After decades of debunking and naysaying, why have academics invited aliens into the ivory tower.

Published September 22, 1998 10:02AM (EDT)

Take us to your professor.

Since the time of Galileo, astronomers have pointed their telescopes at the heavens and asked, "Are we alone in the universe?" Now, that same question is being posed by historians, political scientists, psychologists and sociologists who don't use telescopes but the more elusive instruments of the soft social sciences: research, oral history, theory and, finally, conjecture.

Recently, popular culture has been suffused by man-made aliens. From television shows like "The X Files" and "3rd Rock From the Sun" to movies like "Independence Day" and "Men in Black," from the ad campaign for the Volkswagen Beetle claiming the car has been "reverse engineered" from UFOs to commercials in which ETs promote Hostess Ding Dongs, Quisp "the qwazy energy cereal" and Chilis restaurants, we can't seem to get enough of these alternately adorable, wise and terrifying but always slimy creatures. They've even starred alongside Kenny, Cartman, Stan and Kyle in the premiere episode of "South Park," called "When Cartman Gets an Anal Probe."

Academia has usually been a haven from crazes involving paranormal phenomena, but now there are signs that alien nation has finally caught fire within the once cool walls of the ivory tower. In July, Stanford University professor emeritus Peter Sturrock and a panel of scientists from Princeton, Cornell and the University of Virginia reviewed a series of UFO reports. Their conclusion? Although the incidents had nothing to do with extraterrestrial intelligence, the panel called for more thorough investigations and criticized scientists' reluctance to study UFOs. In April, Cornell University Press published "Aliens in America" by political scientist Jodi Dean, who teaches at Hobart and William Smith colleges. And in the fall of 1999, the University of Kansas Press will publish an anthology of UFO essays, written by professors from Johns Hopkins, Temple and Eastern Michigan universities.

Peculiar though it may be, the marriage of aliens with academia should come as no surprise. A university experiment first gave rise to the contemporary notion of aliens back in 1947. UFO mania kicked off in the United States that year on June 24, when amateur pilot Kenneth Arnold said he saw nine mysterious objects flying at supersonic speed across the Cascade Mountains near Mount Rainier. The press dubbed them "flying saucers" and the phrase stuck. Later that summer, a ranch foreman, W.W. Brazel, found strange, shiny material scattered near Roswell, N.M. Military officials called the debris a fallen weather balloon but some believed it was a flying saucer containing aliens. The story gained so much momentum that in 1966, Rep. Gerald Ford headed a congressional panel that looked into UFOs that included testimony by scientist Carl Sagan.

The Roswell sighting resulted from a classified experiment developed by scientists at Columbia University, New York University and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The team worked on "Project Mogul," a program designed to search for evidence of nuclear blasts, according to an Air Force report. The fallen debris came from the broken balloons and radar reflectors.

Since then, academia and UFOs have remained blessedly separate. Until now.
Despite ufology's stigma as an area of study for Weekly World News suckers and backwater eccentrics, a growing number of academics are risking their careers to come out of the extraterrestrial closet and openly study UFOs.

The best known and most controversial is Harvard psychiatrist John Mack, who uses hypnosis to determine if people have been abducted. Once the crème de la crème at Harvard, Mack built its psychiatry program from scratch and won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1977 biography of psychoanalyst T.E. Lawrence. Now he could be considered crème brûlee. Mack's colleagues view him as an embarrassment and make no bones about it.

"I disagree with his conclusions and think he's totally deluded," says Dr. Paul Horowitz, an astronomer at Harvard who is currently working on the SETI (the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) project.

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Mack burst onto the scene in 1994 when he published "Abduction: Human Encounters With Aliens." Although he wasn't the first to write about abduction (that honor belongs to Whitley Streiber, author of "Communion"), he was the first academic to venture into the field armed with heavy credentials.

The book grew out of his relationship with Budd Hopkins, a New York artist and sculptor who runs a free support group for abductees. Hopkins, who had written three bestselling books based on testimony from his support group, began sending many of his self-proclaimed abductees to Mack for intensive interviews and investigation.

But these studies and the publications that chronicled them ultimately proved fatal to Mack's academic career. Eventually, he quit teaching at Harvard and now runs PEER, the Program for Extraordinary Experience Research, a nonprofit, privately funded organization that researches alien abduction. The organization publishes a newsletter and offers a referral service to licensed therapists.

If Mack is the founding father of ufology, Dave Jacobs of Temple University may be its revolutionary son. He believes that aliens are trying to colonize America by breeding with humans. He did his doctoral dissertation on the UFO controversy at the University of Wisconsin, which was published by the University of Indiana press. Holding a conversation with Jacobs can be a frustrating experience, because he is armed with a flotilla of abduction stories he is quick to share.

In an utterly sincere voice, he tells me that aliens are conducting a program of physiological exploitation, where they are seizing human sperm and eggs to create hybrid alien babies. Their goal is to colonize America, and Jacobs predicts the integration will be a peaceful one. And then his voice falls. "I don't like this. I hate this and I'm frightened by it," he says, referring to the turn his career has taken. "If I had done other research I could have had a life. It's hurt my life and my career. Even my kids are ridiculed in school."

While Mack and Jacobs have willingly lent their names to UFO research and have become the stars in this scorned little galaxy, they are not alone. But their fellow ufologists can be as elusive as the aliens they are trying to find. As with many marginalized subcultures, ufologists are sometimes clannish, secretive and reluctant to speak with outsiders. Some hedge at merely acknowledging that a "scene" exists; one insider whispered that it was like being part of an "invisible college." In fact, ufologists tend toward paranoia. Before granting me an interview, most grilled me on my attitudes toward extraterrestrial life and its scholars. In the end, many people declined to comment on the topic despite their having attended UFO conferences and published papers on the subject.

David Pritchard, a physicist at MIT, offers a case in point, although he was kind enough to grant me an interview of sorts. He's conducted research with aliens, but he doesn't like to talk about it. "It's not like I go babbling to my colleagues about my interest," he says. Reluctant doesn't even begin to describe him, and cantankerous would be generous. In 1992, Pritchard and Mack held a conference where they examined people claiming to have alien implants. They found no evidence. When asked for details on the conference, he yelled, "Get the book!" And while Pritchard admits a subculture exists, he's mum about the members. He became extremely agitated, and shouted, "I'm not going to talk to you about the culture and I'm not going to give you any names!" Gauging from his reaction, you'd think this was the 1950s and I was asking him to rat on some communists.

Gradually, though, I began to get a glimpse of the field as a whole. Ufology is interrelated to the point of being incestuous. It's like following a choose-your-own adventure novel. Start with one person and it will eventually lead back to Mack. Along the way, ufologists bash each other and credit themselves with starting a movement or particular idea. After weeks of calling ufologists all over the country, I came away with another peculiar observation: These people seem to hate one another. Given that their common interests have put their jobs and reputations at risk, you'd think they might stick up for one another.

Perhaps this is best explained as guilt by association. Indeed, most of the professors I interviewed seemed to have a love/hate relationship with UFOs. They say they regret their decision and the ridicule that comes with the stigma of studying UFOs, but they continue to follow the path to Golgotha. "It's fair to say my job marketability has decreased," says Ron Westrum, who teaches sociology at Eastern Michigan. "I can pretty much count on not moving up in my department."

If ufology is so scary and such a career stopper, why do it? For one thing, it's a way for professors to claw their way out of their second-tier colleges and obscurity. If books like "The Celestine Prophecy" and "The Horse Whisperer" can make the New York Times Bestseller list, then aliens are a shoo-in. Schlock sells, and professors know this.

One example is the ultra-excitable Jodi Dean of Hobart and William Smith colleges. Her book, "Aliens in America," explores how and why aliens have captured the popular imagination. As a woman in an almost exclusively male field, she is an anomaly. But more remarkable still, she wrote the book before tenure and was recently awarded the Faculty Award for Excellence in Scholarship. Dean says she was drawn to aliens because her first book, on feminism, had an audience of "about five people." Of course, a cultural anaylsis of aliens in popular culture and actually saying aliens exist are two different things.

While her book was recently panned in the New York Times Book Review for endorsing the culture of paranoia, Dean argues persuasively that the current alien craze was ignited by the 1986 Challenger Shuttle explosion. Until then, she maintains, space represented freedom, adventure and prosperity. But when an ordinary woman like Christa McAuliffe was killed by her venture into outer space, suddenly the heavens again became a threat. The following year the first abduction book hit the shelves -- Streiber's "Communion" -- and abduction theory was born.

While aliens translate into fun and profit for some professors, they infuriate others. Astronomer David Helfand of Columbia University says that he becomes exasperated and depressed when people claim to have seen aliens.

"It's a sign of the rejection of knowledge as a valuable thing," he says. "People are retreating into magic, myth and superstition." Helfand says that while there could be life on other planets, "it doesn't imply they regularly visit Earth nor have sex with humans. It's total and utter nonsense."

While traditional scholars can bemoan the deterioration of academic standards, scholarly ufology may be only the beginning of a cottage industry that takes aliens and their visits to earth as absolute facts. Recently, a teacher named Leah Haley wrote "Ceto's New Friends," a book aimed at children ages 4 to 8, to teach them how to cope with their extraterrestrial visitors.

By Christina Valhouli

Christina Valhouli is a New York writer and the co-producer of an upcoming documentary about plus-size models, "Curve."

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