Remember how MUFON’s John Ventre got caught up in a racism scandal after he made disparaging comments about the “F-ing Blacks” on Facebook back in May and alleged that “everything” in the world was created by white Europeans and Americans? The UFO community reacted in horror for about a week, and now the racist ufologist is back representing ufology in the media and hawking a new conspiracy theory. Ventre is the host of the String Theory of the Unexplained radio show on the Live Paranormal radio network, and an undated video of him describing a conspiracy to murder ufologists is making the rounds after Britain’s Metro tabloid mined it for a quick clickbait article. It appears to have been filmed sometime before his racism scandal, given that he uses his MUFON title, and he has since been removed from that position; however, Metro said that the video was released this week. The YouTube posting date does not necessarily correlate to the date when the video was shot, or when the radio show aired.
Ventre claims that 137 ufologists have died in the past 10 years, and this implies the existence of a conspiracy to murder them for getting too close to the truth. “Is someone killing our UFO investigators?” he asked. This is a rather silly allegation. Ufologists are, generally speaking, old white men in the demographic of 55-to-death, the demographics most likely to suffer, well, fatalities. Mortality rates for U.S. residents roughly double after age 45 and double again by 55. Add to that the sad fact that many people who are unbalanced are attracted to unusual fields like ufology, which therefore almost certainly has a higher suicide rate than the general public. I don’t think that 14 deaths per year in the aging ufology field is all that unusual, but since I don’t know the total number of ufologists—and I doubt Ventre does either—it’s hard to contextualize this against a normal distribution of deaths. But, to put it in context of some kind, according to the CDC, the U.S. has about 820 deaths per 100,000 residents per year. So, 14 ufologists dying per year would be normal if there were as few as 1,700 ufologists. If we take the death rate for senior citizens, we need even fewer ufologists since the old die more regularly. Math undoes the conspiracy, and it would have been nice if Metro had bothered to run some numbers. It would be nicer if racist ufologists didn’t have a platform to spread mindless conspiracies to begin with.
Meanwhile, Michael Shermer has a new article in Scientific American arguing that a belief in space aliens is nothing more than angelology or polytheism in scientific clothes. If this argument sounds familiar, well it is. Some version of it has been around since the middle twentieth century, and we can go back further to find transitional forms like Lovecraft’s alien gods, Blavatsky’s godlike masters from other planets before that, Swedenborg’s spirits from other planets before that, and medieval Catholic claims that angels lived in the “spheres” of the other planets before that.
Shermer’s article is mostly just a recap of an academic article on the connection between religiosity and belief in aliens. Basically, religious people believe in angels but not aliens, while atheists tend to use belief in aliens as a substitute for angels. Shermer frames this in terms of Star Trek, as science nerds are wont to do, before suggesting that the true skeptic and atheist would deny aliens as easily as God. “Given that there is no more evidence for aliens than there is for God, believers in either one must take a leap of faith or else suspend judgment until evidence emerges to the contrary,” he wrote.
There are a few problems here. First, while Shermer is right that there is no direct evidence for aliens, there is certainly more evidence for aliens than gods. Building blocks for life have been found in space, and the preconditions for extraterrestrial life. This is at least circumstantial evidence that alien life is possible, or even probable; whereas, it would be difficult to quantify how we might evaluate the existence of a supernatural god. I think that the issue of belief must be code for the question of whether one believes that aliens visit the Earth and take an active role in human affairs. After all, to conclude that extraterrestrial life is possible is hardly outside the purview of science.
But more to the point, Shermer suggests that he is beyond the petty cares of mortal men by refusing to find meaning in imaginary gods and monsters, and yet he framed his article in terms of Star Trek and has promoted science fiction to the role of religion, offering moral lessons and semi-divine mythic figures. Of course, Shermer doesn’t believe that Star Trek is real, but it serves the role of moral exemplar and prism through which to find meaning. Just as religious people turn to holy books and myths, and alien believers seek meaning in presumed motives of the space visitors, sci-fi nerds use their favorite stories to frame their understanding of the world around them.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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