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What Should We Make of the Highly Disorienting UFO Story?

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An image of an unidentified object. The image is in black and white.
Screenshot of an unidentified flying object taken from a 2015 video made by an infrared camera on a Navy jet. This and other videos, as well as public accounts of former pilots who cannot explain what they often describe as the extremely advanced maneuverability and speed of the objects, has sparked renewed interest in the subject of UFOs as a legitimate field of study. (U.S. Navy)


e very careful about delving into the world of UFOs, because you’re not just in danger of stumbling down a rabbit hole, you might find yourself in free fall down a rabbit abyss, tumbling and flailing until you’re so dizzy and disoriented that finally splatting against the bottom might actually help you get your bearings.

Alien abductions, crashed saucers, ancient astronauts, government conspiracies, Martian monuments, hybrid extraterrestrial-human babies, crop circles, cattle mutilations, alien autopsies, good versus bad extraterrestrials — some of these stories can make QAnon seem like straight-up reportage.

However — and a pretty awesome however it is — over the decades tantalizingly mysterious cases have cropped up with enough evidence behind them to keep skeptics working overtime.

Sometime this month, the director of national intelligence will dip a toe down the rabbit hole by releasing a report with the mandate to include every unclassified fact the government has gleaned about these flying objects, now officially called UAPs, for unidentified aerial phenomena. The analysis was mandated by Congress after Sen. Marco Rubio last year included it in a bill to fund intelligence activities. The request came on the heels of publicized encounters between U.S. Navy pilots and mysterious unidentifiable objects that appeared to maneuver well past the limits of present technology.

But according to stories published Thursday in The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN, all of whom talked to officials briefed on the upcoming report, the findings are inconclusive about what these mysterious objects are. Headlines like the one from the Times, “U.S. Finds No Evidence of Alien Technology in Flying Objects, but Can’t Rule It Out, Either,” are sure to inflame further speculation and debate about just what the hell is going on here.

Nick Cook, the former longtime aviation editor for Janes Defence Weekly, who specialized in covering the Pentagon’s black budget programs, says he doesn’t think the government will be able to dodge what he believes is significant evidence that these unexplainable objects are real craft of a type that demand scrutiny. 

“The less tenable position to take now is the one that this is not a phenomenon we should be paying attention to and we need to move on … because it flies in the face of the evidence,” said Cook, who has made documentaries examining the relationship between black world aerospace projects and UFOs. 


ou can probably thank The New Yorker and The New York Times, two arbiters of what we like to call the “national conversation,”  for  increasingly serious interest in a subject that has long been steeped in little-green-men ridicule.

The New Yorker’s May 10 issue featured a 13,000-word piece on the UFO phenomenon, covering the entire modern history of the topic up until the present.

Much of the story recounts the work of journalist Leslie Kean, a veteran of Berkeley’s KPFA, who has spent more than two decades reporting on UFOs.

Kean is one of the reporters whose byline appeared in a now famous New York Times front-page article in 2017 about the Defense Department’s $22 million Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program.

The Times reported the program, funded at the request of now-retired Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, investigated reports of unidentified aerial phenomena and “produced documents that describe sightings of aircraft that seemed to move at very high velocities with no visible signs of propulsion, or that hovered with no apparent means of lift.”

In an accompanying story, the newspaper reported the account of two Navy pilots who had been sent in November 2004 to investigate unidentified aircraft off the coast of San Diego. For the previous two weeks, the objects had been tracked  by a Navy cruiser, as they appeared “suddenly at 80,000 feet, and then hurtled toward the sea, eventually stopping at 20,000 feet and hovering. Then they either dropped out of radar range or shot straight back up.”

When the two F/A-18 fighter jets closed in on one of the objects, it seemed to vanish from radar. One pilot spotted the object hovering close to the ocean surface and descended to meet the craft, only to have it climb toward him before racing away. “It accelerated like nothing I’ve ever seen,” he told the Times. 

In May 2019, the Times was back with a follow-up. The same reporting team, which included the paper’s Pentagon correspondent, spoke with five Navy pilots who had reported UFO encounters during training missions off the Atlantic coast. The objects displayed extraordinary flight characteristics, capable of hypersonic speeds and making sudden midair stops and turns, all with no apparent jet engine or exhaust plume. 

The Times stories included videos captured by the Navy jets’ onboard infrared cameras. One includes the pilots’ amazed chatter as they watched an object speed across the surface of the ocean.

But it was The New Yorker story that seemed to disintegrate the wall that has proved to be a reliable bulwark between UFOs and acceptable public discourse for the last 70 years, ever since a scientific panel, in the middle of the Cold War, recommended the government discourage belief in the phenomenon, not because of any evidence of something unexplainable, but because reports could potentially clog communications channels and induce mass panic.

