It was exactly as I predicted when I broke the news of the show’s return last week: The 25% spike in the network’s average Monday ratings for the reruns of the show currently airing on Travel are indicative of the expectations for higher ratings for new episodes. The only saving grace is that almost no one watches the Travel Channel, whose viewership rarely surpasses 500,000 viewers. In its H2 run, America Unearthed drew around 1.2 million viewers. If even half show up for a new season, Travel will see a huge ratings spike—by their standards.
This also explains why Travel’s PR reps have refused to respond to my requests for comment: They don’t care about the show’s history of pseudoscience, cultural insensitivity, and false conclusions, nor is it a problem that its “built-in fanbase” contains a significant contingent of white nationalists. (The show was one of the few documentary series to have had extensive and sustained discussion on the Stormfront website.) All that matters is getting consistent ratings from a specific audience, as we’ve seen from parent company Discovery Communication’s rebranding of Destination America from a network for young liberals (when it was Planet Green) to a good ol’ boy network focused on bacon to its current incarnation as a paranormal channel appealing to undereducated rural viewers. Travel is becoming a conspiracy theory channel cutting slightly younger than History’s geriatric audience. (Travel also announced two new series exploring paranormal and historical mysteries.)
Last month Oxford University Press published American Cosmic, an ethnographic look into the “UFO phenomenon” by Diana Walsh Pasulka, a professor of religious studies at UNC Wilmington. We met Pasulka last year when she participated in a UFO symposium with Jeffrey Kripal, the professor who believes Renaissance art documents flying saucers. When she was promoting the book last year, she upset me a bit by endorsing a postmodern view that truth is unknowable and that UFOs have a quasi-mystical function, which she called “cool.” Well, now the book is out, and Glenn C. Altschuler reviewed it recently in Psychology Today. He liked the book’s ethnographic look at people who devote their lives to ufology, and praises the rather obvious insight that ufology is now a religion where aliens serve essentially as angels, but he found that Pasulka was somewhat too awestruck by the celebrity ufologists who have scientific backgrounds, which may have led her to be too uncritical of her sources, whose identities she has protected by not revealing their real names:
That said, Pasulka seems awe-struck by and uncritical of the scientist-ufologists on whom she relies. And she seems to equate scientific expertise with expertise about artifacts and sightings. The research of Tyler, a former NASA engineer [note: Pasulka actually describes him as a wealthy jet-setter who worked on the U.S. space program, presumably as a private contractor], and James, a professor of biology at a first-rate university, she writes, “has produced revolutionary, and very real products.” Pasulka regards them as “heroes,” who have “the guts and ability” to take on skeptics, and are “fighting the good fight for the right reasons”: because they believe, and “they would say,” because they know.
Naturally, Pasulka treats Jacques Vallée as a hero rather than what he really is, a sloppy scholar who accidentally hit upon a cultural perspective on UFOs and proceeded to embroider it with pseudo-scientific fantasy to preserve a “mystery” that his own ideas, applied logically, would eliminate. In fact, she heads the book’s conclusion with a quotation from Vallée in which he says to her, “Credo quia absurdum, eh, Diana?” (“I believe because it is absurd, eh, Diana?”)
But I am most interested in an almost offhand observation that Pasulka makes, about the way even “scientists” who are involved in ufology treat alleged UFO wreckage and alien implants much the way Catholics venerate the relics of the saints. Their “investigation” goes beyond science into the realm of New Age mysticism. Here is Pasulka’s discussion from American Cosmic. The section begins with a discussion of the “sacred” element of religion, which she defines as a mysterious element that exists as the object of belief but cannot be understood or tested in the usual way. She compares this to an “artifact” that her sources claim is utterly incomprehensible and exists outside of all known explanations for its existence. Although she does not discuss it in detail and hides both its identity and that of whoever has it in his possession, it sounds a lot like one of the pieces of industrial waste that ufologists who match the description Pasulka describes, such as Hal Puthoff and his colleagues, have alleged contain chemical compositions unknown on the Earth. She says that the “artifact” was found in the desert southwest near Roswell, that ufologists suspect it is a “part” from a flying saucer, and that it returned anomalous tests for its chemical compositions and structure—all claims we have seen before. For our purposes, the exact artifact isn’t important, though I’d lay odds that it’s one of these so-called “metamaterials.”
Pasulka said that she was amazed that scientists like “Tyler” and “James” were so comfortable with the ambiguity of not knowing what the object is or how or who made it. That’s when she realized that their investigation wasn’t about finding a scientific reality as much as it was about exploring the sacred.
Tyler told me an anecdote that demonstrates the artifact’s sacred significance to him and to many of the scientist-believers. Tyler had put the part in a backpack and had then stopped in to see a friend. He and his friend visited and dined, and then Tyler left to continue his travels. The next day he received a message from his friend.
How can reality compete when the believers hold “implants” and “wreckage” as sacred evidence of transcendent truth, detritus reimagined as divine, like the mammoth bones made into the relics of demigods, or the Antique bric-a-brac passed off as Christ’s tableware and personal effects?
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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