More on UFOs

In my review of Leslie Kean’s UFOs, I mentioned that she relied heavily on a Belgian UFO wave photograph, which at the time was credible, though the photographer had since come out to say that it was a hoax. Fox News had a story in 2011 that reviewed the book, mentioned the hoax, and let Kean respond. Her reply, which I’m including below, was smart and reasoned, like the book:

It’s a disturbing development, and it shows how hard it is to authenticate a photograph. At the time the book was put together, everyone was relying on what we knew from the labs. As a reporter I’m going to take that information seriously, and [Major General] De Brouwer [(who investigated the phenomenon at the time)] certainly took it very seriously and now the guy comes out [confessing the hoax], so we’re stuck with a serious problem that’s still being investigated.

She went on to note that the hoax “doesn’t discount all the sightings that took place.”

I’m increasingly of the opinion that photographs will always only muddy the waters. In season 2, episode 1, of the ghost skeptic podcast The Spooktator, the speakers discuss how many skeptics demand photographic or video evidence of sightings, and yet no amount of photographic or video evidence would be convincing to everyone because basically anything could be a hoax after all (you can listen for yourself at around the 24:30 mark; I’d recommend the podcast as a whole because the speakers are quite clever, the subject matter is interesting, and the show is often quite funny). The point is not to say that we should blindly trust claims from eyewitnesses (eyewitness testimony is, after all, notoriously unreliable). Rather, perhaps we should just give up on the idea of using photographs as the most persuasive evidence when examining the subject of UFOs (or anything else that would normally be deemed paranormal or extraordinary). They are just a part of the larger body of evidence, which I think was Kean’s point. And for the most part, she didn’t emphasize photo evidence in the book itself, so she’s been fairly consistent on that point.

I suspect that even fixating on single case studies can be problematic because so much effort can be put into “explaining away” each element of a particular case (regardless of whether those explanations actually hold much water) that larger parallels across multiple sightings might be lost in the shuffle. Ufologists might be prone to losing sight of the trees for the forest, whereas skeptics lose sight of the forest for the trees. It’s partially a problem of the genre; True Believers try to sell such fantastic claims that so much of skeptical attention is spent responding to the obvious bullshit rather than the underlying 5% of sightings left unexplained on review by investigators. We’re still re-litigating the Roswell incident, after all.

Framing the Narrative

Ufology is so dominated by competing narratives, with adherents claiming access to a singular Truth. True Believers buy into it all–the government and/or an associated military-industrial complex is covering up the existence of extraterrestrial visitors to Earth and has taken advantage of alien technology. Skeptics, or debunkers really, believe that all UFOs can absolutely be explained by current technological or natural explanations; even those 5% of cases could be explained if we just cherry pick the facts enough and discount elements of the cases after the fact. Yes, there are some who really just want to answer the question of the 5%, but it does seem like the conversation is dominated by loony statements from True Believers and responses to those loony statements by skeptics. Yet there’s a growing number of variant theories resting somewhere in between.

My favorite proposal, for a while, was that the unexplained UFO cases largely represent secret military aircraft, and that a good deal of the extraterrestrial hypothesis theorizing and any supporting evidence (such that exists) are spurred on by deliberate military disinformation. This was most forcefully argued in the excellent documentary Mirage Men and its accompanying book by Mark Pilkington. For a while after reading and watching these twin productions, I felt thoroughly convinced that this accounted for the uenxplainable. But in retrospect, I recognize that I was in full-on “debunker” mode, looking for any easy and conventional explanation that could be inserted to explain away a mystery. It can’t be aliens, I reasoned, as though “unexplainable” automatically equaled “alien,” so perhaps anything truly unexplainable is just really high-tech military aircraft. Well, of course, secret aircraft are the answer in some cases, but not all. Plus, the US government would have had to have these advanced aircraft, which in some cases still exceed known aircraft capabilities especially in speed and maneuverability, since at least the late 1940’s. And for me to accept military disinformation as the main culprit, I had to willfully neglect facts I already knew–chiefly, US Air Force PR efforts to dismiss the UFO phenomenon with Project Blue Book, or the CIA’s Robertson Panel and encouragement to debunk the UFO phenomenon as well. Seriously, the CIA’s own website discusses the CIA’s involvement in the UFO phenomenon and notes that there had historically been a “continued emphasis on UFO reporting [that] might threaten ‘the orderly functioning’ of the government by clogging the channels of communication with irrelevant reports and by inducing ‘hysterical mass behavior’ harmful to constituted authority.”

I want to stress that I’m not discounting the existence of disinformation, whether through formal or informal channels. It is just obviously not a sprawling government conspiracy, and it does not account for all cases of UFO belief or all UFO sightings.

Interestingly, the CIA notes (in the same document I linked to earlier) that over half of all UFO reports in the late 1950s and the 1960s were accounted for by manned reconnaissance flights. So on the one hand, a disinformation campaign pointing to UFOs where there were none would have been useful to military intelligence agents attempting to keep the reconnaissance flight programs secret. On the other hand, I think it’s safe to say that if this explanation was actually accounted for, then we are still left with the final 5% that is not explained by conventional technology, natural explanations, or even secret aircraft programs.

