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October 31, 2014

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At UFO symposium, participants urge open-mindedness

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UFO art on display at the annual Mutual UFO Network Symposium at the JW Marriott Las Vegas Resort on Sunday morning. The green sculpture in the foreground, entitled "Power", was created by amauter artist Michael Harley, who said the work took several months to complete. Harley said the piece, which was priced at $600, came from his imagination and was created out of porcelain plates and LED lighting. The conference featured art from 10 different artists, each with a unique spin on alien-inspired artwork.

It's easy to stereotype the sort of people who attended the annual Mutual UFO Network Symposium in Las Vegas this weekend.

After all, it takes a special kind of person to travel to Las Vegas, fork over close to $250 and sit through dozens of speeches about faster-than-light travel, alien DNA analysis and 'new' information about 70-year-old alleged alien encounters.

But even though the topic matter seems a bit fantastical, and despite a handful of alien-encounter zealots, a large number of conference attendees were not the type of tinfoil-hat wearing crackpot conspiracy theorists that are often associated with the field of ufology, the study of unidentified flying objects.

In fact, many attendees, such as retired military medic Marc Johns, said the reason for attending the conference and studying ufology stems from a desire to use scientific methods and research to tie the subject to respected fields such as astronomy and physics.

"There's an awful lot of people out there who aren't kooks who are interested in this topic," Johns said.

Johns, who traveled from Chester, England, to attend the conference, said he was more attracted to the open-mindedness of the symposium, and strongly disagreed with the sort of blind faith found in straight-up alien believers and deniers. Johns said he was much more interested in using science — collecting hard data before making any fantastical or otherworldly postulations.

Johns wasn't among the majority of conference attendees, however. Utah woman Sandra Wood claimed that demonic beings traveling in flying discs had been stalking her family and young daughter for several years, and that she was often followed by government vehicles due to her husband's work in "exposing" UFO truths.

Don Donderi, a retired university professor and conference speaker, gave an hourlong speech Sunday morning much along the same lines, partially skipping over hard evidence on the actuality of alien existence, and jumping straight to alien policy decisions. How, he asked, should aliens respect and follow Earth treaties?

But jumping to such conclusions didn't sit well with 32-year old Sam Rux, an elementary school teacher from New York City and first-time attendee. Rux, who became interested in ufology as a child after seeing a friend's reaction to a UFO at a summer camp, said he wanted to keep his mind open for any unexplained phenomena — whether it's strange weather patterns, government vehicles or actual alien crafts.

Though Rux isn't as zealous about the existence of aliens as other attendees, he said he enjoyed going to the conference because it provided a rare opportunity to have open discussions and meet ufology authors. Again, he said being open-minded helps when confronted with the wide range of theories and speculation about UFOs.

After all, Rux pointed out, it's a little ridiculous to assume Earth is the only planet in the universe supporting life.

"I think people should keep an open mind; there's a lot of things about space we don't know," he said. "We're not that unique."

MUFON, the nonprofit organization that organized the conference, is also invested in keeping the study of ufology as scientific as possible. The group has trained hundreds of volunteers on how to interview witnesses and file reports for possible UFOs, requiring a test on a 300-page manual, according to the group's website.

Open-mindedness plays a major role for attendees like Johns and Rux, who both indicated the importance of remaining skeptical yet open to discovering and understanding UFOs.

"Don't be swayed by the media and science-fiction and blind faith," Johns said. "Do your own research."

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