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Area 51, UFOs, Roswell, Commies, and Nazis—all rolled into one story!

by Donald Prothero, May 25 2011

Just last week, a strange phenomenon occurred which casts light on the mindset of people inclined to believe in the paranormal. Among the Top 10  best-selling books this week is Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top-Secret Military Base by “journalist” Annie Jacobsen. In the genre of crazy books about aliens and UFOs, this one is the nadir. Not only does it recycle all the debunked garbage about Area 51 and the Roswell “alien crash,” but it strains the limits of credulity by claiming the Roswell crash wasn’t an alien craft, nor the weather balloon that the evidence has really shown was behind the myth. No, the Roswell crash was actually a Nazi-inspired Soviet aircraft sent by Stalin to make us think we were being invaded by aliens, and the “aliens” are malformed teenagers resulting from genetic experiments of Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. At last, a crazy paranormal story complete with UFOs, Area 51, Roswell, conspiracy, Communists, and Nazis, all rolled up into one!

Her evidence for this bizarre story? It came allegedly a “retired unnamed engineer” from the government contractor EG&G (now part of URS Corporation). No one asked the obvious question about what a retired aerospace engineer would be doing examining bodies, or how he would know they were genetically and surgically altered. In fact, we didn’t even know the structure of DNA until 1953, so there is no way someone could do “genetic engineering” in the 1940s. And if the “teenagers” were genetically engineered by the Soviets using Mengele, they would have to have grown up remarkably fast in the two years from 1945 when Soviets occupied Berlin until 1947, when the Roswell incident took place. In addition, this supposedly all took place over 64 years ago, and this alleged “engineer” would have to be at least in his 30s to have the training and experience to hold such a job. If you do the math, he’s in his 90s or older. Doesn’t that strike anyone as suspicious? Doesn’t that fail the “smell test” of credibility for most people? When Jacobsen was questioned skeptically by interviewer Terry Gross of the radio program Fresh Air on NPR about the problems with the “engineer” story, all she could say is “I don’t think he is lying to me.”

Apparently, no one bothered to look into her credentials, but Jacobsen has a history of “crying wolf” before in order to get publicity. For example, there was the incident in 2004 where she mistook 14 Syrian musicians on a Northwest Airlines flight from Dallas to Los Angeles for terrorists, then she caused hysteria with her 3000-word piece on the web that demonstrate the worst aspects of xenophobia and bigotry and paranoia. The entire piece is about these Middle Eastern men talking in Arabic, with Arabic writing on their clothes, who have odd-shaped packages, and have to go to the bathroom once in a while. From this, her paranoid thinking generated a story that was published without fact-checking, and wasted a lot of taxpayer dollars while the TSA had to check their manifests, and announce that the mysterious “terrorists” were just Syrian musicians on the way to another gig. Shouldn’t that information have made the people interviewing her about her new book  a bit suspicious that she had an overactive imagination and tendency to exaggerate and write about her paranoid fantasies without fact checking?

The entire mainstream media gave it saturation coverage and uncritical repetition of its claims, and even the normally sarcastic Jon Stewart listens to her outrageous assertions without mocking her, and endorses the book. Even sadder is that a book with such bizarre ideas was promoted for its sensationalism, and almost no one gave her a real challenge on the implausibility of the whole story. The New York Times ran a book review which mostly recounted the book’s detailed research into the legitimate military uses of Area 51 (mostly nuclear testing and spy planes), then recited her outrageous claims about the Soviet aliens without much analysis. It’s sad enough that the formerly scientific cable channels like Discovery Channel and TLC (which once meant “The Learning Channel”) now run mostly pseudoscientific garbage documentaries about UFOs, aliens, Bigfoot, Atlantis, psychics, and the paranormal. It no longer surprises me when the major figures of the media, especially Oprah Winfrey, promote woo on their shows. But I looked and looked and found only a few truly skeptical reviews, including one by Dr. Athena Andreadis on her website and also on the Huffington Post (a site that, unfortunately, posts a fair amount of woo itself, especially in religion and medicine). About the only oasis of critical reasoning was the harshly negative reviews on the book’s site, which list a host of factual errors starting in the first chapter.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. Survey after survey show that a high percentage of Americans believe in the paranormal, including UFOs, aliens, Bigfoot, and psychics. The Baylor Religion Survey found that about 23% of Americans actively read the UFO literature, and 17% believed they had actually seen a UFO. Other polls have claimed that as many as 80% of Americans believe the government is hiding information about UFOs, 64% think that aliens have contacted humans, and 50% think that aliens have abducted humans. II don’t know whether Americans are truly this deluded, but it’s tough to dispute it with the consistency of most polls, or the sales of hundreds of book titles on UFOs and aliens, or the huge web presence of alien conspiracy buffs.