The “manned reconnaissance flights” were related to U-2 and OXCART projects. The history of these programs is recounted by Annie Jacobsen in Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base. Jacobsen’s book is mostly well-researched and deals with fascinating secret history. But she stretches too far, spinning another sort of disinformation explanation for another element of ufology. She argues, based on one anonymous source, that the Roswell crash was actually a Soviet-operated, Nazi-designed flying saucer craft that contained genetically augmented human children as part of a high-level Soviet disinformation campaign. This story seems to me at least as outlandish as any story about aliens out there. But it checks a lot of boxes: it provides a “down-to-earth,” alternative explanation for (one particular) UFO; it offers bones to both True Believers and skeptics, weaving together narratives so that it’s potentially palatable to both; it leans heavily into military cover-ups and disinformation, tempting anyone who is inclined to distrust the government; and it seems to provide a real example for why the CIA would have been concerned about the Soviets faking a UFO invasion, beyond the merely speculative. Nonetheless, it just sounds like nonsense to me, and it’s a claim that lacks adequate support.

Kean discusses disinformation and potential conspiracy in her book, but it’s one chapter, and she stresses that at best any speculation as to an existing conspiracy is nothing more than speculation. She does not try to convince anyone that there is a government conspiracy to cover up anything, and she points out that if such a conspiracy exists, it likely involves a tiny group within the government that has excluded leadership from the loop. She favors the idea of a conspiracy of ignorance: the simplest and most rational explanation is not some broad cover-up, but a distinctly human effort by all involved to simply ignore an issue that cannot be explained. Efforts have been made to conventionally explain the phenomenon without success. The UFOs have not exhibited hostile intent, do not appear to be aircraft of foreign nations, and could not be stopped by our military anyway. Better to just ignore the issue than to admit that there is some rare phenomenon that is completely beyond our control or understanding (so far).

I think that Kean’s right about this. But I also think there’s room for Mirage Men‘s disinformation campaigns. If the UFO phenomenon exists, it could be advantageous to some to use it as a cover. It hardly makes it official government policy, or even something endorsed by leadership at any level. Just as there are many views out there about what UFOs are, there are likely many different approaches at the individual level by people within government and the military. No matter how much we try to smooth away any individuality into a wall of military procedure and governmental bureaucracy, we are still left with individual agents capable of holding radically different beliefs and making different decisions in sensitive situations.

Parallel Discussions

Much like Mirage Men was both a book and a documentary film, I think it’s hard to fully appreciate UFOs without also viewing I Know What I Saw, a 2009 documentary directed by James Fox. Kean references this film and other documentaries; she is listed as a producer of the film; and she actually appears in the film itself, investigating along with Fox. I Know What I Saw includes the conference that Kean mentions, in which several of the writers in UFOmet and presented talks about their experiences. It was interesting to actually see these men share their stories, and not just read it. The documentary also offered photos and video clips that, while hardly convincing evidence of anything, were not contained within the book (further evidence, I think, that Kean recognized the problems with photographic evidence and tried to avoid using that as primary support). I Know What I Saw also interviewed many regular citizens who had witnessed mass sightings. And it also included an interview with former astronaut Gordon Cooper–perhaps the wildest story I’ve heard from someone who seems so credible.

I think that I Know What I Saw tended to be even more credulous than UFOs (especially with its reliance on so many civilian accounts), but it’s definitely an overlapping endeavor with the book. The book reinforces the movie, and the movie reinforces the book. I would recommend reviewing both close to simultaneously (and skeptically, and critically, but willing to get past the ridiculous UFO TV distribution introduction).

What Should be Studied?

To the extent that ufology is a real field, it still seems way too broad, and it’s too easy to make anyone an expert. Even efforts to study reincarnation, near-death experiences, ghosts, and ESP have actual experts in parapsychology research groups! (Just one example would be the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, among many others.) There are certainly intelligent people involved in ufology, including a handful of scientists, but most professional attention has been dismissive. Consequently, a good deal of UFO researchers are just everyday people who decided that this was an area that they could be experts in.

Ufology gets too caught up in lore. Crazy lore, with sweeping government conspiracies and extensive alien abductions. For ufology to be credible, I think it needs to be studied by credible experts and limited to a study of UFOs (which, I think, is Kean’s argument). It needs to dispense with the lore and drop the True Believer aliens-are-among-us crap. And it should not be concerned with alien abduction stories (I’m not familiar with alien abduction stories that, even if accepted as genuine accounts by the experiencers, couldn’t be adequately explained by things like sleep paralysis or false memories and hypnotic suggestion or a mental illness, and–correct me if I’m wrong–there’s no associated physical evidence out there to suggest it’s not just in the mind). What I suspect is that even something like alien abduction could probably benefit from skeptical, expert investigation by medical researchers to help determine what is actually causing these alleged events; our understanding of something like sleep paralysis or the cause of false memories still seems to be developing, and it is possible that some alien abduction cases could be explained by a yet-unknown mental condition. But combining alien abduction stories with the UFO phenomenon, and further suggesting that alien abduction stories represent literal interaction with aliens (or even somehow provide any useful data at all outside of a neurological perspective), is just harmful toward taking the subject of UFOs in any way seriously.

While I had some qualms with Kean’s book, I do appreciate how she provided a succinct argument that reopened my eyes to an honest appraisal of an unexplained phenomenon. In a way, this is frustrating, though: I see the problem, I’d like to see research efforts address it, but I am not an expert in any useful area, and any involvement on my own would likely just get in the way. So it is a problem, like most problems in the world, that I am not in a position to help solve. I hope that many “ufologists” can eventually take the hint and get out of the space, and that legitimate experts with valuable qualifications can actually start paying attention.

I want to believe that ufology can become a legitimate field.


Top image allegedly of a UFO in the Belgian wave of sightings, from Wikipedia.

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