James McGaha – Lights in the Sky

November 21, 2008

James McGaha is a retired USAF pilot, astronomer and director of the Grasslands Observatory. He held a TOP SECRET compartmented security clearance and was involved in numerous classified operations including operations in the so-called “Area 51.” His current work includes astrometry and photometry of asteroids and supernovae. He has discovered 15 Asteroids and 52 Comets and has over 1700 M.P.E.C. publications on Near Earth Asteroids. He is the winner of the 2002 Shoemaker NEO Grant. He has appeared widely in the media, having actively promoted science and debunked pseudoscience for over 35 years, focusing on belief in UFOs and astrology. He is the founder and chairman of the Tucson Skeptics and a Scientific Consultant to the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

In this interview with D.J. Grothe, James McGaha talks about his astronomer- beginnings as a skeptic of UFOs, and the limitations of the term “UFO.” He answers how open-minded he is about the possibility that extraterrestrial beings are visiting the earth today. He talks about the origins of UFO belief with the science fiction magazine Amazing Stories, along with Fate, a magazine promoting paranormal belief. He talks about the history of Project Bluebook and the Condon Report. He details qualities of human perception that may explain UFO accounts, and explores some of the reasons people may adhere to UFO belief. He explains the famous Phoenix Lights sightings. He explores how to respond to those who have unshakable belief in unsupportable UFO claims. He compares qualities of contemporary UFO mythology with certain aspects of religious belief, including views of apocalypticism and salvation. And he talks about the dangers that belief in UFOs pose to a civil society.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, November 21st, 2008. 

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I’m happy to have James McGehee on Point of Inquiry. He’s a retired United States Air Force pilot, an astronomer, and he’s director of the Grasslands Observatory in Arizona. He’s held a top secret compartmented security clearance and was involved in numerous classified operations, including operations in the so-called Area 51. His current work includes astronomy and Fatime, 23, of asteroids and supernovae. He’s discovered 15 asteroids and 52 comets and has over seventeen hundred citations in the scientific literature on near Earth asteroids. He’s the winner of the 2002 shoemaker Ênio Grant, and he’s actively promoted science and debunked pseudo science for over 35 years. He’s the founder and chairman of the Tucson skeptic’s and a scientific consultant for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. Welcome to Point of Inquiry, James McGehee. 

Thank you very much. I’m happy to be here. 

Dick James, you’re one of the leading skeptical experts on UFOs in the world. Before we get to some of the claims about UFOs that are out there. What did you tell me how you got into all of this? You know, you’re not born being a UFO skeptic. 

Now, that is absolutely correct. I started as an amateur astronomer when I was 12 years old. And my interest in science and what really led me to this, I was never particularly interested in it because I always knew that it made no rational sense and the reports had no evidence to support them. But over the years, as more and more people asked the question, they always asked two simple questions. When you tell them you’re an astronomer or an amateur astronomer, do you believe in UFOs? And what is your side? And as a result of that, I got very interested in investigating UFOs and in taking a look at the irrationality of astrology. Mm hmm. 

And from that, it kind of led to you. You know, you’ve appeared widely in the media. You’re kind of giving the scientific the skeptical take on these UFO claims. 

That’s correct. I was very interested in trying to look at it from a scientific perspective. What is actually the evidence to support these very diverse and wild type claims about UFOs and generally about the idea that they were visitors from outer space? 

Are you open minded in the least? Do you at least allow for the possibility that we could be being visited by UFOs, by by flying saucers? 

Yes, I am. And this is what distinguishes UFOs from astrology. It is possible, although very difficult, that an alien civilization could exist somewhere in our galaxy. And they have developed the technology to actually travel to the Earth. It is not very likely it is. It would be very difficult on their part to do it, but it’s not impossible. Some things as pseudoscience, such as astrology, simply are impossible because they violate the laws of physics and it can’t. And therefore, within a scientific framework cannot be true. Certainly certain aspects of UFO ology and you of those violate the laws of physics. And I should say when generally when I’m speaking of UFOs, I’m talking about alien spacecraft from another world UFO, of course. That is meant and was coined by the early director of Project Blue Book Unidentified Flying Object. It’s a terrible term in the sense that what was actually being reported was things in the sky that simply were unknown, whereas unidentified flying object sort of implies intelligent control. 

