The deeper I get into this wonderful critical thinking community of ours, the more I realize my “skeptical origin story” isn’t as uncommon as I’d first thought. Like many of us, I was way into weird stuff as a kid. It started with ghosts, but as you get older, you look for something a little more serious—like UFOs! Forget that supernatural crap … aliens are from science fiction! That has “science” right in the name!
As an obsessive teenager in the 1990s, I devoured the near-ubiquitous UFO media of the time, from books on the then-current Gulf Breeze, Florida, case and those that ran down all the classic hits, to TV shows like Sightings and Unsolved Mysteries. It was like a second golden age of UFOlogy (at least to the normally uninterested general public) until the U.S. Air Force had to ruin the fun by showing that the Roswell, New Mexico UFO crash in 1947, the #1 holy grail case at the time, was just a classified balloon project (The New York Times 1994) used to monitor Soviet nuclear tests.
College led me to lose touch with UFOlogy (I can’t imagine why), but now that I’m interested enough to poke my head back in again, I find … people still talking about Roswell?! Something about “slides” and an obviously human mummy being passed off as one of the crash victims? Is this seriously the best the field has to offer in the twenty-first century?
Now that everyone always has a powerful digital camera within reach, and official surveillance creeps closer to Orwellian inevitability, shouldn’t we have … I don’t know … found something conclusive by now? Or at least admitted that the lack of anything conclusive tells us all we need to know? I posed these questions and more to some of the last remaining old guard of serious UFO study for their analysis on whether the end of ufology, one way or another, is finally in sight.
With over seventy years elapsed between the Roswell incident and today, of course there’s been heavy turnover in the players of this drama. Astronomer J. Allen Hynek, known for being the “scientific advisor” of the seventeen-year-long U.S. Air Force UFO investigation, Project Blue Book, was the original “serious” researcher/believer.
“He was the person who spoke for UFOlogy,” says science writer and veteran UFO investigator Chris Rutkwoski, who still has fond memories of speaking with Hynek before his death in 1986. After that, Rutkowski says, the “flying saucer physicist” Stanton Friedman became the de facto voice, because “he could hold his own in a scientific discussion.” Even hard-nosed skeptic and longtime Skeptical Inquirer “Psychic Vibrations” columnist, Robert Shaeffer, concedes Friedman “was one of the better ones—or one of the less-bad ones.” But Friedman himself died in May, so now who is there to lead UFOlogy in what could be its final chapter?
“The entire history of UFOs for the last two years revolves around Tom DeLonge and his people,” says Shaeffer. Rutkowski takes it a step further, saying, “They’re holding Tom DeLonge up as kind of a god right now.” If the name sounds familiar, it’s not because he’s a highly credentialed physicist or astronomer; DeLonge is the former front man for the pop punk band Blink-182.
DeLonge founded something called To the Stars Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2015, the same year he was kicked out of (or left) Blink-182 (depending on who you ask), which, according to its website, is meant to be “a vehicle for change by inspiring a newfound appreciation and understanding for the profound, yet unresolved, mysteries of the universe that can have a positive impact on humanity.” And you can help, right there on the front page, by buying (a minimum of) 350 shares of “stock” in the company, at $5 a share. That money would surely go for investigation and not be used to offset the $37.4 million in unbalanced expenditures (Vice 2018).
Although maybe that ship has started to right itself, with the success of this past summer’s Unidentified: Inside America’s UFO Investigation television show on the History Channel. The program lasted for six episodes, with much of the focus on a recently released, highly publicized batch of U.S. Navy pilot UFO reports and on the promise of further government “disclosure” to come.
That may sound like a grim state for current UFOlogy, but is it really any different than what we’ve seen before? There may not be as many UFO books as there used to be, but Unidentified is produced by DeLonge himself, showing that while the vector may have changed, the result remains the same. “Of course the big money in this kind of thing is in the TV shows,” Shaeffer says. “I can’t imagine how much money [the History Channel is] making on this Ancient Aliens thing.”
Pilot sightings have happened since the very beginning of modern UFOlogy, as History Channel’s other, (admittedly) fictionalized UFO series, Project Blue Book, reminded us with episodes on the George Gorman “dogfight” and the “foo fighters” of World War II. And all the modern technology in the world can’t seem to stop the same old problems. “Apparently it’s just snippets of a much larger video—why don’t we have the whole thing?” asks Rutkowski, calling into question the U.S. Navy videos’ provenance. “There’s people who describe this as the watershed; no, it’s pretty well status quo.”
And disclosure? It’s one of the things that keeps it all going. If there’s lack of evidence, one can always just blame the governments of the world (who are of course working together on this issue, as they’re known to do) for having the goods but not revealing the truth, for some reason. “Disclosure has been the obsession of so many UFOlogists, even since the beginning,” says Shaeffer. “The smart ones are clever enough to not put a specific date on it.”
But it’s hard to escape the idea that disclosure might be all that hardcore “believers” have left. Gulf Breeze turned out to be a clumsy hoax (Shaeffer 2007), but at least the 1990s still had the Belgian black triangles and the Mexico City sightings (there’s your modern camera technology at work!). What’s there been since then? Unidentified’s first episode devoted a chunk of time to the “tic tac” UFO sighted by two U.S. Navy fighter pilots (sound familiar?) off the coast of San Diego, California—back in 2004, some fifteen years ago. “It’s a new case, I guess,” Shaeffer says dryly.
“For a long time, there weren’t any new, compelling cases,” says Curt Collins, who specializes in uncovering new data from the early days of UFOlogy. “There used to be more frequent sightings that could be considered good,” with multiple eyewitnesses, Collins says, but now many photographs just look like lens flares or points of light—“some really low-grade stuff.” Sometimes the UFOs (like ghostly “orbs”) aren’t even noticed in pictures until after the fact, so there aren’t any eyewitness at all.
Despite his affinity for the classics, Collins has no illusion that any kind of definitive answers will come from them, at this point. “I think [a case] would have to be new to be compelling,” he says. “I’m not satisfied with some of the things we’ve seen recently.”
If you believe media reports from the past few years, it’s not just the good sightings that are evaporating, but any at all. By 2018, reports made to the Mutual UFO Network and the National UFO Reporting Center had dropped by 55 percent in four years (The Guardian 2018), a story that was picked up and spread globally. Locally, Rutkowski, a member of the UFOlogy Research group that maintains the Canadian UFO Survey, sees the opposite trend.
“The number of UFO sightings has been generally increasing,” Rutkowski says, and it has been in Canada for about fifteen years (though there has been a downturn in 2019). That said, he has observed some of the same trends Collins has. There don’t seem to be any more physical traces left behind. Triangles and the classic “flying saucers” have been replaced by spheres and point sources; after all, with more drones and satellites, “there are more tiny dots moving in the sky.”
And yes, “something like a quarter to a third of all UFO reports now come with photos or videos”—but today’s cameras aren’t designed to capture those kinds of images, so they end up not being very useful. Still though, as technology advances, as it surely will, won’t there come a “make it break it” moment for the reality of the UFO phenomenon? Rutkowski doesn’t think so, partly for the same, scary reason we see everywhere else now: the death of expertise.
“’What I believe is as valid as what you believe,’” Rutkowski summarizes the “meta-modernism” philosophy. “That seems to be the state of the world, and ufology is right in it.” While it might be new to the normals, that’s something that definitely hasn’t changed in UFO research. The late Friedman had a saying he applied to skeptics but could as easily be applied to all sides: “Don’t bother me with the facts; my mind’s already made up.”
- The Guardian. 2018. “What is behind the decline in UFO sightings?” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/sep/21/what-is-behind-the-decline-in-ufo-sightings.
- The New York Times. 1994. “Wreckage in the Desert was Odd but not Alien.” https://www.nytimes.com/1994/09/18/us/wreckage-in-the-desert-was-odd-but-not-alien.html.
- Shaeffer, Robert. 2007. A Model UFO Debunking. Skeptical Inquirer Volume 31, No. 5 (September/October)
- Vice. 2018. “Tom DeLonge’s UFO Organization Has a $37.4 Million Deficit.” https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/evw7ne/tom-delonges-ufo-organization-is-37-million-in-debt.