Klass vs. The "UFO Promoters"
By Jerome Clark
(This article appeared in Fate magazine, February 1981, and is reprinted here with the author's permission.)
He is a man with a mission - to debunk UFOs and discredit those who investigate them.
"If the UFO promoters really were as anxious to find prosaic explanations they would not reject our data out of hand, they would not be guilty of withholding data - as has happened with Allan Hendry, for example..."
It was September 6, 1980, and Philip Julian Klass, a man who has made it his mission in life to demolish the UFO phenomenon, was speaking before a crowd of about 300 persons at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The occasion was a debate on the 33-year-old issue of UFOs - those troublesome "flying saucers" which resolutely refuse to go away despite the most determined efforts of Klass and all the debunkers, civilian and military, who had come before him. It was especially galling that one of the biggest debunkers of all, J. Allen Hynek, the astronomer who immortalized swamp gas and who gave scientific legitimacy to Project Blue Book's anti-UFO campaign, had long since gone over to the other side, to become what Klass, who has a gift for provocative if meaningless phrases, calls "the spiritual leader of the UFO movement."
For years Klass, senior avionics editor of the
Washington-based Aviation Week & Space Technology,
the powerful organ of the military-industrial complex,
and author of two UFO-debunking books, had wanted to
confront Hynek face to face, but the
The answer is simple. Hynek freely admits he is not a
good debater. "To be perfectly honest about it, I
don't think very fast on my feet," he says. "I was
trained as a scientist, not as
Historically debates have been a poor way of settling scientific questions. As Martin Gardner observes in his classic book on pseudoscience, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, it is not uncommon for a proponent of the round earth to "find himself powerless in a debate with a flat-earther." A Skeptical Inquirer article on the religious extremists who oppose the theory of evolution notes, "It is even difficult for evolutionary biologists, who are most cognizant of the data that evolutionary biology attempts to explain, to debate [these people] effectively."
It is, however, in keeping with Klass' distinctive approach to the UFO controversy that he and his allies made Hynek's refusal to debate something of an ethical issue, as if Hynek's avoidance of Klass were evidence that he lacked conviction. Klass is no scientist (as he showed in his 1968 book UFOs - Identified, which sought to explain many UFO reports in terms of plasma physics but which was received coldly, if at all, by plasma physicists), he acts more like a prosecuting attorney. [*] Consequently he sees the UFO issue less in scientific terms than in moral and political terms and to a considerable degree has tried to shift the emphasis of the controversy from UFOs to the personalities and motives of those interested in them.
[*] Actually, as we shall see, that's just the beginning of it. He also acts like the statute-writer, the judge, the jury and the executioner.
Unsurprisingly, Klass was quick to associate himself with CSICOP, an organization which contends that belief in UFOs and other anomalies imperils civilization and is conducive to the rise of fascism. Not only does Klass enthusiastically support the group, he also serves as a member of the CSICOP Executive Council, the head of its UFO subcommittee and an editor of Skeptical Inquirer. Klass feels comfortable with the CSICOP position because it coincides with his own ostensible view that in a sense UFO claimants and UFO proponents are, wittingly or unwittingly, enemies of society, not just supporters of a foolish belief, and they should be dealt with accordingly.
But a full decade before CSICOP came into being in 1976, Klass apparently recognized that the standard methods of UFO-debunking had not worked. Earlier would-be debunkers had attempted merely to explain sightings in conventional terms and had done little more than argue the merits of cases with ufologist proponents. However, Klass, possessed of an unusually acute political sense, saw all kinds of possibilities for point-making which his predecessors either had not thought of or had chosen not to use. To destroy the UFO "problem" Klass concluded that ufologists should be the target as much as the UFOs themselves. If the ufologists could be publicly shamed or embarrassed on any grounds (not just professional but personal as well), who would take their pronouncements about UFOs seriously?
So anybody who associated himself sympathetically with UFOs was fair game for The Treatment. The Treatment's operating assumption was that someone too vocally pro-UFO and/or critical of Klass was probably morally wanting in someway and Klass, in the name of "Boy Scout" ethics, took it upon himself to show the world just how and where.
The first recipient of The Treatment was the late James E. McDonald, a respected University of Arizona atmospheric physicist and UFO advocate who among other transgressions devastatingly criticized UFOs - Identified which he characterized (in common, incidentally, with at least one prominent UFO skeptic) as an exercise in pseudoscience. In response Klass issued a blizzard of "white papers" attacking McDonald's credibility, claiming he had caught the scientist shifting his position without acknowledging it. Without saying so directly, Klass was implying that these alleged position shifts suggested McDonald was dishonest - a tactic Klass would use against many other targets in the future.
