The Difference Between Science and Pseudoscience When It Comes to UFOs

How do the first UFO sightings of the modern era hold up when viewed through Carl Sagan's "baloney detection kit" from his book "The Demon-Haunted World"?
Marcia Wendorf
UFOSource: Pixabay

In 1995, astrophysicist Carl Sagan published the book, "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark." It was Sagan's attempt to separate science from pseudoscience, and to teach the scientific method to laypeople.


In the book, Sagan described what he called his "baloney detection kit," which consisted of constructing a reasoned argument and recognizing a fallacious one. To identify a fallacious argument, Sagan suggested utilizing these six steps:
1. Independent confirmation of facts
2. Debate
3. Development of different hypotheses
4. Quantification
5. The possibility of falsehood
6. Occam's razor.

Occam's razor is the problem-solving principle that states that simpler solutions are more likely to be correct than complex ones.


The First UFO Sighting of the Modern Era

On June 24, 1947, a private pilot named Kenneth Arnold was flying his CallAir A-2 airplane on a business trip from Chehalis, Washington to Yakima, Washington. At 3:00 p.m., Arnold was at an altitude of 9,200 feet (2,800 m), just passing Mt. Ranier, and the skies were clear.

Arnold saw a bright flash, a reflection of sunlight, then a series of bright flashes that were coming from north of Mt. Rainier. The reflections seemed to come from a chain of flying objects that Arnold couldn't identify, and he likened their movements to "saucers skipping on water." This is how the term "flying saucer" came to be, and not because the objects resembled the saucer used with a teacup.

Arnold estimated that the objects were larger than 100 feet (30 m) in length, and he timed them as they flew from Mt. Rainer to Mount Adams, a distance of about 50 miles (80 km). They made the journey in one minute and forty-two seconds, which meant that they were flying at more than 1,700 miles per hour (2,700 km/h). That was three times faster than any manned aircraft in 1947.

Arnold watched as the nine objects weaved from side to side, darting in and out of valleys and around mountain peaks. In unison, they would bank on their edges, causing almost blindingly bright, mirror-like flashes of light.

Arnold's UFO description
Arnold's UFO description Source: Kenneth Arnold/Wikimedia Commons

When Arnold landed in Yakima, Washington he told his friend and airport general manager, Al Baxter, the story, and from there the story spread. Unknown to Arnold, at the same time that he saw the craft, a prospector named Fred Johnson, who was on Mt. Adams, saw the same craft. In neighboring Richland, Washington, a man named L.G. Bernier saw three of the craft fly over the town.

60 miles (97 km) northwest of Richland, in Yakima, Washington, a woman named Ethel Wheelhouse reported seeing the same flying disks, as did a member of the Washington State forest service who was up in a tower in Diamond Gap, about 20 miles (32 km) south of Yakima, on fire watch. He reported seeing flashes at 3:00 p.m. on the 24th over Mount Rainier.

The Arnold sighting was the first post-WWII UFO sighting in the U.S., and it became the first sighting of the modern era. Ten days after Arnold's experience, on July 4, 1947, a United Airlines crew on a plane en route to Seattle spotted five to nine disk-like objects that kept pace with their aircraft for 10 to 15 minutes.

Both Arnold and the United plane's pilot, Captain Emil J. Smith, met with U.S. Air Force Intelligence officers and filed sighting reports. In September 1947, U.S. Gen. Nathan Twining, commanding officer of the Air Materiel Command, urged that a formal investigation of UFO sightings be undertaken by multiple government agencies. Twining went on to become the Air Force Chief of Staff from 1953 to 1957, and he became Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1957 to 1960, the first member of the Air Force to be so honored.

Twining's request resulted in the formation of Project Sign at the end of 1947. Project Sign was the first publicly-acknowledged U.S. Air Force UFO investigation. It evolved into Project Grudge, which then became known as Project Blue Book.

A Counter Campaign Begins

Two members of the military were particularly "antisaucer" - Maj. Aaron J. Boggs in the Pentagon, and Col. Harold Watson at AMC Air Material Command. In fact, Boggs was ordered by superiors to create a more proper atmosphere of skeptical respect for UFO reports and their observers.

