The Failure Of UFO Skeptics -
Prosaic Explanations
By Bruce Maccabee

In over 30 years of UFO investigation I have not studied a single sighting for which I could not find a prosaic explanation. - paraphrase of a statement by Philip J. Klass
Could some UFOs actually be manifestations of Other Intelligences (OIs)or Non-Human Intelligences (NHIs) such as extraterrestrials (ETs), visiting the earth and interacting with human beings? Or all reports of such sightings simply mistakes, hoaxes or dreams of the hopeful believers? It all comes down to explanation. If there were no sightings which are richly detailed, credible and yet unexplainable the UFO subject would be based totally on theoretical expectations, as is the so-called Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). SETI is based on the theory that we could detect electromagnetic radiation such as radio waves or light, that is radiated toward us, intentionally or unintentionally, by extraterrestrial civilizations.
If all sightings had reasonable explanations, then theoretical speculations about ET intelligences visiting the earth might be interesting but of little practical consequence. Ufology, if there were such a thing in the absence of unexplainable sightings, would consist of studying witnesses who, evidently, failed to identify explainable (identifiable) phenomena or who simply made up "tall stories" about ET visition. "Ufological science", if it existed under these circumstances, would consist of psychology, psychiatry and perhaps sociology.
There are skeptics who believe that this is exactly the what ufology should consist of.
Noted UFO skeptic Philip J. Klass has provided perhaps the most straightforward statement of the skeptic's position on UFO sightings in his book "UFOS, THE PUBLIC DECEIVED" (Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY, 1983, pg. 297) wherein he writes that the "Occam's Razor" alternative to unexplained UFO sightings, is this: "...roughly 98% of sightings are simply misidentifications of prosaic, if sometimes unfamiliar, objects by honest persons..(and) ... the balance, roughly 2%, are self-delusions or hoaxes by persons who like to spin tall tales and become instant celebrities." In other words, UFO reports are the results of misidentifications, delusions and hoaxes, period! There is not one case for which there is no "prosaic explanation." As evidence of this Mr. Klass has offered prosaic explanations for a number of famous sightings. Of course, Mr. Klass has not attempted to explain each of the hundreds of thousands of sighting reports which have been made over the last half century. However, he has proposed explanations for a representative sample of reports which are classified as "good" by most ufologists and, on this basis, he has generalized his statement to apply to the bulk of the UFO sighting reports.
Mr. Klass' statement is that he has provided the "prosaic" explanations for all the reports he has studied. A reader of Mr. Klass' analysis would likely assume that each prosaic explanation is, in fact, the *actual* explanation for a particular sighting. At least, that is what the typically logical but uneducated (in the deep lore of ufology)and trusting reader would infer from Klass' statement. It is also what the generally skeptical scientific community and the newsmedia would infer from Klass' statement. Unfortunately, his statement is wrong.
Klass would have the reader believe that he has correctly explained all the sightings he has investigated. If he were correct then his argument about misidentifications, hoaxes and delusions making up 100% of UFO sightings would be unassailable, at least for the sightings which he has investigated. (One can always imagine that some sighting(s) not investigated by Klass is (are) unexplainable, but that's not the point of this discussion.) However, in some cases he has offered prosaic explanations which are demonstrably wrong. In other cases he has proposed explanations which may not be provably wrong but which are are, at the very least, unconvincing. (Note that in the absence of confirmatory information it may not be possible to decide whether an explanation is correct, but it is possible to decide whether or not an explanation is convincing.) Hence Klass' claim is literally correct: he has offered prosaic explanations for the sightings he has investigated. But the logical inference that these are the correct explanations is wrong: there are sightings which he has investigated but has not explained. From the scientific point of view it is not sufficient to propose explanations that are incorrect.
To say that at least some of Klass' prosaic explanations, even explanations for well publicized sightings, are wrong is a strong statement. However, an even stronger statement can be made: Klass' analysis has demonstrated that at least some of the cases he has investigated have *no prosaic explanations.* Why is this? Because Klass, having analyzed these cases carefully, has proposed the only potential explanations that remain after all other explanations have been rejected. That is, there are no other potential prosaic explanations that make any sense. Hence when his proposed explanations are proven wrong there are no remaining candidate explanations and the sighting becomes that of a TRue UFO (TRUFO), which might be evidence of OI/NHI/ET.
