By Shane Cashman
“I learned a long time ago that reality was much weirder than anyone’s imagination.”
— Hunter S. Thompson
To some degree, everyone is a conspiracy theorist now. You, me, and my 90-year-old grandma––Presidents, ex-friends, the CIA, and Late-Night TV––you can’t get very far without hearing someone entertain a conspiracy. Ideas that once seemed to exist only on the fringes of polite society have now become part of the zeitgeist.
Depending on the circles you run in, everyday conversations can veer into topics such as: the deep state, simulation theory, Flat Earth, political hit jobs, election fraud, or fake alien invasions. We even meme-away shocking news with phrases like, “we are in the strangest timeline,” which implies that the best explanation for the state of our reality is that there are alternate dimensions, each with varying amounts of absurdity. Even if most of us use the phrase in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way––its popularity sums up the recent existential doubt our society confronted during COVID.
The rate in which a conspiracy theory can become a mainstream anecdote has accelerated over the last few years. It used to seem like it would take years, if not decades, for scraps of “truth” to make their way out of the Pentagon’s basement and into the hands of the people. The slow drip of information regarding certain classified phenomena is infuriating to those who demand transparency.
It was only a year ago that the lab leak hypothesis was routinely mocked and censored for being nothing more than conspiracy. Now, however, it’s climbed the hierarchy of Late-Night TV where someone like Jon Stewart can openly promote the lab leak theory before a live audience without facing any institutional consequences.
The word “conspiracy” has also become a cudgel used to dismiss any idea that others might find dangerous, menacing, or in stark contrast with the way they view their reality––even if that worldview is built upon their own set of conspiracies.
One of our most enduring conspiracy theories is the search for UFOs and extraterrestrials. Are we being visited? Does our government have alien specimens? Do we have access to interstellar spacecraft?
Well, the Pentagon is talking about UFOs again. Something it only seems to do when pressure is applied––but the revelations never really amount to anything groundbreaking.
Last week, at the behest of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the Pentagon released their nine-page Preliminary Assessment of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena or UAP. The unclassified report references 144 encounters with UAP. It also lays out how our
Intelligence officially collects and discerns the different types of UAP that we have encountered ––from birds to plastic bags; from ice crystals to thermal fluctuations; from Foreign Adversary Systems that “may be technologies deployed by China, Russia… or a non-governmental entity;’” or Industry Developmental Programs––in other words, top secret government military experiments. Lastly, they have an Other category that encompasses any miscellaneous UAP that require “additional scientific knowledge to successfully collect on, analyze, and characterize [UAP].”
The report does, however, offer a stark contrast to the way our government used to speak officially about the potential threat of UFOs. The new report states: “UAP clearly pose a safety flight issue and may pose a challenge to U.S. national security.”
This is a much different tone than what was offered in 1966 after a rash of UFO sightings across the United States. From the 1966 Report of the Air Force’s Scientific Advisory Board: “The committee concluded that in the 19 years since the first UFO was sighted, there has been no evidence that unidentified flying objects are a threat to our national security.”
At the time, House Minority Leader Gerald R. Ford, R-MI, was not happy with the Air Force’s explanations. Ford released a statement on March 28, 1966 that stated: “I have taken special interest in these accounts because many of the latest reported sightings have been in my home state of Michigan…The Air Force sent a consultant, astrophysicist Dr. J. Allen Hynek of Northwestern University… to investigate the various reports; and he dismissed all of them as the product of college student pranks or swamp gas or an impression created by the rising crescent moon and the planet Venus. I do not agree that all of these reports can be or should be so easily explained away.”
(Dr. Hynek would eventually admit that he, too, believes that UFOs deserved an even higher level of study. After years of skepticism, he eventually claimed to change his opinion on UFOs after hearing from certain military pilots whom he found to be highly credible witnesses.)
Four years after Ford’s letter, Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s secret study into UFOs, was declassified. It detailed encounters with 12,618 sightings and of those 701 were unexplainable. (Dr. Hynek was a consultant for Project Blue Book.)
Of the 144 encounters mentioned in the latest Pentagon report, only one has been identified. That UAP turned out to be a “deflating balloon.”
The last well-known time the Pentagon told us they saw a balloon was in Roswell, New Mexico, 1947.
The Roswell Incident is so burned into our culture’s DNA that it’s almost impossible to divorce the image of little green men from the name Roswell, but it still serves as the epicenter for a lot of mainstream UFO conspiracy theories. It is a mecca for some enthusiasts, but for others it’s little more than a roadside attraction through America’s mythology. In “A Roswell Requiem,” B.D. Gildenberg noted that the events of 1947 were “the world’s most famous, most exhaustively investigated, and most thoroughly debunked UFO claim.” Nevertheless, an entire economy was born out of alien tourism.
After reports of debris from a “flying saucer” were discovered near Roswell, and the news spread fast, it took only a day for the official narrative to switch to it being merely a crashed weather balloon. Personally, as I read the latest UAP report, I have a hard time believing that we are still mistaking hi-tech balloons for what could be interstellar spacecraft.
