The Lives They Lived; The Debunker
Published in The New York Times Magazine
December 25, 2005
Philip J. Klass belonged to the small and somewhat peculiar class of individuals known as debunkers. The part of that word to focus on is bunk, short for bunkum, which is what these types attack with vigor and all the obsessiveness of the bunkum spreaders themselves. The most celebrated living debunker is James Randi, a magician also known as The Amazing Randi, who first gained fame for challenging the psychic Uri Geller's claims that he could use his mind to bend spoons -- and then won a ''genius award'' from the MacArthur Foundation for his ceaseless debunking of faith healers.
Klass's specialty was U.F.O.'s. Over the course of four decades, he wrote seven books on the subject, made countless public appearances and posted an untold number of words on the Internet. ''Some of us were kind of surprised at times that he kept at it so long,'' his sister, Rosanne Klass, said. ''People would think, Gee whiz, Phil, enough already with the flying saucers.''
Klass, the son of a lawyer in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was trained as an electrical engineer. His day job -- as a writer and senior editor at Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine, where he was considered an expert in the fields of satellite and laser technology -- gave him an above-average knowledge of all the various things that might be visible in the night skies. His bachelor status until a late-in-life marriage, at age 60, afforded him an above-average amount of free time. (His hobby before taking up U.F.O.'s was constructing intricate electronic maps of Civil War battlefields.)
To disprove claims of U.F.O. sightings and stories of ''alien abductions,'' Klass combined gumshoe investigative work -- witness interviews; close examination of documents, many of which he found to be doctored; inspections of ''landing'' sites -- with scientific knowledge and the information he was able to extract from industry sources. His explanations for what prompted reports of U.F.O.'s were sometimes prosaic: people had been deceived by meteor showers, by planets giving off eerie glows, by giant weather balloons launched by the government or by smaller prank balloons sent up by teenagers. He attributed a series of U.F.O. sightings in New Zealand to bright lights cast by Japanese squid boats.
Some of his investigations produced findings that were spooky in a Cold War kind of way. U.F.O.'s cavorting over Michigan in 1967 were determined by Klass to be fixed-wing aircraft secretly sent up by the military contractor Raytheon to test an experimental radar system. Several years later, Klass showed that a ''saucer'' casting vast amounts of light downward near Lake Zurich, Ill., had been, in fact, a plane with an ''intense flash lamp'' mounted in its belly -- which bathed the ground in light at five-second intervals to test a new system for night photography. Imagine that hovering over your farmhouse. Klass, while demystifying the E.T. claims, did not always exactly engender trust in authority -- the government, after all, never forewarned people that there was to be a strange show in the skies.
Klass was the voice of cool reason, seeking to demonstrate that a temporary inability to fill in the whole story should not open the door to wild speculation. His real argument, like all debunkers', was not with the people who believed they had witnessed or experienced some paranormal event but with those who made an industry of igniting their imaginations. Klass dedicated one book to ''those who will needlessly bear mental scars for the rest of their lives because of the foolish fantasies of a few.''
Klass's widow, Nadya, said that he persisted in debunking U.F.O. claims because he believed that if he gave people facts, they would drop their fantasies -- which was a fantasy of a different sort. Public-opinion polls cited by ABC News show that as many as 80 million Americans believe that Earth has received visitors from outer space. More than 40 million have personally seen or know someone who has seen a U.F.O. One in five believes in alien abductions.
Space aliens are scary -- but not as frightening, apparently, as the prospect that we may be all alone in this vast universe.