“UFOh no” (Roswell Incident)


Even as I became immersed in the skeptic movement, the one holdout for me was the Roswell Incident. Based on the story I had heard, nothing seemed inherently unbelievable. There could be life on other planets. Those beings could be more intelligent than us, good enough perhaps to manage interplanetary travel. Their advanced spacecraft could crash. Government officials do lie and engage in cover-ups. And there were reports of eyewitnesses seeing alien beings and wreckage.

My first doubt crept in when I considered the distance. Aliens leaving from the closest exoplanet and averaging an impressive 250,000 miles per hour would take 11,400 years to reach us. Sure, they could have amazing life spans and traveling space colonies, but could doesn’t mean they do. Other ideas centered on worm holes, an unknown science permitting beyond warp speed travel, String Theory utilization, creatures from inside a Jovian moon, or coming and going as they please from another dimension. But a vague, science fiction hypothesis is hardly the same as fact. So this got me looking into it more skeptically.

The Roswell crash made a minor news splash at the time. The Roswell Monitor headline read, “RAAF captures flying saucer on ranch in Roswell region.” The description of it as a flying saucer was no accident. The previous month, pilot Kenneth Arnold made the first report of seeing one, and the Roswell incident was one of hundreds of such reports in Arnold’s wake.

The U.S. Army knew the wreckage was from a radar reflector that was part of a developmental nuclear weapons test detection system. Military officials claimed it was a weather balloon, then shut up. This lie and subsequent silence would be the seeds of a conspiracy theory that germinated three decades later.

In the late 1970s, with Watergate a fresh memory and Close Encounters the hot movie, the time was ripe for a scoop on the government cover-up up an alien crash. Stanton Friedman and Charles Berlitz started interviewing people, which would be like trying to compile a first-hand account the Beirut Barracks bombing today.

Author Charles Ziegler argues that the Roswell story rings of a traditional folk narrative, noting it has six distinct narratives. A core story exists, but it is shaped by listeners into new versions. Here’s the gist:  Aliens were monitoring atomic and rocket test sites when their ship crashed. Strange debris was recovered, four-foot tall humanoids whisked away, and witnesses told to keep quiet.

Skepticism and investigation of government and media is healthy, but using that same lens on the claims of Roswell proponents finds their own obfuscation and inconsistency.

In 1978, Friedman met Jesse Marcel, who was a major stationed at Roswell in 1947, and who claimed to have flown the wreckage back. It turned out he wasn’t a pilot. He acknowledged that a newspaper photo of him holding debris was a weather balloon, but claimed objects in the background of another photo were the real wreckage. Examination showed it to be the same balloon.

The key witness was Frank Kaufman, who claimed to have seen alien bodies. After his death in 2001, his widow allowed researchers access to his private papers, and that’s when the Roswell story collapsed. He had fabricated evidence and documents for years. He would present suddenly-new found evidence when his credibility was questioned or the story was unraveling. Further, Kaufman claimed to be a radar expert with intelligence experience. He was really a civilian clerk in the personnel office. His collection was a forgery. Clinging to the Roswell story now would be like Lewis and Clark being exposed as frauds, but claiming their diaries were still a first-hand account of early 19th Century western U.S. exploration.

Another person whose story Roswell enthusiasts cited as major proof was Sgt. Melvin Brown. He is alleged to have said that he saw the bodies. But he died without being interviewed about this, and the claim is a second-hand report from his daughter, with no corroboration from other family members. Records show he was a cook with no security clearance who never performed guard duty.

This leaves no truthful person who claims to have seen alien bodies. With regard to the wreckage, Roswell investigators claimed to have conducted over 100 interviews, yet only five of them were with persons who handled it. And some of those, including Irving Newton and Sheridan Cavitt, insist it was not extraterrestrial.

Another claim is that reinforcing tape on the wreckage had alien hieroglyphics. On investigation, they were shown to be rainbows, clouds, and flowers.

I saw a television news program that presented a re-creation of the event. In one scene, a person at the site picks up material similar to sheet metal, but that could be crinkled, then revert to its original shape when released. The narrator made the claim there is no known material on Earth with this distinction – even though it had just been shown in the reenactment!

With these revelations, my last resistance to the skeptic movement came crashing down, much like the world’s best known developmental radar reflector.

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