Investigating UFO Mysteries Not Without Risk

November 9, 2010

A few weeks ago I solved a UFO mystery.


The UFO appeared in the skies over New York City on October 13, when hundreds of people saw a cluster of silvery, shiny lights. Initial descriptions of the supposed UFO varied wildly. One person said that it was "an oddly shaped object full of lights, flying slowly" while others saw (and recorded) three distinct objects; still others saw nearly a half-dozen entities.  

Extraterrestrials were of course a popular theory, though most New Yorkers seemed to take the lights in stride. The objects, whatever they were, seemed to pose no security threat, and FAA spokesman Jim Peters said that the UFO did not appear on radar.

I first heard about the UFO case when I got a call from ABC News, asking me for my opinion on a video of it. I actually had not seen the footage, and asked the reporter to hold on for a few minutes while I looked it over carefully.

As a skeptical investigator, this is where things get hairy. In my investigations I do not like to be rushed, I don't like to be hurried into making a premature analysis. After I'm fairly confident that I've got as much information as I need to reach a valid conclusion, I'm happy to give my opinion. If I don't know, or I'm not sure, I am not hesitant to say so; better to offer a qualified conclusion that turns out to be mostly right than a confident conclusion that turns out to be completely wrong.

  This is the inherent danger in being an expert: you have to be right. And you have to be right all the time. This is the part of investigation that many would-be investigators don't see. They are intrigued by investigating unexplained and paranormal phenomenon. They are enticed by the prospect of being on TV or quoted in print. But that prominence carries risk, not only to the investigator but to other skeptics.

  It's not enough to just be skeptical, to just say "I don't think it's a UFO." Anyone can do that. The task is to be knowledgeable enough to explain precisely and in detail what you think it is, and why. And hope to hell that you didn't miss something obvious.

This is one reason why being an informed, competent investigator is so important. If you are speaking on behalf of a magazine (like Skeptical Inquirer ) or an organization (like the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry), you are seen as representing that entity. If you blow it, you blow it big time in front of a TV audience or tens of thousands of readers. Not only do you look incompetent, but so do skeptics in general.

In this business you make enemies—debunked psychics, annoyed Bigfooters, amateur ghost investigators who don't appreciate you explaining why what they do is pseudoscience—and those enemies would like nothing better than to quote a prominent skeptic saying something stupid, or coming to the wrong answer. I don't mind being wrong; in all of my investigations I am happy to discuss any mistakes I may have made, or information I may have overlooked. But that's because I have taken the time and care to reach those conclusions.

As it happened, I was able to identify the UFOs. I explained to the reporter that they looked identical to UFOs created in an experiment I'd conducted with Joe Nickell many years ago in Buffalo, New York, and that in my professional opinion they were helium balloons. I described how what we saw in the video was consistent with that explanation.

Later that afternoon I got a call from CBS Nightly News anchor Ron Claiborne. Normally news anchors of that stature don't bother to call experts such as myself—they leave that to a phalanx of producers and assistant producers. But it was a personal call for the story, and I explained my analysis. He wanted to arrange an interview with me that evening, but while we were on the phone he got word that the UFOs had been conclusively identified. A teacher from a nearby school in Mount Vernon had released the balloons.

I had been 100% correct, and I was the first person to publically identify the Manhattan UFOs. However in the last hour the story had turned from what the UFOs were to who had released them, and CBS News didn't need me (or my analysis) anymore, so the interview was cancelled. It would have been nice to go on national television and claim credit for nailing the mystery, but I didn't really mind. I wrote upa column on the topic for, and went on about my business—just another day at the office.