Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Eye of the Beholder

Many thanks to John E.L. Tenney and Eric Wojciechowski for graciously providing content for this blog post. Their contributions are most appreciated.

"What do you see?" reads the cover of The Mothman Prophecies, John Keel's cornerstone work adorned with a Rorschachian ink blot. It is a relevant question. 

When I was a child my elementary school class would take field trips to a planetarium. My favorite part of the program was when they'd discuss UFOs. I recall they would show these glowing, saucer-shaped lights traversing the starry heavens of the planetarium ceiling. We were then told how the glowing images represented what people were describing in select UFO reports. They said a plausible explanation for some of the reports was birds reflecting the lights of the cities below.

"Who the hell could mistake a bird for a flying saucer?" I used to wonder to myself. "Oh, my bad, I thought it was a star cruiser but it was just a goose..."

I was pretty sure this bird explanation was in league with arbitrary bedtimes and cartoons about eating spinach to instantaneously develop Popeye muscles. Then I finally saw it myself.

Decades later I was walking across a parking lot at night. Suddenly, I saw a saucer-shaped glowing light. It appeared to be speeding all the way from one side of the sky to the other. Surprised, I stopped in my tracks. I soon realized I had mistaken a bird for a flying saucer!

As the rather run of the mill bird continued its journey, I could clearly see what it was. The 'flying saucer' morphed into a bird as the reflection faded, all within seconds. 

Light was reflecting off the bird's breast and appeared to me to be disc-shaped and much further away. I found it curious that I reflexively suspected it to be a speedy craft at high altitude. 

I was left to wonder what I might have thought the bird was if I wasn't so familiar with UFO lore. It seems reasonable to suspect people knowledgeable about birds, and who spend a lot of time looking at images of them flying at night (as compared to images of UFOs), would have thought it was a bird. 

If to a hammer everything is a nail, then to a UFO enthusiast is every light in the sky a flying saucer? Perhaps some of us more than others, but maybe a lot of that depends on how well we educate ourselves. 

I'm just glad I saw what the bird actually was so I didn't spend years of my life looking for a conclusive explanation that would never have been found. It makes me wonder how many cases are destined to remain unsolved under similar circumstances.

This is not to suggest that identifiable flying objects (IFOs) necessarily account for all UFO sightings. There are many different explanations for the many different reports, however extraordinary or mundane they may each one day prove to be.

*          *          *          * 

One such person knowledgeable about birds flying at night is longtime Fortean, author, and speaker, John E.L. Tenney. At my request he explained: 

Throughout the earlier 1990's during my lectures on UFO phenomena, I would often present videos and photos to my audiences which showed strange flashing lights in the sky and curious formations moving swiftly through the clouds at sunset. Without any explanation of what the images actually were, I would allow the crowd to speculate on what they thought they were seeing. In many instances the audience would argue over whether or not the "UFOs" were luminescent or simply reflective of existing light. No matter what they thought about the silvery, flashing disks, the majority believed these photos and images were proof of unidentified flying saucers.
Unfortunately, the photos and videos I provided were of migrating birds, ducks mostly. Ducks can attain a speed of over 50 mph and have been known to fly at altitudes above 1000 feet. In one instance a duck collided with a plane over Nevada at 21,000 feet. The video and photos I had shown were before the popularization and consumer accessibility of "night vision" cameras, so this added in some instances to the mysterious effect. The reality though was that I had just spoken for over an hour on the topic of UFO phenomena and attendees had UFOs on their minds, and so no matter what I showed them they saw what they wanted to see. Even after my explanation of the videos, there were some who refused to believe me.

*          *          *          *

One evening in Florida I was sitting alone in a car. As I sat gazing across the way, thinking about this and that, I suddenly saw, several feet away, what I believe to have been a large tropical bird briefly fly within an area illuminated by a streetlight. It created a rather striking momentary optical illusion, as nothing was there, then the wood stork-like creature was there, then it was gone. It was as if it just popped in and out of existence. 

Wood storks often stand well over three feet high
with a wing span in excess of five feet
To add to the surreal effect, it was not a graceful snapshot; the large bird was in a rather awkward position of spreading wings, getting legs situated and such. To my untrained eye, it kind of looked somewhat unnatural and contorted during that brief instant of its ascent or landing, at least as compared to seeing wood storks fly across the sky or stroll around the yard in broad daylight.

I immediately realized the area outside the illumination of the streetlight was simply too dark for me to see the bird, but the sight nonetheless had a disorienting effect. We're of course typically not consciously aware we can't see what's in the dark; we tend to just assume nothing is there.

The experience subsequently made it much easier for me to envision how barn owls and large nocturnal birds might be misidentified and give rise to stories of levitating aliens and mysterious winged creatures of the night. This might particularly be the case if light angles and shadows have much to do with it.

As suggested earlier, the intent of this post is not to negate all UFO reports, but to offer readers some perspectives that arguably get less airtime than they should. That stated, I will add that as I mulled this all over, it seemed rather apparent to me that in cases where witnesses of the same UFO sighting provide curiously different descriptions of the same object, they may simply have seen an optical illusion from differing perspectives. 

Such cases are often considered intriguing, due in part to investigators suspecting the flying objects possess a paranormal quality or intelligence which induces subjective perceptions in observers. Sometimes investigators suspect the undefined objects are interacting in personalized ways with the witnesses, thus the conflicting descriptions of the same UFO. Perhaps in at least some instances these cases may be better explained by light reflections and optical illusions, combined with the usual caveats of witness testimonies and subjectivity. 

*          *          *          *

A non-UFO but nonetheless intriguing report in which the witnesses fascinatingly shared the same bizarre illusion and short-lived interpretation comes to us from Eric Wojciechowski. He is a speaker on UFO topics, an author, and contributes articles to several publications. Eric explained for us in a recent email:
In the summer of 2011, I took my family to Atlanta, Michigan. They'd never been but it's where I spent my summer vacations as a kid and since I now had children of my own, I wanted to show them the place, especially the lake I fished, the Atlanta Pond (as the Department of Natural Resources refers to it). My brother and his family joined us as well.
One of the days, we took a trip to Mackinaw and on the way back, I was driving and my brother was in the passenger seat. It was probably around 7pm. As I'm driving, I notice in the intersection up ahead, a rhinoceros was in the intersection, making a left hand turn. As I was about to draw attention to it, the illusion broke and it wasn't a rhino but a car, making a left hand turn. It was a trick of sunlight and shadow.
However, just as my mind registered the error and I saved myself from saying anything embarrassing, my brother took off his sunglasses and said, "What the hell?"
I said, "Did you see the rhinoceros too?"
And as I said it, he also registered it was just a car and we both had a laugh about it.
Somehow, the sun and shadow at that very moment made the car ahead look like a rhinoceros. I have no idea how that happened but we still laugh about it today. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Advocacy or Investigation: Only Way to the Truth Is Through Critical Review

Sometimes what's not being discussed may be most telling of all. 

In yet another intriguing episode of UFO Classified, show host Erica Lukes interviewed Mick West. A number of interesting points were discussed about issues surrounding the now famous Navy videos. 

Lukes raised the possibility the objects depicted may in some instances represent quite human aircraft or other types of experimental operations, such as the testing of advanced radar and countermeasures. This has been competently posed by others, as well, including Tyler Rogoway, who noted a number of circumstances consistent with military exercises in a series of posts at The War Zone. UFO World nemesis Seth Shostak raised a similarly interesting - and entertaining - point on a recent episode of Coast to Coast AM when he suggested F/A-18 aircraft seem to be a common denominator of the video clips. That might be considered comparable, he added, to having only one make of binoculars which consistently reveal Bigfoot.   

Mick West explained during his recent discussion with Lukes why he is underwhelmed by the Navy vids and the related media fuss. Lukes added that, as spherical UFO reports go, the TTSA-hyped variety may arguably not even be among the most compelling. She then described two cases which happened during her stint as Utah MUFON State Director.

Several sphere-shaped flying objects were observed by multiple witnesses in Utah during daylight hours, Lukes explained. The sightings went on for an extended period of time, as sightings go, and witnesses described the objects as able to hover in place, as well as accelerate at what were perceived to be high speeds. Interestingly, the sightings placed the objects over a National Security Agency facility, consisting of what Lukes described as highly restricted airspace. Some witnesses reported military aircraft in the vicinity, seemingly monitoring or supporting the situation. Lukes discussed the case in the context it may have represented advanced drones, among other possibilities.

Shortly following the Utah case, Lukes explained further, a similar sighting took place in Colorado. The Utah and Colorado reports were very similar in witness descriptions of the objects and flight capabilities. Lukes described her disappointment and surprise when MUFON upper management, for whatever reasons, discouraged further investigation and asserted the Colorado case was the result of a Google balloon. Lukes suggested the explanation was simply not consistent with the evidence collected. 

It is curious that we do not hear more about cases as Lukes described, aspects of the Navy vids and witness accounts as addressed by West, and similar material that provides much more accurate context than typically circulated. Would the average UFO enthusiast know the difference - or want to know the difference - between UFO advocacy and competent investigation? 

Code-name Bumblehive: the Utah Data Center, a domestic surveillance
facility in which NSA serves as the lead agency 

Yet another potentially relevant case curiously omitted from current public discourse involves a series of spherical flying object sightings in Iran, circa 2004. That's the same year as the now much discussed Nimitz incident. 

Those of us with an even passing familiarity with the Navy reports, what we might call typical orb sightings, and even UFO reports in general should quickly recognize possible correlations. As reported in Forbes, among other sources, the spherical objects were menacing Iranian nuclear sites. 

Forbes further reported that, according to Iranian sources, the small wingless objects had advanced flight capabilities, including cruising outside the atmosphere and at speeds ranging from Mach 10 (that's 7,673 mph) to zero, sometimes hovering in place. The objects possessed powerful electronic countermeasures, or ECM, capacities that could jam Iranian radar and disrupt navigation equipment by using high levels of magnetic energy.

According to one report, the pilot of an F-14 Tomcat tried to lock its radar on the target, only to have the beam disrupted. The Iranian pilot reportedly said the object was spherical with a green afterburner, adding that the intruder increased its speed and "disappeared like a meteor."  

The objects were further described as luminous. Interestingly, Iranian officials indicated they suspected the reported light emission enabled night photography. The Iranians did not in the least suspect their nuclear facilities were being explored by interplanetary aliens or subjected to fabled Skinwalker-like poltergeists, but, to the chase, they decidedly thought the objects to be none other than CIA drones.  

"According to Iranian sources, the CIA's intelligence drones displayed astonishing flight characteristics," Forbes reported. 

Regular blog readers and those who read The Greys Have Been Framed may recall I've been waving this case around for a while now. A little repetition never hurts, I guess, especially when the point keeps seeming relevant.

Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel drone
Defense and aviation writers consulted tell us here at The UFO Trail that it is indeed now apparent such CIA drone surveillance occurred over Iran during the time in question, whether or not it necessarily involved advanced flying spheres. Foreign Policy reports, for instance, that the U.S. began flying drone missions over Iran from Iraq as early as April of 2004. A CIA-controlled RQ-170 Sentinel drone crashed and was captured by Iranian forces in 2011, with such missions reportedly reaching hundreds of miles into the nation for years prior and following the incident.

The case of the menacing, hypersonic spheres raises many reasonable questions and concerns. It is essential to address them. 

Maybe the Iranian sources are not entirely trustworthy, having hatched a disinformation scheme for what might be a variety of objectives. Perhaps the story is a mixture of truth and intentional disinformation. Another possibility is perhaps most of it is relatively sincere, but pilots are simply mistaken about some of what they saw. Maybe the objects were CIA drones, were spherical as reported similarly at later dates by American pilots, but the pilots were simply wrong about some of the specific flight capabilities they think they observed.

It is worth noting that virtually all of the reasonable questions we might pose about the Iranian case equally apply to the Navy vids and corresponding reports. Furthermore, the questions are entirely necessary in order to ever arrive at any semblance of discerning what actually took place. Not only is it not taboo to raise and discuss the issues, it is completely essential to the fact-finding process.

In related news, science journalist Sarah Scoles raised yet more valid points which are noticeably absent from UFO discussion and typical coverage. She recently commented on FOIA documents pertaining to the Navy UFO incidents obtained by War Zone and related circumstances:

Specifically, and according to the Pentagon, two of the three videos were originally filmed in January of 2015. Many sources, including the much discussed Times article itself, established the official date range of the AATIP to be from 2007-2012. Reuters reported in Dec. 2017:

The Pentagon openly acknowledged the fate of the program in response to a Reuters query.
"The Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program ended in the 2012 timeframe," Pentagon spokeswoman Laura Ochoa said in an email.
"It was determined that there were other, higher priority issues that merited funding and it was in the best interest of the DoD to make a change," she said.

Rumors persist the program continued in some form or other, possibly even in a very unofficial capacity, but those rumors are arguably fanned by the same people and "reporters" who told the public to believe the story was monumentally important in the first place. Moreover, it's beside the point in comparison to the fact the premise of the now infamous Dec. 2017 Times article was that the vids were a part of the AATIP, an assertion that was not only never established, but appears to be quite impossible. 

There are those who will argue they don't care; they perceive the Department of Defense is acknowledging UFOs are real, and that's what's important to them. A problem is that's not what happened. It's what we're told happened - by the same people who can't substantiate multiple headline-making assertions that formed the basis of that Times story.

As we consider the telltale silence surrounding such issues, is it not reasonable to ask why IC professionals who now represent TTSA would not address the discrepancies? Like, if we know about the 2004 Iran case and the multiple witness flying spheres in Utah and Colorado, wouldn't it seem like well-connected IC guys would? And wouldn't it seem critical to address and examine such cases if conducting a sincere and thorough search for facts surrounding the Navy vids? It would seem like it to me, at least as compared to trotting out a pro-UFO thoroughly debunked Italian hoax on cable television. 

The UFO genre continues to be plagued by an inability and lack of willingness to differentiate between advocacy and investigation. In its defense, it's largely led. There are many reasons and layers of agendas to blame, but it should be clear enough to even a casual observer that the search for facts suffers. 

It appears that, for many, having their beliefs encouraged is good enough. However, others actually want the truth. To find it, they must take a path through critical review. There simply is no other way.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Normalizing the Fantastic and Resisting the Rational

"Why have we normalized speculating about alien bases on the moon yet vilify a person trying to explain strange occurrences with grounded explanations?" Twitter user Inquiring Josh recently tweeted. 

Why, indeed. The UFO genre has a long and troubled history of treating extreme claims as the norm. Casual talk of alien bases is often bandied about without so much as a raised eyebrow. It's common. As Inquiring Josh suggests, the situation is confounded by the typical knee jerk dismissal of those who propose potential and much less extraordinary explanations for the many often heard fantastic stories.

Deep Prasad is a young UFO enthusiast who has been rising in popularity. He promotes a confident belief aliens are here - plentifully here - and he claims to have experienced an abduction-like event. These are fairly common beliefs in the grand scheme of things UFO, as those familiar with conferences, meet ups, popular online sites and such are well aware.

In his recent article, We Live in an Alien Playground, Prasad expressed beliefs as implied by the title. He also asserted there is tangible evidence of alien bases. He further asserted that multiple massive alien structures exist on the dark side of the moon, adding that key NASA and DoD personnel are well aware of them, as are high level officials in Russia and China.

Prasad stated in the article that he briefed the deputy commander of NORAD on how to detect and track hypersonic UFOs. The article was soon edited, however, to instead state he briefed a "prominent North American Aerospace Defence Organization". It is unclear why "Aerospace Defence Organization" was capitalized, as it is not a proper noun or agency name.

Prasad was emailed and asked if he would care to comment on the edit and clarify who was actually briefed. He did not immediately respond. The edit is indicated in the images below, before and after.

The extent the UFO subculture willingly shrugs off glaring questions in lieu of credulous acceptance of entirely unsupported material is rather amazing. My direct and personal observations in this area significantly contributed to my interest and writing about the genre. I came across so many of the incidents that I am confident I have now forgotten many more than I recall.

Inquiring Josh's tweet reminds me of a UFO person of interest to me who never really made it into my written material, certainly not in the ways it initially seemed they might. Their saga turned out to just be too convoluted and problematic.

The person achieved some degree of UFO notoriety and was on the radar of some relatively high profile researchers. I corresponded with them by email and phone for quite a while, periodically meeting in person. I found their claimed experiences to be difficult to accept at face value for a lot of reasons.

During one meeting in a public place, the individual was particularly suspicious that people around us were trying to eavesdrop. I did not share the suspicion. The person told me of alleged alien encounters and extremely subjective experiences during that interaction, but one of the most prominent things about that specific meeting was their concern intelligence agencies were actively interested in our conversation. The suggestion, in order to be feasible, had to be predicated on an agency's urgent interception of our emails and phone calls to know where we agreed to meet and subsequently place or secure an asset among the employees of the location, as the supposition went. I had a lot of questions about that. It should again be noted that, in the grand scheme of UFO culture, the general premise is a fairly commonly held belief in one form or another.

Nonetheless, just because it's common shouldn't necessarily mean to take it in stride. I also had a lot of questions about the integrity of the researchers who were apparently encouraging the person. Surely the individual behaved the same way around them, if not even more questionably, yet none of the information being published reflected any concerns about misinterpretations or overly subjective perceptions. Quite the contrary, actually. The person I knew as erratic and confused was described as level headed and reliable. The primary reason I never wrote about the person and their case was I thought it stood to do more emotional damage to them than it would benefit the collective UFO genre, particularly considering anyone practicing a reasonable amount of critical thinking would recognize the investigators involved as doing subpar work anyway.

Perhaps investigators are frequently content to omit mention of that which negates their argument, while promoting that which supports it. A lot of investigators seem to leave out the troublesome stuff because they want the rest of the material to seem more credible. It should be obvious that the reliability of such work is in serious question. Some such goings on in ufology are blatantly unethical - at absolute best.

Hopkins and Jacobs at a 2004 Intruders Foundation presentation
Credit: Carol Rainey

I piggybacked off the work of Emma Woods, Carol Rainey, Jeremy Vaeni, Jeff Ritzmann, and several others about events surrounding who Rainey termed "the priests of high strangeness," Budd Hopkins and David Jacobs. The hypnosis-advocating duo facilitated a train wreck of ethical research failings but, in the context of this post, I'm reminded how normalized it was to talk of aliens in the circles of people like Hopkins and Jacobs. To incredible extents, actually. The presence and activities of the non-human beings were taken for granted as objectively real. The only question was how much the creatures passed through each of our individual lives.

One of the many jaw-dropping scenarios uncovered by the above mentioned group involved David Jacobs and his subjects, for lack of a better term, "Elizabeth" and "Brian". Woods knew these people, and assisted with filling in detail and context (as well as shedding a great deal of light on her own infamous interactions with Jacobs). 

I explored an interview Vaeni and Ritzmann conducted with Brian, who had been doing instant message hypnosis sessions with Elizabeth. This rather incredible activity resulted from Jacobs's practice of doing the same. Jacobs at one point publicly stated an ET-human hybrid messaged him from Elizabeth's home while the hybrids rendered her defenseless. He claimed to believe this was actually occurring and among the most frightening things that ever happened to him (I personally interviewed Jacobs and asked about the claim, and found his statements to be an insult to intelligence). Here is a small sample of UFO cult-like behavior and its normalization, as facilitated by Jacobs, from The Greys Have Been Framed, pp66-67:

Brian went on to explain that he did some 18 such sessions with Elizabeth in 2007. The sessions would last for hours, as did telephone conversations between the two.
His trust for Elizabeth began to seriously unravel, Brian explained, when the “hybrid chats” which had occurred with Jacobs began to arise with him as well, and the content became increasingly ridiculous. It seems Elizabeth would allegedly fall under the control of the hybrids, leaving them to IM with Brian, who would exchange questions and answers with the unwelcome visitors. Elizabeth was supposedly rendered passive and without conscious recall of the occurrences. Essentially, Brian was supposed to accept that hybrids were storming the castle while he happened to have been conducting IM hypnosis with the woman, if not because he was doing so, and the hybrids were threatened that their plots and existence were becoming more widely known, all while Elizabeth would later be like, “What happened?”. Brian told Vaeni and Ritzmann that he strongly urged Elizabeth to use a web cam, which she always refused to do for one reason or another.
During interactions that did not allegedly involve hybrids, Elizabeth would apparently encourage Brian to use a pseudonym when IM'ing with the hybrids for reasons, according to Brian, she suggested included Brian's personal safety. Commenting on such hidden identities and the many aliases recommended and employed, Emma explained that Brian pretended to the alleged hybrids to be a doctor who lived in Austria.
“This came about because Dr. Jacobs had done a similar thing,” Emma continued. “Dr. Jacobs pretended to be numerous other people to the hybrids, including a female expert in MPD called Aloha Norton. He also used aliases when communicating with Elizabeth and me, and asked us to use the aliases when communicating with him, for when the aliens and hybrids read our minds. These aliases included him being someone called Lucille Scott, David Jacobsen and so on. He also wrote emails to us in code, and asked us to do the same thing. So Brian pretending to be a different person was based on that precedent from Dr. Jacobs.”

Believe it or not, that's actually far from the worst of Jacobs's exploitative actions. However, let's shake off the glazed-over eyes and numbed brains produced by that material and keep moving.

A designer golf cart sporting a "Q",
spotted by your author in The Villages, FL
It is frighteningly easier than many of us might like to think to become entrenched in questionable beliefs and the related social circles, one compromise at a time. No one woke up one morning and set out to get indoctrinated by lunatics or con men. It happens with an overly accepting, somewhat gullible willingness to hear "both sides," combined with what is often a reasonably valid distrust of authority. The groups themselves are often conducive to cultivating dependency through providing support and empathy for issues commonly dismissed by family and other more mainstream social circles. It is also noteworthy that a reasonable distrust of authority should not mindlessly evolve into uncritically accepting every far flung plot. Just because MKULTRA actually existed doesn't necessarily mean the CIA is eavesdropping via a waitress offering beverage refills. 

I have indeed found myself deeply involved with people harboring extreme fringe beliefs. I understand how we get there, and I understand how there can seem to be kernels of truth in some of the narratives. There may well be glimpses of currently unknown phenomena and covert plots of intelligence agencies to be found lurking within the UFO genre and material. 

That stated, I would like to think I have learned to exercise a willingness to seek information from multiple quality sources, not relying too heavily on any single witness account. I then rank the sources and their credibility as appropriate. Doing so can help us develop and implement a healthy, functional understanding of the fact-finding process. It comes as a result of extending an open-mindedness to the work of those who question UFO bandwagons as much as we extend it to those who drive them. It is also important to acquaint ourselves with such topics as identifiable flying objects, symptoms of emotional trauma, and various similar types of non-UFO yet quite relevant material. This should be done in generous proportion to subjecting ourselves to questionable stories in constant circulation on cable and the internet. This brings us back to the gist of Inquiring Josh's tweet.

Unreasonable as it is, UFO World indeed tends to accept and even celebrate assertions of massive alien structures on the moon without a blink of the eye, while adamantly resisting efforts at sensible discourse. To vilify those willing to apply healthy skepticism to the stories is a mistake. It's not just an attack on those individuals, but the very critical thinking they represent. It's a serious hole in the fact-finding process, while the only path to recognizing possible genuinely unknown phenomena goes directly through the critical review of the evidence. There's no way around it; the evidence must be published, and it must be subjected to critical review. Those who fail to embrace that are doomed to dwell in an echo chamber of unsupported fantastic assertions.