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Dennis Rohatyn, a philosophy professor at the University of San Diego, gets right to the point when he steps up to the podium at a conference titled “When Cosmic Cultures Meet”: “P.T. Barnum said that there’s a sucker born every minute. Today, he’d change that to nanosecond.”

Rohatyn’s stance as a skeptic of UFOs and the people who await them made him a curious choice for the conference, which landed at the Sheraton-Washington Hotel from May 26-28. He seems quite comfortable with his attendance, though.

“Since Jesus went among the sinners, why shouldn’t I walk among the space cases?” he asks.

The stated mission of the event is to prepare humanity for contact with otherworldly visitors. Rohatyn takes delight in tweaking the true believers who have assembled for otherworldly homage. “I think the whole subject is a symbol and symptom of our angst. It tells us a lot about ourselves, not much about the universe,” he says.

The audience endures Rohatyn’s ribbing politely, but seems more engaged by Harvard psychiatry professor John Mack, who’s drawn raised eyebrows from his colleagues for suggesting that UFO abduction tales be accepted at face value. Based on the accounts of about 100 alleged abductees—many of whom cite sexual molestation by E.T.s—Mack thinks the visitors are trying to create a hybrid human/extraterrestrial race.

Mathematician and author Dave Hunt lets some air out of Mack’s balloon when his turn comes. He says it’s remarkably presumptuous to think aliens would find earthlings interesting. “I don’t even think we would make good pets for them,” he sniffs.

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As moderator, C.B. Scott Jones remains cosmically neutral. Jones is the president of the Falls Church, Va.-based Human Potential Foundation, which organized the conference. Previously, he worked for six years as special assistant to Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), whom he says shares an interest in ESP, telepathy, and clairvoyance. Unable to convince the government to fund research into the paranormal, Jones turned to the private sector. Laurance Rockefeller, millionaire philanthropist and brother of Nelson, provided seed money for the foundation. Jones and Rockefeller decided their first big project would be to “see if they could reverse the policy of silence and secrecy on UFOs.” Contact with extraterrestrial intelligence will have an impact on society—“8 to 10 on the Richter scale,” insists Jones—which is why he wants to get people talking about it.

Altogether, 24 guest speakers show up to mull over the prospects of first contact, from philosophers to anthropologists to lawyers to psychologists to spiritualists. The conversation ricochets from a sober discussion on space law by Smithsonian legal counsel George Robinson to speculation on whether human beings can be reincarnated as space aliens. Unrepresented, however, are astronomers and other space scientists—a conspicuous omission, since these groups would seem to be the vanguard of E.T. research. In 1992, NASA kicked off Project SETI, which uses radio telescopes to scan the heavens for electromagnetic emanations that might be alien messages. Congress cut SETI’s funding in 1993, but the program has limped along with private funding. Jones says he invited a number of SETI backers—including popular-science maven Carl Sagan—but they all sent their regrets.

Many of the attendees are unsurprised by the scientific apathy. They believe that mainstream science has missed the boat consistently. “Radio telescopes are a wonderful scenario for conservative scientists,” says German UFOlogist Michael Hesemann, who believes the aliens are already among us. He predicts the Fox network will broadcast a filmed autopsy of a UFO pilot sometime this August.

Geobiologist Elisabet Sahtouris tosses forth the idea that UFOs come not from deep space but from other dimensions (she explains there are at least six others besides length, width, depth, and time). Native Andean peoples have known of E.T.s’ existence for some time, she alleges. Her protegé, a Peruvian teen-ager named Puma Quispe Singona, says he wanted to re-enact a harvest ceremony to evoke these interdimensional “light beings.” Unfortunately, the rite involves the chewing of coca leaves, which are a notoriously difficult item to sneak past Customs. Too bad—a little leafy euphoria might have added some sparkle to the assemblage at the Sheraton.

Zecharia Sitchin, author of the “Earth Chronicles” series, believes the conference should have been retitled “When Cosmic Cultures Met.” Stitchin’s theory is that 450,000 years ago, aliens touched down in the Persian Gulf and created mankind by merging their gametes with those of our knuckle-scraping hominid ancestors. Sitchin insists he has met the aliens, and they are us.

But the big questions looming over the gathering seems to be: Will the E.T.s be God or the devil? Will they share their technology with us and perhaps bring us spiritual enlightenment, or will they destroy our faith and our culture?

Anthropologist James Moore deduces that any species that develops long-range weapons must also develop altruism or wipe itself out. Advanced aliens, he concludes cautiously, will understand the value of making nice. His vision of alien/earthling interaction suggests the hope for campfire Kumbayas.

Although most every scenario of cosmic interaction gets a turn at the Sheraton, one of the attendees suggests that the reliance on academics leaves the proceedings short on firsthand data. “A lot of people said they would rather have heard more UFO abductees talk,” says Maggie McIwaine, a clerk at the Quest Bookshop in Charlottesville, Va. It shouldn’t be hard rounding a few up, since according to retired Air Force officer and UFO investigator James Ware, “at least 10 million Americans have been on alien vehicles, whether they know it or not.”

Between sessions, I corner Ruth Montgomery, author of Aliens Among Us and numerous other books on the paranormal. If the visitors have such an important message for us, I ask, why reveal it secretly to random housewives and farmers and African medicine men, virtually guaranteeing that these individuals will be treated as lunatics by society-at-large? Why not just land on the Mall and wait for the CNN camera crew to drive up?

“There are a lot of evil and scared people in the world. They’d probably try to shoot them or incarcerate them,” she answers calmly. “If they landed on the White House lawn, they would last about five seconds.”