When I was twenty-three I landed a job at Penguin Books in the editorial department of a small non-fiction imprint called Tarcher, and so began my formal education in the forbidden subjects. I often say our imprint focused on “technology, politics, and humor,” because this, while technically not a lie, results in fewer eyebrows raised than when I attempt the complete truth. “Technology, politics, and humor” were in fact a handful of our focusses, and it was with these subjects I personally achieved success as an editor. Chiefly, however, my imprint’s bread and butter was self-help, particularly in the school of something called New Thought, which has been around in one incarnation or another since before the American founding, and has taken many recent names — the power of positive thinking, manifestation, the Secret. But we used to call it witchcraft, and my editor-in-chief, a spiritual alchemist, was obsessed with the occult. It was here, in this environment, surrounded by all these strange ideas, in Tarcher’s tiny library tucked away in a quiet corner back beyond the “serious imprints,” that I discovered the work of Charles Fort in a dusty old copy of a near-forgotten masterwork we’d reprinted called the Book of the Damned. Questions and wrongthink assumptions about our world I’d long kept hidden, even to myself, began to stir, and a doubting whisper in me grew a little louder. Reality is stranger than we pretend, more complicated than we like to believe, and we are wrong about its nature all the time. Today, there are many “truths” about the world I worry we have wrong. In the first place: we need to talk about UFOs.
Fort was a writer on the topic of “anomalous phenomena,” or what we might today call “weird shit,” agnostic on the question of why such things exist, or how, but quite serious about the research — in the first place, that there was research, and in abundant quantities. Evidence surrounding anomalous phenomena generated by men of science, when ridiculed but left unchallenged, would be recorded in a class of data Fort considered “damned,” and so became the title of his work, an encyclopedic book of the impermissible. He spent decades in libraries in New York and London pouring over scientific journals, and gathering accounts from all over the world on such far-ranging, and bizarre phenomena as fairies (nonsense!) and animals that rained from the sky. At first, I didn’t believe what I was reading — literally, I considered it fun, and for some reason gripping, but totally unserious — and I still don’t believe most of it. Things were different in the early 1900s. People then believed in magic, right? Forget that this period of time was fully in an age of science that directly preceded the dawn of atomic energy and the Apollo Project, people weren’t rational back then, and neither were their papers. Right? I was certain Fort’s meticulous documentation of the decades-spanning phenomena of raining lizards, snakes, fish, and frogs on unsuspecting towns throughout the world was just the stuff of fantasy, invented by superstitious, ancient people, and recorded for posterity by superstitious, ancient journalists. Then I googled it.
My illusion of the ancient (20th Century) magical thinker was shattered. A “rain of animals” is a meteorological phenomena that persists, rarely but in well-reported detail, through today: Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan, 2009 (frogs and toads); Goulburn, Australia, 2015 (spiders); Oroville, CA, 2017 (fish). There are hundreds of these cases. Undoubtedly there is some natural explanation, if even an elaborate, centuries-long hoax carried out by some epic band of inter-generational merry pranksters. But I was never really taken by the question of what might be causing the phenomena. I was rather, and today remain, absolutely captured by the question of how I’d never heard of these reports. Why aren’t people talking about this, I wondered. I reflected back, and pieces of the phenomena appeared to me in curls and smokey wisps. I had heard something about this, hadn’t I? Or… ?
We seem to have a psychological block that prohibits us from entertaining a class of “strange ideas” outside some personal, identity-based window of acceptable thinking. “I am not the kind of person who thinks X,” where “X” is the bizarre. Conceptually, the block is related to, but notably different from, the Overton Window, which concerns socially-acceptable speech. Our focus here is not exactly what one can or cannot say for fear of social ostracism, though it likely does contribute to the phenomenon, but is rather what one can or cannot say for actual inability to conceive of a subject that should not be difficult to grasp. Even if unpopular.