Klass conducted a vigorous although ultimately unsuccessful campaign in government circles to prove that McDonald was misusing navy funds to investigate UFOs. He apparently reported as much to columnist Jack Anderson who repeated the allegation in a subsequent newspaper article. It was not enough for Klass to attempt to show that McDonald was wrong about UFOs - he accused him of abusing public funds and strongly implied that he was a liar as well.
In the years to come - the McDonald imbroglio occurred in the late 1960's - Klass would compile dossiers on leading UFO proponents, collecting their written and spoken statements and examining them carefully for contradictions or changes of position. Occasionally he conducted extensive background checks on ufologists, interviewing employers, associates, relatives and others in an effort to elicit embarrassing information which he subsequently distributed to anyone who might conceivably be interested. These documents were characterized by a relentless compulsion to presume the worst about the subjects and by the extensive italicization and capitalization of words, which had away of transforming the most innocuous statements into what seemed to be confessions of sins. If nothing else, it could be said of Klass that he was the man who introduced italics to the UFO debate.
Fairly early on Klass evidently became convinced that his opinions about UFOs were so manifestly correct that no truly sincere, intelligent or mentally balanced person could disagree with him. People who claimed that UFOs might be spaceships or similarly extraordinary phenomena were "nobodies" who used the subject to become "famous celebrities" (as opposed, apparently, to unfamous celebrities). And if they weren't publicity-seeking nobodies, they had other kinds of unworthy motives, usually having to do with a desire for financial gain, and they didn't really believe in UFOs. If they did, they would take up Klass' $10,000 bet challenging believers to provide conclusive proof (in the form of a National Academy of Sciences-certified extraterrestrial artifact or the appearance of an alien being before the United Nations General Assembly) of visitation from outer space.
Meanwhile Klass never missed an opportunity to portray himself as the martyr, the outcast whose sole interest was in finding and perpetuating Truth, spending most of his off-the-job hours (30 to 50 a week, he claimed) in UFO (and ufologist) investigation and risking personal bankruptcy, while "UFO promoters" [*] - he could no longer bring himself to call them UFO proponents - cynically exploited public credulity and ignored his reasonable explanations of cases. Matters that most people would consider irrelevant to the real issues dominated his writings, letters, lectures and conversations. He spoke and wrote obsessively of the refusal of various "UFO promoters" and UFO witnesses to respond to his letters, to invite him to speak at their gatherings and to take up his repeated challenges to them to undergo polygraph examination.
[*] Or "UFOP" for short. Klass seems to find this enormously funny, although he was not amused when I once suggested the opposite of a "UFOP" is a "UFObiac."
If Klass brought italics to the UFO controversy, he also brought the polygraph. "Polygraph" became his most frequently spoken and written word after "UFO promoters" and "UFO movement." There were, he believed, all kinds of lies out there to be detected, even if he himself was so honest that he -unlike those unwilling to take up his challenge to "settle" a dispute, however inconsequential, through polygraph examination - had nothing to fear from a "lie-detector test."
Whereas even the air force considered hoaxes to comprise only a tiny minority (0.9 percent, to be specific) of reports, Klass saw hoaxes everywhere, in fact in any report he could not otherwise explain. Even those reports he considered to be the results of misinterpretations of conventional phenomena became what might be termed semihoaxes. A semihoax was an incident which began with a witness' sincere puzzlement over a sighting of something he could not identify. His sincerity came into question only after he refused to accept Klass' explanation of the sighting. If the witness protested that Klass' "explanation" did not account for significant aspects of the event, Klass would hint darkly that the man was shading the truth or lying outright to protect his status as a "UFO celebrity."
Some ufologists, for example Allan Hendry, the Center for UFO Studies' chief investigator, have found Klass' view of a witness' veracity a fairly dependable measure of a report's significance as an item of UFO evidence. "Insulting ad hominem attacks on the witness' basic reliability" are, Hendry says, "one way to gauge the strength of a case." If a would-be debunker cannot break the case except by attacking the witness' integrity, chances are the sighting is a good one.
To Klass the whole UFO issue came down to a question of "truth" and "lies," and polygraph was an effective method of separating the two - but only if the UFO claimants _flunked_ the tests. If they passed the tests (which in fact was what usually happened), then there was something wrong with the way the test was conducted. Either the questions were phrased incorrectly, the examiner wasn't qualified or hadn't worked at his trade for as many years as Klass decreed were necessary, or - a last resort - the polygraph wasn't reliable anyway.
