One of the most persistent and prevalent examples of a modern myth that will not die is the story of Area 51. So ingrained in our culture has it become that nearly everyone (at least in the U.S.) knows what you are talking about when you refer to it. It’s been featured in movies as diverse as Independence Day (one of my favorite big budget, brain-meltingly silly end-of-the-world movies about alien invasion) and, of course, Area 51. Forests of trees have been slain in order to publish books on the subject, and cable TV channels serve up near constant stream of documentaries either about Area 51 or mentioning it as a place of secret government studies of aliens who crash landed and deep conspiracies to keep The Truth About The Aliens from the American people. While there is no doubt that something secret was going on at Area 51, which is in fact a military base located on the shore of Groom Lake within the U.S. Air Force’s Nevada Test and Training Range.
A single blog post is too little space to document the sorts of conspiracy theories that have spring up around Area 51. The most famous legend is that the U.S. government brought the wreckage and alien corpses from a space ship crash at Roswell, NM in 1947. Indeed, the very plot of Independence Day has the movie’s heroes visiting Area 51, where a functional alien spaceship had been studied since 1947, and it turns out that it was a spaceship piloted by a scout from the alien race who had invaded the earth and caused such devastation. In a scenario that’s hard to believe even suspending disbelief for purposes of a shoot-’em-up blockbuster science-fiction alien invasion movie, two of the protagonists figure out how to pilot the ship to the alien mothership to deliver a computer virus that would shut down the alien fleet’s defenses (not to mention a nuclear bomb to blow up the mothership), so that a coordinated world-wide counterattack would have a chance of succeeding.
Other conspiracy theories that have sprung up around Area 51 include the aforementioned storage and attempted reverse engineering of the alleged alien space ship claimed to have crashed at Roswell; meetings with extraterrestrials; the development of all manner of secret weapons programs, such as energy weapons; and all manner of imaginative (and not so imaginative) activities. Given the secrecy that has been maintained by the U.S. government over the years regarding Area 51, it’s not too surprising that conspiracy theories took hold, although, despite the fact that the events that inspired the conspiracy theories took place in the 1940s and 1950s, most of the myths surrounding Area 51 didn’t actually start to spring up so much until decades later, when a man named Bob Lazar claimed that he had worked on alien spacecraft at Papoose Lake, which is south of Area 51. Since then, Area 51 has become, with Roswell, the twin capitals of alien abduction paranoia in the U.S.
I wonder how alien abduction conspiracy theorists will react to a recent news story entitled Area 51 vets break silence: Sorry, but no space aliens or UFOs. It turns out that some of the secret projects that have been carried out at Area 51 have been declassified. Veterans are talking, and–surprise! surprise!–they aren’t telling any tales of space aliens or UFOs:
Noce, 72, and his fellow Area 51 veterans around the country now are free to talk about doing contract work for the CIA in the 1960s and ’70s at the arid, isolated Southern Nevada government testing site.
Their stories shed some light on a site shrouded in mystery; classified projects still are going on there. It’s not a big leap from warding off the curious 40 or 50 years ago, to warding off the curious who now make the drive to Area 51.
The veterans’ stories provide a glimpse of real-life government covert operations, with their everyday routines and moments of excitement.
Noce didn’t seek out publicity. But when contacted, he was glad to tell what it was like.
“I was sworn to secrecy for 47 years. I couldn’t talk about it,” he says.
In the 1960s, Area 51 was the test site for the A-12 and its successor, the SR-71 Blackbird, a secret spy plane that broke records at documented speeds that still have been unmatched. The CIA says it reached Mach 3.29 (about 2,200 mph) at 90,000 feet.
The stories of the veterans reveal lots of secret stuff going on at Area 51 back in the 1960s, but, alas, there isn’t a single story of extraterrestrials or alien space ships. There are, however, lots of stories about secrecy and test-flying A12s and Blackbirds. Some of the most interesting parts of the recollections of some of the Area 51 vets are some of the mundane things, at least to me. For instance, James Noce was always paid in cash and signed another name to the receipt. There is no paperwork proving that he ever worked for the CIA or at Area 51.
So how do we know that he isn’t just laying down a line of B.S.? We don’t, at least not completely. We do know, however, this:
But Noce is vouched for by T.D. Barnes, of Henderson, Nev., founder and president of Roadrunners Internationale, membership 325. Barnes is the one who says he got checks from Pan Am, for whom he had never worked.
Roadrunners is a group of Area 51 vets including individuals affiliated with the Air Force, CIA, Lockheed, Honeywell and other contractors.
For the past 20 years, they’d meet every couple of years at reunions they kept clandestine. Their first public session was last October at a reunion in Las Vegas at the Atomic Testing Museum.
As age creeps up on them, Barnes, 72, an Area 51 radar specialist, wants the work the vets did to be remembered.
And Barnes himself has someone quite credible to vouch for him: David Robarge, chief historian for the CIA and author of “Archangel: CIA’s Supersonic A-12 Reconnaissance Aircraft.”
