INTRODUCTION: THE FIRE
History operates behind our backs.
—Stephen Eric Bronner
June 1996, and the United States was on edge. A year after Timothy McVeigh had bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, the country watched anxiously as a standoff between the FBI and a militia group unfolded in Jordan, Montana. The Montana Freemen had declared themselves a sovereign township outside the reach of US law, had stopped paying taxes, and had embarked on a massive scheme of counterfeiting and bank fraud. When the FBI attempted to arrest them in March, they grabbed their weapons, and the Feds, eager to avoid the bloodshed that ended similar standoffs at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, settled in for a long siege. During the second month, news broke that another Montanan— ed Kaczynski, the Unabomber— had been caught and charged with a series of bombings he’d carried out over the course of seventeen years. Then on June 14, the same day that the last of the Montana Freemen surrendered peacefully to authorities, police in Long Island, New York, arrested yet another group of dangerous men, revealing a plot far stranger than anything the country had yet seen.
Martin Thompson, the head of Rackets for the Suffolk County’s District Attorney’s office, had been leading an investigation into illegal gun sales when he first learned of the plan. Listening to a wiretap of two suspects, John J. Ford and Joe Mazzuchelli, he suddenly found them talking about something very different than guns.
“Once they find this stuff, on, let’s say in Tony’s car, front seat,” Ford is heard saying on the tape, only to be cut off by Mazzuchelli, who chimes in, “Nasty bastard glowing in the dark.” Ford adds, “With this isotope, he’ll start glowing in twenty- four hours.”Thompson and his team had stumbled on a deeply bizarre assassination plot, one involving stolen radium, a forest fire, and a UFO cover‑up.
[ Return to the review of “The Unidentified.” ]
In addition to stockpiling a large cache of weapons, John J. Ford was the president of the Long Island branch of the Mutual UFO Network, or MUFON, a collection of UFO enthusiasts who investigated sightings in an attempt to finally prove that extraterrestrials existed and had visited Earth. MUFON members are not, by nature, violent: most see their job as simply gathering evidence, as objectively and dispassionately as possible, in hopes that eventually there’ll be a documented, undeniable sighting of some kind.
But Ford was not like the typical UFO researcher. He claimed he had been recruited by the CIA when he was eighteen, and had routinely participated in clandestine operations against the Soviet Union. The KGB, he claimed, had tried and failed five times to kill him, and they’d given him the nickname “the Fox,” due to his wily nature. But by the mid-1990s, things had taken a turn for Ford: he injured himself on the job and had to retire, and his mother died, an event that, friends said, affected him deeply. And then there was the forest fire.
The blaze that swept through Long Island’s Pine Barrens in 1995 was large enough that the smoke was visible from Manhattan, some seventy-five miles away, ultimately scorching seven thousand acres. Over time, Ford became convinced that the fire was, in fact, caused by a UFO crash, and that the Suffolk County Board was involved in a large-scale cover‑up. He felt that the only way to get answers was by taking control of the government himself, and he began conspiring with Mazzuchelli and another man, Edward Zabo, to kill three county officials using stolen radium. Zabo, deeply in debt, agreed to provide the radium that Mazzuchelli, himself an ex‑con, would plant in the men’s homes. At a press conference the day of the arrest, Suffolk County district attorney James M. Catterson stood before Ford’s extensive collection of weapons spread out before the podium and explained that when he’d first heard of the plot, “the idea that someone would attempt to introduce radioactive material into someone’s food or someone’s living area at first seemed so bizarre that there’s a human tendency to discount it. It didn’t take very long to realize that this was some of our worst nightmares come true.”
