“If the government issues a report saying it’s all artifacts of camera, balloons, bokeh — the ufologists are not going to accept it. Nothing satisfies a true believer.” (Michael Shermer, Skeptic Magazine)

We’re back into silly season with UFOs again. It happens pretty regularly, starting in June, 1947, after a private pilot reported seeing nine strange objects near Mount Rainier, whose motion was like “a saucer skipped over water” — hence “flying saucers. Within a month, nearly a thousand similar reports had been made. Then we had the March 1966 mass sightings in Michigan (written off by officials as swamp gas)…and hundreds more. Check this out.

Now we have the current “we’ve been here before” UFO hysteria, supposedly culminating later this month in the publication of a government report (initiated six months ago by Senator Marco Rubio) but leaked last week by the New York Times. “U.S. Finds No Evidence of Alien Technology in Flying Objects, but Can’t Rule It Out, Either: A new report concedes that much about the observed phenomena remains difficult to explain, including their acceleration, as well as ability to change direction and submerge.” I’m turning into a conspiracy nut myself, except in my case I’m starting to believe there’s a conspiracy in Washington and the military to simply refuse to consider any prosaic explanation, despite such explanations being readily available online.

Why else, for instance, is there no mention in the NYT story (June 3) - -no skeptical aside even — of the rational explanations offered by Mick West (on his YouTube site Metabunk) for those videos purporting to show fantastic acceleration and ability to change direction referred to above. Note that the NYT report wasn’t written by some gullible cub reporter, but by veteran (20 years) national security correspondent Julian Barnes. But look, you don’t have to buy West’s versions of the Navy pilots’ incidents; you just have to listen to the pilots themselves!

Take Commander David Fravor’s recent interview on Lex Fridman’s show. Fravor is the prime witness for what’s touted as the best example we have for UFOs, the “Tic Tac” incident. In November 2004, Fravor was flying an F/A-18F Super Hornet on a routine training mission with the USS Nimitz Carrier Strike Group off the southern California coast when he was told to investigate an unusual craft that had been descending from 80,000 feet to 20,000 feet and then hovering. He was told that the USS Princeton had been tracking this object on radar for two weeks. (Why did they wait two weeks before asking for it to be checked out???)

Fravor (speaking from memory about a 16-year old incident) claims he saw a 40-foot long white oval craft 50 feet above the water. Since he was flying at 20,000 feet, you’ve got to ask, how did he know it was 40 foot long, the length of his own plane. Fridman, referencing Mick West’s debunking, does, in fact, ask that. Fravor replies, “16 years flying against other aircraft…pure experience and having done it for so long.” Fridman then asks, “How often do you make mistakes?” “A lot!” answers Fravor, explaining, “The sad part is, your brain believes what your eyes see, you’ve got to trust your instruments.” He adds that pilots fly into the sea all the time because, lacking any reference, they misjudge their height (hence radar altimeters).

Wait a bit. Commander Fravor knows, from the evidence of his own eyes, that the “Tic Tac” is 40 feet long and 50 feet above the ocean. He’s four miles above the ocean, with nothing to reference the object against — and a moment later he says that pilots are trained not to trust their eyes! What’s going on here? How can he know what he says he can’t know? Unfortunately neither Fravor nor Commander Jim Slaight, the other occupant of the plane, took videos of the Tic Tac.

The fuzzy infrared (1 minute 16 second) “FLIR1” video that was taken by the pilot who followed him up shows the white Tic Tac against a dark background, which has been convincingly explained away by Mick West as the hot twin exhausts of a distant jet. When it seems to peel off abruptly at the end of the video, this is supposed to be evidence of the object’s fantastic acceleration, but West shows that it’s probably just camera movement.

So what’s going on? Why does the NYT play along with the “unexplained” line, without mentioning alternative explanations? Why was there no skeptical voice on the 60 Minutes show I discussed two weeks ago? My own mantra when it comes to weird phenomena is, When in doubt, follow the money. In this case, the media have much more to gain financially by pretending to believe sensational claims than countering with the voice of reason — or at least offering that there really might be rational interpretations for all the fuss.

For a much more grounded media approach to it all, the San Diego Union-Tribune did a fine follow-up of the 60 Minutes show, well worth five minutes of your time if you’re interested in balanced reporting.

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