someone for years.
Another common type of scared question I receive involves sleep paralysis, a common occurrence that is very frightening and not well-known in the general public. When you have sleep paralysis, your brain wakes up from sleep, but your body is not yet awake. You are fully conscious but you cannot move a muscle until your body “catches up” with your brain. Scared, people wonder if they have just been abducted and experimented on by aliens or if aliens are in the room with them. Read more on sleep paralysis here.
Slightly off their rockers
The third type of question I receive is from the person I am supposing is suffering from mental illness. While it is easy to laugh at these ridiculous types of questions, one has to remember that these people are dead serious. They believe everything they are saying because of their mental illness. These people have alien friends who speak to them. They often have been abducted and feel watched, afraid, and paranoid. Their questions are often rambling and unclear. I know that they need psychological and medical help that I cannot give them. I never make fun of them. I always suggest that there might be another explanation, and I encourage them to seek medical help. However, there are limits to what I can do over the internet. Having worked with people with mental illnesses, I know that accepting that you need help is a gigantic step. One person at an outpatient home where I worked insisted that God was speaking to her through her radio. Ignorant, I made the mistake of trying to reason with her and tell her that was impossible. I was angry and treated the patient as if she were stupid, a huge mistake. A trained therapist came to my rescue, fortunately. She told me that to this person God was clearly speaking to her. The therapist said to the patient, “How about you just ignore God when he speaks to you? Or turn off the radio?” The advice worked. At least, it worked well enough for the patient to agree to take medications and for the medications to take effect.
And then, the rest…
There are also some questions that do not fall into the above categories. Sometimes, people haven’t had an experience but simply want to know more about UFOs and ask for book recommendations, which I am happy to give. Every so often, I receive accosting questions such as, “Why do you skeptics keep trying? Do
you ever convince anyone to change their mind?” From my feedback rating on the site, I answer a resounding, “yes!” While I may not be able to change everyone’s mind or provide a plausible scientific explanation for every question I am given, at least I am there representing the scientific mindset and giving people the option of considering scientific information. I also feel that, in most cases, my answers are at least appreciated by those whom I have answered even if they still believe they have encountered aliens or UFOs. That people are at least willing to consider a scientific explanation is comforting. I hope that I have been able to educate and inspire at least a few minds and to debunk at least a few alien myths.
What about the Guinea pigs?
As for the guinea pigs? They’re healthy and strong and, because we fell in love with them, we kept three out of four of the babies. They currently keep busy eating carrots, shedding hair, and chewing on the covers of UFO books.
Evelyn the Editor’s Note
When my mother asked me to clean up the grammar and organization of this article, I did not even know that she had been an online UFO expert for the past year or so. Surprised, I asked her further about her role. I cannot be prouder of my mother and all her skeptical pursuits. I feel very lucky to have been raised in a skeptical household in which bookshelves are always strewn with works by well-known skeptics and in which sit-down dinner conversations (when we bother to clean up the art supplies strewn over the dining room table) include conversations on religion, homeopathy, aliens, and a range of other skeptical topics. As we all know, not all skeptics are scientists and not all scientists are skeptics. My mother is an incredible example of the former; she is an artist and mother with almost no formal science education. However, about certain topics, such as unusual sightings in the night sky, she knows far more science than I, a college science major, do!
Mom, I love you. Thanks for our skeptical, crazy household.