[UFO] Skeptics or Debunkers?
By Rich Reynolds
The UFO Iconoclast(s)
Philip Klass and Donald Menzel did more to cause the science/media/public dismissal of flying saucers and UFOs than any other persons or groups extant during the voluminous era of the phenomena.
And they did it with a patina of rectitude that is not only unjustified but hellishly erroneous.
They were debunkers, not skeptics, and they had an agenda that was based in purposeful or aberrant denial.
Menzel in his books -- UFOs: Flying Saucers-Myth-Truth-History (1953), The World of Flying Saucers (1963, co-authored with Lyle G Boyd), and The UFO Enigma (1977, co-authored with Ernest H. Taves -- went to excruciating lengths to fit UFO sightings into a framework of astronomical and meteorological explanations that stretched credulity and Ockham’s Razor to the breaking point.
Fixing a temperature inversion and the planet Venus as a confluent for sightings was a typical ploy. Wikipedia provides this about Menzel:
“All of Menzel's UFO books argued that UFOs are nothing more than misidentification of prosaic phenomena such as stars, clouds and airplanes; or the result of people seeing unusual atmospheric phenomena they were unfamiliar with. He often suggested that atmospheric hazes or temperature inversions could distort stars or planets, and make them appear to be larger than in reality, unusual in their shape, and in motion. In 1968, Menzel testified before the U.S. House Committee on Science and Astronautics - Symposium on UFOs, stating that he considered all UFO sightings to have natural explanations.
He was perhaps the first prominent scientist to offer his opinion on the matter, and his stature doubtless influenced the mainstream and academic response to the subject. Perhaps Menzel's earliest public involvement in UFO matters was his appearance on a radio documentary directed and narrated by Edward R. Murrow in mid-1950.
Menzel had his own UFO experience when he observed a 'flying saucer' while returning on 3 March 1955 from the North Pole on the daily Air Force Weather "Ptarmigan" flight. His account is in both Menzel & Boyd and Menzel & Taves. He later identified it as a mirage of Sirius . . ..”
Klass was a brilliant, hard-working debunker. His knotty analyses of UFO events and sightings are almost legendary, but invariably wrong, because they are tainted by his inherent bias against UFOs as a viable phenomenon.
In the book, pictured left, Science and the Paranormal [Edited by George O. Abell and Barry Singer, Charles Scribner’s Sons, NY, 1983, Chapter 18, Page 310 ff.], Klass deconstructs the noteworthy Coyne helicopter confrontation with a UFO in October 1973 near Mansfield, Ohio.
Klass presents a detailed account of the Coyne encounter and its aftermath. The minutiae included in his “analysis” of the encounter provides a seeming overlay of forensic debate but when Klass’s approach is scrutinized, one realizes that his devaluation of the Coyne crew’s report rests on a usual Klass barb that Coyne and his crew misremembered what they did when they saw a UFO coming toward their helicopter.
Klass writes that they misperceived an Orionids fireball (or meteor) and miscalculated the timings of various aspects of the event: the fireball’s fly-by, the seconds during which the collective control was pressed to keep the helicopter from, firstly, hitting the ground and, secondly, from accelerating back into the sky.
The magnetic compass’s erratic behavior was an afterthought of Captain Coyne, inserted several years after the initial event and report(s) Klass suggests.
The inability to communicate with local air terminal towers was ascribed to the distances that intervened between them and the Bell helicopter Klass tried to document.
And the green glow the crew witnessed as the UFO allegedly flew over their helicopter came from the tinted glass at the fringe of the cockpit. The red glow of the UFO was that of the surmised fireball.
(J. Allen Hynek, an eminent astronomer himself said that the Orionid display didn’t produce fireballs.)
With a recent case of a pilot, waking from an in-seat nap, mistaking the planet Venus for an approaching airplane, putting his 747 into a dive that injured several passengers and attendants, one can accept the possibility that Captain Coyne and his crew were flummoxed by a stray Orionid meteor, except that Hynek said fireballs do not occur during the Orionid display.
Moreover, the crew’s actions indicated that the helicopter was influenced in some way by the approaching UFO, and the mistakes attributed to them by Klass as errant behavior is possible certainly but hard to accept as the mistakes that Klass piles up are too many and too egregious for a trained helicopter crew.
It’s far easier to accept that Coyne and his men actually had a near collision with a UFO – an Unidentified Flying Object (or thing).
Klass, like Menzel, presents a set of possibilities, all acceptable at a superficial level, but when weighed in the balance, require too many machinations to be reasonably feasible.
No, Klass and Menzel were not skeptics; they were debunkers….and not very skilled debunkers either, as their “explanations” always teetered on the edge of charlatanry; they were UFO atheists or something worse.