Since Area 51 is well-known in skeptic lore, I was reluctant to address it since I figured I would have little to add. But I decided to take a different approach by examining how True Believers handled the declassification and subsequent interviews with former Area 51 scientists and military personnel.
For most people, the revelations provided a glimpse of an exciting slice of the Cold War, and the mystery, subterfuge, and experimentation made sense when considering the new information.
But what was the end for most folks was the beginning for those determined to find more. Apophenia refers seeing patterns in unconnected data and is due to human nature’s aversion to randomness. But some take if further and, rather than finding a pattern, will cram one in, stuffing it with disparate parts to make it fit regardless.
Before delving into that, here’s a little background. Area 51 comprises Nellis Air Force Base and some adjoining space in Nevada. For about 15 years, the area was home to project Oxcart. It was hoped the resulting aircraft would be undetectable as it flew over the Soviet Union. However, them no-good Commies was on to us and they dispatched spy satellites to the Nevada desert. The U.S. countered by building planes out of cardboard, hoping their shadows would lead the Soviets astray.
The airplane had a groundbreaking shape. It was much wider than most planes and had a disc-like fuselage to allow longer journeys. Nearly 3,000 flights were made, giving persons in the area plenty of opportunity to see the craft. There were warnings not to get within five miles of the site and the government denied that it existed when it clearly did. This hostility to inquiry, combined with a strange, speedy aircraft, piqued curiosity.
This information vacuum was filled with ideas that competed with each other being the most wild. Among the more popular was that Area 51 was home to the reverse engineering of alien technology, perhaps with aliens in graveyards or cryogenic chambers. If that wasn’t exciting enough, there was a camp that trumpeted the presence of live aliens. Other guesses were weather control experiments or an underground transcontinental railroad. Also floated was the Cheshire Cat Airstrip theory, which held that the runway remained invisible until water was sprayed on it. For additional appeal, this was based on alien technology. Perhaps the most sci-fi hypothesis was that the planes didn’t just look futuristic, they were so, and were landing after returning from the 22nd Century or thereabouts. This seemed to be one-way travel, since no one suggested that the Wright Brothers or the Hindenburg were landing there.
It turned out that reality was fascinating enough. Area 51 was the birthplace of the A-12, the first stealth airplane, a craft that was capable of flying from New York to Los Angeles in 90 minutes. It could do this while taking clear photos of a bulldog from 17 miles in the air.
The A-12 flew 50 percent higher than other military aircraft and a twice as high as civilian airplanes. This meant that commercial pilots flying near Area 51 would see a strange-looking vehicle whiz by at speeds not known to exist, at an altitude not known to be accessed by terrestrial craft. During the early evening, pilots would see the sun reflecting off titanium wings, giving the aircraft an eerie, fiery appearance.
Surrounded by all this mystery and marvel, it was clear that something was going on. And the government’s refusal to even acknowledge the area existed led even usually incredulous people to entertain improbable scenarios.
For most, the intrigue ended in July 2013 when the government acknowledged both the existence of Area 51 and what had gone on there. Six years prior, the CIA had presented an A-12 to the public, displaying the Indentified Flying Object during the agency’s 60th anniversary celebration. But for those determined to believe in something sinister, or at least fascinating, declassification was a hoax, meant to add to the cover.
Here’s a good time to introduce a former Area 51 worker, Bob Lazar, who reported that he had been privy to the inner workings. This included the discovery of Element 115, which he said was found through alien technology, and which helped provide aircraft fuel. Lazar’s claims were handled in two distinct ways by conspiracy theorists. Most saw it as vindication. A Los Angeles Times report revealed that Lazar had lied about his education and employment history, even claiming degrees from two prestigious universities he never attended. Theorists insisted this was evidence of the government whitewashing his record to discredit him. Meanwhile, there was a second camp that painted Lazar as a government plant who would be exposed by the media’s vigilance (or compliance, depending on the extent of the cover-up).
Conspiracy theorists pride themselves on continually asking questions, but they are not seeking answers. Logical, verifiable explications are too restricting. When an explanation is offered, there is always another tangent to veer onto. With Area 51, government denial was one of the main planks. Once that went away, the focus was on the WHY or the WHEN of the release, rather than its substance. If the Air Force had presented aliens at the press conference, theorists would have declared them a cover for an even-more-implausible storyline.
The month after declassification, Element 115 was discovered in Sweden. If needing to update your periodic table at home, the element is ununpentium, and it goes in Group 10, Period 4. This was interesting news for chemists, but an overwhelming joy for conspiracy theorists, whose apophenia meters went into overdrive.
Again, this led to disagreement among various conspiracy theorists. In no case, however, was there finality. For some, it was vindication, but it led to more questions, such as what else was being done there or what other secret element was being used.
For others, the discovery of Element 115 was not cause for celebration, but only an extension of the plot. The element has a life of one-fifth of a second, and only 50 atoms are known to have been produced. Thus, they theorized, the announcement was meant to clandestinely discredit Lazar’s claim that Area 51 scientists produced 500 long-lasting pounds’ worth.
Then we have Boyd Bushman, who worked as a scientist at Lockheed Martin. Right before his death, Bushman said he had talked with aliens at Area 51 and gave an approximate location of where they hail from. He also presented photos of the alleged creatures. These were later proven to be of Wal-Mart dolls. Never ones to be deterred, theorists posited that the dolls’ manufacturer based their design on those aliens. Bushman’s Youtube video was taken down for what the site called copyright issues and for what theorists called the latest cover-up.