Yeah, most people when they hear a UFO, they think alien spacecraft. They don’t think just something that’s unidentified. 

That’s correct. And that’s it then. Although some some UFO believers will try to make a point of, well, maybe we’re just referring to objects. We don’t know what they are. The only thing that’s interesting about the subject really is if indeed they are spacecraft from another world. 

But the point here is that you are open minded. You’ve just in your years of investigating, never found evidence to warrant belief, absolutely anything. 

And in a scientific sense, you have to be open to the idea that there possibly one of these cases is actually a real spacecraft from the world. There certainly has been no evidence to support this. And, of course, a lot of scientific thought that goes counter to the idea that it’s likely. Occur. 

James, let’s get into some of the history of UFO ology, ufology, I guess they call it. Despite what some alternative historians say, people have not been talking about UFOs for all of human history. It’s kind of just a 20th century phenomenon, right? 

That is true. It really more or less started in about 1945 that there was some precursors to it. And in science fiction before that, and I might add, science fiction has been a big promoter of this in popular culture and has contributed to it and a great, great deal of the fervor and the belief that has occurred in it. But it really has its beginnings with a science fiction magazine and in particular a science fiction writer. In 1945, the science fiction magazine was called Amazing Stories, and the editor of the magazine, Ray Palmer, who literally took sort of a science fiction story that had been sent in by a believer about mysterious aliens living under the ground and on the earth and occasionally coming out and flying their machines. 

And this was supposedly communicated to this person. Richard Schaefer, who had sent these stories and through his welding machine, he was a welder and a promoter of this idea. And then the editor, Ray Palmer, over a series of articles over the course of about two years, promoted this idea and helped develop many ideas that exist today in relationship to this, including concepts of government, conspiracy and advanced technologies and threat to national security and extraterrestrial vehicles. 

All came out of this. And then what really began it was a night and June 24th, 1947, a private pilot flying an airplane in Washington state saw nine particular objects over the mountains there in Washington and reported this. And Ray Palmer started a new magazine called Faith. And the very first issue, the spring of 1948, promoted this idea of Ray Palmer sightings. And this was one of the very first cases in the predecessor of Project Blue Book Project Sign, which reported that he had seen these objects flying across the mountains there. 

Sorry, who who saw those objects? The pilot. Not real pilot. Right. 

Kenneth Arnold saw the objects but rape. Palmer, the editor in a new magazine of Fate, was the one who promoted it. And in a few years later, together, they would write a book about this. 

So it’s kind of a pop culture phenomena with roots in sci fi, but it’s certainly not. It’s up to a skeptic’s science fiction these days. 

Instead, it’s a widely held belief where people honestly feel like they’ve seen alien spacecraft. You mentioned kind of governments conspiracy coming out of the, you know, Ray Palmer’s sci fi work at Fate and amazing stories I hear from a lot of believers in aliens that. Yeah, I have. I guess everybody has a relative who saw a UFO once. A lot of these believers say that the government is covering this stuff up, that there’s a massive cover up to keep the public ignorant of all of it. There’s this thing called Project Blue Book. There’s all the blacked out pages and other government documents. And in you know, believers argue that all of this is evidence of a cover up. Let’s start with Project Blue Book. Tell me what that is. 

Project Blue Book started as Project Sign and January of 1948. And then in February of 1949, it became Project Grudge. And then in March of 1952, it became Project Blue Book. 

So these were government investigations of these sightings? 

Not exactly government. They were it was an Air Force program, Basic Wright Patterson Air Force Base, to investigate claims that were made of objects in the sky that were unknown. The original concern and setting up the project was that perhaps they were some kind of secret military weapon the Soviets had deployed. And it’s fairly early on it became apparent that that wasn’t the case. And over the years, over those 22 years, they took in over 12000. And reports, most of which were explain, a few of which were not basically because of bad reporting and activities. But it’s important to note that Bluebook was never bigger than a few people at his biggest. It had about 12 people working on the project. 

So it wasn’t a massive government investigation? 

No, it was never a massive government investigation. It was only, like I say, about 12 people at the max. Most of the time it was only six people. 

And also the highest it was ever classified was secret. It was never classified. Top secret or or higher in classification. And so it was it was it was a program that was continued to basically ensure there wasn’t a threat to national security, basically from the Soviet Union. 

