Belief  /  Book Review

From Civil Rights Liberals to New Age Conspiracy Theorists

What Betty and Barney Hill's alien abduction story reveals about America.

The story exemplifies the often-ambivalent relationship ordinary Americans have with the gargantuan U.S. military and its role as both economic engine and coercive apparatus. UFOs have been a matter of military study since the late 1940s, when pilots began reporting flying objects that moved strangely. At first the concern was over experimental aircraft by enemies—particularly the Soviet Union—during the Cold War. But this reasoning did not bear out with events. The military’s reluctance to discuss UFOs made cover up and conspiracy allegations grow, often as part of Cold War habits of secrecy. Yet Bowman, identifying something deeper, notes that the military, fearing panic and hysteria, didn’t trust the American public to discuss investigations into UFOs, which in turn fueled public skepticism about the intentions of the U.S. military.

UFO sightings grew during the era of ‘Big Science.’ Bowman relates how the federal government, research labs, industrial contractors, and universities worked together, often on military use projects, and gained a vested interest in policing the boundaries of science. The term ‘pseudoscience’ gained popularity and was applied to UFOs and aliens, belief in which became the hallmark of not only bad science but also bad religion.

Bowman does well to analyze science and religion as categories for claiming authority, rather than objective descriptions. Seeing UFOs came to be seen as a psychological problem or scientific illiteracy problem, something that suggested the subjectivity of the viewer and not the objective reality of the phenomenon. As UFOs were deemed not to exist by military and scientific authorities, believing in them or believing to have seen them became a de facto challenge to scientific and military authority. Bowman exposes the undemocratic nature of Big Science whose reliance on secrecy and an elitist notion of expertise ensured that it was neither open nor publicly responsive.

Through the Hills’ narrative the closed and dismissive position of various military and scientific authorities is revealed. Disbelieved by the Airforce and psychiatrists who treated their experience as internal and pathological, they turned instead towards new age spirituality and conspiracy theories. Having lost faith in the American state, Betty Hill claimed the family was watched by Black Hawk helicopters and men in black.