Is There Credible Evidence for UFOs?

Is There Credible Evidence for UFOs?
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Excerpt from

Chapter Two

Have Extra-Terrestrials Visited the Earth?

Most people take a moderate position on whether any of the often-reported sightings of unidentified flying objects (UFOs) are evidence that extraterrestrials (ETs) have visited the earth. The concept is not so far-fetched to be dismissed out of hand, even if some of the particular accounts strain credibility.

But with its usual sweeping and authoritative arrogance, the Jan.-Feb. 2009 issue of Skeptical Inquirer was devoted to asserting that the phenomenon was entirely based on human gullibility, misperception, and mental illness. The leading expert on UFOs for the past three decades for the publisher, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, Robert Scheaffer, wrote the main article, which attempted to dismiss tens of thousands of sightings from around the world.

According to his view, the first wave of these delusions in 1947 to 1973 was due to a combination of natural phenomena or normal aircraft. The expectation that there would be something unusual in the sky was contagious, he wrote, so there were many claims, but no convincing evidence ever emerged that any of these were alien craft.

With regard to that early era, I do not have room here to go into the debate about the famous, alleged 1947 saucer crash at Roswell, N.M. Those who are interested in how skeptics misrepresent what happened should read UFO Crash at Roswell by Kevin Randle, a former Air Force intelligence officer, and Don Schmitt, a respected field investigator for the scientifically-oriented Center for UFO Studies.

There was also another type of wave 1966-1995, wrote Scheaffer, when believers focused on alleged abductions of humans by aliens. He argued that this was similar to the allegations of “recovered memories” in the same period that supposedly revealed widespread molestation of young people by satanic cults or daycare workers.

The subject of alien abductions would require another lengthy discussion of complicated evidence, but it is worth noting that some eminent scientists and psychiatrists do agree that whatever the phenomenon is, it is worth serious study. If you want a disturbing analysis written for skeptics, try Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind by investigative journalist C.D.B. Bryan.

Schaeffer asserted that there are simple explanations for mass sightings, such as those of the many huge craft that supposedly hovered over Phoenix, Ariz., in 1997 (he claims these were just flares dropped by a National Guard unit).

Scheaffer made two arguments that underlie his need to distort the facts to fit his theories. One is that the U.S. and other governments would have to be involved in a conspiracy to cover up these phenomena, but since governments are unable to keep secrets, this is just paranoia.

In fact, prior to Wikileaks, the U.S. government kept many things classified for decades (even Vice President Harry Truman had heard nothing about the Manhattan Project).

Whether or not UFOs are a classified subject, government-sponsored committees went to great lengths to misstate the evidence and discourage public interest (see, for example, Richard Hall’s discussion of Air Force investigations and cover-ups in The UFO Evidence). If flying saucers are only being imagined, why not admit the facts and provide credible explanations?

Another argument Schaeffer made was that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” because believers’ claims “contradict accepted science in very significant ways.” He asserted the “impropriety of having well-supported, time-tested scientific principles overturned by anecdotes.”

Yet how is this to be presented, when skeptics resort to twisting the facts or ignore them altogether in their accounts of well-known UFO cases? The reaction suggests a deep fear that something might upset conventional wisdom.

Typically, there are no more than two or three skeptics at any given time who claim to have the knowledge in a particular area--whether ESP or alternative medicine, for example--to debunk the “extraordinary claims.” That makes it easy for members to take the arguments of their designated experts on faith.

But Scheaffer is a software engineer, while his predecessor in UFO debunking, Philip Klass, was an aviation editor. You would not know by listening to them that there have been better-credentialed investigators who have taken the phenomenon seriously. Among them: *J. Allen Hynek, a Northwestern University astronomer who was tasked by the Air Force’s Project Blue Book to find conventional explanations for UFO reports. He is best-known for his dismissal of some in a marshy area as being due to the natural lights created by “swamp gas.” But Hynek gradually realized that a percentage of the cases could not be explained away and eventually defected and founded the Center for UFO Studies.

*James McDonald, a University of Arizona astrophysicist, who claimed to have seen a UFO himself in the 1950s. He presented impressive scientific evidence for four cases at a symposium of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1969. It was studiously ignored.

