Here is another skeptical offering from Matthew Sabatine:
One late night in October of 2020, my girlfriend and I were joyriding on the backroads of a rustic town maybe one hour away from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the United States when we saw a small orb really far off in the distance. It was descending from the sky and had some curvature; at least I thought so. Just as I saw it, she exclaimed, “Oh my god, Matthew! Was that a shooting star?” I said, “I do not know. Maybe? Maybe someone was playing with some kind of airborne toy to celebrate Halloween, early.”
I know that we saw something questionable. Being the skeptic that I am, I did not want to believe too hastily that it was a shooting star. But the sight reminded me that we were only 30 minutes away from the infamous Kecksburg town where a UFO was allegedly present in December of 1965. I figured it was time that I research and write about this a bit.
Allow me to first admit that it has been hard for me to find good sources on this. My trail has led to many broken links, people with unverifiable credentials, and web-pages full of inadequate citations and unsubstantiated rumors.
Kecksburg, December 1965
Going back to that day, witnesses from six U.S. states and Canada reported seeing a “fireball” in the sky. Astronomers commented that this was a meteor bolide. Records were lost in the 1990’s concerning the expert analysis of the metallic fragments pinning down a Soviet satellite as the origin, according to NASA in 2005. Was it from the Soviet’s Kosmos 96 spacecraft that was launched for exploring Venus? There is no clear answer that I can find. 
A 2016 Post-Gazette article discusses the idea that it was a “General Electric Mark 2 Re-entry Vehicle” that disconnected from orbit.  John Ventre, the state director of the Mutual UFO network, teamed up with Owen Eichler, an independent UFO researcher, to say that this was a technology launched from America’s spy program located in Johnston Island in the Pacific, according to the Post-Gazette. 
In a 2018 blog post, John tells us that the GE Mark 2 RV lacks professional support as an explanation and is a spy device that was not known by the public until 1991. The bizarre, nonlinear trajectory of the object has been a great point of interest. John relays Owen’s beliefs: 1) the object had “an internal weighting control system” which enabled its stability and steering in a dense atmosphere, 2) a Radio Isotope Generator inside the craft could have caused a perilous leak, and was therefore the reason why the military rushed to the scene, 3) The symbols resembling hieroglyphics include a 5-pointed star belonging to the Army and Air Force and were welded onto the object because of multiple launches. 
Owen is quoted as follows: “It was a clear day on December 9, 1965. Myself and several other neighborhood boys and girls were playing baseball in an open area with a wide field of view. As catcher, I saw a bright multi-colored flaming object and called to my playmates to look. I was 13 years old at the time. The predominately green glowing object with wisps of yellow, purple and orange colors was moving from northwest to southeast in my little village of Shafton near Irwin, Pennsylvania. As I had been spending flying time in a small Piper Cub with a neighbor, I was amazed at how low and level the object was moving. I also had spent many hours at a local airport and was familiar with speed and altitude of small airplanes. The object seemed to have a speed somewhat greater than that of small aircraft and a low altitude. In addition, as the object was moving along a path parallel and above the Pennsylvania Turnpike Bridge in the vicinity of the Irwin/North Huntingdon interchange, I can still remember checking the speed against the distance as I was instructed when flying in small aircraft. As I found out later in life, the object travelled an additional 17 miles to Kecksburg and did not significantly lose altitude. But most of all, I was fixated on the predominantly green color of the object.” 
Owen’s explanation for the green color is that copper and small amounts of alloying metals, such as beryllium, expelled from the blunt end of the object. He claims he was able to “confirm” it. He was inspired by his high school chemistry studies showing him that the element copper makes a green glow when destroyed by burning in the open atmosphere. He connects this to the 1950’s green fireballs witnessed in New Mexico, the 1950’s testing of reentry vehicles, and Project Twinkle that saw “copper residue” from objects in low-flight. 
Looking at images of the General Electric MK2 reentry vehicle, its acorn-shape has features in common with what eyewitnesses have described. The trajectory control jets are meant for maneuvering the object while in orbit, which coheres with the eyewitness account that the object had a nonlinear trajectory. Nuclear bombs were delivered on many heat-dissipating, air-pushing reentry vehicles with a “blunt body” and spherical design used by the United States and Soviets in the 1950s, as Owen tells us. 