What can be done about it? Do we need better science education, or just basic training in critical thinking? I leave this to you, the readers, to weigh in on your thoughts.

55 Responses to “Area 51, UFOs, Roswell, Commies, and Nazis—all rolled into one story!”

  1. Trimegistus says:

    I listened to that Terry Gross interview; it was hardly skeptical. She seemed to be swallowing the story whole and inviting Jacobsen to refute critics — you know, like those mean old skeptics.

    Good thing we have Public Broadcasting to balance out that sensationalist trash on Fox, eh?

  2. “Do we need better science education, or just basic training in critical thinking?”

    All of the above. Throw increased funding and appreciation for the arts in to the mix for a truly enlightened society.

    • Nyar says:

      Basic training in critical thinking would probably be somewhat helpful and “better science education” also, but I don’t think appreciation for the arts will encourage skeptical thought. In fact, that might have the opposite effect. It is just anecdotal evidence, but every artistic person I know is huge believer in all kinds of woo. Increased funding may or may not be helpful depending on how the funding is utilized. The idea that blindly throwing money at a problem will somehow fix it is just woo itself.

  3. I actually turned down the opportunity to visit Roswell in exchange for meeting up with some cool guys in Colorado on a trip to the US. It was a major detour in the itinerary to head up to the Rockies. Well worth it. I have another opportunity to visit Roswell next year. I’ll be passing up that opportunity again.

    • I’ve actually been not just to Roswell (more than once) but to the UFO Museum. (Only because it was free, though, as part of a N.M. Press Association conference.)

      While in there, I said, sotto voce, something about the numbnuttery there. And, someone, from museum staff, certainly, said “You gotta believe!”

      • I’ve changed my mind. I can see the financial benefits of opening a butt plug stand out front the UFO Museum. I’ll be pitching them as a defensive accessory to reduce the risk of anal probing from aliens.

  4. MadScientist says:

    Folks don’t need to be scientists to smell the bullshit – they just need to be sensible. I think improving folks’ ability to think would help. Now if folks had a better understanding about the world around them, that would also help them spot scams. Many scams (such as the anti-vax propaganda) simply throw out loads of rubbish and in such cases even normal thinking people may not know where to look for real information. (Although in the case of anti-vax, the CDC website is a good start.) Some knowledge of the subject matter may help detect the nonsense but you can’t expect most people to know enough of everything to evade all scams.

    These days asking a scamster “where do you get this information” isn’t good enough since nonsense publications abound. Sometimes it can be quite a challenge to get to the good information.

  5. Max says:

    And nobody mentions Project Mogul that’s a much better explanation of the Roswell crash.

    “When Jacobsen was questioned skeptically by interviewer Terry Gross of the radio program Fresh Air on NPR about the problems with the ‘engineer’ story, all she could say is ‘I don’t think he is lying to me.'”

    She also said that the engineer had good credentials, that she fact-checked everything else he told her, and that he had nothing to gain and everything to lose. Though if the guy is in his 90’s and stays anonymous, I’d say he has little to lose.

    • tmac57 says:

      I’ve listened to the interview twice now,and I had the strong impression both times that Jacobsen may well have been making up the UFO portion of her story out of whole cloth to spice up the book and sell more copies,which apparently is working.There is something in the change in her voice as she recounts the tale that seems much like a child being confronted with a transgression,who fabricates an implausible story to get out of trouble.Take a listen to the podcast.The Roswell incident starts about 23 minutes into the interview.Up till then she sounded fairly normal.Just my impression of course.