*Bruce Maccabee, an optical scientist for the U.S. Navy, whose scientific study of one major UFO case was rejected for publication in a scholarly journal, since the editor disagreed with his conclusions.

*Stanton Friedman, a nuclear physicist and author of books such as Flying Saucers and Science: A Scientist Investigates the Mysteries of UFOs.

Furthermore, Thomas Bullard notes in The Myth and Mystery of UFOs: “Far from being eccentric or marginal people, UFO witnesses register normal scores on psychological tests and come from all walks of life. Among the observers are trustworthy, high-functioning people like airline pilots and aviation crews, police officers, military personnel, business executives, college professors, and astronomers.”

This is the context for examining some representative cases. To avoid boring readers with an excessive amount of technical detail, the events are only summarized (consult the original sources for the details and to confirm that the facts are being presented fairly here).

Helicopter Crew, Mansfield, Ohio 1973

Most of the details of this case are taken from A Helicopter-UFO Encounter Over Ohio and The Mansfield Helicopter Case by Hynek’s former research assistant, Jennie Zeidman.

Around 11 p.m. on Oct. 18, 1973, the four-man crew of a UH-1 Army Reserve helicopter was 10 miles southeast of Mansfield, Ohio, returning to its home base of Cleveland from Columbus, where they had undergone their annual medical exams.

Capt. Lawrence Coyne, with 19-years’ flight experience, had flown the route a hundred times and was sitting in the right front seat. On his left was 1st Lt. Arrigo Jezzi, at the controls. Behind Jezzi was Sgt. John Healey, a medic, and behind Coyne on the right was Sgt. Robert Yanacsek, a computer tech.

They were cruising at 2,500 feet above sea level and Yanaczek remarked on a distant red light on the right side. In 30 seconds, it suddenly was closing in on the helicopter, prompting Coyne to take control and dive 20 degrees to get out of the way. The light continued towards them and at 1,700 feet, the men braced themselves for a collision, when the object abruptly stopped, then paced them about 100 feet above and 500 feet ahead. It made no noise and caused no turbulence, all four agreed.

What they reported seeing was a 60-foot-long, cigar-shaped object of gray metal with no wings, windows, or tail, but a low dome on top. There was no conventional rotating anti-collision light beacon, just a bright red light on the front and a white one on the back, with a green, triangular spotlight underneath, the witnesses said.

“It was an exceedingly clear night out and it blotted out the stars,” said Jezzi. Coyne reported, “You could see reflections of the red and green off the structure itself.”

Suddenly, the green spotlight shone into their cockpit and the object then flew over the copter and disappeared.

Coyne suddenly realized he was ascending, even though the control was still set for descend. Just before the UFO had moved in front of them, he knew the altimeter had read 1,700 feet, but now it was at 3,500 and climbing, as if the UFO had pulled the helicopter upwards. Coyne realized something was wrong and pulled the lever back to put it into ascend and unjam it, then put the control back on descend and the chopper leveled out.

Air Force officials in Cleveland said the men appeared severely shaken when they landed.

But arch-skeptic Philip Klass, in UFOs: The Public Deceived, pointed out that over the years, the four men varied their estimates of how long it took for the light to move from the right to being in front and above the helicopter, as well as the time it took to disappear. After extensive interviews with the witnesses, Zeidman provided a timeline which harmonized reasonably well, given the different perceptions that would be natural under the circumstances. She added that if they had had perfectly harmonized stories, that would be suspicious.

Klass charged that Coyne must have been in a panic when he thought he was 1,700 feet above sea level (which is what an altimeter measures), which would mean he only had seconds before a crash, since Mansfield is 1,400 feet above sea level. He then subconsciously changed the direction to ascend.

Coyne’s response was that he could see out the cockpit window that he was climbing, not crashing, so there would be no reason to panic. And both Coyne and Jezzi had noticed the 3,500 altitude before the direction of the stick was changed to ascend. There was no rational explanation for how they had suddenly gotten there.

Klass then asserted that what the crew saw was just a meteor, but meteors do not last five minutes, which was the consensus of how long it took from the first observation of the red light until the UFO disappeared. Even three minutes would be longer than the duration of any fireball, nor do meteors make the turns the object did, but they do leave a trail, which none of the witnesses saw. They also do not appear as a gray cylinder to four trained observers on a clear night.

