Why the new British MoD UFO files don't mean "Disclosure" is imminent

Well, it happened again.

The British Ministry of Defence (MoD) has once more released a whack of files related to UFOs, and many people are combing through them for tidbits that could reveal the "truth" about government UFO interest.

For the next month, the files are available at:  http://ufos.nationalarchives.gov.uk/

Good luck; the server is generally very busy, and the files are in batches up to almost 200 Mb in size.

Now, I haven't gone through each and every page just yet, but I can tell you what I've found by looking through about a quarter of it, and what I suspect is in the rest of it. Nothing too interesting.

I found one entire chunk of files that consisted only of correspondence between one person who requested a search for specific UFO case files and government bureaucrats who responded to his numerous letters. There are many, many British government interdepartmental memos about the requests. The ombudsman's defence of the government's nit-picking as to why it couldn't possibly provide such information is especially amusing.

Another large chunk consists of official United Nations documents and Foreign Secretary documents that were created when Eric Gairy of Grenada wanted the UN to form a UFO investigation committee. That was just before he was overthrown from power by American military forces. (A special bonus was noting Stan Friedman's testimony before the subcommittee in support of the motion.)

Many pages of the files are reminders to department personnel that public correspondence should be answered promptly so as to not give the illusion the ministry is trying to avoid questions about anything (but in this case, UFOs).

There's a large amount of correspondence regarding the Rendelsham case, and discussions as to what happened to certain documents that seemed to me missing from the files. And remember when Lord Hill-Norton raised the issue of UFOs in the British Parliament? The docs are all here.

There are many letters to the British government by concerned citizens of the Commonwealth. In one example, the writer noted:

As a Spiritualist, O know space-ships are used by Spiritual Beings to travel around the globe & to planets... Others are stabilising the electro-magnetic fields, the vortexes, the balances of the Universe, because mankind are abusing space & earth itself... There is too much junk produced by humans, space-ships are not junk so do not shoot at them with any weapon.

Oh, sure, there are many pages of sighting reports by British citizens, too. Most are of low quality or are good quality but are obviously stars, planets or ordinary aircraft. Most witnesses were sincere, although some news outlets have found some obvious hoaxes in the files. But the majority of witnesses were adamant they had actually seen something mysterious.

One MoD staffer filling out the standard UFO reporting form while listening to a witness who had called noted the witness kept "repeating the words 'I'm not mad. I actually saw something!'"

If you're patient enough in going through all the cases, you'll find a few gems. There are dozens of UFO reports by pilots, mostly without accompanying investigation reports. Some interesting cases are those called "Credible Witness Reports," such as one on January 24, 2002, reported by a Flying Officer. One can ask, "Are all the rest of the cases 'In-Credible Witness Reports'?"

There's also the interesting case noted here on TDG, about the British pilot who saw a UFO over the North Sea in 1990, but the documentation and report about the case was destroyed.

Another thing worth noting is that the observed objects were not always "UFOs." Many documents are forms for reporting "Unidentified Aerial Sightings." Should future document searches be looking for UASs rather than UFOs, especially since Access to Information requests through official channels must be very specific?

So, are these newly-released official documents an indication that "Disclosure" is imminent?

No.

First of all, Britain has been releasing docs like this for several years. They made it clear when they started that the reason they were doing so was because there receive so many requests for UFO documents that it made more sense to scan them and put them up online rather than responding to each and every request from the public. The Canadian government did the same thing. "Official" UFO docs are widely available from a number of countries.

Second, the ratio of "interesting" to "trivial" documents is very small. Interdepartmental correspondence is generally of little information, and frankly, I don't understand how Grant Cameron can stand wading through it.

Third, of the actual UFO reports in the files, most are either easily explainable or of such low quality that they're practically useless.

Fourth, there is no indication whatsoever that a parallel set of American releases is coming. I know many UFO doc fans would love to see even the trivial official memos within US government bureaus and departments, but there's no reason to think that yet another release by the Brits will spur the Americans into doing anything similar.

The new batch of documents released by the British MoD are a curious collection of UFO-related materials, but is not: 1) Proof that aliens are visiting Earth; 2) An indication that Disclosure (with a capital D) is coming soon; or 3) Proof that world governments are part of a massive cover-up of an alien presence.

