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Yes, We Need to Talk About the Unstoppable UFO Narrative
A parable about how appealing story lines trump objectivity when murk, consequence and motivated reasoning collide
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Yes, amid all, I'm writing about UFOs or, as they're known these days, UAPs (unidentified aerial phenomena). I'm doing so because this issue is a microcosm of the much wider tendency of our species to latch onto compelling narratives when faced with grayness or even direct contravening evidence. You've seen this elsewhere, right? Carl Sagan captured the phenomenon beautifully in his 1996 book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.
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UPDATED - The buildup has been relentless among UFO fans and a small cadre of motivated public figures and media captured by a compelling narrative - that there's finally unnerving evidence of either alien or super-secret military technologies toying with U.S. military aircraft, in some cases exhibiting impossible physics.
Thankfully, the public portion of the first public hearing on such "unidentified aerial phenomena" in 50 years, before the House Intelligence Counterterrorism, Counterintelligence, and Counterproliferation Subcommittee, stayed focused on core security and defense issues. Watch here when you can and contribute your thoughts (and links to relevant content) in the comments.
It's great that the Department of Defense and intelligence officials have been working to "destigmatize" this issue as a way to encourage pilots or others serving in the military to report weird encounters of any kind. And hundreds more have flowed in, testified Scott W. Bray, deputy director of Naval Intelligence. In one step to smooth the process, a new Air Force Airborne Object Identification and Management Synchronization Group at the Pentagon is replacing the Air Force's Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force.
Here's Bray describing one newly-declassified video captured from an American military aircraft cockpit last year.
But Bray said there remained no indication of extraterrestrial origins, a finding that meshes with those of a host of science-focused analysts of decades of such reported encounters but is routinely attacked by others probing such issues with an outcome already seemingly in mind.
Insert / In Buzzfeed, the veteran science writer Dan Vergano (@dvergano) laid out how the officials who testified rebutted some high-profile reporting in recent years, including by The New York Times, pointing to extraterrestrial origins of some phenomena or materials:
The Defense Department has no wreckage, or materials that look “non-terrestrial” in origin, Bray said. That’s despite a New York Times report in 2017 of materials believed to be “alien alloys” that were stored by the government. The officials said they had no reports of red lights disabling nuclear missiles in a widely reported 2010 incident. (They promised to look into it.) There were no records of collisions with any UAPs, although there had been 11 “near-misses” reported, Bray said. The officials also stated they knew of no Russian or Chinese technology that could explain any objects moving without an apparent means of propulsion.
Julian E. Barnes, who covers the intelligence agencies for The Times, did a fine job in today's news story on the hearing laying out how this dynamic works - as a narrative fueled by credulous media creates political pressure for a dramatic conclusion:
Mr. Bray’s remarks were aimed at trying to explain why it is so difficult to identify the images in the fuzzy videos. But lawmakers insisted on Tuesday that the Pentagon had been too dismissive of explanations.
“You need to show us, Congress and the American public, whose imagination you have captured, you are willing to follow the facts where they lead,” said Representative André Carson, Democrat of Indiana and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee’s subcommittee that is holding the hearing.
“We fear sometimes that D.O.D. is focused more on emphasizing what it can explain, not investigating what it can’t,” he said. “I am looking for you to assure us today that all conclusions are on the table.”
Hopefully Rep. Carson is learning more in the midday closed briefing that might point him to the small cluster of people (listen to journalist Sarah Scoles below) who are really capturing the imagination of the public.
Insert / This excerpt from the hearing, in which Bray is asked to explain a newly-disclosed video clip, shows how boxed in the intelligence and military officials are by the need for secrecy on key details - giving conspiracists (that should be a word if it isn't already) lots of room to maneuver:
Maybe Carson will look at who's following up on the hearing by fomenting conspiracies - Tucker Carlson!
Keith Kloor, a fine science journalist I've known for decades, has been fearless and relentless in showing how a few figures in this mess have stoked the fires under the issue. Follow his Substack columns and, in particular read this one: “Why UFOs Will Never, Ever Go Away Hint: It's not because of Hollywood, the History Channel or sci-fi shows.”
Please track his @keithkloor tweets today for more, and read the content along this thread from last week:
Not long before I launched this Sustain What dispatch on Bulletin, I hosted an informative Sustain What webcast with Kloor and others on media mania sparked by the 2021 trove of encounters and recordings made by military aircraft. The title was a question: "UFOs and the Media - Is This Time Different?"
The answer so far, remains, no. Please watch:
The other guests were Kate Dorsch (@HPSKate), a science historian at the University of Pennsylvania whose Ph.D. thesis was “Reliable Witnesses, Crackpot Science: UFO Investigations In Cold War America, 1947-1977"; Sarah Scoles (@ScolesSarah), a journalist and author of “They Are Already Here: UFO Culture and Why We See Saucers”;; and Seth Shostak (@SethShostak), a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute (read his 2021 NBC essay: What UFO enthusiasts hope will be in the Pentagon's report — and what's more likely).
Sarah Scoles made a point that's worth emphasizing again:
"This whole wave has been largely created by a very small group of people - these few government insiders.... - who have succeeded largely in making it seem like the entire government is worried about UFOs every day...."
As with Kloor, I encourage you, if you're interested in reality, to track efforts by Mick West (@mickwest) to battle swarming UFO enthusiasts on Twitter.
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Insert January 22, 2023 - Mick West posted a Twitter poll on this question:
“For people on #UFOtwitter who think that UFOs are some form of NHI (Non-human intelligence, i.e. aliens, spirits, or other beings) What do you feel about the abduction phenomena?”
The results won’t thrill anyone keen to promote a reality-based approach to inquiry.
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I was happy to see Julian Barnes' Times article on the hearing cite West, the author of "Escaping the Rabbit Hole" and a serial debunker of technical conspiracies. West has been relentlessly helpful in challenging spooky narratives with sober analysis. Today, the hearing confirmed one of his longstanding points, that lens flare ("bokeh") explained one much-circulated sighting:
Also read West's Guardian column "I study UFOs – and I don’t believe the alien hype," published when the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was poised to release its preliminary report last June.
Here's a deeper point from West on Twitter, explaining what can lead to widespread faith in something unsupported by evidence. He did so by pointing to a telltale section of a New York Times op-ed article by the man who probably did more to sustain UFO mythologies than anyone, the late Senator Harry Reid of Nevada.
Reid, describing a meeting on unidentified aerial phenomena he'd been invited to, wrote: "I was very impressed with the academics, who spoke of unidentified aerial phenomena in the language of science, discussing the issue in terms of technological advancement and national security. I was hooked."
"How do people acquire a belief in a subject when they don't understand the technical aspects? It's often by listening to people talk in an authoritative sounding way about it. But you have to be careful you're not just listening to a fringe subset. Compelling does not mean true."
"Compelling does not mean true"
For more on that concept in a much wider context, please also click back to this post of mine, which explored the importance of deep skepticism when confronted with compelling narratives in situations where data are scant and uncertainties endure: "The Deeper Meaning of Ice Age Fossil Footprints in New Mexico's White Sands."
As I wrote there, I'd love to revive the American Tentative Society, a group of journalists who, nearly half a century ago, pressed the case for avoiding what I call "narrative capture."
In that Sustain What chat on media hype around aliens, I alluded to the conspiracy theories woven around the tragic midair explosion of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island in a murky calamity almost assuredly produced by a complicated confluence of conditions and some electrical failure. I was on the reporting team for The Times for months and had to fight both external and newsroom narrative capture to stay on track. Listen here:
A warning sign
In closing, here's a way you can help.
Whenever you sense you're seeing something on social media where the narrative has pulled the conversation way beyond what the facts say, post this warning sign:
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Don't be fooled by the hip-hop rhyming in Steven Greenstreet's New York Post video deep dive into this latest chapter in the UFO conspiracy saga. It's a really compelling piece of reporting: