Monday, October 29, 2012

The Pseudo-Science of Anti-Anti-Ufology

      [This is reprinted from my Psychic Vibrations column in The Skeptical Inquirer, September/October, 2009. It answers Friedman's critiques of "debunkers," and it explains how Betty Hill's "UFO Star Map" has crashed and burned. Friedman knows this (I discussed it with him), but he has gotten too much mileage from that "star map" to ever give it up, no matter how bogus it turns out to be.]

           Many readers are surely familiar with the author and pro-UFO lecturer Stanton T. Friedman, who calls himself the “Flying Saucer physicist,” because he actually did work in physics about fifty years ago (although not since). Well, Stanton is upset by the skeptical writings contained in SI’s special issue on UFOs (January/February, 2009), and elsewhere. He has written two papers thus far denouncing us, and it is the subject of his Keynote Address at the MUFON Conference in August (2009).
            In February (2009), Friedman wrote an article, “Debunkers at it Again,” reviewing our UFO special issue (  “In actuality, the active writers and “investigators” aren’t skeptics. They are Debunkers doing their best to pull the wool over the eyes of a curious public. They know the answers, so don’t really need to investigate. Proclamation is more their style. Deception is the name of the game.”
 Stanton Friedman
Friedman goes on to name names:  He critiques Joe Nickell’s article “Return to
Roswell ” by noting that Nickell is a former magician, and “of course the stock in trade of magicians is intentional deception with another sterling example being the Amazing Randi.”  So by Friedman-logic, anyone who has ever practiced prestidigitation can never again be trusted in anything. He criticizes Nickell for raising “the baseless Project Mogul explanation” for Roswell, which cannot be correct, says Friedman, because it does not match the claims made in later years by alleged Roswell witnesses (although it does match quite well the account of Mac Brazel, the original witness, given in 1947).
He moves on to my critique of the Betty and Barney Hill case, where I note the resemblance of their “hypnosis UFO testimony” to Betty Hill’s post-incident dreams. I said, “Barney had heard her repeat [them] many times,” which he claims is “nonsense.” According to Friedman, “Barney read Betty’s dreams once, and the notes were put in a drawer,” and that settles that. He conveniently forgets the passages in John G. Fuller’s The Interrupted Journey, the first book about the incident, describing the long sessions Betty and Barney spent with several UFOlogists, “beginning at noon and running almost until midnight” (Chapter 3), in which all aspects of the incident were discussed again and again. He also forgets that Barney told Dr. Simon, the psychiatrist who interviewed and treated them both, that his wife had told him “a great many details of the dreams,” and that Dr. Simon had concluded that the dreams of Mrs. Hill “had assumed the quality of a fantasized experience” (Chapter 12).
Friedman next attacks Dr. David Morrison, NASA senior scientist, for the “absurd” suggestion that if intelligently-controlled UFOs were here, we might pick up radio transmissions from them, or from their home planets. “Maybe secret NSA listening devices pick up alien signals, but then the NSA doesn’t release info about what signals it receives,” said Friedman. He also attacks Dave Thomas, “a scientist in New Mexico and president of New Mexicans for Science and Reason”, saying “Dave has certainly demonstrated his lack of knowledge of both the Roswell and Aztec UFO crash retrieval cases.” Thomas has conducted in-depth interviews with Dr. Charles Moore, the chief scientist of Project Mogul, whose balloon caused the Roswell crash scare in 1947. The “Aztec crash” case that Friedman seems so keen on is taken from a 1950 book by Hollywood writer Frank Scully, Behind the Flying Saucers, exposed as a hoax more than fifty years ago by newspaperman J.P. Cahn. Friedman concludes with, “the Skeptical Inquirer provides many examples of the intellectual bankruptcy of the pseudoscience of anti-ufology.”
            Friedman was still hot under the collar in May, when he followed this up with a second article titled the “Pseudo-Science of Anti-Ufology” ( ). He says that skeptics’ arguments “aren’t scientific, but rather represent research by proclamation rather than investigation.” Given that SI’s special issue on UFOs contained detailed investigative reports on the 1984 Minsk, USSR UFO sightings, the Big Sur UFO of 1964, an update on Roswell developments, and the Stephenville, Texas sightings of 2008, if this is mere “proclamation,” then I can’t imagine what “investigation” would look like. “Proclamations and attacks, often given the appearance of being scientific, have been launched at every aspect of the phenomena. Despite an enormous array of real evidence and data, we have been treated to false claims, false reasoning, bias and ignorance.” Of course, if Friedman or anyone else could produce even one piece of “real evidence and data,” the UFO debate would have been over long ago.
Friedman has long been obsessed with the little-known and even less-read Project Blue Book Special Report Number 14, a statistical analysis of UFO reports released by the Battelle Memorial Institute way back in 1955. However, he carefully picks and chooses the quotes that he uses from that report, implying it to be some hidden pro-UFO gem, deliberately ignored by skeptics. However, Friedman never reveals this quote from the Summary of BBSR14: "It is considered to be highly improbable that reports of unidentified aerial objects examined in this study represent observations of technological developments outside of the range of present-day scientific knowledge" (page viii), which means that the Report says exactly the opposite of what Friedman wants us to think it does. “Why isn’t BBSR 14 cited in the debunking books?” he pointedly asks. Probably because it is over fifty years old, and contains little that is interesting or relevant today, although Alan Hendry (not a “debunker” but a very skeptical UFOlogist) did spend several pages of his UFO Handbook (Doubleday, 1979) critiquing its approach. Hendry concluded, “If the Battelle group had had a real appreciation for how loose the data were, they never would have bothered with a statistical comparison to begin with” (p. 266). [For more on Blue Book Special Report 14, see my discussion of Jacques Vallee, J. Allen Hynek, and the "Pentacle Memorandum."]
Freidman concludes, “If one makes an appropriately objective and careful examination of the pro and anti-UFO arguments, one finds that the evidence is overwhelming that Earth is being visited by intelligently controlled vehicles of extraterrestrial origin and that only pseudo-scientific arguments of a vocal but small group of debunkers stand in the way of reaching that conclusion.”  It’s truly remarkable what we, a small group of skeptics writing for SI and similar publications, have supposedly been able to accomplish. Even though the number of people we reach in our publications is far fewer than Friedman reaches on any one of his many appearances on TV and radio programs such as Larry King Live, Coast to Coast AM, etc., he claims that the only reason that Extraterrestrial Visitations have not been accepted by the mainstream of science and the media is because we noisy negativists keep chattering against them. The reality is, of course, that if his supposed “UFO evidence” were nearly as good as he claims it to be, then nothing would be able to stand in its way.
Betty Hill's sketch of a "UFO star map"

