The 15th Annual International UFO Congress Conference and Film Festival (at the Laughlin Flamingo, pictured at left) was run by people who buy the Billy Meier story, hook, line and sinker. It was attended mostly by people who think Philip Corso is the greatest thing since sliced cheese, who see Paul Hellyer as a hugely important figure whose embrace of exopolitics portends imminent "disclosure", and who believe that ET is here on Earth, abducting people, mutilating cattle, creating crop circles, and so forth.
In short, an event that most people would expect me to lambaste as an affront to "serious ufology".
But they would be wrong.
Yes, I still think exopolitics is bunk, although I do have a somewhat different perspective on it, to which I'll devote a column in the next week or so. Yes, I am still convinced beyond any reasonable doubt that the Billy Meier story is a hoax. And yes, I am still convinced beyond any reasonable doubt that there is nothing to the Corso story, and that the extraterrestrial hypothesis is just that - a hypothesis.
In other words, my views about these basic points haven't changed an iota. In many respects, I was indeed a "stranger in a strange land".
But I learned a few things, too.
First and foremost, these are not bad people. They may be wrong (most certainly, in my opinion). But they are sincere, and they mean well. In a world where more and more people are not, that counts for something. As I talked to them throughout the week, I came to see them not as "the enemy" of serious ufology, but as more of a religious group - the Evangelicals of Ufology, if you will. They "believe", without evidence in my view, but I would say the same thing about Christians, or Muslims, or Jews, or Hindus (agnostic that I am). And there's nothing wrong with that. Indeed, as the week went on, I developed an increasing respect for the conviction with which many of these folks hold their beliefs. I came to the conclusion that criticizing them simply for holding those beliefs is no better than criticizing religious people for holding their beliefs. As I would never do the latter, why would I do the former?
This does not mean that one cannot point out obvious hoaxes and frauds when one is convinced that they exist, or point out what one considers the flaw in their belief system. This is especially true when these folks wander away from the world of belief, and into the world of academic debate, as Michael Salla et al have done. At that point, their positions and their methodology are fair game. Even more important, if it's a case of calling out the frauds, then one is actually working in the best interests of both the believers and the scientific study of the UFO phenomenon. After all, nobody wants to believe in a con-man. Some do, but that's because they've been hoodwinked, not because they're bad people.
Most important, however, one should avoid calling the people who believe (and they are "believers", a term I do not use here in a pejorative sense) as "crazy cultists" or "wacky new agers" or... well, you know the various terms that are used. They deserve the same respect as anyone else who holds a belief in something that others are convinced has not been proved.
There were more than a few things, and people, that I saw and heard at the Conference deserving of criticism, and even occasional ridicule (more on them later), but not because they believe in ET on Earth, or in a particular ET story or claim.
Can the serious scientific study of the UFO phenomenon co-exist with the honest believers?
If you had asked me that question before I went to Laughlin, I probably would have said no.
Now that I've been to the Church of UFO Belief (and left a hefty donation in the collection plate, courtesy of my conference fees)?
Of course they can, in the same way that science and faith co-exist in our world everyday. Faith should never inform science (intelligent design proponents, take note), but neither should science go out of its way to disparage faith.
If that conclusion isn't quite the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus, it is a bit of a new ufological perspective for me, forged while on the Road to Laughlin.
For that, I can only thank the good folks at the Laughlin conference who fall into the UFO honest believer camp (not all of them did, by any means - just what I perceived to be a majority). I may not agree with you, but I respect you, and wish you nothing but the best. We are traveling on different paths, you and I, but who knows - someday we may all wind up at the same destination!