The past few years have revealed to us that such fringe beliefs and conspiracy theories are becoming more prevalent, and they’re becoming more consequential. Belief in fringe topics like Atlantis, or cryptids (Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and other associated “hidden” animals), or UFOs, or ancient aliens— as risen drastically in the last few years. For several years Chapman University has surveyed American’s fears and irrational beliefs, including beliefs about aliens, cryptids, and lost civilizations. In some cases, the numbers have been steadily creeping upward: belief in Bigfoot has moved from 11 percent in 2015 to 21 percent in 2018. The belief that aliens have visited Earth during modern times went from 18 percent to 26 percent in 2016 and then rose to 35 percent in 2018; the belief that aliens have visited Earth in the distant past, meanwhile, has more than doubled from 20 percent in 2015 to 41 percent in 2018. And the belief that “Ancient Civilizations Such as Atlantis Existed” likewise shot up from 39 percent in 2016 to 57 percent in 2018.
We are, in other words, experiencing a time of resurgence of fringe beliefs, when ideas mostly dismissed by science are being embraced and are spreading throughout popular culture. Alongside a rise in conspiracy theories about vaccines, water fluoridation, chemtrails, and political conspiracies from the Illuminati to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, we are more and more ignoring “experts” and embracing the kinds of beliefs that were once relegated to cults.
As for Ford’s little cult: both Mazzuchelli and Zabo turned on Ford in exchange for lesser sentences, and were sentenced to three years and one year in prison, respectively. Ford was pronounced unfit to stand trial and involuntarily committed to the Mid-Hudson Psychiatric Center in New Hampton, New York.
“Yes, this all sounds way out,” District Attorney Catterson said of Ford’s plot. “But when I read the Unabomber manifesto, some of his ideas were just as bizarre. That’s why I take this and the imminent threat to the individuals concerned here very seriously.” Recalling the World Trade Center bombings and Oklahoma City, Catterson commented, “This all convinces me that there is a side to humanity that defies definition.”
Murder plots like Ford’s are clearly the aberration in the world of UFO and cryptid enthusiasts, most of whom are normal, law-abiding folks. But there are shades of overlap between these searchers and the darker strands of conspiracy theory that have come to dominate the landscape of late. They share a similar distrust of established voices, be they scientific or governmental—a distrust that encompasses a spectrum from healthy skepticism to paranoia.
By themselves, these ideas don’t necessarily breed paranoia or violent ideas. Much of what attracts people to these fringe beliefs is a belief in a world of wonder and marvel, a world outside the ken of humanity, a world just out of reach. But our fascination with things unexplained, our obsession with things hidden from view, our need to believe in monsters at the margin—these drives, through the decades, have contributed to a rising sentiment of distrust in science, in academic institutions, and in government. The toxic mélange of anti-vaxxers, school-shooting truthers, and right-wing militia groups didn’t appear overnight; as long as there has been a scientific establishment, there’s been distrust of that establishment, and as long as there have been democratic governments, there’s been suspicion about what’s really going on. The rise in our fascination with things like cryptids and UFOs offers one vector for explaining how we got to where we are today.
Why? How do such beliefs take root? Often, their genesis and evolution follows a fairly standard, almost predictable, pattern. Something genuinely anomalous or difficult to explain happens, and it’s followed by increasingly elaborate explanations—explanations that are designed, ultimately, to resist positive or negative confirmation. The curious case of Erich von Däniken and his wildly successful “ancient alien” hypothesis offers a particularly paradigmatic example of how a fringe belief is structured.
[ Return to the review of “The Unidentified.” ]
It begins, as often as not, with legitimate science, and with a legitimate, unsolved question—in this case, the Fermi Paradox (named after nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi), which posited that, based on what we know about the size of the universe, the likely number of planets conducive to supporting life, and the statistical probability that a civilization like our own would develop, it seems inconceivable that we are the only advanced civilization in the universe. In 1950, at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Fermi was discussing extraterrestrials with a few other scientists when he asked, “Where is everybody?”
