DENVER, Colorado ? A strong core of believers continue to tout the notion of frequent alien visitors to Earth ? UFOs ? although this view is largely dismissed by skeptical, mainstream researchers.
But UFOlogists come in two flavors: Those who spend money to investigate the possibility, and those who simply aim to make money off the whole concept.
All this was discussed here last month at the 40th Annual International UFO Symposium, staged by the Mutual UFO Network, Inc., or MUFON, based in Fort Collins, Colorado. The symposium subtitle: ?Dawn of a new era in UFO research.?
A few lecture topics by noted speakers tell the story, from reflections of an old UFO chaser to dramatic changes in trace/landing events, as well as highlights from a 20-year study of Canadian sightings and even a talk on engaging a skeptic about UFOs.
A long-time veteran of UFOlogy is Stanton Friedman, a nuclear physicist and lecturer on incoming ET traffic. And he is resolute.
?If one makes an appropriately objective and careful examination of the pro and anti-UFO arguments, one finds that the evidence is overwhelming that Earth is being visited by intelligently controlled vehicles of extraterrestrial origin and that only pseudoscientific arguments of a vocal but small group of debunkers stand in the way of reaching that conclusion, along with a fear of ridicule for being logical,? Friedman explained.
Friedman?s advice to UFO devotes: ?Take courage. I have had only 11 hecklers at more than 700 lectures?and two of them were drunk.?
Decades of UFO study are under the belt of Frank Salisbury, emeritus professor of plant physiology at Utah State University in Logan.
Given all that research, Salisbury?s bottom line is that UFOs ?are both real and important?whatever they are!? In the meantime, he added, don?t discount a nearby parallel universe or a worm hole as ingredients in the saga.
Salisbury?s sense is that there are intelligences behind the UFOs. And he served up a take-home message too.
?They want to be seen by a few of us, influencing us in some way unknown to us. So what are they trying to achieve with their displays? Darned if I know! For one thing, they might simply want to keep us confused. With me, they have succeeded.?
Getting to the truth
As for what?s hot in UFO research, James Carrion, MUFON International Director, said the organization has initiated a strategic relationship with Las Vegas-based hotel mogul and space module entrepreneur, Robert Bigelow.
In the works since April, Bigelow is footing the bill on operational expenses so MUFON investigators can pay attention to high priority cases, Carrion said, ?and not go chasing lights in the sky.?
Trained MUFON specialists can now be rapidly deployed, sent to sighting areas to gather data, even send physical evidence to a lab ?while it?s fresh, before other folks try to horde it,? Carrion said. ?In other words, really pay attention to what we should be paying attention to.?
Carrion is frank regarding today?s state of UFOlogy. He leaves no doubt that there are hucksters ? not just, perhaps, aliens?among us.
?There are those of us in MUFON who want to solve the mystery. There are those other folks out there that want to perpetuate the mystery. There is this cottage industry out there. This is their employment and a way to make a buck,? Carrion pointed out. ?They have no desire to really get to the truth.?
But for Carrion, the truth is out there.
?I think there?s a core phenomenon. But we have to whittle away at it,? Carrion told SPACE.com. One specific research track that he dubs ?forensic history? is following the role of the U.S. Government in the UFO field.
?There?s an indelible fingerprint out there that shows what the patterns of activity have been. It?ll take some research,? Carrion said. The Internet has proven to be a powerful tool, he said, enabling the gathering of UFO-related information instantaneously and to help corroborate items of interest.
?In my opinion, UFOlogists have only scratched the surface of potential research on the role of the Government in the UFO field, especially as it relates to counter-intelligence, code breaking, psychological warfare, and Cold War operations.?
Taking part in the MUFON meeting was Jeffrey Bennett, scientist and author of "Beyond UFOs - The Search for Extraterrestrial Life and Its Astonishing Implications for Our Future."
Admittedly on the agenda as a ?token skeptic,? Bennett?s view is that UFO advocates are best served by ?assigning plausibility? to the conviction by hard core believers that Earth is on the receiving end of alien travelers.
?They think they?ve got evidence. But for me, it?s not strong enough yet,? Bennett told SPACE.com. One complaint he heard at the MUFON gathering was that mainstream scientists won?t fund UFO research.
?But it?s the way science works,? Bennett counters. The kind of proof presented has not met the standards of scientific scrutiny, he added, ?and if it ever does, they?ll get their funding.?
Others too dismissive?
For the most part, UFO activists are using a different set of evidentiary rules, Bennett said. ?We?ve got our reasons why we like our set of rules in science, because it has been successful. It has allowed a lot of progress.?
Bennett spotlights the technological level necessary to trek here from other stars. Then toss in the scale of the universe?the scale of time too. Views generated by "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" have invaded popular culture, so much so, that speeding through the cosmos appears to be a piece of cake.
?In fact, the technology is so incredible that it makes almost all the UFO claims look kind of silly,? Bennett said. For instance, scooting across a humungous stretch of space and time to pile drive your craft into Roswell, New Mexico...that?s more a stretch in plausibility, he observed.
All that being said, Bennett feels that sometimes the scientific community is far too dismissive of those that witness occurrences chalked up as UFOs.
?We can wish that everybody uses the same standards of evidence. But there?s nothing wrong with them as human beings for not doing so. Leave them alone. Let them keep their interests up. Use that opportunity to educate them a little bit along the way?then that?s good,? Bennett concluded.
Whatever your UFO in-take is, be it a real deal belief, fantasy folk lore and/or a raw form of pulp fiction, one can?t leave a MUFON convocation without bringing to mind a Bob Dylan lyric: ?Something is happening here?but you don?t know what it is.?
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Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than four decades. He is past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines and has written for SPACE.com since 1999.