Much of what underlies belief in space visitors is a dissatisfaction with the standard categories of material science and a desire to extract from it, along with the experiences had by many people, a spiritualist meaning that links us (both as individuals and as a species) to the wider cosmos. While many believers see things in broadly materialist terms and are concerned with the mechanics of interstellar space travel, the possibility of reverse-engineering putative alien technology, the likelihood of the humanoid shape as a configuration of alien biology, and sensor confirmation of UFOs from Navy fighter jets, it is nevertheless true that much of the focus in ufology revolves around the question of consciousness and our connection to the universe. This stream of thought has a long pedigree going back to the Contactee Movement (a rather arbitrary term but one that serves as a useful delineator for a period between Kenneth Arnold’s 1947 sighting through the late 1970s, during which many people reported contact with friendly “Space Brothers”) but has more recently being concretized (and, in the view of the current author, taken to truly absurd lengths) in such works as Making Contact (2021; edited by Alan Steinfeld) in which something close to a total rejection of rationalism and materialism is not only evident but openly extolled.
The question of consciousness has long vexed philosophers and scientists. There is no universally agreed-upon definition of the term, and it can denote anything from subjective self-awareness, qualia, sentience, a sense of self and personhood, and knowledge. Why the UFO genre has become so infused with the question of consciousness and its various meanings is a fascinating and important sociological and cultural question worthy of serious study.
Here are some of the ways in which the issue of consciousness, however defined, manifests itself in UFO/alien stories and accounts:
- UFOs are purported to be capable of doing things that make a purely “nuts-and-bolts” approach untenable, and in which a spiritual or “immaterial” element is seen to be necessary. Like apparitions, UFOs can disappear or “materialize;” they can engage in aerial maneuvers that are deemed impossible for physical craft; they can merge or split apart; and/or they can change shape. While some interpretations see these aspects as support for the interdimensional hypothesis and the related control system hypothesis (more on this below), some think that the craft are spiritual/immaterial capsules or manifestations or even spiritual, conscious beings in and of themselves. For example, “fallen angels” regularly make the rounds in YouTube comment sections speculating, for example, about the “true” nature of Bob Lazar’s “sport model”. It is sometimes difficult to clearly delineate what believers think counts as immaterial/spiritual or interdimensional, since in some quarters of ufology consciousness itself is thought to literally be another dimension.
- Consciousness is imagined as a “field” permeating the universe. Such musings date at least as far back as Helena Blavatsky’s writings, such as this offering from The Secret Doctrine (1888):
Parabrahm (the One Reality, the Absolute) is the field of Absolute Consciousness, i.e., that Essence which is out of all relation to conditioned existence[…] once we pass in thought from this (to us) Absolute Negation, duality supervenes in the contrast of Spirit (or consciousness) and Matter, Subject and Object.
- The UFOs often mimic the behavior or instructions of the observers, or even anticipate them. A famous example is that involving Father William Booth Gill and his mission in Papua New Guinea in 1959. David Fravor, the most well-known personality involved with the US Navy “Nimitz encounters,” relates how the “Tic Tac” seemed to anticipate his moves.
- Jacques Vallee posits that UFOs present us with symbols that rearrange our conceptual categories of the world and allow us to transcend the categories tied to logical and rational (and, in his view, constricting) systems of thought in order to get to a higher truth or logic (a “metalogic,” which he uses in the sense of a metalanguage). By linking up with the “metalogic” and “latent meaning” of the UFO, we are better able to appreciate our place in the cosmos. Vallee also suggests that this metalogic operates as part of a “control system,” in which interdimensional intelligences spur the progress of human consciousness and societal evolution by injecting it with images and motifs that resonate with the concerns of the age (for example, space aliens in the current age of space travel) and perhaps compel us to engage in socially transformative action. The UFOs are imagined to be operated in such a way as to provoke within us a “Wow!” response that will prompt us, as individual experiencers, to begin life-long quests for answers to cosmic and existential problems that will, in turn, help usher in a paradigm shift in our conceptions of and relations to the universe and each other. This theme is developed by Grant Cameron in his chapter “UFO Disclosure and the Theory of Wow” in Making Contact.
- Quantum mechanics is regularly invoked in a cavalier and dubious fashion to promote the idea that consciousness is “non-local” and that the universe is not temporal but “relational” (another view espoused by Vallee, who hails from an information science/cybernetics background and also has leanings towards Rosicrucianism and astrology) in which information and meaning are connected across what we normally experience as discrete spatial and temporal intervals. These musings are rather similar to those of the British formerly far-right extremist David Myatt, who espoused the view that humans (at least those Myatt saw as being racially endowed such as to be able to receive the message) can tap into a Platonic realm in which time and space don’t exist and use their own bodies as “nexions” to undertake supernatural feats. By eschewing our standard notions of temporal causality and embracing the relational universe (or nexion), we may, according to these authors, better understand what the UFOs “mean” and decipher their behavior. According to Myatt, we might also be able to power interstellar spaceships using willpower as a form of Faustian magic (a hope that he saw as enabling the Aryan race’s glorious future colonization of the universe and its evolution into superbeings).
- Also linked to quantum mysticism is the currently fashionable New Age woo about “vibrational frequencies,” “self-actualization,” “5-D consciousness” and the like. These notions have a long pedigree going back to the Contactees, many of whom were also heavily invested in New Age ideas in the Californian subculture. The easy traction that these tropes garner in our society may well speak to a pattern of pathological narcissism and indifference to the veracity of scientific claims (N.B.: I do not wish to denigrate anyone’s experiences or to suggest that they automatically derive from narcissism, only that narcissism seems, to me, to be an important factor in many cases), which also makes it unsurprising that many New Age types go in heavily for anti-vax and fake-news claims, a worrying trend that Jules Evans has detailed in his brilliant series on spiritual eugenics (importantly, Evans is a practitioner of Western spiritualism but has taken it upon himself to highlight and call out the more disturbing and toxic currents within this tradition).
The very same hyper-atomized society that we inhabit produces narcissistic tendencies and extreme alienation that we then seek to resolve through narratives about cosmic connectedness, which itself often possesses the germ of narcissism (for instance, notions of being adepts of super-intelligences or of being “chosen” by extraterrestrials (e.g., Starseeds)). Bryan Sentes made the interesting remark that, ironically, the Enlightenment may be partly to blame for these tendencies, emphasizing as it did the need for individual thinking and a natural distrust of authority (it is worth noting that some streams within the Enlightenment were distrustful of democracy, perhaps especially those linked to and patronized by the “Enlightened Despots” of the age). Of course, we’ve seen how that sentiment can go wrong and become an overcorrection and unthinking reflex, with Trumper anti-vaxxers rejecting all medical scientific knowledge pertaining to COVID because it hails from a distrusted authority in the form of the scientific community.
Self-aggrandizing notions of being an adapt or an initiate of higher intelligences are the ineluctable outcome of the dichotomy and tension between hyper-atomization and the need to affirm individual agency in a world of information overload and “soulless” capitalist consumerism. Elitist and eugenics-promoting strains run deep in New Age practice. The “Starseeds” see themselves as specially attuned beings who can guide humanity – or at least themselves – to a new, more enlightened age.
- UFO and alien encounters are associated with altered states of consciousness, with witnesses/contactees/abductees/experiencers regularly reporting loss of bodily control, missing time, a transference of information and/or dialogue between themselves and the ufonauts via telepathy, deep feelings of euphoria (or terror), a sense of intimate connectedness to existence (and sometimes with the ufonauts themselves, in which the thoughts and minds of the participants meld seamlessly together and reveal themselves as being parts of a unity), a linking of past, present and future, and a sense of ascending and descending through vistas of space, sometimes simultaneously (for example, a sensation of descending into a deep cavernous darkness while also ascending into outer space). Many reported experiences are highly reminiscent of, or are outright concrete instantiations of, hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations. Whitley Strieber, who became perhaps the most famous purveyor of consciousness-related narratives about otherworldly beings after the publication of his smash-hit Communion (1987), himself alludes to the dream-like quality of his encounters with the “Others” (who are not necessarily extraterrestrials in his telling, but may be something even more alien than alien), and skeptical observers have long drawn attention to the close fit that his experiences bear to the aforementioned types of hallucinations.
- “Channelers” have long played a role in the UFO mythos, including among the Contactees (see “A” is for Adamski – The Golden Age of the UFO Contactees (2018) by Adam Gorightly and Greg Bishop for numerous examples), with many people claiming to be able to channel the minds of extraterrestrials or to even be the extraterrestrials in question, at least during a séance. Here is such an event captured in the 1980 documentary UFO Syndrome, with a gentleman named Brian Scott channeling an alien he calls “Voltar.”
Channeling as an item in ufology is a continuation of its presence in cosmically-themed esoteric practices such as Theosophy, which alluded to Ascended Masters concentrating their consciousness through the portal of Venus (N.B.: while allusions to Venus originally couched it in spiritualist terms wherein beings could exist at different “levels” of reality, ultimately consummating the purpose of their existence by migrating to the Platonic world of pure spirit and consciousness, subsequent developments – or transmutations, to use a more properly alchemical term – of Theosophy spoke of Venusians as something closer to flesh-and-blood extraterrestrials, and many of the Contactees, including George Adamski, were themselves strongly influenced by Theosophy) and John Ballou Newbrough’s Oaspe, A New Bible, in the Words of Jehovih and His Angel Ambassadors (1882) (this obscure work, importantly, was popularized by Ray Palmer in the 1950s, and detailed a galactic hierarchy in which Jesus traversed the cosmos in an ethereal ship). Brad and Francie Steiger, who have for decades advocated a consciousness-based, spiritualist, and interdimensional take on UFOs, and have written books on the topic, as well as appearing in a number of TV specials, have also been proponents of the channeling aspect as a source of communication with the ETs. Here are the Steigers expositing every UFO hypothesis under the sun in a 1982 TV special.
- Similarly, the CE5 narrative pushed by Disclosure activist Steven Greer, in which one can communicate with ETs through meditation, preferably in the desert (he assures us that “disclosure has already happened,” by the way). The type of information one can glean from the ETs does not seem to be of an eminently scientifically verifiable sort, and is instead the usual stock of “aliens want us to love each other” tropes that are ultimately no different to those emanating from the Contactees and their Space Brother guides.
- The ufonauts are imagined to be, or to have the ability of transmogrifying into, incorporeal entities able to pass through walls or engage in similar ghost-like behavior, and sometimes harbor overtly benign intentions whilst other times having more intrusive or inscrutable ones. They can traverse, whether “naturally” (even though they are in effect described as being supernatural) or through technological means the material world and the “subtle realm,” as John Mack termed it, or something in between, taking us (by which is meant, taking our consciousness) with them.
- The ufonauts seem to need us for something, perhaps to “complete” themselves by engaging in the emotions and joys that we as humans are capable of feeling, while also imparting some hidden knowledge or way of seeing to us. They are perhaps trying to recover something that they have lost, while also warning us about our own fate if we continue on a foolish and destructive path. These themes feature prominently in Whitley Strieber’s writings.
