NJ UFO Hoax by Skeptics Proves Point But Raises Questions

April 2, 2009

Strange lights appeared over New Jersey’s Morris County on the evening of Jan. 5, according to a local TV station’s report. The bright red lights were first noticed in the night sky by an eleven-year-old girl, who pointed out three lights grouped together, and another pair some distance away. The lights moved silently and slowly, then disappeared one by one. The girl’s mother, Cindy Hurley, said it was "unsettling…something you’ve never seen before, and a very strange pattern." Paul Hurley, a pilot, said he was baffled: "I’ve been in aviation for 20 years and never seen anything like it." The local airport didn’t report anything unusual on radar, and police fielded calls from alarmed residents. The TV show   UFO Hunters even got into the act.

The case remained open (among many UFO groups anyway), until Wednesday, April Fool’s day, when two twenty-something college kids, Chris Russo and Joe Rudy, admitted to the hoax: "We set out into the woods …carrying one helium tank, five balloons, five flares, fishing line, duct tape, and a video camera. After filling up one 3-foot balloon with helium, we tied about five feet of fishing line to the balloon, secured the line with tape, then tied and taped the flare to the other end of the line. Once all five balloons were ready, we struck the 15-minute flares and released them into the sky." They carefully documented their prank in a series of videos. In a posting at www.skeptic.com, the pair said the hoax was a "social experiment on how to create your own media event surrounding UFO sightings…to show everyone how unreliable eyewitness accounts are, along with investigators of UFOs." They wrote:

Bill Birnes, the lead investigator of the show and the publisher of UFO Magazine, declared definitively that the Morristown UFO could not have been flares or Chinese lanterns. Surely Birnes, who has written and edited over 25 books and encyclopedias in the fields of human behavior, true crime, current affairs, history, psychology, business, computing, and the paranormal, and the co-author of The Day After Roswell (a New York Times bestseller in 1997 and subsequently a documentary on The History Channel), could not have let himself be fooled by a couple of twenty- somethings with no formal education in psychology. He could. If a respected UFO investigator can be easily manipulated and dead wrong on one UFO case, is it possible he’s wrong on most (or all) of them? Do the networks buy into this nonsense, or are they in it for the ratings? How can a television network that has pretensions of providing honest and factual programming be taken seriously when the topic of one of their top rated shows deals with chasing flares and fishing line?

The hoaxers are quite correct, and their point is well taken. But it also raises the question: should skeptics pull pranks and hoaxes, even to prove a skeptical point? The issue can be debated, though I think the goal and purpose must be clear.

Fooling people is very easy; the people who could not recognize what they saw in the skies should not be made to seem like fools. It’s not surprising that eyewitnesses, including a pilot, could not identify the objects, since most people have not seen road flares tied to balloons in the night sky. There’s no reason a pilot, or anyone else, would recognize it: The lights literally were nothing they had ever seen before — but not necessarily anything extraterrestrial. The UFO "experts," on the other hand, are a different matter. Their highly-rated TV show   UFO Hunters could stand a good cold dose of reality, and the hoax admission will likely leave them red-faced and sputtering futile defenses of their half-baked "investigation."

The larger issue is credibility: Most of the time skeptics are revealing hoaxes, not perpetrating them. To be sure, skeptics have at times pretended to have powers they didn’t possess: Randi has pulled some classic hoaxes, including the Project Alpha ESP hoax and his “Carlos” hoax on the Australian media. Ray Hyman used to read palms, even after he realized that his Barnum effect "insights” were bogus; and Michael Shermer at least once tried his hand at cold reading an audience under the guise of being a psychic medium connecting with the dead. In all these cases, the truth was revealed, but calling them hoaxes would seem a fair characterization. (Though to be fair, Russo and Rudy are skeptical college kids, not professional skeptics or investigators.) What do you think? Should skeptics hoax the public, or is that a breach of ethics that will ultmately harm the skeptical position?



#1 Secular Humanist (Guest) on Thursday April 02, 2009 at 2:07pm

This is very grating to my work ethic as a journalist of 44 years.

#2 Reed Braden (Guest) on Thursday April 02, 2009 at 2:19pm

I think it helps us more when we can pull off hoaxes and fool people before exposing them as hoaxes.  When we simply debunk other people’s hoaxes, it comes off as feeble.

For example, if you look at a UFO picture and argue that someone, ‘probably threw a hubcap and snapped a picture of it in midair,’ people are less inclined to pay any attention to you than if you were to look at a picture of a UFO, laugh, and say, “I made that!  And here’s a video of how I did it.  UFOlogy is bullcrap.”

