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Menzel - the Debunker

Donald H Menzel, a child prodigy, was born in Colorado in 1901, and received a PhD. from Princeton in 1924. Menzel joined the faculty of Harvard University in 1932, and became a leading authority on the sun and one of the leading astronomers of his time. He retired from Harvard in 1971 and passed away in 1976.

As a leading American scientist, Menzel worked with the US diplomatic, defense and intelligence establishments. In May 1949 he saw two unidentifiable, motionless lights in the sky while leaving Holloman AFB. Nevertheless he became convinced that all UFO sightings could be explained by misinterpretations of common phenomena in uncommon seeing conditions. When a report was too outlandish to be accounted for in this way, the observer was simply dismissed as a liar or suffering from mental delusions.

Between 1953 and 1977 Menzel published three books on the subject of UFO's, and his views were considered conventional wisdom and given wide coverage by the television networks and national magazines. His authority and public attitude went far in making study of UFO's disreputable within the scientific community. The few scientists voicing contrary views (such as Hynek, Vallee, and MacDonald) came to dubbing any official explanation of a UFO that involved extreme mental contortions as 'Menzelian'.

Menzel seemed never to have understood that other researchers agreed with him that the vast majority of UFO sightings - over 90% - could indeed be explained by the sort of phenomena the astronomer was describing. The problem was the residue of cases that could simply not be handled by such an explanation.

In 1984 the first of the "Majestic-12" committee documents surfaced. These appeared to be classified US government memoranda from the 1950's, documenting the 1947 crash of a flying saucer in Roswell, New Mexico, and its subsequent exploitation by the US government. Menzel was listed as a member of the committee managing the project.

Those who supported the documents' authenticity believed it proved Menzel was part of a government campaign to mislead the public on the reality of UFO's. Others believed that the documents were bogus but generated by the US government. They concluded Menzel was actually a tool of the US intelligence community, lending his name to a government disinformation campaign of uncertain purposes. UFO debunkers viewed the papers as forgeries by a UFO enthusiast, and saw inclusion of Menzel's name as evidence of the UFO community's enduring hatred for the man.

Menzel's attitude is well summarized in his prepared statement to a 1968 Congressional Committee, which would give the coup de grace to further public US research on UFO's:

Flying saucers or UFO's have been with us for a long time. June 24, 1968 marked the 21st anniversary of the sighting of nine bright disks moving rapidly along the hogback of Mount Rainier. However, similar sightings go far back in history, where they have assumed various forms for different people. Old records refer to them as fiery dragons, fiery chariots, wills-o'-the-wisp, jack-o'-lanterns, ignis fatuus, firedrakes, fox-fire, and even the devil himself.

And now a new legend -- a modern myth -- has arisen to explain a new rash of mysterious sightings. Certain UFO buffs argue that the peculiar properties and maneuvers of these apparitions, as reported by reliable people of all kinds, are so remarkable that only one explanation for them is possible. They must be vehicles from outer space, manned by beings far more intelligent than we. because the operators have clearly built vehicles with capabilities far beyond anything we can conceive of.

On the face of it, this reasoning sounds much like that of Sherlock Holmes. who said on several occasions: "It is an old maxim of mine that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

I am willing to go along with this formula, but only after we have followed Holmes and excluded every possibility but that of manned UFO's. And we must also show that no further possible solutions exist.

The believers are too eager to reach a decision. Their method is simple. They try to find someone, whom they can establish as an authority, who will support their views. They then quote and often misquote various authorities or one another until they believe what they are saying. Having no real logic on their side, they resort to innuendo as a weapon and try to discredit those who fail to support their view. The UFO magazines refer to me as the arch-demon of saucerdom!

I concede that the concept of manned spaceships is not an absolute impossibility. Neither are the concepts of ghosts, spirits, witches, fairies, elves, hobgoblins, or the devil. The only trouble with this last list is the fact they are out of date. We live in the age of space. Is it not natural that beings from outer space should exhibit an interest in us? But, when we consider that these beings -- if indeed they are beings -- have been bugging us for centuries, why should one not have landed and shown himself to the President of the United States, to a member of the National Academy of Sciences, or at least to some member of Congress?

