Review: Surviving Death (Book)

Surviving Death: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for an Afterlife by Leslie Kean

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just like Leslie Kean’s UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record was for the UFO phenomenon, her Surviving Death: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for an Afterlife is a great introductory text about contemporary evidence for the afterlife geared at a mainstream audience. It’s not an examination of religious belief, and Kean presents herself as agnostic on the subject although inclined to believe that consciousness continues beyond death. She tries to maintain objectivity while also being explicit about her subjective perspective and personal biases; she weaves her own personal experiences into her reporting in a way that makes the book more intimate, more personally authentic, and yet more troubled. I’ll get to that more later.

The first thing you have to get past when reading this book is that Kean is not at all agnostic on the subject of psychic abilities. Quoting British psychologist David Fontana, she writes in the introduction, “Psychic abilities are a matter of fact, not of belief.” She then insists, “The reader will encounter the reality of the most refined psychic functioning throughout this book, and by the end will have no questions as to its existence.” I doubt that many readers, not previously inclined to believe in psychic abilities, will have shifted the needle on their views at all by the end. I certainly still have plenty of questions, having only been primed to accept that there may be some form of psychic ability in some humans thanks to having read Annie Jacobsen’s Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government’s Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis. Nonetheless, you have to at least be willing to accept that parapsychologists and other paranormal researchers typically accept psychic abilities as existing to some degree or other, as this forms the big debate for many of these researchers in the narrative: is the evidence we have of some continuation of consciousness beyond death actually supportive of that hypothesis, or is it only reflective of the immense psychic abilities that some living agents may possess to access and synthesize otherwise hidden or unknown information sources that would often be separated without any clear connection? By the end of the book, I do believe that an objective and fair-minded reader will have to acknowledge that if at least some of the phenomena reported are genuine, then one of these possibilities must be true, and the living-agent hypothesis feels like a remarkably conservative position, a recognition that it’s at least as outlandish, if not more so, to make the great number of assumptions needed to reach a hypothesis in which consciousness somehow survives death. Either way, you should be prepared for some rather interesting discussion regarding the concept of non-local consciousness and how it might interact with one’s physical brain–something not presented as fact but as informed speculation in an attempt to explain some of the things described.

So what is described? Kean slowly constructs a narrative of the potential afterlife by building on one section of study after another, starting with reincarnation accounts, moving on to near-death experiences and “actual-death” experiences, providing connective tissue with overlapping accounts between those with NDEs and some of the details children provide about what happens between reincarnations, then steaming on to the end with mental mediumship, trance mediumship, apparitions, and physical mediumship. The plausibility of the experiences started off high for me and gradually decreased over time. (In fact, I’m already rather partial to reincarnation narratives because the best ones seem, to me at least, to be rather difficult to fake without the active involvement of the researcher in the fraud, and the accounts can’t really be brushed away as merely coincidental or absorbed through environment; Old Souls by Tom Shroder, which is referenced by Kean in Surviving Death, turned me onto the parapsychological research into this field, which at its very least is compelling as a form of oral history/folklore collection.)

Kean is quite aware of the decreasing-plausibility concern, and I think she spends an unusual amount of time and space on mediumship and mental mediumship in particular because the field has such a strong history of fraud and resultant public skepticism. She is convinced, along with some other paranormal researchers, that there are legitimate mediums, and I have to say that what she shares of the readings by the exceptional mental mediums she has seen certainly suggests access to knowledge they could not otherwise possess that probably wouldn’t be possible with advance research or cold reading. But physical mediumship has always seemed too razzle-dazzle to be credible, seemingly set up with the intent to deceive, with the closet behind the medium and the darkness or low red light required for anything to happen. Plus, everything else works within an understanding that perhaps consciousness is non-local and can survive death, but it does not have many mechanisms to interact with our material plane, in the dimensions our physical bodies inhabit, and it may fundamentally be something unverifiable, but it doesn’t require a rethinking of our physical reality. However, physical mediumship, with its ectoplasm and conjurations of hands and feet and sometimes whole forms, with its vanishing and materialization of objects, with its projection of strange voices, reads like a bizarre stage show and would require reexamination of how we think the world works in pretty significant ways. It’s a bridge too far for me, and I suspect that will be the case for many people. Kean’s fighting a losing battle there, and her narration of sessions she has attended doesn’t do much for me. Surely she is convinced, and I truly believe she experienced what she writes, but I think that this is just evidence that she was sufficiently fooled by the performers. Many intelligent, educated, skeptical people can be fooled by an especially convincing hustle, so she would hardly be in bad company, but I just can’t accept the extraordinary claims invited by physical mediums without extraordinary evidence that will never be forthcoming. I suppose nothing’s impossible, but I’m not willing to let down my guard and believe just about anything simply because it could possibly be true. I think that’s the very path to the really whacky, far-out-there High Strangeness crowd.