So the concern was not that aliens were visiting us and that was a threat. The concern was that maybe these things people were seeing were Soviet aircraft and that could be a threat. 

Yes, the threat was the threat was perceived to be from the Soviet Union, not from aliens. And it was it was never technically a scientific program. It was just a program to ensure there wasn’t a threat to national security. And once once the Air Force a commissioned a scientific report that was conducted at the University of Colorado from about nineteen sixty six to 1968. 

That’s the Condon Report. 

That is the famous now called the Condon Report. It’s actual title is the final report of the scientific study of unidentified flying object, but it’s commonly called a condom report. 

And once that report was commissioned and they did an investigation for two years and found that there was no threat to national security and in fact, they found it, there was no advanced technology involved in any of these sightings, no threat to national security and certainly no extraterrestrial vehicles. 

They did state that it might be worthy of further academic study, but only from a sociological and a psychological standpoint in a physical object standpoint. 

In other words, to explore why people believe this stuff despite there being little actual evidence. 

That is correct. They were they were totally interested. I thought that that would be the only thing worthwhile. And Air Force, because it wasn’t a threat to national security, caused the program in December of 1969. And since 1969, the Air Force has not investigated UFOs. In fact, not only does it not investigated UFOs, it does not even take reports of UFOs. 

Despite the conspiracy theories to the contrary, the government is not in the business of UFO investigations. 

I can’t say the government because I as a retired Air Force pilot, I was very familiar with what the Air Force does. But to the best of my knowledge, and I held the highest security clearance you can hold. I never saw any evidence that I know the United States Air Force doesn’t. And the best of my knowledge, after 1969, nothing in the government that I’m aware of was ever commission to investigate UFOs. 

When you were talking about Project Blue Book and I also know the same is true for the Condon Report. There were unsolved cases. There were cases that were looked into and the investigators couldn’t really comment one way or the other that believers in UFOs used those unsolved mysteries as evidence that there was something really going on. You know, some some alien presence actually visiting us. 

Well, they they do indeed do that. 

But, of course, when you consider how accurate and how flawed human perception is, and that’s basically all these cases were were anecdotal stories of people saying they saw something. The fact that they’re not reporting accurately what they actually saw. And in some cases, of course, there were fraud. And Bob, the number of cases that were actually reported to Bluebook were actually fraud that was trying to be committed. But it’s not surprising that five percent of the cases would not be explainable simply because of the lack of accurate data and the inaccuracy of human perception. If you’re looking at it from a scientific standpoint and you’re trying to look at statistical significance of investigating something, five percent is insignificant. 

So lack of an explanation for a sighting is not itself an explanation that it was a UFO. 

No, I simply says that we either. This report is totally and accurate. The person reported very poorly or they didn’t give enough information that we can make an accurate assessment of what it might have been. Ah, of course, it could have been due to some natural, rare phenomena that would would be very difficult to assess with just an eyewitness testimony. 

Can’t you see, though, to the believer how what you just said seems so insufficient? You know, someone who knows for a fact that aliens are among us. They’re visiting us on a daily, weekly, monthly basis, whatever, and they hear a skeptic say, well, these things are unexplained. Therefore, we have to withhold judgment. Well, that’s just not very satisfying. 

Well, perhaps is not satisfying to a believer. But then again, the believers believe for all kinds of various reasons psychologically and they’re not I that doesn’t bother me at all. You have to ask the question a different way. Is there any evidence that alien spacecraft harvesting the Earth today? And the answer is no. There is no empirical evidence that that is occurring. 

And and there is no evidence that ever has been assessed. So what you’re saying is when you say something like that, as you’re saying that I believe this, therefore you should go out and find some evidence to support my belief. There simply is no evidence to support this idea. And until there is evidence and this is, of course, one of the reasons that the scientific community has never been very interested in this subject is the fact that there is no evidence in the scientific community really has a very negative attitude about this whole UFO phenomenon. 

The scientific community is interested in evidence one way or the other. And since there’s a complete lack of evidence, you’re saying it makes it an uninteresting question to the vast majority of scientists? 

That is correct in the end, and there’s nothing in it. This is very much a will of the wisp kind of phenomena in which almost all of the reports are nothing but anecdotal stories with nothing to support this person’s story. 