Since The New Yorker story, just about every mainstream media organization has taken a bite at the UFO apple: NBC, CNN, CNBC, CBS, ABCUSA Today, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Post, The Washington Post, The Washington Post (and The Washington Post) among them.

A segment on “60 Minutes,” though, upped the ante when it featured the pilots from both the 2004 and 2015 incidents described earlier by the Times. 

One of the pilots, former Navy Lt. Ryan Graves, told show correspondent Bill Whitaker that his squadron had begun detecting these unaccountable objects in 2014 after a radar equipment upgrade. Graves said pilots training off the Atlantic coast saw objects like this with both their radar and new infrared cameras “every day for at least a couple years.” Graves’ best guess as to origin: The objects were part of a “threat observation program” by some other nation. 

Two pilots from the 2004 incident, Cmdr. Dave Fravor and Lt. Cmdr. Alex Dietrich, were also interviewed, describing a “little white Tic Tac-looking object” moving across the surface of the water plus some incomprehensible maneuvering. 

“I don’t know who’s building it, who’s got the technology, who’s got the brains,” Fravor said. “But there’s something out there that was better than our airplane.” 

The segment also featured Luis Elizondo, the former intelligence official who ran the Defense Department’s Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program revealed by the Times in 2017.

Elizondo had this to say: “Imagine a technology that can do 6 to 700 G-forces, that can fly at 13,000 miles an hour, that can evade radar and that can fly through air and water and possibly space. And oh, by the way, has no obvious signs of propulsion, no wings, no control surfaces and yet still can defy the natural effects of Earth’s gravity. That’s precisely what we’re seeing.”

All of this seemed to crescendo, bizarrely enough, on CBS’s “Late Late Show” with James Corden, where Barack Obama was asked about the issue. After cracking wise, Obama turned a tad somber: 

“But what is true, and I’m actually being serious here, is there’s footage and records of objects in the skies that we don’t know exactly what they are, we can’t explain how they move, their trajectory. They did not have an easily explainable pattern. And so I think that people still take seriously trying to investigate and figure out what that is.”

For some UFO fans, Obama’s admission was the Big One. An actual former president providing vindication in front of a mass audience that their interest in a phenomenon that has long been relegated to supermarket tabloids and basic cable is actually worthy of serious investigation.


o, what are we looking at, here?

Christopher Mellon, a deputy assistant secretary of defense for intelligence under former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, told “60 Minutes” he “has a very high degree of confidence” that the objects are not secret U.S. technology. On CNBC, he called the incidents “a massive intelligence failure.”

Nick Cook, the former Jane’s Defence Weekly aviation editor, said in an interview that it’s important the military “does not exclusively own this narrative because it will begin to shape it to its own ends. The threat narrative will build and build.”

I asked him if the most likely scenario wasn’t that this is secret military tech that is only now being revealed to the public, a situation analogous to how stealth jets were rolled out in the late 1980s and 1990s.

That comparison doesn’t apply, he says, because of the capabilities some of the unidentified craft have displayed.

“These things appear to exhibit antigravity, no visible forms of propulsion, and obviously to make transitional speeds from stationary to hypersonic in, you know, metaphorically the blink of an eye. There’s also invisibility and cloaking,” Cook said.

Stealth technology, he points out, is rooted in known physics. But these craft, if verified and understood, “would trigger a sort of tech and science revolution, much more akin to the development of the atom bomb in the ’30s and ’40s.”

The possibility that the unidentified objects encountered by Navy fliers and others is extraterrestial has most decidedly been in the conversation, although the pilots who have gone public have done their best to tamp down the belief that what they witnessed came from outer space.

Just because I’m saying that we saw this unusual thing in 2004 I am in no way implying that it was extraterrestrial or alien technology or anything like that,” said Dietrich in a San Diego Union-Tribune podcast.

Skeptics, of course, have always said there are far more prosaic explanations for UFOs, and the objects shown on this current crop of videos are no exception.

Mick West, a former video game designer and debunker of conspiracy theories, is not buying any of it. West believes the strange attributes the Navy videos appear to show can be accounted for by lens glare, a nonstationary and fast-traveling camera, and high zoom rate, analyses he recently laid out for the Union Tribune.

West argues that two of the three sensational and widely viewed Navy videos likely captured distant jet planes. He says the third, which inspired such childlike enthusiasm from elite Navy pilots, was very likely a weather balloon. In fact, West points out, that explanation is specifically listed on a Department of Defense form authorizing release of the videos.

Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, which searches for signs of intelligent alien life not by watching James Corden but by scanning the heavens for radio or light signals, is also of the opinion there is nothing even close to a smoking gun here. 

Shostak acknowledges the videos are “certainly intriguing. I mean, you see something in these infrared camera scope displays and so forth.”

But, he said, at least in the case of the 2004 encounter, “those cameras are looking at heat. … So you’re looking up the tailpipes of a twin engine jet and it looks like a peanut from five miles away or whatever.”

Other scientists have also started to speak out about the inconclusive nature of the videos and the pilots’ accounts.

Cook says it’s a mistake to focus on the limitations of any one piece of evidence.

For the last 20 years or so, he said, “military systems, like fighter jets, haven’t just relied on their own sensors, like their own onboard radar, their own infrared search and track system. They get data piped to them by offboard sensors like satellites and airborne early warning systems and also some people on the ground. And all of that data in the case of that Tic Tac encounter was coming from a multiplicity of different sensors across the fleet.”


If Your Mother Says She Loves You …

So … who do you believe? Who do you want to believe

A former managing editor of mine used to cite this journalistic aphorism: “If your mother says she loves you, better check it out.”

The public might do the same in scrutinizing the perspectives of both true believers and rationalist skeptics.

For those who have fallen headlong in love with the idea that we are either being visited by aliens, or that the U.S. or some foreign power is in possession of technology so advanced it might as well be alien, it may be wise to keep in mind that just because the media piles onto a particular story doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true. One might even imagine a scenario in which the 2021 boom in UFO stories looks more like the Theranos media debacle come 2022.

For one thing, the story is currently driven by a few key people. First and foremost is the journalist and author Leslie Kean, who wrote what is considered  the definitive compendium of the best UFO cases on record, some of which are summarized in The New Yorker article. It was Kean who got the ball rolling when she brought the story about the Pentagon secretly studying unexplained aerial phenomenon to the Times.

Buried in The New Yorker piece is this passage:

“Kean is unwavering in her belief that she and an insider [Louis Elizondo] exposed something formidable, but a former Pentagon official recently suggested that the story was more complicated: the program she disclosed was of little consequence compared with the one she set in motion. Widespread fascination with the idea that the government cared about U.F.O.s had inspired the government at last to care about U.F.O.s.”

Kean’s follow-up book, which drew less attention, was called “Surviving Death: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for an Afterlife.” In that book, Kean looks at the evidence for reincarnation, near-death experiences, and contact with the dead through mediums, and judges it to be pretty robust. In one chapter she interprets certain events as clear messages from her deceased brother; she also claims to have made contact through a medium with her late friend Budd Hopkins, himself a controversial researcher of alleged alien abductions.

While none of this means Kean isn’t a fine reporter, it does indicate she is perhaps more open than the average journalist to esoteric interpretations of certain experiences.

Two other people who are prominent in the current wave of UFO stories are  Christopher Mellon and Louis Elizondo, former defense intelligence officials. Both have worked with the To the Stars Academy, a UFO research organization co-founded by Tom DeLonge, the former frontman of the rock band Blink-182.

That organization also has an entertainment division, which produced a 14-episode TV series called “Unidentified: Inside America’s UFO Investigation,” shot reality-TV style and featuring Elizondo and Mellon, listed as “cast” on the show’s website. Not necessarily the most sober vehicle for revealing paradigm-shifting material.

The New Republic recently published a takedown of the building excitement over the story, called “How Washington Got Hooked on Flying Saucers,” delineating the chain of events leading to our national UFO moment. The tale involves Kean, Mellon, Elizondo and Nevada hotel magnate, paranormal enthusiast and would-be space entrepreneur Robert Bigelow —  the last of whom is reportedly a friend of former Sen. Harry Reid, who, you’ll recall, prevailed on the Pentagon to look into UFOs in the first place.

Viewed in this light, one might understand why some see only a nexus of nonsense in the current reporting by many mainstream media organizations.


nd yet, the topic of UFOs is more complex than debunkers reflexively insist. While UFO books may be shelved in your bookstore next to those on ghosts, astrology, cryptozoology and witchcraft, none of those subjects have roused enough interest to have been investigated by the Air Force for two decades, not including the more recent programs.

It wasn’t a squadron of, say, ghosts that reportedly entered restricted airspace over the White House in 1952, visible to both pilots and radar, prompting the Air Force to hold a subsequent press conference to calm the public.

It wasn’t the Loch Ness monster that a House minority leader and future president of the United States urged Congress to hold hearings on.