The hieroglyphic markings were made by “weld spoils in various unintelligible configurations” from multiple launches into the atmosphere. A welder must have made the markings for proper identification of the model (MK2A, MK2B, and MK2C). 
Owen states the eyewitness account that men dressed in protective suits were using a Geiger counter, which measures radioactivity and ionizing particles, and hence we get the implication that something forbidding and minatory was afoot. Maybe a nuclear warhead. Maybe corpses. Maybe something futuristic. Who knows?
1960’s power sources involved “AC-DC inverters or nuclear thermopiles” and the generation of heat. Plutonium-238, Curium 244 and Strontium 90 were sources of heat, back then. This perhaps could coincide with the mythologizing that tends to happen when these disquieting stories go underground and later reemerge after people’s memories have been tainted and embellished. John acknowledges that one eyewitness claimed to have seen “a scaly, three fingered hand come out of the top of the UFO” and that an extraterrestrial body was transported on a gurney to Hangar 18 at Wright Patterson Air Force in Ohio. John’s tone hints as the mythological embellishments. 
Those mythological embellishments seem apparent once we consider several things:
1) “nothing had been discovered” in Kecksburg,
2) the Roswell UFO story had inspired this,
3) it was claimed that bodies were found on the scene but that claim was later withdrawn,
4) fifty Kecksburg dwellers wanted to thwart the televisation of Unsolved Mysteries’ claims about their town,
5) Valerie and Jerome Miller denied the claim that the military used their home as a command post during the UFO recovery. I got this from Skeptical Inquirer. 
It is hypnotizing and intoxicating to hear tales about intelligent life watching over us from beyond the skies. Myths still have their psychological benefits even while we know them to be myths. But for some, that is not enough. Some must perceive them as literal history, otherwise the mystique loses its appeal. Perhaps journalist Leslie Kean was useful for keeping that mystique intact when she reputedly debunked the idea that the Russian satellite Kosmos 96 was responsible. She also litigated against NASA for their 1990’s disappearance of documentation about inspecting the metallic fragments. This helps to support the mystique about the government and its affiliates being untrustworthy, unmanageable, and inefficient.
The Psychology of UFO Beliefs
NASA’s statement of Cosmos 96-denial does not seem to help cure suspicions of conspiracy, government-coverup, and NASA ineptitude when we read this:
“There is some speculation that the reentry of the Cosmos 96/Venera-type spacecraft was responsible for a fireball which was seen over southwestern Ontario, Canada and at least eight states from Michigan to New York at 4:43 p.m. EST (21:43 UT) on 9 December 1965. Investigations of photographs and sightings of the fireball indicated its path through the atmosphere was probably too steep to be consistent with a spacecraft re-entering from Earth orbit and was more likely a meteor in a prograde orbit from the vicinity of the asteroid belt, and probably ended its flight over western Lake Erie. U.S. Air Force tracking data on Cosmos 96 also indicate the spacecraft orbit decayed earlier than 21:43 UT on 9 December. Other unconfirmed reports state the fireball subsequently landed in Pennsylvania southeast of Pittsburgh near the town of Kecksburg (40.2 N, 79.5 W) at 4:46 p.m. EST (although it should be noted that estimating the impact point of fireballs from eyewitness accounts is notoriously inaccurate). Uncertainties in the orbital information and reentry coordinates and time make it difficult to determine definitively if the fireball could have been the Cosmos 96 spacecraft.” 
Whatever counter-evidence or non-evidence has been cited against the Kecksburg UFO, people still unrelentingly believe. Consider the UFO festival that takes place in Kecksburg yearly (except this year because of Covid-19). Consider that Ufosightingsdaily. com has more than 250,000 visitors per month. Its estimated worth is more than $20 million.  We still have World UFO Day every July 2nd that began in 2001.
Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., wrote an article about the Extraterrestrial Beliefs Scale (EBS) that measures overall beliefs about extraterrestrial visitors, scientific research on them, and government conspiracies to conceal them. Hundreds of British, Austrian, and European adults were participants. The Five Factor Inventory test was also used to measure personality traits. Participants were asked to report if they ever experience perceptual anomalies (hallucinations, delusions, disordered thinking, and limited social networks). This was inspired by prior studies showing that people who experience perceptual anomalies tend to also have paranormal and superstitious beliefs, and therefore could be inclined to believe in extraterrestrials also. It was concluded that those who strongly believe in extraterrestrials correlate with those who have paranormal and superstitious beliefs (e.g. extrasensory perception and the afterlife) and those who have anomalous perceptual experiences. They were said to score high in the tendency to indulge in the imagination and explore new ideas. It has to be noted that this correlational study is controversial, probably due to its stigmatizing meaning about those who suffer with mental health issues. 
I hope to tread softly, here.
Maybe you do not always need mental illness to believe in extraterrestrials. The belief in extraterrestrials could possibly take care of three basic needs: 1) understanding and certainty, 2) a sense of control and security, 3) self-image. These are needs we possess just by being human. 
Karen Douglas, a psychologist of England’s University of Kent, and her colleagues did research demonstrating that epistemic, existential, and social motives underlie the popularity of conspiracy theories. Research shows that conspiracy theories have an allure, but, since research is lacking on the consequences of conspiracy theories, it is not shown exactly that satisfaction is gained for everyone who believes. 
My next and final points are inspired by what I read from the psychology journal in which Karen Douglas and her colleagues published their work. These points are subject to question and change:
There is little protection from uncertainty and contradiction when trying to remain loyal to a professional world that demands empiricism (knowledge from sense-experience), parsimony (simplest explanation involving fewest entities, assumptions and changes), and falsifiability (must be able to be tested). Conspiracy theories promise protection with their speculations (something sinister and exciting is happening), complexity (many players are involved), and opposition to falsification (they are all in hiding). Such promise of protection allows you to feel coherent in your way of seeing things. It provides a coping mechanism in the face of anxiety and powerlessness. As scholars have suggested, when things go wrong, the blame must be shifted onto other more powerful and iniquitous entities, so the self and the in-group can still be assigned merit and competence. The battle of good vs. evil is magnified in the imagination once we take into account history’s many examples of collusion between real entities. So, we like to assume that history is always repeating itself. It would not be surprising to find ostracized and alienated people clinging to conspiracy theories as a way to compensate for their losses and make sense of their experiences. But it is doubtful that we can truly fulfill epistemic, existential, and social needs by this means in the long-term, considering the anomie that takes place among these groups holding contrarian opinions that inspire antisocial and cynical motives toward other individuals seen as members of the ignorant public and putting us at the mercy of unaccountable powers. 
I sympathize with those clinging to conspiracy theories to war against fictional out-group evils, making the in-group feel validated, competent, and morally good. Admitting that I was once a member of the conspiracy theory crowd, I still feel the temptation on a daily basis. Maybe it is something primitive that never goes away, but instead always must be monitored and controlled. Maybe it stems from the earliest days of our evolutionary history when we had to be on high-alert, always. Maybe it is from the part of the human mind predisposed to always finding patterns of threat in the outside, unknown world.
Whatever the case and our needs, it is best to cling to what we can prove instead of conspiracy theories we cannot prove. Would I judge you for going to a UFO festival and buying life-size alien balloons? Absolutely not!
The Kecksburg UFO Statue was created and featured for Season 3, Episode 1, of the original Unsolved Mysteries.
[This piece can originally be found here.]
Growing up with Christian fundamentalist parents not far from Pittsburgh, Matthew Sabatine recanted religion in college where he took basic courses in philosophy, psychology and sociology. These taught him to doubt the assumptions of religion, learning that people are not inspired by deities but by psychological and social reasons to do religious things. After spending much time reading the Bible, commentaries and Christian apologists, Matthew now believes the Bible to be largely a-historic and that there are naturalistic, brain-based explanations for the supernatural things that people believe they see, hear, and feel. Matthew is interested in studying neuroscience, psychology, biology and chemistry to better understand the world and to fight the good skeptical fight.
Matthew Sabatine blogs on all of these topics at The Common Caveat (thecommoncaveat.com).
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