UFO Update

James Oberg: Omni Magazine, pp. 32, 114-118,

The question of hoaxes presents an interesting aspect of the UFO phenomenon. It can test the adequacy of UFO investigations and measure the powerful "will to believe" of many UFO investigators and authors. Only when, and if, these lessons are fully appreciated will serious UFO investigators be able to escape the suspicion that they are often victimized, willingly or unwillingly by hoaxes.

English physicist David I. Simpson engineered some very revealing "UFO controlled experiment" hoaxes several years ago. According to his report published in the Spring issue of the Skeptical Inquirer, the tests compared known details of fabricated 'UFO' stimuli with the issued statements of investigators. In addition, Simpson wanted to test the abilities of UFO researchers by leaving clues that could suggest a practical solution. The hoaxes were designed to present substantial inconsistencies that would allow any moderately critical investigator to cast strong suspicion on their authenticity.

One particular experiment was performed on the evening of , while a group ot British UFO enthusiasts near Warminster, in Wiltshire, were watching for UFOs that reportedly frequent the region. Simpson installed a purple spotlight on a neighboring hill. As it suddenly flashed on and off, a phony "magnetic detector" sounded an alarm at the observation site. An accomplice with a camera containing preexposed film (which already showed UFO images) made several exposures of the horizon and then handed the camera— the film still inside— to a prominent UFO researcher.

Simpson prepared the hoax film so that the photographed direction and appearance of the "UFO" were grossly at odds with what observers actually beheld. He also saw to it that the first two preexposed frames (taken almost a year earlier) showed background scenes significantly different from the two subsequent real exposures (which of course did not show any UFO). This should have been evident even to the least experienced investigator.

Fact or fantasy? This UFO photo from Pennsylvania is a type commonly associated with hoaxes
Fact or fantasy? This UFO photo from Pennsylvania is a type commonly associated with hoaxes

But no one seemed to notice (and no one even interviewed the photographer). After two months of study by top UFO experts in Europe, the photographs were declared by Flying Saucer Review editor Charles BowenBowen, Charles to be genuine beyond all reasonable doubt.

One consultant reported that there is nothing about these photographs that suggests to me they have been faked in any way whatsoever.

Ufologist Dr. Pierre GuerinGuerin, Pierre, director of research at the Astrophysical Institute of the French National Center for Scientitic Research, reported that there is no question that the object photographed was the result of faking.

An artist's impression of the UFO appeared on the cover of the à issue of Flying Saucer Review; it showed the "object" with an angular diameter ten times too large (the experts had computed that the flying saucer was 60 feet long and 30 feet in diameter).

Eyewitness accounts described how the UFO — purple, fringed with white, having a crimson light in the middle— hovered for a moment and then moved toward Warminster before stopping again. All estimates of direction and duration were significantly erroneous, and the errors accumulated as time passed. (Later the object was described as giving off ultraviolet light and being surrounded by a ruby-red halo.)

Simpson's critique of the "investigation," which he allowed to continue for two and a half years before revealing the hoax, was devastating: My experiences in the UFO field have shown that the investigative incompetence demonstrated by this particular experiment, far from being exceptional, is typical. . . . Occasionally individuals with relevant technical backgrounds become involved; it is disturbing to witness the abandonment of their mental disciplines and common sense. ... If ever there is subtle evidence suggesting extraterrestrial visitation, it is unlikely that it will be discovered by a typical ufologist.

Some UFO hoaxes start out as impulsive pranks rather than as carefully planned scientific experiments. In several college students at the University of Maryland were listening to a call-in radio-show interview with a man who claimed to have been taken by flying saucer people to their home planet, Lanulos, in the distant constellation Ganymede. One of the students, Tom Monteleone, an avid science-fiction buff, called to ask a question. Then Monteleone suddenly thought, Just for the heck of it, why not claim I've been to Lanulos, too? It'll blow his mind!

And so he did and it did. The dumbfounded "contactee," Woodrow DerenbergerLa rencontre de Woodraw Derenberger, quickly regained his composure and corroborated Monteleone's description ot the planet Lanulos, agreeing with details that contradicted things Derenberger had just disclosed on the show. Fifteen minutes later Monteleone hung up and enjoyed a good laugh with his roommates—until the phone rang. The radio station had traced his call and now wanted further information.

