The Thinking 

More on Strange and Unexpected Visions in the Sky

September 16, 2012


ALAN writes:

The Thinking Housewife is being taken for a ride by flying saucer advocates and UFO believers. I do not “imply” that flying saucers do not exist. I assert flatly that they do exist. They are as real as rainbows and just as insubstantial.

Decades ago, when I was an amateur astronomer, I studied the Saucer Myth at great length. I read all the books and stood with people on hilltops as they pointed at stars, planets, and aircraft lights and called them “UFOs.” I attended dozens of lectures and spoke with UFO “experts” like Dr. J. Allen Hynek. For a while, I gave them the benefit of the doubt on the chance that a substantive mystery might exist.

However, years passed and no one produced a shred of evidence to support that idea. I became a UFO skeptic because I discovered there is nothing there but storytelling, anecdotes, mis-identification of ordinary objects, hoaxes, tall tales, and sensational journalism. The UFO Myth is worth studying for those reasons, but not because Aliens are flying around in super-advanced Spaceships. (And UFO advocates would have us believe that those Aliens who build and fly sleek spaceships across interstellar space were so inept as to permit one of their Saucers to conk out and crash in the New Mexico desert in 1947. That is hilarious. But it is the kind of colorful story that sells books and generates tourism dollars.)

Leslie Kean’s book fits the mold of what Dr. Hynek characterized (correctly) as a snow-job.  Such books look impressive only to people who think eyewitness testimony is reliable when it isn’t.  Commercial and military pilots have reported stars, planets, meteors, balloons, fireflies, and other objects as “UFOs.”  Even experienced flight instructors have mistaken a bright planet for an oncoming aircraft.  (See Harvey Wichman, “A Scientist in the Cockpit: The Case History and Analysis of a UFO Sighting”, Space Life Sciences, Dec. 1971.  Online here.)

UFOs making “90-degree turns” are nothing but points of light in the night sky described by people who are not familiar with autokinetic illusions or the night sky.  (See: “The UFOs of October.”)  Modern Americans are terribly ignorant of things in the sky.  Some city-dwellers have never seen the stars.  “I had a woman in class the other night from the city who asked me to show her a star.  She and her three children had never seen one,” an astronomy teacher in Missouri said in 2006.

Entire groups of law enforcement officers have reported bright stars and planets as “UFOs.”  I could fill a book with hundreds of cases where the planet Venus was reported as a UFO.

In 1967, I spoke with an airline pilot about a light he and his flight crew had seen one night during a routine flight over Missouri.  They were no fools and this was not a hoax.  His veracity was beyond question. I would have trusted him with my life.  A Flying Saucer advocate tried to get him to describe the strange “craft” he had seen.  But the pilot wasn’t falling for that.  He had never claimed to have seen a “craft”, only a light in the night sky that he was unable to identify.

And indeed he did: The light was in fact not a Flying Saucer from Outer Space but the bright star Vega.  It had looked unusual only because of a layer of haze that caused it to change color and fluctuate in brightness.  But it was the power of suggestion that prompted the pilot to notice the star in the first place: Earlier that evening a flight controller had asked him whether he had seen anything unusual in the sky.  That planted the idea.  And the night sky is filled with things that may seem strange at first glance to people who otherwise would not even notice them.   Examples like this are multiplied thousands of times in the archives of UFO research.

Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov were profoundly curious about the world and the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.  They would have been thrilled if UFO reports constituted evidence for any such thing.  Yet they paid no attention to the UFO “mystery” because they knew it involves nothing more than the propensity to tell stories, exaggerate, and make mistakes.

My experience was that most UFO researchers were decent men and women but much too easily impressed by anecdotes and eyewitness accounts.

Captain Edward Ruppelt was the first man to head the USAF project for evaluating reports of “unidentified flying objects” (the term he coined in place of “flying saucers”).  After years of studying such reports, he concluded that UFOs are a Space-Age Myth.  He was right.   It is a myth that arose in America, the land of hype and Hollywood.  It is a myth that does not involve Aliens or Spaceships.  It involves ideas – fallacious, half-baked ideas that are repeated and promoted endlessly in an age of outrageous credulity.  It is a myth that achieved prominence only after the idea and imagery of sleek, interplanetary spaceships were popularized in books, pulp science-fiction magazines, radio plays, and motion pictures from the 1890s through the 1950s.

