The New Yorker article on UFOs

The New Yorker has a reputation for being a serious magazine. It is famed for its rigorous fact-checking of its pieces. So when I came across an article in the May 10, 2021 issue titled How the Pentagon Started Taking U.F.O.s Seriously, I took the article seriously. My attitude towards UFOs is, I suspect, similar to that of many, deep skepticism about the claims that extra-terrestrials have visited us but that the issue is not worth the effort to look into and debunk each and every claim closely.

The piece by Daniel Lewis-Kraus is very, very long, even by New Yorker standards, and like many long-form pieces of this nature, it wraps the ostensible subject matter around a profile of a single individual. In this case that individual is a reporter Leslie Kean who has been writing about this topic for decades, has published a book on it, and had many pieces accepted in mainstream outlets like the New York Times. Lewis-Kraus gives her a lot of space to expound her views.

Kean seems to be a believer and has been pushing the government to both study Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP, seemingly the preferred term to UFO of people who think there is something there) and to release all the information it has on the topic. The article provides plenty of examples of events that UFOlogists claim show that we have been visited, many more than I had been aware of. It appears that former Democratic senate majority leader Harry Reid and current Senator Marco Rubio seem to be sympathetic to the idea and have pushed for government funding to study it.

Lewis-Kraus seems impressed with Kean and the tone of his article varies between credulity to occasional mild skepticism. He mostly paints her as a dispassionate truth-seeker who is fighting the skeptical conventional wisdom but on occasion he suggests that she is a partisan who is dismissive of those who are skeptical of UAPs. Here is an occasion where Lewis-Kraus brings up the work of Mick West, who has been debunking many of the UAP claims.

During one of my phone calls with Kean—greatly pleasurable distractions that tended to absorb entire afternoons—I mentioned to her that I had been in touch with Mick West. It was the only time I had known her to grow peevish. “If Mick were really interested in this stuff, he wouldn’t debunk every single video,” she said, almost pityingly. “He would admit that at least some of them are genuinely weird.”

One gets the sense that Lewsi-Kraus would like to think that there is some basis to these stories but he cannot quite cross the bridge and believe it. Take this passage:

Interstellar travel by living beings still seems like a wildly remote possibility, but physicists have known since the early nineteen-nineties that faster-than-light travel is possible in theory, and new research has brought this marginally closer to being achievable in practice. These advances—along with the further inference that ours is a mediocre or even inferior civilization, one that could well be millions or billions of years behind our distant neighbors—have lent a bare-bones plausibility to the idea that U.F.O.s have extraterrestrial origins.

Such a prospect, as Hynek wrote in the mid-nineteen-eighties, “overheats the human mental circuits and blows the fuses in a protective mechanism for the mind.” Its destabilizing influence was clear. I would begin interviews with sources who seemed lucid and prudent and who insisted, like Kean, that they were interested only in vetted data, and that they used the term “U.F.O.” in the strictly literal sense—whether the objects were spaceships or drones or clouds, we just didn’t know. An hour later, they would reveal to me that the aliens had been living in secret bases under the ocean for millions of years, had genetically altered primates to become our ancestors, and had taught accounting to the Sumerians.

There were immediate rebuttals to the article by people who seemed to think that it was a poorly researched piece that did not deserve to be published, at least not in that form. These posts by Robert Sheaffer, who is quoted in the article, describes how many of the examples of UAPs (or UFOs) cited by Kean and printed without skepticism by the magazine have in fact been debunked and that some of the people mentioned were outright cranks. I was not aware of most of them but one name was familiar to me and that was Harold Puthoff, someone who has genuine scientific credentials and is described as a ‘long time paranormal investigator’. I recalled how some decades ago he and his collaborator Russell Targ were convinced that Uri Geller had genuine psychic abilities, a claim debunked by the late James Randi. Other researchers failed to replicate Puthoff and Targ’s remote viewing results that they claimed showed the existence of ESP.

That is the problem with fact-checking of the style adopted by the New Yorker. That process, as far as I understand it, is to make sure that the things that people are quoted as saying were in fact said by them. It does not necessarily look into whether what they said is true or not. That is the domain of the reporter and the editor and that level of skepticism seemed to be what this piece is lacking. Fact-checking is not equivalent to truth-checking.

I expect to see many letters to the editor in future issues taking them to task for this piece.


  1. Reginald Selkirk says

    … but physicists have known since the early nineteen-nineties that faster-than-light travel is possible in theory, and new research has brought this marginally closer to being achievable in practice.

    Uh, wowza. OK, I remember having heard of “tachyons”, but even Wikipedia calls them “hypothetical particles” rather than theoretical. And achievable in practice? OMFSM, that is ridiculous.
    Most UFO claims revolve around a few simple things:
    Claims of distance, size and speed are inter-related. Get one wrong and your estimates of the others will also be wrong.
    Photography artifacts. We are mostly past the era of film, but there are still such things as internal lens reflections, overloaded pixels, illusions of perspective.

  2. Matt G says

    When you look at all the things required for alien life to get here (evolution of highly intelligent, technologically advanced life which hasn’t gone extinct, knowing that Earth is a planet worth visiting, the immense distances which are limited by the speed of light, etc.), you realize this is not something worth taking seriously.

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    physicists have known since the early nineteen-nineties that faster-than-light travel is possible in theory, and new research has brought this marginally closer to being achievable in practice.

    Nonsense. He’s talking about the Alcubierre drive, which would require matter with negative mass density. Recent papers have essentially reduced the amount of negative mass required. Er, yay?

    Reginald Selkirk @1: This stuff has nothing to do with tachyons. First, tachyons have imaginary mass, not negative mass. Second, a theory with tachyons is unstable, and stabilizing the theory gets rid of tachyons (the Higgs boson is an example of a “stabilized tachyon”, but it is certainly not a tachyon).

  4. says

    I saw one of the recent claims of a UFO photo that the military didn’t immediately dismiss, and thought, “Bokeh. That’s just bokeh.” Do they have no photographers who can recognize a mundane photographic artifact?

  5. brucegee1962 says

    The most likely theory I’ve heard is that, since the technology that nowadays has become ubiquitous in drones isn’t all that complicated, it was actually developed by our adversaries several decades before the general populace became aware of it. And based on the way we were acting at the time, they decided “Hey, if we make our flying surveillance platforms look like strange pyramids or saucers or globes, anyone who sees them will be dismissed as a crackpot instead of being taken seriously by the US military.”
    That would explain why they so often seem to be seen around military installations, anyway.

  6. says

    The fact that most people now have a good quality video camera on them at all times rather debunks UFOs.

    If they were a real phenomenon, one would expect the number of videos of them to have increased massively over the past twenty years. It hasn’t.

  7. Rob Grigjanis says

    Paul Durrant @7: If it’s visible and hasn’t been identified, it is a real phenomenon.

    I’ve seen one myself (early 1980s), which doesn’t neatly fit into any of the usual explanations. A light that could’ve been a high-flying plane except that, every few seconds it did a sharp turn, zig-zagging like that for a few minutes before speeding up and fading away rather quickly. No drugs or alcohol were involved, and I watched it with a friend.

    One of the more interesting aspects of the experience was the casual, totally incurious dismissal by my housemates who had declined to come out and watch it. I see that as being just as stupid as saying “it must be aliens!”.

  8. Reginald Selkirk says

    I am watching the James Bond movie Never Say Never Again. The villain’s yacht is named the Flying Saucer.

  9. captainjack says

    Interstellar travel of any kind is going to require really advanced technology and be massively expensive. So, if a civilization has that capability, being so far beyond ours, why would they come here? And if they did, having made that investment, why would they hide? Even allowing for the possible differences between us and an alien species, they must understand efficiency and economy. Coming all that way to just peep through our windows, makes no sense.

  10. xohjoh2n says


    knowing that Earth is a planet worth visiting

    Well no one is claiming they’ll get everything right!

  11. Pierce R. Butler says

    brucegee1962 @ # 6: [drone technology] … was actually developed by our adversaries several decades before the general populace became aware of it.

    Doesn’t current drone technology depend deeply on GPS -- that is, a network of satellites in closely coordinated spatial positioning with extensive mutual communications? Pretty tricky to set that up without the military-industrial complex noticing…

  12. JM says

    @13 Pierce R. Butler: Most larger drones do because it’s easy way to find your location and keep flight regulations. It isn’t the only way to get location information and a spy drone is not concerned with keeping US flight regulation.
    Plus a drone can use US GPS without giving away anything. The US GPS broadcasts the location and time information openly.

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