The significance of being significant

It’s not a topic that pops up too often on this blog, but I still toy with the whole UFO/alien visitation issue from time to time. It’s halfhearted anymore, because there really isn’t anything new to say about it. Despite the fantastic increases not only in our abilities to capture civilian photos and video, but our air traffic control and military capabilities as well, UFO reports remain as steadfastly vague and ephemeral as they were fifty years ago. And in fact, the majority of cases considered most compelling (of what, there seems to be little agreement) are about that age themselves.

Bad UFOs is a skeptical website run by Robert Sheaffer, who writes fairly regularly about both current and older UFO cases. He recently featured a lengthy paper by Tim Printy, who has taken a prominent report from 1957, investigated by the University of Colorado’s ‘Condon’ Report and a few independent investigators, and re-examined all of the details available in what can only be described as a meticulous manner. The results are published in his e-zine and are freely available (just to warn you, this is an 8 Mb, 40 page PDF download.)

The case involved a US Air Force RB-47 electronic surveillance aircraft that had recorded several radar traces as well as visual phenomena (what most people call “lights”) during a flight across several states. I was passingly familiar with the case, having seen synopses of it in both the Condon Report and the rebuttal to this, a report to the American Association for the Advancement of Science titled “Science in Default” from independent UFO proponent Dr. James E. McDonald – it was McDonald’s report that I’d seen first, and even though he was supposedly demonstrating the astounding evidence of this case, the distance between his own accounts of the evidence and the conclusions that he drew did not convince me that he was even remotely impartial. So it was with some surprise to hear that this case has been called among the most convincing examples of “airborne intelligence.”

Suffice to say, Printy pretty effectively demonstrates otherwise. From the fact that there was never any official report filed, through the aspect that not only were most of the details related years afterwards, the aircrew could not even agree on what the purpose of the flight was, to the overriding lack of specifics throughout (much less actual written notes,) a decent lawyer could have had this ‘astounding case’ thrown out of any criminal court in the country. Printy waded through the morass of conflicting details and did his best in making some sense of them, referring as often as possible to information that would corroborate any particular aspect, and ended up with very little that would make this case more than a curiosity. At no time did he offer any firm conclusions, but he did support every question that could be raised regarding the explanations of “intelligence” from other investigations. Long story short: not only is there the distinct possibility that what the crew related were pings of distant radar stations and completely unrelated lights (that are not even clear were in the sky,) only two aspects gave any indication of odd behavior in the slightest, and both of these are so badly documented that they have weight only if one ignores all of the other contradictions and vague measurements throughout the case.

This is what is most interesting about reviewing UFO cases, in my opinion. Proponents very frequently seize on individual details and promote these as devastating facts, without feeling any need to establish accuracy, even when the accounts from the case are wildly contradictory. Much is made of the dependability of trained military (or police, or pilot) witnesses, but when two disagree, the investigator is left with the inescapable logical conclusion that at least one is wrong, not only trashing the value of ‘trained military’ witnesses, but obligating the investigator to try and determine which (if any) was actually right. Printy makes this very clear, as he examines the conclusions of UFO proponents and finds that little confirmation was sought for specifics, nor even a caveat for reasonable doubt (which was present in abundance.) Most remarkable is the idea that this mysterious object (or perhaps more than one – this is actually not clear at all,) that supposedly chased an Air Force plane with precision maneuvers, was using a radar wavelength commonly used by ground-based stations surrounding the flight path. Also interesting is that, despite the claims that ground-based stations actually tracked an object with great precision, not only was there no additional response when the RB-47 abandoned the chase – no fighter aircraft sent up nor any attempt to obtain other radar station traces – nobody involved seemed compelled to even write the details down, much less file a report. Note that this is a military electronic countermeasures surveillance aircraft during the height of the Cold War reporting, supposedly, an unknown pursuing aircraft over heavily industrialized US airspace… and no one gave a shit? This is what serves as astounding evidence of UFO activity? But that’s the whole point, really: The crew was not actually tracking another craft of any kind, but only relating stray radar emissions (not positive contacts from their own radar, but passive signals from somewhere else) and a bright light that did not jibe with any known sources.

Now we step back a little and attempt some perspective. The crew, to all appearances, noticed several curious aspects of this flight – odd radar traces, a bright light that didn’t resemble typical sources, and the report from a ground station that some radar return was matching their own flight path about ten miles distant – and recounted these long afterwards. Indications are, from interviews and the casual aspect of their reporting process, that they did not conflate these together in any way, and were only filing details about the flight that seemed out of the ordinary, certainly not unheard of with military operations, most especially in the earlier days of radar as the various issues with the technology were being ironed out. Because some of those details could indicate something airborne, the case could be considered to fit the definition of “unidentified flying object” and was thus sent on to the Condon report. Accounts of anomalies are made in the military, and in any decently run organization, all the time.

But because “UFO” means “aliens” to the vast majority of those interested in the subject, this case began to be viewed with an eye towards the mysterious, and the details were unnecessarily run together into one phenomenon. The light seen by the pilots became the source of the mysterious radar signals, even though they were not in the same direction at any point in time and did not occur at the same times. And of course, when reported in popular UFO media, even more conclusions are drawn than were ever present in the reports, and this is easy to see for oneself. Simply search for “RB-47 UFO” and look at the myriad ways the event is described.

Printy was fairly circumspect in his paper, too, when addressing the descriptions given by UFO proponent Brad Sparks, considering them “hyperbole” rather than what I consider a far more appropriate term, “credulous bullshit.” Sparks’ claims of “scientific evidence” would perhaps have been more justified if he understood just what the phrase meant, but even more convincing if he had better indicated of what. “Airborne intelligence” is a rather vague term to have established “proof” of, especially if we haven’t defined what “intelligence” is. We have countless forms of airborne intelligence around us all of the time – we call them, “pilots,” and perhaps even, “birds.” Even if one has established a high likelihood of it being an aircraft (this was not even remotely close to being proven,) it is rational to ask what manner of aircraft: Civilian? Military? Rooskies? Jet? Propeller? Hot air? Large? Small? Maneuverable? Clumsy? Noisy? Quiet? Seriously, just what the fuck have you actually found?

And therein lies the problem: all we have is a few radar traces and a light (or perhaps more than one), and it is only through wild guesses that these are considered related, much less “intelligent.” Proponents would certainly like to bring up the contradictory accounts of a radar signal traveling “up-scope,” meaning moving faster than the aircraft rather than passing behind as a fixed station’s signal would have, but this is based on a single comment from interviews long after the fact. I want to point out that no source of S-band radar was in use on aircraft at the time, so a military jet being overtaken by an unknown aircraft actively pinging them almost certainly would have been of remarkable interest to the operator, worthy of more than a passing comment and the subsequent ignoring of the signal.

Also noteworthy is that, in the 54 years since this occurred, not a damn thing has come of it all. This account did not establish a pattern, nor reveal anything in particular. No one since has reported anything similar (much less better evidence of aliens or even “intelligence.”) Proponents may want to seize onto the missing recordings from the flight, according to the account of the pilot. But one must reasonably ask, if the government wanted to cover something up by disappearing the recordings, why did they not plug the biggest leak of all, the six crewmembers who have been interviewed multiple times by civilians over the years?

I suspect that Printy’s exhaustive efforts, if they receive much notice at all, will garner more derision than acclaim, which would be a shame. UFO proponents are notoriously bad about enjoining people to “look at the evidence” but, it appears, only if it supports their own conclusions. Decent investigators are few and far between, largely because too few people will actually pay for a comprehensive investigation that may reveal no aliens at all, but errors in perception instead. Like ghosts and religious miracles, the money lies in credulity, not accuracy. This is largely the reason why I examine the motivations behind belief in the first place.

As with any report of mysterious phenomena, the constant repetition of the same credulous accounts, with details conflated, exaggerated, or even just created from thin air, creates an atmosphere of significance – “why do I keep hearing about these?” But we keep hearing about these because too many people want to believe in aliens (and government conspiracies, and all of the related hoohah,) and this desire affects not only how they view the details of the case, but how they relate them as well. Virtually no one hears the raw data from the source; they hear the accounts from proponents, who have reasons to make them sound significant, whether these reasons be financial, emotional, egotistical, or even malicious. But significance should be determined by how such info can affect us, like with knowledge of alien behavior or advanced technology, not by whether someone merely wants to call it significant.

I used to spend no small amount of time in forums for UFOs and paranormal encounters, and most striking was how often critical examination was greeted with outright hostility. Mind you, I’m not talking about responding to derisive comments from nonbelievers; these did occur, but far less often than was claimed. Instead, what I mean is exactly what Printy has done here: examine the related details with an eye towards accuracy and potential explanations. It was abundantly clear that calling anything into doubt engendered defensiveness, regardless of how unwarranted it might actually be. When a prominent UFO ‘investigator’ was totally punked by a simple photo of an optical mouse, it wasn’t the investigator’s completely bogus interpretation of the photo as a “True UFO” that earned the derision, but the hoaxer’s efforts in revealing the investigator as a bullshit artist. In all seriousness, too many of the forum responses defended the investigator because the hoaxer lied to him. Because, you know, all UFO reports involve people speaking in good faith. It stands to reason that this would make the investigator completely superfluous, of course…

The important question for any individual is, “Do you want trustworthy conclusions, or mere emotional supplication regardless of its accuracy?” I suspect too few people actually ask themselves any such thing, or simply believe that what they seek is trustworthy. Yet, as we recognize that UFO investigations over the decades have resulted in no useful information in the slightest, one must reasonably ask, “What is trustworthy about them?” If every last UFO report simply disappeared from history, in what way would our lives right now be different (aside from, you know, a few hundred sketchy publishers having to sell romance novels instead)?

Don’t get me wrong; I’m actually in favor of investigating anything anomalous, and in doing so with vigor. But such investigations should be done without foregone conclusions or unnecessary correlation and conflation. The RB-47 case remains yet “unexplained,” which says nothing more than “unexplained” – this does not open the door for aliens, government conspiracies, secret technology, time travel, witchcraft, or anything else anyone can imagine. In fact, this actually means that its usefulness is nonexistent. Our bar should remain higher than that.