Thursday, May 1, 2014

Book Review: UFOs, by Leslie Kean (2010)

Rating: 5/5 - Go read this book right now!

I like to fancy myself a skeptic; evidence is kind of my thing. If you're going to make a claim, you should back it up. I try to marshal a lot of my own thoughts with the evidence-based approach. For this reason, cracking open Leslie Kean's UFOs today felt like getting hit in the face with a baseball bat - of evidence!

I arrived at this book with probably an average intellectual history on the subject of "Unidentified Flying Objects." At a young age, I was fascinated with - and slightly terrified of - the anecdotal accounts I had read, often featuring artist's embellishments: the lonely couple, driving along a country road before being abducted by a looming, light-filled saucer, manned by slit-eyed aliens at the helm, of course only recall the trauma of ghastly sexual probing while undergoing "hypnosis therapy." Unsurprisingly, it did not take long to shake loose from this dubious (to say the least) material, partially aided by some of the writings of Carl Sagan, who participated in UFO investigations by the US Air Force and asserted in his book, The Demon Haunted World, that "alien abductions" are easily explained by mass hysteria and waking hallucinations.

I became acquainted with other, likely explanations: swamp lights, weather balloons, abnormal weather, navigation lights on planes, crop circle hoaxers, forged photographs. We know the overall Hollywoodization of UFOs as extraterrestrial vessels of all kinds. Basically, pop culture says UFOs = aliens, preferably either really powerful or really goofy ones. (Close Encounters of the Third Kind is still one of my all-time favorite movies, though.) Now, UFOs are the subjects of satirized 50s-horror.

The somewhat stalled-out facade of UFOs today.

I think this collection of images and a general dismissal of UFO research to the confines of conspiracy-nut fantasyland is where not only I, but many of us, approach the subject from. It feels like a settled issue. Maybe our society was scared by UFOs for a little bit, in the past, but now we can laugh about it because we know better.

Enter Leslie Kean.

In an interview with MSNBC from 2010, Kean stated that the purpose of her book was to explore the roughly "five percent" of UFO reports that remain unexplained after official investigation. Ninety-five percent of "UFO" (Or "UAP," Unexplained Aerial Phenomena) reports probably fit in to the list of explanations I rattled off above, that is, they can be explained by natural or man-made phenomena.

However, once one starts to wade into the well-documented sea of that remaining, unexplained five percent, the laughter dies down rather quickly. This is the realm of quite shockingly verifiable evidence, not some half-assed campfire story. Some of the most credible UFO events are compilations of hundreds of independently confirmed reports matching in description and location, others are documented by original camera or radar data, and still others are backed by not only the pilots, high-ranking government workers and military officials who reported them, but also the follow-ups: extensive panel investigations that time and again methodically trudge through physical, climatological, psychological, artificial, or other possibilities until again and again arriving at the same startling conclusion: the evidence is detailed and reliable/the photo hasn't been tampered with/the eyewitnesses are credible, and we have no idea what the hell happened on [insert dozens of dates, times, and locations]. 

The fact of the matter is, a strain of evidence from hundreds of aviation, civilian, and military reports from around the world demonstrate quite convincingly that there is some sort of weird phenomenon taking place in Earth's skies, involving high-speed objects with incredible maneuverability and physics-defying capabilities. That, as it turns out, is not so difficult to establish.

What is difficult to establish is anything beyond this disconcerting realization - What are these things? Are they man-made? How do they work? Where do they come from? Do they pose a threat to us, specifically aviation? The line between fact and fiction is not crossed by acknowledging UFOs; it is crossed when giddily speculating the answers to these questions. (Looking at you, Spielberg).

As it turns out, this societal stigma of associating UFO research with crazy alien people is detrimental to finding out what is actually going on with this well-documented phenomenon. Kean isn't pretending to hold all the answers; she simply gathers up the best data she can find, holds it aloft, and asks, "Can we maybe look into this business?"

That, to me, seems like a reasonable and exciting question.