Writing my annual year in review article used to be amusing, if not actually fun, because there was at least some entertainment value in seeing the wild claims and fantastical speculations that passed for history and science. But each year has been a little darker than the one before, and the job is less an exercise in tut-tutting foolishness than it is a depressing reminder that wealthy and powerful people are pushing conspiracies whose real-life consequences are no longer hypothetical but manifest every day in ways large and small, from the halls of Congress to hospital ICUs.
On paper, this year looks like my most successful ever since I published a book, a number of articles in major magazines and newspapers, including Esquire, The New Republic, and Slate, and was interviewed or covered everywhere from Salon to the New York Times and Washington Post. But it didn’t always feel like success because all of those successes came as consolation prizes for bigger things that never manifested, and only after enormous struggle that wasn’t always commensurate with the reward.
In many ways, 2021 was the most difficult year of my life as pandemic-related salary cuts forced me to take on more work to stay in the same place, and the combination of declining salaries, rising prices, and family health struggles put a lot of pressure on me, which resulted in less time for writing my articles and my blog as work took up nearly every waking moment. Every appliance in my house broke, including the washing machine, the oven, and the cooktop—all beyond repair. Combining that with health-related expenses and my son’s preschool tuition made this a very expensive, very hard year.
It’s been a tough twelve months. I’m not sure I want to relive it, but here goes nothing.
In the waning days of 2020, UFO advocates Chris Mellon and Lue Elizondo exited To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science to strike off on their own. At the time, they said they did so because TTSA was too entertainment-focused. Behind the scenes, they were laying the groundwork to resurrect the old Bigelow / BAASS UFO research program at the Pentagon on more secure footing. This would bear fruit later in the year, but in the meantime the New York Times helped out by giving Ralph Blumenthal, one of the reporters and UFO advocates who launched the current UFO flap with an infamous 2017 New York Times piece revealing the government’s 2010s UFO research program, space to write a puff piece celebrating that program’s guiding light, looney rich person Bob Bigelow, who began hunting for the afterlife. Astronomer Avi Loeb published a bestselling book claiming to have proof of space aliens and speculating that they would reveal the secret of life, which he said is 1950s existentialism. Dismissed at the time as self-aggrandizement, the book was actually an unsubtle plan for taking over the UFO field and making Loeb a philosophical and spiritual guru. In the first days of January, the New Hampshire Union-Leader condemned cable TV conspiracy theory shows, linking them to unrest and science denial. Georgia’s secretary of state condemned History Channel treasure hunter Jovan Hutton Pulitzer for his role in spreading dubious election claims as Pulitzer worked to manipulate politically motivated recounts to support Donald Trump. Days later, Trump supporters, some hopped up on History Channel-influenced QAnon conspiracy theories, stormed the Capitol. The so-called QAnon Shaman gave shout-outs to familiar cable TV science conspiracy faces and History Channel Ancient Aliens-style theories about alien space wars posted online before the attack. Lindsey Graham warned the Senate not to allow the QAnon Shaman to testify at Trump’s second impeachment trial. One of the insurrectionists wore an Ancient Aliens sweatshirt to the uprising. A QAnon conspiracy theorist went on CNN to discuss interdimensional beings. NBC News had to run a story explaining that Reptilian conspiracy theories originated in anti-Semitic conspiracies, because this is the world we live in now. The American Historical Association condemned a propagandistic summary of American history released by the outgoing Trump Administration to counter the New York Times’ 1619 Project. The New Yorker interviewed ancient astronaut theorist Erich von Däniken with bemused praise while whitewashing his decades of racism and bigotry.
After I criticized the New Yorker piece, Erich von Däniken released an official statement claiming that he is not racist, that I am the real racist, and that I am neither “important” nor “special.” Ancient Aliens returned with a new season that kicked off with a special roundtable episode led by William Shatner, who opined that moving large rocks was so astounding as to be a cosmic mystery. TTSA reorganized as an entertainment company. I published an article in Slate magazine connecting Tucker Carlson’s promotion of UFO mysteries to his growing embrace of conspiracy theories, a sadly prescient piece that anticipated Carlson’s full descent into right-wing conspiracy theorist by year’s end. An Australian astrophysicist claimed a myth about the Pleiades dates back 100,000 years, while an art history professor in China falsely argued that the Egyptian pyramids are modern fakes.
After a 15-month investigation, Mark Russo was charged with vandalism for defacing the stones of America’s Stonehenge with QAnon slogans. According to his social media postings, cited by authorities, he committed the vandalism after watching Scott Wolter on America Unearthed and becoming convinced that the tourist trap was an ancient site of human sacrifice to Phoenician gods, who were actually Christian demons. Scott Wolter went full ancient astronaut theorist and completely embraced the idea that ETs interfered in human history. In March he speculated that the Templars had “tapped into ET’s” to gain their mystical wisdom. Syfy’s Resident Alien gave Giorgio Tsoukalos and Ancient Aliens free advertising and warm and fuzzy cross-promotion despite the History channel show’s long history of racist claims. Ralph Blumenthal published his magnum opus, The Believer, a hagiography of alien abduction hypnotist John Mack. The book sold poorly and garnered almost no media coverage beyond a few UFO podcasts. However, in the promotional work for the book, Blumenthal admitted to intentionally twisting the 2017 article to leave out interdimensional space ghosts and other paranormal claims so that the Pentagon research would sound more credible.