    • Yminale says:

      I don’t think there is an engineer. She probably made this story all up. It’s your classic made up conspiracy. Take a non-event like Roswell. Come up with a ridiculous scenario. Drop some famous names (Stalin, Mengle, Horton brothers). Create a source that might have the information. The real kickers is the number of errors. It’s obvious she’s a clueless person who doesn’t understand history especially aerospace history.

  6. Max says:

    What does Area 51 have to do with nuclear testing?

    • Donald Prothero says:

      Jacobsen says (and I think it’s well documented) that they did a lot of their testing of nukes in that area during the late 40s and 50s. It was very isolated from populations at the time (Vegas was tiny) and the military holds a HUGE area of land under high security, so it was their best choice for land-based testing.

      • Max says:

        The huge Nevada Proving Grounds was established in 1951 to test nukes, but as far as I know Area 51 is an Air Force Flight Test Center. If anything, the nuclear tests next door only disrupted the flight tests.

      • WScott says:

        Max is correct: Area 51 is part of the huge Nevada Test Site, but is not the part where they did nuclear tests. People tend to use the names interchangeably.

      • Max says:

        Area 51 is just outside the Nevada Test Site and inside the even bigger Nellis Air Force Range.

      • Max says:

        The Nellis Air Force Range was renamed the Nevada Test and Training Range in 2001, but that’s easy to confuse with the Nevada Test Site, which is what Jacobsen did right at the start of the Fresh Air interview.

      • WScott says:

        You’re correct – that’s what I meant to say. Thanks.

  7. Thank you for the mention!

    I occasionally reprint my scientific posts on HuffPo precisely as an attempt to serve antidotes to Deepak Chopra et al. Not so incidentally, it is indicative that HuffPo has sections on religion, divorce, whathaveyou — but no science section. They have a “tech” section which is essentially ads for new gizmos.

    On the larger question of critical thinking (or lack thereof) in the US, much of it has to do with basic education and the steady shift of the Overton window to bottom right.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      Athena: thank YOU for your wonderful blog entry–it was very useful. I was dismayed that there was so little criticism of her crap in the blogosphere. I had to go to the trusty critical reviewers on to find out that she had made LOTS of factual errors as well.

      • I saw those lists of errors, David. When I discussed John Alexander’s “projects” in my book, To Seek Out New Life, my editors asked for primary references. I cannot fathom why Jacobsen’s book is being marketed as non-fiction and how such glaring errors were permitted by the Little, Brown editors. This is not Wassamatta U. Press we’re discussing here.

      • Donald Prothero says:

        Sadly, I do know a bit about the publishing industry. Even with the high-end mainstream press, all that matters is sales. Any publicity, even harsh criticism, is fine for them as long as it keeps the book selling. That’s been demonstrated over and over again with those phony celebrity bios full of lies and innuendoes, and all sorts of sensationalist political books. They are in it for the money, plain and simple.

    • Trimegistus says:

      Athena: One example of bad critical thinking is your reflexive blaming of the problem on a political shift to the right.

      I’ve been hearing this from liberals my whole life, and it sounds more contrived and desperate every time. Conservatives aren’t the ones spreading lies about nuclear power. Conservatives weren’t the driving force in the anti-vaccine movement. Scientology doesn’t draw its recruits from the Bible Belt. One could go on.

      Your facile, knee-jerk reaction to blame antiscience attitudes on “the right” just means you’re not thinking either.

      • I wouldn’t call antivaxxers liberal or conservative; in fact I’ve never seen a study of their political alignment. Ditto for Scientologists.

        That said, opposition to climate science and evolutionary theory I think do pretty well align with the political right.

      • On the contrary, there is nothing reflexive about my conclusions. I will not add more, since I have things to do and it’s my habit not to feed trolls.

      • Trimegistus says:

        Translation: “Okay, I was wrong.”

      • Translation: “Trismegistus’ comprehension skills are lacking.”

