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.