The block is emotionally fortified. When faced with an unacceptable question about the world a feeling hits you in the gut and twists — turn back, do not look at this. It’s an intellectual gag reflex. It’s fight or flight, but for ideas, and we just aren’t built to battle the big stuff. Most perniciously, following deflection the block wipes your memory of ever having stumbled so closely — so dangerously — to a reconception of the world. The experience of nearly thinking for oneself is, it seems, almost traumatic. Let us here refer to this curiosity killer as your “barrier belief.”
It’s a sense of truth we have about the world comprised of what we’ve previously seen, experienced, and learned from people we trust. New knowledge is added to the barrier in increments, and while we change our opinions all the time, anything sufficiently distant from our core sense of the world is instinctively, and almost immediately abandoned. This isn’t necessarily because wild new information about the nature of our reality is untrue, though it often is, but because “wild” new information tends to challenge in some fundamental way our core beliefs, and reconception of core beliefs is exhausting. So, while the particular character and intensity of any given barrier belief is mostly personal, its purpose, in all of us, is universal: it exists to stop us from thinking. In my case, I once believed that people mostly understood the world. I was a total materialist in my early twenties, or so I’d convinced myself, and this was an important aspect of my identity. Fairies and spirits and raining blood were unserious topics, and so to entertain them seriously would have required submission in myself to the notion I was, in some fundamental respect, an idiot. But back at the publishing house, in that quiet closet library, I was all alone. No one was watching. What was really the harm in reading on? I arrived at Fort’s accounting of “strange lights” in the sky. Aliens, he speculated, nearly five decades before the term “UFO” was coined.
Today, we don’t need to rehash Billy Joe Smith’s experience with flying saucers on his Civil War-era farm in an age before ubiquitous photo, or video, or Penicillin (important to remember Syphilis makes you crazy). For me, the importance of Fort’s work in the Book of the Damned is not so much the veracity of the reporting he catalogued, which I am however not entirely calling into question, but that such reporting, no matter how persistent, no matter how compelling, has been systematically ignored by “serious” people for over a century. My experience following mainstream coverage of UFOs for the last three years has been nothing short of maddening; our barrier beliefs have totally blinded us to a hugely important story. In two pieces from 2017, the New York Times reported on a 2007 Pentagon program committed to the investigation of “unidentified flying objects,” which had been appearing to pilots for decades. Our government confirmed the existence of the program. The Times report included footage taken in 2004 from a Navy F/A-18 fighter jet of an unidentifiable aircraft surrounded by a “glowing aura.” “There’s a whole fleet of them,” one pilot says. There was the implication these objects appeared to defy known laws of physics. There was the bizarre, passing reference to mysterious metal alloys recovered from the objects (!!!). There was the reminder that government programs studying such phenomena have previously existed. In 1947 the Air Force investigated tens of thousands of UFO accounts, most of which were easily explained by some natural, well-understood phenomena, or by something man made (commercial jets, top secret government projects, foreign spy planes). But 701 of the accounts could not be explained, were promptly forgotten, and remain, to this day, a mystery. The program was disbanded, and for years pilots and astronauts urged politicians to again take this seriously. Something was — continues to be — happening in our skies.
