A space expert looks at the UFO controversy; UFOs and Outer Space Mysteries: A Sympathetic Skeptic's Report, by James E. Oberg. Virginia Beach, Va.: The Donning Company (5041 Admiral Wright Blvd., 23462). 192 pp. $6.95 (paperback).
Veteran space analyst James Oberg sums up his book in a sentence: "I've seen the evidence for UFOs and I'm not convinced." Yet he immediately confesses that he would like to find convincing evidence of outer space visitors. He's a space buff who would like to meet an interstellar traveler.
This is why he calls his hard-headed assessment of the UFO scene "a sympathetic skeptic's report." It is also why this easily read little paperback is a valuable antidote for the UFO hype that continues to pollute broadcast, film, and printed media. Oberg is not out to debunk the saucer myth so much as to make a sensible assessment of the UFO phenomenon.
His negative finding is based on extensive investigation of many cases. He discusses some of the most important of these, showing how claims of extraterrestrial visitation are unsubstantiated.
His most important conclusion is that if aliens were visiting we probably wouldn't know it. The overwhelming majority (90 percent or higher) of reported UFOs are ultimately identified with Earthly phenomena. The residue is a mixture of hoaxes and cases with too little information to go on. Even if there were some true alien visitation, they would be lost in this background "noise."
The whole subject is obscured by widespread gullibility among the public, by sloppy news reporting, and by outright hoaxes. Oberg's account of how even supposedly sharp investigators are taken in by the latter is entertaining and instructive. Among other things, he points out that hoaxes account for only about 1 percent of UFO reports, but represent the majority of published UFO pictures. So beware of those flashy books featuring UFO photos.
Possessed of an inquisitive turn of mind, Oberg has also looked into some other space mysteries. These include such things as the contention that the gigantic explosion over Siberia in 1908 was a malfuntioning spaceship. It most likely was a comet.
Then there is the genuine mystery of the vanishing Soviet cosmonauts. These are men who appear in early accounts or photos of the Soviet space program but have vanished from later versions of the story. Having fallen out of favor, washed out of the program, or perished in an accident, they now are treated as nonpersons by Soviet censors. Oberg has uncovered some clues to their identity. But the questions remain as to who they were and why their motherhood chooses to forget them.
In short, Oberg has written a useful and provocative book. Would that his publisher had done as well. The printing is needlessly uneven, and there are more typos that good commercial practice should tolerate in these days of computerized typesetting and software that checks spelling. Nevertheless, the book, on the whole, is good value for the price.