So how do you investigate that? You can investigate whether the person is sociologically or psychologically stable. You can investigate whether they are have some kind of illness or something, but to investigate what they actually claimed. All you have is their statement, which is not corroborated by anything. 

Well, you have all kinds of other lines of evidence, too, don’t you? You have photographic evidence. You have video graphic evidence in this context. Let’s talk about the Phenix lights. OK. You’re from Arizona. So you were there for all the publicity surrounding this widely reported sighting of UFOs there and in the Phenix area. 

What’s the scoop on the Phenix lights from your point of view? 

The Phenix Lights is a classical case of where something really did occur in the sky, but was totally misinterpreted. It occurred on 13 March 1997. A number of people in the Phenix, Arizona area saw lights in the sky. These, like, made no sound. Many people claim that the series of lights, which was depending on the timing of it, was either nine lights or five lights. They claim they connected the dots and made all the lights, HD lights on a big object a mile across. Many people said it must be a UFO. That’s what the claims were at the time. 

Right. I’ve I’ve seen the video online and there was a Peter Jennings special recently and other special on ABC. They don’t seem like aircraft flying in formation, which is what some skeptics say. It seemed like one big aircraft slowly moving across Phenix and was very eerie. And, you know, I see white people say, wow, I saw aliens or an alien spacecraft. 

Well, first off, all they saw was lights in the sky. You’re making a giant leap of faith to say this is one object and then you’re making it even more grotesque leap of faith to claim it’s an alien spacecraft. But let’s look at what this truly was. It’s important to note on this case that two different sets of lights were seen that night. 

One at a thirty, one at 10-15. The one that has mostly seen on the video where there’s perhaps a dozen videos of it, is the 10-15 lights that form this V looking formation low in the sky. That is what most people think of when they see the Phenix lights. The story behind the Phenix lights is quite clear. At eight thirty, the advice that came over Phenix was the formation of military aircraft with their formation lights on, which is makes aircraft flying in formation quite different, looking in the sky. They flew over Phenix. They were seen by a few people and only one video clip exists of the 830 lights. It is clear that they took off of Las Vegas out of Nellis Air Force Base because there are reports of this formation of five lights coming down from Anderson, Nevada, and the Superstition Mountains. And Paul in Arizona, Before they get over Phenix, and to make it more compelling, there was an amateur astronomer in Phenix that night who happened to put his large telescope on and saw they looked at this five lights in a V formation. And clearly there were aircraft from the. What do you see on videotape? Most of the time is the 10-15 lights. These lights were a couple of eight hands flying on a rain. That was about one hundred and fifty miles away from Phenix. And they were ready to go home that night and they had nine flares. A very particular kind of flare just designed to illuminate a circle on the ground about a mile across. And they put out about two million candle power. They’re so bright that at one hundred and fifty miles, they’re as bright as Venus. So they dropped all of these nine flares at once and then went home. And this is clearly what you see on the video. Mm hmm. 

So here you’ve given this kind of skeptical explanation, kind of you debunked the whole Phenix Lights belief. Right. But people will still continue believing that the Phenix lights are ironclad proof of alien visitation of the planet Earth. James, how do you get through to people who have unshakable conviction that they just saw a UFO or that they’ve seen the video of the Phenix lights? And despite what you skeptic with an agenda and maybe you’re a government agent or something, you know, disinformation guy? 

What do you say to people who believe, despite the evidence, if they believe and despite the evidence, there’s not much you can say because what they’re doing is admitting that their belief is irrational and they’re going to believe it in spite of what the evidence says. And it doesn’t make any difference to them. 

So you would just call anyone who doesn’t believe in the explanation you just gave you just kind of dismissed them as being irrational. 

If someone has the evidence for any particular case in this case, we’re talking about the Phenix lights and still continues to believe that this is an alien spacecraft. When all was seen in the sky was nine lights and five lights, then that is simply totally irrational. It is without ability. There is nothing rationally you can say about that. If you look at that and say, first off, even if even if I hadn’t said anything about what these lights were, they were just lights, nine lights and five lights. It is an incredible leap of irrationality to go from that to saying this is an alien spacecraft from another world. And that is, after all. What is interesting to these people, remember in the evidence, is not just what I’ve said. That night, you can look at the videotape and clearly see the lights are not a solid object because the lights move and respect each other. There was no radar reports that night of the nine lights because they were ordered 50 miles away and there were flares. Be the five lights that flew over Phenix and they were flying at altitude. It was not reported on radar as well because they were flying under visual conditions and they were flying above the terminal control area, which is the area around dense airports. 

