On the evening of March 13th, 1997, thousands of people in Arizona described seeing a group of orangish lights in a triangular formation moving slowly through the sky toward Phoenix. Some people described only seeing the lights against the darkened sky, but described the object as solid since it seemed to block out the stars as it glided past. Other witnesses described a v-shaped or boomerang-shaped craft, with lights on each arm of the craft. Many witnesses watched in stunned amazement as the unexplained object glided silently and slowly over their houses at low altitude.
Bill Greiner was a cement truck driver who witnessed the ‘Phoenix lights’ as they came to be known, and had this to say:
“I’ll never be the same. Before this, if anybody had told me they saw a UFO, I would’ve said, “Yeah and I believe in the Tooth Fairy.” “Now I’ve got a whole new view and I may be just a dumb truck driver, but I’ve seen something that don’t belong here.”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phoenix_Lights
The “Phoenix Lights” were witnessed by thousands of people who flooded local police stations and news media outlets with reports, but the story was not widely covered, at least initially. It wasn’t until June 18th, several months after the event, that USA Today ran a full-page article on the event followed by national television coverage through NBC and ABC. With national interest now pressuring local officials for an explanation, the Air Force began suggesting that that the lights belonged to jets flying in formation, helium flares, even sky lanterns.
Arizona Governor Fife Symington III held a televised press conference to address the growing clamor over the sightings. As thousands of concerned citizens watched, the Governor announced that he had “found who was responsible” and proceeded to bring to the stage one of his aides dressed up in a ridiculous alien costume, complete with handcuffs, accompanied by peals of laughter from the assembled media.
Governor Symington’s mocking gesture went over like a lead balloon, that is to say, it fell flat. Many sincere eye-witnesses believe they saw something unusual in the Arizona skies that night, and hoped for a legitimate investigation and real answers from their elected leader. Governor Symington claims he was just trying to avoid mass panic by lightening the mood, an idea that backfired spectacularly. The Governor’s actions simultaneously delegitimized the experiences of witnesses, and set the tone for how UFO sightings should be treated: with ridicule.
On the tenth anniversary of the Phoenix lights incident Symington recanted his original view and expressed regret about the way he handled that now infamous press conference. In his interview with journalist Leslie Kean on the event, he was quoted as saying, “If I had to do it all over again I probably would have handled it differently.” He continued by admitting that he, too, was an eye-witness to the craft allegedly observed over Phoenix.
I’m a pilot and I know just about every machine that flies. It was bigger than anything that I’ve ever seen. It remains a great mystery. Other people saw it, responsible people. I don’t know why people would ridicule it.-Gov. Fife Symington, III
Symington was quoted in the Prescott Daily Observer as saying, “I’m a pilot and I know just about every machine that flies. It was bigger than anything that I’ve ever seen. It remains a great mystery. Other people saw it, responsible people. I don’t know why people would ridicule it.”
Now, the purpose of bringing up the Phoenix lights is not to provide evidence for or against an extraterrestrial explanation. There are compelling claims on both sides, without much hard evidence from either. I highlight the Phoenix Lights as an example of the kind of derision and mocking behavior that routinely accompanies unexplained phenomena that challenges current science, current politics or the social norm. It’s the same response received by some who have had a spiritually-transformative experience, such as a near-death experience or after-death communication. Ordinary, sincere and otherwise sane people sometimes do have incredible and scientifically unexplainable experiences and sadly, when they share these experiences with medical professionals, clergy, even friends and family, they are often met with the same dismissiveness, leading many to doubt what may have been the most profound experience of their life.
The court of popular opinion is easily swayed by how unusual events or experiences are portrayed in movies, the media and by public officials. And for decades, anything relating to UFOs was flatly dismissed by the military and government, and met by eye-rolls and laughter when reported by the media. Movies have portrayed ufologists as cringe-worthy neckbeards who land a little left of center; not to be taken seriously. The same is true with people who have claimed to have experienced a paranormal or spiritually transformative experience, although the mocking is a little less pernicious due to the sensitivity of the subject matter. Regardless, if you tell someone that in your moment of grief, you saw your recently deceased mother sitting at the kitchen table, the response may be concern for your mental state rather than awe.
We form our worldview based on a combination of our experiences, our ideological beliefs, and what we perceive to be socially acceptable. Our worldview is precious to us; it makes us feel whole and sane, and give us the impression that our lives are somewhat predictable. And studies show that humans will go to great lengths to protect their worldview, engaging in confirmation bias and doubling down on unsupported beliefs, even when presented with good evidence to the contrary. Humans are just lousy at being reasonable and open-minded.