Klass argued that when Yanacsek initially saw the red light, it was just the radio tower. Zeidman pointed out that the UFO was too high and the light was unblinking for that explanation to be viable.

Klass claimed that Healey and Yanacsek were relying on Coyne for their description of the UFO, since they were out of their line of sight, but Healey said he had moved up between the front seats for a better view.

The four also received corroboration from ground observers interviewed by Zeidman. A woman and five teens in a car described a pear-shaped, blimp-like object which had shone a green light not only into the chopper, but down to the road, illuminating their car and nearby trees. Klass tried to discredit them by quoting their statement that the UFO moved in a zigzag, while the crew said nothing about that. Zeidman pointed out that this would only have been observable from the ground.

After Klass’ book was published, other witnesses of related phenomena came forward. Among them was an American Airlines first officer, who reported a bluish-green concave shape at 33,000 feet near Mansfield the same night at 7:30 p.m. “In 18 years of flying, it was the strangest thing I’ve ever seen,” he said.

Perhaps the final word on this incident should be left to Klass’ fellow skeptic, James Oberg, who commented: “Something that behaved like an alien spaceship might be expected to behave was reported by four credible witnesses…Such reports in the past have turned out to have been honest misperceptions, but there are features of this case much harder to explain. It flies on, one of the best on the record.”

Airplane Crews, Radar, and Photographer, New Zealand, 1978

Skeptic Philip Klass declared the events of December 1978 in New Zealand to be “the best documented UFO incident” and said that if it were really as advertised, it would be “the most impressive UFO case of all time.” Hence, he devoted three chapters to it in UFOs: The Public Deceived and the complexity of the events and the technical aspects made it easy for him to pretend to have refuted its legitimacy.

Maccabee, the Navy scientist, corresponded with Klass to point out his misstatements of the facts and the exchange eventually reached 1,500 pages. Maccabee published his analysis in Applied Optics August 1, 1979 and in several papers circulated among scientists studying UFOs.

Right after midnight on December 21, a flight left Blenheim in the northeast of the South Island for Christchurch in its south. A half hour later, the crew saw some lights, while radar operators from nearby Wellington confirmed that they had five unidentified targets on screen. People on the ground also observed them at the same time.

At 3:25 a.m., a crew member reported seeing a brilliant light in the east for several minutes which was “very strange and I never saw anything like it.” Klass would later claim this was Venus, but the witness stated that the object was much brighter than the planet and had a gold tinge.

At 3:30, Wellington air traffic control informed another plane going the same route about an unknown object in the area that had been stationary for 45 minutes and then started moving. The crew reported seeing a large white light with a red tinge, which Wellington tracked for 12 miles before it disappeared.

As the first plane from Blenheim neared Christchurch, the onboard radar picked up an object moving towards it at 8,000 mph and the crew saw a light streak in front of them, though Christchurch picked up nothing on radar.

News of these events prompted a TV station to send a team to fly from Wellington on Dec. 30 at 11:46 p.m. At midnight, they noticed six bright, pulsating lights to the right and ahead, which would beam rays of light downwards and then suddenly appear elsewhere. Wellington radar had also picked them up, but thought they were mirages, since they instantly disappeared.

At 12:16, the plane’s radar picked up something 10 miles straight ahead, where the crew saw a light, which disappeared. This was followed by a light that showed up as a solid object on radar at the 11 o’clock position 3 miles away. A minute later, another showed on radar 2 miles out, but could not be seen by the crew.

At 12:27, Wellington alerted the plane to another object at 12 o’clock 3 miles away, which was briefly seen by the crew. Two minutes later, radar picked up an object behind the aircraft. At 12:30, Wellington reported a blip to the right of the plane and two minutes later the crew saw a blinking light there, alternating green and white.

As the plane came into Christchurch Airport at 1 a.m., its radar tracked a target on the right side where the crew could see a flashing light. During the 75 minute flight, the news crew had only shot 20 seconds of film, which was not able to pick up the fast-moving objects, so one photographer agreed to go on the return flight.

