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Veteran researcher attacks Harvard team's report on UFO data
Portraits hung in empty halls/Frameless heads on nameless walls at the Van Gogh exhibit — and a look at Earthlings, COVID-19 anxieties, and visits to hospital emergency rooms.
Why do you suppose four bigwigs at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Health Care Policy are writing about UFOs now? They did it in a December 29 piece in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine. At a trifling three pages long, half of which are charts and references, it’s a peculiar document that, on one hand, seems a laughably belated effort to defuse the Cold War cliché of UFO eyewitnesses as psychotics. But it also looks like a signal to lawmakers pursuing very specific lines of inquiry spelled out by recent NDAA legislation.
In an article titled “Association between UFO sightings and emergency department visits,” Harvard’s Christopher Worsham, David Shaw, Andre Zimerman, and Anupam Jena joined Brown University’s Jaimen Woo to check for linkage between UFO reports and — go figure — emergency department (ED) admissions. Using data from the nonprofit National UFO Reporting Center, they looked at 33,576 reports on 32,432 unique sightings logged from 2015-18. NUFORC, which has been collecting raw reports since 1974, performs no followup investigations, but its database offers potentially valuable trend-curve info about where and when people see things they can’t explain.
Here’s the paper’s mission statement, second ‘graph:
“The possible associations between UFO sightings—which may reflect nearby extraterrestrial beings, technology, or activity—and human health remain unknown despite the frequency with which sightings are reported. Using a database of UFO sightings linked to a national commercial insurance claims database, we analyzed temporal associations between UFO sightings and the rate of acute ED visits for myocardial infarction or cardiac arrest, acute psychosis, and acute respiratory illness among covered insurance beneficiaries.”
For at least one observer, the report was a pregnant sea cow in the high jump. “Can you believe they actually wrote this in a medical journal,” says Mark Rodeghier with the Center for UFO Studies. “This is totally insane.”
An ‘ecological fallacy’
More on Rodeghier’s exasperation in a moment. But here’s the probable inspiration for the report:
Under Section 1683 of the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act’s establishment of the All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO), in the (B) Elements provision, subsection (xii), the National Intelligence Director and the Secretary of Defense are legally required to report to Congress “an assessment of any health-related effects for individuals that have encountered unidentified anomalous phenomena.” That’s a major ask, but totally legit, given the Defense Intelligence Agency’s own 2009 report, “Acute and Subacute Field Effects on Human Biological Tissues,” from UFO/UAP encounters. Just how deep into those marching orders AARO has ventured at this point is anyone’s guess.
So the Ivy Leaguers decided to “compare the per-beneficiary rate of ED visits for each condition on the day or day after a UFO sighting to days without UFO sightings in a given (area) . . . adjusting for weather and calendar year, week-of-year and day-of-week fixed effects.” Their verdict? “UFO sightings were not temporally associated with increases in (emergency room) visits for heart attacks or cardiac arrests, psychosis, or respiratory complaints among commercially insured beneficiaries living in a (region) in which a UFO sighting occurred.”
Impressed? Relieved? Rodeghier is neither. In addition to having spent decades researching and monitoring UFO events, the Chicago resident is also a career biostatistician who studies clinical trials. He has several related books on the resume.
“I’m tempted to think this is a joke, but as I re-read it, somehow I don’t think so,” he says. “As more and more people are beginning to get interested in UFOs, it’s kind of like, how can I use UFO data in my own field? It’s like they’re trying to get on the UFO bandwagon, quite frankly.
“But this is an absolutely inappropriate application of UFO stats. Going through insurance data and thinking, oh yeah, people should come into the emergency department, potentially, if there are UFOs seen in the area? This is an ecological fallacy.”
Maybe Rodeghier wouldn’t have been so torqued if he and his own fellow researchers hadn’t worked so hard to crunch the same NUFORC data to test an entirely different hypothesis. But trying to get their 15-page results published outside the more esoteric Journal of Scientific Exploration proved an insurmountable hurdle.
Just as the empty skies following 9/11 attacks presented scientists with a rare opportunity to study the impact of jet contrails on climate, COVID-19’s shelter-in-place lockdown was a boon to researchers on the lookout for a grand-scale disruptive “natural experiment” in which to document new patterns against old norms. Naturally, in Rodeghier’s case, it was UFOs.
Sighting reports, he says, appeared to have plateaued in 2015 and had been declining ever since, not only at NUFORC but in the Mutual UFO Network records as well. Curiously, as might have been anticipated, reports hadn’t rebounded even after the NY Times broke the story on the Pentagon’s secret UFO project in December 2017.
“Three or four weeks into the pandemic, I saw this article about people seeing more ghosts now because they’re stuck at home,” Rodeghier recalls. “And I thought, oh, of course, and with all this anxiety, there have got to be a lot of other things going on that you can toss into the paranormal bucket, too. How would anxiety and uncertainty lead to more sightings? Maybe it’s more indirect. Maybe you’re going to be paying more time to your environment than you used to, maybe you’re going to find yourself looking at the sky more often.”
With assists from CUFOS colleague Linda Murphy and Chase Cockrell at the University of Vermont’s College of Medicine, Rodeghier stuck exclusively with 2020 UFO stats, since work and businesses began reopening in 2021. And at first, the trends were predictable.
“When you take the data from 2020, by itself, it looks pretty simple – yes, sightings did go up,” he says. Details, however, revealed patterns unlike any seen before. Repetitive descriptions of tiny objects reflecting sunlight and proceeding in straight lines across the night sky led to an entirely new way of turning UFOs into IFOs. First tested in 2018, Starlink satellite trains were easy enough to cross-reference against SpaceX launches, and they were massively reported to MUFON and NUFORC as anomalous objects in 2020.
Sorry, you’re not in our club
“I didn’t even think about Starlink initially, because nobody had published on it,” Rodeghier says. “But as you look at the individual sightings, you go, OK, there’s a Starlink, there’s a Starlink, there’s another one. Linda and I read through every report and coded them according to whether or not they could be Starlink. So if you take those reports out, the sightings drop so much that not only did the MUFON numbers stay flat, NUFORC’s numbers actually went down in 2020.
“So that answered the question we began with. Did the pandemic itself for whatever reason cause an increase in reporting? The answer is, no it did not.”
Rodeghier contends this revelation says more about academia than UFOs.
“In the (2000) Journal of UFO Studies, geophysicist Edward Zeller looked at correlations between the number of UFO sightings and cosmic rays impinging on the Earth,” Rodeghier says. “And they found a pretty strong correlation, which was kind of astounding. So there’s an association physicists should be interested in, but of course nobody’s followed up because it’s the UFO field. And there are other opportunities like that out there as well.”
Rodeghier’s crew thought their findings were strong enough for PLOS ONE, a peer-reviewed journal published by the Public Library of Science. “They rejected it out of hand,” he says. “And they publish everything under the sun.” So when he saw the Journal of Emergency Medicine had given its platform to a misbegotten exercise by Harvard researchers, it made him wonder how much has truly changed since 12/17.
“If you don’t have the right credentials, the right background, as Chase discovered, you’re gonna struggle to get stuff in the regular journals,” Rodeghier says. “But hey, if you’re at Harvard in the Health Care Policy field? You can get a paper in pretty much anything.”
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