As an example of a case for which Klass' proposed prosaic explanation is wrong, or, at best, unconvincing, consider the sighting by police officer Val Johnson of Warren, Minnesota. Shortly after 1:30 AM, August 27, 1980, as he was cruising the countryside in his police car in an area of low population, he noticed a bright light that he could see through the trees of a small wooded area. Thinking it might be a landed airplane carrying illegal drugs from Canada he accelerated along a road toward the area of the light. Suddenly this light moved rapidly toward his car. He heard a noise of breaking glass and lost consciousness. When he regained consciousness he was leaning forward with his head against the top of the steering wheel. There was a red mark on his forehead which suggests that he might have bumped his head on the wheel hard enough to render him unconscious (he said he was not wearing his seatbelt at the time). After regaining consciousness he called the police station. It was 2:19 AM. He had been unconscious for about 40 minutes. He reported that something had "attacked" his car.
When another officer arrived on the scene a few minutes after Johnson's report he found Johnson's car nearly 90 degrees to the road (blocking the road) and skid marks nearly 100 ft long. Johnson was found in a distraught condition, in a state of shock. He said he recalled seeing the bright light rushing toward his police car and he recalled hearing breaking glass. The next thing he recalled was realizing he was sitting with his head on the steering wheel. He did not recall skidding to a stop. He complained about pain in his eyes and was taken to a doctor who could find no eye damage. He did not complain of a headache.
Of particular importance is physical evidence to the police car. One of the two glass headlight covers on the driver's side had been broken, there was a large crack in the windshield on the driver's side, a plastic cover on the light bar on top of the car had a hole in it, there was a dent in the top of the hood, and two of the three spring-mounted antennas were bent 60 or more degrees, with the bend occurring over a short distance (i.e., sharp bends). Examination of the antenna surfaces using a microscope showed that the insect matter ("bug tar") that coated the antennas was "stretched" at the bend, but there was no other disturbance of the insect matter. Evidently the antennas had not been scraped or rubbed when they were bent. Also, the electric clock in the car and Johnson's mechanical wristwatch both read 14 minutes slow, although Johnson was certain he had set both before he had begun his nightly patrol.
The damage to the car was physical evidence that something strange had taken place. Careful studies of the damage were made by the police department and by scientists working with the Center for UFO Studies. They could find no evidence or reason to believe that Johnson had damaged his own car. They could find no prosaic explanation for the sighting. Klass also investigated the sighting. He spoke to several people who knew Johnson and asked about his interest in UFOs. According to his friends he seemed no more interested in UFOs than in numerous other subjects. They could provide no reason to believe he would intentionally damage his car to create a UFO incident. He might "hide your coffee cup," one gentleman told Klass, but "as far as we know, he's never told any untruths."
Klass concluded his discussion of the Officer Johnson UFO sighting by offering two alternatives. He wrote:
"The hard physical evidence leaves only two possible explanations for this case. One is that Johnson's car was attacked by malicious UFOnauts, who reached out and hit one headlight with a hammerlike device, then hit the hood and windshield, then very gently bent the two radio antennas, being careful not to break them, then reached inside the patrol car to set back the hands of the watch on Johnson's arm and the clock on the car's dashboard. These UFOnauts would then have taken off Johnsons' glasses, aimed an intense ultraviolet light into his eyes, and replaced his glasses, while being careful not to shine ultraviolet on his face.
Or the incident is a hoax. There are simply no other possible explanations."
Klass' amusing version of the "UFO/ET hypothesis" should not detract from the importance of his statement that "There are simply no other possible explanations." In other words, if it was not a hoax then there is no prosaic explanation for this sighting. Perhaps Klass realized that the hoax hypothesis was unconvincing at best and intentionally tried to make the UFO alternative seem silly. (One envisions "little green men" or "grey entities" molesting the police car and Officer Johnson, perhaps laughing gleefully as they hammered his car!)
