UFO Conjectures

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Skeptics or Debunkers

Philip Klass and Donald Menzel did more to cause the science/media/public dismissal of flying saucers and UFOs than any other persons or groups extant during the voluminous era of the phenomena.

And they did it with a patina of rectitude that is not only unjustified but hellishly erroneous.

They were debunkers, not skeptics, and they had an agenda that was based in purposeful or aberrant denial.

Menzel in his books -- UFOs: Flying Saucers-Myth-Truth-History (1953), The World of Flying Saucers (1963, co-authored with Lyle G Boyd), and The UFO Enigma (1977, co-authored with Ernest H. Taves -- went to excruciating lengths to fit UFO sightings into a framework of astronomical and meteorological explanations that stretched credulity and Ockham’s Razor to the breaking point.

 Fixing a temperature inversion and the planet Venus as a confluent for sightings was a typical ploy. Wikipedia provides this about Menzel:

“All of Menzel's UFO books argued that UFOs are nothing more than misidentification of prosaic phenomena such as stars, clouds and airplanes; or the result of people seeing unusual atmospheric phenomena they were unfamiliar with. He often suggested that atmospheric hazes or temperature inversions could distort stars or planets, and make them appear to be larger than in reality, unusual in their shape, and in motion. In 1968, Menzel testified before the U.S. House Committee on Science and Astronautics - Symposium on UFOs, stating that he considered all UFO sightings to have natural explanations.
He was perhaps the first prominent scientist to offer his opinion on the matter, and his stature doubtless influenced the mainstream and academic response to the subject. Perhaps Menzel's earliest public involvement in UFO matters was his appearance on a radio documentary directed and narrated by Edward R. Murrow in mid-1950.
Menzel had his own UFO experience when he observed a 'flying saucer' while returning on 3 March 1955 from the North Pole on the daily Air Force Weather "Ptarmigan" flight. His account is in both Menzel & Boyd and Menzel & Taves. He later identified it as a mirage of Sirius.”
Klass was a brilliant, hard-working debunker. His knotty analyses of UFO events and sightings are almost legendary, but invariably wrong, because they are tainted by his inherent bias against UFOs as a viable phenomenon.
In the book, pictured above, Science and the Paranormal [Edited by George O. Abell and Barry Singer, Charles Scribner’s Sons, NY, 1983, Chapter 18, Page 310 ff.], Klass deconstructs the noteworthy Coyne helicopter confrontation with a UFO in October 1973 near Mansfield, Ohio.
Klass presents a detailed account of the Coyne encounter and its aftermath. The minutiae included in his “analysis” of the encounter provides a seeming overlay of forensic debate but when Klass’s approach is scrutinized, one realizes that his devaluation of the Coyne crew’s report rests on a usual Klass barb that Coyne and his crew misremembered what they did when they saw a UFO coming toward their helicopter.
Klass writes that they misperceived an Orionids fireball (or meteor) and miscalculated the timings of various aspects of the event: the fireball’s fly-by, the seconds during which the collective control was pressed to keep the helicopter from, firstly, hitting the ground and, secondly, from accelerating back into the sky.
The magnetic compass’s erratic behavior was an afterthought of Captain Coyne, inserted several years after the initial event and report(s) Klass suggests.
The inability to communicate with local air terminal towers was ascribed to the distances that intervened between them and the Bell helicopter Klass tried to document.
And the green glow the crew witnessed as the UFO allegedly flew over their helicopter came from the tinted glass at the fringe of the cockpit. The red glow of the UFO was that of the surmised fireball.
(J. Allen Hynek, an eminent astronomer himself said that the Orionid display didn’t produce fireballs.)
With a recent case of a pilot, waking from an in-seat nap, mistaking the planet Venus for an approaching airplane, putting his 747 into a dive that injured several passengers and attendants, one can accept the possibility that Captain Coyne and his crew were flummoxed by a stray Orionid meteor, except that Hynek said fireballs do not occur during the Orionid display.
Moreover, the crew’s actions indicated that the helicopter was influenced in some way by the approaching UFO, and the mistakes attributed to them by Klass as errant behavior is possible certainly but hard to accept as the mistakes that Klass piles up are too many and too egregious for a trained helicopter crew.
It’s far easier to accept that Coyne and his men actually had a near collision with a UFO – an Unidentified Flying Object (or thing).
Klass, like Menzel, presents a set of possibilities, all acceptable at a superficial level, but when weighed in the balance, require too many machinations to be reasonably feasible.
No, Klass and Menzel were not skeptics; they were debunkers….and not very skilled debunkers either, as their “explanations” always teetered on the edge of charlatanry; they were UFO atheists or something worse.