- The ufonauts are often described as bringing guidance and a model for a new way of life that is not ecocidal. This awakening of a cosmic evolutionary trajectory will connect us with creation, the Source, God, etc., and we will have achieved cosmic brotherhood once we “awaken” and reach this new level of consciousness. As Vallee warned in Messengers of Deception (1979), however, there were some worrying tendencies in some of these narratives, namely that the Space Brothers were often imagined to be racially homogenous and ruled by a totalitarian elite promising humanity utopian bliss. It seems that many people today, given the vicissitudes of democracy and its seeming aimlessness, wish to anchor themselves to something more “organic,” even at the loss of liberal institutions and the rule of law (ironically, Vallee has continued to push his own Forteana well past its welcome).
- Among many in the New Age crowd, evolution is seen as a teleological unfolding of progress, which is something like the term’s original meaning. (Incidentally. Charles Darwin was loathe to use ‘evolution’ in The Origin of Species and preferred the term ‘transmutation’ in order to eschew any teleological connotations in his own theory of evolution by natural selection, though of course the usage of “transmutation” can carry teleological baggage if it is packaged with alchemical and magical claims) and has itself been turned into a religion in some quarters. Hot on the heels of Darwin’s revolutionary insights, some saw – and some continue to see – evolution as an opportunity for humanity to consciously imprint itself into the cosmic story and to achieve greatness among the stars, elevating its own intellectual and spiritual quality in this great forging process. Here, again, we can also note the dangers of eugenics ideas, with some groups of people being seen as “worthy” of participation in the grand evolutionary game, while others are to be left by the wayside of history. David Myatt’s fascist cosmic imperium comes to mind as one of the more grotesque and concentrated manifestations of such impulses.
- The Contactee movement became increasingly interwoven with psychedelics and altered states of consciousness into the 1960s and 70s, and this trend, as well as the message of the Contactees itself (peace, universal brotherhood and cosmic connectedness) was arguably a premonition of the hippie counterculture in that and other regards, aiming as it did to get away from the standard mores and strictures of middle America in order to, well, expand consciousness.
Much of the talk one hears among New Age proponents about “tuning” into “vibrational frequencies” originates from this period, and overlaps with the desire to reach blissful states of communion with the aliens, who were seen (felt?) to be contacted on an expanded universal “spectrum” that could be “tuned” into, much as one tunes the frequency of a radio. Contactees such as Bernard Copley wrote about hallucinogenic drugs and the link to ESP (extra-sensory perception. Note also that telepathy with the aliens was a major running theme all throughout the Contactee movement and was claimed by many to be the standard means through which communication with the space beings was achieved). The rock and roll music scene, including Pink Floyd, also tapped into this counterculture, expressing a fascination with flying saucers and the possible connections to drugs. UFO theorists such as John Keel (with his “Superspectrum” hypothesis) would also draw the link, as would famous DMT psychonauts like Terence McKenna. The pineal gland as the “third eye” or gateway to the subtle realm was invoked. This trope has a long pedigree and continues to this day (in a more sinister context, esoteric neo-Nazis have also spoken of a third eye that allows travel into an immaterial/astral/spiritual realm, albeit only if one is racially attuned or wants to transcend one’s corruption from the kali yuga).
- A version of panpsychism is sometimes evoked in UFO accounts, with all of existence being conscious and our minds seen as small pieces of a much larger universal Mind. This is a theme explored in the aforementioned Making Contact. One can imagine (and many experiencers believe they have partaken in) tapping into this mind to access a hidden library of knowledge, instantly gaining wisdom and esoteric truth. This too was a theme in the writings of Blavatsky (and continues today in the garb of quantum mechanics) but is also seen in stories such as those related by CIA and Army psychic spies, reputed to be capable not only of spying on Soviet nuclear installations but to catch glimpses of an ancient Martian civilization.
This latter vision by Joseph McMoneagle has been bizarrely latched onto by the co-founder of the alt-right, Jason Reza Jorjani, to argue that there was a time-traveling secret civilization that set up shop on Mars by traveling back in time hundreds of millions of years ago, only to have to ultimately evacuate back to Earth during the Cambrian period due to a nuclear cataclysm on the Red Planet, later acting as overlords to various terrestrial civilizations such as the Inca. While invoking the Nordic blondes trope (McMoneagle reported Caucasian people living on Mars who intuitively seemed to him to have come from our future despite living millions of centuries ago), and while his musings do carry a flavor of 1990s neo-Nazi yarns about defeated Third Reich officers traveling back in time after WW2 to found the ancient civilization of Sumer (and therefore gifting humanity with its first civilization in a Dark-style time loop), to Jorjani’s credit he does at least describe the Nordic overlords as tyrannical and an impediment to human progress (apparently, these cosmic tyrants still rule over us), and he has also disowned the alt-right, at least nominally (though his ideas have a disturbing Faustian expansionism about them – shades of Myatt there, perhaps – and are drenched with all manner of paranormalism and Forteana in a heady mix that in this post-truth era of “alternative facts” and fake news are not exactly what we as a society really need right now, his aspirations to creating a new sacred mythology to help achieve a “Promethean” future notwithstanding).
- Experiencers often report heightened levels of consciousness, deeper understanding of the world, and psychic/telekinetic abilities after returning from their time on board an alien craft and/or being in contact with the ufonauts. This has been taken up by promoters of the Skinwalker saga, with their talk of a “hitchhiker effect” (in which various paranormal happenings “follow” the experiencer long after they are geographically well clear of the ranch itself), but it was already a theme decades ago in the writings of Vallee, who has invoked Uri Geller as an example of a genuine experiencer bestowed with extraordinary abilities after he supposedly encountered an otherworldly presence.
- Carl Jung is often evoked in ufological discussions, not least because he himself wrote an important tract on flying saucers, titled Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky (1959). He espoused the view that flying saucers evoke the archetype of the mandala, symbolizing in its circular form the need and yearning for unity (the Cold War context in which he expressed his views spoke to a psychological need to avoid nuclear obliteration. Alien visitation-themed films from the period in which he wrote also invoked the dangers of nuclear warfare). One can also apply (though how empirically profitable doing so is still an open question) a Jungian analysis, as the scholar of Jewish Kabbalah David J. Halperin does in his fascinating book Intimate Alien – The Hidden Story of the UFO (2020), to attempt to decipher the meaning of the Belgian wave, Strieber’s pantheon of creatures (including the Greys), stories of Lemuria and the Hollow Earth, the John Lennon & May Pang UFO encounter, and the Betty & Barney Hill case, among many others.
- Esoteric fascist currents often invoke the “Black Sun” (a motif with a history that long predates fascism and its nasty connotations by centuries, if not millenia, but that has been eagerly co-opted by fascists, especially those of a mystical or esoteric bent) or other cosmic energetic emanations that call out to the Aryan “race” to fulfill its historic “mission” (that is, the subjugation or destruction of all other “races” in a Race War and an end to what they see as the current Jewish-dominated kali yuga by replacing it, with an alchemical “click,” the next turn of the cosmic cycle, the satya yuga or Golden Age).
Miguel Serrano, the Chilean esoteric Hitlerist and practitioner of kundalini yoga, was an adherent of UFOs, which he saw as being powered by a “metaphysical” energy source. He also claimed that it was possible, through an act of sheer will, of turning oneself into a flying saucer (Hitler, according to him, had undertaken this very feat and thus was able to pass into another dimension that was more real than reality itself – one has to understand such things at an intuitive level to “get” what Serrano is on about and to affirm one’s Aryan blood – with the Axis defeat in WW2 transmuted into a victory on the esoteric rather than exoteric, material plane). Importantly, Serrano also invoked Jung, though to say that he took the latter’s archetypes too far would be a massive understatement. For Serrano (who struck up a friendship with the Swiss psychoanalyst, though one that ultimately didn’t last, not least because Jung was no Nazi), Jung had merely “psychologized” the literal supernatural race memory of pagan gods in his essay Wotan (1936). Returning to flying saucers, I note how ironic it is that its circular form can come to encapsulate the yearning for unity, while also acting for some as a viral image of a deranged racial supremacism.
- Bryan Sentes advances the notion that UFOs represent a collective dream – though not in the Jungian mold – of the so-called advanced societies, who project their technophilia into the UFO by seeing it as a vehicle implicitly embedded with the solutions to our civilization’s woes via technological/technocratic means (witness all the talk in the UFO circuit about “free energy,” for example, and how reverse-engineering the flying saucers’ power plants would “change everything”). We also find similar technophilic proclivities emanating from the Martian-Space-Nietzschean fantasies of Elon Musk, Peter Thiel and other “tech-bros.”
- In her book American Cosmic (2019), professor of religious studies Diana Pasulka discusses (though does not outright endorse) the idea that certain highly-innovative people throughout history, including important figures involved in the American and Soviet space programs, have been in communication with other-worldly presences. Proponents of this view speculate that the true creative spark of genius comes about, after stewing on a difficult problem, by allowing these intelligences to just sort of come to you and let them conjure the magical eureka moment in your mind. The solution to the pertinent problem only seems like a spontaneous epiphany but is in reality a gift bestowed on these geniuses (adepts?) by the mysterious denizens of another dimension, universe or whatever the case may be.
Ironically, these people are tacitly admitting that they do not have privileged access to their own consciousness, and that processes beneath the level of “conscious awareness” are doing the legwork of creativity – which means that the brain might as well be the culprit. Henry V, in the Shakespearean play of the same name, decreed that “God fought for us,” chivalrously declining to attribute the spectacular victory at Agincourt to the ingenuity and preparedness of himself or his fighting men. One senses a whiff of this among people who attribute their own creativity to higher or unseen esoteric powers, perhaps as a means to grovel to these entities to ensure the continued flow of intellectual bounty. This might seem to have an air of humility to it, until it’s suggested that these people consider themselves to have been chosen or to be specially attuned to receiving the alien signal.
Notably, notions of being “attuned” are sometimes linked to genetic predisposition, a theme alluded to by Gary Nolan and John Ramirez, and is also implicit in stories about human-alien hybrids (themselves arguably subsumed versions of Biblical angel-human mating fables). The aforementioned Starseeds are another variant of these tropes, though by most accounts these people do not seem to be much of a cut above the rest of humanity.
- The utilization of hypnotic regression by UFO and alien abduction researchers. This methodology is, of course, replete with problems that have been highlighted in endless expositions by skeptics and mental health professionals (often to no avail against the wishes of ufologists hell-bent on pushing the narrative that bona fide alien abductions are occurring) and is correctly seen as a severe ethical breach (notoriously, some investigators do not even possess a medical license of any type, which in itself calls into question the objectivity of their enterprise).