When authority figures tell the public that eyewitness accounts of alien craft are simply swamp gas, those whose worldview does not include extraterrestrials will use this as confirmation of their beliefs. For those whose worldview relies on the ET explanation, authority figures are instead engaging in disinformation as part of a grand conspiracy. Irrational opinions rarely change, we simply surround ourselves with like-minded individuals who confirm our worldview and make us feel more affirmed in what we believe in. We rarely, if ever, take a truly open-minded look at the evidence or an issue from both sides to make an informed decision about what we believe, especially when that belief can signal our identity to others and leave us open to judgement. Humans probably make far more informed choices about what refrigerator to buy than what they believe about UFOs or life after death or religion or politics. No one can infer your worldview, association or identity through your appliance choices, and that’s the difference.
So what happens when governmental authorities do an ‘about face’ and admit, after decades of covering up claims of UFO sightings, that they are in fact real and unidentified? Does it change anything? Well, the answer is yes and no. People with entrenched worldviews that do not include the possibility of aliens will focus on the evidence that confirms a terrestrial explanation. And those whose worldview are heavily invested in aliens will do the opposite. However, with the government’s admission that there is something unidentified in our skies, the time for mocking and derision is clearly over. UAPs are here, and now we get to argue over what they actually are.
For anyone who hasn’t been appropriately filled in on the story, on June 25, 2021 the Pentagon released a report admitting that UFOs, now branded UAPs or unidentified aerial phenomena, are real, unexplained and may prove to be a threat to our national security. The report did not specifically mention an extraterrestrial origin for such craft, but did not rule it out either. This report was a response to a request from Congress, packaged inside of last year’s COVID bill, to provide an unclassified report to Congress and the public providing an explanation for the many reports of UAPs. This was partially in response to several leaked videos showing UAPs performing aerial maneuvers that seem to defy the current capability of our technology. In fact, these UAPs, if they are indeed aircraft of some kind, seemed to defy the laws of physics as we understand them. These videos were later admitted to be genuine by the US Navy. It was also discovered that the Defense Intelligence Agency did in fact form an investigative program in 2007 called AATIP, the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, instigated by Senator Harry Reid.
I must clarify that I am not advocating for the idea that UAPs are extraterrestrial in origin. My purpose here to push for open-minded investigations into all unexplained phenomena, whether it is UAPs or near-death experiences. I agree with the Department of Defense that without evidence to the contrary, nothing can be ruled out. This is a complete departure from the stance taken for half a century, where any and all official organizations purposefully and maliciously undermined any research on UFOs. The government and prominent scientists blatantly denied their existence and publicly shamed anyone who supported research into the phenomenon. News outlets and media have followed suit, either ignoring or mocking anyone who dared advance the idea with any sincerity.
Since news of the impending report broke, I have been quite satisfied to watch news anchors squirm in their seats, trying to decide how to report the news that UAPs are real without being able to turn it into some kind of joke. At least one news anchor that I watched broke from his narrative, shaking his head in disbelief. He exclaimed, “I can’t believe I’m actually reporting this, but apparently UFOs are real.”
Of course, this hasn’t stopped popular scientists, debunkers and hardline skeptics from trying their best to resist the conclusions of the report. Popular scientists, who have enjoyed mocking UFO enthusiasts in the past, have been caught off-guard by the UAP report and in the days after have stumbled through some truly cringe-worthy protestations. One claimed that maybe the highly-trained Navy Pilots didn’t know what they were seeing, a charge that any pilot worth their training should vigorously object to. Another blamed video and sensor equipment used, despite the fact that such highly classified technology cost billions of dollars and are used by our military personnel on a daily basis. A quote from the report issued by the Director of National Intelligence reads:
“After carefully considering this information, the UAPTF focused on reports that involved UAP largely witnessed firsthand by military aviators and that were collected from systems we considered to be reliable.”https://www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/assessments/Prelimary-Assessment-UAP-20210625.pdf
Additionally, this particular scientist has failed to understand that the Department of Defense make up some of our best and most highly trained military and scientific personnel. They most certainly would have ruled out such a thing by cross-checking their observations against multiple sensor apparatus. This is indeed confirmed in the executive summary of the report where it states:
“Most of the UAP reported probably do represent physical objects given that a majority of UAP were registered across multiple sensors, to include radar, infrared, electro-optical, weapon seekers, and visual observation.”https://www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/assessments/Prelimary-Assessment-UAP-20210625.pdf
When the media have interviewed officials involved in the report or the investigative agencies, they are extremely careful not to mention extraterrestrials or aliens. When asked point-blank about the possibility, they have all simply said that UAPs remain unexplained, and therefore nothing can be ruled in or out without more data. Perhaps this disappoints people who want aliens to be the answer, but this is the best and most responsible answer that can be given, and I applaud them for their neutrality. Despite all of the overt confirmation bias showing up on both sides of issue, the fact is this: UAPs must now be taken seriously. And now that the government has finally come out and admitted that unidentified phenomena in our skies is real and worth investigating, the public needs to hold their hand to the fire for the 60 years that they shamed and discredited anyone, especially our military personnel, for reporting these sightings in good faith.