#3 Brad Matthies (Guest) on Thursday April 02, 2009 at 4:24pm

It’s been done before:

#4 Atrueoriginall (Guest) on Thursday April 02, 2009 at 5:12pm

Looks like the two boys might be going to jail - hopefully

#5 James Earlywine (Guest) on Thursday April 02, 2009 at 6:08pm

I think it is unlikely that anyone has ever believed that these ‘experts’ could reliably tell the difference between a real extraterrestial presence, and the mere appearance of one.

It is also unlikely that every ‘sighting’ has been the result of a hoax.  Of the ‘sightings’ that are not hoaxes, that still leaves us with the question “Are any of these non-hoax ‘sightings’ the result of a real extra-terrestrial presence here near our planet earth?”

While this hoax demonstrates that even the experts are not in a position to reliably answer that question, I think it is unlikely that very many people ever believed that an expert could answer that question. 

We still have alot of observable data that is difficult, or impossible, to interpret.  We still have experts who can’t give us reliable answers, and we still have people who put on hoaxes.  I don’t think this hoax has proven anything to anyone that they didn’t already know.

#6 Alex (Guest) on Thursday April 02, 2009 at 6:22pm

If we disregard physical dangers that may or may not accompany an attempted hoax, the central ethical issue here is whether the educational benefits of revealing one’s own hoax outweigh the downsides. When it comes to the public, the educational benefit is probably larger than any hurt feelings about having been fooled. Recognizing how easy it is to fool oneself is a reasonably good promoter of epistemological humility, and I think it’s hard to argue that such humility is misplaced. When it comes to exposing how easy it is to fool pseudo-experts (this UFO guy, the editors of Social Text, the Bigfoot researcher who bought the fake Bigfoot corpse last year, the Bigfoot expert fooled by Penn & Teller, etc. etc.), the benefit is, I think tremendous. While these people’s egos will be hurt tremendously, this is no more unethical than completely wiping the floor with someone in a public debate - what is being fought are the ideas, not the people.

#7 James Earlywine (Guest) on Thursday April 02, 2009 at 6:31pm

Well, it seems to be the only idea they have attacked is the idea that any human being is, as yet, in a position to be an expert on this issue, and anyone who claims to be an expert is highly susceptible to being embarrassed when it is revealed that they are not.

I think that’s the most valuable product of this hoax, and if that is their intended result, then revealing the hoax is important to achieving this result.  If a person claims to be an ‘expert’, they should be able to reliably differentiate between a hoax and a real extra-terrestrial presence.  If they cannot, then they are not an expert. 

It would surprise me if anyone was an expert in that sense; it would also surprise me, however, if no one had good reason to believe that their ‘sighting’ was authentic, I also think it is still very likely that some of these sightings actually have been authentic.

I also believe we cannot yet tell which sighting (if any) have been ‘authentic’ and which ones have not.  I think it is unlikely that we will ever be able to retrospectively distinguish between them, even if we do at some point in the future find ourselves in a position to reliably differentiate between authentic sightings (if there are any), and sightings that are merely appearance.

#8 Venom (Guest) on Friday April 03, 2009 at 12:08am


I think it’s a difficult question, especially when you consider on top of it “hoaxes” like the Sokal affair…

I tend to think that from time to time, it’s necessary to prove a point.


#9 S.Hill (Guest) on Friday April 03, 2009 at 5:59am

It doesn’t take much to get residents “alarmed”. I understand the issue about creating a nuisance or a false alarm. Perhaps they should have notified the police first about their “experiment”. That might have absolved them from creating a false alarm. The authorities would have known but the people reporting it would not. It still would have made a point.

Most importantly, I think hoaxes such as this (and the Bigfoot hoax especially) bust the excuse that hoaxes are too hard to pull off. The ufo investigators (or crop circle investigators) claim that complicated hoaxes are just as unlikely as an alien event. The public accepts this when it is simply untrue. They underestimate human ingenuity and the appeal of fooling the masses.

#10 Au JT (Guest) on Friday April 03, 2009 at 7:24am

I think that the intention was not to make people look foolish. If that were the case then I might take issue with it. Do the people that were interviewed (not the “experts”) believe that they were portrayed as being foolish? I think that there’s much that can be gleaned from this hoax.

The potential physical danger of this hoax is what I have a problem with if I have a problem with it at all.

