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Review of: 'UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens. What the Science Says' by Donald Prothero and Tim

I read a lot of skeptical takes on paranormal or UFO phenomena. Many of these are good books, with a lot of interesting things to say. This book, however, has problems.

I'll start with the good parts: it was clearly and thoroughly researched. There are many end notes and there is an index. There is also a great description of Area 51 and many other places. The authors have a jaunty attitude that makes parts of it a fun read when it could have been didactic and dull. With all that said, here are my general thoughts on this book.

What The History Says

First, while basic science literacy and mathematical reasoning is involved in getting to the bottom of some of these cases, most of these cases are actually solved by digging up historical documents and reading the original primary sources. In other words, being a historian.

How do we know that the Alien enthusiasts are full of it when the talk about Area 51? The stealth pilot programs have been largely declassified and the original statements of all the players are freely available. It looks highly suspicious on the alien enthusiasts' part when the alien part of the story only emerges decades later, and that it gets wilder with each retelling. Also, these stories come more and more often from 'a friend of a friend who swears they saw this thing.' A historian or a folklorist will recognize those traits as signs of an urban legend.

The main argument against the Zecharia Stitchins of the world are grounded in going back to the primary sources and professionally translating them. If you do that, you discover that the theorist made up passages, mangled meanings, and filled in missing parts with nonsense. Historians, using historical records, can show us just how ludicrous the claims being made are, and they either let the crap slide or their efforts go unmentioned.

And this goes all the way back to Velikovsky's 'Worlds In Collision.' If you have read about this book from the skeptical side, it is probably from an astronomer talking about how physically impossible it is for Venus to nearly hit the Earth and result in the world that we have today. The science is pounded hard. However, Immanuel Velikovsky did all his work mostly to mess up the historical record. I say deliberately mess up even though he undoubtedly saw his work in a more charitable light. But you know what? Like many other Biblical apologists of the world, his main goal was to screw with the chronology that we actually know took place so that his precious Exodus could happen literally as reported in the Bible. That was his goal: to eliminate the history that real historians have pieced together and replace it with his preferred fantasy. Historians just take it, bow down and accept the disdain of the world. Rise up, historians!

Name Checking Skeptics

The back blurb says that it's a good book for 'skeptics and believers alike,' but that's not true. This a collection of skeptical views, and dyed-in-the-wool believers are going to find all the familiar voices that are accepted as honest are on the skeptical side. The only truly original research was about Area 51, and that seems to come from the fact that Tim Callahan's dad worked at Area 51 as a conceptual artist for the air force. Tim is giving us the inside scoop.

Otherwise, many people who could be called professional skeptics are heavily drawn on. The Nazca lines section describes Joe Nickel's work recreating the figures with a few friends and relatives, a stick, and some string. (In keeping with the 'what the history says' theme, the original preserver of the Nazca lines, Maria Reich, is quoted and talked about.)

Jason Colavito is quoted extensively, and he has a whole blog mostly talking about how Ancient Aliens is wrong about everything. He has also written a couple books about how much of what the alien theorists repeat is actually from HP Lovecraft and other science fiction writers. Ben Radford, who wrote 'Hunting The Chupacabra' and hosts a skeptical podcast called 'Squaring the Strange,' is mentioned.

I don't hold this against the authors. Why reinvent the wheel when other people have done a thorough job already? They acknowledge their debts as well, so they are being honest about this. However, it does add to the impression that this book is hastily thrown together. The problem in the next section brings that impression home.

Editing, Please!

Oh, the typos. The many, many missing periods, the sentences that don't scan at all, and the misplaced commas. You normally find one or two in every book. No editor is perfect and no computer algorithm can catch everything. However, this book has all the hallmarks of an e-book slapped together for Smashwords or Wattpad. These guys are educated enough that the book is coherent and everything is spelled correctly, but their editor was definitely asleep at the wheel.

Why Is This Here?

Why does the book open with explanations about the many ways that our brains cheat us? It could have been woven into the chapters as explanations for how malleable our memory is and how sleep paralysis explains many weird experiences.

Why is the chemtrails conspiracy included? Is it because the conspiracy involves stuff happening in the sky? Yes, it is a dumb theory that deserves zero air time. Let Mike West deal with the chemmies and stick with aliens.

I would understand why they have chapters on alien cults if it had a clear connection to the other con artists. They are trying to explore the deeper psychological and social aspects of UFOs. However, it isn't the deep dive that, say, Calovito or Jeb Card would give it. Why? Callahan and Prothero don't have a clear idea of their thesis, and they are throwing stuff that is kind of vaguely related in a sort of ominum gatherum of all things weird and sky related.

Final Thoughts:

The problem with many of these paranormal debunkings as far as books are concerned is that they can often be dealt with in a page. The person making the claim is clearly ripping off 'Men-In-Black,' the movie, and adding a little Cthulu mythos for funsies, and they make claims that can be swatted down by referring to a high-school science or history textbook. It's more annoying than entertaining. Tim and Donald are trying to pad a book of bunch of these swattings when many of the people who do a much better job of it by connecting the successful stories with the cultural zeitgeist and their psychological underpinnings. It's not a terrible book. It just feels rushed and leaves the impression of too many ideas crammed into too little space without much organization.

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