While I think it was a mistake to devote so much time to physical mediumship, it is nonetheless the case that Kean has probably written the most persuasive argument possible to take the practice seriously. And in doing so, her interweaving of her personal experiences in the wake of her grief over losing her brother and a close friend makes the book something far more personal and emotional than I would have expected, even as she often keeps a rather clinical, dry, and objective writing style. It’s certainly a far more revealing book about the author as a person than UFOs was, and I appreciate the vulnerability, even though I can’t reward it with full belief.

Surviving Death presents a series of fascinating narratives, and I’ve barely touched on all that is covered for such a relatively small volume. Much like UFOs, it has its flaws, but it’s essential reading for its paranormal subject matter.

View all my reviews

Review: The 37th Parallel

UPDATE: Chuck Zukowski appears to have responded to my post. You can see the comment at the bottom of this post. If it’s really him, he is really quite angry at my characterization of him. He also rightly points out that I do not have a science background (hopefully that’s clear to any regular readers). I’m not going to change my review. I’m also going to leave the comment up; it’s more ranting than argument, but I do feel the guy deserves the space to defend himself. I would prefer that people who put themselves in the public eye just avoid seeking out commentary from random people on the Internet, but I can’t dictate what people do with their free time.

The biggest takeaway from the comment, for me, is that the individual claiming to be Chuck says that Ben Mezrich mischaracterized him. He says that his wife didn’t have two jobs, for instance. If I were Chuck, I’d be furious with Ben for characterizing myself in such a horrible way. I suppose if you read this review now, keep in mind that the depiction of Chuck is far more a fictionalized character than an accurate portrayal. To the extent that this is true, Mezrich has published pseudo-fiction as nonfiction. That goes further than just making up dialogue or using a composite character. It feels a little like character assassination…

The 37th Parallel: The Secret Truth Behind America's UFO HighwayThe 37th Parallel: The Secret Truth Behind America’s UFO Highway by Ben Mezrich

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’d never read anything by Ben Mezrich before. I’d heard of his works, though, if only because of the occasional Hollywood adaptation. I’d seen The Social Network. It was interesting to see that he’d written a book on the paranormal, which I found squirreled away in a corner of my local library a while back. Either this book or the concept of concentrated geographic regions of paranormal activity across America had been discussed in the so-bad-it’s-good “documentary” Hellier, so there was the faintest ring of recognition in the back of my mind when I did come across it. I figured, why not? I’ve read plenty of books and stories and watched plenty of shows with a paranormal bent, so I felt confident that at best, this could be a thoughtful examination of strange phenomenon or perhaps just a quirky character piece, while at worst, it would be some entertaining fluff to occupy some of my down time.

Sadly, for the most part, The 37th Parallel failed to even be entertaining.

