Science outreach, crossing the mainstream divide, and “Chasing UFOs”

Hosts James Fox, Me, and Erin Ryder during the filming of National Geographic’s “Chasing UFOs.” (Credit: David West)

I know there will be quite a lot on this here at the Astrowright blog in the coming weeks and months, but to begin very briefly, I’m excited to report that I’m set to appear on/host a National Geographic series next month (somewhat sensationally) entitled, “Chasing UFOs.”  

The project zeroed in on the “top 5%” – the most bizarre or inexplicable – of all alleged unidentified flying object cases in history.  However, unlike previous programs, in addition to firsthand interviews, we physically travel to the site of each alleged event, whether on a mountaintop or in the Amazon, to see if any material evidence exists to support extraordinary claims.

Aside from the “field adventure” component, the show’s presentation is novel in that three different viewpoints are represented in each case – skeptic, believer, and “agnostic.”  I’m thrilled that NatGeo has endorsed including someone like me on a project like this – essentially allowing the scientific/skeptical viewpoint to be heard. 

This is ultimately why I decided to engage in the project in the first case. 

For those who have been reading this blog for any length of time, it is obvious that I sit squarely on the skeptical side of the fence.   (In my view that’s the side that history ultimately bears out.)  However, I’m also comfortable enough in my own “scientist” skin to be willing to dive into any question, even if it has been (perhaps justifiably) shrugged off by mainstream academia.  This is particularly true when it concerns something for which there is a great deal of public interest and that exists in such close proximity to my personal passions – planetary science and space exploration.  In my view, the important thing to note is that people curious about UFOs are asking the right sorts of questions:

  • “What is going on in the night sky?”
  • “Are we alone in the universe?”
  • “What is the possibility of extraterrestrial life?”

-And with pseudoscientific, speculation-riddled and archaeology-confounding programs out there like “Ancient Aliens,” if scientists refuse to engage in mainstream media and contribute to the conversation, the conservative scientific viewpoint will rarely (or worse, never) be heard or explained.  If it is obvious to an astronomer that a flashing “UFO” is simply light from Venus on the horizon taking a long path-length through the atmosphere, and he or she doesn’t bother to explain it, science doesn’t stand a chance in the face of a passionate “talking head” declaring it to be proof of extraterrestrial intelligence in our own skies.  We fail twice – first to capture an excellent learning moment and secondly in that we ultimately succeed only in disenfranchising a curious public with respect to the scientific establishment.

As anyone in the sciences knows, STEM outreach needs all the help it can get.  We have to engage.  (And who knows?  I’m open to the possibility that people have really seen something extraordinary if evidence backs it up, though I would be just as excited were it to be exotic high-altitude electrical phenomena as opposed to green men from Mars.)

So, here goes.  Set the time circuits for June 29, 2012 at 09:00 on the NatGeo channel.  I haven’t seen the finished product myself, but I know what we did and guarantee it to be an action-packed, thought-provoking ride. 

Tune in and please feel free to let me know what you think!

3 thoughts on “Science outreach, crossing the mainstream divide, and “Chasing UFOs”

  1. Second graph: “However, unlike previous programs, in addition to firsthand interviews, we physically travel to the site of each alleged event…” UFO Hunters on History Channel did that.

    Third graph: “the show’s presentation is novel in that three different viewpoints are represented in each case” – UFO Hunters on History Channel did that.

    Good luck getting your show off the ground – but please understand you’re not the first to step out there – and don’t overstate yourself. Your format upfront seems to be a “copy” of UFO Hunters.

    1. Roger,

      First, thanks for reading! As I’m not involved in post-production, I myself haven’t yet seen the final product. We’ll have to see together. However, I know what we did, and on its face our field component was more intensive than what I’d seen on “UFO Hunters” – (e.g., jungles of Brazil, skies over Yucatan, etc.) This was the intent of the comment in the 2nd graph. Similarly with the third paragraph comment – I know how our viewpoints manifested while we were there, which to me was novel compared to anything else I’d seen; However, I suppose you’re right in that it was a bit of an overstatement until the series hits the air. Time will tell whether or not the final product indeed feels like a “copy” or not. Hopefully you’ll stick around to offer your opinion!


      1. Any new research in this field is welcome. And any way of getting the word out to the public on UFO awareness is admirable. Best of luck and success with this one – and we do understand about “no control” in post production. Anderson Cooper’s recent UFO debacle with his daytime show proves that by surprising his ufology guests with a psychic.

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