Before getting to the specific contents of this book, I ask
you, if I were a self-serving or intellectually dishonest man, would I risk
broaching this topic sympathetically (again) after having written an article
(on a different topic) for Skeptical
and accumulated three decades of solid cred as a hardcore skeptic?
And yet I think there are lessons to be learned out in that desert that are
humbling for skeptic and believer alike (h/t Charles Hope and Kent Bye for
drawing my attention to the book).
Long story short, since this is a very complex (set of)
tale(s), like many people I tended to believe paranormal and religious claims
prior to my teenage years, then became such a thorough skeptic that I still
don’t think there are any ghosts, gods, psychic powers, fate or
mystical-predictive rituals, extraterrestrial visitors, or even any
particularly weird human conspiracies to speak of. And yet...
(A) A good skeptic (despite what religious people might tell
you) is not a mere naysayer with a checklist of “things that cannot be” but
rather a follower of the rational and scientific method of putting evidence
before faith and wishful (or
fearful) thinking, always willing to test multiple theories to see which fit
the facts with the fewest new suppositions -- not a partisan defender of a pet
theory (that is, a crank), be it new or old.
If only to keep oneself intellectually limber, it’s worth
asking what sort of evidence, especially
in complex situations that aren’t clear-cut
, might cause one to shift to a
novel or strange new theory as the most parsimonious. One might say (loosely
speaking, without getting into a technical dispute about terminology) that a dash
of agnosticism rather than atheism
is apt in a skeptic.
I don’t mean a specific position on theology per se (again,
I don’t want to get into a terminological dispute just now) but a constant
awareness of uncertainty -- and avoidance of the sort of rigid thinking that
leads to brittleness and nervous breakdowns on the day the aliens land in Times
Square or quantum entanglement turns out to allow communication with ghosts or
what have you, should it ever arrive (and if it does, that would of course be
new evidence, always welcomed by the skeptic).
(B) There may be earthly and in some sense mundane phenomena
-- geological, meteorological, psychological, and military -- that explain UFO
sightings without recourse to aliens and yet are still so odd (by normal
everyday standards) that it is educational to take note of them.
The record will clearly show, by the way, that I have long
suspected something like plasma orbs or ball lightning would end up explaining
many of these cases, but one hates to even mention hunches around one’s fellow
skeptics sometimes before the lab tests are in, so to speak.
So what other probably-non-alien but
totally-freaking-bizarre phenomena might be at work in generating the whole UFO
phenomenon when it’s not just windshield glare, stars on a foggy night, etc.?
•Well, in addition to the aforementioned “Hessdalen lights”
(not all that much weirder than the aurora borealis, perhaps), we finally have
decent footage of so-called “earthquake lights,” luminous gas clouds
released from fault lines prior to quakes --
which is a far cry from aliens but which also means we shouldn’t just call
people crazy the next time they say they saw something hovering prior to the
Big One (as they actually may have back in the prophecy-minded Middle Ages to
boot). Perhaps similar phenomena even explain some rather odd things floating
around in NASA mission footage (or John Glenn’s “fireflies”).
•The UFO case I’m almost tempted to turn into a documentary
-- the 1994 Zimbabwe case in which some sixty school children swore (and some
still maintain today) they saw an alien ship land and a pilot emerge at recess
one day -- may well be explained away by the fact that the primary interviewer
of the kids, the late Harvard psychologist John Mack, was an ardent and pushy believer in UFOs and likely influenced the kids
-- but that’s hardly reason to relax and think all is well, given how utterly
convincing (and charming) all the kids end up sounding in their hours and hours
of video interviews. It’s still unnerving.
And they’re a bit too old (and independent and varied) to
sound like they’re just brainwashed or parroting. If Mack just influenced them
into believing it all (and believing into adulthood), and did such a convincing
job (and presumably did it unwittingly), isn’t that almost as unsettling as
finding out there are aliens?
•And then there are the
myriad unknown things the military might be up to
, likely explaining those
sightings and photos of hovering black triangular craft lately (though perhaps
not the similar cases stretching back fifty years...?).
ever more drones.
•Not to mention aerial hoaxes
of various other kinds, misperceived
flares and meteors, and increasingly-sophisticated computer-animated
hoax YouTube videos -- like the obvious one that
Drudge and the Daily Mail linked a couple weeks ago showing a purported UFO vs.
•Adding to the confusion, some now allege that the government
, far from covering up
aliens, may have begun deliberately sowing
belief in them
after WWII to frighten the Russians and/or distract the
public from real military projects, as former MUFON official James Carrion (a
former big-time believer in aliens) argues in his new book The
and as the documentary Mirage Men
alleges still went on
in recent decades -- unless the ex-military man and confessed disinformation
agent profiled in that documentary, Richard Doty, is still lying
, of course.
In other words, I'm becoming like the Dr. House of skeptics
: I think the super-flashy, exciting first
explanation that springs to mind may not be true -- but neither sometimes
is the completely routine,
mundane second one (such as all witnesses just being crazy or bad observers,
swamp gas, etc.). There are weird things in the world, just not necessarily the
things your brain might most readily anticipate from folklore or sci-fi. But a
pushy psychiatrist, plasma orbs, and military cover-ups are still odder things than
the most dismissive type of skeptic might’ve expected, you must admit.
This month is the perfect time to write about Roswell, what
with the Pope (gamely) assuring people he’d give communion to, well, the beings
if they ever show up (as
Abby Ohlheiser writes
), kids being injured when an inflatable “bouncey
castle” became airborne with surprising ease in a strong wind, and of course
the revelation that we’ve all been lied to by the military for decades about
Godzilla (and if they’ll lie about something that big, what won’t they lie
(However, Cheit can never undo the glorious day that Andrew
Corsello danced in Price Is Right
style down to the front of a class at Brown to retrieve his corrected class
essay, right after what I’m told was a long, grim lecture from Cheit about how terrible
everyone’s essays were.)
Yet despite all the mundane possible explanations and the vagueness
and error in witness observations -- not to mention honest slips and unwitting
post hoc constructions in people’s memories
-- we do now have hundreds of intriguingly-bland
and non-sensational testimonies
like this one
from competent-seeming military personnel, radar operators,
and the like about things they very professionally refrain from theorizing
about but which sound like they were mighty unusual, whatever they (reportedly)
(It’s almost like in mainstream science, where the boring
cases that most people don’t really have time to pay attention to -- and that
tend not to get talked about by the public -- may prove more worth puzzling
over than the ridiculous melodramatic stuff that probably has no basis in
So it might be worth taking another look at a notorious