Please don't misunderstand me. I think it is very possible that intelligent Life -- perhaps more intelligent than we -- may exist somewhere in the vast reaches of outer space. But it is the very vastness of this space that complicates the problem. The distances are almost inconceivable. The time required to reach the earth -- even at speeds comparable with that of light -- range in hundreds if not thousands of years for our near neighbors. And it takes light some billions of years to reach us from the most distant galaxies, times comparable with that for the entire life history of our solar system. The number of habitable planets in the universe is anybody's guess. Any figures you may have heard, including mine, are just guesses. I have guessed that our own Milky Way may contain as many as a million such planets. That sounds like a lot, but the chances are the nearest such inhabited planet would be so distant that if we send out a message to it today we should have to wait some 2000 years for a reply. Alas, the evidence is poor for intelligent life in our solar system, though I do expect some lower forms of life to exist on Mars.

With respect to UFO's my position is simply this. That natural explanations exist for the unexplained sightings. The Air Force has given me full access to their files. There is no vast conspiracy of either the Air Force or CIA to conceal the facts from the public, as some groups have charged. The basic reason for continued reporting of UFO's lies in the possibility -- just the possibility mind you -- that some of them may derive from experimentation or secret development by a hostile power. And I don't mean hostile beings from outer space!

From 1947 until 1954 a bewildered group of Air Force personnel tried honestly and sincerely to resolve the UFO problem… By 1952 a sizable number of those in the Air Force group had concluded that extraterrestrial vehicles were the only explanation…. In 1958, a committee of scientists, headed by the late H. P. Robertson of California Institute of Technology met at CIA to consider a number of the Air Force's most convincing cases. They immediately solved many of them. Others could not be solved because of poor or insufficient data. They concluded that all cases had a natural solution. There was no evidence to support the idea that UFO's are vehicles from another world.

Nevertheless, the UFO buffs believe, almost as an article of faith, that "trained observers," such as military or airline pilots, could not possibly mistake a meteor, a planet, a star, a sundog, or a mirage for a UFO. This viewpoint is absolutely nonsense and the Air Force files bear witness to its falsity! They contain thousands of solved cases -- sightings by "reliable individuals" like the pilots: But such persons have made huge errors in identification.

…I know of no reliable case of simultaneous visual and radar sightings. In view of the physical properties of the eye, the surprising fact is that so few cases have been reported.

Time will not permit me to elaborate on still other relevant phenomena. For example the Air Force appears to have neglected completely the psychological angle of which mass hallucination is just one phase. Back in 1919, in Spain, a not unrelated phenomenon occurred. Thousands of people -- reliable people -- swore that they had seen images of saints rolling their eyes, moving their hands, dripping drops of blood, even stepping out of their panels. One person would call out, others would imagine they had seen something! There are many similar events recorded through the ages.

There are hundreds of known hoaxes… I think I can reasonably claim, applying the criterion of Sherlock Holmes, that we have not excluded all the impossibles. I have shown that the arguments advanced in favor of the interplanetary nature of UFO's are fallacious. Their alleged high speeds and ability to maneuver have completely natural explanations.

I think the time has come for the Air Force to wrap up Project Blue Book. It has produced little of scientific value. Keeping it going only fosters the belief of persons that the Air Force must have found something to substantiate belief in UFO's. In making this recommendation I am not criticizing the present or recent administration of the project. But it is time that we put an end to chasing ghosts, hobgoblins, visions, and hallucinations.

…The question of UFO's has become one of faith and belief, rather than one of science. The believers do not offer additional clear-cut evidence. They repeat the old classical cases and base the reliability of the sighting on the supposed honesty of the observer. I have shown that many honest observers can make honest mistakes.

…I am aware that a small but highly vociferous minority of individuals are pressing for further studies of UFO's supported -- of course -- by huge congressional appropriations. The heads of a few amateur UFO organizations urge their members to write Congress, asking for investigations of both UFO's and the Air Force. The members have responded enthusiastically, and Congress reacted by financing a special study, which led to the project at the University of Colorado. And now, when it seems likely that the report from this study will be negative, the same vociferous group is again turning to Congress with the same appeal but with no more chance of success. Time and money spent on such efforts will be completely wasted. Congress should strongly disapprove any and all such proposals, large or small. In this age, despite the doubts expressed by a very small group of scientists, reopening and reopening the subject of UFO's makes just about as much sense as reopening the subject of Witchcraft.

Within the vast field of atmospheric physics, there exist many imperfectly understood phenomena which deserve further study, such as ball lightning and atmospheric optics. But any investigations of such phenomena should be carried out for their own sake, not under the cloak of UFO's.


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