There are many reasons why I did not enjoy this read. Some are related to style and narrative, but some are related to its underlying subjects. Frankly, there was quite a bit of overlap between these factors. My central complaint is that the book follows a thoroughly unlikeable and uncompelling outsider who is convinced that he is a crusading hero for the truth–and it never really makes much of an effort to challenge or contradict his beliefs about himself or his investigations. I had never heard of Chuck Zukowski before, but it is clear that the central figure of this narrative is eager for publicity. By way of example: in the book, he finds a little bit of metal at the alleged Roswell crash site, orders some analysis that produces data that would allow for a more conventional explanation, and pushes for a press release and special event to celebrate his findings; he calls out a local news team to interview him about a cattle mutilation case he’s investigating; and when he comes up with his “UFO highway” hypothesis, central to the book but barely present in it, his sister asks, knowing him, “What do you want to do with this? Put out a press release?” A quick Google search shows that he maintains a website; he’s active on Twitter under a handle based off his site name; he turns up for radio and news interviews; and his IMDb page indicates that he’s slowly carved a bit of the paranormal TV racket out for himself, most recently with his own show, Alien Highway. To return focus to his portrayal just within the book’s narrative, Chuck is a gun-nut paranoid obsessive who forces his family to relocate from California to Colorado so he can go from a full-time job in microchips to a part-time freelance position closer to some of the more interesting paranormal activity he’s gotten reports about. He follows a quest for glory to become a Reserve Sheriff’s Deputy, but his need for publicity ultimately puts him in opposition with his department, and he’s fired from that volunteer role. Once out of the volunteer job, he makes no effort to go back to full-time work, instead focusing more on his hobby of hunting UFOs and investigating cattle mutilations. In the meantime, his wife has to hold down two jobs just to cover the bills. He overspends on bullshit technology for his investigations, because just about every middle-aged white male paranormal investigator conflates lots of gadgets with doing science. While he still had a decent income, he would try to bribe his wife with appliance upgrades and kitchen remodeling to get her over the frustration of his overspending (in other words, he spent even more on “woman stuff” to try to pacify his wife over spending too much). He seems anxious about his wife not understanding his UFO obsession, and he gets frustrated when she doesn’t believe the same nonsense he does, but she’s shown as nothing less than supportive, giving him all this free time to travel across the country and letting him blow through their money even while she’s working double and raising their kids. A highlight of his reckless, selfish behavior is when he reflects on two incidences in which his wife “exploded on him”: one time after maxing out a credit cart on equipment “the same afternoon she’d tried to make a payment on their youngest son’s braces” and another time when he spent $300 on scalpels the morning after their washing machine broke down. If there is a true hero, it’s Tammy, his long-suffering wife, whose main character flaw appears to be an enabler tendency and an unwillingness to demand that he make any sort of sacrifice for his family or even seriously consider the possibility of psychiatric care even as he spirals into paranoid thinking including the belief that he is perpetually tailed by government agents in black SUVs.

There was nothing charming to me about Chuck. He seemed like a bad dad and a bad husband, too obsessed with what he wanted to see to even register how his actions impacted those around him. Maybe that’s an unfair read, but there’s nothing he did for his family (at least in the book) that was truly selfless. Sure, he bought an RV and took them on family trips a lot when the kids were younger–so he could drive to places known for paranormal activity. He even scheduled participation in a volunteer archaeological dig with his wife for his wedding anniversary so that he could learn more about how to conduct physical investigations at field sites.

Chuck also broadcasts a lot of tired, racist beliefs about Native Americans. He believed the Anasazi were in communication with aliens. He reads Indian “sacred and historic” sites as somehow fundamentally connected to the paranormal phenomenon he tracks. For that matter, he does not seem to register that indigenous peoples have been repeatedly displaced. And in the tradition of the classic, “I’m not racist, I have a/an [insert race here] friend,” he even has a “part Native American” friend who drifts in and out of the story for Chuck to use as a tracker, sidekick, and key to get onto indigenous lands.

Mezrich tries to keep us in Chuck’s perspective, only occasionally taking a trip to track someone else’s (typically sympathetic or allied) viewpoint. I suppose he was trying hard to frame Chuck as heroic, or perhaps he just couldn’t think of a better way to humanize him. But his depiction of Chuck is someone with 90% grandiose thinking and 10% halfhearted humility. His acknowledgments only complicate the subject further, as he remarks, “Chuck is certainly one of a kind, and it was impossible not to be inspired by his enthusiasm about what he views as a quest for the ultimate truth, regardless of the consequences” (emphasis added). I’m not sure how to read that aside, other than as an admission by Mezrich that Chuck’s delusional worldview is flawed and lacking in self-awareness. There is nowhere in the text itself that felt like an attempt to be tongue-in-cheek or to seriously engage with Chuck’s thinking.

