14 July 2023

RELIABLE WITNESSES. A Guide to the Evidence. Part One

V.J. Ballester-Olmos and Richard W. Heiden (Eds.), The Reliability of UFO Witness Testimony, UPIAR Publisher, 2023. 

This book is an important antidote to the UAP frenzy going on in the USA, and in this summary I will attempt to guide readers through the massive amount of information that is contained it its 700 pages. The reliability of UFO witness testimony is covered in seven sections; Case Studies; Psychological Perspectives; On Witness Testimony; Empirical Research; Anthropological Approach; Metrics and Scaling, and Epistemological Issues. 
Part One of this review will look at the Case Studies section and Part Two will look at the Psychological Perspectives. Part Three will review the remaining chapters.

Part One: Case Studies

This starts with Memory Games: A False Recall Episode by V.J. Ballester-Olmos. In a long email sent in 2014, JosĆ© A. Rubio told Ballester-Olmos that 20 or 25 years ago he saw a large UFO fly overhead in the Mar Menor coastal area of Spain. After the discovery of a short mention of a UFO in a local newspaper this was pinpointed to the early hours of 15 August 1986, and was explained as a party balloon. Rubio’s description of his sighting bore very little similarity to the original report and Ballester-Olmos notes:

The initial sighting, by a child, has transmuted a light or an illuminated object on the sea into a movie about a near splashdown, with jets chasing the UFO, a Guardia Civil boat approaching and a fishing boat focusing its spotlights on an unidentified flying object that continuously changes direction and flies at an incredible rate of speed.

Rubio’s subsequent interest in the UFO subject could well have innocently and unconsciously caused him to elaborate his story over the years. This process produced a false memory of his original sighting that took an extensive investigation to unravel.

In other cases misidentification can be a factor. Tim Callahan in his chapter The Phoenix Lights: The Fallibility of Human Perception and Memory, shows that witness descriptions can be very variable even when they are viewing virtually the same event in the sky. As in the case of the Phoenix Lights, three lights flying in formation can easily make people think that they are attached to the triangular structure of a spacecraft. Those who say they were caused by military flares and aircraft have been ignored by the media and ufologists, enabling them to present a case that has defied explanation.

Missile Flights and Fantasies by James T. Carlson notes how Robert Salas and members of the Computer UFO Network (CUFON) since 1996 have promoted the case of a UFO that took ten nuclear missiles offline on 16 March 1967 at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana. The national security implications of this are enormous, but Carlson highlights several flaws to this story. Salas has changed the dates and locations of this incident, and although there was a failure of missiles on the 16 March they were attributed to an electrical fault. As Carlson puts it: ‘They took a real event and charged it with UFO paranoia to try and frighten people into demanding further UFO study using national resources to pay for it.’

Carlson shows that no one else at the base supports their claims, and that Salas has changed nearly every detail of the story since 1996. Captain (Retired) Eric Carlson, Carlson’s father, was one of the missile officers who confirmed that the story was fiction from beginning to end. The Sightings TV documentary that aired the story in 1997, did not include Carlson’s negative comments on the case, even though he was willing to be interviewed for it. This seems credible, as only last year (2022) I was involved with a TV documentary series that included Salas, but he only did it on condition that they did not include anyone who criticised his story. It seems a running theme that those who want transparency and disclosure act very much like those they accuse of hiding the truth.

Salas has made the claim for the ability for UFOs to switch on or off nuclear weapons part of the UFO mythology, and this belief is highly dangerous. When the Ukraine war broke out many social media commenters said that nuclear weapons would not be used as the aliens will turn them off. This demonstrates how the drive to get disclosure, and the irresponsibility of TV producers and UFO obsessed journalists, pander to the UFO audience without any thought to the consequences.

Changing gear from UFO sightings we get Peter Huston's Meeting the Abductees: Betty Hill, Richard Price & Others. He recalls his extensive 1998 interview with Betty when she made many astonishing and illogical claims about her abduction and her experiences afterwards. He enjoyed chatting with her but he did not find her to be a credible witness.

Huston also met lesser known abductee Richard Price, Sr. in the early 1990s. Price claimed he had an alien implant at the age of 8, that was later found to be nothing more than cotton fibres from his underwear. He attended Huston’s UFO group but they were not impressed by his stories and it was obvious he had many psychological problems and trauma in his life. Nonetheless, a supporter of Price affirmed he was mentally traumatised because he was abducted by aliens, not that his mental state ‘caused’ his alien stories.

Price’s second wife, was also an abductee who had committed suicide. She was named as Andrea in a book by Budd Hopkins where it was claimed she was impregnated by aliens and had the foetus removed at a second abduction. In reality, Price said Andrea had admitted to him that she had invented the abduction story to cover the fact she was a victim of incest and had an abortion.

Looking back at the work of Hopkins and meeting other researchers and abductees, Huston concludes that ‘the belief in alien abductions is a social problem, and an obscure one at that. The self-identified abductees that I have met did not appear to be reliable witnesses.’

Dr. Alexander G. Keul's chapter, Investigating Ball Lightning Eyewitness Reports notes that although ball lightning is now a recognised phenomenon its study is hampered by its short duration, randomness, the emotional interpretation, the subjective frames of reference made by witnesses, and by the large number of objects and effects that occur outside the laboratory environment. Keul regards more field research is better than speculation about what might cause ball lightning.

Very Close Encounter with a UAP in Levitation by Ɖric Maillot and Dr. Jean-Michel Abrassart takes a look at the famous ‘Amaranth’ encounter case. ‘Henri’ a 30-year-old cell biology researcher, saw on 21 October 1982 an object in his garden in Meurthe-et-Moselle, Eastern France. The round object flew down and hovered in his garden for about 23 minutes before flying away. Having been submitted to extensive investigation it can be regarded at face value as an impressive sighting of an unknown object. However, the authors make a convincing argument that the object was a stray Mylar balloon, and illustrate that such a mundane object in a witnesses’ mind can transform into something mysterious and hard to explain.

Claude Vorilhon ‘RaĆ«l’ met with an alien in 1973 who inspired him to create the RaĆ«lian Movement/Religion). In The Real RaĆ«l, UFO Contactee and the Last Prophet, Claude MaugĆ©, shows how he uses unscientific ideas to support his claims even though they are ‘...elementary, fantasized, science fictional, or plainly aberrant. Even his elementary science is frequently wrong.’ Another major pillar of his religion is the reinterpretation of the Old Testament in extraterrestrial terms. His religion fills the void in increasingly secular societies, but as a reliable ‘witness’ he scores zero.

Rather than the religious arena Ed Waters sought to use his UFO photographs and sightings to gain voters in local politics. As Craig R. Myers explains in The MUFON-ian Candidate: The Gulf Breeze UFO Case as Political Contest, Waters created a storm of interest in UFOs in Gulf Breeze in the 1980s and 1990s. It was formed by an in-group of witnesses and believers influenced by their own expectations, powerful visual cues and misinformation spiced with ‘rational ignorance’. Myers looks at how the case had the features and evolution of a political campaign and how MUFON was his biggest supporter against the opposition of sceptics and debunkers. The discovery of a model flying saucer strongly showed Waters’ photographs were faked and the excitement and votes disappeared with his credibility.

Dr. Joe Nickell contributes The Pascagoula Abduction: A Case of Hypnagogia? His theory is that Hickson and Parker dozed off after drinking and that Hickson entered a hypnagogic state accompanied by sleep paralysis causing him to imagine the bizarre alien encounter and the experience of paralysis. Parker was more tight-lipped about the encounter (until after the death of Hickson) and was probably influenced by his boss to support his claims. Like Betty Hill, Hickson made many wild claims in later life and Parker seems to have followed the same pattern.

James Oberg notes that visual stimuli caused by satellite re-entries. aircraft formation lights and shallow-entry bolide meteors could cause mothership UFO reports in his chapter, Misinterpretations of Fireball Swarms from Satellite Reentries. Oberg showcases worldwide sightings of such re-entry descriptions from multiple witnesses making him note that:

Across decades of time, on all continents, witnesses of all professional and educational levels, of all ages and social levels, seem to generate memory-based fill-in interpretations of bright fireball swarms in a startlingly similar format.

We return to Claude Vorilhon the founder of the Raƫlian Movement in When Testimony Becomes Testament: The Case of Raƫl, UFO Prophet, and the Question of Witness Reliability by Dr. Susan J. Palmer where she states:

If one considers the possibility that Vorilhon was telling the truth, then what tools did he bring to this deeply disorienting, potentially terrifying, encounter? He brought his own familiar tools of the Bible, his Frenchman’s atheism and Voltairian skepticism, his reverence for science, plus the exciting, newfangled myths of Jean Sendy and other ufologists. Stimulated perhaps by an authentic CEIII experience, he applied these tools to tame it, to craft his testimony, rendering it beautiful, touching and “cozy.” He “made sense” of it.

Whether objectively true or not, Vorilhon's experience, like those of other UFO witnesses, has had an impact on many lives for good and bad.

We go back to another classic with Dr. Gary P. Posner’s The Legendary Cash-Landrum Case: Radiation Sickness from a Close Encounter? Not only does he find the claims of the witnesses being subjected to high levels of radiation highly doubtful, he also finds their description of the UFO not very credible. Nonetheless some investigators have continued to promote this as a classic case of a UFO causing radiation sickness that has been covered up by the government.

Instead of a single case Tim Printy looks at how UFO catalogues might not be as reliable as we might hope. In The Weinstein Catalog: Ufological Bullion or Fool’s Gold he points out that this compendium of 1,305 sighting reports by ‘dependable’ pilots and aircrews compiled by Dominque Weinstein has numerous flaws. The first is that pilots are trained for dealing with known aircraft and situations, not for unexpected events. This is underlined when known rocket re-entries have occurred and pilots have reported them as large aircraft and formations of light, or as he shows in one case a pilot reported seeing a UFO three times the size of a Boeing 747 aircraft that was really the re-entry of a rocket on 27 July 1987.

Such catalogues look impressive but Printy notes that they emphasise quantity over quality. Examining the Weinstein Catalog, Printy finds 423 cases without any specific time or date, and many of the remaining 882 cases rely on only one source of information. Trawling through the cases he identifies numerous examples of sightings of Venus, Jupiter, balloons and rocket launches or re-entries. Printy’s view is that; ‘All of this data refutes Mr. Weinstein’s claim that pilots are unlikely to make observational errors.’ His conclusion is that we should set higher standards for UFO data otherwise this is akin to collecting ‘...propaganda pieces used to impress the uninformed.’ As an aside, Printy’s e-zine SunLite is a great example of how UFO cases should be researched: www.astronomyufo.com/UFO/SUNlite.htm

The Changing Case of PrĆ³spera MuƱoz: An Abduction Remembered Over 41 years? by JosĆ© Ruesga Montiel, looks at the abduction story of PrĆ³spera MuƱoz who stated that when she was about 8 years old she saw with her older sister an object land near their home near Jumilla, Murcia, southern Spain, in 1946 or 1947. Two humanoids came out of the craft and spoke to the girls before they lost consciousness. MuƱoz only started remembering the incident in 1980 and under hypnosis she recounted being abducted and physically examined by the aliens. Montiel, having been in contact with the witness for many years, notes that it was in 1979 MuƱoz suffered traumatic family events that might have triggered her abduction ‘memories’. Over time her account has been expanded and changed to fit in with other UFO stories such as those expounded by Budd Hopkins.

MuƱoz has continually promoted her story at UFO conferences and in the media, even to the extent of faking being in a hypnotic trance for a TV documentary, but has refused a medical investigation to back-up her claims. Having echoes of abductee Richard Price, Sr., she has suffered from depression and lack of self-esteem, and by being an abductee it has made her important and at the centre of attention.

Lunar Terror in Poland: A Doctor’s Dilemma by Wim van Utrecht, shows that what was seen by the occupants of an ambulance on 05 September 1979 in Poland was a misinterpretation of the moon. They described it as a dark crimson ball ‘...as large as the moon to look at’. The moon was not originally regarded as an option because the case was mistakenly dated 1980 by Flying Saucer Review, but with the right date it places it exactly where the witnesses saw their UFO. It was not the first or probably not the last time the moon has been seen following people in a vehicle or landing nearby.

My contribution to this volume is On the Credibility of the Barney & Betty Hill Abduction Case. Here I also place their abduction in the context of the psychological stress experienced by the couple, the inconsistencies in their story and the influence of dreams, fantasy, hypnotic regression and bad movies. My conclusion is that the evidence for their encounter with a real spacecraft and its occupants does not carry much weight, nonetheless it has had a huge impact on shaping abduction stories ever since.

The last chapter in this section is Metamorphosis: Claimed Witness Accounts of the Great Lakes Fireball by Robert R. Young. He shows how a bright fireball seen by hundreds of witnesses located in 10 US states and Ontario, Canada, on 09 December 1965, became the source of the saucer crash at Kecksburg, Pennsylvania. The sightings were not regarded as very important until 1979 when a witness said he saw a crashed UFO retrieved by the military at Kecksburg. This got repeated over time and in 1990 it got star treatment in an episode of Unsolved Mysteries. It is noteworthy they did not feature any doubters of the incident (even though the producer spoke to five of them) or mention the petition by 45 residents that the crash/recovery never happened. Young concludes: ‘The Kecksburg UFO crash is a folktale with increasingly divergent and bizarre elements allowing many new participants to join in the retelling of the myth.’
  • Nigel Watson

The full document is available as a free download at:

Continue to Parts Two and Three:

No comments: