5X5 Episode 71

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5X5 Episode 71
The Roswell UFO Mythology
8th July 2009

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5X5 70 5X5 72
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
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The Roswell UFO Mythology[edit]

Voice-over: You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.

S: On July 8th, 1947, the Roswell Army Air Field released a press release stating that personnel from the field's 509th bomb group had recovered material from a "flying disk" on a ranch near Roswell, New Mexico. Thus starting the Roswell, New Mexico UFO mythology. Although, it didn't mature until many decades afterwards.

B: And actually, "Roswell" is a bit of a misnomer. I don't know if you guys knew that—the crash actually took place closer to Corona, [New] Mexico—that's a town that was closest to the alleged crash site and Roswell's actually the nearest military base.

S: One of the interesting things about this—I mean, this is a study in modern mythology, and we actually have fairly well documented how this story has evolved over time. And, we can see how the elements were added from other myths, like when the grey aliens emerged as the typical icon of an alien, then they became into the Roswell mythology. Although, prior to the 1970s, for almost 30 years there was no mention of any aliens at Roswell or having anything to do with the crash.

E: Yeah, that's right. It's taken on not only a life of its own, but several layers that have compounded the Roswell mythology. And that's exactly what it is: it is one the great American mythology that has evolved over the past 60+ years.

S: One thing that is very interesting is how utterly ordinary and mundane the contemporary reports and accounts of the crash recovery are. For example, the rancher, William Mac Brazel, found this cluster of debris on his ranch some time in June of 1947 and anywhere between 1 and 3 weeks went by before he thought to report it to anybody. It didn't seem that out of the ordinary to him. It was described as a collection of rubber strips, tin foil, rather tough paper and sticks.

B: Well clearly, these are pieces of a technologically advanced spaceship that came from another star.

S: Right, yeah.

E: That's right, Bob. It would take that kind of advancement in order to be able to use those mundane materials to travel intergalactic distances.

S: It actually wasn't until after he heard about the whole flying saucer flap that he decided to report this to Sheriff Wilcox, thinking "heh, maybe this is one of them flying saucers", you know? Just sort of piggy-backing on the flying disk or flying saucer story that was going around right at that time. And then the Sheriff, Sheriff Wilcox, reported to the Roswell army airfield. Major Jesse Marcel was the one who responded. That's what led to the famous press release that the Army—Air Force base recovered a "flying disk"—that was before any information was gathered, the material was looked at—it was just a press secretary reacting to the reports. Again, going along with the story that was in the new cycle that month of that year about a flying disk being seen. But nothing—again, really a very mundane description of the wreckage; no aliens, weeks going by without anyone thinking it was a big deal. It was really just that one press secretary saying the words "flying disk" that started off the whole mythology off.

J: Steve, I have one story from the Roswell incident that's definitely my favourite. And it's a very good example of taking something that's mundane and turning it into something fantastic. Now, when they found the weather balloon, the remnants of the crashed weather balloon that was sent up, somebody stated that they saw alien writing on the thing that this claim was a spaceship or whatever, but it was actually a weather balloon. And what that alien writing actually turned out to be, as was reported by the scientist who put it on the weather balloon, last minute they ran to the store and got a children's decorative tape that had silly symbols on it, you know? And I always think, "OK, it's cloud and ducks and stuff like that", but this had kids' fun symbols on it and that evolved into alien writing.

S: Now, in the intervening years, the now Air Force has explained this wreckage of not just an ordinary weather balloon but as Project Mogul, which was a secret spy balloon that we were using to spy on Soviet nuclear weapons testing at the time. Which explains the reason that the military and the government at the time wanted to keep the thing a little bit hush-hush and squirreled away the wreckage and wasn't forthcoming with all of the details at the time. But that doesn't mean that they were covering up an alien spacecraft. The military keeping secrets doesn't equal flying saucers.

E: Unless you are a conspiracy nut.

S: Right.

B: I like the description you guys have given about this as a mythology. We can see how this mythology has grown over the years and common with, I guess, most mythologies is this concept of retrospective falsification, which Roswell is a classic example of. The idea behind this is that you have a fantastic story that is told and re-told and then details are embellished and they're added to spice things up and then you have unfavourable details that are dropped. And this is exactly what happened with the Roswell story. If you compare what really happened to what it's evolved into, it's just a classic example.

S: It is amazing, and it makes you question any story from the past that went through any period where it was being passed around orally. I mean, this shows you in the last 50 years, you can turn a crashed weather balloon into a massive UFO cover-up with aliens and the men in black, etc. Imagine, 100 years ago, 500 years ago, 1,000 years ago, what an unusual occurrence might have evolved into through the re-telling. We can see how so many mythologies make up our culture and our belief system.

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.

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