The police department did not accuse Officer Johnson of damaging the police car. Yet, Klass' book, published about 3 years after the incident, clearly implies that this event had to be a hoax since it was clearly not a misidentification or a delusion (recall that, according to Klass, roughly 98% are misidentifications and the remainder are hoaxes or delusions). Several years after the publication of the book I challenged Klass to send a letter to the police chief of Warren, Minnesota, along with a copy of his book chapter so that the police chief would realize that he should charge Johnson with damaging the car. So far as I know, Klass never did send such a letter and Officer Johnson has never been charged with damaging the police car.
Klass is not the first to offer prosaic explanations. Dr. J. Allen Hynek, who, in his later years, became a strong proponent of UFO investigation (founder of the Center for UFO Studies in 1973), began his "UFO career" in 1948 as a strong skeptic/debunker. His explanations of a number of UFO sightings helped to set the tone of governmental UFO investgation in the early years. One of his most unconvincing explanations was that offered for the sighting by Mr. A. C. Urie and his two sons on August 13, 1947. They lived in the Snake River Canyon at Twin Falls, Idaho. According to the FBI investigative report of this case, at about 1:00 P.M. Mr. Urie "sent his boys to the (Salmon) river to get some rope from his boat. When he thought they were overdue he went outside to his tool shed to look for them. He noticed them about 300 feet away looking in the sky and he glanced up to see what he called the flying disc."
This strange object was flying at high speed along the canyon which is about 400 feet deep and 1,200 feet across at that point. It was about 75 feet above the floor of the canyon (and so more than 300 ft below the edge of the canyon) and moving up and down as it flew. It seemed to be following the contours of the hilly ground beneath it. Urie estimated it was about 20 feet long and 10 feet wide and 10 feet high, with what appeared to be exhaust ports on the sides. It was almost hat shaped with a flat bottom and a dome on top. It's pale blue color made Urie think that it would be very difficult to see against the sky, although he had no trouble seeing it silhouetted against the opposite wall of the canyon. On each side there was a tubular shaped fiery glow like some sort of exhaust. He said that when it went over trees they didn't sway back and forth but rather the treetops twisted around, which suggests that the air under the object was being swirled into a vortex. He and his sons had an excellent view of the object for a few seconds before it disappeared over the trees about a mile away. He thought it was going 1,000 miles an hour.
Hynek offered the following "prosaic explanation" which became part of the official Air Force record on the sighting (see the files of Project Blue Book): an atmospheric eddy. Why this explanation? The object appeared pale bluish in color, like the sky, and the trees were moving around as if a swirling wind went over them. Hynek explained the blue color as a "reflection" of the blue sky in the hypothetical atmospheric eddy. He offered no explanation of how this eddy could appear to have the strange "hat" shape, be traveling at about 1,000 miles per hour, how there could be a fiery glow at one location on the side of the "eddy" or why the eddy would appear as a solid rather than transparent object.
With a little thought he could have realized that no atmospheric eddy could reflect or bend light (as in a mirage) coming down from the sky enough to redirect it toward the witnesses. An eddy is a density inhomogeneity in the atmosphere which, in principle, might bend light by a very small fraction of a degree. However, for Hynek's explanation to work, the light would have to be bent five degrees or more, far beyond anything the atmosphere could do. Hynek's explanation is another failed prosaic explanation. Even Hynek realized this and repudiated his explanation years later (see "THE HYNEK UFO REPORT", Dell Pub. co, NY, 1977).
Another scientist with an excessive urge to explain was Dr. Howard Menzel. In his first book, entitled FLYING SAUCERS (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1953) Menzel offered a blanket explanation for sightings that occurred within the first 5 years of modern UFO sightings (1947-1952): misidentified atmospheric phenomena including the effects of the atmosphere on sunlight, unusual clouds caused by particular wind patterns and mirage effects (light ray bending in the atmosphere). He suggested several different atmospheric and cloud effects to account for the first widely reported sighting, that of Kenneth Arnold on June 24, 1947. In later books ("THE WORLD OF FLYING SAUCERS, Menzel and Boyd, Doubleday and Company, Garden City, NY, 1963; THE UFO ENIGMA, THE DEFINITIVE EXPLANATION OF THE UFO PHENOMENON, Menzel and Taves, Doubleday and Company, Garden City, NY, 1977) he offered other atmosphere-related explanations and one non-atmospheric explanation (water drops on the windshield of the airplane). Kenneth Arnold, a private pilot, had reported seeing nine semicircular, thin (compared to the length), shiny objects in a line flying southward past the western flank of Mt. Rainier and then "in and out" of a chain of mountains south of Rainier. The objects were therefore about 20 miles east of him (he was about 20 miles west and 10 miles south of Mt. Rainier and flying east at the time). He timed their flight from Rainier, southward, to Mt. Adams, a distance of about 50 miles. They crossed this distance in 102 seconds. Hence the direct interpretation of Arnold's sighting is that these objects were traveling at about 1,700 mph. (This was about 4 months before Yaeger exceeded the speed of sound in a test aircraft (October, 1947)). In reporting the speed calculation Arnold arbitrarily reduced the speed considerably to account for possible errors in his measurements. He publicly stated that the objects were traveling at about 1,200 mph. Arnold reported that he first saw the objects as they flashed or reflected the bright afternoon sunlight when they were north of Mt. Rainier and last saw them (by their flashes) as they passed Mt. Adams. The total sighting duration was 2 1/2 to 3 minutes.
Dr. Hynek was the first scientist to try to explain Arnold's sighting. Hynek couldn't except the large size and high speed implied by Arnold's observation so he decided to ignore Arnold's claim that the objects went in and out of the mountain peaks south of Mt. Rainier. By ignoring this statement (essentially implying Arnold's had made a mistake in the observation) Hynek was able to assume the objects were closer to Arnold. Hynek settled on a 6 mile distance which meant that the speed could have been much lower, like about 400 mph. Since this speed was within the capability of fast military aircraft a the time Hynek identified the objects as "aircraft," thereby also ignoring Arnold's description of the objects.
Hynek's work was done secretly for the Air Force in 1948 (under "Project Sign"[1948], the first of three projects for UFO sighting analysis. The other two were Project Grudge [1949-1952] and Project Blue Book [1952-1969] ). About 4 years later Dr. Menzel tackled Arnold's sighting. In his first book, FLYING SAUCERS, Menzel summarized the sighting and then criticized the Air Force for accepting Hynek's explanation and went on to propose a much more "obvious" solution. Menzel wrote, "(Arnold) clocked the speed at about 1,200 miles an hour, although this figure seems inconsistent with the length of time that he estimated them to be in view. From his previous statement they could scarcely have traveled more than 25 miles during the three minutes that he watched. This gives about 500 miles an hour, which is still a figure large enough to be startling.." Note that Menzel did not tell the reader that Arnold had timed the flight of the objects between two points. Instead, Menzel invented a travel distance of 25 miles, and implied that this distance was covered in 3 minutes (180 seconds). Hence he was able to assign a much lower, although "startling," speed of 500 mph.
Menzel went on to "solve" the mystery of Arnold's sighting: "Although what Arnold saw has remained a mystery until this day (1953), I simply cannot understand why the simplest and most obvious explanation of all has been overlooked.... the association of the saucers with the hogback (of the mountain range south of Mt. Rainier).... serves to fix their distance and approximate size and roughly confirms Arnold's estimate of the speed." (Note that Menzel, unlike Hynek, accepted Arnold's distance estimate). Menzel then went on to suggest that Arnold saw "billowing blasts of snow, ballooning up from the tops of the ridges" caused by highly turbulent air along the mountain range. According to Menzel, "These rapidly shifting, tilting clouds of snow would reflect the sun like a mirror...and the rocking surfaces would make the chain sweep along something like a wave, with only a momentary reflection from crest to crest."
