Thursday, September 18, 2014

More on the little known 1980 Smithsonian Institution UAP symposium

Hi all,

In reviewing a number of scientific symposia on UAP, I mentioned the little known 1980 Smithsonian Institution event. My Sydney research associate provided me with two sources of further information about the event.

Jerome Clark;

The first source is Clark, J. 1989. "The UFO Encyclopaedia." (2nd. ed.) Omnigraphics. Detroit. ISBN 0-7808-0097-4, pp 854-855. One of my reasons for reviewing the several symposia that I have posted about, was to see if our knowledge of the subject has advanced since they were held. I will, therefore, reproduce Clark's piece in full.

"Smithsonian UFO debate.

On September 6 1980, at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, UFO proponents and debunkers squared off for a day-long debate on the merits of the case for UFOs - a debate for which debunkers had long lobbied, convinced that it would show up the weaknesses of the ufologists' case.

Proponents were Bruce Maccabee, an optical physicist employed by the US Navy; J Allen Hynek, Northwestern University astronomer and former Project Blue Book consultant, and Allan Hendry, chief investigator for the Center for UFO Studies (Now the J Allen Hynek Center for UFO Studies).

The debunkers were Philip J Klass, aviation journalist and head of the UFO subcommittee of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of the Paranormal; James E Oberg, aerospace engineer and science writer, and Robert Sheaffer, writer and Skeptical Inquirer columnist. The debate was moderated by Frederick C Durant.

During morning and afternoon sessions advocates and antagonists repeated arguments familiar to those who had maintained more than a passing interest in the subject. The former cited the persistence of the UFO phenomenon and the puzzling nature of the best reports. The latter charged that there is "no scientifically credible evidence" (Klass) and that UFOs "seem to behave like fairies and ghosts" (Sheaffer). Some of the debate concerned the relevance of polygraph tests to a UFO investigation, with Hendry citing studies indicating their unreliability and Klass asserting "I'm prepared to take a polygraph test on everything." Hynke said, "Reading a good UFO report is like reading Agatha Christie - except there is no last page to turn to."

Oberg, taking note of tabloid tales of aliens on the moon not ordinarily mentioned in serious arguments for the existence of UFOs, declared ufology a "failed science." (Rohrer, 1980.)

The most heated exchange occurred between Klass and Hendry. Klass accused Hendry of "withholding data" which would have led to a prosaic explanation for a case Hendry had investigated the year before, an incident in which Marshall County, Minnesota, Deputy Sheriff Val Johnson reportedly saw a UFO shooting down a deserted country highway toward his patrol car. Johnson suddenly passed out. When he awoke he discovered his vehicle had been damaged and his eyes injured. (Hendry, 1979.)

"I would agree there are only two possible explanations to this case," Klass said. "It could not have been Venus. It could not have been a weather balloon. It could not have been an hallucination. Either it was a spaceship, or Deputy Val Johnson did it himself because he likes to play practical jokes, especially in the late evening when he gets a little bored, as I learned -Hendry did not - by talking to some of the people who have worked with him and know him very well. I also discovered that he once talked about setting up a UFO patrol to go out looking for UFOs. Yet, according to Hendry, this was a deputy who...prior to his sighting 'was rather indifferent to the UFO subject'..."

"I would wish that Allan Hendry...had taken the final step and said, 'Val Johnson, will you take a polygraph - a lie detector test given by a very experienced examiner? Let's see what the results are.'"

Hendry responded, "We've already heard from Philip Klass today a perfectly excellent illustration of why it would be difficult to ever convince the skeptics based on the facts." Hendry said that Klass' penchant for digging up irrelevant episodes in UFO witnesses' past and using them as evidence that their testimony should be rejected amounted to "character assassination." Hendry cited another case, the alleged abduction of Travis Walton (...) in which polygraph tests had come to conflicting conclusions, as had two polygraph experts who later reviewed the charts. "Thus," he said "you begin to understand why I did not feel that the final step in an examination of Deputy Val Johnson necessarily rests on a polygraph examination."

He added, sarcastically, "Actually, I'm inclined to agree with Klass, I think that Val Johnson is such a practical joker that he deliberately injured his eyes - as judged by two doctors - and he deliberately entered a phony state of shock for the benefit of the ambulance driver who removed him from the scene of the accident." (Clark, 1981.) Hendry remarked that Johnson's casual talk of a "UFO patrol" reflected a belief, widely held in rural America at the time, that there was a link between UFOs and seemingly mysterious cattle deaths..."

As an effort to settle the UFO controversy, the Smithsonian debate was a good public spectacle, settling nothing and changing nobody's  mind. No one suggested a sequel."


Clark, Jerome. "Phil Klass versus the 'UFO Promoters." Fate 34, 2. (February 1981): 56-57.

Hendry, Allan. "Minnesota CEII: The Val Johnson story." International UFO Reporter Pt 1. 4,3 (September/October 1979); 4-9. Pt II 4,5 (November 1979):4-10.

Rohrer, Stuart. "Tempest in a saucer." Washington Post. (September, 8, 1980).

MUFON Journal:

The second source provided to me by my Sydney research associate, was found in the MUFON Journal number 152, of October 1980 pp.3-4. In an article titled "Smithsonian UFO Symposium" author Richard Hall provided an overview of the event.

Hall's piece included the facts that

* "A large crowd (400-500) filled the Baird Auditorium of the National History Museum."

* The moderator was Frederick C Durant III.

* Dr Hynek probably summed it up best in a comment at the University of Maryland the night before. "I don't know of a single scientific problem that was ever solved by debate, only by hard work." He added, however, that a debate in such a prestigious forum could help to stir up the interest that would allow the hard work to be done."

* "Klass acknowledged that UFOs could not be anyone's secret weapons, but also said they could not be spaceships since the US radar network is all-encompassing and they would not go unidentified. Nor could the US government keep a secret for over 30 years."

* "Sheaffer then proceeded to give the most irrelevant talk of the day, linking ufologists with people who study fairies, witchcraft, astrology and a long list of other borderline sciences or pseudo sciences."

* "Oberg...believes that UFO reports do deserve scientific attention of reasons of serendipity, if nothing else, and that if they are something real, they would clearly be of great import."

Hall summarised "The major impression of this observer was that the level of dialogue has changed little in 30 years, that minds are made up, and that too much time is wasted arguing about 'pop ufology' rather than about the hard core cases...Due to the visible public interest, the Smithsonian is considering publishing the  proceedings."

1 comment:

  1. Some things never change. It seems to me that the number of cases where circumstances resulted in sufficient data being gathered to allow a serious analysis is very low. Going through BB unknowns led me to just a few dozen such highly evidential cases for example. In total I've found less than fifty such cases to date ( including the Val Johnson case, coincidentally), although this is a heavily skewed sample towards regions and periods of time where extensive data is available in Englis, and is certainly incomplete.


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