In 2019 the New York Times broke its next story, this time with Navy pilot Lt. Ryan Graves. Lt. Graves provided context on a series of UFO sightings from the summer of 2014 through March 2015. The objects had no discernible method of propulsion, as per the Navy trend, and could reach 30,000 feet at hypersonic speeds, accelerating near instantaneously. After they appeared, the objects did not immediately vanish. They hung out with our Navy for hours. Lt. Graves said one pilot “almost hit” an object that passed directly between two jets flying in tandem, a mere 100 feet apart. It was “a sphere encasing a cube.” 2020: two more stories from the New York Times. The 2017/2018 videos they previously released had been acquired by Blink 182 singer Tom DeLonge, a seismic figure in the UFO community who no doubt cast a shadow of doubt on the footage — a singer? Doing something other than singing? Impossible! Now, two years later, the Pentagon was confirming what we already suspected after the government’s failure to comment on the initial leak: these videos were authentic. Finally, on July 23 of this year, the Times reported on a new, covert Pentagon program studying UFOs, and a Senate committee report urging public transparency on the findings — an effort championed previously by Harry Reid, and now by Marco Rubio. Then, there was a breaking interview with a former U.S. military intelligence official who worked for the 2007 program, and a claim of “artifacts” not only crashed to Earth but retrieved for study. There followed an interview with Eric W. Davis, an astrophysicist who consulted for the Pentagon program. He did not believe human beings were capable of making whatever it was, exactly, the Pentagon recovered from the crash sites (plural). The phrase “off-world vehicles not made on this earth” was employed.
In almost every story, for years, and not just in the Times, substantive reporting on UFOs has been “balanced” by the skepticism of “experts” who have not worked for the Pentagon, who have not consulted with the program, who are not on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and who have not piloted the Navy aircrafts that have been harassed by these objects for decades. There’s an explanation, our skeptical “experts” insist, and I would agree with them were they not so obviously implying the explanation must absolutely resemble something like simple, human error. Yes, a cascading series of error on this scale, across so many years, could be our answer, but why is it probably our answer? The UFO story is now sufficiently sourced, and sufficiently wild, as the only rational thing to do is demand complete transparency from our government and look at the data ourselves, along with the recovered materials that — I do believe it bears repeating — are allegedly not of this world. But of course to do that, we would have to remember the story exists, and for three years now we have forgotten the spectacular thing in front of us within a day or so of breaking reports.
How do we push through the barrier belief?
Thinking back on paradigmatic shifts in my own worldview — from liberty to Marxism to anarchy, from God to atheism to [redacted, redacted, DANGER] — the process of thinking deeply has always been roughly the same. On the cusp of what I could feel as, if I kept pushing, some actual, fundamental shift in my core beliefs, I became reluctant to further explore. There has never been an essential belief of mine I wanted to give up, which strikes me as a kind of quality any “essential” belief must probably have. My experiences in change were all-consuming, and I was not always immediately better for them. I read. I debated (fought, really). I alienated myself from friends, and sometimes from my family. I self-radicalized, in a way. I think that’s always how I’ve learned. I think that’s how we all learn, and the prospect of an experience so intense is intimidating. Adjusting our conception of reality may bring us closer to the truth — or not, which is another danger — but the process isn’t comfortable. It doesn’t feel good. You only push because you know you have to, and a sufficiently curious person almost can’t control it. But the process is also exhausting, and we are a notoriously lazy species.
It’s no surprise we avoid challenging questions about the world whenever possible. But there’s still the problem of potential danger from things unknown, which no reasonable person would deny. So how does one “think” without thinking? Enter: the expert.
Experts are people we have determined worthy of thinking for us on some particular topic. First, we run a value check for outwardly-facing core beliefs. Does this expert seem to care about the same things I care about? Then, we run a social check. Would our friends trust this person? Would our friends accept our trusting this person? Finally, we check for authority — credentials, associations, and does this person just sound smart? We listen for a certain kind of language that evokes authority. We look for a certain kind of tone, pace, and confidence. Then, when all our boxes are checked, we open up and let the experts in. On the topic of UFOs, we have often turned to “serious scientists” for understanding, which is our euphemism here for debunking. But “serious scientist” is not a profession, it’s a popular identity, and that identity is a plague on knowledge. Why qualify the word “scientist” at all? Presumably one is either doing science, or one is not. One is either a scientist, or one is not. The word “serious” divides inquiry into classes. The prestigious, and popular, is separated from the low, the weird, the socially unacceptable. In this way “serious science” is just a Cerberus that guards consensus reality, and on the question of consensus science is agnostic. Any qualification of the word “science” negates the method, and “serious scientists” are therefore not scientists at all. But who else to turn to?
