Review: UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record

UFOsUFOs by Leslie Kean

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

UFOs are real. A small percentage of strange aerial phenomena are well-documented, with credible testimony from multiple witnesses (often pilots and/or military personnel) and occasionally supporting physical evidence, and yet they cannot be explained by any conventional means, accounting for available psychological, technological, and natural answers. This roughly 5% of reported cases involving sightings of unknown objects constitutes some real, apparently physical phenomenon that sometimes interacts with the physical world (scrambling electronic equipment, withering plant life, leaving behind radiation, causing physiological reactions in witnesses) and sometimes even appears to exhibit an intelligence and purpose in its interactions–especially with approaching aircraft.

If the above claims seem absurd to you, I would highly recommend Leslie Kean’s book. I think that if you read it from start to finish, you will leave it convinced of the above. And hopefully, you will be in favor of the formal investigation of this phenomenon, preferably at least in part undertaken by an open and honest governmental organization.

Kean advocates a militant agnosticism about UFOs. We know that UFOs exist, she says, but we cannot know what they actually are. While she points to many knowledgeable and authoritative observers and researchers who regard the extraterrestrial hypothesis as most likely, she does not ask or demand that you accept this yourself–in fact, regardless of how you feel about the plausibility of such an explanation for even some elements of the phenomenon, it’s irrelevant to Kean’s role as advocate journalist, calling for a transparent investigation into UFOs to tear away the cultural taboo and hopefully find real answers.

While you don’t have to accept the extraterrestrial hypothesis, I would suggest that the weakest elements of the book are when Kean seems a little too willing to trust the perspectives of people who buy a little too heavily into the idea. Similarly, Kean is so intent on presenting interesting accounts and case studies that she does not always present possible alternative explanations to events (admittedly, many chapters involving actual cases are written by observers and researchers, not Kean herself, but she typically introduces these cases and so has room to address problems in the narratives if she wanted to do so). In most cases, those alternative explanations would not adequately address the entirety of the event, but being silent when there are skeptical responses to many of these events creates an obvious weakness.

On the flip side, it is frankly shocking to me to realize how long I was willing to simply trust “skeptical” (read closed-minded debunker) “explanations” of unexplained aerial phenomena. Look, I get it–there are often possible explanations to even the remaining unexplained cases. But they typically don’t quite fit. They might explain one aspect of the case, but not the whole thing. Cherry-picking particular facts to attempt to explain away in isolation (for instance, focusing on the deployment of flares to explain away the Phoenix lights even though the biggest number of sightings were earlier in the evening before the deployment of said flares, and even though those sightings were of triangular craft and not just lights) in service of discrediting an entire event is just obnoxious and dishonest.

Three examples from the book:

  • I had long completely disregarded the Rendlesham Forest incident because of the skeptical explanations: Penniston is deemed unreliable because of his description of a craft on the ground at a later date, and the aerial lights can be explained by stars or space debris or a nearby lighthouse. But Penniston’s account, which I admit I do remain skeptical about, is actually supported by journalist and former MoD UFO investigator Nick Pope (who reviewed the case file and detected some errors in the original investigation) and at least in part by Colonel Halt, another key witness. Let me reiterate here that I think it’s still very reasonable to be very skeptical of Penniston’s claim of a close examination of a triangular craft with hieroglyphics on the side. Regardless, Halt’s own account of his sightings–objects moving in strange ways and bizarre speeds, and beaming a light down at him and at the base–cannot be simply explained as space debris or stars or the lighthouse (the lighthouse, Halt notes, was visible at a separate location throughout the event). We are still fundamentally relying on summaries of old investigations and old eyewitness testimony here, but it’s not the bullshit story I thought (nor is there the bullshit melodrama of government conspiracy and threats to life and limb by covert agents that True Believers tend to insert into the story).
  • Skeptical explanations for the 1976 Tehran UFO incident, suggesting a run-of-the-mill equipment failure on a fighter jet and a chase of celestial objects, downplay the impact of the event on the equipment of two separate fighters, ignore the testimony of the witnesses as to what the objects looked and behaved like in the air and on the ground, disregard US intelligence interest in the incident at the time, and fundamentally suggest that the entirety of an Iranian air base was clueless regarding the appearance of basic celestial phenomena (like what Jupiter looks like).
  • I had honestly assumed that the 2006 O’Hare incident had been explained away by weather phenomena, but the phenomenon proposed by the FAA very clearly does not match what witnesses observed and should not have occurred in the weather conditions existing on the day of the incident (and this explanation was only offered after the FAA was revealed to have lied about not having any knowledge of reports of the incident).

None of the above incidents should be seen as a 100% accurate account with no possible explanation out there. There are definitely problematic elements in at least the first two events. But dismissive debunking doesn’t really help either. More important than any particular case study, we have a statistically significant set of currently unexplained (and unexplainable) aerial phenomena with shared traits.

On the flip side, Kean is too credulous especially when it comes to photographic evidence. While the since-debunked Belgian UFO wave photograph that Kean extensively refers to was at least considered credible by Belgian authorities until the photographer allegedly announced it was a hoax more recently, Kean also references the McMinnville UFO photograph as a reliable image, and simply looking at that photo one can see that it at least could be a hoax. Thankfully, photographic evidence is not core to any argument in the book–and I don’t think any photographic or video evidence would be sufficient to overcome the skeptical presumption that it could at least possibly be doctored (especially with current technology, it’s way too easy to produce a convincing fake).

I’ve gotten a little bit in the weeds here. I tried to consider the book carefully, and I tried to review skeptical accounts of the more shocking events described. Segments by Kean were very carefully written and well-reasoned; the essays by the pilots, military personnel, government officials, and researchers who contributed are concise and focused mostly on facts, with a few (typically reserved) remarks about their personal feelings on the subject. There is no excessive verbiage, no flowery melodramatic attempt at a smoking gun reveal. Kean’s proposition is that we have a mystery and we should at least try to meaningfully resolve it. I agree.

It’s not a perfect book, but it’s probably essential reading on the subject and also includes a flood of sources and references for future reading and investigation. It’s worth the read.

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P.S. I’m planning a follow-up post to this review for this weekend. I want to talk a little bit more about some of the strengths and weaknesses of Kean’s book, especially in light of events that have occurred since its original publication.

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