Thursday, August 16, 2018


The passing of Michael Persinger

The news of the passing of Michael Persinger has renewed interest in his UFO-related theories about electromagnetism and its effects on the human brain.

I am sad to learn of his passing, and even though we disagreed on his Tectonic Strain Theory (TST) of UFOs, there is no question that he was instrumental in advancing UFOs into scientific discourse. His dozens of scientific papers published in peer-reviewed journals are proof that the subject of UFOs can be discussed in a scientific forum.

His book Space-Time Transients and Unusual Events, written with his partner Ghislaine Lafrenière, was a breakthrough work on the relationship between disparate Fortean phenomena and physiological effects. 

But he was quite wrong.

This isn't just an offhand opinion. I spent many months researching and studying Persinger's work, going through data and testing his theory. I even published a thesis on the TST, quantifying the energy requirements that would allow seismic strain to release energy viewable as UFOs. (The complete thesis, including its tables, charts, and formulae, is no longer online.)

I spoke with Persinger's own actual PhD thesis advisor, who walked me through his research on the effects of magnetic fields upon the brains of mice. When I showed him the many articles Persinger was publishing about the TST and resultant UFOs, ghosts, religious experiences, and even increased rates of cancer, he was appalled.

Persinger's advisor encouraged me to publish a critical article in the same scientific journal, describing my concerns and analyses. I did, and the result was a series of articles debating the nature of UFOs, all published in scientific literature, almost completely unnoticed by ufology.

Basically, Persinger believed that tectonic strain deep within the Earth could generate electromagnetic fields, and these fields could move around underground but occasionally reach the surface where energy could be released and cause tangible effects. Sometimes, the energy would be visible as UFOs (orbs, dancing lights, plasmas, or earthquake lights), and sometimes, the EM fields would affect human brains to make people believe they had seen UFOs. And not just UFOs, but aliens, disembodied voices, ghosts, encounters with God, and paranormal phenomena. And yes, even apparent UFO abductions.

Essentially, all Forteana could be explained by tectonic strain.

Now, there are some scientific studies that show human brains can indeed be affected by EM fields and energy. And in the physical environment, anecdotally, it is assumed that magnetism can give rise to light phenomena such as orbs and spook lights. The renewed interest in "magnetic anomalies" as presented at some UFO conference is evidence of this. I also researched Hessdalen in detail, as well as other famous spooklights, like Brown Mountain, Taber, and others.

But with a background in physics, while I was most interested in seeing a scientific explanation for UFOs, the energy requirements to produce the effects as laid out by the TST didn't seem reasonable. So, I deepened my research, and my calculations showed there were some serious problems in the energy requirements.

But that's not what really worried me.

It was discovering a published article by Persinger that used my own UFO report data to show a correlation between UFOs and earthquakes. And I knew immediately that Persinger's theory was nonsense.

Persinger (and his co-author John Derr) stated explicitly that "most well-documented [UFOs] refer to actual geophysical phenomena that are generated by tectonic strain." He used my data as published in the Manitoba UFO Catalogue for UFO reports from 1974 to 1977, mostly in the area around Carman, Manitoba, Canada. (This was the infamous "UFO wave" of "Charlie Red Star" UFO sightings currently expounded in some UFO forums.)

Persinger demonstrated that the increase in UFO numbers during the Carman flap was correlated with a moderate earthquake almost 500 kilometres away in southern Minnesota, but which occurred weeks after the UFOs were reported. Persinger concluded that there was a "temporal displacement" combined with a "geographical displacement" that made the correlation valid. In other words, any UFO reported in Carman was connected with an earthquake hundreds of kilometres away and several weeks before or after the UFO sighting. In fact, Persinger used earthquake data from as far away as 1250 kilometres in order to get a good fit for his results. That was like saying a small UFO orb witnessed in Chicago could be explained by a slight tremor near Detroit a month earlier. 

Which, of course, was fudging the data.

That being said, the data itself was a problem. I should know, because it was my data, and I knew its limitations.

The Manitoba UFO Catalogue (MANUFOCAT, patterned after UFOCAT), included raw UFO report data, including both explained and unexplained UFO cases. In fact, it was mostly explained cases. (Yes, even most of the "Charlie Red Star" UFO reports could be explained.)

So how could misidentifed airplanes, stars, meteors, and satellites be correlated to mostly weak, distant earthquakes in an entirely different country? They couldn't. And Manitoba is seismically inactive, so there was little chance regional seismic effects could manifest as UFOs.

