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?