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This time, they always say, it could be different.

· 10 min read
Photo by Albert Antony on Unsplash

Earlier this week, a hitherto-obscure webzine called the Debrief—which describes itself as “a public venue for credible reporting on science, tech, and defense news”—published startling claims by “a former intelligence official and whistleblower” named David Charles Grusch. The US government and its allies, Grusch announced, have in their possession “intact and partially intact craft of non-human origin,” along with the dead alien pilots, and have been secretly studying them for years. This was my unconvinced response:

The Debrief article is by two well-known UFO authors named Leslie Kean and Ralph Blumenthal. “Grusch,” they report, “said the recoveries of partial fragments through and up to intact vehicles have been made for decades through the present day by the government, its allies, and defense contractors.” Quoting Grusch, the authors describe the objects as “of exotic origin (non-human intelligence, whether extraterrestrial or unknown origin) based on the vehicle morphologies and material science testing and the possession of unique atomic arrangements and radiological signatures.” Grusch has handed a pile of allegedly “extensive classified information about deeply covert programs” to Congress and the Intelligence Community Inspector General. “We are not talking about prosaic origins or identities,” he is reported to have assured them.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, but the lengthy Debrief article contains no photographs, illustrations, reports, or documents of any kind in support of Grusch’s allegations. Further, the authors acknowledge that Grusch has not personally seen any alien craft, does not know where they may be stored, and has declined to provide any details about the retaliation he claims to have experienced from government officials. He speaks of “vehicle morphologies and material science testing and the possession of unique atomic arrangements and radiological signatures,” which sounds ominous. But how does he know any of this? Are there any chemical analyses or scientific tests on said materials? There are not.

In an exclusive follow-up interview with Grusch for NewsNation, reporter Ross Coulthart admits: “We’ve not seen the alleged proof he’s provided to investigators and he says he can’t show us the proof for national-security reasons. He also tells us he’s not seen photos of the alleged craft himself.” Why, then, should anyone believe Grusch or his tales? They shouldn’t. But when people—journalists included—are confronted with such stories about UFOs backed by zero evidence, credible or otherwise, they seem to be willing to discard all rationality.

Why is that? I asked NewsNation reporter Elizabeth Vargas, a former journalist at ABC News, after she covered the story in a featured segment. Here is my tweet and her response:

Kudos to Vargas for her measured response (a rarity on social media). Perhaps she’s right that this story is newsworthy. But if it is, why have so few mainstream outlets reported on it with the kind of excitement it would appear to demand? Could it be the lack of evidence or proof or documentation of any kind? Could it be that they have a long institutional history of being burned by stories like this one, which produce a lot of feverish chatter but absolutely nothing of substance?

The authors of the Debrief article, Kean and Blumenthal, are often described as “journalists,” which suggests that they are disinterested reporters presenting their findings in an objective fashion. In fact, Leslie Kean is a UFOlogist who believes aliens have visited—or are visiting—Earth. Her bestselling book is titled UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record. Ralph Blumenthal wrote a sympathetic biography of the late Harvard psychiatrist John Mack, who uncritically accepted alien-abduction stories as authentic accounts of actual contact with ETIs (Extraterrestrial Intelligence).

Given that the two authors had previously published a story about UAPs (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, with “Anomalous” now replacing “Aerial”) in the New York Times in 2017, one wonders why they opted for the Debrief instead of a legacy publication like the New York Times or the Washington Post. Blumenthal hinted at the answer when he tweeted that, “the Washington Post did not pass on our story. Leslie and I took it to the Debrief because we were under growing pressure to publish it very quickly. The Post needed more time and we couldn’t wait.”

Under growing pressure from whom or from what? We are not told. As for why the Washington Post needed more time, one might reasonably infer that its editors wanted to undertake some basic journalistic fact-checking. And when they discovered that there are no photographs of said spacecraft, no scientific analyses of its alleged composite materials, no memos, letters, or documents of any kind detailing the craft debris or the remains of the dead pilots, they may have reasonably decided not to provide Grusch with a respected platform that his unsupported claims don’t deserve.

What do you do when you believe a story for which there is no evidence? You bolster the credentials and credibility of the witnesses (the subtitle of Kean’s UFO book invokes the authority of “Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials”). Kean and Blumenthal start by laying out Grusch’s bona fides:

The whistleblower, David Charles Grusch, 36, a decorated former combat officer in Afghanistan, is a veteran of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). He served as the reconnaissance office’s representative to the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force from 2019-2021. From late 2021 to July 2022, he was the NGA’s co-lead for UAP analysis and its representative to the task force.

To this, the authors add that Grusch “has numerous awards and decorations for his participation in covert and clandestine operations to advance American security.” They even quote a retired Army Colonel and aerospace executive named Karl E. Nell, who worked with the UAP Task Force from 2021–22 and describes Grusch as “beyond reproach.” Additional sources sound like they are writing letters of recommendation: “adept staff officer and strategist” and “total force integrator with innovative solutions and actionable results.”

If a whistleblower or witness has actual evidence that we can all see and examine, such credentialing is unnecessary. When I am asked, “What would it take to convince you?,” I point to photographs like this one of the Chinese Spy Balloon floating across the United States in April 2023:

Does anyone care about the credentials or reliability of the pilot who took the picture? Of course not. Everyone can see that it’s a balloon. We all saw the video of the US military jet shooting it down and the US Navy ship collecting the debris. The President of the United States, the Department of Defense, and the Pentagon all confirmed that it was real, and the story was credibly reported by all major media sources. That is what it will take to convince scientists and skeptics (and everyone else) that UFOs/UAPs are real.