In one celebrated UFO case, the reported abduction of
Travis Walton, the nine principals (six witnesses and
three members of the Walton family) were given a total
of 10 polygraph examinations (with Travis himself
undergoing two separate examinations). Eight of the
results were positive; one was inconclusive and one
(Walton's first) was negative. Klass declared all but
the last of these worthless or misleading; he
characterized the examiner, John J.McCarthy, who had
decided Walton was "guilty of gross deception," as
highly qualified. Yet according to University of Utah
psychologist David Raskin, a polygraph expert of
national reputation, the techniques used in the
examination were seriously deficient, "unacceptable"
and "more than 30 years out of
On occasion Klass has come close to acknowledging openly a preference for negative polygraph results. On June 26, 1978, he challenged Hynek, Hendry and me to arrange an examination for the Rev. William Gill, who in 1959 experienced a close encounter of the third kind in Iloianai, Papua New Guinea, in the company of 37 other witnesses." [*] (Curiously, in recent years Klass' public and private statements on the case have consistently failed to acknowledge the presence of the three dozen other observers. He acts as if the story's credibility rested on Gill's testimony alone.) At the conclusion of the open letter, Klass wrote, "While 'the results of a polygraph test, even by a skilled, professional examiner[,] can not [sic] provide 'positive proof,' the proposed test could provide additional evidence that would be useful in appraising this classic case."
What is this supposed to mean? If a polygraph test does not give us "positive proof," how can it "provide additional evidence ... useful in appraising this classic case"? How, in fact, can it do anything but further confuse the issue? It is hard to resist Hendry's conclusion that Klass meant "if Gill passes the test, then it's invalid because after all polygraph tests don't prove anything - but if he flunks, then we'll know it's a hoax!" Certainly Klass' past record of pronouncements on polygraph results supports Hendry's interpretation.
[*] See my "Close Encounters: History's Best Case" (February 1978 FATE) and Allan Hendry's "Papua; Father Gill Revisited" (November and December 1977 International UFO Reporter) for a review of the errors and omissions in Klass' attempt to debunk the case in UFOs Explained (1974).
In reality polygraph testing is a highly questionable method of separating truth from falsehood, whether the results are positive or negative. The polygraph's critics, a swelling legion whose ranks include scientists, criminologists, civil libertarians and members of a subcommittee of the House Committee on Government Operations (which in 1974 released a report harshly attacking claims for polygraph reliability), point to numerous instances in which truthful persons have flunked "lie-detector" tests and untruthful persons have passed them. As an American Civil Liberties Union spokesman remarks, "A number of recent expert studies have concluded that the polygraph has little, if any, scientific validity."
The interpretation of polygraph results is so subjective and so dependent on the examiner's personal judgments that a second respected authority (Harry Reed, a Chicago-based polygraph examiner of 10 years' experience) who reviewed McCarthy's examination of Walton concluded, Dr. Raskin's negative assessment to the contrary, the results were valid!
Emotional partisans will side with whichever expert supports their point of view on the Walton incident. The rest of us will conclude that the polygraph has not settled the controversy either way and it is unlikely it ever will. As a way of resolving UFO-related questions, the polygraph leaves everything to be desired." [*]
[*] Belief in the effectiveness of polygraph extends not just to UFO debunkers but to UFO witnesses as well. In my own investigation of close encounters of the third kind, for example, I have found that in most cases the claimants have _volunteered_ to take "lie-detector" tests although I have not brought up the subject.
Klass' obsession with "lie-detection" devices and with truth and falsehood is symptomatic of a fundamental misperception of what is happening in the UFO world. Just as he is certain that many prominent ufologists ("UFO promoters") have questionable motives, so he has managed to persuade himself that even those much-vaunted "reliable witnesses" - scientists, policemen, pilots, clergymen and other seemingly responsible citizens - are complete or partial liars who either contrive exotic UFO stories or else exaggerate their accounts so that they can make money, draw attention to themselves or impress others.
No would-be debunker before Klass ever has been willing to go this far. The late Harvard University astronomer Donald Menzel, an acid-tongued critic of the UFO phenomenon, assumed that the typical UFO claimant, even one who reported a "high-strangeness" sighting, at least was honestly mistaken. The anti-UFO zealots of the air force's Project Blue Book encountered relatively few deliberate hoaxes and most of these involved fraudulent photographs of purported flying saucers.
Hoaxes do occur, of course, and the conscientious investigator is always alert to the possibility when he deals with a reported encounter. But why does Klass find far more 'hoaxes" than anybody else - whether pro, anti or neutral in the UFO controversy - has ever found?
To begin with, Klass conducts the bulk of his inquiries over the telephone or through the mail. His experience in dealing with UFO witnesses in the flesh and in the field is consequently limited. To Klass the typical witness exists as a few minutes of disembodied voice on the phone or as a signature on a few letters. Some witnesses, with whom he has had no communication at all (Father Gill is one notable example), exist solely as names in hooks, magazine articles and newspaper clippings.
He has, in short, no real sense of them as human beings - nothing beyond the most superficial impression of how they think, how they act, what they are and are not capable of, what makes them who they are. This does not stop him, however, from drawing conclusions (almost always negative) about these persons and rushing into print with them. It apparently does not occur to Klass that the person he has imagined somebody to be may not be the one who exists in real life. [*]
[*] UFO investigators like Allan Hendry make extensive use of the phone in their work but to Hendry the telephone is simply a device for the collection of UFO data: to Klass it is frequently a device with which to gather information he can use to assign hypothetical personalities to claimants. Hendry's writings, unlike Klass', are devoid of unverifiable speculations about people he has not met. He once exposed a spectacular hoax solely through phone interviews (see "IUR Takes on Its First 'Men in Black' Case, and Wins", International UFO Reporter, July 1978) without ever having to resort to Klass-style thought-reading.
When Klass really gets going, the witness gets the Full Treatment. The focus of attention is no longer the sighting but the witness' personal history. Klass justifies this interest in the claimant's personal life by saying he is only trying to determine whether or not his testimony can be trusted. Of course any competent investigator is interested in a claimant's reliability. Traditionally the investigator goes to those who know him best - friends, business associates, area residents - and asks if they consider him trustworthy and, more specifically, if they believe his UFO story.
But Klass goes far beyond such standard investigative techniques. In the end the judgments of those who know the claimant are unimportant to Klass, especially if they speak well of him and say they accept his report. If he cannot obtain satisfaction from the target's acquaintances, then The Treatment calls for a careful search for episodes in the individual's past which Klass can use to put him in a bad light.
If Klass can establish that somewhere, at some time, the target has discussed UFOs, read an article or book on them or expressed a desire to see one, he is - at least in Klass' eyes - immediately under suspicion." [*] Not only that, but any expression of awareness of UFOs automatically makes the target a "UFO buff" and of course a "UFO buff" cannot be trusted.
Neither can a person who admits to having a sense of humor. A case in point is Father Gill, already mentioned.
[*] Establishing such an interest in or awareness of UFOs in any randomly-chosen group of Americans is not difficult to do. Gallup polls reveal that 95 percent of the American people have heard of UFOs: 57 percent believe they are "real" and nine percent - 13 million people - think they have seen them.
In his original attempt to debunk Gill's sighting (see Chapter 22 of UFOs Explained) Klass theorized that Father Gill, an Anglican missionary, had concocted a story about seeing a UFO and its occupants to impress his "superior," the Rev. Norman Cruttwell, a UFO enthusiast. In fact Cruttwell was not Gill's "superior," just a colleague whom Gill had not seen in almost two years. After Hendry' and I cited this and other major mistakes in his interpretation of the event, Klass - without ever acknowledging any errors in his account (Klass practically never admits he is wrong, as anyone who has ever argued with him knows; he simply changes the subject) - responded with a whole new conclusion: that the incident was a "practical joke." And how did Klass discover this? From Gill's remarks that he has a sense of humor and this sense of humor is reflected in the letters he writes! (Never mind, of course, the additional witnesses, six of whom Allen Hynek interviewed 14 years after the event and after Gill's departure from the area.)
Much less amusing is Klass' habit of digging up dirt in the form of unfortunate episodes in a target's past and using these to "prove" that nothing he says can be believed. Almost everybody has at one time or another done something he regrets or is ashamed of. If the mistakes - serious mistakes - most of us have made in the past were forever held against us, used to prove that we are inherently dishonest, virtually none of us could be considered reliable and nobody could believe anybody.
UFO abductee Travis Walton, the target of one of Klass' most sustained debunking efforts, had a youthful scrape with the law - a not uncommon occurrence among teenagers who have grown up in broken homes, as Walton did - five years before his alleged encounter. The incident, which took place during a particularly troubled period in the young man's life, was hardly representative of a continuing pattern of criminal activity because soon afterwards, like most young offenders who are not hardcore criminal types, he straightened himself out and went on to lead a normal law-abiding adult life. Nonetheless, in any public discussion of Walton's claims, Klass never misses an opportunity to point to Walton's "criminal record" as if it were compelling evidence against the validity of the UFO episode. He reacts with indignation to any suggestion that this smacks of McCarthyism and character assassination.
He is also quick to accuse "UFO promoters" of "covering up" data that in Klass' opinion cast doubts on their favorite cases. In one instance he was dead right. Jim Lorenzen and James Harder of the Aerial Phenomena Research Organization participated in the indefensible suppression of the negative results of McCarthy's polygraph examination of Travis Walton. After Klass learned of the failed test and exposed the cover-up, Lorenzen justified his conduct by saying the results were meaningless anyway, which may well have been true but which was hardly the point.
But Klass has participated in some "cover-ups" of his own. Just as extreme UFO believers ignore negative evidence, so Klass the extreme debunker ignores positive evidence. In UFOs Explained he devotes 19 pages to the famous Pascagoula, Miss., abduction claim (which unsurprisingly he decides is a hoax) but never mentions a key item of evidence which has always impressed more open-minded observers: the fact that when the two claimants were left alone in a room at the local sheriff's office (where they had gone two or three hours after the alleged encounter) with a tape-recorder running without their knowledge, they exhibited the same terror and bewilderment they had shown the officers who had just interrogated them. [*]
Those who have argued with Klass about the merits of specific UFO cases invariably discover that the exchanges are fruitless. It is impossible, says Hendry, who has been through the experience, "to confine him within a meaningful framework of debate." Correspondents find themselves subjected to an astounding and confusing variety of arguments and allegations for which nothing in their previous experience has prepared them.
[*] A transcript of the exchange appears on page 35-36 of Ralph Blum's book Beyond Earth: Man's Contact with UFOs (1974), a book with which we know Klass is familiar because he has mentioned it in print on several occasions.
Frequently the arguments rest on assumptions which, because they are neither provable nor unprovable, cannot be responded to in any rational manner. A favorite Klass argument, almost invariably made about UFO witnesses whom he has never met (and frequently with whom he has never spoken or corresponded), holds that the UFO claimant couldn't possibly be telling the truth because if he were he would not have behaved as he did during or after the reported sighting. And how should the witness have behaved? As Klass would have under the circumstances, of course, or as Klass has decided the witness should have. [*]
This is all part of the Klass method of, as Hendry puts it, "using a truncated version of the information available to him and shaping it to his own ends." There is no way of winning an argument with him because, even when presented with documented evidence of the incorrectness of his position, Klass seldom concedes he is wrong. Instead he holds fiercely to a position even when it is demonstrably at variance with the facts.
In 1977, for example, he confidently predicted that a UFO wave would erupt after the release, in December of that year, of Columbia Pictures' Close Encounters of the Third Kind - thus substantiating his belief that UFO waves are generated by media publicity. No such wave resulted, at least to anybody else's knowledge, but Klass nonetheless declared one had and be produced misleading, out-of-context statistics to "prove" it. Even Klass' fellow UFO debunkers seemed reluctant to endorse this extraordinary claim.
[*] A "Klassic" example of this type of debunking tactic is to be found in Klass' treatment of the Gill case. As "evidence" that the report is a hoax, Klass observes that Gill resumed his normal duties while the UFO with its occupants was still hovering overhead. "I simply could not believe my eyes when I read this." Klass writes. In fact, as Klass does _not_ observe, Gill and the other witnesses had watched the object hover motionlessly overhead for a combined total (over a two-night period) of nearly five hours. The novelty had worn off. especially after it became obvious the UFO was not going to land or come any closer, and Gill (whom, if Klass had ever met him, he would know to be a matter-of-fact unexcitable fellow) figured, not unreasonably, that it was time to get on with his business. (On the other hand, if Gill had stood outside for hours frantically trying to get the UFO to land even when it clearly had no intention of doing so, Klass probably would have concluded that the man was a fanatical flying saucer nut whose testimony must be viewed with suspicion.)
Not long ago I talked with an educated,
intelligent man who had witnessed a UFO display - far
more spectacular than the one Gill reported - over the
Andes Mountains. "I know this sounds strange," he
said, "but after an hour and a half of watching this,
we got bored and left."
Allan Hendry's, The UFO Handbook, Klass wrote in a review published in the Winter 1979-80 issue of The Skeptical Inquirer, "is one of the most significant and useful books on the subject ever published."
It was one of the few statements of Klass' with which the ufological community heartily concurred. Hendry's book (published by Doubleday in August 1979) was reviewed widely and favorably in the UFO journals which hailed it as a major contribution to the literature. Yet eight months after Handbook appeared, Klass was asserting that the UFO media had mostly ignored it - and in his Skeptical Inquirer review he expressed the view that "UFO-movement leaders" would react unfavorably to the book.
Why? Because once again Klass confused an issue as he defined it with the issue as it existed in real life.
He was convinced that because Handbook harshly criticized ufology's shortcomings and because it documented the surprising degree to which misperception of conventional stimuli (such as advertising planes) contributes to UFO reporting, the "UFO movement" - composed, as Klass professed to see it, of cynical exploiters and headline-hunting nobodies - would hate it. And if the "UFO movement" were so obsessed as Klass is with the making of points as opposed to the addressing of issues, it _would_ have despised Handbook. Instead ufologists received it warmly.
They did so because for once someone had criticized the discipline for its real shortcomings, not the phony ones portrayed in the statements of the extremist debunkers. And ufology did, and does, have plenty of shortcomings which the more serious persons in its ranks seek to correct. Although some first-rate work has been done, UFO research in general has suffered over the years because the subject, still in scientific disrepute (although this is gradually changing), is dependent mostly on the efforts of amateurs of varying degrees of competence and also because no one yet has been able to figure out the methodology appropriate to the investigation of such a unique phenomenon.
Thoughtful ufologists welcomed Handbook as the kind of incisive guide to the pitfalls of UFO inquiry the field needed and could profit from. Ufology is slowly maturing, attracting growing numbers of critical-minded people who ,although they may suspect that UFOs are spacecraft or something just as extraordinary, do not consider this a conclusion to be defended at all costs. They are well aware that at least nine out of every 10 reports have conventional explanations, The best UFO debunking has been done by ufologists, not by their critics, and The UFO Handbook was precisely the sort of self-critical book a field moving from hobby to protoscience could be expected to produce.
But even as he endorsed it for its criticisms of ufology, Klass expressed puzzlement. Why, he asked, did Handbook's bibliography not list his two debunking books or Menzel's three? And why would Hendry not answer his letters or exchange documents with him?
In the months ahead Klass would be effusive in his praise of Hendry, ignoring as much as possible Hendry's public criticisms of him and his repeated refusal to have anything to do with him. He was certain that this would pass, that if Hendry was not already a closet debunker he would be (as Klass remarked to me in conversation) "when he gets out from under Hynek," his employer, and when he was able to complete his "ufological education," presumably under Klass' tutelage.
In fact Hendry found Klass' methods appalling, reckless and irrelevant to the real issues of UFO research. They were symptomatic, he believed, of one of the worst features of the UFO controversy: the tendency of extreme believers and extreme disbelievers to stake out opposing positions and to hold to them regardless. Such polarization turned UFOs into a political rather than a scientific question and the exercise quickly degenerated into point-making rather than fact-finding. To Hendry, who defines himself as neither a scoffer nor a proponent, UFOs are not the cause uncritical believers hold them to be or the threat debunkers make them out to be; they are simply a question to which rational, unprejudiced investigation may eventually yield an answer. Hendry's position is so eminently sane that emotional partisans like Klass and some UFO proponents seem incapable of understanding what he is up to.
Although Hendry considers it distinctly possible that UFOs may turn out to be extraordinary phenomena, he is less interested in the eventual outcome of the controversy than he is in seeing to it that the investigations are thorough and that the conclusions derived from them are sound. It serves ufology's purpose not at all to extrapolate from "facts" that might not really be facts. And the polarization between opposing camps over the three decades of the UFO debate has produced plenty of nonfactual "'facts" - from "solid" cases that are not truly solid to "debunked" ones that are not truly debunked. UFO researchers had better try a different approach. "Unless we develop drastically new ideas and methodologies for the study of baffling UFO cases and the human context in which they occur," Hendry writes, "we will watch the next 30 years of UFO report gathering simply mirror the futility and frustration of the last 30 years."
Although some members of CSICOP long had wanted the organization to sponsor a Klass-Hynek debate, it was the Smithsonian Institution that finally arranged for the two men to appear on the same stage. They were not alone, however. With Klass were his fellow-debunkers Robert Sheaffer and James Oberg. One the other side with Hynek were Bruce Maccabee and Allan Hendry.
But even though the affair was billed as a "debate," Hynek would not debate. Ignoring Klass, he delivered two scholarly, reasoned presentations on the UFO question in general. It was quickly apparent that If Klass were to score points he would have to score them against somebody else.
According to prearranged format, the debaters were supposed to deal with specific questions about the UFO phenomenon: what is known about it, how strong the extraterrestrial hypothesis is, what the government should be doing about it, and so on. Such questions are central to the UFO issue and five of the six speakers provided thoughtful responses reflecting their varying perspectives. The sixth speaker, Klass, took a different tack.
He opened by citing the so-called criminal records of Travis Walton and Pascagoula abductee Charles Hickson. "Instead of saying, 'Thanks, Phil, for turning up these facts; we want to consider them,'" Klass said in a tone of righteous indignation, "I was accused [by the UFO movement] of character assassination." Paying only the most token heed to the questions he was supposed to address, he ripped into his opponents Maccabee and Hendry and accused them of "withholding data."
"I very much admire Allan Hendry's UFO Handbook," he said. "I very much admire, in general, his investigative techniques." But Hendry had not told the full story about a celebrated UFO incident he had investigated a year earlier: an alleged encounter in which Deputy Sheriff Val Johnson of Marshall County, Minnesota, saw a UFO shooting toward his patrol car; after passing out at the wheel, Johnson awoke to discover his vehicle had been damaged and his eyes injured. [*]
[*] See Hendry's "UFO Bangs up Police Car." May 1980 FATE.
"I would agree there are only two possible explanations to this case," Klass went on. "It could not have been Venus. It could not have been a weather balloon. It could not have been an hallucination." Either it was a spaceship "or Deputy Val Johnson did it himself because he likes to play practical jokes, especially in the late evening" when he gets a little bit bored, as I learned - Hendry did not - by talking to some of the people who have worked with him and know him very well.
"I also discovered that he once talked about setting up a UFO patrol to go out looking for UFOs. Yet, according to Hendry, this was a deputy sheriff who... prior to his sighting 'was rather indifferent to the UFO subject....'
"I would wish that Allan Hendry ... had taken the final step and said, 'Val Johnson, will you take a polygraph - a lie-detector test - given by a very experienced examiner? Let's see what the results are.'"
It was a Klassical performance. He had changed the focus from the ufological to the personal. By "withholding data" Hendry had made a close encounter of the second kind out of a hoax engineered by a practical joker-UFO buff who presumably would be unmasked by a "lie-detector test." Those members of the audience unfamiliar with Klass' methods were no doubt impressed.
Hendry, who knew better, was not. His response came at the end of a sober review of the UFO evidence: "We've already heard from Philip Klass today a perfectly excellent illustration of why it would be difficult to ever convince the skeptics based on the facts.
"There may be a way to show that the Pascagoula abductees' story should be deemed false but anyone who [finds unconvincing] Phil Klass' explanation that the [incident] should be deemed false because of an irrelevant episode in the man's past and who perceives this as character assassination will begin to understand why I do withhold information from Mr Klass [*] and why he will never let open-mindedness get in the way of his studies."
Citing the conflicting conclusions of Raskin and Reed about McCarthy's polygraph examination of Walton Hendry remarked "Thus you begin to understand why I do not feel that the final step in an examination of Deputy Val Johnson rests on a polygraph examination.
"Actually, I'm inclined to agree with Klass," Hendry continued, this time sarcastically. "I think that the sheriff and the six associates of Val Johnson were lying when they assured me of the integrity of their coworker. I think that Val Johnson is such a practical joker that he deliberately injured his eyes - as judged by two doctors - and he deliberately entered a phony state of shock for the benefit of the ambulance driver who removed him from the scene of the accident."
Hendry was angry and his words were heated. Klass' personal attack had surprised him but the suggestion that he had deliberately "withheld" negative information infuriated him. He was not used to hearing his integrity questioned.
[*] Hendry is referring specifically to a tape recording of interviews he conducted with a navy radar operator Timothy Collins who figured in a 1978 UFO sighting near Ocala, Fla. Klass, taking issue with Hendry's conclusion that the event represented a genuine UFO encounter, proposed an alternative mundane explanation which Hendry subsequently savaged in a Second Look article. Klass responded by suggesting, among other things, that Hendry send him a tape of the four interviews with Collins in return for a tape of Klass' single interview with the radar man.