But here's an interesting caveat, something often repeated in MoD correspondence:

 

 

... it may be helpful if I explain that the Ministry of Defence examines any reports of 'unidentified flying objects' it receives soley to establish whether what was seen might have some defence significance; namely, whether there is any evidence that the United Kingdom's airspace might have been compromised by hostile or unauthorised air activity. Unless there is evidence of a potential threat, and to date no 'UFO' report has revealed such evidence,MOD does not attempt to identify the precise nature of each reported sighting. We believe it is possible that rational explanations, such as aircraft light or natural phenomena, could be found for them, but it is not the function of the MOD to provide this kind of aerial identification service. We could not justify expenditure of public funds on investigations which go beyond our specific defence remit.

 

... We are satisfied that there is no corroborating evidence to suggest that the United Kingdom's airspace was breached by unauthorised air activity.

 

 

So, UFOs may be observed, but unless they are "hostile or unauthorized" the MoD isn't going to do anything about them. What does that mean, exactly, and more importantly to conspiracy buffs, what doesn't it exclude? Some could ask: Was the UFO an authorised intrusion on airspace? And if not a "potential threat," is it possible it was a "friendly" vehicle of some kind? And if not the function of MoD to identify UFOs, what department is tasked with that job?

Classifying and Studying UFO Cases

It takes time to enter UFO report data into a database. With more than 950 reports filed in Canada in 2010, I fell behind in the data entry. So it'll be a while before we have the 2010 Canadian UFO Survey ready. However, I thought that I could at least read through the 950+ Canadian UFO reports for 2010 and pick out some that seem more interesting than most.

It semed like a simple task. I sat down with the eight-inch-thick pile of UFO reports and began reading them, one by one. It was a lot easier 15 or 20 years ago, when there were only about 150 or 200 reports filed each year. Back then, I and my colleagues could sit around a table and over the course of an entire day read each of the cases, evaluate them and with consensus decide which ones were the true unknowns and worth pursuing in greater detail.

It's a bit harder now that colleagues are half a world away and there are many times the number filed each year. But as I sat reading the pile of UFO reports, I realized it was still possible to make some generalizations about the bulk of the cases. This goes back to the original question we asked when starting to evaluate reports. What does a UFO report look like, and what are people actually reporting?

Most cases appear to fall into several categories, apart from the usual Hynek classification scheme. Many reports are cases in which witnesses see fireballs or bolides that are greenish in colour and seem to fall to Earth within 5 seconds or so. Many other cases involve witnesses seeing starlike lights that hang in the sky for several hours, flashing different colours. Those are likely stars or planets.

More and more, people are uploading videos of UFOs to Youtube. Most of them show starlike objects that, again, are likely stars or planets. This is exacerbated by people who don't use tripods to steady the images, or use camcorders that autozoom to infinity and turn a perfectly decent starlike point into a mottled disc that is often called an "orb" or a "lightship" or "mothership."

Many people send in or post photos with comments like:"I didn't see anything at the time, but when I uploaded it to my computer, there was this odd object..." Daytime photos like this are usually blurred birds or bugs (translated as "rods") while nighttime photos of tiny dots in a black sky could be literally anything.

Another category is that of moving points of light in the night sky that sometimes appear in clusters. While the ones that move in twos or threes in the same direction are possibly satellites, there are many cases where clusters of 5, 6 or 10 or more move together, or in disparate directions. Birds can be explanations for some of these, especially daytime observations where white dots seem to "play tag" with one another in the sky. But there are some cases for which that explanation does not seem to be viable. What these might be is not clear.

An interesting set of cases involve daytime or nighttime observations of "slow-moving rockets" in the sky. There are several photos and videos taken of these every year, and TV news often features them in "Weird News" segments. Most are probably not rockets at all, but contrails of high-altitude aircraft caught by the setting Sun. This is borne out by the fact they often appear at dusk.

Beyond all those, there are cases in which witnesses report seeing structured craft that do not appear to be conventional aircraft. There are cases of multiple witnesses reporting unusual objects, including cases where witnesses are pilots or others familiar with aircraft.