That left at 2:17 a.m. Two minutes later, as they were breaking through the cloud layer, they saw a bright object on the right. At first they thought it was the moon, until they realized the moon had set two hours earlier and airborne radar was picking up a strong image. The pilot tried to turn right to get a better look, but the object kept to the plane’s right and the plane then returned to heading north. The object was visible for 15 min. and filmed for 7 minutes. At 2:34, as the others were watching the light on the right, the pilot saw a light ahead, which passed to the left. One orange and two red lights were filmed by the crew at 2:51 and the lights appeared to roll and turn in a narrow elliptical orbit, while Wellington confirmed it had a visual. Two more orange lights were seen moving at great speed as they approached Cape Campbell.

Klass asserted that most of the radar returns were due to atmospheric conditions, but Wellington reported that the conditions were not conducive to that explanation. One quarter of the objects were also seen by a variety of witnesses.

Klass then suggested that the flashing radar target at 12:30 on Dec. 21 was a beacon, ignoring the fact that there are no beacons in New Zealand in those colors. Another debunker, William Ireland, claimed the witnesses must have seen the lighthouse on Kaikoura Peninsula, but that is only white and too weak to be seen from that distance (and the light was seen by the crew above the wing, not towards the ground).

In Scheaffer’s UFO Sightings: The Evidence, he attributed the film of the lights at 12:51 on the return flight to the camera accidentally being aimed at the ground and picking up lights there. In fact, there was no ground below at that time. At other times there was, but had the camera been pointed down, it would have picked up other ground lights, which did not appear on the film, Maccabee pointed out. The witnesses’ aircraft was also the only known one in the area and crew members had flown the route many times, so were not likely to become confused by ground lights.

Klass also argued that perhaps the film had picked up a reflection of the aircraft’s red anti-collision beacon, but Maccabee tested this thesis and proved that the resulting image would come out very differently from what had been recorded.

Klass and Ireland asserted that the very bright light at 2:19 on the return flight was probably a reflection of a squid boat, but the size and image on the radar did not match how it would actually appear. There was also no boat in the area at the time. Of course, had this been the explanation, it would not account for how the light paced the plane to its right.

The skeptics were made aware of the defects of their arguments, but never retracted them.

Mass Sightings in Hudson Valley, New York/Connecticut 1982-1986

Most of the following details of an extraordinary wave of sightings can be found in Night Siege: The Hudson Valley UFO Sightings by Philip Imbrogno, Bob Pratt, and J. Allen Hynek (this was the astronomer’s last investigated case).

On December 31, 1982, a retired police officer in Kent, N.Y., was outside his home when he noticed red, green, and white lights on a slow-moving object only 500 feet over the house. The lights were bright enough that they illuminated the ground. He filmed it with his video camera, although the only thing that showed were lights moving in concert.

On February 26, 1983, witnesses in the Brewster and Lake Carmel areas of New York and neighboring Danbury, Conn., two of them air traffic controllers, saw lights over their homes in a boomerang formation, with a dark metal understructure 200 feet long.

On March 17, in Putnam County, N.Y., a man and two children saw something similar 20 feet above the ground, hovering nearby. They could also hear it hum. Others saw it move very slowly, making tight circles over a highway and then move off towards Danbury, where there were other witnesses.

On March 24, more than 1,000 people, most in York, N.Y., saw lights slowly moving in formation. Some witnesses were police officers and the local department was flooded with calls, while 15 other departments in the area received calls. Someone using binoculars claimed there was a dull green V-shaped metallic structure connecting the lights. Some witnesses who were working on aircraft and spacecraft said they had no idea what the object could be.

The most qualified witness was Bill Hale, the chief meteorologist for the National Weather Corporation, who was familiar with all kinds of aircraft and natural aerial phenomena. He said it was a quarter mile long in the shape of a check mark at an altitude of 1,000 feet and it came to a near stop, yet unlike a helicopter, it made no sound.

Two days later, physics teacher Albert Silbert was with his family returning home at night when they saw a V-shaped set of lights moving 10 feet above the trees at 40 mph Neighbors came out and they watched it through binoculars.

Sightings continued like this over the next year and some witnesses had second encounters. On March 25, 1984, an object “the same length as a football field blocked out the stars,” said one witness, with others claiming to see a structure behind the lights. Some saw it turned at right-angles and others reported the lights illuminating the ground. Again, when it moved in a particular direction, reports started coming in to police stations in that area.

