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.