Tuesday, May 20, 2014

BOOK NOTE: “Witness to Roswell” by Thomas J. Carey and Donald R. Schmitt

Witness to Roswell: Unmasking the Government’s Biggest Cover-up (Revised and Expanded Edition [2009]) by Thomas J. Carey and Donald R. Schmitt

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 Inquirer 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.

I mean, in a world where Gizmodo (not some paranormal magazine, mind you) reports on a valley in Norway that has long been filmed and photographed as it (apparently) generates floating, glowing plasma-orbs of some sort (possibly due to metals that make the valley a giant natural battery), it won’t do to just dismiss all UFO sightings as being the result of stupidity and insanity (though there’s no shortage of either).

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?

William Shatner of all people has a novel coming out about Mack, who was also key to popularizing the idea of alien abductions (for which, lest you think I’ve become credulous, I think the easiest explanation is: nightmares).

•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...?).

•And drones -- 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. Taliban battle.

•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 Rosetta Deception 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 from Communion 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 about?!?).

Meanwhile, Jesse Walker notes Brown professor Ross Cheit -- apparently an abuse victim himself who has argued about the reliability of his memories -- mounting an odd latter-day defense of those 1980s witchhunts (based on unreliable child testimony) against purported Satanic ritual abusers. Cheit has a habit of taking things very seriously that perhaps he shouldn’t, including my friend Ken Dornstein’s book on wacky insurance fraud cases, which Cheit seemed to interpret as a heartless, dead-serious manifesto against the poor and any sort of insurance reform. We all have our issues, I suppose.

(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) were.

(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 reality.)

So it might be worth taking another look at a notorious
case in which it appears a substantial portion of a town full of seasoned military professionals and good observers thought something odd happened. Let us return, then, to Roswell. (And let us hope the truth is not that there are advanced aliens and they’re just deliberately messing with our minds, sort of like in this video clip.)


It’s amazing -- and to the longtime skeptic frankly surprising -- how oddly multilayered and Rashomon-like some UFO cases become, especially when you introduce military bureaucracy and secrecy to the mix (I think of the way in which the so-called Rendlesham Forest case in England unravels in a heap of unreliable and contradictory testimony despite sounding to a believer like a clear slam-dunk at first -- yet still involves multiple serious military officials making official reports on successive nights, convinced they saw something weirder than a nearby lighthouse).

So, my best guess about what happened in Roswell, NM in 1947, formed largely by combining (A) Witness to Roswell’s shockingly ample testimony from numerous townfolk and military staff with (B) the third -- and perhaps final -- official government explanation, is the following, very briefly stated (and I think you’ll agree it’s bizarre and thus perhaps educational even without aliens):

What the military now claims (quite plausibly) was a Project Mogul array -- that is, a bunch of balloons carrying roughly diamond-shaped sonar-like seismic detectors meant to catch evidence of the first-ever Soviet nuclear tests -- crashed near Roswell, NM sometime in the days just prior to July 4, 1947, during a period of intense thunderstorms and scattered flying saucer reports across the U.S.

This was not the government’s first official explanation, though, nor even the second.

After a rancher (who was at first vocal but later refused to talk about it for decades) found the resulting debris field, described as vast despite the relatively modest size of a string of Mogul balloons, locals retrieved pieces of the debris as souvenirs -- prior to the military taking control of the site, at which time the press/intelligence officer from the U.S. army air force base, Jesse Marcel -- who claimed afterwards to have considered the debris otherworldly and made of a bendable but unbreakable metal unlike anything known at that time -- really sent out an official press release, reported in several newspapers, saying the military had retrieved a crashed flying saucer.

But less than twenty-four hours later, the military released a second press release, saying that the downed object was merely a weather balloon -- implausible, given that townfolk were used to seeing downed weather balloons, routinely launched from the nearby base.

Still, the military stuck to that second story for five decades -- during which time Marcel popularized the claim that he was ordered to pose with weather balloon wreckage for a famous photo at the Ft. Worth, TX air force base after having flown there with the “real wreckage,” part of a series of flights that some guards and airmen later described as oddly secretive and, by command, devoid of conversation -- despite one officer reportedly assuring men onboard his plane that they’d “made history” and transported something in a crate that was more important than the atom bomb.

At the same time -- according to many witnesses who say they did not speak out for decades out of fear -- military police, the local sheriff, the FCC, and even a U.S. senator began threatening locals to remain silent about the whole incident or face violent reprisals, the loss of military pensions, and, in the case of the local radio station, the immediate revocation of its broadcasting license.


As Carey and Schmitt say, that sounds like something bigger than a weather balloon -- but then, Project Mogul plainly was more strategically important than a weather balloon, and it is conceivable the military at first decided to let the rumors of a downed saucer run amok -- plus rumors, from a small handful (about five by my count) of the people claiming to be first-hand witnesses, of a few nearby dead alien bodies (and one still-twitching one) -- before realizing that that was simply attracting more attention instead of throwing people off the trail of Project Mogul.

For about fifty years, they let the weather balloon explanation, which I’m told by the son of a Roswellian no locals believed, stand until finally unveiling the Mogul explanation -- and quietly announcing that people who wanted to talk about the incident need no longer fear official reprisals, since which time a fast-dwindling handful of elderly witnesses have come forward, several claiming it was widely known (or rather, it was at least widely believed) that the initial saucer story was true.