  • Yes, the probably were something "worse" since neither men were stupid. How else to explain their outlandish "explanations". But what in fact were they really?

    By Blogger Dominick, at Thursday, April 19, 2012  

  • Hynek, I think, came up with as good an explanation as any as to the *real* philosophy that underpinned Klass and others: "...it can't be, therefore it isn't...". If the hyper-skeptics were ultimately convinced of the complete non existence of ET in any form, alternate explanations for UFOs *must* be found elsewhere. IMHO of course.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thursday, April 19, 2012  

  • The recent case of an airliner making a severe descent due to an rapid descent of a light above them and the later sighting of Venus during the same event and how it was consigned to be "explained" leaves some unanswered questions. Did you receive the Bad Astronomy article?
    Reasonable doubt concerning Venus as the culprit?

    By Blogger Bruce Duensing, at Thursday, April 19, 2012  

  • Yes, Bruce, I saw the conflicting accounts.

    But that's a whole other debate. having to do with media mind-sets and reality.

    I just wanted to dialogue here about Klass and Menzel.

    That the dismissals of UFO events goes unabated is grist for a discussion surely, but is a given for most of us, is it not?


    By Blogger RRRGroup, at Thursday, April 19, 2012  

  • The reason I mentioned this was in the context of the long since departed debunkers in relation to Venus being the usual suspect and it struck me that despite their determined efforts to pave over every uncertainty, their effort was a fool's errand to begin with, this latest case being a prime example.

    It is one thing to examine the evidence and another to pursue a writ, which either has a psychological basis that made this obsession to impossibly erase any uncertainty whatsoever, like a game of "whack-a mole" a sort of voluntary slavery, or has deeper roots in relation to the powers that were, perhaps never to unearthed, which is my own cynical suspicion.They doth protested too much.

    I suppose over the top skeptics are
    in a over the top didactic tennis match with reasonable doubt fall under Arthur C Clarkes Law, one of which is that the more impossible a likelihood is pronounced impossible by experts, the more likely it is to be true.

    By Blogger Bruce Duensing, at Friday, April 20, 2012  

  • Your claim that Klass's explanations "are almost legendary but invariably wrong" is itself wrong.

    Klass, more often than not, was right. I would not say the same about Menzel. He was probably more often wrong than right, though there is no sure way of knowing.

    Old UFO cases are so often open to dispute that it is pointless to go over them again and again, as people frequently do (when they have nothing better to do with their time).

    The point is that it is always easy to pick holes in a skeptic's explanation of a UFO event. No solution can possibly cover each and every detail as reported. Thus if there is the slightest doubt or omission in the solution it must be an 'unknown' and hence a UFO.

    Look at Jimmy Carter's sighting, for example. For years people assumed it was a true UFO. Dammit, Carter was a state Governor then US President! Then it transpired that Carter got his dates all wrong. Venus was the answer as it was in the right place at the right time. But Carter was much too smart to be fooled by Venus, so we were told. Others with him were also fooled. Or were they? I believe that only one was ever located and he apparently said he was not that impressed with the sighting. Or did he? The said object was too big, too near and was moving. But was it? Accounts differed, as always.

    Both Klass & Sheaffer dealt with this, adequately in my view. But doubts still remain. Carter is still alive. What does he say now? Probably nothing.

    To this day we can't say, with certainty, what Carter saw that night, because some differences and holes exist in the testimony and doubts will always remain.

    Klass, I maintain, was right more often than he was wrong. Others will disagree. I am certainly not taking sides in the Coyne helicopter case.

    By Blogger cda, at Friday, April 20, 2012  

  • gleaner63 wrote: "If the hyper-skeptics were ultimately convinced of the complete non existence of ET in any form, alternate explanations for UFOs *must* be found elsewhere. IMHO of course."