        Or, as the old legal adage goes: If you have the facts on your side, pound the facts. If you have the laws on your side, pound the law. If you have neither, pound the table. As you just did.

      • Leland Witter says:

        Perhaps if you knew what the Overton Window was, you wouldn’t have had such a reflexive response thinking that she was referring to political right. It’s a graph and the axis does not run liberal to conservative, although it does go left to right. Please try to keep up.

      • Max says:

        I thought it was vertical, from free to not free.

  8. Normally I would think this is more the territory of the credulous Barbra Bradley Hagerty on NPR.

    • tmac57 says:

      To be fair,although Terry Gross didn’t try to completely challenge Jacobsen,she did ask a couple of skeptical questions,and her demeanor indicated that she really wasn’t buying into the Roswell part of the story at all.At least,that’s the way it appeared to me.

  9. S. Hill says:

    I don’t think better science education is a feasible solution (for many and various reasons). I’m actually a fan of more “science appreciation” classes to reach those who will not go on to be scientists.
    But, I think there is something to be said for critical thinking classes that call out awful ideas directly. To make examples of astrology, UFO claims, homeopathy, parapsychology and show WHY they are not acceptable could provide some inoculation to further goofball ideas like Jacobsen’s. These “paranormal”-themed classes are quite popular on college campuses and there is some data to suggest that students do end up more skeptical at the end. At least they have been exposed to the rational view on them.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      Sharon: thanks for your feedback. Your blogpost on cryptozoologists is proving invaluable to our new book.

  10. Richard Smith says:

    I saw Jon Stewart’s interview of her, and I got the impression he was just feeding her a lot of rope. I think if he’d approached her skeptically, or even neutrally, she’d probably be reticent to talk about the crazier(!) aspects of the story.

    Then again, that could all just be wishful thinking – but at least it’s not as wishful as Roswell’s Communist Nazi UFO in Area 51…

    • Donald Prothero says:

      But I didn’t catch that tone of sarcasm and scorn that Stewart uses when he’s mocking a load of crap. To me, it sounded like he believed it and was endorsing it–which is remarkable, considering how often he sniffs out bullshit in politics.

  11. Carl says:

    I actually listened to the Fresh Air interview this morning during my commute. I was furious and disgusted.

    Heck, I used to respect the Los Angeles Times. When did they become the Weekly World News?

    Maybe we can get Steve Novella and the Rogues to interview Jacobsen on The Skeptic’s Guide. She seems to be about as crazy as Neal Adams.

  12. PoonofWug says:

    Redfern’s midget story is more plausible than this. At least many soap flakes were sold.

  13. Yminale says:

    Forget science. WHAT ABOUT HISTORY? Jacobsen theory doesn’t even fit the know historical facts

    1. Mengle was captured by the AMERICANS in 1945 and then accidentally let go. So you’re telling me the “Angle of Death” went East towards the Nazis-hating capital of the world after escaping to the West.

    2. There were confirmed reports of Mengle in South American in 1955.

    3. Mengle was not a surgeon. He was more a butcher. Even Nazis scientists complained that what he was doing didn’t make sense.

    4.The Horton brothers were cool but the one thing they didn’t work on was Flying discs. Even if they thought the idea was interesting, basic glider tests that were famous for would have shown that it was unworkable.

    5. All of Horton brothers designs used a magical material called WOOOD. I think a simple American rancher would have recognized pieces of wood.

    6 Most German VTOL projects were well STUPID aka unworkable except for one which was redirecting jet exhaust to create lift. Well isn’t possible the Soviets had this technology. NO because a) the US took the prototype after the war and b) if the Soviets had this technology then why they did steal it from the west 30 years later.

    7. The Soviets had one aircraft that could reach the US in 1951 and that was the TU-4. It would be a one way trip and it would probably crash somewhere over Canada not Arizona.

  14. Ed Forth says:

    You should re-read the link to the Baylor Religious Survey you posted.

    The question was “Have you ever read a book, consulted a Web site, or researched the following topics..UFO sightings, abductions, or conspiracies”

    Didn’t we all do that just by reading your post? The question doesn’t imply which side of the debate you’re on.