For the next fwo years Monteleone went along with the ruse, cleverly providing UFO investigators with information gleaned from Derenberger's accounts and from the general UFO literature. Whenever he "corroborated" information given earlier his credibility rose further (he had told investigators that he was unfamiliar with UFO literature, and they believed him), UFO publicist Harold Salkin was impressed that Monteleone's story was so tightly synchronized with Derenberger's, UFO writer and editor Timothy Green BeckleyBeckley, Timothy Green taped an interview and wrote several magazine articles that presented the account as factual; noted UFO author and theorist John KeelKeel, John called the story one of the most puzzling contact stories in my files. ... I'm forced to accept that it's true (even though, as Monteleone noted, Keel's published accounts of the story were'vastly distorted).

I underwent long interviews, Monteleone recounted in Omni (1979-05). I not only repeated my false experiences but also added further embellishments and absurdities — just to see how far I could carry the hoax before being discredited. Monteleone even submitted to a hypnosis session, sponsored by Salkin, during which he faked the trance and "passed" the test like a champion.

Strangely enough, when the full admission of the hoax was published in Fate magazine late last year (Omni had scooped Fate by a year and a half), Monteleone was the one blamed for all the confusion. His actions, wrote author Karl Pflock, served to muddy still further the already muddy waters of ufology. The last thing we need, if we are to unravel the UFO mystery, is false leads that absorb any part of the far-too-limited resources of serious researchers — which Pflock considered Salkin, Beckley and Keel, among others, to be. This ironic complaint appeared to absolve the gullible investigators of any responsibility for their careless and credulous acceptance of Monleleone's deliberately absurd fabrications. Fate magazine seemed to be saying that it was not their fault that they were hoaxed.

Some other reactions to Monteleone's confession are quite amusing. Salkin, who is described by long-time ufological observer James MoseleyMoseley, James as a warm, likable, but somewhat gullible sort. still refuses to believe Monteleone's confession. Keel is particularly upset and has issued a statement calling the Fate piece "an attempt to discredit my entire body of work and my professional reputation as a journalist for over 35 years." Keel is preparing a lawsuit, according to some accounts.

As for Beckley, he has to worry about fresher wounds in his credibility as a competent UFO investigator. In a recent issue of his monthly tabloid UFO Review, Beckley apparently became the victim of yet another UFO hoax.

In an article entitled "Erotic Encounters of the Very Close Kind," Beckley opened with the startling words, It is not uncommon for the occupants of UFOs to have sexual contact with humans. He tried to lay the foundation for this far-out story in an editorial on the facing page: Some readers undoubtedly will believe that we are getting a wee bit carried away when we turn to sex in order to sell a UFO newspaper. , . . We really aren't trying to capture a larger audience by printing a sensationalistic headline on our cover. If we wanted to take this approach, we'd . . . simply fabricate the stories we print. But we don't cater to the gullible. ... All the items we mention in our story are fully documented. We need not substitute fiction for truth -- for truth is far greater than fiction in the field of UFOlogy.

The principal source of Beckley's "saucer sex" story was a newspaper account dated , which carried the headline kidnapped to venus. Reporter Jerry Burger told of a thirty-one-year-old librarian found by police as she rambled around in a park, wearing no clothes. She claimed she had been abducted by Venusians and taken to the back of the moon, where she was implanted with outer-space semen before being returned to Earth. Beckley reported the case as true and added that such reports are taking place on a global scale There can be little doubt from the documented evidence that some tremendous event is slated to happen that will guide us to a higher understanding ot ourselves and the cosmos. . . . The UFOnauts are trying to teach us a lesson — that love is universal and encompasses every living creature, regardless of their planet or dimension of origin. And for those readers who wanted more information, Beckley added that the "saucer sex" story is just one chapter in his new book, Strange Encounters Bizarre & Eerie Contacts with Flying Saucers, available from the author for $6.95 plus postage and handling.

Unfortunately, Beckley's story is even more absurd than it first appears. Houston spaceflight expert Robert Nichols sent Omni the actual source of the outer-space semen story, in the form of the newspaper clipping Beckley quoted. The article did not come from a newspaper at all, but from a' satirical publication, the Sunday Newspaper Parody, written by the National Lampoon. Beckley (or someone on his staff) evidently made some editorial changes by adding realistic touches to the article and changing the original spelling of the saucer-rape victim from the highly suspicious "Penelope Cuntz" to the acceptably ethnic "Penelope Kuntz." Beckley also altered the name of the newspaper from the Utopian Dacron, Ohio, Republican Democrat to the Toronto Sunday Sun. The entire account, then, is a fictional spoof, but the extent of Beckley's role in promoting and altering it (or merely passing it along credulously) is still undetermined.