The biggest problem with ufology today (if I had to pick just one) is that most UFO reports are never properly investigated. Sure, there are hundreds of new cases listed each month on various UFO websites, but in most instances, that's about as far as it goes. This is not a fault of the webmasters; it is a problem with investigation.

Back in the "good old days" of ufology, UFO groups garnered members by the bucketload every year. These members received newsletters (by snailmail), attended meetings, studied UFO investigation manuals and took tests to become "qualified investigators." If a UFO sighting was reported to a UFO group, they would immediately notify a nearby member/investigator and the witness was soon interviewed and details sent to other members of the group. APRO, MUFON and CUFOS were particularly good at this. In the 1970s and 1980s it was not unusual to visit a police station or sherriff's office and see a CUFOS sticker or MUFON logo on the blotter or switchboard.

But who investigates UFO reports in person anymore? Except for some major case clusters or events like Stephenville or O'Hare, most UFO reports are noted on websites and that's that. MUFON, the group still training new investigators, has far fewer of them around.

Because, let's face it: UFO case investigation takes time and labour and is much less glamourous than Mulder and Scully made it look. Several times during the past three decades, I have agreed to let some well-intentioned UFO buffs who had been pestering me to help me in some way become "interns" to go and investigate reports that came in. Their first missions were well-written-up and detailed, even though they may only have been simple nocturnal lights. Their second and third investigations were pretty good, too. By about the fifth or sixth, they were getting tired of chasing stars and planets and fireballs and aircraft. None lasted beyond about the seventh UFO reported.

So most UFO reports that we hear about on websites or on blogs or on TV newscasts are never properly investigated. A few emails and phone calls may be exchanged with a witness at best, but rarely is a case attended in person by an investigator. One reason is because the number of cases reported each year has risen to the point where it is impossible for a single person to adequately investigate cases. It is especially true when UFO witnesses are very long distances away from the webmasters, who in some cases are one-man operations. Peter Davenport admits he is overwhelmed by the sheer number of cases reported to him, but he does accept help from time to time.

Nevertheless, most UFO sightings are reported by witnesses online and appear as narratives that in most instances lack adequate details to assess them. In Canada, where the 950+ cases in 2010 mean UFO report numbers continue to increase, it does not mean that the quality of the reports are increasing as well. In fact, as the number of reports increases, the overall quality of the cases decreases because fewer are being properly investigated. Technology and social media have stripped ufologists of the ability to effectively investigate UFO reports.

If there is some good news, it is that because the majority of UFO sightings seem to have simple explanations or possible explanations based upon key characteristics noted in the narratives, the number of "good" cases may float to the top of the milk and can be skimmed off. It still means that most cases are never investigated, but it may mean that the really interesting cases can get attention.

Of course, the other thing that may happen is that a truly good case may not be recognized as such because what little information as was posted was not enough to indicate its actual importance.

 

Review of Leslie Kean's new book: UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go On the Record

A Kean Eye for UFOs

Book review:
UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go On the Record
Harmony Books: NY. 2010. 335 pages.

The new book by Leslie Kean about UFOs is a problem. It’s quite unlike most other books about UFOs that have been published in recent memory, and it’s very good. It’s a problem because either every contributor to her edited collection of official testimonies and UFO case histories is a liar or completely misguided, or else she’s on to something important. Something about which scientists and the general public should pay attention.

UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go On the Record is a collection of essays, some penned by Kean herself, about officially-documented and investigated UFO cases that were considered unexplained by government and military investigators. Leslie Kean - UFOsAnd just as the longish title infers, testimony by well-placed individuals who are and were in positions to know the facts and details about significant UFO incidents show that there is something truly perplexing going on in the skies overhead.

This isn’t a book about UFO crashes or Roswell (although it’s mentioned in passing on a few pages) nor is it about abductions by aliens and implants surgically removed from toes and noses. Nor is it about messages imparted by aliens to selected individuals or psychic vectoring of lights by self-declared Terran emissaries.

Kean’s book is about the facts concerning some significant UFO cases for which there is much official documentation. She details what really happened in specific and noteworthy UFO cases that in some instances made worldwide headlines and others were never made public. She cites official documents (not disputed documents) and interviews the military or government officials involved.