Since then, other scientists have worked to better understand this paradox; various mathematicians and astrophysicists have attempted to better understand the probability involved, the likelihood of another race capable of interstellar travel, and other aspects of the science involved. Then in 1963, a young assistant professor at Harvard named Carl Sagan authored a paper entitled “Direct Contact Among Galactic Civilizations by Relativistic Interstellar Spaceflight,” which offered a highly provisional hypothesis that perhaps “Earth was visited by an advanced extraterrestrial civilization at least once during historical times.” Sagan never did much to follow up on this article, or test this hypothesis, and gradually moved on to other questions of astronomy and physics.
But there were others who were less willing to let this idea go, among them, a hotel clerk and convicted fraud Erich von Däniken. Von Däniken had no formal science training, but he liked the idea that aliens had visited Earth in the distant past and that they may have left behind tangible clues and evidence. His 1968 book, Chariots of the Gods?, suggested that the Egyptian pyramids, the Moai statues of Easter Island, and Stonehenge in England were all artifacts of previous contact between humanity and alien civilization. An instant bestseller, Chariots of the Gods (the book’s title long ago lost its question mark) has spawned a seemingly endless series of follow-ups by von Däniken, who turned his idea into such an industry that he opened a theme park in Switzerland devoted to it.
Von Däniken’s success came in part from his ability to start with legitimate gaps in our knowledge—the Fermi Paradox, as well as aspects of ancient culture that were still poorly understood by archaeologists and historians. Science, a fringe theorist argues, is too hidebound and self-satisfied to admit what it doesn’t know and to entertain viable theories that may explain those gaps in scientific knowledge.
Accusing the scientific establishment of failing to address counterevidence, the fringe theorist quickly begins to ignore any evidence that contradicts his own claim. From there, he magnifies the supposed ignorance of science, arguing, for example, that Egyptologists don’t know how or why the pyramids were built.
In fact, we have detailed records from the Egyptians themselves as to how they built the pyramids and what their function was. But this counterevidence is immaterial, as the main hypothesis grows exponentially to incorporate more and more evidence. Much of this is driven by what’s sometimes called apophenia, the tendency to see shapes and patterns where none exist. This apophenic perception lies at the heart at many fringe beliefs and conspiracy theories—it is the idea that everything is, one way or another, connected.
A fringe belief like von Däniken’s is an endless work in progress, constantly assembling new bits and pieces into an ever-expanding grand scheme. An associative process of connecting the dots, the belief spirals out: everything becomes further proof of a central, simplified claim. Stonehenge, Easter Island, the Nazca lines, Mayan iconography—all are the result of aliens, and all are mysteries “solved” by a single thesis that encompasses all of ancient religion, art, architecture, and mythology. It is a theory seductive in its simplicity, but lying behind it is a fair amount of cultural chauvinism: von Däniken and his adherents, it would seem, refuse to believe that ancient civilizations were intellectually sophisticated, that they could have created wondrous buildings or understood complicated math and astronomy without the help of some superintelligent alien race.
Rather than following established scientific protocol, the fringe theorist fills those gaps with shoddy research, question-begging, and the selective presentation of data. A theory like von Däniken’s ancient aliens belief starts from a legitimate and fast-moving scientific debate, and then short circuits this process, offering a romantic over-simplification. It seizes on the initial paradox, but then quickly abandons the rest of the scientific method. In lieu of careful reasoning, falsifiable claims, and the scientific method, von Däniken proposes instead a solution that cuts through the debate, defying acceptable scientific proof, it can be applied to an ever-expanding list of places and ideas. Though its inspiration is scientific, its adherents must denounce and ignore science in order to propagate the theory, particularly when it comes to rebuttals and attempts to disprove the theory—all the while maintaining a thin veneer of the aesthetics of rigorous discourse.
When archaeologists and sociologists set out to study their students’ belief in the ancient-astronaut theory in the late 1970s and early ’80s, they found that as many as 28 percent of incoming college students believed in theories similar to von Däniken’s; more dismaying, that number stayed consistent between first-year students and seniors, and between those who’d taken archaeology classes and those who hadn’t. Simply debunking these beliefs, it seems, is not in and of itself enough. Believers have ample means to confront the evidence disproving von Däniken’s theories, and yet the belief continues to rise.
