Sunday, August 12, 2007

Ufology Unfalsifiable: A Review of The Roswell Dig Diaries

I'm a professional archaeologist, so it is a natural I'd read the SCI-FI Channel published report, The Roswell Dig Diaries, of the the 2002 archaeological project to investigate the "Roswell" debris field outside of Corona , New Mexico. The work was funded by the SCI-FI channel so that it could feature in a television broadcast in November 2002, The Roswell Crash: Startling New Evidence. Ufologists Donald Schmitt and Thomas Carey served as the Roswell UFO crash advisors to the channel, while the actual investigation was led by Dr. William Doleman, an archaeologist in the Office of Contract Archaeology at the University of New Mexico.

The book isn't a book as much as a semi-random series of emails, notes, and journals packaged with the final archaeological report, which stands out in contrast with the rest of the material.

The initial section of the book, the emails and discussions about how the project came to be, is interesting. If nothing else, the Bureau of Land Management proposal is an awesome read. The proposal was fairly ordinary, except for the lines like "All Native American and extraterrestrial artifacts will be cataloged ..." etc. On the one hand, it sounds ridiculous. Yet on the other, it is kind of exciting, and at least it is an attempt to actually apply established scientific and investigatory methods to a UFO problem.

So that section isn't bad.

The middle section, on the other hand, is an epic pox on ufology, in printed form. It consists of the diaries of various participants in the project. These were also placed on SCI-FI's website, so presumably they were designed by someone in the production team with the "confessional" bit from many reality shows in mind, where the game show contestants/avocational actors dish about their feelings and the other contestants/actors.

And man do they make this all look dumb. The two main figures with diaries are Bill Doleman, the archaeologist hired to head up the field excavation and coordinate with technical specialists, and Tom Carey. Doleman has gone on to star in a short-lived SCI-FI reality show that I have yet to see, but here he comes off fairly grounded and with a good showing. He does minimize some clear personnel difficulties (more on that in a bit) but otherwise comes across as professional and largely patient.

Tom Carey's diaries, on the other hand, sound amateur. They are filled with constant whining and griping about many, many things. Especially about Don Schmitt. Much complaining about Schmitt. And Schmitt's friend. Schmitt's driving. His comandeering of the car. And some of the volunteers. And the eyewitnesses that can't adapt to his schedule. And constantly being ditched. And bad hotel accomodations. And many other things. When not complaining, his diaries are often about which budget restaurant Carey ate at that night.

Schmitt's aren't much better. They are shorter than Carey's, as he is extremely busy and running around (something Carey complains about), but can at points also strike a patronizing tone.

Other diaries are kept. One is by the SCI-FI exec in charge of the whole shebang, who comes across as excited to be a part of it all, though I wonder whether either he or one of his employees was simply a good communications major in college. The volunteers (much of the excavation work was done by volunteers who got room and board for their efforts) also keep diaries, and like Carey they complain all the time, and several sound ridiculous the rest of the time. One in particular, one of several labelled "Independent UFO Investigator" constantly second-guesses Doleman, and is allowed to take over a portion of the excavation out of what seems to be frustration.

In the diaries as a whole, it is clear that while initially some interesting work was done, particularly the subsurface remote sensing, once the TV cameras showed up, everything turns to garbage. The television cameras dominate everything, including a huge and pointless distraction of using a helicopter that ends up having mechanical trouble (one wonders if it helped provide drama to the otherwise not very dramatic excavations).

Even Doleman gets into it. When the cameras are there, much of his caution gets dashed when he is clearly stressed out, and starts to get excited by what turns out to be a likely ephemeral feature in alignment with the remote sensing return for "the gouge" supposedly left by the Roswell craft. BTW, I'd just like to note that the gouge has grown slightly, and in this accounting is now five hundred feet long, a bit bigger than the 390 - 480' gouge described by Randle and Schmitt in 1991, though still in the same ballpark. The discovery of a supposed gouge in the profile and in the remote sensing is a major hook in the television show that aired in 2002, but in the book and in the included report, it becomes clear that feature was likely a side-effect of the backhoe that was brought in, or otherwise ephemeral. Likewise, Doleman gets very excited about another gouge, and the discovery of an unrelated weather balloon, all when the cameras are around. His caution returns when the cameras are gone, and he has time to think about all of this.