Photographs are even more subject to hoaxing. In fact, while only a very small percentage of raw UFO reports are hoaxes, it is generally acknowledged even by UFO believers that the overwhelming majority of published UFO photographs are hoax - either forgeries, models, or misrepresented ordinary phenomena

A classic UFO photographic hoax involved the "Fogl flying saucer" picturesLa photographie de Fogl taken in and first published in . As chronicled by skeptical ufologist David A. Schroth, the photographs were embraced by magazines in Great Britain and the United States; UFO experts argued that some features on the bottom of the flying saucer were identical to features seen in other photographs, testifying to the authenticity of Fogl's photographs. American UFO publicist Ray PalmerPalmer, Ray declared, We are forced to admit this is not a fake. In one of the photographs was presented as authentic in Life, That may have been the last straw for Fogl, who finally revealed that the UFOs were faked — made with a small model hung on a wire. When asked why he did what he did, Fogl replied that he wanted to show that certain people make utter fools of themselves. Far too many people make a racket of the UFO business, writing phony books, supported by faked pictures.

As if in fulfillment of Fogl's point, UFO writers continued to use the hoax pictures. Palmer (who is credited by UFO historian Daniel Cohen with having "invented" the concept of "flying saucers") wrote that it was impossible for the photos to be fakes and that Fogl's confession must be a hoax. And in McGraw-Hill published David C. Knight's UFOs; A Pictorial History, with page 86 proudly presenting one of Fogl's pictures as still authentic.

Another famous UFO hoax provides eloquent warning against well-meaning UFO stories that originate at a great dis- tance in space or time. They are thus immune from any real investigation. If they are hoaxes, it is next to impossible to prove. As part of a "UFO flap" in 1897, the story of Alexander Hamilton, of Yates Center, Kansas, stands out. The farmer reported that a cigar-shaped airship flown by jabbering humanoids hovered over his farm and caught hold of a calf with a rope. Hamilton's account was published in the local newspaper, along with a statement vouching for his honesty, signed by five leading citizens of the town. The story rapidly spread around the world, and for decades UFO writers considered it one of the best-documented "close encounters of the third kind" ever.

Hamilton and the five leading citizens actually had organized a local Liars Club, and Hamilton's "calfnapping airship" whopper, a tall tale through and through, topped all other fabrications. The newspaper story was all a joke, as it turned out, but neither the editor nor the town citizens realized how seriously the outside world had taken the account. It was not until early that the full story appeared, in Fate magazine. Associate editor Jerry Clark, a diligent and highly principled pro-UFO investigator, revealed what he called the biggest hoax ever known in UFO history when he published hitherto-unknown documentation that established beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Kansas farmer's story was phony.

Buf the same old "uforic" patterns continued. New writers based their books and articles on older UFO books and articles, not relying On original sources or their own independent verification. Among the subsequent UFO literature that continued to use the Hamilton story as if it were authentic were Knight's UFOs: A Pictorial History and Ripley's Believe It or Not: Stars, Space and UFOs (thirty-third in a series).

The issue of UFO Journal (issued by MUFON, the Mutual UFO Network, a well-organized private research group with a good reputation) provided some very interesting insights into the minds of a UFO hoaxer and of the UFO investigator who worked on the case. The witness was a twenty-six-year-old security guard who claimed to have encountered aliens in the San Joaquin Valley on . A year and a half later, after trying to dig up supporting evidence, he contacted MUFON.

The investigator (who, along with the witness, was kept anonymous in the article) reported: I was impressed with this young man's sincerity, his apparent honesty, and his concern that he was unable to locate any other witnesses. I am by nature a cautious and suspicious person . . . having run into enough hoaxes and fraudulent cases in my 22 years of investigation to give me adequate insight and recognition for such incidents I was quite satisfied as to his honesty. The UFO incident filled nearly four pages in the magazine.

But at the end of the article the entire tone changed: The important message for all of us, wrote editor Richard Hall, is that this case is a hoax — a confessed hoax. "The investigators didn't find this out for sure until the article had been typeset, but they decided to publish it anyway as a lesson in human vulnerability to hoaxes. The story content fit so well with other cases, and the reporter seemed so 'sincere' and in a responsible position, that we were nearly taken in. Even without the confession, MUFON investigators had become suspicious of glaring discrepancies in the story as told to different investigators, but even those considerations might not have been enough to prove the case a hoax if the witness himself had not confessed when confronted with the inconsistencies and contradictions in his story.

In a letter to MUFON, the hoaxer (code-named "Carl" to preserve his anonymity) explained his motives: All my life I had been a nobody, unimportant. ... I wanted to be important. ... I am not psychologically deranged but just wanted some attention. But he had not apparently acted as if he sought attention. He certainly had not sought publicity. Indeed, the investigator had originally reported that fearing ridicule and harassment from friends and coworkers, Carl kept this story to himself until he simply had to tell someone who would help ease his frustration and anxiety. Evidently the "adequate insight" into hoaxes that the MUFON investigator claimed to possess involved something other than factual evidence.

MUFON's decision to publish the San Joaquin hoax story with the confession was a courageous one, since it did make its investigator sound rather foolish. But the UFO group demonstrated commendable maturity in choosing to try to have all its investigators learn from the experience, lest it be repeated on a wide scale. It still may not help.

The other famous hoaxes were not universally swallowed, either. Monteleone's space trip to Lanulos was never believed by most of the "nuts and bolts" UFO buffs who have for so long despised the crackpot contactees and the bad publicity they have brought to the subject. James MoseleyMoseley, James, editor of Flying Saucer News, wrote that Monteleone clearly was not a "classic contactee" and evidently never believed his own story. A perceptive conclusion! However, the Fogl photographs and Simpson's experiment in England would probably not have survived the sophisticated photoanalytical techniques now used by some UFO groups, notably William Spaulding's high-technology Ground Saucer Watch, in Phoenix, and the GEPAN laboratories, in Paris.

The extent to which serious UFO groups seem determined to detect and reject hoaxes was demonstrated last year when, virtually without exception, all major groups and leading investigators publicly denounced Genesis-Ill Productions' book UFOs: Contact from the Pleiades. While the strikingly handsome collection of flying-saucer photographs was being billed'by its publishers as the greatest UFO breakthrough in human history, a number of pro-UFO researchers circulated reports that claimed that the whole business was a money-making fraud. For once UFO skeptics agreed with their traditionally antagonistic pro-UFO counterparts, though a Genesis-Ill spokesman continues to deny that his company is involved in any hoax.

UFO skeptics, however, go even further in their allegations that there have been hoaxes, and they find themselves in bitter disagreement with pro-UFO forces. Some of the highly publicized classic UFO encounters (such as the 1973 Pascagoula fishermen's accountPascagoula and the 1975 Snowflake, Arizona, woodcutters' accountLa disparition de Travis Walton) and some of the classic UFO photographs (such as the 1950 McMinnville photosLes photographies de McMinnville and the 1957 Trinidade Island photosL'observation de l'île de la Trinité) are considered by skeptics to be hoaxes. Half of the "best UFO cases" of the 1970s-as judged by a blue-ribbon panel of UFO experts sponsored by the National Enquirer—are considered hoaxes, according to independent research by skeptics. Here the battle lines are clearly drawn.

Suggesting that a UFO case is a hoax poses delicate problems. First of all, the UFO witness (whether a hoaxer or not) may have grounds for a libel lawsuit. Although many threats along these lines have been made, so far no suits have been filed. Second, without a confession it is extremely difficult to prove an accusation of "hoax," however spurious the story may sound. Last, UFO skeptics (in particular, the world's undisputed leading skeptic, aviation journalist Philip J. Klass) open themselves up fo countercharges of "character assassination" and "vicious ad hominem attacks" when they point out, usually quite correctly, that the reliability of many famous UFO witnesses is highly questionable because of their past and subsequent histories of exaggeration, fantasy, and outright deception (pro-UFO groups generally downplay, or even cover up, such behavior on the part of people whose credibility they wish to emphasize).

Despite the problems caused by UFO hoaxes (mainly, that they can be far more difficult to solve or even recognize than are "ordinary" honest UFO reports), these patterns in deception can be made useful. Successful hoaxes can help calibrate the reliability of UFO research, as in the case of Monteleone's and Simpson's hoaxes; hoaxes can also instruct serious investigators in caution and humility, as with the San Joaquin hoax reported in JJFO Journal. The claim of the superskeptics, that unsolved UFO cases can all easily be dismissed as unrecognized hoaxes, is unsubstantiated; the claim of UFO eager believers, that the hoax problem is under control, is equally unsubstantiated, if not refuted. And since no one wants to look foolish, the disagreement continues.