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Everything Else Is Partisan. Why Not UFOs?

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Over the weekend, the New York Times and Politico reported that the U.S. military ran a top-secret UFO program between 2007 and 2012. The program, a pet project of Democratic Senator Harry Reid, received about $22 million from the Pentagon’s secret “black money” budget before the Defense Department pulled the plug. In its five years, the Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program (AATIP), parts of which remain classified, investigated “unidentified aerial phenomena” reported by U.S. military personnel, including a number of pilots. Some of these pilots reported encounters with aircraft that moved in ways and at speeds that seemed to defy the laws of physics, with no visible signs of propulsion or lift, and which were overall more advanced (“beyond next-generation”) than any craft in any country’s arsenal. In 2009 AATIP’s director wrote in his annual Pentagon briefing that “what was considered science fiction is now science fact,” and that the U.S. couldn’t defend itself against these technologies.

Here’s an interview with one of those pilots about a 2004 encounter with a white oval object that, in the pilot’s words, accelerated “like nothing I’d ever seen.” And here’s the crazy video the Pentagon released of that encounter.

Now, $22 million is about 0.00036% of the Pentagon’s $600 billion annual budget, and that $22 million wasn’t even the UFO program’s annual budget, but rather the sum total for its five years of sanctioned existence. The program is basically in the Pentagon’s “take-a-penny, leave-a-penny” tray. And one former senior congressional staffer, speaking of why the program was shuttered, told Politico that “After all of that there was really nothing there that we could find. It all pretty much dissolved from that reason alone—and the interest level was losing steam.” But according to the reporting, the program directors felt the research was so compelling they kept it going on their own. When its director, a defense intelligence official named Louis Elonzido, retired this October he submitted a letter to Defense Secretary James Mattis in protest of what he saw as the military’s harmful extent of secrecy about the discoveries, asking, “Why aren’t we spending more time and effort on this issue?”

And, yeah, he’s right: Why hasn’t this story led the news cycle for the last five days?

I mean, this isn’t the National Enquirer. This is the New York Times, and two of the writers who contributed to the UFO report have won the Pulitzer Prize. Now they’re reporting in a very serious way that there might be aliens. And alien alloys:

Under Mr. Bigelow’s direction, the company modified buildings in Las Vegas for the storage of metal alloys and other materials that Mr. Elizondo and program contractors said had been recovered from unidentified aerial phenomena. Researchers also studied people who said they had experienced physical effects from encounters with the objects and examined them for any physiological changes.

Here’s a video of a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter saying on television that the U.S. government can’t figure out what these alien alloys are and that standing near them might affect you physically:

Oh wait, you mean the Failing New York Times. FAKE NEWS!

We have such a bizarre relationship in this country with facts: Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, people say global warming isn’t real, and (despite the overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary) if it is real it’s not man-made. Also, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, people say the Russia investigation, which has already yielded not just indictments but guilty pleas from Trump campaign staff, is a witch hunt. And despite the overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, people say vaccines will give your kids weird incurable diseases. And despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Roy Moore isn’t a pedophile.

Those “beliefs” somehow break down along party lines. Global warming, especially. In no other developed nation is global warming even up for debate: The earth is getting warmer, and it’s mostly because of people. For some reason, though, our right-wing leadership won’t “believe” the facts. We can disagree about what to do about it, sure, that’s political, but facts aren’t political.

And yet today they are.

But now we’ve arrived at what would seem like the ultimate fake news test: UFOs. It’s a strange report because it sort of turns the tables: Do I, a rational person, accept as true reports that super-rational beings or technologies exist? If I say no, do I change that belief if it’s presented by a rational source I know and trust?

According to a recent survey, about 54% of Americans believe there’s intelligent life out there. About 25% of us don’t. Also, one-third of Americans don’t believe in climate change, and one-third approve of Donald Trump’s job performance.

Does your opinion of the New York Times’s political biases have a bearing on whether you credit its UFO report? Okay, what about Fox? Here’s a Fox News story from 2009 about the Russian Navy’s released documentation of UFO encounters, a report which includes this passage:

Military divers in Siberia’s Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest lake, encountered “a group of humanoid creatures dressed in silvery suits” at a depth of 160 feet. Three humans died during the ensuing chase.

Reuters? Okay, here’s Mexican Air Force footage of a sighting of what appear to be a fleet of UFOs.

Want U.S. government documents? A weird one from the CIA:

Scientists of the PRC and the Soviet Far East have begun joint study of UFO’s. The first meeting of ufologists of the two countries has ended in the small maritime townlet of Dalnegorsk. The Soviet and Chinese specialists on anomalous phenomena have mapped out a program for investigating incidents that are already known and have also arranged to directly exchange video and photographic materials on new similar phenomena. Dalnegorsk has not been chosen by chance as the place for such acquaintance. In the last few years the number of cases of visual observation of UFO’s has noticeably increased there. In just the last four years alone no less than 10 UFO’s have been recorded. Specialists link their heightened interest in places here with the variety and wealth of useful minerals in Maritime Kray. Similar, incidents have also occurred in mountainous regions in China whose climatic conditions and natural landscape resemble our own.

And indeed other countries such as China, Russia, and several northern European nations, take the phenomenon more seriously than the Americans. The Chinese government has embarked on an ambitious project to make “first contact,” constructing the largest radio dish in the world, twice as big as the U.S. government’s dish in its Puerto Rican jungle observatory.

I trust the report because the New York Times is one of the most excellent and reputable institutes of journalism anywhere in the world, and they’re putting that credibility behind a group of people seriously concerned about the presence of alien life here on Earth. Could they be wrong? Of course. And that would make me look like a total idiot for believing them, right? But what’s so wrong with being wrong? There’s a lot more wrong with being right.

Honestly, I think very little of our debates over facts and fake news has anything to do with what the facts actually are, or what evidence suggests, or what reality is. A great deal of Americans don’t care about the truth in an objective sense, and never have. Those Americans care about the truth because they want to be right and they want other people to be wrong. We’ve seen this phenomenon clearly exhibited on an international scale (American exceptionalism), but now it exhibits itself domestically, locally, tribally. The rhetorical power of skepticism is that it affords the skeptic infinite refuge: When it comes to debates like climate change, where right-wingers now have so much of their identity and validity tied to their asinine refusal to “believe” something that doesn’t even require belief, you can never be proved wrong if you don’t want to be. You can’t prove Roy Moore raped anyone.

Meanwhile the waters rise.

In fact, there’s very little in this world that you can prove someone is wrong about. The existence of UFOs, of course, like the existence of god, is a prime example. But what’s so interesting about this UFO story is that it challenges not the right-wing skeptics with scientific facts, but it challenges scientific facts themselves. This sort of turns things inside out.

Recent research suggests that the more religious you are, the more likely you are to favor unfalsifiable (unprovable) evidence to explain your faith (such as, “the lord works in mysterious ways”), as opposed to using empirical evidence (“man walked the earth with the dinosaurs”). Further, when people with high religiosity feel their beliefs are threatened, this preference for using unprovable “evidence” intensifies.

It’s easy to explain: People are afraid of being wrong and they’re incentivized to be right. Even more interestingly, when the testability of a claim wasn’t mentioned—when people don’t know if the evidence if falsifiable or not—highly religious people show no preference between the two types of evidence. It’s only when they know they’re using unfalsifiable information that they prefer to use it—and especially when threatened.

Can we link this type of belief system to back American conservatism? Sure.

Consider that Republicans (as Trump did at the RNC) call themselves, without irony, “the party of Lincoln.” How can I be a racist if my party is the party of Lincoln?! Among some conservatives, then, we can see there’s a strain of what we might call “fake old news” that serves no other interest than to delude yourself into believing you’re right and liberals are stupid hypocrites. Of course Roy Moore isn’t a pedo!

The conservative’s cultural role is, in a reductive sense, to stop change from happening too quickly. This means that to be conservative is to always be losing (little by little) but to pretend you never lost. This requires self-delusion.

In the end, no “true believers,” no matter their belief (UFOs; anti-vaxxers), are particularly concerned with truth. It’s about what you can choose to be true. What role can morality play in this new world, when it feels good to be right and it feels bad to be wrong? It’s as if reality doesn’t matter, as if there are no consequences or changes beyond the feeling of being right, of belonging to a tribe of people that reinforce your ego. This is why I’d love to see a poll of reactions to the Times’s UFO story broken down along partisan lines, compared to a partisan breakdown of belief in UFOs. It would, I’d imagine, look like nothing we’ve seen.

The truth is out there, after all. But it doesn’t seem to matter.

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