    Putting it in terms of ET/antiET obscures the point that if Adamski, let's say, was the'far left' of experienced and responsible understanding of the UFO issue, then Menzel was on the 'far right'. At the center was AFOSI which had a much more nuanced understanding than the debunking skeptics.

    My point is Menzel was in violent disagreement with the agencies tasked with collecting and evaluating UFO reports, and not just ETH'rs. This seems to be true for Klass, as well.

    What irritates me, because I research ufo cases, is both extremes introduce noise into the signal. Not that the noise in its propagation isn't worth studying, but it is of more interest to psychologists and sociologists who can studying it as a phenomenon of belief -- which is not quite the same thing as researching a ufo case.

    If Menzel is the father of ufo skepticism, then debunkery is founded on a man who opportunistically grabbed the brass ring of celebrity during his "15 minutes" in 1952.



    By Blogger Don, at Friday, April 20, 2012  

  • CDA:

    I'd be very interested to read some of the UFO explanations you think Klass got right...even just one.

    He presented possibilities but the ET side presents possibilities too.

    Klass's explanations are as iffy as any, even though he overlaid his conjectures with an authoritative patina -- which, by the way, when examined closely, as in the Coyne case, end up being without real substance.

    Klass was in denial, a denial bolstered by a need to be an aircraft expert, which UFOs, by their vey nature, would not allow.


    By Blogger RRRGroup, at Friday, April 20, 2012  

  • Bruce said:

    "The recent case of an airliner making a severe descent due to an rapid descent of a light above them and the later sighting of Venus during the same event and how it was consigned to be "explained" leaves some unanswered questions."

    Can Bruce provide a link as to where he saw this reported. I just read the official report and several news accounts and they agree with each other (more or less) but differ greatly from the way Bruce tells the story above (for example, there was no rapid descent of any light/Venus BEGAN the incident and wasn't a "later sighting". It also appears that Venus was not the cause of the actual aircraft maneuvers that was light from a real aircraft).

    UFO Buffs often derisively refer to the Venus explanation for UFO reports. Their derisiveness reveals their ignorance.



    By Blogger Lance, at Friday, April 20, 2012  

  • "Klass, more often than not, was right..." CDA, you must be kidding right? Have you actually read "UFOs Explained" and "UFO, The Public Deceived"? Was he right when he stated that "there had been a number of meator sightings during the week of the Chiles-Whitted encounter {and that} clearly enables this case to be removed for all time from the category of unidentifieds." Was he right about the Trent case, about Socorro,about the 1976 Iran incident (his explanation here is so outlandish that one shutters to even recount it),Cash/Landrum (another outlandish explanation)and, especially the Coyne helicopter incident. And if you won't take sides on Coyne, CDA, most serious researchers (the Hynek study on Coyne is definitive in my view) are wasting their time. Let me add a footnote on the fundamental "unreliability of eye-witness testimony", something Klass believed religiously...when it favored his positions. The recent Discovery Channel special on the Titanic pointed out something curious: eye-witness testimony from dozens of survivors was that the ship broke in two before sinking. Officials said that was impossible, that they must have been incorrect and both official inquiries stated that the ship DID NOT break in two before sinking. Well, quess who was right on that one.

    By Blogger Dominick, at Friday, April 20, 2012  

  • An example for Klass getting it right:

    The cover of the Incident at Exeter features a famous UFO photo.


    Klass believed that the photo was a fake and actually went our to test his theory that this was the case. He thought it depicted a hand holding a saucer (way out of focus). He took his own test photos.

    Of course, it is hard to prove this kind of thing because a blurry photo often holds little testable data. The UFO believers dismissed Klass.

    Years later the photographer admitted that the image was hoax just as Klass had said.

    Predictably there still UFO-tards who hold up this image as the real deal.

    There are many other examples, Rich. Here's another: Klass's work provided a brilliant rationale for the RB-47 case picked up and expanded by Tim Printy. I can give you many more.


    By Blogger Lance, at Friday, April 20, 2012  

  • Debunkers and skeptics serve a useful purpose. They counterbalance the crazies who believe Reptilians are devouring human infant sushi in underground bases at Dulce with the compliance of a US government that received advanced alien technology in return for looking the other way. After all, we humans are too stupid to have developed our current livel of technology without alien intervention.

    Those polarized on one side or the other of any crontroversy always see those holding opposing views as misinformed, wrong, stupid, evil, or just nuts. Why should the question of UFOs be any different?