This first explanation by a scientist with the reputation of Dr. Menzel may seem slightly convincing, but only until one realizes that (a) blowing clouds of snow cannot reflect light rays from the sun (60 deg elevation angle) into a horizontal direction toward Arnold's airplane and thereby create the very bright flashes that Arnold reported in the same way that a polished metal surface or mirror would, (b) there are no 1,200 mph or even 500 mph winds on the surface of the earth to transport clouds of snow (fortunately!), (c) there are no winds that would carry clouds of snow all the way from Mt. Rainier to Mt. Adams (Arnold saw the objects pass Mt. Adams before they were lost to his view), (d) Arnold flew eastward along a path that took him south of Mt. Rainier minutes later and surely his plane would have been strongly buffeted (and perhaps destroyed!) by such high winds, but he reported, instead, very calm conditions, (e) an atmospheric oscillation wave can't bend or reflect light over an angle of nearly 60 degrees, which would be necessary to make it appear as if the sun had been reflected by objects nearly at Arnold's altitude, and (f) an atmospheric oscillation wave with a "phase velocity" of 1,200 mph is unlikely, but in any case, when traveling southward its crests would be oriented east-west, so if it reflected any sunlight at all (highly unlikely), the reflection would be in the north-south direction and not westward toward Arnold's plane. Furthermore, even if such amazing atmospheric phenomena had occurred, it is difficult to imagine how Arnold could have failed to realize that he was just seeing light reflected from snow blowing from the mountain tops, especially since he flew over the mountains about 12 miles south of Mt. Rainier on his way east to Yakima, Washington, just a few minutes after the sighting.
In case the first explanation wasn't sufficiently convincing, Menzel offered "another possibility:" he suggested that perhaps there was a thin layer of fog, haze or dust just above or just below Arnold's altitude which was caused to move violently by air circulation and which reflected the sunlight. Menzel claimed that such layers can "reflect the sun in almost mirror fashion." Menzel offered no substantiation for this claim. Perhaps he was thinking in terms of a "forward reflection" from an atmospheric layer when the sun is so low on the horizon (and nearly along the line of sight to the reflection) that the light rays make a "grazing angle" with the layer. If so, then that explanation as applied to the Arnold sighting makes no sense since the sun was at an elevation of 60 degrees and southwest of Arnold, who was looking east. Furthermore, layers form under stable conditions and violent air circulation would tend to break them up so there would be no "reflections" of sunlight. Again, one wonders how Arnold could have failed to notice that he was just seeing the effects of a haze layer.
Ten years after his first book, Dr. Menzel offered his third, fourth and fifth explanations in his second book, THE WORLD OF FLYING SAUCERS: mountain top mirages, "orographic clouds" and "wave clouds in motion". To support the third explanation he presented a photograph of mountain top mirages taken by a photographer many years earlier, and proposed by the photographer, as the explanation for Arnold's sighting. (This is the "official" Air Force explanation. It appears in the files of Projects Sign/Grudge/Blue Book along with Hynek's explanation.
These files are available to be reviewed on microfilm at the National Archives.) The mirages appear as vague images above the tops of the mountains. (Actually the mirage is an inverted image of the top of the mountain.) These mirages can be seen under proper atmospheric conditions (requiring a stable atmosphere) when the line of sight from the observer to the mountain top is tilted by less than one half of a degree above or below horizontal. Unintentionally (or intentionally?) Menzel failed to report in his book the following information in Arnold's report: as the objects traveled southward he saw them silhouetted against the side of Mt. Rainier which is 14,400 ft high, much higher than the altitude of the saucers. Since mountain top mirages occur above the mountain peaks these objects were far below any mirage of Mt. Rainier. Of course, mountain top mirages stay above the tops of the mountains, so the mirage theory cannot explain the lateral high speed movement of the objects reported by Arnold. Nor can a mirage explain the bright flashes of light from the objects.
Menzel's fourth explanation was that Arnold saw orographic clouds which can assume circular shapes and often form in the lees (i.e., downwind of) mountain peaks. The clouds would, of course, be large but, as Menzel notes in his book, they "appear to stand more or less motionless." The lack of motion, as well as the lack of bright reflections, rules them out, so why did he even mention them? Also, Arnold would have realized they were just clouds as he flew past Mt. Rainier only minutes later.
Menzel's fifth explanation, wave clouds, is comparable to his first suggestion of "billowing blasts" of snow except that this time he proposed clouds of water vapor instead of snow. In his second book this explanation was supported by a photograph of such a cloud taken by a newspaper photographer. However, this explanation, too, fails to account for the very bright reflections reported by Arnold, for distinct semi-circular shapes and for the high lateral speed. Again, Arnold surely would have recognized a cloud as he flew past Mt. Rainier.
In his third and last UFO book, THE UFO ENIGMA, subtitled "The Definitive Explanation of the UFO Phenomenon," written in the early 1970's, (just before Menzel died), he again discussed Arnold's sighting and offered his sixth (and last) explanation: Arnold saw water drops on the window of his aircraft.