It wasn’t Bigfoot that a future chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was discussing when he wrote a memo about a phenomenon he called “something real and not visionary or fictitious.”

And it wasn’t Santa Claus and accompanying reindeer that one of our first astronauts had in mind when he talked about encountering strange flying objects as a fighter pilot in Europe.

And now, we have the current band of former military and intelligence officials — plus Harry Reid — floating the possibility of extraterrestrials in our midst. Reid appears to be all in — or at least three-quarters of the way — on a potential blockbuster of a conclusion.

It’s unclear whether the UFOs we have encountered could have been built by foreign adversaries, whether our pilots’ visual perception during some encounters was somehow distorted, or whether we truly have credible evidence of extraterrestrial visitations,” he wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed.

He’s not alone. Last year former CIA Director John O. Brennan said on a podcast that the current crop of videos were “eyebrow-raising.”

I think some of the phenomena we’re going to be seeing continues to be unexplained and might, in fact, be some type of phenomenon that is the result of something that we don’t yet understand and that could involve some type of activity that some might say constitutes a different form of life,” he said.

One of his predecessors at CIA, James Woolsey, also seemed more than willing to go there recently. “I’m not as skeptical as I was a few years ago, to put it mildly. Something is going on that is surprising to a series of intelligent aircraft experienced pilots,” he said on a podcast called The Black Vault.

Most of these instances are what astronomer Seth Shostak characterizes as examples of a logical fallacy he believes is rife in the world of UFOs: argument from authority, in which the credentials of witnesses or purveyors of a particular point of view trump the data. As Shostak said of the pilots’ accounts of unexplainable objects, “This is true because these guys went to flight school,” is not exactly dispositive.

“Just because somebody says it’s true doesn’t mean it’s true,” he told me. “Even if it’s Einstein. I mean, you know, look, where are the data? Show me the data.”

We might add to that the problematic nature of having the assessment of this phenomenon now resting solely in the hands of a U.S. military-intelligence apparatus that has itself proved capable of pushing the reality of certain threats beyond whatever data it has, sometimes aided by a compliant media.

Journalism, of course, pretty much runs on argument from authority. On a topic like this, almost universally scoffed at by the scientific community, all we have to go on are the accounts and opinions of credible witnesses and the limited data that’s come to light.

But while journalists may rely on argument from authority, scientists of course don’t. And right now, the scientific consensus is overwhelmingly that whatever people think they may have seen in the sky, they’re mistaken. To those who are insistent, they would answer like Shostak: “Show me the data.“


ne scientist who is looking at the data is Garry Nolan, a professor of microbiology and pathology at Stanford. Nolan and other scientists pissed off certain UFOlogists a few years back after sequencing the DNA of a 6-inch tall skeleton with an elongated head found in the Chilean desert, debunking the notion it was extraterrestrial.

Nolan told me he got interested in UFOs after individuals representing the government and an aerospace corporation approached him to analyze the medical conditions of people who had come into contact “with some sort of anomalous craft.”

He’s currently analyzing wreckage from an alleged UFO crash in 1945, provided to him by longtime UFO researcher Jacques Vallee. But if people are “expecting a spectacular smoking gun,” he said, they’re going to be disappointed.

“The objective is to take even some of the most blasé cases and just create a pipeline of how this should be done to demonstrate to people that you don’t need to come up with a spectacular answer,” he said.

Nolan says he knows of dozens of scientists around the country working on problems related to UFOs who don’t want to go public with their involvement.

“People are doing it on a nickel and a dime, on their spare time, paying for it themselves,” he said. “And I think that when people say, well, there’s no real results, it’s because nobody’s funded the question properly to get the results.”

Nolan says that although he hasn’t yet seen anything “incontrovertible” to prove the existence of something otherworldly, he believes there is “genuinely something interesting” to study here.

So … what do you believe? What do you want to believe?

At the end of the New Yorker podcast about the magazine’s massive UFO story, reporter Gideon Lewis-Kraus laments: “The vast majority of the time the experience of reporting describes a familiar arc, from near complete ignorance to at least the performance of some expertise on a subject. But my experience here has been the complete opposite. That I feel like the more I look into this, the less I know about it. The more people I talk to, the more confused I become. This is a subject that my experience in reporting this piece has not been that of clearing up a mystery, but of deepening it.”

What we have is a highly disorienting set of events to consider, presenting  what could turn out to be an epistemological dilemma of immense proportions. I only know, so far, what I want to believe.

Carl Sagan famously said “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” In this case, that would seem to be not only prudent but critical.

If the truth is out there, we don’t have it yet.

Where’s the data?

Perhaps we’’ll get it.


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