#11 James Earlywine (Guest) on Friday April 03, 2009 at 7:33am

I think the only thing that can be gleaned from this hoax is the result of a truth-test, to determine if experts could reliably detect a hoax.  The answers (about this particular group of experts) seems to be that they cannot.  It seems to be that some embarrassment is a highly-probably bi-product of a hoax such as this.  I don’t think they shouldn’t have done it, and just because some embarrassment is a likely bi-product doesn’t mean that it was the intent of the hoaxers to embarrass.

I don’t think this hoax casts much doubt on the claims of ‘experts’ about the near-earth-presence of extra-terrestrials, any more than the doubt that already surrounded those claims. 

All the same, just because ‘experts’ are not in a position to reliably detect the fundemental truth of the matter, does not mean that they are not in a position to at least be vaguely in touch with the fundemental truth.. even if they cannot be sure, perhaps yet, when they are and when they are not in touch with the particular details of that truth.

Time will tell.

All the same, I think this was a good hoax.

#12 Au JT (Guest) on Friday April 03, 2009 at 7:39am

No jail time. A misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct has been filed though. Prolly a small fine. Basically no harm done.—->

#13 James Earlywine (Guest) on Friday April 03, 2009 at 8:02am

That’s a relief.

#14 Sam Maranto (Guest) on Sunday April 05, 2009 at 7:39am

These two strokes who are no more than frauds and thieves had 911 centers wasting their time taking calls, police running about and Homeland Security also got into the act.

All spending who knows how much time & money.
Fire Marshals and the FAA were also detracted.

This stupidity comes at the expense of the Tax Payer.
No harm doe? My Eye…this was a very expensive stunt!

This little stunt put the cherry on the cake.

Comming at a time where we have already been ripped off by more than our share of hoax-sters. Whether on Wall Street or Washington we are paying the price.

Now to add insult to injury…
This so called “social experiment” proved nothing more than this…

1) Beavis and Butthead are still alive and well.
Now residing in New Jersey where they have evolved into full-fledged sociopathic chumps.

2) They are still getting their yha-yha’s off the only way they know how. By preforming dangerous childish pranks, or as they called them “social experiments”.

3) They recklessly put at risk their community with total disregard.

4) Then stole an array of vital resources by promoting their lengthy deception. THe cost of this stunt being paid by the very good people & community they paraded as fools.

The only social experiment these two are going to be involved in is called jurisprudence.

A spanking and a share of the very expence they imposed on the community should also be levied at any organization/individual applauding their antics.

You can fool some of the people some of the time but an impish tiwit remains a impish twit all the time.

#15 Au JT (Guest) on Sunday April 05, 2009 at 11:25am

“These two strokes who are no more than frauds and thieves”

meh… methinks you’re a bit over the top. Bernie Madoff is a fraud and a thief. These kids are nothing like you describe. At the very least this ‘prank’ had some value.

#16 sam maranto (Guest) on Monday April 06, 2009 at 3:19pm

“meh… methinks you’re a bit over the top. Bernie Madoff is a fraud and a thief. These kids are nothing like you describe. At the very least this ‘prank’ had some value.”

Value?...Man that’s some twisted logic.

Maybe Bernie should have used the “Social Experiment”

Better yet maybe he was just trying to show now lax SEC Investigators are?

There is a change a few of those folks could have been “believed” in UFOs another good reason to finangle their funds. Right?

None of this would have mattered or at least I would hope not.

The same as with these 28 year old “boys” who should have known better.

There was nothing gained out of this stunt and it came at great cost to the community.

All of which from a stupid premeditated act.

The applaudes from the peanut gallery for their stunt is just fanning the flame of ignorance.

Mature adults would do neither of these.

#17 MrMylesGuy on Tuesday April 14, 2009 at 11:19pm

This prank may have opened eyes, but I think it goes a bit to far. I lived in Morristown for several years and air traffic is high around that area.  There are many private corporate flights and small air fields.  Not to mention the high level of air traffic to NYC.  Also, the Madison / Morristown area is beautifully covered with trees.  The launch site from what I saw of the video was a clearing in the wooods…. Flairs in the cold dry woods of NJ… not a good idea. Thirdly, this is a large area, but also very populated. I read reports of 911 lines being surged with calls about this prank.

I love to see UFO “researchers” busted just as much as the next guy, but from the videos I’ve seen of these kids they seem like over ambitious, possibly obnoxious, suburban college students looking to cause some shenanigans… and I doubt they learned a lesson.

In the end however, the stunt resulted in no physical harm to anyone.  And while it was a stupid stunt, we can’t deny that it is a pretty useful stupid stunt. I’m sure it will come to my defense in the future, I just hope it doesn’t encourage others to put their communities at risk (as I’m sure many un-admitted hoaxes have done in the past).

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.