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'Chasing UFOs' is entertaining but not very scientific

By Jeffrey Peterson

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, June 28 2012 5:05 p.m. MDT

Ben McGee, Erin Ryder and James Fox of "Chasing UFOs."

National Geographic

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National Geographic Channel premieres a new eight-part series June 29 called “Chasing UFOs,” a reality show that seeks to find answers to some of the country’s most perplexing alien-related mysteries.

The first episode follows a team of investigators, led by “UFOlogist” James Fox, to the small town of Dublin, Texas, where a rash of UFO sightings challenges even scientist Ben McGee’s belief that everything has a simple, rational explanation.

For anyone familiar with the Animal Planet series “Finding Bigfoot,” “Chasing UFOs” follows a similar format. Three people — a skeptic, a believer and an undecided researcher — travel to various locations around the country on the trail of possible UFO sightings. In the process, they do lots of detective-style things like interviewing witnesses, collecting data with an expensive-looking arsenal of gadgets and getting freaked out by low-flying aircraft as they traipse around wooded areas and military bases at night.

All in all, it’s a pretty entertaining show that might even make viewers wonder if there isn’t something weird going on in the night sky of their own hometowns.

Where “Chasing UFOs” begins to fall apart, though, is when it pretends to be something at all resembling a real scientific investigation. For some people, just the fact that the show is premiering on the National Geographic Channel immediately gives it an undeserved air of legitimacy. For that reason alone, series like this or Animal Planet’s recent fake documentary “Mermaids: The Body Found” that purport to examine topics outside of mainstream science with critical objectivity arguably dilute the quality of their respective channels' overall programming.

The three investigators also do their best to make everything sound very serious, using lots of pseudo-scientific lingo like when they say a site exhibits a “differential thermal signature” — in other words, “It’s hotter/colder over there than it is over here.”

On top of the questionable scientific posturing, there is a serious lack of balance in the kind of information presented throughout the show. No thought is given to providing opposing points of view other than Ben’s, and he’s pretty hopelessly outnumbered. Even Erin, the series’ designated in-betweener, seems awfully quick to buy into things and attribute them to extraterrestrial forces.

Of course, none of these criticisms really matter all that much as long as viewers take everything with a large grain of salt. The show does have some interesting moments. In the first episode, for example, James, Erin and Ben stumble across a newspaper article from 1891 about an unexplained explosion in the sky that sent shards of a metallic substance raining down on an old mill just outside of town.

Especially with a little more balanced approach and emphasis on genuine scientific methods, “Chasing UFOs” would be a pretty harmless way to spend an hour or so. As it is, though, viewers might be better off just rewatching “The X-Files."

Other than a few instances of already censored profanity, “Chasing UFOs” is extremely tame and would likely be OK even for younger viewers.

"Chasing UFOs" premieres June 29, at 7 p.m. MDT on the National Geographic Channel.

A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff Peterson is studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.

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