Thursday, September 9, 2021

A "Professional Skeptic" Replies to Kecksburg Defense

On April 30, 2021 the normally serious New Yorker has dropped a very misleading article titled "How the Pentagon Started Taking U.F.O.s Seriously."  It was very long. Authored by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, a lot of it was about UFO promoter Leslie Kean, and what wonderful things she has done to bring the reality of UFOdumb to the masses.

On May 8 I wrote a reply to it on this Blog, titled "The New Yorker's Credulous Article on Pentagon UFOs." It was in three parts, so it was pretty long, but not as long as the New Yorker article. That Blog entry was reprinted in the Skeptical Inquirer, September/October, 2021.

David Bates' vision of Skeptical Gotterdammerung.
On September 6, on the Blog "On the Trail of the Saucers," David Bates wrote "A ‘Skeptic’ Aims at Kecksburg’s UFO and The New Yorker — and misses. Skeptical Inquirer ‘debunker’ Robert Sheaffer uses obfuscation and omission to dismiss an exhaustively documented UFO case." His piece is shorter than mine, largely because he concentrates mostly on one case, the famous Kecksburg, Pennsylvania "UFO crash" of 1965. But he promises more such articles, calling this one "Twilight of the Skeptics, Part 1."

This posting is my reply to Bates' article. It will hopefully be shorter than his.

Bates objects to my use of the term "hagiography" to describe Gideon Lewis-Kraus' write-up of Leslie Kean, a term generally used for religious books praising saints, although it frankly seems to me to be appropriate. He writes, 

If Sheaffer really wants to unpack hagiographical prose, the Jan/Feb 2021 issue of Skeptical Inquirer offers a smorgasbord: Remembrances of the late “Amazing” James Randi — a stage magician and scientific skeptic who frequently challenged paranormal and “pseudoscientific” claims in the magazine before he died in 2015.

The Amazing Randi prepares to bend a spoon non-psychically at the final Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas in 2015, as Ray Hyman looks on. (Photo by author.)

Apart from that fact that Randi died in 2020, not 2015, and that he hadn't been associated with CSI(COP) for about thirty years before that, I might accept Bates' description of the Randi tributes. But there is a huge difference here: Randi got things right, while Kean got a lot of important things wrong. Randi is best known for his debunking of Uri Geller's claims to have magic powers, and time has proven his skepticism correct. (Geller continues to flounder about seeking attention, but isn't having a lot of success. One of Geller's main investigators and proponents, Hal Puthoff, has moved on to work on the paranormal promotions of Tom DeLonge and Robert Bigelow.) Randi also exposed gullibility in a major parapsychology lab, and exposed phony "Faith Healers" like Peter Popoff. Randi was sometimes careless, and would occasionally make mistakes like the one Bates made above, but Randi made no major errors in his skepticism. He never tried to "debunk" anything that was actually true. Whereas Leslie Kean got a whole lot of big things wrong, although her followers seem either unaware of this, or else don't care. Here are a few:

There is also the fact that, unlike Randi, Leslie Kean didn't even have to die to get her hagiography! 😏 But she clearly doesn't deserve one.

Bates writes, "For now, we’ll focus on one of the lesser-known cases: the Kecksburg incident, sometimes referred to (with good reason) as Pennsylvania’s Roswell. The transparently disingenuous manner in which Sheaffer dismisses it as little more than a ufologist’s fever dream reveals a lot about how professional UFO “skeptics” get to where they want to go." OK, show me. He zooms in on the following quote from my article:

For another “really good” case, Kean selected an incident that occurred in Kecksburg, Pennsylvania, a rural hamlet southeast of Pittsburgh, on December 9, 1965, in which an object the size of a Volkswagen Beetle allegedly hurtled from the sky. According to multiple witnesses, the acorn-shaped bulk had been removed from the woods on a flatbed truck as service members guarded the area with guns.
Allegedly. The problem is, we know exactly what people saw in the sky near Kecksburg — and indeed, across the entire region. It was the Great Lakes Fireball of December 9, 1965, well documented in Sky and Telescope magazine (February 1966) and other astronomical publications. This has been pointed out repeatedly by skeptics for decades, but somehow the word doesn’t seem to have reached Kean.

He objects,

First of all, to declare that “we know exactly what people saw in the sky near Kecksburg” does not mean that the object, whatever it was, was identified. It was not identified. It was described as “a fireball” and presumed to be meteor.
Sheaffer does not (and, more to the point, cannot) direct readers to any museum or academic institution where one might gaze upon definitive proof that the Great Lakes Fireball was, in fact, a meteor — because there isn’t any.

Bates seems to think that every bright meteor seen in the sky is somehow recovered, then displayed in a museum or university somewhere! It might surprise him to learn that very few meteors actually reach the ground. And of course, not all of those that do are recovered.