For three-quarters of a century—ever since the Roswell incident in 1947—UFOlogists have been demanding disclosure by the US government of what it knows about aliens. While the government has not always been forthcoming, it has periodically released information about the subject, most notably when the United States Air Force published The Roswell Report: Fact vs. Fiction in the New Mexico Desert in 1994, and then The Roswell Report: Case Closed the following year.

We covered these reports in Skeptic, along with our own in-depth analysis of the Roswell incident. Needless to say, none of this satisfied UFOlogists at all. “They’re lying” is the common rejoinder. It is true that, for national-security reasons, the government initially lied about the Roswell incident being a “weather balloon” (it was, in fact, a high-altitude spy balloon listening for the acoustic signature of upper atmosphere nuclear tests by the Soviet Union). But the fact that the government sometimes lies does not mean that it always lies, nor that your preferred conspiracy theory is therefore presumptively true. Each case must be examined separately and on its own merits.

In response to the Debrief story, the Pentagon released this statement:

(AARO is the All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office, a DoD program established in 2022 to replace and expand the scope of the AOIMSG, or Airborne Object Identification and Management Group, led by the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security, Ronald Moultrie.)

This disclosure by the Pentagon predictably failed to impress UFOlogists. The only government statement on this matter that they seem to be willing to accept is a shamefaced admission that it has been hiding alien spacecraft from the public and that it is in contact with extraterrestrial intelligences. What would satisfy UFOlogists otherwise? Nothing.

Additional confusion may be found in this sentence in the Debrief article:

In his statements cleared for publication by the Pentagon in April, Grusch asserted that UFO “legacy programs” have long been concealed within “multiple agencies nesting UAP activities in conventional secret access programs without appropriate reporting to various oversight authorities.”

The revelation that UFO legacy programs are concealed from oversight was “cleared for publication by the Pentagon”? NewsNation reported that the Department of Defense even approved the interview questions for Grusch, albeit sans evidence in the form of photographs, pictures, exhibits, captions “or other supplemental material,” with the additional caveat that, “Our concurrence for release does not imply DoD endorsement or factual accuracy of the material.”

O-kay. So then who is lying? David Grusch or the Pentagon? If the DoD gave Grusch permission to run his mouth in the press and knew what he was going to say, then who exactly is threatening him with retaliation for being a “whistleblower”? We are not told. And what are we to make of this factoid, presented by John Greenewald, Jr. in a Black Vault video analysis titled, “Exploring the ‘UFO Whistleblower’ Story”? Over a year ago, David Grusch apparently approached UFOlogists George Knapp and Jeremy Corbell about going public with the story when they were in a hotel room at a Star Trek convention reciting the opening scene to The Wrath of Khan:

How much weirder can this story get? Time will tell, but my guess is that we are doomed to repeat past experience. When you have deep institutional memory of a subject like this, it is hard not to be cynical, even when unbiased skepticism is called for. There is, after all, nothing new about this story, save the name and date changes. I’ve been hearing stories like this one since we started publishing Skeptic magazine in 1992.

In 1995, the same year that the government issued the second of its Roswell reports, the so-called “alien autopsy film” became a massive media event. This was a 17-minute black-and-white film allegedly depicting the secret examination by the US military of an alien cadaver, supposedly recovered from the flying saucer that crashed at Roswell in 1947. The film was “leaked” by a British businessman named Ray Santilli, who claimed the footage was given to him by a retired military cameraman who insisted (of course) on anonymity. A decade later, Santilli confessed that the footage was faked using chicken entrails, knuckle joints, and sheep brains obtained from a local butcher. Implausibly, he continued to insist that he had seen the original film in 1992 but that it was degraded beyond use, so he had to “reconstruct” it.

In 1997, the Phoenix Lights generated another media circus. Arizona Governor Fife Symington even held a press conference with an aide dressed in an alien suit. He privately believed that what we now know were military illumination flares were actually alien spaceships buzzing around the local military base. Then there was the Bonsall UFO sighting in 2000, the Mexican UFO incident in 2004, the USS Nimitz UAP incident in 2004, the O’Hare International Airport UFO event in 2006, the USS Theodore Roosevelt multiple UFO sightings in 2014 and 2015, and the much-discussed “Go Fast,” “Gimbal,” and “Tic Tac” videos that pushed UFOs (as UAPs) into public consciousness like nothing since Roswell (still the mother of all alien stories).

I could list many more such examples, and I have written in these pages about how to think rationally about UFOs and UAPs. But not one of these incidents has led to confirmation of alien visitation or ETI contact (much less Chinese or Russian aerial technology decades or centuries ahead of our own). We have no more evidence of contact now than we did in 1947. Believers are convinced that there must be some fire beneath all this smoke, given the plethora of accounts about UFOs and UAPs. But that’s simply a product of availability bias (we most easily recall what is fresh in our memories) and poor recollection (of all the previous stories that failed to generate any credible evidence).

This time, they always say, it could be different. This could be the one, the whistleblower who uncovers the greatest discovery in human history. In Bayesian reasoning, there is something called Cromwell’s Rule, named after Oliver Cromwell, who famously said, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.” His rule insists that we never assign a 0 or 1 probability to anything, just in case we’re wrong.

Alrighty then, I’ll give this latest UFO story a probability of 0.01, or a one percent chance of being true. I’m even willing to put my money where my mouth is—I have said that I will give $1,000 to anyone who can produce “unmistakable, irrefutable, undeniable evidence” of alien contact by December 31st, 2024, so long as they match the bet. It’s a type of prediction market challenge, or betting market gamble, that having skin in the game forces people to think more carefully about their beliefs and predictions (they are commonly used in sports and political campaign predictions). I have challenged all the public UFO believers to take me up on this offer, but so far I’ve had no takers. Do they not really believe disclosure of contact is imminent?

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