Just last week, a strange phenomenon occurred which casts light on the mindset of people inclined to believe in the paranormal. Among the Top 10 best-selling books this week is Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top-Secret Military Base by “journalist” Annie Jacobsen. In the genre of crazy books about aliens and UFOs, this one is the nadir. Not only does it recycle all the debunked garbage about Area 51 and the Roswell “alien crash,” but it strains the limits of credulity by claiming the Roswell crash wasn’t an alien craft, nor the weather balloon that the evidence has really shown was behind the myth. No, the Roswell crash was actually a Nazi-inspired Soviet aircraft sent by Stalin to make us think we were being invaded by aliens, and the “aliens” are malformed teenagers resulting from genetic experiments of Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. At last, a crazy paranormal story complete with UFOs, Area 51, Roswell, conspiracy, Communists, and Nazis, all rolled up into one!
Her evidence for this bizarre story? It came allegedly a “retired unnamed engineer” from the government contractor EG&G (now part of URS Corporation). No one asked the obvious question about what a retired aerospace engineer would be doing examining bodies, or how he would know they were genetically and surgically altered. In fact, we didn’t even know the structure of DNA until 1953, so there is no way someone could do “genetic engineering” in the 1940s. And if the “teenagers” were genetically engineered by the Soviets using Mengele, they would have to have grown up remarkably fast in the two years from 1945 when Soviets occupied Berlin until 1947, when the Roswell incident took place. In addition, this supposedly all took place over 64 years ago, and this alleged “engineer” would have to be at least in his 30s to have the training and experience to hold such a job. If you do the math, he’s in his 90s or older. Doesn’t that strike anyone as suspicious? Doesn’t that fail the “smell test” of credibility for most people? When Jacobsen was questioned skeptically by interviewer Terry Gross of the radio program Fresh Air on NPR about the problems with the “engineer” story, all she could say is “I don’t think he is lying to me.”
Apparently, no one bothered to look into her credentials, but Jacobsen has a history of “crying wolf” before in order to get publicity. For example, there was the incident in 2004 where she mistook 14 Syrian musicians on a Northwest Airlines flight from Dallas to Los Angeles for terrorists, then she caused hysteria with her 3000-word piece on the web that demonstrate the worst aspects of xenophobia and bigotry and paranoia. The entire piece is about these Middle Eastern men talking in Arabic, with Arabic writing on their clothes, who have odd-shaped packages, and have to go to the bathroom once in a while. From this, her paranoid thinking generated a story that was published without fact-checking, and wasted a lot of taxpayer dollars while the TSA had to check their manifests, and announce that the mysterious “terrorists” were just Syrian musicians on the way to another gig. Shouldn’t that information have made the people interviewing her about her new book a bit suspicious that she had an overactive imagination and tendency to exaggerate and write about her paranoid fantasies without fact checking?
The entire mainstream media gave it saturation coverage and uncritical repetition of its claims, and even the normally sarcastic Jon Stewart listens to her outrageous assertions without mocking her, and endorses the book. Even sadder is that a book with such bizarre ideas was promoted for its sensationalism, and almost no one gave her a real challenge on the implausibility of the whole story. The New York Times ran a book review which mostly recounted the book’s detailed research into the legitimate military uses of Area 51 (mostly nuclear testing and spy planes), then recited her outrageous claims about the Soviet aliens without much analysis. It’s sad enough that the formerly scientific cable channels like Discovery Channel and TLC (which once meant “The Learning Channel”) now run mostly pseudoscientific garbage documentaries about UFOs, aliens, Bigfoot, Atlantis, psychics, and the paranormal. It no longer surprises me when the major figures of the media, especially Oprah Winfrey, promote woo on their shows. But I looked and looked and found only a few truly skeptical reviews, including one by Dr. Athena Andreadis on her website and also on the Huffington Post (a site that, unfortunately, posts a fair amount of woo itself, especially in religion and medicine). About the only oasis of critical reasoning was the harshly negative reviews on the book’s Amazon.com site, which list a host of factual errors starting in the first chapter.
I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. Survey after survey show that a high percentage of Americans believe in the paranormal, including UFOs, aliens, Bigfoot, and psychics. The Baylor Religion Survey found that about 23% of Americans actively read the UFO literature, and 17% believed they had actually seen a UFO. Other polls have claimed that as many as 80% of Americans believe the government is hiding information about UFOs, 64% think that aliens have contacted humans, and 50% think that aliens have abducted humans. II don’t know whether Americans are truly this deluded, but it’s tough to dispute it with the consistency of most polls, or the sales of hundreds of book titles on UFOs and aliens, or the huge web presence of alien conspiracy buffs.
What can be done about it? Do we need better science education, or just basic training in critical thinking? I leave this to you, the readers, to weigh in on your thoughts.