And back to the energy problem. While tremendous amounts of energy are released during major earthquakes, pressure among tectonic plates deep underground (tens of kilometres or miles beneath the Earth) does build up and release every day. Persinger was correct in suggesting that EM fields and energy within the Earth could move about, and he used this basis to explain how such energy could manifest a a UFO in Carman one day, then travel back underground to where an actual seismic event could occur very far away and months later. And the energy requirements to have such energy bursts leap out of the ground and fly over grassy meadows for several minutes would be very significant.

But then, why aren't there more UFOs seen around seismically active areas? Physics says that the path of least resistance is the one preferred, and if there's enough energy to create a UFO or affect someone's brain, then the seismic energy should be released nearby, too. Plus, why only one or two witnesses (on average), when a large EM field can extend for miles?

Anyway, Persinger responded to my criticism in print, too. The debate raged for a while, and we tacitly agreed to disagree.

I wasn't the only one to find the TST lacking, though. (A debunker, too.) But undaunted, Persinger continued to publish dozens of papers on the subject, ignoring his critics. 

For example, getting too near to a UFO can kill you.

Or is it simply that UFOs cause cancer or can make UFO witnesses depressed.

And, even UFOs and other phenomena in areas near Skinwalker Ranch can be explained by seismic effects, much to the likely chagrin of fans of the current interest in the area, including Bigelow properties.

Persinger later developed the so-called "God helmet," which created an EM field that caused those wearing it to have out-of-body-experiences, sense ghostly apparitions, and hear voices.

(Except it didn't work all the time, either. Many people using it only reported feeling a bit disoriented. But no ghosts, aliens, or deities. And when a science journalist tested the device, it didn't really work at all, and it was his opinion that only people who were greatly suggestible would experience the faux paranormal effects.)

So, while I am saddened to hear of his passing, I recognize that the legacy of Michael Persinger is very mixed. He advanced a theory to explain UFOs without invoking the extraterrestrial hypothesis, but instead replaced it with a scientific-sounding concept that used inadequate methodology and data.

But he will remain known as a scientist who made a significant contribution to ufology.

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Monday, August 13, 2018


The 2018 Shag Harbour UFO Conference

The 2018 Shag Harbour UFO Conference

I don’t go to many UFO conferences. Usually, what I have to say isn’t what UFO fans want to hear, so the invites are few and far between. Also, many UFO conferences are loaded with speakers whose topics don’t interest me (e.g. communicating with angels; how to know if you’re one of the Star People; arks from Alpha Centauri; mental communication via higher consciousness; alien cures for cancer; etc.), so I tend not attend them. Plus… money.

But when I received an invitation to speak at the Shag Harbour UFO Conference, I was definitely interested. Shag Harbour is one case I have studied to some depth, and I have developed a presentation about significant Canadian UFO cases in 1967, and how they relate to one another.

I accepted last fall, and by Spring 2018, I had started to receive details about the conference and who else was speaking there. I was intrigued because many were ufologists I had been corresponding with already or I was friends with them on Facebook and knew their work.

Last year was the 50th anniversary of the incident, and the Shag Harbour UFO Festival attracted a decent crowd. But 2018 was the 51st anniversary of the Shag Harbour UFO Crash. Instead of holding it on the anniversary of the incident (October 4), it was decided to have it during the summer and try to attract more tourists. The conference was scheduled to go three days over the August long weekend, August 3-5, 2018.

I flew in on Thursday, August 2, arriving in Halifax about 5:00 pm after a day of traveling. I was met at the airport by fellow ufologist Palmiro Campagna from Ottawa, and Haligonian Graham Simms, both speaking at the conference. Graham had volunteered to drive us to Barrington Passage, the conference site, which I discovered was a good three hours’ drive away to the southernmost tip of Nova Scotia.

Graham Simms, me, and Palmiro Campagna getting some Canadian coffee

When we arrived in Barrington Passage and had settled into our rented cabins, it was already past 8 pm, so when we went into town looking for dinner, we found that all the seafood restaurants had closed already for the night! There was no bar or pub in town, either! We settled on a soon-closing pizza joint and vowed to buy some groceries the next day to stock our in-room fridges.

The next morning, I got up early (which wasn’t hard because I was still on Central Time) and went for a long walk on a well-groomed trail that started literally right outside our cabins. It went right along the ocean, and I stopped to take some photos of the Atlantic. The conference sessions didn’t start until late afternoon, so I had plenty of time to explore the area. 