There are problems outside of Chuck. Another issue for me was the style. The dialogue manufactured to fill in most scenes, to present something closer to a novel than a more removed non-fiction narrative, reads as cliche and stilted. Characters talk like they’re in a bland action movie, rather than like real people. Most of the characters, in fact, are not given the opportunity to be presented as the fully rounded humans they must be in reality, with the bare-bones writing directing most of the energy to Chuck’s delusional thinking and his cattle mutilation investigations. We’re constantly bombarded with exposition, like when Chuck “explains” Roswell to his wife, and actual dramatic tensions are typically skipped over. Yet anyone with even a passing interest in the paranormal is unlikely to uncover any new “facts” here, just the same lukewarm, regurgitated tales with even the most wildly speculative accounts presented as genuine possibilities. On top of all this, Mezrich makes the baffling decision to hop around in time, which had me shuffling between chapters to see whether events were happening before or after what I was currently reading; it didn’t build to anything, and a standard timeline would have only brought clarity, so it’s a truly puzzling choice.

A final failing of the book is its failure to wrestle with the nature of the investigations here. Chuck wants to be viewed as engaging in science, and Mezrich never challenges this. It’s a common failing of paranormal narratives; the story only works if you suspend your disbelief, so better not point out the shortcomings in that story. Chiefly, Chuck thinks it’s science to go to cattle mutilation sites days or weeks later, interview the ranch owners, take samples from the corpses, and record observations about the sites. He eventually finds a veterinary school that will autopsy the corpses, resulting only in a continued refrain that the cause of death cannot be explained. Chuck apparently has no interest in actually investigating what “normal” animal deaths are like. Despite there being fields of study into decomposition, Chuck remains focused only on those cases that are called in. Yes, they present interesting mysteries, but you’re never going to get an answer if you keep poking at the things that can’t be explained with the tools you have. His investigations could provide interesting data points in aggregate, but he’s looking for proof of a particular worldview rather than trying to understand what’s happening. Unknowns are, to him, proof of his beliefs, rather than gaps in the path to better understanding. His apparent lack of interest in seriously examining how animals die and how they decay means that he can’t seriously rule out other results. He’s spent years doing this and has never found anything conclusive, but he thinks the big breakthrough will be through continuing to focus only on the unexplained. In other words, he’s trying to be an expert without bothering with the basics. He’s not trained as a scientist, and he seems to view forensic investigations for a police case as interchangeable with the scientific method.

Chuck’s fixation on the outlier cases of animal deaths foreshadows his “UFO highway” hypothesis. You see, he gradually filled a map of the US with pins showing where paranormal events occurred. One night, he took down all the pins and restored only pins that correlated with “his recent [investigations of] mutilations,” “his own UFO investigations,” and MUFON files sent to him by his sister where the “events . . . could be corroborated by multiple witnesses, or that had enough circumstantial evidence for him to consider them verified.” Using a highly subjective process reliant upon his own experience and judgment, he produced a band of cases that were concentrated between the 36th and 38th parallel. It’s sort of an interesting coincidence, but when you start with the factors he used, it’s not weird that there would be some sort of geographically contained result. He even claims that the “only big hitter that’s missing” is his sacred Roswell, but attempts to explain this by saying that if the flying saucer that crashed had come from Kenneth Arnold’s Mount Rainier sighting, it would have to pass the band to get to Roswell. He does not seem to register that Mount Rainier, too, is outside of his predetermined band, and so the grandfather of UFO sightings would be excluded as well. And he outright ignores the many, many, many UFO sightings throughout the US and, for that matter, the world that don’t fit within this geographic band. Combating anecdotes with anecdotes is counterproductive, but I could point to famous UFO cases like the 1967 Malmstrom Air Force Base incident or the 1950 Mariana UFO video or the 1980 Rendlesham Forest incident, not to mention the numerous sighting reports from throughout the nation going into organizations like MUFON, or the sightings that have given rise to serious investigations by other countries that don’t even lie across this latitude (e.g., Brazil, Canada, France, and the UK). In other words, even without careful scrutiny, this hypothesis just flies in the face of reason, demanding that we give greater weight to reports verified by one man operating in one region of the country.

With the suggestion of his sister, Chuck then added pins of military bases and those “American Indian sites, both sacred and historic,” that happened to fall within this geographic band–a completely irrelevant data point, and highly selective since he’s not adding all the bases and indigenous communities or archaeological sites outside of that band. They ended up with a lot of pins on a narrow band of a map after this highly guided approach, arriving at a predetermined outcome. His sister even concedes, “Some of this has got to be coincidence. Some of it is probably related to the reporting mechanisms. Where we’re situated is informing the kind of reports we see, and the ones we can verify.” Yet still, these faithful believers choose to accept the findings because the map looks significant somehow. It’s a small matter to them that they can’t determine how or why it’s significant.

It does seem that some in the paranormal community have latched onto this. I’m not surprised. True believers engage in so much magical thinking and confirmation bias that anything vaguely interesting or curious gets grafted on to support the colossal, rickety structure of belief that has grown to define their worldviews. But it is nonetheless frustrating to see, and Mezrich, who appears to otherwise be a “mainstream” author writing about “serious” nonfiction subjects, should not have presented such a belief set without seriously engaging with and challenging it. Yes, perhaps it was obvious to Mezrich that these ideas should not be taken seriously, and perhaps he should be able to trust a reader to engage critically with a work. But all too often, that will not happen. His use of heavy redaction on the last page, to suggest that Chuck finally found some truly otherworldly occurrence that confirmed his beliefs, is an especially awful example of how he put flimsy beliefs ahead of rigorous thinking. I’m disappointed all around.

Review: Black Panther

I don’t usually see Marvel movies anymore–at least, not right away. I can’t be bothered to go to the theaters for most superhero films anymore. There seems to be a general attitude that we have all adjusted to this glut of comic book-based feature films, that where we once worried about superhero fatigue we now know that this is a valid movement and not just a fad. But I have superhero fatigue. I’m exhausted with these movies. They so often seem like transparent money-making, brand-building vehicles. They seldom take risks; they seldom really have anything to say. And I’m especially exhausted with Marvel movies, each one so bubblegum, so formulaic, a smooth, soft, numbing spectacle at the time to be quickly forgotten in a background of more and more battle scenes and sarcastic quips.

Spider-Man: Homecoming had positive reviews, and people were glad to see a superhero film that didn’t begin with yet another origin story. Having now seen, what, five?, Spider-Man films, I did not see this movie. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 came out, and the reviews were fine, and I was told that this was funny but more of a character piece, and if I liked space opera (which I do), I should see it. I did not see it. Then Thor: Ragnarok came out, and the reviews seemed even more positive, and friends told me it was hilarious and weird, and I liked the actors, and I certainly liked Taika Waititi for his involvement with Flight of the Conchords and What We Do in the Shadows. But I haven’t liked any of the Thor movies so far, and somehow this was a third Marvel movie for 2017 alone, assuming that I hadn’t lost track of still others, on top of the TV shows, and I was just over it. So I did not see this, either.

I was similarly prepared to simply skip over Black Panther. But the reviews for this film were shockingly good, and I heard over and over that this film was something truly fresh and unique for a Marvel movie, not dependent on the bloated interconnections throughout the rest of the franchise. And one friend in particular insisted that I should see it. So I’ve finally seen it, and my opinion should surprise no one: like most people, I thought it was great. Not just a good superhero film, but a good film. It even got me excited about Marvel movies again, at least a little (maybe I’ll track down Ragnarok sooner rather than later, though I could care less about the upcoming Avengers sequel).

I don’t know where to start in talking about this film, and I also feel that there is little that I could say that would add to the discussion. Yet I feel compelled to say something. [In saying something, I managed to also discuss a few spoilers, so keep that in mind.]