Kean’s capability as an investigative journalist is clearly evident throughout the book, and she has no interest in arm-waving exercises to dismiss witnesses’ observations simply on the basis that flying saucers cannot be real. At the same time, she effectively and deliberately distances herself from “undiscriminating UFO groups” and “extremists” who “market themselves as scholars or activists” and who “compound the public relations nightmare that UFOs already face within public discourse.”

In short, Kean’s work is one of the most important works in ufology published in decades. Her background in journalism and her passionate search for the truth has allowed her to seek out respected and staid individuals to tell the story behind what seems to be a most remarkable suppression of events and information.

She starts by introducing Major General Wilfrid de Brouwer, who was in charge of the military investigation of the Belgian UFO wave of 1989 and 1990. He effectively shoots down debunkers’ suggestions that the wave was caused by mass hysteria, helicopters or secret military maneuvers. Then, Captain Julio Miguel Guerra of the Portuguese Air Force describes a UFO which flew circles around his plane in 1982. A team of scientists and military investigators could not explain his experience. Later, Captain Roy Bowyer gives testament to the cigar-shaped UFOs which flew past his commercial aircraft over the English Channel in 2007, and the associated puzzling radar returns.

And so on. Retired military personnel and advisors come forward with statements and new testimony that UFO reports have been filed and investigated by various world governments, long after Project Blue Book declared UFO research as without any merit. Brazil, Britain, Chile, France and other countries have all been relatively transparent when it comes to release of UFO files, and yet, as Kean notes, the United States seems not to have any interest in the matter. Why?

Kean and her contributors all argue that the prevailing attitude of debunking UFO reports, accelerated during the Condon fiasco, should come to an end. They dare scientists who believe the “party line” that there are no credible and well-investigated unexplained UFO cases to wake up and take a real look at the collection of factual reports described in detail in Kean’s book.

If UFOs have no bearing on national security, Kean reasons, then why are military jets scrambled to chase seemingly solid radar returns? If there is no danger to aviation, why are pilots confounded by UFOs on routine flights across the country? Why does the FAA refer pilots to Peter Davenport’s UFO Center? Why wouldn’t the FAA prefer to thoroughly investigate their own pilots’ sightings? In one chapter, new evidence provided by the head of accident investigation within the FAA even suggests that the oft-noted 1986 JAL incident over Alaska was not as easily dismissed as some writers insist. And that “punch-hole cloud formation” over O’Hare? Kean wonders why the FAA didn’t investigate the incident in the name of transportation safety, and why won’t a single witness go on record about it?

Beyond documentation of official military and government UFO case investigation, Kean seeks the root cause of cynicism and debunking of UFOs among journalists and academia. Detailed statements by the French COMETA investigators, for example, all scientists in their own right, are diametrically opposite to those made by debunkers. Official conclusions by military and government investigators in several countries collectively call for more serious and objective studies of UFO reports, especially in the light of a lack of explanations for some peculiar cases.

The simple way to debunk Kean’s work is to challenge each and every contributor’s official statements, insisting they are all in error or liars. But this in itself raises an important problem, too. Why would so many well-placed and qualified individuals, most with outstanding service records, make such statements? Not fame, surely. Not for monetary gain. Then why?

Kean carefully crafts her work in a logical and compelling manner, without wide-eyed believers’ fanaticism but with a rational approach that challenges the reader and leads toward her thesis that it’s time for a paradigm shift: a new Kuhnian “scientific revolution.” She restates and improves upon the skeptics’ rallying cry that “extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence” by making a sensible, subtle adjustment: “An extraordinary phenomenon demands an extraordinary investigation.”

Kean argues that, like many other countries around the globe, the United States should create a small official department to investigate UFO sightings in a timely manner and inform the public of details regarding their actions. This would not be simply a “public relations exercise” as Blue Book and been, but a way to reassure a frustrated public that its elected officials and taxpayer-funded military are actually doing their job at protecting American interests.