When I talk to people who believe that Lemuria or Atlantis is real, that Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster exists, or that the government is covering up information about UFOs, it’s easy to hit a wall very quickly. Trying to disprove any of these beliefs—or really, any conspiracy—is frustrating and foolhardy. A scientific fact will quickly be refuted by a flurry of data, often from a wide range of sources; topics will change, and if you debunk one belief, another will quickly be brought up. Soon enough, it becomes apparent that what matters is not what this person believes but that the person believes: the belief itself is the badge, the identity, and the details of it are of minor consequence. These beliefs seem to satisfy the believers in some deep and pleasing way, and that pleasure is more important than their truth or falsity.
Rather than simply debunking these theories, it may be more important to understand their genealogy: where they come from and how they came to take root in popular culture. While they appear to be ancient, drawing on a history dating back to the writings of Plato and ancient hieroglyphics, they are all (unlike, say, the belief in ghosts or haunted houses) relatively new phenomenon, and they all emerge as a result of two great shocks that shook the nineteenth century: the divorce of science and religion, and the disenchanting of the world.
For most of the history of the Western world, these had been linked. The study of the natural world, for ancient Greeks and medieval Christians, only magnified one’s understanding of God. But the Protestant Reformation and the scientific revolution of the Enlightenment set in motion a series of events that would, by the early nineteenth century, result in a complete rupture of these two ideas: science and religion were now opposed, rather than complementary. On top of this, the world of science changed. No longer was inquiry carried out by talented amateurs or gentlemanly explorers; with the rise of the various disciplines of science as discrete fields came the professionalization of a discipline that concentrated itself in universities, museums, and professional organizations. By the twentieth century, the days of the splendid savant were more or less gone.
Many of these fringe beliefs contain various attempts to order the natural world—many of them, in in their dubious and idiosyncratic ways, are trying to articulate a language that can once again reconcile that sense that science and religion are opposed to another. The allure of pseudoscience is in its claim to bring scientific inquiry and mysticism back into harmony, and it is a powerful allure.
Conspiracy theories and fringe beliefs get their start in scientific and cultural revolutions like this, as a reaction to startling and sweeping changes in how we see the world. At the same time, the world was becoming, as Max Weber famously put it, “disenchanted.” In a 1917 article titled “Science as a Vocation,” Weber explained that “the increasing intellectualization and rationalization” of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries implied that we could, at any point, understand anything in the natural world if we simply set our minds to it. Which meant, in turn, “that principally there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation.”
Weber gave a name to a growing feeling among many in the industrialized world: that there was no more magic, nothing anymore that was inexplicable or mysterious; any unknown, we now understood, could be deciphered and made sense given enough attention. There has been a feeling among some segment of the population—one that’s not small and is actively growing—that this scientific disenchanting has cost us something, and they turn to fringe beliefs because it is in Atlantis and Bigfoot and little green men from outer space that they find the world once again reenchanted.
Behind many of these beliefs, then, is what the writer Svetlana Boym once called the off-modern: a nostalgic reaction to the twentieth century’s narrative of boldly going forward into the future, a reaction that was about exploring “sideshadows and back alleys rather than the straight road of progress.” Even the most futuristic and far-fetched narratives about aliens and flying saucers, it turns out, are motivated as much by a fear over the future as anything else.
By the twentieth century, much of the world’s borders had evaporated, its frontiers obliterated. As colonialism and capitalism stretched further and further across the globe, the sense in the West that there were vast “unknowns” out there began to vanish.
But the belief didn’t go away entirely. There are still those who dream of the margins, the frontiers between a disenchanted modern world and an enchanted, distant place—be it sunken continents of past civilizations, the Yeti-infested Himalayas, or top- secret government black sites in the American wilderness where alien corpses are kept in cryogenic storage. So I set out in search of these places, beginning on the border of Oregon and California, at the Root of the World.
[ Return to the review of “The Unidentified.” ]