 I was sure these were cormorants

Bermuda was straight south, behind me.

At trail's end, I found a tiny, cash-only hole-in-the-wall restaurant that advertised fresh-caught seafood, so I made a mental note to head there later for lunch. (Two words: lobster poutine.) When I got back to my cabin, I started getting ready for the conference and went through my notes.

Yes, lobster poutine. If you have to ask how many calories, don't even try.

Graham drove us to the conference site, which was on a separate island or peninsula near the town. One thing I noticed was that nowhere in town were there any notices about the UFO conference. When I had been in St. Paul, Alberta, for their UFO festival, almost all the shops and stores had posted signs or had displays about aliens and UFOs. But not in Barrington. In fact, aside from a few signs on the road leading to the conference site, it was impossible to know that the UFO festival weekend was upon us.

It was not surprising, therefore, that although the conference venue was the entire floor of a hockey rink, and set with chairs for about 150 people, attendance was low. In fact, by the official opening of the conference there were only about 25 people in attendance. The good news, though, is that the ones who were there were meant to be there, and the content was superior to most other UFO conferences I have attended.

Just before opening the doors.

Conference chair Linda Rafuse was very gracious throughout the weekend, and she opened the event with a warm welcome and eagerness that set the tone of every day. First up was a brief intro of all the upcoming speakers, then the Shag Harbour UFO witness panel. This was really quite fascinating. Two original witnesses spoke to the group. One was fisherman Laurie Wickens, who had been 18 years old at the time of the Shag Harbour incident, as was Norm Smith, who had been one of the conscripted men out on the water.

With his thick maritime accent, Wickens (known as “Dickie”) told how he saw the lights in the sky before they passed out of sight, then drove to where he and his friends could get a view of the ocean. They saw a lighted object bobbing on the waves and figured it was a plane crash, so he drove down to road to a pay phone where he described it to the RCMP.

Smith and a friend were further east and also saw the lights hanging in the sky, lined up at a 45 degree angle. They drove home and Smith saw the lights again, this time seemingly headed downward, and he dragged his father out to have a look. He went to the same place where Dickie was, already watching the sea with the RCMP.

Smith went out in boats with RCMP and sailed through a patch of yellowish foam that he estimated was six inches thick, 40 feet wide and a half mile long. This was perhaps the most startling to me, as I had always only imagined the patch of “glowing green foam” was fairly small, about 30 feet in diameter at most. (And it wasn’t glowing.) Smith said he took a dipping net for catching small fish and tried to gather some of the foam, but it came up empty, as the foam was not viscous. And no, no one thought to gather some in a jar or other container. This was 1967.

Smith also shocked some in the audience (including me) by becoming emotional during his retelling of the events of that night. He explained later that he had been sure it was a plane crash and that he was going to find body parts floating in the water, something that haunts him to this day.

Following the witnesses’ testimonies, the next presenter was Rodney Ross, who wanted to speak not about UFOs, but USOs, specifically sea monsters. Most of his talk was his description of the large creature with many teeth that seemed almost to devour him with his sailing companions when they were out on the water while fishing near Shag Harbour. While some were skeptical of his experience, the fishermen in attendance insisted Ross was a seasoned sailor and not one to make up tales.

After the end of the night’s session, many of the presenters met for a late dinner at the only place open again, the pizza place.

The pizza gang, L-R: 
David Cvet, Chris Styles, Graham Simms, Laurie Wickens, Palmiro Campagna, me, Justin Brown

The next morning, sessions started at 9 am, so many of us went early to a coffee shop before heading there, as no food services were ready until lunch. The first presenter was Chris Styles, the pre-eminent Shag Harbour expert, who detailed how he doggedly pursued leads on the case and tracked down witnesses with possible clues to what had happened. 

The prevailing theory was that an object went down at Shag Harbour but that there were also US Navy ships anchored over a site near Shelburne, about 50 km northeast along the coast. One story is that although the official position is that divers called in to search for the Shag Harbour object came up empty handed, the US Navy divers located the object and dragged or transported it to Shelburne. Some witnesses say they saw something pulled out of the water and loaded onto flatbed trucks on shore to be taken away under cover of darkness.

Styles (who also was a witness to the Shag Harbour UFO) has made it his life’s work to get to the bottom of the case. Literally. He was been with researchers on board vessels with sonar looking for objects on the bottom of the sea, and has found some unusual circular depressions that suggest something large and heavy had been there. Ufologist David Cvet, whom I met for the first time at the conference, is also a diver and witnessed these depressions himself.

