A Very Specific Level of Scepticism

by Arthur B

Greg Bishop's Project Beta is sceptical enough to disbelieve some fringe theories but credulous enough to embrace others.
Greg Bishop's Project Beta: The Story of Paul Bennewitz, National Security, and the Creation of a Modern UFO Myth cuts to the heart of a startlingly high proportion of the UFO conspiracy theories of the 1980s and 1990s, and in particular focuses on two men who between them played significant roles in the development and propagation of almost all the wildest conspiracy theories of that era.

On one hand, you have Paul Bennewitz, engineer and businessman. Living and working in close proximity to Kirtland Air Force Base, Bennewitz became convinced that he was at the centre of a conflict involving devious alien infiltrators operating out of a hidden underground base beneath the sleepy town of Dulce (said base having been provided to the aliens by the US government in return for alien technology).

On the other hand, you have Bill Moore, a UFOlogist whose work included collaborating with Charles Berlitz on books such as The Philadelphia Experiment and The Roswell Incident - both of which turned the titular subjects from mostly-forgotten rumours into cornerstones of UFOlogical conspiracy theories. Moore, along with Jaime Shandera and Stanton Friedman, played a key role in bringing to light the so called Majestic-12 documents, purported government documentation suggesting that a secretive body called MJ-12 was covering up the existence of government contact with alien races... but as we'll see, there are very good reasons to doubt Moore's credentials as a researcher.

Bennewitz's theories connected cattle mutilation, crashed UFOs, alien abduction and sinister mind control rays into a panoramic paranoid vision that laid the groundwork for future UFO conspiracy hounds like John Lear and William Cooper. Moore's early championing of iconic UFO conspiracy themes like Area 51 and MJ-12 would penetrate mainstream pop culture to a colossal extent. Between the two you have a crucial nexus in the development of UFO mythology at the time period. Put it this way: take any particular plot point from the X-Files which was borrowed from UFO folklore and trace it back to its original sources, and chances are at some point your path will lead you to Moore, Bennewitz, or both - and that gets more true the more paranoid the particular plot point is.

Bennewitz, however, was clearly not a well man. From the commencement of his investigations of local alien phenomena in 1979, his behaviour and professed experiences became more and more alarming, to the point where he was convinced that the aliens were regularly walking through his walls to do terrible things to him and he would insistently wave photographs of the local area in people's faces excitedly pointing out incriminating features which only he could see. In the late 1980s, Bennewitz's family bit the bullet and had him hospitalised; this was probably a smart move since he'd taken to circulating a document called Project Beta, outlining (in a rather illucid fashion) an audacious plan for a direct assault on the alien base, and that plus increasingly erratic behaviour plus a vicious persecution complex plus his recently acquired habit of carrying a gun everywhere all added up to a compelling case for psychiatric intervention. (If you are curious, a copy of Project Beta - with annotations from later conspiracy theorist “Branton” - can be found online.) Although Bennewitz apparently retained a low key interest in UFOlogy up to his death in 2003, at the insistence of his family he cut off ties from the scene and gave up on the intensive investigations which had worn down his nerves so severely in the first place.

Bennewitz was already at this point a controversial figure in UFOlogical circles; his hospitalisation only exacerbated this. What drove the Bennewitz affair into the stratosphere, though, was a startling speech given by Moore at the 1989 MUFON (Mutual UFO Network) Conference. The speech, which unleashed a tide of anger and recrimination so vicious that Moore never regained his reputation in UFOlogy and eventually left the field altogether, was a startling confession of Moore's complicity with the US government (though so far as I can tell we have no official corroboration of this and this could be a case of Moore making up a fabulous story to explain away the inconsistencies people had noted in the other tall tales he was promoting).

Supposedly, Moore had been contacted by an individual codenamed “Falcon”, who purported to be a member of a faction of intelligence officials called "the Aviary" who wanted to see the truth about UFOs come out. Falcon was offering to provide Moore with inside information on the government's knowledge of and involvement with UFOs in return for some favours from Moore. These favours would include leaking disinformation to UFO researchers to throw them off the scent; this included feeding a pack of lies to Paul Bennewitz in order to gaslight him into a nervous breakdown. (According to Bishop, the motivation for this was concern over Bennewitz's interception of signals emanating from the Air Force base - which just happened to be home to a few choice NSA projects the government would have preferred not to have random civilians tapping into.)