For the last ten decades or so UFO enthusiasts have tended toward the extreme. Their values were overtly anti-government, which they believed to be conspiratorial, menacing, and in many cases evil. Few of us have values so extreme. Socially, there just aren’t many UFO enthusiasts to begin with, and it’s hard to trust a class of person you’ve never known. Then, in terms of authority? There are no credentials in UFO truthing, there are no cozy professorships. Until a few years ago, there weren’t even credible, mainstream reports. Mostly what we had were crazy memes and an enduring, powerful archetype in Fox Mulder, of the X-Files — a man to be loved, but never taken seriously. With no “experts” to whom we could cede our thinking, we skipped the thinking piece completely. But now, with so many reports in want of serious consideration, probing, and challenging, we can’t ignore this. The problem is there still aren’t any “experts” in the mold we tend to look for. If we’re interested in the truth, we have to think for ourselves. (Sorry)
I don’t have an explanation for UFOs. I only know there’s something here we need to look at. I want transparency from the government, and I want the topic taken seriously long enough for us to figure out what’s happening. Because what are the options, really? Are these objects intelligent, or operated by some intelligence not human, and technologically advanced in ways a galaxy beyond us? That would obviously be a huge deal. Or are these objects evidence of some other government, on this planet, so far beyond the United States in terms of covert technological ability that many of our own pilots believe what they’re seeing is alien? Because that would also be a huge deal. And what if it’s not true? There are hundreds of reports from the military, and private contractors working with the government. Ignoring the well-documented and spectacular naval accounts for a moment, and addressing the footage alone, do we honestly believe not one of our Pentagon officials has considered the possibility of a distant jet, or weather balloon? An institutional idiocy so staggering can almost not be fathomed. So have the stories all been fabricated? Has the footage been created by the government for some secret, inscrutable purpose? And does our media have, truly, no pulse of a lie this enormous? Or do we now venture so far as to consider that our free press may be working with the government they otherwise relish in attacking on a daily basis? Because it is worth mentioning that this, rather than the notion our government is concealing a secret UFO program that we now know exists, would today qualify as the conspiracy. There is no version of the UFO story that does not fundamentally change the way we think about the world, and there are serious, at times existential implications to each possibility. It almost doesn’t matter which is true, we just have to look at it.
But if I had to venture a guess?
Our conception of reality, and physics in particular, is biologically limited. There are ways of knowing about the world, and dimensions of the universe, that were simply not essential for us to perceive on our evolutionary journey. It doesn’t really matter what the bright lights in the sky are when you’re focused primarily on eating and not being eaten. We have seen some version of ‘worlds’ beyond our perception in examples of discovery from x-rays and sonar to cell biology. Is it so impossible to imagine further limitations in perception? New worlds we can’t see, or can’t imagine? There are things we know we don’t know — controlled fusion, human aging, the nature of intelligence. But any extra-dimensional aspect of our reality could by its nature sit forever in the realm of things we don’t even know we don’t know. I would not venture so far as to say we are being visited by some intelligence, or we’re facing the reflection of some future version of ourselves, with some future human technology that kind of ripples back through time, another aspect of our reality we don’t understand. But I think something like this is possible.
Then, it could also just be Russia. But that’s probably worth figuring out.
Try not to forget you read this.
Have you read D.W. Pasulka's "American Cosmic"? If not, I highly recommend it. She's a religious studies scholar who started out studying angelic appearances to medieval saints and was struck by how similar they were to modern UFO narratives. So she did an ethnography of scientists and government officials who are big "believers" in UFOs. Her basic argument is that we should understand UFOlogy through the same methods we treat religion, with the guiding premise that all religions are systems of thought that respond to actual experience, whether or not they interpret it "accurately." I.e., something's going on, has been going on for a long long time, and our ways of explaining it have changed significantly over time.