From "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"

Skeptics, Debunkers, and Pelicanists, Oh my!

Tim Printy 2007

Back in 1997, I first became interested at looking into the UFO phenomena. This started when I asked a few logical questions on a UFO message board. Initially, I was treated with fair responses but some of my questions and answers were treated with derision. As I expressed increased skepticism, I was labeled with the worst possible name a UFO proponent can give another person. I was called "a debunker". At the time, I was confused. The dictionary states that debunking exposes false claims but these individuals seemed to use the word in a very negative tone. Since this time, I have been labeled a "debunker" by UFO proponents who despised my skeptical attitude towads UFO cases and investigations.

The term "debunker" goes back to the early years of the USAF trying to explain UFO reports:

April 13, 1950 Ada Weekly News (p.5)

However, this is not how the term is used today by UFOlogists. The UFOlogical interpretation of this term appears to have its beginnings when it was learned that the Robertson Panel suggested that UFO sightings should be "debunked" back in 1953.

The Panel's concept of a broad educational program integrating efforts of all concerned agencies was that it should have two major aims: training and "debunking."... The "debunking" aim would result in reduction in public interest in "flying saucers" which today evokes a strong psychological reaction. This education could be accomplished by mass media such as television, motion pictures, and popular articles. Basis of such education would be actual case histories which had been puzzling at first but later explained. As in the case of conjuring tricks, there is much less stimulation if the "secret" is known. Such a program should tend to reduce the current gullibility of the public and consequently their susceptibility to clever hostile propaganda. (Condon 915-6)

Now this sounds sinister to the common person but the panel gave a good reason to "debunk" UFO reports. It was not to make people who report them look silly or to arrive at a preconceived conclusion but it was their concern that these UFO reports could prevent identification and response to a real military attack.

We suggest that these aims may be achieved by an integrated program designed to reassure the public of the total lack of evidence of inimical forces behind the phenomenon, to train personnel to recognize and reject false indications quickly and effectively, and to strengthen regular channels for the evaluation of and prompt reaction to true indications of hostile measures. (Condon 919)

The Robertson panel's definition of "debunking" in 1953 was not the UFOlogical definition of the word today. They wished to expose UFO reports for what they had concluded from the evidence presented. However, UFOlogy chose to demonize the panel's results and learned to redefine a "debunker" into somebody who is to be spurned

About the same time the Robertson panel was meeting, civilian UFO groups lead by Donald Keyhoe's National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP) began to openly question the USAF's efforts in investigating UFOs. Keyhoe went so far as to suggest that the USAF was "debunking" UFO reports on purpose in order to cover-up that they knew more than they were saying. The word "debunk" had begun to take on a negative meaning.

The prominent Harvard astronomer, Dr. Howard Menzel quickly joined the USAF in trying to explain away UFO events. He began to write books on the subject that took on a "debunking" theme. Keyhoe and other UFOlogists questioned the validity of his explanations and began to suggest that his work was suspect. Meanwhile, the media began to proclaim him the "leading saucer debunker", a title he seemed to willingly accept.

November 29, 1957 Humboldt Standard (p. 24)

It appears the word "debunker" was being applied to anyone who could explain UFO reports. However, UFOlogists began to suggest the word meant somebody who's explanations were contrived or incorrect. By the 1960s, the USAF scientific consultant on UFOs, Dr. Hynek took umbrage at being called a "UFO debunker":

I have over the years acquired something of a reputation as a "debunker" of UFO reports. If this arose from my honest desire to find a rational natural explanation for the stimuli that give rise to the reports, a procedure very frequently crowned with success, then I must bear with that reputation. If it stems, however, from a belief that I deliberately adopted a Procrustean approach, cutting down or stretching out evidence to make a forced fit, deliberately to "explain away" UFO reports at all cost, then it is a most unwarranted charge. (Hynek)

It was probably Dr. Menzel or the USAF, who inspired this redefining of the term and Dr. Hynek was not very happy at being compared to Menzel. By the 1970's the term "debunker" began to appear in UFO literature as a negative term to be given to UFO skeptics, who did not "believe" UFO reports represented anything unusual and would create any explanation to resolve a UFO report. Probably the most interesting use of the term occurred in the Gulf Breeze case. There, any person who doubted Ed Walters, was considered a "debunker". Ed Walters took this kind of name-calling to an extreme in his books on the subject. He even accused "debunkers" of planting evidence that suggested he hoaxed the whole thing! Since then, many UFO proponents have taken on this methodolgy of ridiculing and vilifying skeptics by simply screaming "debunker" when somebody suggests a UFO is something other than an alien spacecraft or "true" UFO..