Kean presents the facts of many remarkable UFO cases, summarized in most instances by the witnesses themselves. Whereas some simply express their bewilderment at what they saw and the way in which official investigation transpired, because they are in positions to know the capabilities and limitations of terrestrial aircraft, they cannot contain themselves from concluding that they could have encountered an alien craft. It’s duly noted throughout the book that only a small fraction of UFO reports are unexplained, and a smaller fraction are thoroughly investigated and studied.

The fact that a real phenomenon is manifesting in terrestrial skies is the main premise of each section of the book. Based on Kean’s presentation, it is a logical and reasonable conclusion. And that’s a problem, because UFOs aren’t real, right?

Britain following Canada’s lead in releasing UFO files

Although many media outlets picked up on the story about Britain's MoD releasing yet more UFO docs, a few points need to be made in order to put it in perspective.

As reported by various news agencies, the British government has released another batch of files regarding UFOs, Held by the Ministry of Defence, the 5,000 pages in 18 separate files include correspondence from British citizens inquiring about UFOs and also reporting sightings to the MoD “UFO Desk.” The files cover the years between 1995 and 2003.

In Canada, similar files have been available for some time, and are accessible through the National Archives in Ottawa. Analyses of the Canadian UFO reports have been conducted since 1989 by the unaffiliated group Ufology Research, based in Winnipeg. Its annual studies of the numbers and distribution of UFO reports in Canada are available at: http://survey.canadianuforeport.com

A 20-year longitudinal study of Canadian UFO reports covering the years 1989 to 2008 used data on more than 8,500 UFO cases, including many sightings reported to government and military agencies such as National Defence, Transport Canada, NavCan and the RCMP.
The study can be accessed at: http://bit.ly/dk2pN9

British media are noting that in the case of England, “Reports of sightings of UFOs peaked in 1996 in the UK - when science fiction drama The X Files was popular.”

It should be noted that this was not the case in North America, where The X-Files TV show was produced and where it likely had the most influence. In both Canada and the United States, data shows that the number of UFO reports steadily increased during 1995 and 2003, dissimilar to the MoD results.

UFO sightings continue to be reported throughout the world in significant numbers. In Canada, the peak year was 2008, when more than 1,000 sightings were reported, and 2010 may reach a similar mark.

It should be noted that the large numbers of sightings do not prove alien visitation or mass hysteria. Most sightings can be explained or have insufficient information for conclusions but an approximately residual 5 per cent of unexplained cases each year suggests there is a real phenomenon worth studying in a scientific manner.

Finally, in response to a query from a reporter, I took a quick count of Canadian UFO reports received in July 2010 versus July 2009. Last year, the month of July saw 79 reports on file, but this year, July 2010 has more than 135 cases reported so far, and we're still getting them coming in. Almost a doubling of UFO case numbers in 2010? Hmmm.

Why Don't More Astronomers Report Seeing UFOs?

Yes, yes; the old skeptibunker question.

But maybe there's a simple answer.

The argument as presented by skeptics goes something like this: If UFOs were "real," the most would be seen and reported by those people who spend the most time watching the sky. Originally, the group of people that were considered most likely were astronomers, but it was quickly pointed out that most professional astronomers are too specialized and involved in academia to do much observing.

But amateur astronomers, on the other hand, do spend a lot of time observing the sky. They're the ones who really know what's up there.

A case in point: Ian Shelton made Time Magazine for discovering Supernova 1987a, the brightest of its kind. I went to school with him, and had the opportunity to talk with him about his discovery. Amateur astronomy telescope When we were in undergraduate astronomy in university, we were in a hallway and saw a poster advertizing a job for a graduate student in Chile, maintaining the University of Toronto's observatory literally on top of an isolated mountain. Already a family man by that point, there was no way I could have considered it, but Ian looked wistful and said, "That sounds neat." He applied and got the job.

Several months later, he was walking between domes on the Chilean mountaintop when he happened to glance upward. Now, you have to understand that Ian was (and is) a very good astronomer. He spent a lot of time observing the sky. He was the best at star-hopping and finding Messier objects and galaxies by eye, and could pick out comets like nobody's business. He looked up into the Chilean sky and knew that one particular star, out of the thousands visible, was out of place.