Astronomers Von Del Chamberlain and David J. Krause of the Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University in East Lansing did an in-depth study of the reports of the Dec. 9th fireball from across a wide area of the U.S. and Canada. They published a scientific paper in the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (Aug. 1967- Vol. 61 no. 4, pp. 184-90). This object was in fact over a hundred miles from Kecksburg, "disappearing at a point over land some 15 miles south-east of Windsor [Ontario]". (Witnesses typically greatly underestimate the distance to brilliant fireballs such as this. See UFOs Explained by Philip J. Klass.)  "The usual rash of early reports gave 'landing sites' for the object ranging from western Michigan to Pennsylvania... Loud sonic booms were heard in the Detroit-Windsor region." Using photographs of the object's trail from two different locations, Chamberlain and Krause were able to calculate the orbit of the meteor before it entered the earth's atmosphere. You can retrieve the full article on-line here .

Chamberlain published a second scientific paper about the fireball: Chamberlain, Von Del, 1968: Meteorites of Michigan, Geological Survey Bulletin 5, East Lansing, Michigan: Michigan Department of Conservation, Geological Survey Division, pp. 1-5.

Another article about it, titled "Great Lakes Fireball", was published in the February, 1966 issue of Sky and Telescope magazine, page 78. (See part of the article here.) In it, G. W. Wetherill, a professor of geophysics and geology at UCLA who investigated the incident, is quoted:

The fireball was observed by many people in Ontario, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and to a lesser extent in neighboring states. In newspaper accounts, a great many supposed impact sites were reported, both in southwestern Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. Fragments were claimed to have fallen in Ohio and Michigan.

These imagined happenings arose from the impossibility of estimating the distance of an object in the sky. Almost everyone who saw the fireball thought it was much closer than it really was. When it disappeared behind a house or a tree many people thought it had fallen only a few hundred yards beyond (emphasis added).

The people of Kecksburg were not the only people who wrongly thought that the Great Lakes Fireball had crashed in their vicinity. Skeptic Tim Printy has compiled an excellent list showing that many other people in the region made that same mistake. Quoting from news stories:

Near Lapeer, Mich., 40 miles north of Detroit, police will again search a swamp where a sheriff's deputy, Lenny Tolly, found shredded foil Thursday. "It looks like it may have come from the deal (the fireball)," said Tolly. He said the foil was made of lead and shredded in strips one sixteenth of an inch wide.

In Michigan, several children found strange metallic-particles which may have been thrown off by the disintegrating fireball as it plunged through the air Thursday night. Brian Parent and Larry Jones, Mich., both 11,of Livonia, Mich said they picked up a piece of lightweight grayish fused metal about the size of a baseball which fell into a field. Smaller chunks of similar material,' were found by children in Warren, Mich.

Near Jackson [Michigan],13 -year -old Roy Root found a 15 -pound metallic object in a field near his farm home at Concord. He told newsmen the object was in a hole two feet deep and was still hot when it was discovered.

The Coast Guard in Detroit got a report of an airplane down in the river that separates Detroit and Windsor, Canada. Boats searched and found nothing.

Raymond Wallings, a pilot of Painesville [Ohio] even reported that "he saw a flaming chunk drop into Lake Erie"

In Toledo, where the fireball was first reported, residents saw a blinding flash of blue-white light in the sky northeast of the city. Switchboards lighted up almost instantly, most of the callers believing a plane had exploded.

A boy reported seeing a flaming object fell from the sky into the woods near his home on the outskirts of Cleveland, but sheriff's officers dispatched to the 'area near the village of North Eaton found nothing.

Mrs. Steven Ferency, 154 Longfellow St. {Elyria, Ohio], who was walking on North Logan St at 4:40 PM saw an "orange ball with a white streak behind it" streak to the ground near some Cleveland St. homes.

In Elyria, Mrs. Ralph Richards, 2301 West River Rd. North, reported seeing a fireball " the size of a volleyball" plunge into the woods across from her home. It was apparently the fragment which caused the fires.

Lt. Jack Trumbull of Elyria said the concentrated pattern of the fires led him to believe they could have been touched off by a fireball or meteor which shattered as it hit the ground.

A group of children playing near a school in Lorain reported another chunk dropped into a schoolyard.

The threesome with a sudden awakened interest in Astronomy and meteorites are twins Joe and Mike Kovacs, 11, sons of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Kovacs, 629 Hilliard Rd [Elyria, OH] and Bryan Schue, 10,son of Mr and Mrs Charles Schue, 618 Hilliard Rd... The three boys, all students at Spring Valley School, found the 10 pieces in their yards. The fragments weighed approximately six ounces apeice In color they are metallic blue, at first glance resembling 'clinkers" from a coal furnace Closer examination reveals unusual gaseous-formed bubbles on the surface and extending into the heart of the material. The pieces were still warm when picked up the boys reports and had "a smokey smell" about them. Joe Kovacs found the first piece in the backyard at his home before going to school yesterday morning. He launched his search after hearing radio reports about the fireball he explained.