Me and David Cvet 

After Styles it was my turn to speak, and I presented my overview of the remarkable Canadian UFO cases of 1967 for the first time in public, putting Shag Harbour in context of significant events during that year.

I was the only thing between the audience and lunch.

Which, by the way, was also seafood. A food truck provided the repast, and I chose fresh-caught haddock battered in a special mixture and fried to perfection. It was ridiculously good.

After lunch, I ran the slide for Palmiro Campagna, who spoke on the history of the AVRO Arrow. The connection to Shag Harbour was obvious once he began describing the process of locating classified documents about the plane and tracking down witnesses of its development and destruction. (If you don’t know the story, check out Campagna’s books and other writings on it.) He also talked about the connection between the AVRO saucer and UFO sightings in the 1960s, even the Falcon Lake case. We disagree mildly that the Falcon Lake case could have been a secret military version of a saucer-shaped VTOL craft, but his research is of high quality and has some very good ideas and insight.

Palmiro Campagna with Linda Rafuse (on far right)

After Campagna was Ted Roe, who had flown in from Hawaii and was a bit jetlagged. But his presentation was quite interesting, as he related for the first time in a public venue his personal UFO encounters, including some apparent abduction experiences. Like Smith the day before, he became quite emotional as he began sharing parts of his life with the enraptured audience. He barely mentioned NARCAP, the pilots’ UFO reporting network that he organized several years ago and which is going through some changes now.

Me with a jetlagged Ted Roe

Finally, Paul Kimball spoke on UFO mythology as it was manifested in stories of the Men in Black. Paul was entertaining but also highly informed and informative. It was the first time I had met him as well, and his presentation and verve reminded me of his uncle (Stanton Friedman).

 Paul Kimball spoke about Men in Black

Paul's ever-present, invisible friend Zorgrot was at the conference too. I saw nothing.

This time, dinner was early enough that we could go to a different restaurant, where the menu was… seafood.  I went for a long walk on  the trail that evening.

Sunday was the last day of the conference. Graham Simms was first up, speaking about various aquatic mysteries. He was quite nervous, and we offered him much encouragement as he continues to be more active in ufology. This was followed by a panel of the speakers, fielding questions from the audience.

One person wanted to know why there were no women presenters. This is a perennial question in ufology, as most “experts” speaking at conferences are “old white guys” like me. It’s a bit of a Catch-22, as no women ufologists have taken it upon themselves to study the Shag Harbour UFO case in detail. I would endorse someone new taking up the mantle, and I encouraged the woman asking the question to study the subject anew so that she could perhaps speak about her research next time. There are many female ufologists in the field today, and I offered a list to the conference organizers that included Chase Kloetzke, Linda Howe, Ashley Kircher, and many others.

After the Q&A, there was a special “experiencer circle,” where witnesses and those with close encounters could speak in a closed session that was safe and non-threatening. Most of the presenters chose to leave at that point so as to give the experiencers their private time.

This gave us time to get ready for the conference windup. Earlier, Dickie had arrived at the venue with a trunkful of live lobster he had caught that morning, promising us a lobster boil on the beach that night. 

Graham drove us into the actual town of Shag Harbour, some distance away, where we visited the UFO Museum and the oceanside park where the 1967 event was commemorated.

It was a great feast. Dickie and his friends cooked and served, while Graham noodled on his guitar. I can assure you there ain’t nothing better than fresh Nova Scotia lobster, even if all you have to open it up is a fork and knife.

When it got dark, Dickie had arranged for a coast guard vessel to sail back and forth in the channel, at about the distance the 1967 object had been seen. They sent off some flares, too, to further illustrate what the night must have been like 51 years ago.

Coast Guard ship at dusk, with Venus shining brightly overhead.

I had brought along some star maps that I passed around to the crowd on the shore, allowing easy navigation to the five planets visible that night.

The whole experience during the weekend made me realize that the Shag harbour UFO Conference is a “boutique event,” designed for only the most ardent fans and those interested in a detailed examination of one specific case. No “alien consciousness” or “secret space force” here. There are few accommodations, too, so it was by design a small and intimate venue, giving attendees very good access to some of the best researchers in the field.

And yes, not only was there "Shag Schwag," but some attendees were doing UFO cosplay. 

Special thanks again to Linda Rafuse and her conference crew. I understand they may wait a few years before trying it again. But if you have a chance, make a point of attending. You won’t regret it.


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