The public should also look carefully at other such unexplained phenomena that are routinely mocked or dismissed as ridiculous and question their own beliefs on the topic. Many people have been trained to think about the existence of ghosts, signs from the dead, near-death experiences and a contact with spirits as immediately false and laughable. We’ve been taught that admitting to believing in such things marks you as being crazy or gullible. This is now a perfect opportunity to question how and when we learned to judge others about beliefs that we haven’t ourselves investigated, especially when presented with scientific evidence.
I am always reminded of Dr. Daryl Bem, a distinguished psychologist who spent ten years designing and running various experiments on the hypothesis that humans have some precognitive ability. Bem found that students would do better on a verbal recall test if they studied the words after the test was over. Students recoiled from gory pictures they hadn’t yet seen, and chose racy sexual images correctly more often than chance. The results were statistically significant based on the methodology accepted by all scientists in the field of experimental psychology.
“I had to put it away several times. Reading it made me physically unwell.”-E.J. Wagenmakers on the positive results of the precognition experiment by Dr. Daryl Bem
The resulting scientific paper called “Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect” was accepted into the stringent and esteemed Journey of Personality and Social Psychology which has a 85% non-acceptance rate. No one could poke holes in this study – either the way the experiments were set up or the math used to calculate the statistics. But regardless of the fact that the results were rather indisputable, other scientists simply could not – would not – accept the conclusion of the study. Dutch mathematician E.J. Wagenmakers was quoted as saying, “I had to put it away several times. Reading it made me physically unwell.”
Wagenmakers was likely feeling the acute sensation of cognitive dissonance. When we are presented with information that threatens our worldview, we may temporarily be forced to hold two assumptions at once. This is a highly uncomfortable and untenable position, and so we either change our worldview, or look for a way to invalidate the new information to preserve our existing one. Bem’s paper hit the scientific community like a tsunami. But at the end of the fervor that followed, Bem’s results weren’t taken as proof of precognition. It was instead decided that the entire methodological and statistical process agreed upon by psychologists, statisticians and their respective scientific journals used for decades must have been flawed.
In short, Bem followed the rules set by the establishment. The establishment didn’t like the result when the rules were applied to a controversial subject, so they decided they now have to change the rules. Is that science or scientism?
The government’s admission that UFOs are indeed real may finally afford a controversial, antiestablishment hypothesis some measure of serious regard. While most topics in life after death research do not enjoy serious attention by mainstream scientists yet, I believe we will see a future where medical and scientific authority figures will also be forced to reckon with these experiences or risk being on the wrong side of history. It’s already somewhat happening in near-death experience research, and other areas with good scientific evidence will hopefully soon follow. If we can continue to make such topics less threatening to the average American worldview by fighting the ridicule by mainstream debunkers and pseudoskeptics (particularly on Wikipedia), we might have a fighting chance. I long for the day when a newscaster reports on the serious scientific study of NDEs and says, with disbelief, “I can’t belief I’m reporting on this, but apparently, consciousness may survive physical death.” I suppose for now, we must still contend with media outlets trotting out some of the least qualified scientists to discuss NDEs in order to further the long-debunked claim that NDEs are just the product of a dying brain.
In the meantime, let us pledge that in all areas of our life, we will not use our beliefs like a security blanket, wrapping them around our fragile egos. Consider all beliefs sincerely held to be tentative, subject to change when better evidence comes along. Lastly, never be afraid to stand up for any truth that you believe merits serious consideration and never attempt to silence the opinions of others. Fight with evidence, facts and information – not censorship, character attacks or derision. You do not want to be remembered like Fife Symington, who is forever immortalized on YouTube mocking UFO witnesses. You just never know when history will vindicate the assertions of the ridiculed minority.