There certainly seems to be elaborately meshing, corroborating testimony in Witness to Roswell attesting to wreckage retrieval, something being hauled through town on a truck, evidence being packed in a crate and flown to Ft. Worth for further examination, and the whole thing then being covered up. There are also now death-bed confessions and posthumous affidavits not just from low-level flunkies but from some of the men in charge, saying they believed all along that they were retrieving and then covering up alien spaceship remains. Press officer Marcel’s son, also named Jesse, passed away just last year and insisted until his death that his father had brought home from the crash site some of the strange, shape-resuming “memory metal” (which may merely have been tin foil, they say) before the military went around town confiscating all such souvenirs and clamping down on the whole story.

It does not seem plausible that nothing significant happened in Roswell in July 1947, but of course there is a world of difference between a sensitive military project and an alien spaceship, and both could produce some very strange reports, rumors, and eventually fuzzy, decades-old memories.


So there’s an official “terrestrial” explanation -- though if the UFO story was merely an abortive cover story, the base press officer himself, Marcel, seems to have gone on believing it for decades, even when it no longer was the official story. Then again, he had a reputation for being something of a bullshitter. Was he willing to contradict the military just to attract attention? His son didn’t seem to think so, though plainly he’d be biased. If the military plainly was willing to lie about it all (no matter how mundane an interpretation one takes of the whole thing), wouldn’t they have made some effort to rein in -- or at least fully inform -- their deluded press man? 

(An ironic sidenote: one high-school-age Roswell resident at the time was future astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who contributes an introduction to the 2009 edition of the book and famously went on to become a believer in alien visitors -- but admits he didn’t think much about the Roswell incident at the time it happened and didn’t see any evidence himself. The story came and went in the news within days at the time, and interest in it was not revived until roughly the 1980s, when witnesses reliable and unreliable began coming forward in droves.)

Perhaps the simplest explanation is that after the initial clamp-down, the military (for decades) simply didn’t remember or care enough about the incident to stop Marcel from repeating his UFO story, a story which may have been ego-driven, if he resented being mistaken in his initial press release and being mocked for misidentifying mere tin foil.

If the world were laughing at you -- and there was talk of a $3,000 reward for anyone who retrieved a real alien spaceship -- you too might stick stubbornly to your guns. Initial misperception of a balloon-suspended sonar array, subsequent stubbornness, local rumors, the military tendency to err on the side of treating everything as classified, contradictory cover stories, and the memory-haze of decades’ removal in time may explain the whole thing.

Unless, as some think, the military killed a bunch of kids with Down syndrome or some deformity in an experimental craft or in a now-unthinkable biowarfare experiment and is still covering that up.

And are we entirely comfortable living in a world where the most reassuring explanation is, “Oh, it was just a case of the military threatening people with death or punishment if they talked about a top-secret crashed project that probably didn’t involve dead kids with Down syndrome but was our first line of defense against nuclear annihilation by communists and just got officially press-released as a crashed alien spaceship by top officials who retracted the claim within a day -- but were so divided that some maintained that view until their deaths decades later and even in posthumous affidavits in a few cases”?

It’s tempting to give up wondering -- and yet it vexes, as do reports that the world’s first-ever bendable titanium alloys were suddenly patented in the months after the crash and overseen by scientists who were affiliated with Wright-Patterson air force base, where the wreckage had reportedly ultimately been taken, and who were for a time officially in charge of investigating both flying saucers and strategically-useful new technology. Not that that in itself proves they ever found anything otherworldly.


All that’s...probably(?) true(?), and it’s almost as weird as aliens even if you just believe the official accounts. But I don’t know -- clearly. I do know I’ll call my stage play about it all Memory Metal if I write one.

There’s a Wikipedia page that’s not a bad summary of the witness testimony, but without the context provided by Carey and Schmitt, it reads like a bit of a laundry list or data dump. This is also the twentieth anniversary of a well-reviewed Syfy Channel movie starring Kyle MacLachlan based on some of the same testimony, though it depicts even the unreliable accounts as fleshed-out flashbacks and uses Martin Sheen at the climax as a man who unfurls all the farthest-out theories about what’s really going on, also visually depicted as if really occurring.

And maybe sci-fi is, after all, a safer and saner pursuit than these inconclusive speculations (and this summary only scratches the surface). And so let us return in the next blog entry to the more familiar territory of comic books -- but also once more the malleable world of childhood memory, as only the cartoonist Seth can capture it. 


jd said...

I never trust contempt expressed prior to investigation. Shouldn't this be a tenet of skeptic best practices?

Todd Seavey said...

Absolutely. One of numerous complex questions the skeptic/believer tensions raises is how much patience one must show (so to speak) when Case #101 is presented if Cases #1-100 were all absurd. It's tricky.

Overall, though, I'm pleased that the social media era seems to have made dialogue between believers and skeptics more common.

I know the conventional wisdom is that it's easier than ever to fission off -- but you also sometimes see things like (roughly speaking) believer teams (on TV and online) including one skeptic as a sounding board and a reminder of proper methodology nowadays and skeptics pleased by "the weird cases" in a more non-frowny-faced way than in past years, I think.

My overall impression is that curiosity and humor are becoming slightly more common and mutual contempt slightly less so, comment-thread swearing notwithstanding.

(And with that, I must exit for now to see movies about giant lizards and mutants.)

jd said...

I don't know what to do with this information that something is improving in the realm of online debate.