And as a result, they wouldn’t even have been. They pop perhaps where they’ve been on radar, but they would have been unnoticed because they weren’t in here space that was being controlled. 

What you were getting at is that people are going to believe, despite the evidence. 

Absolutely. People believe in spite the evidence. And this is true of all belief in paranormal claims, but belief itself is an incredibly complicated psychological phenomena involving many, many different things. But when someone truly wants to believe something is true, then no amount of evidence is going to change their mind to that. And that because it becomes part of their rural view, it becomes part of their psyche in a way that is difficult to break down because in some sense is the house of cards that makes up their life. And once you take one of those parts out, say, well, this is not true, then that whole house of cards comes tumbling down. 

Well, and that kind of fills you with existential dread. If you’re really invested in this world view that says aliens are visiting us and they have this great plan for the future of humanity. They’ll solve our problems. Then you say no. Ain’t no such thing. Then that throws their whole kind of comforting worldview into question. 

Yes, it absolutely does. It is a world view. And of course, this has when you go into the areas of belief. This gets into areas where things get really quite complicated, involving the ideas of hope and salvation and trying to counteract the ideas of basically doom, salvation versus doom. Good versus evil. Hope versus fear. Order versus chaos. These are things that people put in their worldview to help them. And a very chaotic world that humans simply do not like disorder and chaos. And they will come up with ways to combat that. And one of them is believing in things that sort of have this hopeful idea in it. And ufology is certainly one of those. 

Mm hmm. James, I want to finish up with the question of significance. You mentioned earlier about how many scientists don’t consider these questions to merit their attention. So let me ask you, as you know, kind of a renowned skeptic of these claims, what does it really matter if people believe this UFO stuff, if it fills them with the kind of hope you were just talking about, even though you think it’s nonsense? It seems to kind of serve a purpose in their lives further. Aren’t these questions kind of trivial? You know, if you’re tilting against windmills, you’re going out trying to argue people out of their belief in UFOs. Aren’t there bigger questions facing our species that rationally minded people should be setting them themselves, too? 

Well, again, the social ideas, the social fabric of society has to be based on rationality and being able to know what is true and what is not true. One of the things that certainly has been ongoing with the flying saucer myth is that it’s a living myth and a myth, and it’s changing in very bizarre ways. It is evolved into conspiracy about governments, about ruling powers, about grays interacting with the government and inductions about cover ups by government and science and the news media. 

And this all breeds distrust in institutions and society. 

Right. There’s a really weird intersection of religion, conspiracy theory and ufology. You know, the belief that not only are aliens among us, but our ruling class, our ruling elite are aliens themselves, lizard people or something. 

And the government’s covering it up. And it’s all some attempt to control. You know, the the peons, the ordinary, everyday Joe. And you’re seeing that sort of belief leads people to not be as good a citizen as, you know, we all want us to be. 

Yes, that’s true. And of course, the myth has become more and more bizarre and darker over the years. And it’s gotten to the point not on a being irrational about believing this, but it’s become more and more of this conspiracy ideas have led more and more to widespread rejection of science and technology and to the rejection of analytical thinking, and that evil forces are actually manipulating everywhere, institutions of governments, society and so forth, and humans that are looking for order out of this or simply looking in the wrong place. 

This is a bankrupt idea to think that somehow meaning can come from the sky, which has been a overriding issue. 

If you think about gods coming from the sky and salvation coming from the sky. This is an old thing. But this is basically the flying saucer myth is basically a space age mythology, which has an ongoing and living and changing nature to it. 

That is, day by day becoming more and more bizarre and darker in its feelings. And and people are becoming more and more distrustful of institutions because of it. Hmm. 

Thank you very much for our discussion, James McGehee. 

Thank you very much. D.J., I enjoyed it very much. 

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Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded from St. Louis, Missouri. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiry’s music is composed for by Emmy Award winning Michael. Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.