On May 31, 1984, a group of police officers at New Castle, N.Y., tried to find out what they were watching by calling the Federal Aviation Agency, which offered no explanation and showed no interest in investigating. A private pilot got near enough that he said he could see the structure.

Then on July 12, 1984, some 5,000 witnesses were involved over a five-county area between 9 p.m. and midnight. The Danbury police chief and 11 other officers described the object as others had before.

A video tape was made of another incident on July 24, showing a disk-like craft with lights. This was sent to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., which found no evidence of a hoax and confirmed that the object could not be a conventional aircraft.

Also on July 24, six security guards at the Indian Point nuclear reactor in Buchanan, N.Y., reported a mysterious craft three football fields long, with a boomerang-shaped set of lights, hovering 300 feet over the plant for 20 minutes, while security systems inexplicably shut down. Though no plane was supposed to be allowed in the airspace, the plant’s official explanation was that a small plane had buzzed the site, yet no one was ever charged.

Other officials claimed the lights were a formation of ultra-light planes, but a pilot with a background in physics and electronics who viewed a video of the event told researchers that such aircraft could not carry the heavy, numerous lights that were seen. He also stated that the object was too stable to have been planes flying in formation, especially given the high winds at the time, nor could they have been silent and hovering.

A theory that these were experimental U.S. military aircraft seemed unlikely, since the UFOs’ lights would often wink off; if aircraft were flying close together, this would have been suicidal. And if these were secret aircraft, why fly them close to thousands of witnesses over a number of years?

A few skeptical pilots who were not witnesses flew in formation to see if they could fool some people and they were successful, which was reported in Discover magazine as the answer for all the events. But they could neither move slowly, hover, nor make right-angle turns.

Blimps were also proposed as an explanation, but these could not move as fast as the objects were seen to do at times.

Hynek said that in the three decades he had been investigating UFOs, nothing of this scale had happened before in the U.S. and he was baffled. He commented that “hundreds of largely professional, affluent people in suburban areas were astonished, awestruck and often frightened.”

Yet the FAA showed no interest—except to say they were probably helicopters or planes in formation--and no branch of the U.S. government ever offered an explanation.

As investigative reporter Leslie Kean noted in UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record, there was a similar wave of sightings in Belgium 1989-1990:

The Belgian Air Force and other agencies, including the police and the army, were called into action. The equivalent to our FAA cooperated in mobilization to identify the objects. The Air Force made all its data available to a highly competent group of civilian scientists. All of these important developments were covered by European media.

In the Hudson Valley, local media gave plenty of coverage, but because no officials other than local policemen were involved, national coverage was minimal. The indifference was so stunning that one could justify questioning whether these events took place at all.

This puzzling situation represents one reason why intelligent, well-informed Americans “don’t believe in UFOs.” This was an extreme example of the “UFO taboo,” a deeply-ingrained refusal to acknowledge that something so contradictory to what we consider ‘normal’ could possibly exist, no matter what the evidence.

Again, hardline skeptics have chosen to take an irrational position: that aliens could not possibly have visited the earth by now, forcing them to use arguments that ignore the evidence in the most compelling cases. Instead, they could have taken a materialistic position that while ETs are possible, the evidence needs to be examined without prejudice, and that serious study should be funded.

So what does evidence for UFOs and ETs have to do with God or the supernatural?

There are those who have argued that human evolution was guided by god-like aliens, as portrayed in movies like “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Prometheus.” This would make more sense than the Biblical creation story, since no perfection would be required to plant the seeds of life and cultivate them over eons.

And as science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke said, advanced technology would appear to humans to work like magic, which would explain witness claims that UFOs sometimes disappear instantly.

Authors Zechariah Sitchin (The Earth Chronicles) and Graham Hancock (Supernatural: Meetings with the Ancient Teachers of Mankind) make plausible arguments that aliens have intervened throughout history. We’ll revisit this ideas later.

Whatever the full truth is, it does not necessarily negate the existence of God. It could be that the creator of our bodies and the creator of our spirits are not one and the same, an idea we will revisit later.

The skeptics’ hysterical reaction to any challenge to their sweeping claims of what constitutes scientific orthodoxy therefore makes their arguments suspect, even when we move into the realm of the clearly supernatural in the next chapter.

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