Rod Brock has experienced this first-hand:

There's a word the ufologically "faithful" use to "demonize" their skeptical opponents. Various lengthy attempts have been made on certain UFO lists to "objectively" define this particular word. These attempts have been little more than hot air; in practice, anyone who dissents against the views of one of the faithful, regardless of the quality of his/her argument, will be conveniently labeled with this term. It's an old propaganda trick, a standard in rhetorical argument. Within ufological circles, it's the kiss of death, leveled with all the venom of more extreme pejoratives, such as "asshole," "scum," "vermin," etc.

The word is "debunker." (Brock)

Even the most educated of UFOlogists seem to be willing to use this brand of name-calling and stereotyping in discussing opposing opinions. Of course, UFOlogists would never want people to believe that they were so close-minded and try to use various ways to suggest what a "debunker" is supposed to be.UFO proponent Greg Sandow defines a debunker as,

Someone who's a very strong skeptic -- who doesn't just believe UFO reports don't represent anything anomalous, but also mounts a militant campaign to demonstrate that, seeking out UFO reports in order to demolish them. Typically behaves as if the conclusion came before the evidence or reasoning. (Sandow).

Of course, his description is rather interesting in that he uses terminology that states the debunkers are essentially waging a war on UFO reports with the preconceived notion that they are explainable. What Sandow appears to miss is that this is exactly what should be done by anyone investigating a UFO report. A tireless effort (AKA "a militant campaign") SHOULD be made to explain a UFO report since it would be likely that they may have a conventional explanation. In many cases, UFOlogists fail to do this and, instead, do nothing more than a cursory examination of the event and declare it inexplicable. In the past twenty years, several cases have been presented in the public forum as a UFO case worthy of note only to have logical explanations presented a few weeks or months later after all the facts were revealed. Most of the UFOlogists, who initially presented the case to the media as a prize UFO event, were now unwilling to accept the answer and immediately begin to call those proposing the solution "debunkers". The last thing they want to admit is that it UFO report (especially a highly publicized one) could have been a bright meteor, military flares, a balloon, the planet Venus, or an aircraft. When one consistently observes this kind of behavior, one has to wonder which group is behaving as if the conclusion has already been reached?

When a case is examined by a UFOlogist, they often will pick up all sorts of descriptions made by witnesses that make the case seem exotic and almost inexplicable. When the same event is examined by a "debunker"/skeptic, they often see such details as possible errors in observation/recall by the witness. After examining the data, the "debunker"/skeptic will then offer a possible explanation. UFOlogists will argue that the "debunker"/skeptic is not being reasonable in their explanation and that they never explain every facet of the case. The key for a UFOlogist to ridicule any explanation is to find one small iota of doubt and expand upon this in order to ridicule the solution! For instance, Robert Sheaffer claims that Jimmy Carter saw the planet Venus and reported it as a UFO. Carter reported the event at a time that Venus was in the sky and very easily visible. He even reports the object in the same general area of the sky. Meanwhile, the UFOlogist will argue that Carter stated the object was too large in angular size or his location in the sky was not EXACTLY correct. They will also argue that Carter should have known the planet Venus from his time on the farm (Do farmers know what planets are visible at all times?) and in the Navy (Are all naval officers expert astronomers? - not in my 20+ years experience). It also assumes that Carter made accurate measurements of angular size, azimuth, and elevation from his memory when he filed the report FOUR YEARS later (where he did not even get the date right)! At the time of the report, nobody bothered to look into the matter and it was simply filed away. However, after he became President, his report was considered a landmark case. It was "debunker" Robert Sheaffer who exposed the case as a simple misperception of Venus. Since UFOlogists love to point to a president having seen a UFO, some are not willing to accept this explanation. Therefore, it often is defended to the same extreme that UFOlogists often claim is used by these mean old "debunkers".