  15. Spurll says:

    Thanks for this, Donald. I just watched that segment on the Daily Show and I was really disappointed.

  16. Max says:

    “Do we need better science education, or just basic training in critical thinking?”

    We definitely need training in critical thinking as well as in doing research, to teach people to find accurate information and filter out signal from noise. Also, people should know enough science, history, geography, and other disciplines to have a good intuition about how the world works, which would allow them to catch factual errors, distortions, and omissions. That’s why I say that propaganda can make smart people dumber. You may not buy Jacobsen’s Roswell story, and still come away thinking that Area 51 was involved in carrying out nuclear tests.

  17. jwthomas says:

    We in the US definitely need to implement courses in critical thinking at the middle and high school level but we’ll never get them within the foreseeable future. Once we start questioning UFO sightings, ghosts, ouija boards and Bigfoot some students will start asking about the Bible, the effectiveness of prayer and Papal infallibility. No school board in the country will ever allow that to happen.

    • gdave says:

      You seem to be assuming that those who believe in the Bible, the effectiveness of prayer and Papal infallibility think of themselves as un-critical thinkers, and think of their beliefs as unable to withstand critical scrutiny. Not many people think of themselves and their own beliefs that way. A more likely objection to critical thinking courses in middle and high school is the emphasis on “three R’s” education and meeting “No Child Left Behind” targets.

      Actually, fundamentalists should welcome the addition of critical thinking courses to the curriculum, since it is precisely in that sort of class that it would be appropriate to “teach the controversy”. Indeed, contrasting evolutionary theory and creationism or intelligent design in a critical thinking class would certainly pass a court review.

      On the other hand, I suspect you’re correct that there would be considerable opposition from religious groups, but not because such a class might lead students to question the Bible. Rather, I suspect that many religious conservatives would view “critical thinking” as code-words for “secular humanism”, and an attempt to inculcate their children with UN-critical “secular humanist” views. Most religious conservatives view “secular humanism” as resulting from sloppy and un-critical thinking. Indeed, most people, of all religious persuasions, view their own beliefs as consistent with rigorous, critical thought, and the beliefs of those they disagree with as being inconsistent with rigorous, critical thought.

      If you could convince religious conservatives that your proposed course really would promote critical thinking, including subjecting the scientific method and the scientific consensus in such fields as evolution and climate change to a rigorous critical analysis, I suspect you might find some allies in persuading your local school board.

      P.S. Since even many American Catholics (a minority to start with) don’t believe in Papal infallibility, and Protestants (the vast majority of American Christians) view it (by definition) as heresy, I doubt the potential for the questioning of Papal infallibility is likely to deter many school boards from instituting critical thinking courses.

      P.P.S. “No school board in the country will ever allow that to happen.” Really? NO school board? In the entire country? EVER? I assume you’re exaggerating for rhetorical effect here.

      • jwthomas says:

        Maybe so. I hereby withdraw my support for critical thinking classes in middle and high schools. They would be far too inimical to the cause of critical thinking. As for what school boards would or would not do, it appears that only one or two offended parents can terrify administrators and overrule even the most progressive school boards.

  18. Max says:

    Annie Jacobsen revised the history of Area 51 to tie it to the Atomic Energy Commission.

    “Never before disclosed is the fact that Area 51’s first customer was not the CIA but the Atomic Energy Commission… That the Atomic Energy Commission was not an agency that characteristically had any manner of jurisdiction over aircraft and pilot projects (their business was nuclear bombs and atomic energy) speaks to the shadowy, shell-game aspect of black-world operations at Area 51… For more than sixty years, no one has thought of looking at the Atomic Energy Commission to solve the riddle of Area 51.”

  19. Hessdalen says:

    In my view, Schulgens memo represents one of the few genuine proof that the UFO phenomenon is real. Furthermore, it appears that the memo relates the UFO phenomenon to German technology developed at the end of the war. This, and how it may relate to the Roswell incident, I have written extensively about in my blog: