Saturday, 5 December 2009

UFO cutbacks show the way

Nick Pope, who once did the job himself before finding a (presumably lucrative) niche as an author of books about the subject, is disappointed that the Ministry of Defence is no longer to investigate UFO sightings. Previously - I didn't know this - there was a section on the MoD website that actively invited submissions. You clicked a link titled "How to report a UFO sighting" and were directed to what was officially described as a "dedicated UFO hotline answer-phone service and e-mail address". That the MoD find themselves having to deal with the kind of time-wasters who typically report seeing interplanetary craft - and may have appointed someone to deal with them is unsurprising. But why on earth (or on Mars, for that matter) should the Ministry be encouraging these nitwits by making it easy for them?

But then it's been an open secret for decades that the Ministry of Defence is horribly overstaffed.

Anyway, the MoD's Ufology department is no more. Britain's X-Files - which were released online last year for all to enjoy - are officially being closed, and Pope is upset about it. The news was "slipped out", he complains. The official explanation, that the £50,000 saved would be spent on equipment for our forces in Afghanistan, he finds unconvincing, though he admits that "the defence budget is under huge pressure and the UFO project was doubtless an easy target". Nevetheless, he finds the MoD's reasoning - that "if it doesn't behave like a conventional aircraft, we're not interested" - to be indicative of a "very dangerous mindset". After all, it might be a new type of aircraft, or even a hijacked plane.

But presumably the MoD has other mechanisms in place for dealing with such eventualities. The purpose of its UFO-reporting service was to collect and collate reports from (usually confused, sometimes inebriated) members of the public and, if appropriate, "investigate" them. And, as the statement posted on the MoD website makes plain and Pope tacitly admits, never in all the sixty years the government spent looking into these reports did they discover "any evidence of a potential threat to the United Kingdom". If the official investigations haven't yielded anything of value so far, it's unlikely they would in future. Yet with the ease of communication facilitated by email and the Web, and with the need to deal with FoI requests, the workload has probably been increasing in recent years.

Pope claims that "UFO sightings are at record levels and public interest is at an all-time high". I find that doubtful. Ufology is much less fashionable today than it was in the Nineties, when much of the world was glued to the X-Files and fascinated by accounts of "alien abduction". There have been other peaks in interest - during the weirdness that was the 1970s (culminating in the two Spielberg movies Close Encounters and ET), or the Cold War paranoia of the Fifties, for example. Modern fears centre around the environment and terrorism, neither of which have much UFO resonance, while the wider percolation of scientific knowledge through the general public makes extraterrestrial visitation seem less plausible to many. Of course, there will always be strange sightings and even stranger people reporting them, but there's no reason why the government should devote any public resources to the subject.

After all, this is an area that is perfectly well served - perhaps over-served - by unofficial channels. There's no shortage of amateur investigators, some with particular areas of expertise (some, indeed, ex-servicemen), happy to devote most of their spare time to pursuing the most obscure and tedious details of UFO reports. Occasionally, as with Gary McKinnon, the obsession can lead to tragic results but for most it's a harmless enough hobby. And these days, there are numerous discussion boards and other websites where reports can be filed and dissected by believers and sceptics alike. No-one who sees something strange need be alone with their puzzlement: they can go online and find out. They can have their experience analysed and explained in far more detail than a bored and professionally tight-lipped clerk at the MoD could provide. And it doesn't cost the taxpayer a penny.

Nick Pope, ex-civil-servant that he is, takes it as axiomatic that if there's a mystery to be solved somebody working for the government should be responsible for solving it. But that doesn't follow at all. The fact that an investigation is officially endorsed or carried out at public expense does not mean that it will be in any sense superior or more worthy of being taken seriously. Take the current Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq War. This is a far more elaborate and expensive affair than the perfunctory UFO investigations that are now being scrapped. But even if Sir John Chilcot does not intend to produce the much-anticipated whitewash, it seems unlikely that it will reveal anything significant that we did not already know, or result in any of the serious consequences (war crimes charges being laid against Tony Blair, for example) that would justify the time and money spent on it. That isn't because of an official cover-up. It's because almost everything worth knowing about the background to that mistaken military adventure has been pored over in exhaustive detail already. The work that has been done exposing the facts about Iraq is no worse - is probably better - for being unofficial.

The suggested saving of £50,000 may not sound much. It isn't much when set, for example, against the billions squandered through bad procurement decisions like Eurofighter or Nimrod. But it's a good start. Why stop at UFO reports? Almost all official statistics, from the wasteful ten-year Census to the monthly economic reports from the Treasury, reveal little that is not available from other sources, often free and certainly much cheaper. There are many thousands of unnecessary jobs being carried out by government or government-funded bodies, jobs that either don't need doing at all or, more commonly, merely replicate work done perfectly well by the private sector or by volunteers. Just because something's worth doing, there's no reason to suppose that it's the government that should be doing it.