The direction and cinematography were fantastic. The writing, by director Ryan Coogler in addition to Joe Robert Cole, is so good. The music and sound design throughout is a real treat (one of my favorite moments in the film was the hop-in of a popping up-tempo song over a chase scene after secondary villain Ulysses Klaue demands something to the effect of, “What do you think this is, a funeral? Put some music on!”). I loved virtually every performance, and while I hated Killmonger the same way I hate any good villain, I could sympathize with him, and I could understand why he was the way he was, and I could even see the logic behind what he did.

I’m just joining a string of other voices in saying that Michael B. Jordan’s villain is probably the best in a superhero movie since Heath Ledger’s Joker or Ian McKellen’s Magneto, with a plausible and emotional motivation that puts him more in line with the latter character. What I hadn’t heard anything about, actually, is Andy Serkis’s return as Ulysses Klaue–he plays the character with such gleeful, chaotic abandon, such a delight for mischief and mayhem, that he seems the truer successor to the Joker. Serkis is always great as a villain, and this seems to be the year for Serkis’s over-the-top villains meeting untimely (but rewarding) ends mid-film. But it’s not just the villains; Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa has layers of emotion behind a regal coolness, and his chemistry with Lupita Nyong’o’s (badass, hyper-competent, graceful) Nakia fills out relatively understated dialogue between them; Letitia Wright’s Shuri is charming and fun and brilliant and goofy, a sisterly Q to Boseman’s Wakandan James Bond; Daniel Kaluuya and Danai Gurira are fantastic supporting actors who demonstrate how love and bravery and loyalty can lead to some pretty bad decisions, and how redemption is always possible.

As to that last line–this movie could probably be summed up as: good intentions lead to bad decisions. And those bad decisions can have disastrous consequences. Killmonger, to loosely paraphrase T’Challa, was not born a monster but made one–and by the actions of those who believed they were doing what was right and necessary. On a broader scale, Wakanda’s rightful concern that they would be facing constant war and opposition if they were public about their resources seems legitimate, especially in light of the history of European colonial ventures in Africa (it was interesting to learn of parallels between Wakanda’s mineral wealth and that of Congo).

Issues of race and post-colonialism, and of ongoing oppression, are near-constant in the background of the beautiful Afro-futurist imagery and pulse-pounding fight sequences. This was perhaps the first Marvel movie that actually engaged seriously with real issues of significance (yeah yeah, Iron Man had something superficial to say about the military-industrial complex, and Civil War had something to say about patriotism, sort of, in a really broad way). These issues were not just in the background, not just as subtext, but dealt with explicitly and honestly. Even Killmonger’s final scene (which, in its effort to address the fact that the hero lets the villain die when he could save him, offers some explanatory dialogue that had me thinking of Luke and Vader at the end) powerfully hammers home that messaging. This was far more than just another superhero movie.

In the real world, of course, there is no super-rich, super-secret African country that could stand up to oppressors and offer aid to the oppressed around the world. But it’s hard to ignore how Wakanda’s situation can be applied toward isolationist rhetoric here in America. As someone who favors open borders, refugee relief, and foreign aid while opposing military intervention abroad, I found Wakanda’s solution by the end of the film to be a particularly artful and responsible one. How cool that it took the appeal of Killmonger’s extreme messaging to shift T’Challa and Wakanda to a less isolationist route–talk about a complex narrative.

Speaking of complexity, I expect plenty of writing to come out of the fascinating culture of Wakanda, the varied real-world inspirations it draws from, and the great political intrigue emerging from the path to the throne.

Lastly: I won’t say I have “complaints” with the film, but there were a few weaknesses that I perceived.

First and foremost, while this movie was refreshing, it still drew from the old Marvel formula. Big battles? Check. Sarcastic quips? Check. Hero loses his powers or has to fight someone with an equivalent set of powers? Actually both apply here. Fairly low stakes because Marvel still doesn’t really kill off anyone but mentors and villains? Check for this too. Black Panther has done the best with these elements since the first Iron Man. And I admit that if I make the formula vague enough, I’m basically just describing the plot beats for any blockbuster film. But it’s something that I think is worth noting: it does a lot of cool things, and it uses the bones of the Marvel formula very well. But it does not dispense with those bones.