Bishop attempts to reconstruct the events surrounding the Bennewitz affair in this account, but is hampered by a number of difficulties. Firstly, the Bennewitz family remain, for easily understood reasons, kind of hostile towards the UFO community in general and people wanting to poke around in the Bennewitz business in particular. Although Bishop made an attempt to persuade the Bennewitz family to make an exception for this book, it was to no avail; Paul himself would die before the book was completed, and none of the family members were willing to offer any help to Bishop at all.

Consequently, Bishop is obliged to plough ahead without the benefit of being able to draw on the testimony of those closest to Bennewitz. (So far as I can tell, none of his colleagues at Thunder Scientific gave interviews either.) This means that a lot of the time when discussing Paul's experiences Bishop is restricted to what Paul himself reported, with no other witnesses available to confirm or contradict what Paul was claiming.

Secondly, Bishop's work is highly dependent on interviews with Bill Moore himself and Richard Doty, who is supposed to be the (now retired) AFOSI (Air Force Office of Special Investigations) agent involved both with handling Moore and pulling the wool over Bennewitz's eyes. The big problem here is that the main thrust of their testimony is "We're huge liars who fed bad information to investigators in order to send them on wild goose chases" - or, in other words, "We are deeply unreliable witnesses and you shouldn't really trust us". This being the case, how can you really take onboard anything they say unless you can independently confirm it?

Bishop has this curiously trusting approach to the investigation which seems to rely on taking people at their word an awful lot. For instance, supposedly Bennewitz had set up video communications with the aliens and was getting images back of alien faces and extraterrestrial scenes. (Shades of This Island Earth!) Bishop takes it as read that these images did exist and were transmitted by the government disinformation operation, when there's no actual pictures of these images in circulation to confirm that they actually existed and weren't ghosts conjured by Bennewitz's fragile brain chemistry in TV static. Given that VCRs were an established home technology by this point in time, it seems unthinkable that Bennewitz would not have tried to make a record of these contacts.

Likewise, Bishop takes Moore at his word that he was brought onto the Air Force base for meetings with high-ups when he isn't able to offer any documentary evidence that these meetings took place. Doty seems to say they took place, but then again if Doty and Moore were trolling he would say that. For that matter, I can't find any indication that Bishop actually made any effort to corroborate Doty's AFOSI credentials - a rather essential step in assessing whether Doty was really running a secret government disinformation program directed at the UFO community or is just trolling everyone.

Bishop, in short, seems to ascribe an awful lot of weight to witness testimony, which seems a slightly naive attitude when dealing with a story about professed liars. He also applies a weird binary to assessing testimony whereby either people are telling the truth as they understand it or spreading disinformation for a sinister motive; it never occurs to him that sometimes people make up bullshit stories for their personal amusement.

Of course, this might be because Bishop is not exactly a neutral party in this matter, which brings me to the third issue I have with the book: Bishop leaves it until right at the end to note that actually he himself is a UFOlogist who had a good working relationship with Moore in the past. Bishop seems quick to disapprove of those UFOlogists who shunned Moore after Moore's confession (or master trolling, depending on whether or not you believe in the Aviary), even though they have an undeniable point - because Moore has admitted that he'd fed contaminated information to the community, none of Moore's information can be trusted without extremely thorough corroboration, to the point where his value as a witness is effectively negative. Moore's supposed motives of playing along just enough to get to the truth sounds incredibly naive - what basis did Moore have for believing that the Aviary wouldn't just give him more disinformation, and how did he expect to get people to believe the "real story" after confessing the invalidity of so much of what he had put out there?

To be fair, you can probably suss that Bishop is a believer before he gets to speaking directly about his involvement with the UFO scene, since even whilst presenting a supposed expose of the fakery surrounding Bennewitz he happily gives credence to matters like the supposed efficacy of US Army Men Who Stare At Goats-style “psychic warrior” projects and wavers between entirely dismissing supposed alien involvement with the Bennewitz case to speculating about alien interactions with humanity in other contexts.

That said, Bishop does end up coming up with a plausible-sounding theory as to why the government might be out to interfere with UFOlogical investigations in the general vicinity of sensitive air force bases and nuclear weapons installations. The idea he outlines is that US intelligence took an interest in the UFO community not because they had UFO secrets to hide, but because they were concerned about accidental exposure of non-paranormal but decidedly secret projects as an accidental consequence of curious UFOlogists clumsily poking about - and were also concerned about the prospect of Soviet agents using “harmless bumbling UFO investigator” as a cover story in order to surreptitiously keep tabs on US military bases and test sites.