In recent years, the name "debunker" is being replaced by a new term meant to disparage UFO skeptics. Jerome Clark coined the term "Pelicanist" after James Easton suggested the theory that Kenneth Arnold saw pelicans flying back in 1947 and misidentified them as something exotic. Of course, it was Kenneth Arnold's classic sighting that started the "modern UFO era". If this case were to be explained, many UFOlogists would have to wonder about subsequent cases. Easton's explanation was compelling and, assuming some of Arnold's observations were not accurate, it could possibly explain the event as a simple misidentification. Clark, one of UFOlogy's leading historians, was not going to have any of this questioning of a landmark UFO case and used this term to demonize those supporting the explanation. Clark would describe "Pelicanism" as,

"...the practice of ascribing _any_ explanation, however scientifically unsustainable, illogical, or fantastic, to a UFO event or experience, in a desperate effort to deny that anything seriously anomalous may be going on." (Clark)

It sounds very similar to the UFOlogical application of the word "debunker". However, "debunker' has a different definition in the dictionary. Clark is being clever in creating a term that both ridicules and defines. Note how he tries to vilify the opposition. Terms such as "desperate" and "deny" are used to suggest that the individuals are not being honest with themselves and others. Clark also uses the term "scientifically unsustainable","illogical", and "fantastic" even though these terms can also be applied to the conclusion that a UFO report is evidence of alien visitation! All Clark has done is create another stereotype to use in order to drown out any opposing opinions on the subject of UFOs. "Pelicanism" is now used in the same breath as "debunker" even when the solution has been shown to be correct! In scientific debate, this kind of labeling is frowned upon. In UFOlogy, it appears to be accepted as the proper method of drowning out anybody that dare suggest a UFO case can be explained.

Those who do dare to suggest these cases might have a reasonable explanation and are willing to explore it are those who often write in the British magazine "Magonia". For their audacity in questioning such important UFO events, Jerome Clark spares nothing and hurls the term "pelicanist" the same way politicians hurl insults in a debate. Peter Rogerson, one of those writing for the magazine, took umbrage to his use of this term and would redefine it as:

...someone who prefers explanations which do not involve non human intelligences to ones that do.(Rogerson)

To rub Clark's nose in his label even further, those at Magonia have created an editorial in their magazine titled "The Pelican". Needless to say, "The Pelican" is often critical of the ETH interpretation of UFO events.

The use of such descriptions as "pelicanist" or "debunker" has a purpose. As Rod Brock has observed, the history of propaganda campaigns demonstrate that stereotyping and vilifying can convince misinformed people to form a desired opinion about a group of individuals or an idea. One can make the opposing opinion sound ridiculous or vicious such that these people are more than willing to accept the desired opinion as fact. As a result, UFOlogists use the tactic of labeling skeptics with names that "stick" in order to make their position sound more reasonable. This way, they can blame everyone but themselves for the lack of progress in studying UFOs. UFOlogists blame science for being "close-minded" to what they consider a wealth of evidence of something unusual occurring in the sky. They blame the government for covering up the truth about UFOs even though there are no documents revealed so far that suggest that the US government (or any government in the world) knows anything more about UFOs than that what is already known. Finally, the UFOlogists blame the "debunkers". The "debunkers" get to the news media and make their UFO cases seem ordinary. By doing this, the "debunkers" make scientists unwilling to study these UFO reports and assist the "cosmic watergate", which covers up the evidence of UFO reality. The louder a UFOlogists shouts "debunker" or "pelicanist", the more it sounds like mindless shrieking that is used to conceal UFOlogy's failure to achieve anything significant or even provoke mild scientific interest in the subject.

Works cited

Brock, Rod. "The burning zone". 28 August 2006. Rod Brock Blog: Aliens ate my buick. Available WWW:

Clark, Jerome. "Re:Pelicanist - Clark". 21 February 2005. UFO Updates Mailing List. Online posting. Available WWW:

Condon, E. U., et al., eds. Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects. New York: Bantam 1968.

Hynek, J. Allen. What is the responsibility of the scientist? Available WWW:

Rogerson, Peter. "Re:Pelicanist - Clark". 23 February 2005. UFO Updates Mailing List. Online posting. Available WWW:

Sandow, Greg. "Re:Labels and communication - Sandow" 5 March 2001. UFO Updates Mailing List. Online posting. Available WWW:


Back to My skeptical opinion about UFOs