Second, while I actually thought the movie would take risks with some characters, and so the stakes felt high at first, I was somewhat disappointed to discover that all the primary and supporting characters (except for the old people) had plot armor. Even Martin Freeman’s character, who seemed set up to die in a moment of heroic sacrifice for the greater good, survives!

Third, I thought that Freeman was very good in his Agent Coulson-alike role, but he seemed largely unnecessary to the larger plot. The movie gave him something to do at the end, but his removal wouldn’t have felt like a major loss. It was a little awkward, like someone felt that an all-black cast of heroes simply could not draw a white audience, so better insert the White Friend Character…

And finally, while not actually a criticism of the movie or of Forest Whitaker, I could not help but hear all of royal adviser Zuri’s lines as though spoken by Saw. This is truly not a comment on Whitaker’s talent or range–Rogue One was just so good and memorable to me that I’m going to have that imprinted on every Whitaker role now.

I’ve said what I wanted to say about the film. I don’t have a radical opinion, and I don’t think anything of what I said really counts as a hot take. But I liked the movie–maybe I loved it–and I wanted to share my thoughts.

P.S. I didn’t really know where else to say this, but the first moment where I thought, “I could love this film,” was the first sequence from the ’90s, where the sighting of a Wakandan aircraft matches perfectly with popular UFO sightings from the era.

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.

2 Reviews: Mirage Men & Area 51

Two previous books I’ve read and reviewed on Goodreads are relevant to my follow-up discussion of Leslie Kean’s UFOs. That follow-up will be posted later today. For now, I’m sharing the two older book reviews here to consolidate their location and make them a little easier to reference.

Mirage Men: An Adventure into Paranoia, Espionage, Psychological Warfare, and UFOsMirage Men: An Adventure into Paranoia, Espionage, Psychological Warfare, and UFOs by Mark Pilkington

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The narrative Mark Pilkington presents is truly troubling and conspiratorial: the U.S. intelligence services and military have largely invented the core UFO myths of today; this work started with the inception of UFO culture in the 1940’s and 1950’s; and all of this serves as disinformation to conceal various government projects, often top-secret aircraft. As crazy as it may sound, Pilkington slowly builds a solid base of evidence in support of his theory, pointing out the U.S. government’s history of black projects and shadowy espionage and the revealed history of covert spy planes. It helps that he does not suggest some overarching objective. He instead proposes that the intelligence agencies have simply employed disinformation about UFOs as convenient for a variety of projects, and the lore has been kept alive by the fervent believers in the ufological community.

Most importantly, he actually speaks to a few former intelligence operatives who admit to their roles in spreading some of this disinformation. The centerpiece to this narrative is Rick Doty, responsible in part for driving one ufologist insane with a constant barrage of alleged government secrets hinting at a dark and sinister alliance with extraterrestrials. Doty has since admitted to many of his lies, and he proves to be a bizarre, frustrating, and charming character who continues to spout nonsense all while claiming to believe in a great alien cover-up. Pilkington’s narrative is witty, observant, and personalized, proving to be a highly enjoyable read. His overview of much of ufological lore with the twist of government disinformation is insightful.

As someone who recognizes that most UFOs are misidentified aircraft (secret and otherwise), stars and planets, comets, other natural phenomena, or the result of some underlying psychological concern but who concedes that there may be a very small subset of sightings worthy of further review, I was prepared to enjoy this book. Its take-down of the more absurd layers of ufology–like the alien abductions and alien-government alliances–is simply fantastic, yet the author nonetheless appears quite fond of ufologists and somewhat embedded within the oddball community.

No matter what your level of familiarity with UFO stories or ufology, this is a charming overview of the lore and the community that has grown up around it, and the central thesis of government disinformation certainly makes quite a good deal of sense by the end.

Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military BaseArea 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base by Annie Jacobsen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is a fascinating history of Cold War-era espionage and black project development. It also doubles as an interesting overview of the creation and testing of some of the most well-known reconnaissance aircraft to be produced during that period. There are several interesting profiles of different individuals who had been posted at Area 51; many were interviewed by the author. Unfortunately, little in this book feels like a genuine revelation, since many of the projects discussed have been detailed to some degree beforehand. Further, it is far from an exhaustive history, focusing mostly on CIA involvement at the base. While it would be hard to know what has been left out given the secret nature of the facility, it is clear that developments since the 1980’s are still rather well-concealed. The author, probably wisely, mostly avoided speculation about more recent projects. On the other hand, she very unwisely devoted a good deal of the book to the testimony of an anonymous source who claims a massive cover-up around Area 51 stemming from the crash-landing of a Soviet-operated, Nazi-designed flying saucer craft at Roswell that contained genetically augmented human children as part of a high-level Soviet propaganda/disinformation move. While minimizing and ignoring more down-to-earth explanations of the so-called Roswell Incident, the author instead jumps into the realm of the absurd, all the while claiming that this is the simplest solution (admittedly, if one assumes the only other explanation is space aliens, then maybe this does not sound as bizarre). In making these assertions, the author appears willing to forgive and forget the lack of evidence to support these claims, and they don’t hold up well under rational inquiry. After all, a great deal of the book deals with how the US maintained air superiority over the Soviets, but we are supposed to believe that the Russians early on had advanced technology that the Americans could not copy. Besides these substantial flights of fantasy, the book nonetheless appears well-researched and well-intended, and I did enjoy reading about the development of the U-2 and the Oxcart.

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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.

A good weekend

This weekend was good because I was able to do very little that was in any way productive. That was quite fun. Most of the weekend was spent playing Zelda or reading. I played so much Zelda and could do another update just on that alone, but that would be productive, so I’m not doing it today. Let me point out that the image up top is recycled from my last post. What I will do is say that I’ve reached Goron City; I’ve completed the memory main quest, and I’m ready to knock out my last Divine Beast. Then I guess I need to get the Sword of Legend and, of course, wander around to solve mysteries and help people in distress until I’m finally willing to go face Ganon and give Zelda a much-deserved rest. She’s waited a hundred years; she can wait a little longer.

Relatedly, I’m pretty amused by the Switch profile’s game tracking. It’s pretty difficult to tell how vague the tracking is, or if there’s a cap to the number of hours it will report. Or maybe it wouldn’t be that difficult at all to figure this out, but I don’t check very often. Last I checked, which must have been a few weeks back, the profile indicated that I had played about 60 hours or more. Well, it’s continued to track a higher number, though it’s stayed just as vague:


Wow, I’ve played a lot of Zelda. At least that seems like a lot to me!

Anyway, I said I’d spent the weekend gaming and reading. I’m currently reading UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record, by Leslie Kean, and as I result of that, I watched I Know What I Saw, directed by James Fox; Kean and Fox worked together in interviewing witnesses and bringing a group of credible observers together for a conference in, I believe, 2011. The trigger for my current tangent into ufology is the reporting this winter on the Pentagon’s investigation into UFOs, reporting which involved Kean. As with all things ufological, there are a lot of interesting stories in this book and film, and some things truly seem unexplainable, but some of the narratives are sandpapered to remove the rough edges of factual inconsistencies and alternative explanations (conversely, in hearing accounts of some famous sightings by those who actually investigated, I’m shocked to realize how knee-jerk reactionary the debunking/skeptical community can be–I’d completely written off the 2006 O’Hare incident until reading this book). Still, the core of the book and film, that about 5% of UFO sightings cannot be explained via conventional means despite sufficient documentation to rule out all known technological and natural possibilities, and that these sightings are often made by trained observers including pilots and military personnel, and that the US should follow the example of other countries in conducting an open and honest investigation into the phenomenon, is valid and worth considering.

As a child, I had a fascination with a lot of paranormal nonsense like alien abductions and ghosts and various cryptids, as well as the associated conspiracy theories; I think growing out of that and becoming skeptical really helped improve my critical thinking skills. But I’ve always had a soft spot for the paranormal, and while Kean and Fox can’t say that UFOs are anything other than unexplained and currently unexplainable aerial phenomena, that’s still interesting and remarkable in and of itself. (Too bad Fox’s movie was distributed by the very absurdly named UFO TV.)

All right, back to being unproductive.