To support this explanation Menzel appealed to his own sighting of "UFOs" that turned out to be water drops that had condensed on the outside of the window of an aircraft in which he was flying. They moved slowly backwards from the front of the window. They were so close to his eyes as he looked out the window that they were out of focus and he thought they were distant objects moving at a great speed until, after a few seconds, he refocused his eyes and discovered what they were. In comparing his "sighting" with Arnold's, Menzel writes: "I cannot, of course, say definitely that what Arnold saw were merely raindrops on the window of this plane. He would doubtless insist that there was no rain at the altitude at which he was flying. But many queer things happen at different levels in the earth's atmosphere."
Although no one would argue with Menzel's claim that "queer things" happen at different levels of the atmosphere, this fact is irrelevant. Had Menzel bothered to carefully read Arnold's letter to the Air Force he would have seen Arnold's statement that he turned his plane sideways and viewed the objects through an open window to be sure that he was getting no reflections from window glass. (Fortunately Menzel did not propose water drops on Arnold's eyes!)
The "bottom line" is that neither Hynek nor Menzel proposed reasonable explanations for Arnold's sighting, but that didn't stop the Air Force from accepting one of the explanations (mirage).
In 1947, shortly after Arnold's sighting and during the massive wave of sightings that occurred between late June and the middle of July, other skeptical solutions to the sightings of Arnold and others were proposed. Howard Blakeslee, the Associated Press Science Editor, wrote an article that suggested "quirks of eyesight" could explain the saucer mystery. He pointed out that anything looks round if it is too far away to see details. "This law covers small things seen nearby and large ones at great distances." He described his own sightings of "flying saucers" which were bright reflections from distant aircraft. "Planes at great distances tend to look round when light is reflected from their sides." Blakeslee rejected the daytime meteor hypothesis (see below) and the hypothesis that upper altitude ice crystals formed "little round clouds." According to Blakeslee, "Nothing published in science or atomic studies gives the slightest clue to flying saucers unless the objects are aircraft."
By Kal Korff < 7-24-99
Although I commend Dr. Brice Maccabee for SOME of the points he makes in his article, I must take issue with some of his other points, and submit the following:
The citation of the Val Johnson case is a very BAD one for one simple reason: despite a thorough forensic and physical analysis, even Dr. Maccabee would have to admit that NOT THE SLIGHTEST SHRED OF EVIDENCE WAS EVERY FOUND TO INDICATE ANYTHING EXTRATERRESTRIAL!! :-(
Thus, for anyone to use the Johnson case as "proof" of something "extraordinary" is simply distorting the true nature of the evidence and this case....or ABSENCE OF, in this specific case.
The Johnson case is evidence of NOTHING, one way or another.
I AGREE with Dr. Macabbee that MANY of Dr. Menzel's "explanations" were absurd, and further add that Dr. Menzel often changed his "explanations" when confronted by critics.
However, what Dr. Macabbe and ALL UFO "believers" MUST remember is this: the BURDEN of proof that we are being visited by "extraterrestrials" does not rest on anyone's shoulders per se, but their OWN.
While Phil Klass and others have never come close to explaining EVERY UFO report away, AGAIN, I REMIND EVERYONE READING THIS, THAT THEY DON'T HAVE TO!!
For until such "hard evidence" emerges, belief that UFO reports represent true visitations by extraterrestrials remains just that - a BELIEF, not grounded in hard, scientific fact.
Again, such "hard evidence" has remained elusive, if it indeed exists at all.
As it has been said repeatedly before, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof," and sadly, the UFO "evidence" does not wash, does not deliver such "proof" and while it MAY SOMEDAY DO SO, the FACT remains that it does NOT at PRESENT.
UFO reports are only "evidence" that people believe they are seeing, or are seeing "something." However, WHAT that "something" is, we STILL do not know, and thus while I believe that such reports are WORTHY OF SCIENTIFIC STUDY, to profess to "know" what UFOs are, or worse, where they're from, requires a leap of FAITH, and not science.
Kal Korff Author, "The Roswell UFO Crash: What They Don't Want You to Know" "Spaceships of the Pleiades: The Billy Meier Story." President and CEO, CriticalThinkers