Although the story doesn’t provide a lot of detail, Noce’s recollections do suggest that the military and CIA actually didn’t mind the notoriety of the place and the stories of aliens and spaceships that had popped up over the years. The reason is that such tales served as a lovely bit of misdirection to obfuscate and cover up the real secret projects going on there, specifically the secret planes that were being tested. Although I find parts of Noce’s story to sound a bit fishy, specifically the story about a pilot putting on a gorilla mask and flying upside down alongside a private pilot and how afterward the pilot told reporters that he had seen a plane without a propeller that was being flown by a monkey.
In evaluating a story like Noce’s, it’s hard not to shake the thought in the back of my mind that the guy is enjoying himself entirely too much and may be–shall we say?–embellishing some of his stories a bit. It’s also bothersome that there’s no good way to verify that any of these men ever actually worked for Area 51 other than the word of other men who claimed to have worked in Area 51. On the other hand, no one has as yet produced compelling evidence that extraterrestrials have visited the earth or that alien spaceships have crashed and been dismantled and studied by our government. Inevitably, any evidence presented is of the variety of the testimonial of a “friend of a friend,” stories with little or no evidence to support them, or physical evidence that proves nothing but is held up of evidence of extraterrestrials. Skeptic or not, I do share one thing with UFO conspiracy theorists. I would love to see conclusive evidence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe before I die. Unfortunately, I have not seen anything that even comes close to qualifying. For all the accusations of being “close-minded,” I’m actually fairly open-minded towards the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence, although the idea that there are aliens out there abducting people and performing various examinations on them, often involving sticking probes into various orifices, to be almost as improbable as homeopathy.
The reason that stories of UFOs and extraterrestrials persist is explained relatively well by, of all organizations, the CIA. A companion story to the Area 51 story points out a fascinating CIA report entitled CIA’s Role in the Study of UFOs, 1947-90, which points out:
An extraordinary 95 percent of all Americans have at least heard or read something about Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs), and 57 percent believe they are real. (1) Former US Presidents Carter and Reagan claim to have seen a UFO. UFOlogists–a neologism for UFO buffs–and private UFO organizations are found throughout the United States. Many are convinced that the US Government, and particularly CIA, are engaged in a massive conspiracy and coverup of the issue. The idea that CIA has secretly concealed its research into UFOs has been a major theme of UFO buffs since the modern UFO phenomena emerged in the late 1940s.
After describing the history of the CIA’s investigations of UFO sightings over five decades, the report concludes:
Like the JFK assassination conspiracy theories, the UFO issue probably will not go away soon, no matter what the Agency does or says. The belief that we are not alone in the universe is too emotionally appealing and the distrust of our government is too pervasive to make the issue amenable to traditional scientific studies of rational explanation and evidence.
And this is certainly correct. UFO stories aren’t going away any time soon, any more than stories of extraterrestrials. it is something the people want to believe so badly that evidence almost doesn’t matter. The same techniques to deny, twist, cherry pick, and misrepresent data and studdies that do not support stories about the existence of UFO-spaceships and aliens visiting earth are very similar to the same techniques used by the anti-vaccine movement to attack studies that fail to find a link between vaccines and autism, creationists attacking evolution, 9/11 Truthers attacking the “official” story about the terrorist attacks of that day; “alternative medicine” mavens attacking evidence showing that conventional medicine works and their woo doesn’t; and, as much as I get into trouble pointing it out, Holocaust deniers attacking evidence supporting the historicity of the Holocaust or the scope of the mass murder.
In the techniques used by its advocates, Area 51 is no different than those other forms of woo. It does, however, have the complicating factor of a real government base where real top secret projects were carried out during the Cold War and may still be going on today. The existence of the government base makes it harder for skeptics, historians, and scientists ever to verify for sure that the conspiracy theories regarding UFOs and aliens are not true, even though there is no convincing evidence that they are true. On the other hand, there is no such complicating factor for those other forms of woo, and they maintain a hold on believers just as well as any conspiracy theory to which UFO believers cling. Come to think of it, there are few or no such complicating factors for UFO stories that don’t have anything to do with Area 51. (As a certain Saturday Night Live character from the 1970s used to say, “Never mind.”)
There are two things I’ve never understood about UFO conspiracy theorists and theories. First, if there really are extraterrestrials of such awesome intelligence and possessing such incredibly advanced technology, why, of all the places they could go in the galaxies, would they spend all that time, energy, and technology to travel to earth? The other thing I can’t understand is how, in the improbable circumstance that such a race actually did travel many light years to visit us, the government could maintain a conspiracy of secrecy for several decades, be it over the purported Roswell crash or the sightings around Area 51. After all, the longer a conspiracy continues and the more people who know about it, the smaller the chance that secrecy will be maintained. Someone will talk. Someone always talks if enough people are involved. Holocaust deniers, for instance, are masters at constructing elaborate conspiracy theories to explain why the “Holohoax” persists, sometimes even going so far as to claim that the Jews fabricated all that evidence. Alt-med mavens construct similar yarns, postulating that the “medical-industrial complex” is keepoing all those “natural cures” from you because…well, they never really make it clear why. After all, even evil big pharma executives get cancer; so do their families. If those natural, sure-fire cures existed, someone would talk eventually.
In the end, humans believe what they want to believe–what they need to believe, for whatever reason, ideological, religious, or emotional. Science and skepticism are the tools we need to overcome our natural tendency to believe in such things, but these tools are useless if we don’t want to embrace them.