“Man’s most valuable trait is a judicious sense of what not to believe,” Euripides wrote more than two thousand years ago. There are no better examples of what ought not to be believed than stories of “flying saucers” and “abductions” by UFO aliens.  Sixty+ years of such tales without a shred of testable, material evidence is itself impressive negative evidence.

For thoughtful commentary on the UFO topic, I recommend the essays of James Oberg, Robert Sheaffer, Allan Hendry, Martin Kottmeyer, Timothy Printy, and Dr. Donald Menzel, among others.  I especially recommend Jim MacDonald’s excellent essay about the down-to-earth truth behind the story (book and motion picture) of the “abduction” of Barney and Betty Hill by Flying Saucer Aliens in the White Mountains of New Hampshire in 1961.  It is very different from what UFO advocates would have us believe.

—– Comments ——

Jim P. writes:

In response to Alan’s comments I’d like to say a few things.

First, I’m not advocating any particular explanation for the phenomena.  I’ve been pretty open minded on the subject since I don’t enter it with a passion and a pursuit to find “the” answer.  The only position I feel comfortable with right now is in stating what they’re not, rather than what they are.  Given the intense hurdles required to move across space (hurdles that I believe are insurmountable, citations of past scientists being flat wrong on other subjects notwithstanding) I’m certain they’re not visitors from space.  Hugh Ross’ list of difficulties can be found on Youtube and they are numerous.

Second, given what events and experiences people claim to be having with these phenomena, I think we can state that even if I’m wrong, and even if UFOs are space visitors we can dispense with any Utopian vision that they’re benevolent and have our best interests at heart.  If they really are from outer space regularly invading air space and alarming people, we’re in trouble.  But I don’t believe that’s the case.

Third, I can sympathize with the many years that Alan’s passion for this subject resulted in no revelation or hint of some explanation.  In this sense I’m reminded of the many “ghost hunter” shows inundating cable channels that seem to mimic the same pattern of looking, possibly capturing something on video/audio, but ultimately coming up empty.  My impression of the most passionate UFO believers is that they are atheists or new age types seeking some answer from the heavens that will provide the satisfaction they believe they’re fellow citizens have had through more conventional religious means.

Alan is right about Arthur C. Clarke’s complete spellbound hope in attaching salvation for humanity through extraterrestrial channels.  I like Clarke but in re-reading Childhood’s End (coincidentally) some of the theistic (he was aggressively atheist and theology inevitably comes up in his novels) sniping is crass and quite amateurish.  It’s also amusing in light of the credulous hope he seems to have in ET.

Lastly, Ms. Kean’s book is not a “snow job,” and my guess is that Alan hasn’t read it.  If he did he would need to first explain why a professional and perfectly sane journalist tackled the subject.  The accounts of extremely credible people who not only identify themselves but repeat their very often completely unnerving experiences during daytime cannot be dismissed as Venus or a rain shower.  I’m all for healthy skepticism but a relentless dismissal in the face of these credible eyewitness accounts is – to me – not a respectable position.  There are also repeated accounts of fighter craft having their electronic and weapons systems disabled while the phenomena is visible.  Yes systems can fail while you witness a meteor, but to repeatedly have them go dead until the “meteor” disappears – when those systems revive – is a little fantastic.

I’m Catholic and have been open to various explanations of this interesting subject.  I can understand the frustration of people devoting decades to the subject and are no closer to an answer, and who conclude it’s all a big misunderstanding of natural causes.

I am aware of the spiritual dimension and find that compelling too, however Ms. Kean so far does not show any interest whatsoever in exploring that possibility.  She’s strictly by the secular numbers.

If I were to put my best guess on it right now, I would lean towards the spiritual or inter dimensional.  The objects themselves might just be holograms or three dimensional presentations that appear real.  But then the affect they have on electronic systems or grass (which in one account is irradiated) would complicate that explanation.

To repeat what I said in my other comment, I do not believe people are responsible for building or running these things; just as I believe most eyewitness accounts are in fact natural causes misidentified.  I’m ok with the mystery of the subject, I can run my life knowing there are things for which we’re likely to not have a complete and fulfilling answer.

Thanks for indulging the subject, Laura.

Joe A. writes:

If Alan would only replace “UFO advocate” with “scientist,” “politician” or “debunker,” I would agree with him wholeheartedly.  None of these are to be trusted and for the same reasons.

Roger G. writes:

Alan deals in generalities, or attacks in detail the admittedly wrong or silly stuff (which almost all UFO stuff is), but stays away from particulars of the good stuff.  What of my Cmdr. Stafford and Brig. Gen. Perieraincidents?  How about all those of like stature in the Kean book, which Alan deprecated only, as I said, in generalities?  That is very unfair to Leslie Kean.  And there’s the COMETA Report I referred to, and many other sources.

Kevin M. writes:

Incident at Exeter, by John G. Fuller.

That book made my blood turn to cottage cheese.

I don’t believe in flying saucers, but Incident at Exeter made me terrified of what I really don’t know. And I know I don’t know everything.

Jeanette V. writes:

This is a subject I have thought about for decades.  The tales of abduction by fairies and other supernatural beings (such as incubi and succubi) are remarkably like the tales of UFO abduction. As someone who was involved in the occult for many years I can tell you that there is really “something” other worldly that humans respond too. Exorcists know this as well.
I think M. Scott Peck Glimpses of the Devil: A Psychiatrist’s Personal Accounts of Possession give us a good insight about the tricks Satan uses.
We, as mere humans will attempt to make sense of a supernatural events though the [lens] of our culture.

Alan writes:

In reply to the comments on my Saucer post:

1)  Jim P. wonders why a “professional journalist” would write a book about UFOs.  How about money?  Fame?  Notoriety?   Frank Edwards, another “professional journalist,” wrote two books about Flying Saucers in 1966-’67, and one became a best-seller.  He was a good storyteller.  But what degree of truth his books contained is another matter. Leslie Kean says nothing in her book that Saucer Fans have not been saying for half a century.

2)  Jim writes about “objects” and “things.”  What “objects”?  UFOs are not “objects;” they are stories, anecdotes, the stuff of imagination, illusion, exaggeration, and wishful thinking. UFO reports are a dime a dozen.  But I challenge Jim (or anyone else) to produce one object.  Radar is not infallible.  “Ground traces” can be easily produced by hoaxers or misinterpreted by people too eager to find a mystery where none exists.

Re “extremely credible people:” No witness is credible who tells of extraordinary things without at least some substantiating evidence.  Some men have claimed to have seen mermaids.  Should we conclude therefore that mermaids exist?

3)  To Joe A.:  Learning the truth about the UFO topic does not require “trust” in UFO advocates or skeptics.  Anyone can learn it by independent study.  That is how I learned it.  But I found the skeptics to be civil and reasonable, while I heard the advocates tell stories about events that were grossly distorted or wholly contrived.

4)  Roger G. seems to be impressed by people of “stature.”  Would a U. S. President qualify?  Jimmy Carter reported seeing a UFO back in 1969.  It turned out to be the planet Venus.  (See Robert Sheaffer’s discussion, here)

5)  Kevin M. cites the book Incident at Exeter.  I enjoyed reading it, too, but it did not terrify me.  What terrifies me are people who believe that things seen in the sky or the stories people tell about them cannot be understood without invoking Alien Spaceships.  Such reasoning is Folderol.  It permeates 90 percent of the UFO literature.  Simpler, down-to-earth explanations for such things exist in abundance.

Incident at Exeter was written by John Fuller (another professional journalist).  He was a good writer and his books were fun to read.  But the key to understanding why UFO events are not as mysterious as they are usually portrayed is to realize what information such writers omit that may point to a solution to the apparent “mystery.”  (A good discussion of likely solutions for many of the Exeter UFOs can be read here:

If people choose to believe that what are called “UFOs” are aliens from space, demons, angels, or visitors from the 9th dimension, that is their privilege.  But if they assert such a belief as a truth claim, then the burden of proof is on them, not on those who doubt it.

Thomas Bertonneau cited the familiar line from Shakespeare about “more things in heaven and earth…”  I  propose a corollary:  There are more ways for eyewitnesses to be deceived than are dreamt of by UFO enthusiasts.   

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