UFOs are indeed centrally about consciousness, but not necessarily in quite the way that the Literalists, as we might call them, would have it. There is, more likely, a Jungian-esque or at least subconscious dynamic involved in many cases, in which the UFO encapsulates various meanings that erupt from the subconscious and find articulation in the visual and other modalities of alien spacecraft and contact or abduction experiences. The symbols and themes therein relate to issues ranging from death (as Halperin terms it, the “ultimate alien”), ecocide and planetary extinction, the bioinformatics and computer revolutions, nuclear war, personal and social alienation, emotional trauma, sexuality, and, indeed, the very natures of consciousness and the subconscious themselves. Of course, the more exotic candidate explanations invoking ETs and interdimensional psychic fellow travelers are themselves worthy, even within a psychosocial paradigm, and should not be seen as mere items of silliness to be scornfully tossed aside (some of them – such as the notion that alien abduction experiences must necessarily be pointing to literal aliens literally abducting people – are outright dangerous and for that very reason should merit further study, precisely so their harmful effects can be short-circuited).
The role of fiction also deserves a mention. While the underlying urges and drives that motivate the UFO topic are very much terrestrial, they can be imbued with elements derived from science fiction and fantasy (though these elements can themselves be reflections of the terrestrial anxieties of the original authors of those works). Stress, hallucination, misidentifications, confabulation and embellishment, cult brainwashing, the suggestibility of the mind, pareidolia, neurobiology, and psychosocial processes round out the rest of the field and make literal ETs superfluous.
There is a great irony at the core of all this: namely, that many of the UFO believers implore “open mindedness” and eagerly remind us that consciousness has not been resolved by science, while implying that they themselves somehow know enough about consciousness to say that the aforementioned psychological, social and neurobiological processes are insufficient in principle to account for their own experiences. This of course does not mean that consciousness must of necessity be explainable only through recourse to processes in the brain (and body, in the mold of Antonio Damasio’s model) – that is a question that must be resolved empirically – only that we need not credit the particular explanations offered by experiencers even if we accept that they have indeed had experiences, whatever said experiences may ultimately entail. It is also possible that something like panpsychism turns out to be a correct description of the world and that a Daniel Dennett-style “fame in the brain” or Stanislas Dehaene-style “global neuronal workspace” functional and computational model turns out to be wrong, while the ET and New Age woo explanations of some experiencers is also incorrect despite their refrain of “I know what I saw!”
When it comes to the question of consciousness, our attitude should always be “Keep investigating!”, for as over a century of scientific inquiry into human cognition has shown, the mind has more than enough competence at bamboozling itself. Death may be the ultimate alien, but the human mind is surely the ultimate trickster.
Luis Cayetano is an aspiring sleuth with a background in evolutionary ecology and an interest in too many other things. His interest in UFOs more specifically stems from his desire to counter extremism and pseudoscience, and in his fascination with how ideas and beliefs are generated. Look, he’s not saying it’s the psychosocial hypothesis…but it’s the psychosocial hypothesis. Might also be a bit of atmospheric plasma thrown in. This is an expanded version of an article on Luis’ website, Ufology is corrupt.
Moran Lerner, a UK man identified by the BBC in 2016 as the CEO of tech startup Chirp, has been deceiving a small Twitter community dedicated to discussing UFOs for the past two years. Using at least four different account names, Mr. Lerner has purported to be:
- @truthbearer20 (main page not archived), a researcher who claimed to know the truth about aliens and secret anti-gravity technology, but said that the current UFO flap was based on a “threat narrative” to achieve some nefarious aim.
- @TruthOfTerAvaya, a continuation of the @truthbearer20 account using the name “Truth Above All”, who claimed to have been in the UFO field “since before most of the more senior people in it were born”. Truth Above All also claimed to have seen “the very first original full versions” of the Navy UAP videos released in 2017, and that Luis Elizondo, Jeremy Corbell, and Christopher Mellon digitally altered the videos. Like @truthbearer20, Truth Above All claimed knowledge of the reality of alien visitation.
- @LipmanTroy, a claimed Israeli-American veteran of the Six-Day war (see DMs to me, below), and US military intelligence insider with personal knowledge of the fraudulent nature of recent UFO claims. The account was registered in October 2021, and is still in existence as of this time.
- Finally, Mr. Lerner registered an account under his own name in April 2022, (@MoranLerner). While the stories have become more grounded in his own biography, he continues to make similar claims of insider knowledge of the truth behind UFO claims, among other things.
The heatmap above contains four rows representing Mr. Lerner’s four accounts, from top to bottom: @truthbearer20, @TruthOfTerAvaya, @LipmanTroy, and @MoranLerner. It shows the frequency of posts per day on those accounts, from July 2020 when @truthbearer20 began posting, to July 2022. The first two accounts are now deleted, but their Tweets have been archived. As the heatmap shows, Mr. Lerner quickly transitions from one account to the next after deciding to adopt a new persona. This data, created using the timestamps of Tweets taken from the Internet Archive in the case of @truthbearer20 and @TruthOfTerAvaya, and from live account data in the case of @LipmanTroy and @MoranLerner, confirms that the four accounts were controlled by one individual.
Beginning in July 2020 Mr. Lerner began Tweeting under @truthbearer20, changing the username of that same account to @TruthOfTerAvaya around February 2021, deleting @TruthOfTerAvaya on October 21, 2021 and immediately registering @LipmanTroy, and then transitioning to @MoranLerner in April-May 2022. Operating just one of these accounts appears to be more or less a full time job for Mr. Lerner, so it is not clear if he maintained any others during the past two years (There are some indications of other, prior or secondary accounts maintained by Mr. Lerner, but I will not discuss these in the initial version of this post).
In response to some Twitter users correctly identifying him as the person behind some of these accounts, Mr. Lerner claimed that he is being targeted by “highly disgruntled and extremist diehard believers and activists”.
I am none of those things. I am skeptical (and often highly critical) of claims that UFOs represent aliens or any unknown, highly advanced technology. I have also had many positive interactions with Mr. Lerner’s accounts, including over Direct Messages, of which Mr. Lerner is a prolific sender. But I have also been paying attention to the changing stories, and to the common threads. I am not the only one. And regardless of one’s opinions about UFOs, deception and manipulation should have no place in the discussion.
This is not about “skeptics” versus “believers”. Nor is it about being anonymous online – I am using an alias myself. It is about ensuring members of an online community are informed about this deception and have the context with which to evaluate Mr. Lerner’s claims and behaviour. This is not a doxxing, nor do I condone anyone harassing Mr. Lerner or anyone connected to him.
Possibly because of the impersonation he claimed to me in the DMs below, Mr. Lerner decided to begin using his name on Twitter instead of continuing his most recent fabricated persona, Troy Lipman, or creating another fake story. In doing so, he has opened himself to criticism of his past lies.
Mr. Lerner denied that he was also Troy Lipman in a June 11, 2022 reply to @InvNightSchool, saying, “Oh ffs. No mate. I’m not Troy😂. But on that one I actually take it as a compliment so cheers for that👍🏻”. When I asked Mr. Lerner on July 29, 2022 to confirm whether he operated the above Twitter accounts, he responded, “I know who owns those accounts, sure”, and said that “Troy is someone else [from @TruthOfTerAvaya and @truthbearer20] entirely”.
It became obvious that @MoranLerner was @LipmanTroy soon after the former was registered and activity was transitioned away from the latter (see heatmap above showing the succession of activity on Mr. Lerner’s accounts). @MoranLerner was registered in April 2022, and roughly a month after his first post was inexplicably praising Troy Lipman as being “knowledgeable as fuck and very well connected with what’s happening in the States… he’s brilliant”. As I show below, @LipmanTroy was not well-connected to anything, but lying and doing so to the point of not being able to keep his story straight.
In a choreographed manner, @MoranLerner also asked for follower recommendations, which he received from @LipmanTroy. Once his followers were transitioned from @LipmanTroy to @MoranLerner, Mr. Lerner stopped posting on @LipmanTroy and began to use @MoranLerner full time. As of the time of writing, @LipmanTroy‘s last post was June 5, 2022. During the first month of the @MoranLerner account, that account and @LipmanTroy occasionally interacted, referring vaguely to the same information that each of them seemed to know but would not spell out, in typical fashion.
One reason for the abandonment of @LipmanTroy following Mr. Lerner registering an account under his own name may be the considerable time commitment involved. Between April 26, 2022, and July 20, 2022, @MoranLerner Tweeted 3,184 times, roughly 37 Tweets per day, on top of what is known to be a prolific DM output.
@LipmanTroy and @MoranLerner also shared Twitter activity patterns, both tending to Tweet at times appropriate for Western Europe, not for the Eastern United States, where @LipmanTroy claimed to live. However, in a July 29, 2022 DM to me, @MoranLerner likewise said that @LipmanTroy (whose true identity he claimed to know) lives in the United States.
The “Truth Above All” @TruthOfTerAvaya account was closed on October 21, 2021. @LipmanTroy was registered the same day, with a characteristic greyscale profile picture such as have been used for all of Mr. Lerner’s accounts to date. Within hours of registering @LipmanTroy, the account made contact with @PurelyYonatan, a user that frequently engaged with @truthbearer20 and @TruthOfTerAvaya, and who was also contacted by @MoranLerner after that account was registered.
In a November 26, 2021 message to me, @LipmanTroy said, “You knew my grandfather on here. He spoke very highly of you before he left”. Realizing he was referring to @TruthOfTerAvaya, I thanked him and replied, “I am sure I know who you are referring to”, to which @LipmanTroy said “I think you do”.
I did not take this literally to mean that @TruthOfTerAvaya was run by @LipmanTroy‘s grandfather, as this proposition seemed unlikely, but as @LipmanTroy‘s way of telling me that Truth Above All was still around. You may ask how I know that @LipmanTroy was referring to @TruthOfTerAvaya: there was absolutely no one else to whom he could have been referring, and not long after @TruthOfTerAvaya disappeared and @LipmanTroy was registered, the latter began to DM me with similar regularity to the former.
Although Mr. Lerner’s subsequent accounts made similar comments, the @TruthOfTerAvaya/@truthbearer20 persona was notable for its prominent claiming of direct knowledge of alien/non-human intelligence and its presence on Earth. On this basis, these personas engaged with Twitter users who were intrigued about these claims, frequently offering to DM those who had questions. One such individual, Jon (@IWANTTOKNOWUK) had extensive interaction with the @truthbearer20 persona, including phone conversations. In a July 20, 2022 Tweet, @IWANTTOKNOWUK said that the voice on the other end was that of Moran Lerner.
Mr. Lerner’s voice can be heard on episodes of the Strange Recon podcast, and features a distinctive mixed accent, with heavy South African undertones. Elsewhere, Mr. Lerner listed the University of South Africa as one of his alma maters.
In a DM to me on July 29, 2022 Mr. Lerner confirmed that he spoke to Jon (@IWANTTOKNOWUK) on the phone, as claimed in the Tweet above. Mr. Lerner also said that Jon is the origin of claims that he was @LipmanTroy and @TruthOfTerAvaya/@truthbearer20, and that he was introduced to Jon by the person behind the two accounts.
It is worth noting here that Jon (@IWANTTOKNOWUK) is not the origin of the realization that @MoranLerner, @LipmanTroy, and @TruthOfTerAvaya/@truthbearer20 are the same person. I came to that conclusion independently, and found out within the past 2 months that a small handful of others determined the same thing.
If @MoranLerner is @LipmanTroy, and @LipmanTroy is @TruthOfTerAvay and @truthbearer20, then all of these Twitter accounts and personas belong to and have been operated by Mr. Lerner. It means that at least some of the various contradictory and improbable claims made by Mr. Lerner are lies.
Some claims are contradictory in and of themselves, irrespective of establishing that Mr. Lerner operated all of the above accounts. While @LipmanTroy informed me that @TruthOfTerAvaya was his grandfather, he also claimed to have grown children “in high military, intelligence and scientific positions”.
In DMs to me, @LipmanTroy also claimed to be an Israeli-born veteran of the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and a coalition of neighboring states. Assuming a conscription age of 17 in 1967, @LipmanTroy would be 72 this year, making it impossible for his grandfather to have been posting on Twitter in 2021 (without access to a time machine). As @LipmanTroy also told me he was in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in 1964, that would make him at least 75 this year. @LipmanTroy shared photos with me of an individual in the IDF from 1964 to 1975, which he claimed was himself, and which I will not post here for want of not exposing the identity of an unsuspecting person. Needless to say, the grandfather of a 75-year-old man was not posting on Twitter. @LipmanTroy told me he served for 22 years in “the IDF and MID, then served another 30+ years in the US where I’ve resided as a citizen since 1988”.
It is useful to understand where the controversy over @LipmanTroy‘s nationality first arose. Marik Von Rennenkampff, a columnist for the online political newsletter The Hill, pointed out @LipmanTroy‘s distinctive British spelling, grammar and phrasings, used while describing military matters from the perspective of a US citizen. The Tweets highlighted by Mr. Von Rennenkampff (@mvonren) also included @LipmanTroy claiming that his family goes back 5 generations “in the defence industry” in the United States, which contradicts @LipmanTroy‘s later claims to me that a) he never claimed to be American, and b) he became a United States citizen in 1988. There are many more such examples of Mr. Lerner, as @LipmanTroy, contradicting himself and being unable to keep his story straight.
It should also be said that those who naturalize to the United States often adopt US spelling and grammatical conventions (see: Mick West), and it would be doubly so for those involved in military and intelligence. What does explain @LipmanTroy‘s British spelling and grammar is that he is not a US citizen and has no insider knowledge or connections to military and intelligence circles, but is in fact Moran Lerner, a British national who spends his time deceiving his small group of followers on Twitter. Despite this, @LipmanTroy made many references to his being American, but in a February 11, 2022 DM to me, @LipmanTroy said that he “never claimed to be [American]”.
Looking only at Mr. Lerner’s latest account, @MoranLerner, the self-contradictory claims are still easy to find. While Mr. Lerner asserted in a June 8, 2022 Tweet that every UAP incident since 2003/2004 was part of war games conducted by “a classified US military branch made public in December 2019”, (this seems to refer to the United States Space Force, which was created in December 2019), in a July 8 episode of the Strange Recon podcast, he put forward a completely different explanation for the 2004 Nimitz “Tic-Tac” incident.
Instead of a secretive wargame as said elsewhere, Mr. Lerner suggested here that Navy pilot David Fravor, against his orders, flew into an active missile range, whereupon a missile operator located in a submarine spontaneously took manual control of a guided missile and used it to follow Fravor’s plane to his CAP point (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9zenIR71XM4 for the full original video). And as evidence-free or implausible as either claim is, they are also, like much of what Mr. Lerner says, contradictory and incompatible.
While I do not wish to delve into Mr. Lerner’s personal biography – the purpose of this information is not and should not be doxxing or revealing personal information that an individual does not want to reveal – there are indications that he is not being truthful about his professional background. Mr. Lerner has uploaded CVs a variety of business and employment websites, some of which contain contradictory information about his educational background. Mr. Lerner variously claims degrees from the University of California, Berkeley in Artificial Intelligence, Cyber Psychology, and Consumer Psychology.
On one site, Mr. Lerner claims a Master of Science (B.S.) from Berkeley (2000-2002). However, the University of California, Berkeley does not offer a Master of Science (M.S.) degree in psychology: “The Psychology Department does not offer a terminal master’s degree program. However, doctoral students in the Department of Psychology may opt to pursue a Master of Arts degree en route to the doctoral degree.”.
Mr. Lerner’s claimed degree from the University of South Africa is also given variously as being from 1995-1998 and 1994-2000, and being in Psychology, Business Marketing, Social Anthropology, Cognitive Psychology, and Behavioral and Cognitive Psychology on different sites. These appear to be self-service pages akin to LinkedIn, added by Mr. Lerner or someone else, and not generated algorithmically.
Besides various false and contradictory biographical statements, Mr. Lerner’s lies fall into four main categories:
- Claiming status and expertise in a given field, or personal relationships with important individuals.
- Claiming unique knowledge of or belief in the realities of alien visitation.
- Claiming knowledge of the truth behind the current UFO flap in the United States, often framed as a conspiracy or psy-op.
In the sections below, I will present representative examples of these from all of the accounts known to belong to Mr. Lerner. The only barrier to providing many more examples of these lies is time, and not wanting an unreadably long article, as they are voluminous. Needless to say, not all of what Mr. Lerner’s accounts claim can be true, and more likely none of it is. I have more than 10,000 Tweets from the @truthbearer20 and @TruthOfTerAvaya account saved, which I may make available on this post in bulk at a later date. Should @LipmanTroy and @MoranLerner also be deactivated, the Tweets from those accounts have also been saved. None of the Tweets in the screenshots presented have been altered in any way, and each comes with a link to its respective Internet Archive page.
In the clip above, from the Josh & Artemis Show, Mr. Lerner claims to personally know members of the United States Navy’s Unifientied Aerial Phenomenon Task Force (UAPTF) (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EtIvm1uMUjI for the full original video).
It is hard to say why Mr. Lerner has perpetrated this con. Is it just a LARP, carried out for the enjoyment of fooling a small group of admirers? Is Mr. Lerner a Walter Mitty-type character, who feels a compulsion to exaggerate his own importance, intelligence, and success? Has it all been a social experiment, perpetrated by an unemployed former psychology student with too much time on his hands?
Over the course of two years, Mr. Lerner has posed, at one time or another, as a UFO researcher, experiencer from birth, archaeologist, anti-gravity expert, Nazi-hunter, US military intelligence insider, aerospace consultant, and as someone close to US Space Command and the US Navy’s UAP investigations, among other things. It is clear that some think Mr. Lerner has something important and unique to say. They deserve to know that most, and more likely all of it has been a lie, and that his word means nothing.
Mr. Lerner’s deception brings to mind the A Gay Girl In Damascus hoax. The blog, written by an American man, Tom MacMaster, in the midst of the Syrian civil war, purported to be the voice of a marginalized Syrian woman. Rather than seeing his deception as harmful, the author said, “I feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about”. It is possible that Mr. Lerner has a similar, and similarly warped motivation: to lie for the purposes of convincing others of what he sees as the bogus nature of recent UFO claims.
But far from encouraging critical thinking about UFO claims, Mr. Lerner has substituted these for his own, sometimes equally, sometimes more outlandish claims. Ultimately, it is not about any message, just about Mr. Lerner and his fake insider knowledge. It is clear that some of Mr. Lerner’s admirers were aware of his previous accounts, and if so should know that many of his claims have been untrue. They should ask themselves why the ends justify the means in his case, when they are rightly critical of other examples of this kind of reasoning.
Bradley Johansson is a programmer from Canada. He is interested in UFO mythology, the UFO community, and watching the current UFO flap play out.
With files from Mark (@hackthesim)
Fantastical hypotheses often overshadow unexplained observations in the physical sciences, and the same is true in the modern UFO subject. Since the Royal Society established “take nobody’s word for it” as their motto in 1660 there have been countless breakthrough discoveries of rare and elusive natural phenomena, and important lessons can be drawn from this extensive history of frontier science.
“…I’m 100% sure that some UFOs are something anomalous. I’m 99.9999% sure that none of them are aliens. But they might be.” (West, 2021)
Table of Contents
- 01 – Interdisciplinary Analysis
- 02 – The Invisible College
- 03 – Image by Accident
- 04 – Nothing More Than the Light
- 05 – I Make No Hypothesis
- 06 – Unrecognized Phenomenon
- 07 – Dispelling Demons
- 08 – Accepted Logical Limits
- 09 – Selling Mystery
01 – Interdisciplinary Analysis
People have been reporting observations of UFOs for thousands of years. Goddard Institute for Space Studies astronomer Richard Stothers wrote the paper “Unidentified Flying Objects in Classical Antiquity,” published in The Classical Journal in 2007:
“A combined historical and scientific approach is applied to ancient reports of what might today be called unidentified flying objects (UFOs). Many conventionally explicable phenomena can be weeded out, leaving a small residue of puzzling reports. These fall neatly into the same categories as modern UFO reports, suggesting that the UFO phenomenon, whatever it may be due to, has not changed much over two millennia” (Stothers, 2007, Abstract).
University of California, Irvine anthropology professor William J. Dewan explains the value of adopting an interdisciplinary approach when academically studying the UFO subject in “‘A Saucerful of Secrets’: An Interdisciplinary Analysis of UFO Experiences,” published in The Journal of American Folklore in 2006:
“[A] supernatural experience widely reported in the United States-the sightings of anomalous lights, including so-called ‘ghost lights’, orbs, unidentified flying objects (UFOs), and other labels attached to the observance of unexplained lights or aerial phenomena.
The use of folklore theory, an experience-centered approach, and cognitive anthropology provides an enriched perspective on how UFO experiences are perceived, interpreted, and incorporated into broader traditions… Taken together, these approaches suggest that so-called UFO encounters are often based on real, sometimes bizarre experiences” (Dewan, 2006, Abstract).
Interpretations of UFOs have changed with human culture, but the reports continue. Sheffield Hallam University Assistant Professor of folklore and journalism Dr. David Clarke writes about UFOs on his personal blog, and discusses modern interpretations of UFOs in the post “Do I Believe in UFOs?”:
“Myth does not mean that something is false, although this incorrect usage of ‘myth’ is often employed by journalists and leads many people to believe that myth = falsity. In fact, myth is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as: ‘a traditional narrative sometimes popularly regarded as historical but unauthenticated.’
As a) many people believe UFOs are of alien or supernatural origin and b) there is no evidence or proof to support that view, it cannot be disputed that UFOs are, to paraphrase Carl Jung, a modern myth.” (Clarke, n.d., pp. 10, 11).
Evidence for UFOs has historically come primarily by way of eyewitness reports. Tens of thousands of UAP eyewitness reports have been compiled by the National UFO Reporting Center (NUFORC) (NUFORC.org, 2019).
The article “The Most Common Words Used to Describe UFOs From Reported Sightings” was written by Brit McGinnis and published by Stacker.com in 2019 (McGinnis, 2019). In the article, McGinnis reviews NUFORC report data and identifies UAP eyewitness key word usage rates. The most frequently reported term used to describe a reported UAP is “Light,”, with 24,343 uses. In distant second place with 12,456 uses is “Circle” (McGinnis, 2019).
The sheer number of reports is sufficient to convince some people that UFOs exist, and it may be tempting to think that the simplest explanation for so many similar eyewitness reports is that they do. Either way, to base a conclusion on eyewitness reports would be a mistake.Occam’s razor is frequently employed as a useful problem-solving maxim. Also known as the principle of parsimony (parsimony, from the Latin ‘parcere’ = to be sparing), the rule goes: the simplest explanation is usually right.
When parsimony serves as a founding proposition for a chain of reasoning, it does generally lead to the correct conclusion, but the devil’s in the details. Those of us who identify as skeptics frequently appeal to parsimony in debates with believers, but the irony must be acknowledged: Occam’s razor is named after its alleged creator, a fourteenth century Franciscan friar who used it to justify his belief in miracles based on the high number of eyewitness reports.
Interestingly, Occam’s razor can also have the opposite effect, depending on who’s applying it. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) published the article “The Origin and Popular Use of Occam’s Razor” on their website in 2012:
“While Occam’s razor is a useful tool, it has been known to obstruct scientific progress at times. It was used to accept simplistic (and initially incorrect) explanations for meteorites, ball lightning, continental drift, atomic theory, and DNA as the carrier of genetic information. Once more research was done and more evidence brought to light, however, new theories emerged based on the new information” (Borowski, 2012, para. 9).
The value of Occam’s razor seems to be primarily conditional on the user’s grasp of the scientific method.An individual’s capacity to assess the available evidence is the relevant factor, not the maxim, and more complicated explanations may prove to be increasingly plausible as additional verifiable empirical evidence emerges over time.
02 – The Invisible College
A Smithsonianmag.com article from 2017 titled “Scientists Didn’t Believe in Meteorites Until 1803” explains how the question of whether stones could fall from the sky was only scientifically resolved when a meteorite happened to break apart over a town in France in 1803:
“The l’Aigle meteorite fall involved more than 3,000 pieces of rock and numerous witnesses, and it changed everything[…] it was the presence of a townful of witnesses to more than 3,000 stones falling from the sky that finally helped scientists confirm that meteorites came from space” (Eschner, 2017).
In retrospect it may seem ridiculous that scientists refused to accept what is now known to be an uncontested fact, but the reasons why scientists resisted the idea that stones could fall from the sky should be seriously considered so that lessons can be drawn from the past.
In the 17th century The Royal Society adopted its motto:
“Our origins lie in a 1660 ‘invisible college’ of natural philosophers and physicians. Today we are the UK’s national science academy and a fellowship of some 1,600 of the world’s most eminent scientists.
The very first ‘learned society’ meeting on 28 November 1660… from 1663 it would be known as ‘The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge.’. The Royal Society’s motto ‘Nullius in verba’ is taken to mean ‘take nobody’s word for it.’. It is an expression of the determination of Fellows to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment” (RoyalSociety.org, n.d., paras. 1, 2, 3).
The founders of modern science adopted “take nobody’s word for it” as their motto: all statements must be verified by an appeal to facts determined by replicable experiment (RoyalSociety.org, n.d., paras. 1, 2, 3).
By applying the principle of parsimony, it can be reasonably concluded that when a UFO is seen the likeliest explanation is that it’s a misperception of something mundane, a hallucination, or a hoax. David Hume was an 18th century Scottish philosopher of science who wrote about the assessment of unverified claims:
“…no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact which it endeavours to establish…
I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates should really have happened…
If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion” (Hume, 1748, as cited in Oxford, 1902, p. 114, 115, 116).
Recall that Occam’s razor was created as a tool to defend a friar’s belief in miracles due to the number of eyewitnesses. If independent eyewitness testimony was sufficient to scientifically prove the existence of a phenomenon then it would be necessary to recognize many unverified phenomena as real.
Even testimony from events with multiple eyewitnesses has been consistently shown to be unreliable, one example being historic reported sightings of the Virgin Mary:
“Apparitions of the Virgin Mary, inspiring wonder and devotion among millions, have been tracked for centuries[…] From a village in Rwanda to a rock cave in France, sightings of the Virgin Mary have been reported across the globe since A.D. 40. Since 1531, the Roman Catholic Church has investigated these reports and offered approval to multiple sites where bishops believe miracles occurred” (NationalGeographic.com, 2015, para. 1).
NASA scientist James E. Oberg has written about more recent mass misperception events:
“‘Classic’ satellite reentry fireball swarm mass misinterpretation[…] Majority of posters saw a structured hull with mounted lights, although a significant minority correctly reported separate lights [which some interpreted as a ‘fleet’ of UFO orbs]” (Oberg, 2021, p. 4).
“The unexplained fireball swarm chronicled by this team was, we NOW can demonstrate, caused by the atmospheric reentry of a Soviet satellite’s discarded rocket stage
• Exactly such heavy vehicles break into many dense fragments that create a formation-flying pattern of bright lights
• About half the witness reports essentially accurately described the grouping of meteor-like individual objects
• The other half of the reports describe a large flying vehicle with lights and jets arranged on its body
• The actual shape of that perceived body varied enormously, to a startlingly degree of “fill-in” structural details” (Oberg, n.d., p. 8)
People have filmed examples of these debris reentry events, and they’re unquestionably visually stunning and totally outside most peoples’ normal frames of reference. A fascinating video of a fireball swarm was posted on Reddit in the r/UFOs subreddit:
Skeptic Robert Scheaffer comments on misperception events:
“Here we have… [an] example of extraordinary reports… arising from a… rare phenomenon. Therefore, the existence of extraordinary reports does not suggest the existence of extraordinary objects. It is perfectly possible to get extraordinary reports from ordinary objects” (Scheaffer, 2012).
03 – Image by Accident
The Royal Society established verification by replicable experiment as the necessary standard of evidence in science. Oakton Community College provides a summation of the challenges encountered when applying the scientific method to earth sciences:
“The classic scientific method where a convenient laboratory experiment may be devised and observed often cannot be done in the earth sciences. This is because most of earth and geological phenomena are too big (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions) or too slow (mountain building, climate change) to be observed easily or replicated; the earth itself is the ‘laboratory’” (Oakton, 2003, para. 4)
A variety of natural phenomena that are accepted without question in the modern scientific world first went through a gradual shift from outright rejection to conclusive verification based on new empirical evidence becoming available over time:
- Meteorites: “In the 18th century, the French Academy of Science denied that stones could fall from the heavens, and rejected the mass of witnesses’ testimony as superstitious nonsense” (Dolan, paras. 5, 6), until “The l’Aigle meteorite fall involved more than 3,000 pieces of rock and numerous witnesses, and it changed everything… it was the presence of a townful of witnesses to more than 3,000 stones falling from the sky that finally helped scientists confirm that meteorites came from space” (Eschner, 2017).
- Red sprites: “Johann Georg Estor, a German theorist of law is credited as the person who made the earliest report of the red lightning in the year 1730. The first photographic evidence was made much later in the year 1989 by scientists from the University of Minnesota. They captured the image by accident, using a video camera, and ever since then, the red lightning has been extensively researched” (Cirjak, 2020, para. 1).
- Rogue waves: “Rogue waves and sprites were ‘discovered’ by accident, detected by recording devices set up for other purposes” (Ruch, 2019).
- Blue jets: “First reported way back in 1886, [blue jets] weren’t photographed until 1989” (Forbes, 2021, para. 9).
Chance has consistently played a role in the eventual scientific verification of rare natural phenomena with extraordinary features. These phenomena share a set of commonalities:
- The nature of many natural phenomena make them difficult to scientifically study;
- Some natural phenomena are only conclusively proven to exist after chance events result in one-off incontrovertible evidence;
- Eyewitness reports later shown to be largely accurate are disbelieved, often on reasonable grounds, for decades or even centuries.
This historic pattern suggests that it’s possible that a similar effect may be occurring with respect to the modern UFO subject. Philosopher of science Thomas Goudge explains:
“...most physical scientists were initially reluctant to admit now accepted theories of meteorites, fossils, the circulation of the blood, bacteria, and in our times, ball lightning, into the area of respectable science…
the present establishment view… [is] that UFO phenomena are either not really scientific data at all (or at any rate not data for physics) or else are nothing but misperceptions of familiar objects, events, etc. To take this approach is surely to reject a necessary condition of scientific advance.’” (Goudge, as cited in Hynek, 1972, p. 23)
04 – Nothing More Than the Light
The likeliest explanation for any individual UFO experience is misperception, hallucination, or hoax. However, consideration of the possibility of something more occurring shouldn’t be dismissed at face value, given the extensive history of the discovery of novel phenomena under similar circumstances.
So what is actually being described by the people who report UFO experiences?
Chair of Northwestern University’s Astronomy Department, UFO researcher, and author Dr. J. Allen Hynek wrote the book The UFO Experience – A Scientific Inquiry, published in 1972, and identifies a shared set of commonly reported features in UFO cases that he had investigated for the Air Force and assessed to be credible but failed to resolve:
“...at night almost invariably only the brightness, color, and motion of a light are reported. Rarely is the object noted to which the light is presumably attached (this is purely an assumption; the UFO may be nothing more than the light)” (Hynek, 1972, p. 46).
“Frequently the object is described as having a general fluorescent glow with no specific lights” (Hynek, 1972, p. 77).
“…the object (often objects in pairs) is variously described as oval, disc-shaped, ‘a stunted dill pickle’, and ellipsoid. It generally is shiny or glowing (but almost never described as having distinct point source lights), yellowish, white, or metallic” (Hynek, 1972, p. 92).
“…the reporters are conscious primarily of a luminous object, sometimes very bright… and sometimes merely glowing, like a neon bulb or a luminous dial watch. The shape of the craft seems to be secondary to the luminescence in the perception of the observer, but when a shape is described, it is generally stated to be oval, ‘football shaped,’, often with a dome atop it. Rotation of the lights and presumably of the craft is often reported to be in a counterclockwise direction. Hovering is common, as is lack of sound, and very frequently a rapid takeoff without an accompanying sonic boom is reported” (Hynek, 1972, p. 125).
“...the Nocturnal Light and the Daylight Disc. The trajectories and kinematics of the two categories are strikingly similar, perhaps suggesting that Nocturnal Lights are Daylight Discs seen at night and that, therefore, the distinction between the two groups is purely observational” (Hynek, 1972, p. 91).
Computer scientist, UFO researcher, and author Dr. Jacques Vallee describes six UAP cases that he identifies as being representative of the UFO phenomenon in the paper “Estimates of Optical Power Output in Six Cases of Unexplained Aerial Objects with Defined Luminosity Characteristics”, published in The Journal of Scientific Exploration in 1998 (Vallee, 1998):
“Case no. 1: …a ‘bright light which was sharply defined and disc-shaped’ or ‘like a shiny silver dollar sitting horizontal,’ …photograph, a Kodachrome color slide, was subsequently analyzed by Dr. Bruce Maccabee who considered the hypotheses that the object was a cloud, a plasma phenomenon, or ball lightning…” (Vallee, 1998, p. 346).
“Case no. 2: …a large luminous object arrived slowly and silently from the west, flew to the south, made three complete loops in the sky over the French vessels, and vanished like a rapidly extinguished light bulb. …a large ball of light or a disk on edge… the color of a fluorescent tube… It left a whitish trace similar to the glow of a television screen. …hovered in the midst of a faint ‘halo.’ …the object vanished in the center of its glow ‘like a bulb turned off’” (Vallee, 1998, pp. 348, 349).
“Case no. 3: …a red-orange glow appearing through and above the trees… It appeared as a luminous hemisphere, pulsating regularly, ranging from dull red to bright orange, with a period of about two seconds …it suddenly brightened to a blinding white… After about four seconds it returned to its red-orange appearance” (Vallee, 1998, pp. 350, 351).
“Case no. 4: …a bright light outside… an intense white source crossing the sky at high speed… the light appeared to be spinning. …a luminous disk moving in the sky. …brighter than the full moon. It was slightly flattened (with an aspect ratio of 0.9)… The object was white in the center and bluish-white at the periphery. It was surrounded by an intense green halo… a similar object… leaving a trail, and that a bright disk was seen… a slightly flattened sphere, whose light was similar to that of a very bright neon tube, with a fiery red-orange area underneath…” (Vallee, 1998, pp. 353, 354).
“Case no. 5: …It was, by their descriptions, oval, red, surrounded with white ‘flames,’… ‘a large orange ball, very bright’… Mr. B. saw orange flashes above the pine trees…” (Vallee, 1998, pp. 354, 355).
“Case no. 6: …’one of the best-documented sightings in Europe,’…observed formations of luminous spheres hovering in the sky… characterized by rapid accelerations and abrupt changes of direction… two groups of luminous spheres that hovered nearly motionless… The brighter and closer group formed a circle of six luminous spheres. The second group formed the shape of a Y.” (Vallee, 1998, p. 356).
05 – I Make No Hypothesis
The anthropological folklore model used to study the UFO phenomenon supports the conclusion that people are having “real, sometimes bizarre experiences” (Dewan, 2006, Abstract). So what are these “real” experiences?
In the 2006 article “Why Not Angels?,” physics professor Dr. Donald E. Simanek from Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania discusses how explanations for preliminary observations arise before adequate data is available:
“When Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) began to wonder why the planets move as they do, for a while he entertained the then-popular notion that planets were pushed by angels. After all, planetary motion had been found to be quite lawful and regular, yet there was no obvious agent to give them a push, as Aristotelian physics required.
But Kepler did not leave it there, he wanted to know more about how the process worked, and after considering and discarding many hypotheses over many years (some of them fantastical and mystical), he finally stripped away the supernatural notions and worked out his three purely mathematical laws of planetary motion.
His model never answered the question of ‘what pushes the planets’, but his model didn’t have angels. (It turned out that that question was the wrong question, for Newton showed that nothing pushes the planets.) Still, Kepler’s laws worked, and stand as a landmark of science to this day” (Simanek, 2006, para. 6).
The example of Kepler shows how a scientist may appeal to supernatural hypotheses to attempt to explain mathematical laws of motion, even when explanations are not intrinsic to the observations under consideration. Philosopher Karl Popper explains the role of proof in the empirical sciences:
“In the empirical sciences, which alone can furnish us with information about the world we live in, proofs do not occur, if we mean by ‘proof’ an argument which establishes once and for ever the truth of a theory…
On the other hand, pure mathematics and logic, which permit of proofs, give us no information about the world, but only develop the means of describing it…
But although proof does not play any part in the empirical sciences, argument still does; indeed, its part is at least as important as that played by observation and experiment” (Popper, 1962, Ch. 11, para. 14).
Dr. Simanek also provides the example of Sir Isaac Newton:
“Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) proposed his theories of mechanics (in which the idea of force was finally interpreted in a useful way) and his law of universal gravitation.
Critics called it an ‘occult theory.’. They complained that he hadn’t explained anything, just worked out the laws of how things operate.
They wanted an ‘explanation’ of this gravitational force that could act on bodies without anything between them. Newton responded ‘I make no hypothesis’” (Simanek, 2006, para. 7).
Dr. Simanek concludes:
“supernatural concepts grafted onto science are superfluous and unnecessary. They purport to ‘explain’, but are themselves unexplained concepts or lead to more questions, equally unanswerable” (Simanek, 2006, para. 14).
06 – Unrecognized Phenomenon
Dr. Hynek and Dr. Vallee had interacted with large numbers of independent eyewitnesses reporting similar things, and both of the UFO researchers noticed that these reports typically described illuminated objects that did not conform to the expectations one would typically have of extraterrestrial spaceships.
Dr. Vallee’s paper “Five Arguments Against the Extraterrestrial Origin of Unidentified Flying Objects” was published in the Journal of Scientific Exploration in 1990:
“Scientific opinion has generally followed public opinion in the belief that unidentified flying objects either do not exist (the ‘natural phenomena hypothesis’) or, if they do, must represent evidence of a visitation by some advanced race of space travelers (the extraterrestrial hypothesis or ‘ETH’).
It is the view of the author that research on UFOs need not be restricted to these two alternatives. On the contrary, the accumulated database exhibits several patterns tending to indicate that UFOs are real, represent a previously unrecognized phenomenon, and that the facts do not support the common concept of ‘space visitors’” (Vallee, 1990, Abstract).
From a scientific perspective, Occam’s razor suggests that for each individual report the likeliest explanations would be misperceptions, hallucinations and hoaxes. What did the ufologists Dr. Hynek and Dr. Vallee hypothesize as the explanation for UFO reports?
Based on the eyewitness reports he had investigated, Dr. Hynek began to personally subscribe to a supernatural hypothesis to explain the strange illuminated objects that people were consistently describing:
“Hynek was often evasive when asked to give his own theories on the nature of UFOs. Despite his cameo in 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, he had by then rejected the notion that UFOs were ‘nuts and bolts’ spacecraft piloted by extraterrestrials (Gardner 1997, 247).
His occult studies had pointed him in a very different direction… Speaking to the UFOlogist Jerome Clark, Hynek was more specific. The astronomer allegedly told Clark that he believed ‘elementals’—nature spirits—were behind the UFO phenomenon (Clark, 1998)” (Franch, 2013, para. 35).
In the 1972 book Passport to Magonia: On UFOs, Folklore and Parallel Worlds, Dr. Vallee connects modern UAP reports to historic accounts of interactions with nature spirits from folklore, and quotes from The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by Walter Evans-Wentz:
“…the mysterious folks the Irish call the Gentry, and the Scots, the Good People (Skagfr Maith): The Gentry are a fine large race who live out on the sea and in the mountains, and they are all very good neighbors. The bad ones are not the Gentry at all, are the fallen angels and they live in the woods and the sea…” (Evans-Wentz, 1911, as cited in Vallee, 1972, p. 26)
This supernatural explanation hypothesis mirrors Sir Isaac Newton’s own personal supernatural explanation of the purely mathematical concept of gravity. In public he was neutral:
They wanted an ‘explanation’ of this gravitational force that could act on bodies without anything between them. Newton responded ‘I make no hypothesis’” (Simanek, 2006, para. 7).
Despite this admirable public stance, Newton could not personally avoid a supernatural explanation for gravity. Dr. Simanek writes:
“[Newton] did speculate, at least privately. In a letter to the Reverend Dr. Richard Bentley in 1692, Isaac Newton wrote: ‘To your second query I answer that the motions which the planets now have could not spring from any natural cause alone but were impressed by an intelligent agent’” (Simanek, 2006, para. 7).
On skeptic Mick West’s YouTube show Escaping the Rabbit Hole, skeptic Jason Colavito discusses Dr. Hynek and Dr. Vallee’s supernatural explanations for UFO eyewitness reports:
“What they saw in the connection was that… [UFOs] were also supernatural because they existed beyond the material realm. They weren’t physical objects that had mass and matter, and yet they were having a physical impact on the environment around them.
So in the mind of poltergeist researchers, the poltergeists were both supernatural and had a material impact on this plane, and so what Hynek and Vallee were interested in is the question of whether the poltergeist phenomenon could be said to be parallel to or even part of UFO phenomena, so that UFOs were somehow or another these immaterial objects that were coming from either another plane or another dimension, popping into ours, having a physical interaction with ours while not themselves being physical, and then sort of dissolving back where they came from” (Colavito, 2022, 673s).
This supernatural explanation – “elementals” – proposed by the original, most prestigious academic UFO researchers became the story, dramatically overshadowing the actual content of the eyewitness reports.
07 – Dispelling Demons
Astronomer and science writer David Darling’s Encyclopedia of Science discusses eyewitness reports of luminous “elemental” phenomena traditionally observed around the world since ancient times:
“From every continent come reports of a similar nature. In west Africa, balls of light seen gliding over the surface of water are called ‘aku’ – the devil. In Malaysia, aerial lights known as ‘penangau’ are believed to be the phantom heads of women who died in childbirth. And in the northwest Australian outback, the so-called ‘min-min’ lights have a sacred significance to the Aborigines” (Darling, para. 4).
The article “Dispelling Demons: Detective Work at The Conjuring House” by science writer Dr. Joe Nickell was published in Skeptical Inquirer magazine in 2016. Dr. Nickell illustrates a paranormal experience:
“Much was made of a ‘solid blue tubular beam of light’ that shot down the chimney into a room, then retraced its route and disappeared… Hearing about it… Warren insisted that, writes Perron, it was supernatural… while the light was the ‘most amazing thing’ she ever saw in the old house—it was really ‘a tube of blue lightning’… consistent with the rare phenomenon of ball lightning that has been reported to enter houses, sometimes through chimneys” (Nickell, 2017, paras. 26, 27).
In 2006 the article “The Ball Lightning Conundrum” by William D. Stansfield appeared in Dr. Michael Shermer’s Skeptic magazine:
“The existence of ball lightning has been questioned for hundreds of years. Today, the phenomenon is a reality accepted by most scientists… Open-minded skeptics might wish to delay judgment until more is known about it. Even though it is a rare phenomenon compared to common lightning (linear, forked, or streak), sightings of ball lightning have been independently reported for over a century by thousands of people” (Stansfield, 2006, p. 50).
Mr. Stansfield’s argument sounds reasonable at face value. However, the Royal Society had established in the 17th century that no amount of eyewitness evidence could be sufficient to conclude that something exists.
Three years later Skeptic.com reversed course and published “The Case Against Ball Lightning.”. In 2009, science writer Steuart Campbell argued:
“The phenomenon exhibits no consistent characteristics and appears to be all things to all observers… contradictions might be explained if the observers are reporting many different phenomena, none of which are actually ball lightning… anecdotal reports are unreliable…” (Campbell, 2009, paras. 9, 10).
“There is no photograph, film or video recording that can be accepted unreservedly as showing BL. Many forget the null hypothesis, which has explained many postulated phenomena, such as phlogiston and the ether, that turn out to be nonexistent. The null hypothesis may also explains BLball lightning, which could be a chimera, a pseudo-phenomenon” (Campbell, 2009, para. 2).
This was an admirable reversal. Even with countless statements by high credibility professional physical scientists describing observations of ball lightning phenomena, scientists must take nobody’s word for it.
By 2009, a significant body of field study and experimental data about ball lightning had been published in peer-reviewed physical science journals, but due to the transient nature of ball lightning it had never been successfully recorded in a natural setting with a sufficiently high resolution optical sensor to allow for precise spectral analysis to conclusively identify the otherwise ambiguous photographic evidence of an unresolved light source.
Brian Dunning is the creator of the podcast Skeptoid. Dunning describes skepticism in the article “What is Skepticism?,” published on Skeptoid.com:
“Skepticism is not simply about ‘debunking’ as is commonly charged. Skepticism is about redirecting attention, influence, and funding away from worthless superstitions and popular misinformation, and toward projects and ideas that are evidenced to be beneficial to humanity and to the world” (Dunning, n.d., para. 4).
In 2010 Skeptoid Podcast’s “Episode 194: Ball Lightning” was released and host Brian Dunning pragmatically stated:
“It is fair to say that it’s likely that one or more unknown phenomena exist that have triggered eyewitness accounts of hovering balls of light, but there’s insufficient theory to support assigning these accounts a positive identification of ball lightning” (Dunning, 2010, para. 16).
Four years later, everything changed. In 2014, Cen et al.’s paper “Observation of the Optical and Spectral Characteristics of Ball Lightning” was published in Physical Review Letters (Cen et al., 2014).
While conducting field studies related to lightning in 2012, Cen et al. accidentally measured the optical and spectral characteristics of a natural occurrence of ball lightning for the first time. After centuries of eyewitness reports, a team of scientists had finally verified the existence of ball lightning phenomena by capturing a video including high resolution spectral characteristics with an automatic sensor system in a remote region in China.
The researchers filmed an object with a 5 meter (16.4 feet) wide “recorded glow” (Ball, 2014, para. 5) and a 1.1 meter (3.6 feet) wide nucleus (Cen et al., 2014, p. 2). They saw it “drift horizontally for about 10 meters [32.8 feet] and ascend about 3 meters [9.8 feet]” (Ball, 2014, para. 6).
The American Physical Society’s online magazine Physics reported on the significant discovery in the 2014 article “First Spectrum of Ball Lightning” by Philip Ball:
“Researchers measured a spectrum of light emitted by the rare and elusive ball lightning… Ball lightning has been one of the most mysterious natural phenomena for centuries, partly because it is so rare and transient and therefore hard to investigate…” (Ball, 2014, para. 1).
“The recorded glow was about 5 meters across—the actual size of the ball was much smaller [1.1 meters across]—and it changed from white to reddish during the second or so that it lasted. Although the darkness prevented the researchers from estimating the ball’s altitude, they saw it drift horizontally for about 10 meters and ascend about 3 meters” (Ball, 2014, para. 6).
“There are many historical reports of such ‘fireballs’ injuring or even killing people and setting buildings alight, and they have sometimes been given supernatural explanations” (Ball, 2014, para. 2).
In a 2014 blog post, Skeptoid contributor Mike Weaver updated Skeptoid’s position on ball lightning in consideration of the new peer-reviewed natural sciences paper by Cen et al. that was published in Physical Review Letters in 2014 (Cen et al., 2014):
“While video evidence is compelling in many cases, the spectrographic evidence is very compelling in this case… this evidence strongly argues for the reality of the phenomenon” (Weaver, 2014, para. 8).
Skeptics had been resistant to accepting reports of ball lightning for centuries due to reliance on eyewitness observations, but with high resolution video and spectral verification published in a respected peer-reviewed physics journal they had remained consistent with their adherence to the scientific method and finally accepted the phenomenon as likely real.
08 – Accepted Logical Limits
The contemporary cultural clashes between UAP believers and skeptics seem to mirror the recent conflict between the historic scientific camps that had been publicly debating the existence of ball lightning.
Dr. Hynek comments on the probability of whether so many people would make up these stories:
“Accepted logical limits of misperception are in these cases exceeded by so great a margin that one must assume that the observers either truly had the experience as reported or were bereft of their reason and senses…” (Hynek, 1972, p. 116).
Dr. Hynek describes the apparent “impossibility” of UFO phenomena:
“At present the average physicist dismisses the entire [UFO] phenomenon as impossible. He is entirely correct to do so, in his frame of reference, for from the standpoint of our present knowledge of the way nature works, ‘such things just can’t happen.’. But ‘stones couldn’t fall from the sky’, either, and ‘ball lightning is sheer nonsense’” (Hynek, 1972, pp. 145, 146).
University of Bristol scientists David J. Turner submitted a new theory of ball lightning to the Royal Society in 1993 (Chown, 1993, para. 4). In “The Missing Science of Ball Lightning,” published in The Journal of Scientific Exploration in 2003, Turner addresses the accepted logical limits placed on the study of ball lightning:
“One of the main problems in understanding ball lightning is that its properties, taken together, seem to be inconsistent with the laws of physics. This long-standing problem is completely eliminated once it is accepted that a plasma is both a phenomenon of physics and a mixture of chemicals… This may explain why ball lightning usually forms unexpectedly and unreproducibly… Phenomena result which are thermodynamically inevitable but, at first sight, totally unexpected. These can explain qualitatively all the seemingly impossible behaviour“ (Turner, 2003, Abstract).
The paper “Deep Weird: High Strangeness, Boggle Thresholds and Damned Data in Academic Research on Extraordinary Experience” by University of Wales Trinity Saint David anthropologist Dr. Jack Hunter was published in The Journal for the Study of Religious Experience in 2021:
“The historian of psychical research Renée Haynes (1906–1994), who coined the term ‘Boggle Threshold’ to refer to the point at which an extraordinary experience or phenomenon is deemed so outlandish and unlikely that it is entirely dismissed by the researcher.
She explains that: Individual boggle thresholds will vary […] with individual temperament, history, training, and aptitude. They will also be inﬂuenced by […] the groups to which each individual is linked: family, friends, school, employment, university.
In people brought up in the discipline of the physical sciences the levels of boggledom are likely to differ considerably from the levels found in those brought up in the humanities (Haynes, 1980, p. 94)” (Hunter, 2021, p. 8).
In 2019 American Economic Review published “Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time?” by Azoulay et al. (Azoulay et al., 2019). Dalmeet Chawla wrote about Azoulay et al.’s paper in Chemistry World:
“‘A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.’ This principle was famously laid out by German theoretical physicist Max Planck in 1950 and it turns out that he was right, according to a new study.
The work investigates how the premature death of a star scientist working in the life sciences affects the literature. It finds that collaborators of star researchers publish fewer papers in the field after their prominent colleague’s death, while the field sees a boost in studies by researchers that didn’t collaborate with the superstar” (Chawla, 2019, paras. 1, 2).
09 – Selling Mystery
In 1953 Sir Arthur C. Clarke hypothesized:
“UFOs are not material bodies because: (l) ..observed to travel at accelerations which no material body could stand.. (2) despite the enormous speeds reported, no sonic booms are ever heard” (Clarke, 1953, in Catoe, 1969, p. 129).
By 1959 Sir Arthur C. Clarke wrote a paper explicitly proposing:
“many hard core unexplained UFOs may be ‘plasmoids’ – ball lightning” (Clarke, 1959, in Catoe, 1969, p. 129).
Dr. David Clarke provides Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s summary of his views about UFOs after a lifetime of consideration:
“...I would be failing in my duty if I did not say something on UFOs. So here, as briefly as possible, are the conclusions I’ve come to after more than fifty years of study:
1. There may be strange and surprising meteorological, electrical, or astronomical phenomena still unknown to science, which may account for the very few UFOs that are both genuine and unexplained. 2. There is no hard evidence that Earth has ever been visited from space, 3. If that does happen, there are at least three independent global radar networks that will know within a matter of minutes…
Having written thousands of words on the subject (and read millions) I refuse to go into further details” (Clarke, A., 1986, as cited in Clarke, D., n.d., paras. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7).
Dr. Hynek had contemplated the possibility that UFOs represent a novel natural phenomenon as early as 1952:
“In 1952… a wave of UFO sightings prompted Hynek to begin reconsidering his views on the subject. He openly speculated that UFOs might be a new kind of natural phenomenon he dubbed ‘nocturnal meandering lights’” (Franch, 2013, para. 13).
In the 2016 Skeptical Inquirer article “The Brown Mountain Lights: Solved Again”, science writer Dr. Joe Nickell (Ph. D., folklore) describes how unidentified lights are often associated with the supernatural:
“Although legends mostly interpret the Brown Mountain Lights as ghosts, since about 1960 tales of UFOs, alien contact, and ‘interdimensional beings’ have proliferated there, as well as of ‘little people, fairies and such’” (Nickell, 2016, para. 16).
“One researcher called attention to a few reports that could describe the rare phenomenon of ball lighting (Washburn 2012). Moreover, the lights are not limited to Brown Mountain but in fact have been reported throughout the entire area” (Nickell, 2016, para. 29).
“Proponents of the ‘mystery’ are quick to challenge the scientific explanations. But as Rosemary Ellen Guiley (2000, 156) acknowledges, ‘Ghost lights have a power to fascinate, and some individuals who see them do not want the mystique spoiled by an explanation.’
Neither do writers selling mystery. Whenever one explanation is offered, they describe other eyewitness reports (or alleged reports, since often no sources are given) that supposedly rule out that cause. They suggest, therefore, that no scientific explanation solves the ‘mystery’” (Nickell, 2016, para. 30).
In 2022 Harvard astronomy professor and Galileo Project founder Dr. Avi Loeb reflects on his decision to academically investigate UFOs:
“I prefer… a path that was not taken, the way Robert Frost phrased it… For me, it’s the ability as a physicist to find low-hanging fruit because nobody walked that path and there might be something really obvious that we will find” (Loeb, 2022, 4758s).
As a guest on The Singularity Lab in 2021, Dr. Loeb contemplates the possibility that UAP are natural phenomena:
“If it turns out not to be of extraterrestrial origin, if it turns out to be some atmospheric phenomena that we’ve never anticipated, it will be quite interesting, we will discover something new, so I see it as a win-win” (Loeb, 2021, 1448s).
On Witness Citizen podcast in 2021 Dr. Loeb again suggests that UAP may prove to be natural phenomena:
“…suppose the Galileo Project searches and, you know, figures out that these UAP are some natural phenomena.
So be it, you know, then at least we’ll put to rest all these speculations that people have…I wouldn’t feel hurt, I would just feel that we learned something new, and so we will be guided by evidence” (Loeb, 2021b, 3960s).
Campbell Moreira is a Canadian small business owner, science writer, and the creator of UAPstudy.com, a non-profit educational website designed to help people study the UAP subject through academic sources. Campbell graduated with an HBA (MCL) in analytic philosophy from University of Ottawa and attended Queen’s University’s Juris Doctor program before dropping out and founding a federally-licensed commercial cannabis cultivation business in 2019.
Find Campbell at UAPstudy.com and on Twitter at @UAPstudy
The Hudson River Valley, comprising Westchester, Rockland, and Putnam, New York, and Fairfield and New Haven, Connecticut, experienced a wave of UFO sightings throughout the 1980s. Thousands of witnesses described, with little variation, an enormous, boomerang-shaped cluster of lights, quietly gliding over highways and neighborhoods. Some 5,000 people witnessed these events.
Today, bloggers and UFO enthusiasts describe these events as The Hudson Valley flap, again with little variation. The oft-quoted prelude of the wave is said to have taken place just before midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1982: a retired police officer and a warehouse foreman independently witnessed an array of lights in a V-shaped formation passing over them.
It would only be a couple months before more witnesses would light up the Putnam County Police dispatch phone lines. As reported on April 16th, 1982 in the White Plains Reporter Dispatch, the Beacon NY News, the Newburgh NY News and the Peekskill NY Star, beginning at 8:51PM the previous Thursday night, multiple witnesses called the county dispatch reporting flying, multi-colored lights in a triangular pattern. All four news articles mentioned that Putnam County deputies believed the sightings were caused by a group of small airplanes flying out of Stormville Airport “whose pilots sometimes fly at night in close formation.”
Over a month later, on June 25th, the NY Newburgh Evening News and the Beacon NY News reported another slew of sightings, specifically noting, “strangely enough, all of the incidents came on Thursday nights between 8:30 and 9:30PM.” State police were quick to tell panicked callers that they had already tracked the objects to Stormville Airport after the last sighting (on April 29), telling them “… a group of professional pilots who were using small planes to practice close formation flying at night. [The authorities] said that the pilots usually [to] practice [at] night and were seen by a trooper landing at Stormville Airport shortly after state police received numerous calls wondering about the lights.”
The next wave began much like the first, in the early months of 1983. On March 4th, the Poughkeepsie Journal ran a headline reading “UFO flipped… and flashed…but it was only a stunt.” The article, written by Helene Maichle, quotes State Trooper Frank Dunning, “I got so many calls I put my investigative skills to work,” explaining that he “found [that] a team of stunt pilots from the Stormville Airport take to the skies every Thursday night to perform their maneuvers.”
This was followed by one of few articles ever mentioned when discussing the case, the Port Chester Daily Item’s March 26th scoop, “HUNDREDS CLAIM TO HAVE SEEN UFO” by E.B. Waizer. Notable not only for NOT mentioning the Stormville pilots, but also as the beginning of the investigation by amateur UFO investigator Philip J. Imbrogno, who is currently more well-known for his fabrication of credentials than for his work on Hudson Valley case.
A more succinct piece was printed March 3rd, 1983, in the Mt. Kisco Patent Trader that makes an even more compelling case for the pilot theory, describing how the pilots create the illusion:
- Stopping mid-air can be achieved by a sudden climb of the formation performed directly over the views, who might not notice the lights are moving higher.
- The size, described as being as big as a 747 jet, results from several planes flying in precise formation, their lights and silhouettes against the moon, appearing as of one mass
- Soundlessness results from temporarily cutting engines, reducing them to very low RPMs, wind currents; extreme distances, or distracting noise from other sources
- Airspeeds as slow as 50 MPH are possible by single-engine planes
Waizer followed up his own piece with an article on March 31st in the White Plains Reporter Dispatch titled “Theories abound for lights in sky.” Waizer writes, “it has been speculated that the lights – invariably described as being in a V-shape – were from planes flying slowly and close together or from a dirigible, or that they were caused by atmospheric disturbances. But so far, none of the theories has been confirmed… One explanation, which has quickly gained a following, is that the lights were from the wingtip, tail, and landing lights of a flight of Cessna 150 single-engine propeller planes from Stormville and Sky Acres Airports in Dutchess County.”
This was followed by a quote from pilot Saul Wolff who witnessed the lights: “It was definitely five airplanes. I could very definitely see them and hear the engines and the propellers, but depending on the angle, they could seem to be hovering.”
By this point, Imbrogno had enlisted J. Allen Hynek’s help along with that of several other members of the Center for UFO Studies. They had set up 2 hotlines for witnesses to call and report their sightings. These accounts were shared with local papers along with Imbrogno’s position on the sightings, downplaying the Stormville pilot explanation, referring to the planes as “ultralights,” an ambiguous term that journalists tend to use to describe anything from hang-gliders to single engine aircraft.
The April 3rd edition of the Yonkers Herald Statesman, written by Waizer, quoted Imbrogno: “I’ve interviewed 17 people and they basically all report the same thing. The majority of the sightings indicated that the object was 500 to 1,000 feet up and most people say that it was so slow they could catch up to it. A number reported seeing a structure, some kind of gray shape,” though Waizer adds “although several witnesses said they could make out the forms of five separate airplanes and hear the sound of propellers, other witnesses adamantly claim they saw one wedge-shaped object and that it hovered and darted in a manner unlike any airplane.”
Waizer returned on May 22nd in the Herald Statesman, quoting Hynek: “I think we do have an interesting case here. From past experience, where a UFO is seen by a great number of people, it frequently turns out to have a natural explanation, but no one has been able to provide a viable, natural explanation.” Hynek, disappointingly, could not see the forest for the trees.
By July 1983, Waizer was regularly churning out articles featuring Hynek, Imbrogno, and other investigators from CUFOS. In the White Plains Reporter Dispatch, Imbrogno admits to staking out Stormville Airport and witnessing the planes for himself, saying “this clears up 75 percent of my paperwork, but if I told some of the people who saw a huge, silent, hovering object that they were seeing airplanes, they’d be very upset.” The article implies two things: first, that Imbrogno had suspected this all along and that there were, in fact, two objects sighted over the past months. Second, that this was somehow proof of this theory, though this is the first we’ve heard about this incredible coincidence.
As the summer of 1983 came to an end, so did the sightings. Several other small articles were published in local papers, all quite similar, citing reports of a large boomerang-shaped cluster of lights drifting up and down the Hudson River Valley and gliding silently. It’s notable that according to Imbrogno’s own research, roughly a quarter of the witnesses of the March 24th sighting described hearing a humming or droning sound. CUFOS’ investigators were eager to share their takes on the sightings, opting now for ‘the two objects theory:’ that is, while the Stormville pilots were flying over the river valley in boomerang formation, there was another, otherworldly, boomerang-shaped object flying in the same vicinity.
The sightings resumed in the summer of 1984, suspiciously repeating the wave of the previous summer. While Imbrogo was still making rounds in the local newspaper circuit, explaining that what people saw couldn’t be “ultralights,” several members of the Aerial Phenomena Research Organization (APRO) decided to take a look for themselves.
Investigator Dick Ruhl describes his encounter in volume 32, issue 6 of the APRO Journal: “We watched in utter amazement as the two objects glided extremely slowly and maneuvered about themselves, constantly changing from white as they approached us, to red as they turned away and then from the side, the red, green-blue and white lights appeared. They finally formed up into a huge boomerang-shape and it was then that I saw some light reflected on the bodies of the six aircraft. We knew we had the evidence on the ‘Stormville pilots’,” Ruhl and his associate Ricchie Petracca then staked out the airport and watched the planes land. Ruhl took a photo of one of the plane’s tail IDs – N-76106 – which at the time was registered to an Ivan P, Hersh.
In November 1984, Discover Magazine ran a special report on the sightings, detailing what local papers and police had been saying all along: “several years ago, it seems, a few of the Stormville pilots began practicing formation flying, first in the daylight, then, as their skills improved, at night. Before long, other pilots joined them, and what began as loose groupings of planes became tight formations of aircraft with as little as six inches between wingtips.” With the sightings getting so much press, the article explains, more pilots joined the group and they began calling themselves “the Martians.”
In fact, the airport cafeteria added a “UFO Burger” to the menu, playing along with the pilots’ inside joke – because that’s what this UFO wave was. A case open-and-shut in the local newspapers, open for the public to discover. Despite this, Imbrogno maintained his stance on the sightings for several more years. The flap lasted, by some accounts, until 1987, repeating every summer. Imbrogno and his associates continued making media appearances, where they could make claims about how the nights of the larger sightings reportedly experienced 35 mph winds, making it impossible for “the Martians” to be formation flying.
Much like with his fictitious claims of expertise and education, Imbrogno had no qualms making demonstrably false claims about the Hudson Valley sightings. Incredibly, this case is still talked about today in poorly-researched, cookie-cutter blog posts and by mystery mongers with a narrative to push, the latter adopting Imbrogno’s tactic of referring to the airplanes equivocally as “ultralights” or claiming that what they were doing would be illegal and simply shrugging off the explanation, knowing their audience will likely never look into it themselves.
Nick Coffin-Callis is a dubious layman. Find him on Twitter @invnightschool
(1982, April 16). Callers report UFO. White Plains Reporter Dispatch.
(1982, April 16). UFO flight or fancy?. Beacon News.
(1982, April 16). UFO sighting still goes unexplained Newburgh News UFO sightings in Carmel. Peekskill Star.
(1982, June 25). UFO’s again? Cops say no. Newburgh Evening News.
(1983, March 4). UFO flipped…and flashed…but it was only a stunt. Poughkeepsie Journal.
(1983, March 26). Hundreds claim to have seen UFO. The Daily Item (Port Chester, New York).
(1983, March 30). Is UFO a hoax by top pilots?. Mt. Kisco Patent Trader.
(1983. March 31). Theories abound for lights in sky. The Reported Dispatch (White Plains, New York).
(1983, April 3). UFO sightings nothing new. The Herald Statesman (Yonkers, New York).
(1983, May 22). Those weren’t just any UFOs. The Herald Statesman (Yonkers, New York).
(1983, July 15). Planes behind part of UFO sightings. The Reported Dispatch (White Plains, New York).
Shaw, Jazz. (2022, July). The Hudson Valley UFOs: How the Media Reacted to a 1980s UFO Flap. The Debrief. https://thedebrief.org/the-hudson-valley-ufos-how-the-media-reacted-to-a-1980s-ufo-flap/
(Header image, content).
Moody, Lance. (2011, July 15). Saucers, Lies, and Audio Tape. Not a Ghost. https://www.notaghost.com/2011/07/saucers-lies-and-audio-tape.html