Since Friedman loudly claims to represent “scientific UFOlogy,” then like all scientists he must revise or even discard his hypotheses when new data comes in and invalidates them. One such instance has clearly occurred of late: the complete invalidation of the Fish Map, supposedly an extraterrestrial navigation map that Betty Hill saw during her celebrated “UFO abduction” in 1961. For at least 35 years, Friedman has been claiming that researcher Marjorie Fish’s supposed identification of the dots Betty Hill drew as being potentially habitable nearby stars proves the extraterrestrial nature of the Betty and Barney Hill “UFO abduction.” He has made the Fish Map one of the central points of his lectures and writings. The similarity between the Hill drawing and the Fish Map was actually never very good, but folks who were so inclined could point to a number of points of correspondence between the two. (For a detailed discussion, see my paper “There Were No Extraterrestrials” in Encounters at Indian Head (Pflock and Brookesmith, eds. San Antonio: Anomalist Books, 2007) ).
The Fish interpretation is supposedly correct because it consists of single, non-variable stars that all lie inside this box. But using the newer and more accurate data, two stars are actually much farther away, and nowhere near this box. Two are actually variable, and two more are close binaries. Poof!
But today the Fish Map is no longer viable whatsoever. In her research beginning in 1966, Fish made the wise choice to use the Gliese Catalogue of Nearby Stars, which was then the most accurate available. But that was over forty years ago, and science never stands still. Astronomical researcher Brett Holman recently checked out what the Fish Map would look like if it were built using the most accurate astronomical data available today. His answer is in his article in the British publication Fortean Times (#242, November 2008): "Goodbye, Zeta Reticuli" (the supposed home solar system of the UFOnauts). Holman writes, “In the early 1990s the Hipparcos satellite measured the positions of nearly 120,000 stars 10 times more accurately than ever before – including all of those that appear in the Fish interpretation. The results of this work, and much else besides, is available online now, and can be easily queried using websites such as SIMBAD at the Strasbourg Astronomical Observatory.”
           Fish excluded all variable stars and close binaries to include only supposedly habitable solar systems – but the new data reveals two of her stars as suspected variables, and two more as close binaries. So there go four of her 15 stars. And two more are much further away than earlier believed, removing them completely from the volume of space in question. Six stars of that supposedly exact-matching pattern, definitely gone, excluded by the very criteria that once included them using the forty-year-old data. Goodbye, Zeta Reticuli.
Kathleen Marden, Stanton Friedman, and Robert Sheaffer at the MUFON Symposium 2011  
Since scientists are obligated to repudiate their hypotheses should subsequent data contradict them, if Friedman is practicing “scientific UFOlogy” as he claims, he will have to admit that he was wrong about the Fish map. But that will never happen. Arguing with Friedman is like arguing with a Creationist, who keeps using discredited arguments to impress new audiences, and seizing upon minor misstatements of his critics and attributing to them the very worst of motives, while completely ignoring their strongest arguments. His arguments rely heavily on the ad hominem attack – his critics are such terrible persons – a sure sign of somebody trying to defend emotionally a position that can’t be defended logically. (Whenever you see the strong reliance on the ad hominem – my critics are such terrible persons – it’s almost like a red banner proclaiming, “my arguments don’t hold up.”) Another major UFO case with a strong endorsement from Friedman is the 1996 Yukon UFO, conclusively shown to be the re-entry of the Cosmos 2335 second stage rocket booster. But Friedman refuses to acknowledge that he was wrong about that case, either.