This latter point in particular sounds credible, and suggests an intriguing circular firing squad of paranoids. The government was paranoid enough of Russian spies poking at nuclear sites that I can believe counterintelligence operatives deciding to play the “better safe than sorry” approach and act to derail Bennewitz’ investigation even if there were no evidence he had any espionage agenda. Moore was paranoid enough that the Aviary story sounded plausible to him. And Bennewitz was paranoid enough that the gaslighting project worked all too well - intensifying his interest in local military activities. And so the triangular feedback loop continued until one corner of it - Bennewitz - broke.

But even so, Bishop’s prior connection to Moore makes it feel like this isn’t the objective examination of the case it initially presents itself as, and as far as investigation goes interviewing two guys who say “OK, I know I’m a self-proclaimed professional bullshitter but this time I’m being straight with you” and taking them mostly at their word doesn’t feel especially rigorous. To be honest, I think a personal memoir of Bishop’s interactions with Moore and the fallout from Moore’s MUFON speech would have been a much more interesting prospect, since the most readable, animated and interesting part of the book is Bishop’s description of the fateful conference and the wave of outrage Moore inspired.

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Comments (go to latest)
Ronan Wills at 21:56 on 2018-10-01
When I was a kid and into my early teens, I had an intense fascination with paranormal activity of all kinds, primarily UFOs. Much like kids experiencing professional wresting for the first time, I took it as a given that there was some underlying truth to the whole phenomenon, although I like to think I showed admirable skepticism by dismissing the government conspiracy and "ancient astronauts" angles outright.

I no longer believe that there's any credible evidence that extraterrestrials of any description have ever visited Earth; as far as I'm concerned, 99.5% of supposed UFO and alien sightings can be explained as hoaxes, psychological incidents, or people mistaking mundane events for something more...and when it comes to the 0.5% left unexplained, a simple "we don't know" answer is more intellectually honest than assuming a paranormal explanation.

That said, I still enjoy reading about this stuff, both because the cultural and psychological forces at play are fascinating in their own right and because a lot of the stories are delightfully spooky. The problem, as this article highlights, is that it's hard to find any sort of rigorous research into the topic that isn't compromised in some way. "UFOlogists" and the like are inevitably too gullible or credible, or will happily give their pet corner of the topic a pass while exhibiting a proper level of skepticism about other people's ideas.

What I always look for--but rarely find--is a properly skeptical viewpoint that's interested in truly exploring the subject, rather than just debunking it (which is usually so easy to do that I don't need some smug google-scientist's help).

"The idea he outlines is thatUS intelligence took an interest in the UFO community not because they had UFO secrets to hide, but because they were concerned about accidental exposure of non-paranormal but decidedly secret projects as an accidental consequence of curious UFOlogists clumsily poking about - and were also concerned about the prospect of Soviet agents using “harmless bumbling UFO investigator” as a cover story in order to surreptitiously keep tabs on US military bases and test sites."

This is the only government conspiracy angle that I find plausible. I think it's pretty much certain that the US government kept a close eye on the UFOlogy scene, although I'm not aware of any concrete evidence that it happened. The idea that they'd deliberately plant information to throw people off secret military projects seems like a logical step on from that.
Arthur B at 23:44 on 2018-10-01
Re: government interest in UFOlogy - consider that in some countries ordinary plane-spotters have been arrested and accused of being foreign spies.

It seems plausible to me that any government working on, oh, say, top-secret stealth aircraft or whatever would worry about the prospect of information on test flights making their way to foreign powers they'd rather keep that stuff secret from - and a respectable, sober, intellectually rigorous UFO scene is a problem for that, because such a scene would make a point of rigorously investigating odd stuff seen in the sky, quickly discard those 99.5% of cases which are easily explained you note, and put a big fat "this shit is interesting" flag on the remaining 0.5%. It'd basically be a huge - and inadvertent - intelligence resource for anyone trying to figure out where test flights of unusual aircraft are happening.

If your country has freedom of speech hardwired into its Constitution, suppressing such reports is not really an option. But what is an option is flooding the scene with so much utter bullshit that it stops being a useful resource...
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