    By Blogger purrlgurrl, at Friday, April 20, 2012  

  • RR:

    Travis Walton.

    Yes Klass did get that right.

    By Blogger cda, at Friday, April 20, 2012  

  • Lance and CDA, mostly....my favorite skeptics:

    The picture, Lance, on The Incident of Exeter book cover has always been an obvious contrivance -- someone holding a plate.

    That was a an easy call.

    As for the Walton "abduction" CDA, it remains an open question; not settled by a long shot.

    I keep posting it as an hallucinogenic episode brought on by drugs, alcohol, or loco weed.

    Klass didn't solve the case or provide a determined explanation.

    He merely provided, as usual, a litany of possibilities.

    That isn't an explanation where I come from.

    Yet I don't think the Walton story is one that will get us to a UFO clarification. It's fraught with too many ifs, ands, or buts.

    My point, again, is that Menzel was a debunker...maybe even a stooge for a government agency.

    (Anyone who wears a string tie is suspect in my eyes.)

    Klass employed deconstructive methods that gull the witless.

    If one examines his "techniques," one comes away not fooled by the smoke and mirrors.

    Klass was the Dulcamara of UFOs.


    By Blogger RRRGroup, at Friday, April 20, 2012  

  • Rich wrote: "(Anyone who wears a string tie is suspect in my eyes.)"

    He was from Colorado, so he had a right.

    A few days ago my wife and I were watching the Day After Trinity documentary. She noticed that the interviewees who had been onsite in NM with Oppenheimer were wearing their turquoise and bolo bling.



    By Blogger Don, at Friday, April 20, 2012  

  • Rich says:

    "The picture, Lance, on The Incident of Exeter book cover has always been an obvious contrivance -- someone holding a plate."

    Ah, but Rich nothing is ever obvious in Ufology! The best minds in UFOs at the time thought it was genuine:


    NICAP's report says:

    New UFO Photos Prove Genuine

    Here are some choice quotes:

    "..may be the most important evidence in the latest wave."

    "declared genuine by 3 professional photographers"

    "photos have unusual detail"

    "A NICAP technical advisor suggests the film may have recorded a force field emanation" (referring to the hand!

    "streak behind is believed a trail the UFO left"

    The Gulf Breeze photos are obvious fakes,too. But that doesn't stop that hack, Bruce Maccabee from pretending that they are not.

    I know that you would be willing to rethink your summary dismissal of Klass's work on this case and others, if you heard the details.



    By Blogger Lance, at Friday, April 20, 2012  

  • I saw a Klass/Friedman debate in Michigan years ago.

    I liked Klass but was inclined, at the time, to give Mr. Friedman the nod.

    Looking at Klass's "explanations" I see nothing that makes a case concretely solved.

    That UFOnics still accept some blatant UFO contrivances as real doesn't make me want to hug and kiss Phil Klass's explanations.

    His Coyne evaluation shows clearly, to me, his techniques.

    I'm not impressed. Sorry Lance.

    I'm not as encrusted as you are with a skeptical outlook.

    (And yes, Maccabee's evaluations are loony.)


    By Blogger RRRGroup, at Friday, April 20, 2012  

  • If some of us are correct, i.e., that the "explanations" provided by Menzel and Klass are phony, (even my grandson who believes everything cannot believe theirs) than who exactly are these two characters? Both are intelligent and serious men (at least in their professional life),so what exactly is going on here? There arn't many possibilities that come to mind. One, they really believed what they wrote and expected us to take it seriously. I find this almost impossible to believe. Klass expected us to believe that he had "explained" the Chiles-Whitted sighting by noting that "there were meteor showers during the week."? Where exactly were the showers, on what days, in what part of the skies? No, it is completely unreasonable to believe that he really believed what he wrote. Two, it was some sort of a joke and they enjoyed being celebreties with their (skeptic) peer group. Possible, but unlikely. How could Menzel "joke" with other serious astronomers about his "junk" explanations. Too professionally embarassing. Three, they did it all on purpose for a purpose that we still don't understand. I'm still leaning to #3.

    By Blogger Dominick, at Friday, April 20, 2012  

  • Dominick:

    The Chiles-Whitted sighting had been explained long before Klass ever looked at it. The Condon Committee dealt with it (Hartmann in section 6 chapter 2, where he also deals with the re-entry of Zond 4 debris and the great Canadian fireball of 1913). Menzel also went into it years earlier, and it was he, not Klass, who told of the great meteor shower that week. Menzel knew all about that shower because he was involved. Hynek decided it was a bright metoer as well (having changed his mind from it being a UFO)

    You can reject this explanation if you like, but there it is. Or you can fall back on the Battelle conclusion in Project Blue Book report 14 that it was a true unknown. Take your pick.

    But don't blame the 'mistake' on Klass.

    By Blogger cda, at Saturday, April 21, 2012  

  • A scattershot of indignant reactions:

    > They were debunkers, not skeptics, and they had an agenda that was based in purposeful or aberrant denial.

    I can't stand how people use "debunker" to mean "denier." The earnest removal of actual bunk is defined out of existence. Such good works become, ipso facto, acts of vandalism. It just seems like a partisan ploy.

    If someone is a denier, just call them that. Throw them in the bin with AIDS deniers and holocaust deniers.

    > Klass was in denial

    See? Easy.

    > efforts to pave over every uncertainty

    Bruce nicely summarises the problem of the so-called skeptical movement: an intolerance of uncertainty. (This, of course, is the exact same problem of believers.)
    Movement skeptics do pretty well calling out the poor methods and outright chicanery of, say, psychics and alternative medicine quacks. For some reason, movement skeptics can't do that with ufology. Hard evidence for most cases is pretty darn soft; going through the reports and pointing that out should be sufficient to keep earnest UFO buffs from coming to immodest conclusions. But for some demented reason, movement skeptics tend to make a counterclaim, usually a highly speculative one, and declare a case closed. That is just bizarre to me.
    Isn't the most revered figure in western philosophy the guy who said, "I don't know anything"? Did I just dream about reading all those dialogues? Did Socrates never exist?

    (Okay, I feel better for having got all that out.)

    By Blogger Terry the Censor, at Saturday, April 21, 2012  

  • Lance
    I found it on Google.

    By Blogger Bruce Duensing, at Saturday, April 21, 2012  

  • Thanks to Bruce for the link above.
    I had read that story. While the story does get the facts right, it must have been confusing to Bruce and perhaps other readers as well.

    There was no rapidly descending light mentioned at all. The military plane that precipitated the dive was actually below the 767. The co-pilot somehow misinterpreted the lights of that plane as descending from above.

    Venus seems to have played little or no role in this misadventure. It was noted (before te dive, not later) .

    God, it echoes in my ears how UFO believers over and over tell us what superhuman witnesses pilots are!


    Just a quick belated acknowledgement that the comments of Purrlgurrl are almost always right on target and full of wisdom.



    I know that skeptics frequently get this denialist tag but in reality I see very few skeptics actually exhibiting this behavior.

    When the evidence shows gross imposture (which in UFOs is often the case) I suppose we may be forgiven for calling out the scumbags for what they are.

    Currently Leslie Kean is aiding some UFO nuts in Chile in what has all the appearances of a total fraud. She supports these idiots as they withhold evidence and delay the truth. And yet Kean is often pointed out as one of the best on the "scientific" side of Ufology. From my viewpoint, she shows herself to be a deluded gullible half-wit.



    By Blogger Lance, at Saturday, April 21, 2012  

  • CDA, I can "reject the explanation" provided by Menzel and Klass concerning the Chiles/Whitted sighting? O.K., I reject it. To simply note that "there had been meteor showers during the week" (as Klass maintains, p. 16) cannot possibly remove the case "for all time from the category of 'unidentifieds'". Do you understand the absolute absurdity of that statement?!If that's all it takes to explain cases, then no cases can go unexplained. This approach must be radically different from the scientific method that I studied years ago.

    By Blogger Dominick, at Saturday, April 21, 2012  

  • "When the FO saw the oncoming aircraft, the FO interpreted its position as being above and descending towards them."

    Thats what I meant to say(as the above is a quote from the article) but my comment not written clearly as to who was interpreting what, obviously there were two different takes from the same cockpit simultaneously,which then throws Venus in as a ringer.

    One wonders how much flight time they had under their belts respectively.

    By Blogger Bruce Duensing, at Saturday, April 21, 2012  

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