           From this moment on, every time that Friedman speaks of the Fish Map, except to say “I was wrong about it,” his own words brand him a hypocrite.

[There is a follow-up posting to this one, dated December 17, 2012: Friedman's Frenzy.]

Friday, October 26, 2012

"U.S. News" Proclaims UFOs a "Danger to Aviation"

The next time you get on a plane, don't worry about the terrorist who might have smuggled explosives on board inside his rectum. Instead, you should be worrying about UFOs, according to this story by Michael Morella  in the News section of U.S. News and World Report (October 19, 2012):
UFO Sightings Pose Danger to Aviation
Flying saucers and other unidentified flying objects can distract pilots and cause accidents
the illustration from the U.S. News article
Before you get too concerned, remember that the number of fatalities in airline accidents caused by UFOs equals the number of motorists killed in vehicle collisions with unicorns (although the private pilot Fredrick Valentich appears to have perished in a graveyard spiral while distracted by what he thought was a UFO).

Following this bit of remarkable stupidity, the rest of the article is basically a completely uncritical review of Leslie Kean's book UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go On the Record. She presents supposedly "unexplained" UFO cases involving either a pilot, a general, or a bureaucrat. But as I showed in my review of this book, her cases are only "unexplained" if one ignores all explanations. Philip J. Klass and others have published thousands of words explaining most if not all of Kean's supposed "unexplained" cases. She pretends that other interpretations don't exist, and thus ensnares too-trusting reporters into her UFO net. Good reporters, recognizing that controversial stories have two sides, would interview a knowledgeable expert with a different view, and present both sides. He might have even uncovered the ridiculous story of Leslie Kean and the Fly, and asked her to explain that. Unfortunately, good reporting is quite rare. The piece is rounded off with more UFO advocacy by Richard Haines and John Alexander, with just the briefest objection presented by Seth Shostak.

Morella had previously written "Mysteries of Space" for a special issue of U.S. News (April, 2012). A cover teaser promised to explain "Why UFOs are dangerous," but the text didn't deliver on that promise.

This is not the first time that U.S. News and World Report has embarrassed itself by publishing UFO stories that turned out to be simply foolish.

“Before the year is out, the Government perhaps the President—is expected to make what are described as 'unsettling disclosures' about UFOs” - U.S. News & World Report, April 18, 1977.
There were no "unsettling disclosures," and still have not been, thirty-five years later. Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter famously promised to release all of that UFO files, if elected. This set up something like a Millennial frenzy among UFO believers, expecting the official announcement of alien visitations to come at any time. After Carter was elected, he probably found out that the Blue Book files had already been declassified and released; Phil Klass and I had already been reading them in the National Archives before Carter took office.

Then there is this doozy:
 “FLYING SAUCERS—THE REAL STORY: U.S. BUILT FIRST ONE IN 1942. Jet-propelled disks can outfly other planes ... By choosing which [jet] noz­zles to turn on or off and the angle of tilt, the pilot could make the saucer rise or descend vertically, hover, or fly straight ahead, or make sharp turns… a big advance in the science of flying... No official announcements are being made yet, but about the only big secret left is "who makes them." Evidence points to Navy experiments... ” - News “scoop” in U.S. News & World Report, April 7, 1950.

It would seem that about every thirty-five years, U.S. News is determined to publish something monumentally stupid about UFOs, something that is a profound and lasting embarrassment to any professional journalist. Like clockwork, they've done it again.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

New Developments in the Frederick Valentich Disappearance: An Airplane Abducted by a UFO?

Valentich and his aircraft

A famous "unexplained" UFO case (or more precisely, a case where the solution is probable, but not clearly proven) is the 1978 disappearance of Fredrick Valentich, a 20 year old pilot in Australia.  On October 21 1978  he was piloting a Cessna 182L  light aircraft over Bass Strait in Australia. He intended to land at King Island and return to Moorabbin Airport.

However, he never made it to King Island, 127 miles away. The final exchanges between Valentich (DSJ) and air traffic control are as follows: (from Wikipedia)

19:06:14 DSJ [Valentich]: Melbourne, this is Delta Sierra Juliet. Is there any known traffic below five thousand?
FS [Flight Services; Robey]: Delta Sierra Juliet, no known traffic.
DSJ: Delta Sierra Juliet, I am, seems to be a large aircraft below five thousand.
19:06:44 FS: Delta Sierra Juliet, What type of aircraft is it?
DSJ: Delta Sierra Juliet, I cannot affirm, it is four bright, and it seems to me like landing lights.
FS: Delta Sierra Juliet.
19:07:31 DSJ: Melbourne, this is Delta Sierra Juliet, the aircraft has just passed over me at least a thousand feet above.
FS: Delta Sierra Juliet, roger, and it is a large aircraft, confirmed?
DSJ: Er-unknown, due to the speed it's travelling, is there any air force aircraft in the vicinity?
FS: Delta Sierra Juliet, no known aircraft in the vicinity.
19:08:18 DSJ: Melbourne, it's approaching now from due east towards me.
FS: Delta Sierra Juliet.
19:08:41 DSJ: (open microphone for two seconds.)
19:08:48 DSJ: Delta Sierra Juliet, it seems to me that he's playing some sort of game, he's flying over me two, three times at speeds I could not identify.
FS: Delta Sierra Juliet, roger, what is your actual level?
DSJ: My level is four and a half thousand, four five zero zero.
FS: Delta Sierra Juliet and you confirm you cannot identify the aircraft?
DSJ: Affirmative.
FS: Delta Sierra Juliet, roger, stand by.
19:09:27 DSJ: Melbourne, Delta Sierra Juliet, it's not an aircraft it is (open microphone for two seconds).
19:09:42 FS: Delta Sierra Juliet, can you describe the - er - aircraft?
DSJ: Delta Sierra Juliet, as it's flying past it's a long shape (open microphone for three seconds) cannot identify more than it has such speed (open microphone for three seconds). It's before me right now Melbourne.
19:10 FS: Delta Sierra Juliet, roger and how large would the - er - object be?
19:10:19 DSJ: Delta Sierra Juliet, Melbourne, it seems like it's chasing me.[21] What I'm doing right now is orbiting and the thing is just orbiting on top of me also. It's got a green light and sort of metallic like, it's all shiny on the outside.
FS: Delta Sierra Juliet
19:10:46 DSJ: Delta Sierra Juliet (open microphone for three seconds) It's just vanished.
FS: Delta Sierra Juliet.
19:11:00 DSJ: Melbourne, would you know what kind of aircraft I've got? Is it a military aircraft?
FS: Delta Sierra Juliet, Confirm the - er ~ aircraft just vanished.
DSJ: Say again.
FS: Delta Sierra Juliet, is the aircraft still with you?
DSJ: Delta Sierra Juliet; it's (open microphone for two seconds) now approaching from the south-west.
FS: Delta Sierra Juliet
19:11:50 DSJ: Delta Sierra Juliet, the engine is rough-idling. I've got it set at twenty three twenty-four and the thing is (coughing).
FS: Delta Sierra Juliet, roger, what are your intentions?
DSJ: My intentions are - ah - to go to King Island - ah - Melbourne. That strange aircraft is hovering on top of me again (open microphone for two seconds). It is hovering and (open microphone for one second) it's not an aircraft.
FS: Delta Sierra Juliet.
19:12:28 DSJ: Delta Sierra Juliet. Melbourne (open microphone for seventeen seconds).

It was Valentich's first and only night flight over water. And neither Valentich nor his aircraft was ever seen, or heard from, again.

An artist's conception of Valentich pursued by a UFO
But at last, we have some new information on this puzzling case:
"Adelaide researcher Keith Basterfield has been following the case since the disappearance in 1978, but had been told by the Government in 2004 the official file had been lost or destroyed. He "found" it when searching through an online National Archives index on an unrelated topic. The file has since been digitised and uploaded on the archive's website." 

 So we have skeptic Keith Basterfield to thank for the recent government "document dump" that gets this new information 'out there.' Basterfield explains that the newly-released files reveal that "parts of aircraft wreckage with partial serial numbers were found in Bass Strait five years after the disappearance." Also, one pilot searching at the right time and place saw debris that appeared to be from a Cessna, but before he could get a good fix on its position it apparently sank. This makes it extremely likely that Valentich's aircraft simply crashed into the water in the darkness,  although it falls short of conclusive proof. 
Those interested in reading the 315-page official file still need to go out of their way to find it, however, via a seven-step process outlined by Mr Basterfield, which he perhaps charitably denies is another attempt to hide information. He says: 1. Go to National Archives of Australia. 2. Click on search the collection 3. Click on Begin your search 4. Up comes RecordSearch 5. In the keywords box type VH-DSJ 6. Up comes this file 7. Click on the View digital copy icon. (Miles Kemp, Adelaide Now, Fri, 06 Jul 2012)
If that is too complicated, and you really don't want to read all 315 pages in this maddeningly slow way,  there is a nice summary of these findings in Basterfield's Blog entries of June 28,  July 3, and August 24, 2012. You can also download the first set of documents from scribd. From the documents:
 A number of reports of a fast moving brilliant white light were received from various parts of the country. Mt Stromlo observatory advised that the night of the 21st was the peak of the meteorite stream with 10-15 sightings per hour achieved.
The question of why Valentich took this somewhat risky night flight is a separate matter. According to Wikipedia,
His stated intention was to fly to King Island in Bass Strait via Cape Otway, to pick up passengers, and return to Moorabbin. However, he had told his family, girlfriend and acquaintances that he intended to pick up crayfish. During the accident investigations it was learned there were no passengers waiting to be picked up at King Island, he had not ordered crayfish and could not have done so because crayfish were not available anyway.
So clearly Valentich was being evasive about something. The late Philip J. Klass suggested that Valentich may have been involved in drug smuggling, a suggestion which has infuriated some people and for which there is no proof. However Valentich's stated explanations for making this night flight make do not check out. Some have also suggested that it was Valentich's intention to commit suicide.

Also, it turns out that Valentich was a UFO True Believer, and hence probably inclined to assume anything as a "UFO" that he could not immediately identify. He actually worried about what to do if a UFO attacked him!
from the recently-released Australian documents
Assuming that Valentich became disoriented and thought that Venus, or perhaps a meteor, was flying above him and chasing him, his average life expectancy at that point was about three minutes. This chilling pilot PSA video from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association shows exactly what happened to Valentich (as well as to JFK Jr in 1999). Watching this video made my blood run cold, but it's absolutely realistic.

This is exactly the situation Valentich found himself in when darkness fell on that moonless night. Assuming that he became disoriented and thought that Venus, or perhaps a meteor, was a UFO – he says it was “orbiting” him – we would expect him to crash in about 178 seconds. He actually survived 374 seconds from the time of his first UFO report until crashing. Valentich had a “Class Four Instrument Rating,” but we know he was not watching his instruments; his eyes were fixed on the “UFO” he was describing.  We also learn from Wikipedia that Valentich
had twice applied to enlist in the Royal Australian Air Force but was rejected because of inadequate educational qualifications. He was a member of the Air Training Corps, determined to have a career in aviation. His student pilot licence was issued 24 February 1977 and his private pilot licence the following September. Valentich was studying part-time to become a commercial pilot but had a poor achievement record, having twice failed all five commercial licence examination subjects, and as recent as the previous month had failed three more commercial licence subjects. He had been involved in flying incidents, straying into a controlled zone in Sydney (for which he received a warning) and twice deliberately flying into cloud (for which prosecution was being considered). 
    I would never knowingly get into an aircraft with a pilot like that – and especially not for a night flight over water! In any case, we can be quite sure of what happened to Valentich, even if we cannot say why he made that fatal flight.

[Added Nov. 10, 2013: An article was published in The Skeptical Inquirer, November/December, 2013: "The Valentich Disappearance: Another UFO Cold Case Solved", by James McGaha and Joe Nickel. The conclusion they reach is the same as I did: "distracted and disoriented - the young pilot unexpectedly enters the "graveyard spiral" that carries him to his death." They make the point that Valentich was paying attention to a supposed "UFO", when he should have been paying attention to his instruments.
Also, Brian Dunning covered the Valentich story on his Skeptoid podcast, ]