Eight-year old Nevin Kalp near Kecksburg saw the fireball and reported it to his mother. She stated, " looked like a flaming star. It left a trail of flames behind it and fell in the woods." Mrs. Kalp commented that she saw some smoke but it eventually turned cloudy.

This last one was, of course, the sighting that set off all the excitement in Kecksburg. Printy concludes this section,

The smoke Mrs. Kalp reported was in the direction of the woods and she reported it to the local radio almost two hours after the event. Mrs. Kalp was then beseiged by phone calls and it took intervention by the operator for the state police to get a hold of her. The search for the fragments would eventually take on a carnival-like atmosphere with the media, state police, and, eventually, the US Air Force racing towards this sleepy part of Pennsylvania.
So we see that authorities were called out to search for supposed debris from the Great Lakes Fireball allegedly crashing nearby in

  • Lapeer, Michigan
  • Detroit, Michigan
  • Cleveland, Ohio
  • Elyria, Ohio
  • Kecksburg, Pennsylvania
And likely in other places that we haven't yet heard about. All of them, false alarms. David Bates would have us believe that all of those other claims of debris from a crashing fireball, and searches by authorities were mistaken, except for the one from Kecksburg. Presumably, Bates would have us believe that a mystery UFO appeared at the exact same time as the Great Lakes Fireball, moving in the same direction, and crashed in Kecksburg, even though the fireball itself appears to have disintegrated over southern Ontario or nearby Lake Erie. That would be an astonishing coincidence!

Unless he wants to argue that the Great Lakes Fireball was really the same object that supposedly crashed near Kecksburg. But then he has a bigger problem that the breakup of the fireball, as determined by its direction as seen in many widespread places, occurred far north and west of Kecksburg. The object never made it as far east as Pennsylvania.

Bates is correct that I ignored the supposed eyewitness accounts of military retrieval of an acorn-like object near Kecksburg. Tim Printy offers a good explanation of why we should ignore them:

In the late 1970's, Kecksburg resurfaced in UFO lore. This time UFOlogists were interested in making this into a major crashed Spaceship story. As early as 1980, efforts were being made to find witnesses to the event that would attest to a crashed spaceship being recovered. A Pittsburgh radio program hosted by John Signa had presented UFO investigator Clark McClelland, who discussed the events of that evening based on what he had found. As a result, several of the witnesses called including Robert Bitner and James Mayes to tell the story about the Military retrieving something from the woods. This was the beginning of the Kecksburg legend.

In 1989, Robert Barry hosted a show on a WGCB-TV that included mentioning the Kecksburg recovery. Now NASA was involved as well. According to Robert Young:
Barry says that years ago he was told by an unnamed NASA informant that the Kecksburg UFO had been tracked...Barry also reported , citing Stan Gordon as his source, that a 1965 member of the Kecksburg Fire Company claims it had been contacted by NASA before the UFO crashed and asked to keep the public away from the area.
By this point in time, Stan Gordon, of the Pennsylvania chapter of the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) and the Pennsylvania Association for the Study of the Unexplained (PASU), had taken over the case and even produced a video about the events. What resulted was a tale that mimicked the infamous Roswell case. Individuals suddenly appeared with privileged knowledge about the case, which included covert military convoys, military threats, and, of course, a crashed UFO.

Stan Gordon - UFOs and Cryptids-R-Us.
n Gordon is well-known in paranormal circles, and is considered the primary researcher on the Kecksburg "UFO crash.". He not only promotes UFOs, but also sightings of Bigfoot and other "cryptids." (I bet you didn't know that Bigfoot and other Cryptids live in Pennsylvania? They do. Just look at Stan's website.)

So the reports of military involvement and retrieval are "me too" accounts surfacing many years later, at the urging of dedicated mystery-mongers. This often happens in the wake of highly-publicized UFO claims. We have seen this in the Roswell case, Pascagoula, Phoenix Lights, etc., etc., etc. If a corroborating story or photo involving a major case suddenly 'turns up' years later, and only after major publicity has been given the incident, then it should be ignored.

So we see that the so-called Kecksburg UFO Crash is not nearly as credible as Bates, Leslie Kean, and their pals would have us believe (even though most of them will completely ignore this explanation).

We will gave the last word on the Kecksburg "UFO Crash"  to the venerable Zippy the Pinhead. The mention of a "Soviet rocket" refers to an early hypothesis that the Great Lakes Fireball was caused by the re-entry of a damaged Soviet spacecraft, Cosmos 96/Venera. But the astronomers' analysis of the fireball's path rules out that possibility, and further analysis suggested that the orbit of the Cosmos 96 had already decayed by the time of the Fireball.