Overall, I'd make the following points

1.) The media aspect, in particular television, is highly disruptive and damaging, and I think this can apply to not just this case but ufology in a larger sense. Kudos to SCI-FI for paying for the work, and for publishing the report. And there doesn't seem to be any real effort on their part to "sex up" the work, in the sense of pushing or modifying the results.

But the estimated cost of the archaeological project, in the end, is about $30-35,000 (if you replaced the volunteers with hired labor, it would go up, but not even to the level of doubling). Not exactly pocket change, but not a lot of money in terms of a project, either. I know archaeology grad students who secured that much money to do their dissertation work, and even moderately sized projects work with much more. I could turn this around to echo the whine that there is no institutional support for ufology (though it should be noted that archaeologist Greg Fewer proposed a very similar research design [pdf] to the National Discovery Institute, unaware of the SCI-FI effort). But given the amount of money that pours into and out of Roswell on UFOs, the amount of money that is spent on books and DVDs, and the amount of interest there is in the topic, $35K to dig up and actually physically investigate probably the most famous UFO case of all time isn't exactly that much money. Sure, SCI-FI spent a lot more money on that, not on the work, but on the making of a TV show, selling the show, etc. Dolan's work clearly suffered from the tv crews taking over the project, from the emphasis of the "advisors" on taking yet more eyewitness testimony, from the need to base out of Roswell instead of much closer Corona, etc. Much of that wouldn't be present if the money was not part of the big swirl of media and market.

2.) Anyone can be a ufologist. According to his bio in the book, Thomas Carey has gone through CUFOS and MUFON, and has an MA in anthropology. But Schmitt's controversies over his background are well known in ufology. Between that and the "independent investigators," nothing looks very professional and so much is either caught up in dreaming emotion, or in managing the media circus (Schmitt's absence is in part because of family commitments, but the rest due to his role in managing the UFO giftshop-museum). There is some clear disconnect as the various "investigators" get fed up with Doleman's methods, and want results NOW.

3.) Hypotheses? What Hypotheses? The strength of the whole project is that Roswell is testable. Schmitt and Carey, using eyewitness testimony (which is all they seem interested in for the most part) are positive they have the Brazel debris field site. It is stated several times, and emphasized by Carey, that all the research basically boils down everything to either a balloon array, or something like a hard ship that left a gouge, described by eyewitnesses. The best evidence will of course be something unusual as an artifact that broke off the "ship." Doleman includes a brief discussion of the recovered artifacts, but they are generally easily identified as likely man-made and modern. But the other major piece of evidence would be finding that gouge, since a balloon won't leave a gouge. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a hypothesis. "If we find a gouge, it can't be a balloon." But the opposite does hold true "If we are in the right spot, and don't find a gouge, a non-balloon does seem less likely"

They don't find a gouge. The remote sensing detects an anomaly that might be a gouge. But it is then ground-truthed through excavation, and Doleman doesn't find evidence of a gouge. For the purposes of the TV show, there is a potential feature that might be a gouge, but by the time the analysis is done, it is clear that it isn't any gouge.

I've only briefly browsed Schmitt and Carey's new book, with the Haut "affidavit." But from what I saw, there is little to no discussion of their archaeological project that didn't find a gouge.

When you actually have something testable, say like an archaeological site, and your hypotheses go against the answer you want, you need to deal with that. Not just forget it, and write another book based on eyewitness testimony. Otherwise, why did you do the science in the first place? Oh, right. You did it for tv.