UFOs, white noise & muddy waters
Just because you're paranoid ... oh never mind
Thought for today.
"We are always dying – I while I write, you while you read, and others while they listen or block their ears; they are all dying." (Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel)
In 1856 Napoleon III had a problem with various tribes in Algeria who were unhappy with French colonial rule.
To help deter them from revolting he had the idea of encouraging influential locals to believe that the French could harness powerful supernatural forces, making rebellion a bad idea.
To prove it Napoleon sent one of France's best magicians on a diplomatic mission to demonstrate these powers.
Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin was a master illusionist. Among his tricks was to have someone shoot him with a specially marked bullet, which he then produced from between his teeth, demonstrating that he was invincible. Another trick involved sprinkling a mysterious powder onto an empty wooden box to make it impossible to lift.
This contribution to pacifying the natives earned him the title of Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur, one of France's highest orders of merit.
These antics may be among the first recorded examples of a Western government using woo woo to muddy the waters of a public conversation.
What made the tribes vulnerable to such influence was that they were already in thrall to marabouts - Islamic scholars who claimed to have supernatural powers themselves.
We have marabouts in our own secular culture and they make us similarly vulnerable to believing things that we're probably wrong about.
Over 150 years later, Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin appeared in a document outlining strategies of psychological manipulation that was apparently leaked from Britain's GCHQ - Britain's intelligence, security and cyber agency. The Intercept reproduced it here.
It's a presentation, with section headings like 'We want to build Cyber Magicians' or 'Dissimulation - Hide the Real, Simulation - Show the False' and references to things like 'Online Covert Action Accreditation'.
Who knows the true bona fides of this; whether it was really leaked or 'leaked' in a meta kind of way? If the point of the activities it describes is to sow confusion and mistrust among very online people and encourage the conspiratorially-minded to see deception everywhere, revealing your very high level game plan is hardly a setback. It's probably part of the deception.
In passing, it's not easy to ascertain whether it was ever even fully verified as a secret GCHQ document anyway. Inevitably GCHQ gave a careful, guarded boilerplate statement when asked about it, saying that everything they do is within the law etc.
Nothing like this ever really moves us very far forward in knowing much about which controversial perspectives are the result of 'psy ops' and which are just messy concatenations of factors.
We'll believe what we do about the agendas behind what governments and their intelligence arms say. Clandestine manipulation is a popular explanation for all sorts of things. Which is why so many Republican voters believe that the January 6th madness was orchestrated by agent provocateurs, from the FBI and/or Antifa rather than just passionate people going too far when told to ‘fight like hell’.
'UFOlogy' is rife with this kind of thinking. All the big stories pitch claim and counter-claim about what governments know and what's being kept from the public. Popular belief in alien origins is now supplemented by fears about Chinese or other country’s drones, muddying the waters even more.
The scene has received something of a re-brand in recent times, apparently resulting in military personnel and civil pilots shrugging off their onetime reluctance to appear flaky by reporting their own sightings more often. About twice as often as they used to. Now that UFOs are known as UAP (unexplained aerial phenomena) we're seeing a marked increase in reported sightings by seemingly authoritative witnesses.
Ever since the New York Times splashed its piece on the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program and we all became aware of 'Tic Tac', 'Gimbal' and some green triangles swooping around, UFOs have become respectable.
This CNN clip is a classic of the modern genre, presenting it all as serious news.
You can catch up on how openly excited some authorities have become since that 2017 New York Times 'reveal' via this Forbes piece - NASA Launches Study on UFOs. (The study didn’t tell us anything new).
But something odd seems to be happening with all this, which the casual news consumer probably doesn't realise.
We're naturally receptive to the romance of alien visitors or fear of foreign states developing surprisingly advanced military capabilities, making it easy to lose sight of what constitutes real evidence. And we're so relieved when apparently serious people tell us that something genuinely significant is coming to a head that we (naturally) accept it at face value.
We aren't credulous, then, right? It's qualified people saying things too.
The problem is partly rooted in the entertainment value of story and the insight limitations of the news cycle. Once the story is out, its work is done. It has entertained us and generated the attention that pays the bills for publishers. Any problem with the original story emerging later often barely registers, unless you're paying reasonably close attention.
An example is the 'whistleblower' David Grusch.
It seemed truly odd to hear him repeating at least one claim that even ardent UFOlogists have long agreed is pure fantasy fodder*; that the US recovered an alien craft - complete with biological non-human remains - in the possession of Benito Mussolini's government at the end of WW2 - with the help of the Vatican.
[*links to long Metabunk thread discussing the history of that story]
Grusch made big news with his claims, partly because of apparently impeccable credentials as a decorated combat veteran with a history of genuine jobs in military intelligence.
Less widely reported later were some legitimate questions about his reliability as a witness. That he has had grievous personal problems is not to stigmatise any mental health issues. But it's a prima facie reason to regard his extraordinary testimony with more caution, though.
Over time, Grusch seems to have shifted somewhat from the sincere and impeccably credentialed witness into a much more familiar true-believer persona. Such as with these observations, reportedly made in a conference presentation to the Sol Foundation.
Imagine a future where we no longer need to speculate about our place in the cosmos.
The release of info ... has the potential to unite humanity, regardless of the ontological shock that would ensue.
[Disclosure] will involve the releasing of info in a controlled and planned manner.
This is a new era of spiritual awakening.
We are in a paradigm shift with the power in our hands to transform our world.
We are working towards a more enlightened and interconnected world.
And so it always seems that every great UFO story has troublesome strands which, when pulled, start to undermine the integrity of its core claims.
To understand what those strands look like in the case of Grusch, this Metabunk thread contains original documentary evidence that calls much of what he says into question.
The way his story is changing over time is (for me) a strong hint that it’s unwise to take it all too seriously.
None of this kind of confusion is surprising if you watch the documentary Mirage Men, in which a former counterintelligence officer with the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI), says that his job involved deliberately seeding stories about extraterrestrial visitations into the public realm.
One of his targets for encouraging these beliefs ended up having a nervous breakdown and spending time in a psychiatric institution.
Since this piece isn't about relitigating whether or not there really are spectacularly advanced examples of human or extraterrestrial engineering appearing all over the place, let's stick with this former counterintelligence officer who provides the centrepiece interviews in Mirage Men.
Richard Doty delivers the money shot right at the end.
Having dispassionately recounted how he and his colleagues drove poor Paul Bennewitz (a very smart guy) into a catastrophic mental health crisis, with planted evidence of alien infrastructure in nearby mountains and by feeding him imagined alien communications, Doty then confesses something.
You should already be guessing what he says.
Doty may have spent his career feeding false stories into the UFO community. But he still has one bombshell to drop.
Which is - of course - he has also seen with his own eyes hard evidence that there really are aliens visiting Earth.
It's a perfect moment. The one when you realise that there's no point in overthinking all this UFO stuff. Because the whole landscape is so contaminated by entertainers, professional dissimulators, religiously passionate believers and people who default to conspiracy mode on anything said by governments that there can only possibly be more heat than light.
When Richard Doty moves so smoothly from pissing on the bonfire of every true believer to being their salvation his job is done. The weapon of mass deception (as someone describes him in the film) has won. You don't know what to think, which I guess is the point.
The recent official and media mainstreaming of UFO lore turns out not to have raised the level of discussion at all. As this new film - by sceptic community stalwart Brian Dunning - suggests, even those Pentagon videos are explicable without even accepting that any new types of flying machine are involved, let alone ones of alien origin.
Watching that film is a sanity check by reminding us of how low the typical standard of evidence offered for UFOs being actual mysterious material objects generally is.
But the stories remain irresistible to us, and even more so today because they are taken seriously by some very serious people.
Babak Taghvaee, a specialist journalist writing for Combat Aircraft Monthly, revealed a leaked Iranian air force investigation into UAP encountered (fatally, in one case) by its fighter jets. Almost exactly at the same time as that New York Times piece landed.
The report quotes one pilot as saying:
"It was the first time ever that I encountered such a flying object and based on its manoeuvrability and specifications, it is not comparable to any known flying machine in the world. I estimate its speed over Mach 10 ..."
And so it goes on. The Iranians' conclusion was that the UFOs were US drones.
This idea that inexplicable encounters with flying things can be attributed to drones of advanced capability seems to bring even more white noise to this field. Presumably this is convenient for a 'military industrial complex' that loves a good threat and the hypothesis also appeals to anyone who enjoys feeling angry about the wool being pulled over their eyes by governments.
It's a situation where many key players have no incentive for scepticism and the most obvious recent entrants into the fold of believers are ordinary anxious politicians, who need to be seen taking it seriously as a potential national security threat. (It doesn't help that there are true believers in very influential places now).
Everyone who hates official secrecy has also been able to pivot from demanding information about alien visits to demanding information about drones of apparently incredible flying ability sent by geopolitical adversaries.
No significant belief updating required by anyone, then.
'They’re Chinese/American/whoever's drones' has been a game changer for amplifying the white noise and obscuring any possible signal in these incidents, which remain largely unverified as encounters with anything (not even advanced pilotless craft of earthly origin).
This all seems inevitable. Whether it's a French magician tricking Algerians, a USAF guy tricking UFO investigators, GCHQ letting slip how they mess with people's minds and so on, there is always something going on to make even the conditions virtually unnavigable.
You expect a personal conclusion here, about what UFOs are. But that's not the point.
It's just interesting to recognise the conditions under which a hot topic is discussed.
In this case, the noise is getting louder, while the signal gets dimmer.
Maybe that tells us something.
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An update on the latest easily verified dishonesty in the children's crusade against Substack's 'nazi problem'. They’re falsely claiming a victory, using misleading reporting. AKA business as usual for activist journalism in which being good and status-seeking always trumps material reality.
And American media is upset and confused that we liberals in France don't care that our new Prime Minister is gay. Which is funny and sad, but also good and heartening if you live here.
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