It took years for Roswell’s “flying saucer” to officially be explained away by the government as part of Project Mogul––a top secret Air Force experiment that used high-altitude balloons to detect possible sound waves from far off Soviet bomb tests. But how many people remember Project Mogul today? Some of us, perhaps, but it certainly hasn’t entered the collective consciousness as much as the little green men.
The majority of the recent UAP encounters took place in the sky above military training facilities. The report admits this to be a weak point in their research because it shows how limited their scope is––as far as this declassified version goes.
What seems likely, for now, is that most of these encounters could fall under the Industry Developmental Programs category. That our own government is behind these UAP––that they have been building top secret experiments for years while certain politicians and the public aren’t allowed access to the knowledge.
On November 23, 2013, Military.com reported on the TR-3B Anti-Gravity Spacecraft––a triangular spacecraft that can defy gravity. It looks like it could skip through space-time. If these are or have been in development, it should stand to reason that our military is developing other unimaginable technology.
It should surprise no one who has studied the Manhattan Project, or MK Ultra, or Operation Midnight, or the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment that our government has a history of flirting with nearly fantastical, sometimes horrific, concepts.
If you are aware of the depths to which our government, and others, have gone to study war and psychology in secret, it could become increasingly tougher to dismiss new conspiracies when they emerge as theory.
The lack of transparency between the authorities and the people, I believe, only exacerbates the conspiracies. Out of an abundance of secrecy and vague government-speak, the people are left to connect the dots themselves––which can lead to any number of interpretations. Additionally, it’s the space within the not-knowing where some of our public intellectuals adopt absolute confidence to explain away what seems like the unexplainable––which comes off as narrow-minded.
Neil deGrasse Tyson recently tweeted: “How egocentric of us to think that Space Aliens, who have mastered interstellar travel across the Galaxy, would give a shit about humans on Earth.”
Do we not spend massive amounts of money trying to understand single-cell organisms, deep sea invertebrates, water on mars, fossils of isopods, to make sense of existence––on a grand scale? If “space aliens” were intelligent enough to have mastered interstellar travel wouldn’t their sense of the galaxy (or galaxies) become, on a much larger scale, like how we might view our world and its neighboring space? It would make sense to me that another species capable of traveling in great and inconceivable ways through outer space would also find it important to study everything––even humans.
It should be noted that Tyson’s mentor, Carl Sagan, took the time to shoot a coded disc into outer space on the Voyager 1 space probe just in case an alien species might intercept it.
But Tyson isn’t alone in his dismissiveness of alien life––or his cynicism of humanity. Clara Sousa-Silva, a quantum astro-chemist at Harvard, was a guest on Lex Fridman’s eponymous podcast in which she said, “I will bet everything that we have not been visited because we are too pathetic to hold that truth.”
Earlier in that same episode, Fridman offered, “I’m a huge proponent of being open-minded, because when you’re open-minded about aliens, for example, it allows you to think out of the box in other domains… in ways you can’t predict… Too many scientists roll their eyes at alien life and, to me, it’s one of the most exciting possibilities and [one of the] biggest most exciting questions before all of human civilization.”
To be fair, there have also been people within the highest ranks of U.S. intelligence who, like Fridman, have taken the theory of aliens and UFOs seriously.
Vice Admiral Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter, who was the first director of the CIA, told Congress: “It is time for the truth to be brought out… Behind the scenes high-ranking Air Force officers are soberly concerned about the UFOs. However, through official secrecy and ridicule, many citizens are led to believe the unknown flying objects are nonsense… I urge immediate Congressional action to reduce the dangers from secrecy about unidentified flying objects.” Hillenkoetter would resign two years later, and in resignation letter he wrote, “I know the UFOs are not U.S. or Soviet devices. All we can do now is wait for some actions by the UFOs.”
Meanwhile, in the week following the latest Pentagon report, most of the establishment TV news channels have run five-minute puff pieces that reduce the conversation down into something laughable before a cute segue into the weather report. They tend to do this about any topic that might be shrouded in stigma. And in doing so, it only challenges the trust between them and their audiences who might be starved for something more nuanced and serious.
The collective leap we’ve all seemed to take into entertaining conspiracy seems like a normal reaction to our current situation. Polite society has eroded, there is violent political division, a pandemic, government overreach… all these things must, I believe, add up to a public desperately trying to make sense of a world that feels like it’s spinning out of control. I don’t mean that UFO sightings should all be explained away by a collective mental break––but it’s one possibility to explain some of the UFOs. There seems to be a spike in sightings during times of mass unrest. Look at World War 2. Look at Watergate. Look at the Cold War. Look at COVID. But, I also like to think it could mean we’re being visited (and or studied) by whoever is flying the UFOs closer than usual during times of turmoil. What better time to observe a species than when it is experiencing worldwide existential upheaval?
In the last year, we’ve seen mass riots, redistribution of wealth, existence of pig-human chimeras, and as TIME Magazine reported in February 2021 about the 2020 general election: “There was a conspiracy unfolding behind the scenes, one that both curtailed the protests and coordinated the resistance from CEOs…” So––maybe it’s OK to be a little suspicious of the Pentagon when they tell you they saw another balloon.
At the rate we’re going, what was conspiracy yesterday might be common sense today. And as our politicians push for public hearings on more UFO findings, I’d like to think that what was paranormal yesterday, could become normal tomorrow.
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