Commenting on the offer (Second Look, October 1979), Hendry wrote "First the importance of the case does not 'hinge' on whether Klass' transcript of his single phone call to Collins was accurate or not. All that matters here is how one chooses to deal with the raw elements of the story. 'Klass watchers' will recognize his call for the exchange of 'factual information' and the employment of 'open, scientific methodology' for the rhetoric it really is; for the uninitiated, there is a long history of individuals whose information 'exchanges' with Klass have resulted only in the frustration of his correspondents to confine him within a meaningful framework of debate.
"As I have shown earlier, Klass has ... used a truncated version of the information available to him and shaped it to his own ends. It should be obvious that Klass isn't this anxious to exchange tapes with me because his tape is going to prove that Collins had made wildly different claims to him, since Klass would have been quick _to quote them verbatim in his reply_. He didn't. I suspect that his real desire was to get hold of _my_ tape to increase his 'data pool' in search of contradictions. I sent a copy of the tape to Second Look editor Randy Fitzgerald to show that there weren't any.
Nonetheless, to Hendry's considerable annoyance,
Klass continued to harp on the issue and even devoted
four paragraphs of his review of Handbook to the
But afterwards, when the speakers, their wives and invited guests gathered at Washington's exclusive Cosmos Club for a post debate drink, Hendry was startled to find Klass the picture of cordiality. He acted, Hendry thought, as if the nasty remarks were simply for public consumption and Hendry should not take them seriously. In fact Klass had been hoping for months that their meeting at the Smithsonian would initiate a friendship and resolve their differences.
Hendry asked Klass about the "UFO patrol." The story as Klass told it in private was significantly different in its implications from the one he had just told in public. Klass said the "UFO patrol" idea had come up during a spate of cattle mutilations in Minnesota. Johnson's suggestion had simply reflected a widely-held, much-discussed popular belief that mutilations and flying saucers are related. It did not make him a UFO buff, as would have been clear if Klass had discussed the "UFO patrol" idea in _context_.
Klass went on to reveal something else he had not bothered to share with the public: that everyone he interviewed (by phone) in the course of his inquiry into the case spoke highly of Val Johnson. [*]
Hendry reflected that all this was coming from the man who just a short time earlier had accused him of "withholding data."
The next day I met with Klass in his Washington apartment. He was pleased about his meeting with Hendry and confident that the ground work for friendship had been laid. In five years, he said, if Hendry was still involved in UFO study, he would be an openly-declared debunker and a close associate of Philip Julian Klass.
[*] On October 10, 1980, I spoke with Marshall County Sheriff Dennis Brekke who was Johnson's superior at the time of the episode. (Johnson is now chief of police at Oslo, Minn.) Brekke dismissed Klass' "practical joke" theory as absurd, saying Johnson was "too sincere" a man to create a hoax of this magnitude. He had spent time alone with Johnson not long after the incident and seen a man so distraught, confused and frightened that any suspicion of "acting" was out of the question. Nothing he uncovered during his department's investigation gave him the slightest reason to doubt Johnson's word. Klass, of course, had never met Johnson.
Allan Hendry and his wife Elaine, a working astronomer with a Ph.D. in her field, were watching a particularly gripping scene from the science fiction thriller The Empire Strikes Back.
In it Luke Skywalker, the hero, is engaged in a fierce struggle with the villain Darth Vader who all the while is attempting to entice Luke to come over to his side. Luke does not realize his real importance, he says; he must understand that only Vader can complete his training and the two of them together can end all conflict and restore order to the universe.
Luke declares heatedly that he will never join forces with Vader. But Vader continues to speak. Luke does not understand, he says, that he, Darth Vader, is Luke's father, "Impossible!" the boy protests. If only he will search his feelings, Vader responds, he will know it is true. "Join me and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son," he says.
Allan turned to Elaine and said, "Me and Phil Klass."
Author's note: Since this is an article, not a book, I have dealt only in passing with Klass' interpretations of specific UFO reports. Readers who want to know more should consult UFOs - Identified (Random House, 1968) and UFOs Explained (Random House, 1974), making sure that a salt shaker is always at hand. The second book more accurately reflects Klass' current views and methods. He is now at work on a third.
Much of the material relating to Klass' claims exists only in privately-circulated white papers and in letters. As a result few persons outside the UFO community are aware that well-documented refutations of Klass' theories exist; some have yet to see print and some (for example the lengthy exchange between Klass and former Condon Committee investigator Gordon David Thayeron the Lakenheath, England, radar/visual case) probably never will. Other articles specifically intended for publication are now in preparation.
The bibliography that follows is representative, not complete. Some of the items listed are not "refutations" as such but do shed light on relevant issues.