UFOs or unwelcome foolish opinions?

The recent controversy surrounding a teacher at the aerospace faculty being relieved of his teaching duties after publicly expressing his belief in UFOs raised interesting questions about the freedom and hierarchy of opinion within TU Delft.

(Illustration: Raghuveer Ramesh)
(Illustration: Raghuveer Ramesh)

While belief in UFOs may seem odd or even absurd for many people, it’s a fact that many prominent people, from top scientists to the world’s most powerful leaders, have also voiced their belief in UFOs, including United States Presidents Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan (1980-1988), as well as the USSR’s last head of state, Mikhail Gorbachev, who unequivocally stated, “The phenomenon of UFOs does exist, and it must be treated seriously.”

Further, former Nasa astronaut Edgar Mitchell claimed that aliens exist and their visits were covered up by the United States government, an opinion also shared by esteemed Professor Stephen Hawking, who concurred: “Of course it is possible that UFO’s really do contain aliens as many people believe, and the Government is hushing it up.”
While Professor Hawking remained a celebrated educator at Cambridge University for thirty years, TU Delft’s Coen Vermeeren, the head of Studium Generale and part-time teacher at the faculty of Aerospace Engineering, was recently relieved of his faculty teaching duties by the university after expressing his belief in UFOs during two national Dutch media interviews (a newspaper article and radio show).

“As a scientist, you stick your neck out if you say that UFOs exist,” Vermeeren was quoted as saying in a De Telegraaf newspaper article. “I dare to say this publicly.” Following Vermeeren’s pronouncement, TU Delft subsequently relieved him of his part-time position at the aerospace faculty, saying there was great concern about the separation between Vermeeren’s UFO beliefs and his teaching responsibilities at TU Delft.

Debates about freedom of opinion quickly followed in various online forums and media, with Taede Smedes, philosopher of religion at the Radboud University , defending Vermeeren’s position: “Science may not ignore UFOs,” Smedes said. Meanwhile, Professor Klaas van Egmond, of Utrecht University, asked: “From where comes that age-old fear of new ideas?”
However, TU Delft’s Dap Hartmann, an assistant professor who teaches innovation management and entrepreneurship and holds a PhD in astronomy, unleashed a strident personal attack on Vermeeren in an opinion piece published in De Volkskrant newspaper, headlined ‘Ufo-lunatic can’t be a scientist’ (‘Ufo-gekkie’ kan geen wetenschapper zijn’).

Of Vermeeren’s stated belief in UFOs, Hartmann wrote: “This makes him a hero within the UFO-community, but an idiot within science. Vermeeren disqualified himself as a scientist, because he lacks the ability to distinguish between sense and nonsense. UFO-lunatics may be free to roam around, but not as scientific staff members at a reputable university.”

Embarrassment
A quick survey of various international students studying at the Aerospace faculty revealed broad support for Vermeeren’s right to hold and express his personal opinions. “People have the right to believe in what they want,” opined Varun Raman, an MSc Aerospace Engineering student from India. “It’s their fundamental right. As long as they don’t thrust their views on others, I’m completely fine with those who believe in UFOs.”
A salient point: Vermeeren expressed his personal opinion about UFOs outside the university, not inside the classroom while teaching his students. However, during his media interviews, Vermeeren was introduced as an ‘instructor at TU Delft’.
One reading of the university’s (and Hartmann’s) reaction to Vermeeren’s statements perhaps pertains to a sense of institutional embarrassment; that is, a relatively low-level “scientific staff member” at this “reputable university” sullied the good name of the university with his “UFO-lunatic” talk, engendering a sense of guilt by association or affiliation within the university?

True, Vermeeren is no Professor Hawking, nor for that matter of the professional stature of TU Delft’s esteemed Professor Cees Dekker or Professor Emeritus Salle Kroonenberg, yet both professors could be said to hold publicly expressed personal views that many, if not the majority, of people within the scientific community would deem highly controversial and unscientific, if not “nonsense” (to borrow Hartmann’s word), devoid of concrete scientific proof.

Professor Dekker, arguably one of TU Delft’s most celebrated scientists, famed for his nanotechnology research, is an elected Member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and Fellow to the American Physical Society. According to his Wikipedia page, he is also a devout Christian, “active in the discussion about the relationship between science and religion” and a proponent of theistic evolution, a decidedly “non-scientific” belief that asserts that religious teachings about God and modern scientific understanding of biological evolution are in fact compatible.
Kroonenberg, meanwhile, is perhaps the Netherlands’ most high-profile
scientific critic of climate-change, questioning the role that mankind plays in global warming, which is a decidedly minority view within the scientific community, while regularly appearing on national media programmes and publishing a book (’De menselijke maat: de aarde over tienduizend jaar’) about his views on the subject.

As such, within the scientific community, Prof. Dekker, Prof. Kroonenberg and Vermeeren all could be said to hold controversial, largely unscientific minority views on subjects in which the ‘burden of proof’ is against them. Consequently, in the cohesive interests of the university’s scientific community, the question then is if it is wise and responsible for others to publicly damn one or all as “lunatics” and “idiots” who have disqualified themselves as scientists, for holding such personal opinions?
Or perhaps, as others have surmised, the larger issue is not the freedom to hold or express unscientific personal opinions outside of the university, but rather a case of the relative professional stature of the person holding the opinion. Was Vermeeren - ‘a minor, expendable part-time teacher’ - simply not professionally powerful enough to voice a controversial opinion publicly without recrimination, lest the “reputable” name of TU Delft be seemingly denigrated?

“I don’t think it is right for the scientific community to ostracize someone who believes in UFOs, because the existence of UFOs has not been proven or disproved yet,” says Haider Hussain, a BSc Aerospace Engineering student. “The scientific community is sort of turning into an elitist club where any alternative opinions are completely disregarded.”
Perhaps the last word is best left not to Vermeeren, but to US President Jimmy Carter: “I don’t laugh at people any more when they say they’ve seen UFOs. I’ve seen one myself.”


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