Spurred by Project Grudge, a public relations campaign was created to debunk UFOs. Author Sidney Shallet wrote an article that appeared over two issues of the Saturday Evening Post (April 30 and May 7, 1949) in which he suggested that crackpots perpetrating hoaxes were responsible for the UFO sightings.

The article suggested that the Air Force thought UFOs were nonsense, which couldn't have been further from the truth. Besides Gen. Twining's request, the USAF supposedly created what it called an "Estimate of the Situation," on the UFO phenomenon, and while it has never been seen outside of the military, this estimate has been called "the holy grail of ufology."

The "Estimate of the Situation" was supposedly written in 1948 by personnel from Project Sign, including its director Captain Robert R. Sneider. It grew out three incidents that occurred in 1948: the Mantell Incident, the Chiles-Whitted Incident and the Gorman Dogfight.

The Mantell Incident

On January 7, 1948, Godman Army Airfield at Fort Knox, Kentucky, received a report from the Kentucky Highway Patrol of an unusual aerial object near Madisonville, Kentucky. From Owensboro and Irvington Kentucky came reports of a westbound circular object, 250–300 feet (80–90 m) in diameter.

At about 1:45 p.m., from his position in the control tower at Fort Knox, Sergeant Quinton Blackwell and other witnesses, saw the object. The base commander Colonel Guy Hix, reported that the object was "very white," and "about one fourth the size of the full moon ... It remained stationary, seemingly, for one and a half hours."

Observers at Clinton County Army Air Field in Ohio observed the object for around 35 minutes, and another observer at Lockbourne Army Air Field in Ohio noted, "Just before leaving it came to very near the ground, staying down for about ten seconds, then climbed at a very fast rate back to its original altitude, 10,000 feet ... Its speed was greater than 500 mph (800 km/h) in level flight."

Four F-51D Mustangs of C Flight, 165th Fighter Squadron Kentucky Air National Guard were already in the air when they were comanded to approach the object. One of the Mustangs was piloted by 25-year-old Captain Thomas F. Mantell, who had been part of the Battle of Normandy during WWII and had 2,167 hours of flight time.

One pilot was was low on fuel and returned to the base. The other two pilots accompanied Mantell in pursuit of the object but they broke off the pursuit at 22,500 feet (6,900 m). Mantell continued to climb until at 25,000 feet (7,600 m), he blacked out from lack of oxygen (hypoxia), and his plane spiraled towards the ground, crashing on a farm.

An investigation conducted by Project Blue Book concluded that Mantell may have been chasing a Skyhook balloon. During 1948, the Skyhook Program was classfied.

Skyhook balloon
Skyhook balloon Source: US Navy

The Chiles-Whitted Incident

At 2:45 a.m. on the morning of July 24, 1948, pilot Clarence Chiles, and co-pilot John Whitted, were flying an Eastern Air Lines Douglas DC-3 passenger plane above Montgomery, Alabama. At 5,000 feet in altitude, the night sky was clear and the moon, which was four days past full, was shining through scattered clouds.

Suddenly, both pilots saw a dull red glow above and ahead of their aircraft. The object closed in a matter of seconds, and flew past the right side of their aircraft at a high rate of speed before zooming up into the clouds. Passenger C.L. McKelvie saw a "bright streak of light" that flashed by his window.

Upon landing in Atlanta, Georgia, Chiles and Whitted reported their sighting to the US Air Force, and were interviewed by personnel from Project Sign. USAF Captain Edward Ruppelt wrote: "According to the old-timers at ATIC (Air Technical Intelligence Center), the [Chiles-Whitted] report shook them worse than the Mantell Incident... this was the first time two reliable sources had been really close enough to a UFO to get a good look."

Project Sign's personnel created a map of the object's trajectory, which showed that it would have passed over Macon, Georgia. An Air Force crew chief at Robins Air Force Base near Macon had reported seeing "an extremely bright light pass overhead at high speed" at the same time as the Chiles-Whitted encouter.

The Gorman Dogfight

On October 1, 1948, in the skies over Fargo, North Dakota, George F. Gorman, a veteran WWII fighter pilot was participating in an Air National Guard exercise, flying a P-51 Mustang. At 9:00 p.m. Gorman noticed a small Piper Cub airplane flying 500 feet below him and to the west he noticed an object that appeared to be blinking.

At 9:07 p.m., Gorman contacted Fargo's Hector Airport's control tower, asking what other traffic was in the area. The tower answered that it was just him and the Piper Cub. The pilot of the Piper Cub, Dr. A.D. Cannon, told the tower that both he and his passenger could see the blinking object to the west.

Gorman went to investigate the object, but even at full power (350 to 400 MPH), he was unable to catch it. By making a series of turns, he was able to approach the object head-on, and it flew 500 feet over his plane before making a 180 degree turn, and coming directly at him again. It then made a vertical climb, and when Gorman tried to follow, his P-51 stalled.

Gorman and the object were now directly over the Fargo Airport, and Dr. Cannon had landed his plane, and he and his passenger ran up to the control tower to watch the object. Gorman followed the object southwest until it disappeared.

Soon, officers from Project Sign arrived to question Gorman, Dr. Cannon, his passenger and control tower personnel. The Air Weather Service reported that it had released a lighted weather balloon from Fargo at 8:50 p.m., and Project Sign concluded that the object's apparent movements were caused by Gorman's own maneuvers.

Project Blue Book categorized the event as being due to a lighted weather balloon. In response, Gorman said, "I am convinced that there was definite thought behind its [the object's] maneuvers. I am further convinced that the object was governed by the laws of inertia because its acceleration was rapid but not immediate, and although it was able to turn fairly tight at considerable speed, it still followed a natural curve."

Knowing what we now know, let's apply Sagan's rigor to the UFO events described above:
1. Do we have independent confirmation of facts? Yes, in all cases, there were multiple witnesses.
2. Was there debate? Yes, during 1947 and 1948, UFOs were written about extensively.
3. Was there development of different hypotheses? Yes, in two cases, weather balloons were in the area.
4. Was there quantification? Yes, the Air Force attempted to determine the size, shape, speed and direction of the objects.
5. Is there the possibility of falsehood? The two USAF officers who interviewed Arnold and Smith on July 12, 1947, Lt. Frank Brown and Capt. William Davidson, concluded: "It is the present opinion of the interviewer that Mr. Arnold actually saw what he stated he saw. It is difficult to believe that a man of [his] character and apparent integrity would state that he saw objects and write up a report to the extent that he did if he did not see them."
6. Occam's razor?  All things considered, the simplest explanation is correct. You be the judge, what is the simplest explanation for all these sightings?

A Draconian Response

In 1953, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) became concerned about UFOs as as a national security threat, and they set up a committee to examine existing UFO data. The panel was headed by mathematician and physicist Howard P. Robertson, and it met from January 14 to 17, 1953.

In "The Demon-Haunted World," Carl Sagan warned against arguments from authority. He said, "One of the great commandments of science is, 'Mistrust arguments from authority.' ... Too many such arguments have proved too painfully wrong. Authorities must prove their contentions like everybody else."

The Robertson Panel concluded that the UFO sightings posed no direct threat to national security, but they were concerned about UFOs causing mass hysteria, and they were worried that hostile nations might use the UFO phenomena to disrupt U.S. air defenses. The CIA decided to mount a policy of "public education" on the lack of evidence behind UFOs, and that it be done through the mass media and schools, among others. They also recommended monitoring private UFO groups for "subversive activities".

The December 1953 Joint-Army-Navy-Air Force Publication 146 (JANAP 146) made publication of UFO sightings a crime under the Espionage Act. The Air Force Regulation 200-2 (AFR 200-2) revision of 1954 made all UFO sightings reported to the USAF classified, and the AFR 200-2 revision of February 1958 allowed the military to deliver to the FBI names of those who were "illegally or deceptively" bringing UFOs to public attention.

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