Ian had discovered a supernova. But he was an amateur astronomer, since he did not have a PhD yet.

It's amateur astronomers who spend time with their eyes glued to eyepieces at 40 below (like I did in my undergraduate years) mapping the Moon's surface. Looking for comets. Timing occultations. These days, a lot of the chore is done by computers and digital imaging devices, but it's usually amateurs who monitor the equipment.

A friend of mine, Dave, is a brilliant amateur astrophotographer. (The qualifier "amateur" hardly seems appropriate.) His photos of the Owl Nebula, the Horsehead and Jupiter's bands are poster-quality. I asked him about his process, and he said that he sets up his equipment in his dark site in Texas before dusk. He waits for darkness, punches the coordinates of the star or galaxy he wants to photograph into the telescope's computer, and makes sure it's centered and focused... and then goes into his warmup shelter and has a beer. Or three. The methodology guarantees success.

But I digress...

It's true; amateur astronomers watch the sky more than most people. Of course, there's fewer of them than there are other people who might casually or accidentally watch the skies, so that's why most UFO reports come from anyone other than amateur astronomers. The other reason is because, as skeptics point out, amateur astronomers can identify most UFOs they see. That is, if the see an object they can't immediately identify, it only takes a minute or two to determine it is a satellite or fireball, of something else. It is true, however, that even experienced amateur astronomers file UFO reports about unusual objects they have seen whilst doing their observing.

But skeptics insist that most "real" UFOs would be reported by amateur astronomers. The reasoning is that if there were any real alien spacecraft approaching Earth, then they would be observed by amateurs' Earthbound telescopes. Also, since amateurs are often blogging or emailing each other about their observations, the news of an anomalous object heading for Earth could not be kept secret. That's how comets are discovered; similarly, asteroids and wayward satellites.

No such discovery has been bouncing around the astronomy ListServs, therefore, there are no alien starships coming to Earth.

UFO buffs, however, note some flaws in the reasoning. First, if we assume aliens are advanced enough to have conquered interstellar space travel, their technology may be more advanced than we can understand. In fact, why couldn't they be here or have come and gone already without our detection? It's kind of Stephen Hawking's suggestion that if aliens are technologically advanced, then they may be very technologically advanced; not just a few hundred years, but tens of thousands, or a million? If our own civilization lasted a million years, can we even conceive of what it would be like?

Secondly, amateur astronomers may be good observers of astronomical objects, but would they be able to identify objects within their own frame of reference? If a UFO flew over their observing site, would astronomers notice it, and if so, report it?

Some note that the tenet that "UFOs are nonsense" among the scientific community is very strong in astronomy circles. Amateurs might be very hesitant to report their observations, thus the percentage of UFO reports among this demographic might be artificially lower than the general population, which has less of a social stigma in this regard.

But another possible explanation was recently noted by my wife, whose insights are always significant. In her research on an unrelated subject, she came across a reference to a famous psychology experiment that may be relevant to this issue.

The experiment was performed and results published by Daniel Simons and Christipher Chabris in 1999. (Simons D J, Chabris C F, 1999, "Gorillas in our midst: sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events." Perception 28(9) 1059 – 1074.) They noted:

Our results suggest that the likelihood of noticing an unexpected object depends on the similarity of that object to other objects in the display and on how difficult the priming monitoring task is.

For the experiment, they filmed a scene of several people passing a basketball to one another, and showed the film to a group of participants in the experiment, asking them to note how many times the players in white shirts passed the ball. As much as 70% of the time, the viewers counted the passes correctly, but failed to see the guy in a gorilla suit walking through the scene.

View the clip at:

http://viscog.beckman.uiuc.edu/media/ig.html

The phenomenon of inattentional blindness occurs when people are focused on a specific task and ignore other things around them. This could be one reason why so many people can be out observing the sky and fail to see something out of the ordinary flying overhead. This would be most relevant for professional observers of the sky, like pilots, meteorologists and astronomers.

In other words, an astronomer observing the night sky, looking for comets or simply tracking a planet's progress for astrophotography, might not observe a UFO moving in the area. It's the focus of one's attention that prevents observation of things not of interest. And UFOs are definitely not of interest to astronomers.