UFOs Get Respectful Hearing

Few scientists give much thought to UFOs, but UFO tales received a serious 4-day hearing by nine senior physical scientists at a workshop late last year. In a report released today, the panel concluded that some of what they heard merited further scientific study. "Our feeling was [that] anything not explained is something science at some level ought to be interested in," says Thomas Holzer, a geophysicist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. Holzer was co-chair of the workshop, which was convened by Laurance S. Rockefeller.

After hearing reports from eight UFO investigators, the panel decided that although there was no convincing evidence that extraterrestrial intelligence was involved in the incidents, some events might represent novel atmospheric or other phenomena. Panel co-chair Charles Tolbert, an astronomer at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, notes that "meteorites were once considered to be a stupid idea. ... People said, 'Rocks can't fall out of the sky.' " Still, Tolbert says he doubts the sky harbors any alien spacecraft.

Kendrick Frasier, editor of The Skeptical Inquirer, worries that the report will unjustly legitimize UFO research. Some of the scientists who organized the workshop have a record of enthusiasm for these exotic topics, he says. One organizer, Robert Jahn of Princeton University, is well known for his experiments with precognition. Peter Sturrock, a physicist at Stanford University who oversaw the effort, is president of the Society for Scientific Exploration, whose mission Sturrock describes as investigating topics such as "parapsychology and strange monsters," which he feels are not adequately covered by mainstream science.

Bob Park, a physicist at the University of Maryland, College Park, who has made a practice of speaking out against what he considers pseudoscience, thinks such investigations are "just a total waste of time." He adds, "Calling in all the people who have seen strange things just gets you a roomful of strange people."