The Today show claimed that the so-called “Curse of the Pharaohs” was a genuine ancient legend, when it was in fact invented in the twentieth century. Legendary Pictures announced that it would adapt Ancient Aliens into a live-action adventure movie. Prof. Elizabeth Weiss claimed that protecting Native American graves violated her First Amendment rights, kicking off a months-long campaign to strip Native graves of their protections in the name of science. Weiss is the wife of Nick Pope from Ancient Aliens. Rick Santorum caused controversy when he said white people colonized an empty continent. Frank from Queens, a white nationalist podcaster, called my book on the mound builder myth “vile” and alleged that discussing Native American history was leftwing, communist propaganda. A major UFO flap broke out when The New Yorker published a credulous story about UFOs that relied on Lue Elizondo, Leslie Kean, and other familiar affiliates of the Bigelow circle of UFO believers. The New Yorker piece gave the mainstream media a green-light for credulous UFO stories, which reached a fever pitch in May.
In May, the biggest names in news fully embraced UFOs, with credulous stories appearing on 60 Minutes, Sunday Morning, Today, NBC Nightly News, and many other broadcasts, as well as in a wide variety of print and online media. I joined their ranks, publishing a dissenting view in The New Republic. NBC’s Peacock streaming service announced that celebrity singer Demi Lovato, who shills for UFO grifter Steven Greer, would get their own UFO reality show, which premiered later in the year with a host of bizarre claims. It aired on Peacock, so no one saw it. Near month’s end Jacques Vallée and Paola Harris self-published Trinity, a book claiming that the government recovered an avocado-shaped spacecraft in 1945 filled with dwarf aliens. The claim was based on tall tales told by three elderly New Mexicans about events that supposedly occurred when they were in elementary school. Ufologists widely denounced the book as an embarrassment, but it carried an endorsement from Chris Mellon, who called it “fresh reason” to believe the government captured “alien technology,” so by year’s end it became an accepted part of UFO lore anyway when UFO believers were forced to choose between embracing Vallée’s worst ideas and admitting that the dean of ufology might not be deserving of the government patronage he spent the fall angling to get from the Pentagon’s new UFO research office. Lue Elizondo appeared on ABC’s Sunday-morning public affairs show This Week to discuss the national security threat posed by UFOs and then headed to Expedition X on the Discovery Channel to speculate about ETs’ underwater UFO bases. HBO Max announced they would turn the story of Leslie Kean, Lue Elizondo, and Chris Mellon into a movie. Discovery filled a pandemic-depleted schedule with a rerun of a Facebook Watch pseudoscience series hunting a fake lost city in the Amazon but didn’t tell viewers it first aired in 2019.
Travel Channel and Discovery+ ghost hunter Zak Bagans purchased the last remaining part of the Porsche James Dean died in for $382,000 at auction and announced plans to dedicated part of his Haunted Museum in Las Vegas to phony narratives about a diabolical curse on the car and Dean. The Discovery Channel temporarily spiked a planned broadcast of an Atlantis-hunting show after its host made insensitive comments online. Trump election conspiracies merged with UFO conspiracies when Trumpist consigliere Rudy Giuliani joined Ancient Aliens star Nick Pope for a conspiracy podcast sponsored by pro-Trump conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell’s MyPillow. Chris Mellon preemptively attacked a planned report to Congress on UFOs from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, blasting its author as an inexperienced bureaucrat and saying it would be unsatisfactory because the UAP Task Force lacked resources and manpower to investigate UFOs. His partner, Lue Elizondo, accidentally revealed on Fox News that he was affiliated with a startup think tank, Skyfort LLC, that planned to offer UFO analysis and technology services to the government. The startup was supposed to be kept secret until Congress approved a new UFO office in December to contract with UFO researchers. Elizondo walked right up to endorsing the Majestic-12 hoax, and then he attended a UFO conference where speakers used hoaxed Majestic-12 documents promoted by Hal Puthoff to claim that the U.S. government retrieved crashed saucers and communicated with aliens. Sam Harris fell for the UFO frenzy and announced that he intended to work with the government to prepare the way for aliens. ODNI released their report in June, which came to no definitive conclusion. The mainstream media took it to mean that there was no reason to keep reporting on UFOs, while cable TV and Congress saw it as an invitation to launch more UFO probes. Scott Wolter delivered a long rant on a podcast taking credit for harming my career, saying “he got what he had coming to him.”
The BBC uncritically reported on a local crank’s claim to have discovered a Biblical secret that let the Egyptians build the pyramids and the ancient people of Britain to raise Stonehenge. The article was illustrated in all seriousness with a picture of a Nephilim Giant running the machine. After a six-week delay, a dull, speculative Hunting Atlantis debuted on the Discovery Channel to a disappointing 650,000 viewers, but ratings fell each week, with only a couple of hundred thousand people watching by the end. William Shatner angrily claimed to have no idea his new paranormal show’s planned broadcaster, RT, was a Russian propaganda channel with a penchant for anti-American and UFO conspiracies. American Cosmic author Diana Pasulka claimed that Google and the military-industrial complex were working together to discredit UFO witnesses. The Travis Walton UFO abduction story was exposed as a hoax. TMZ and the Discovery networks ran UFO specials triumphantly speculating that the June ODNI report indicated aliens were visiting Earth. Avi Loeb launched the Galileo Project at Harvard University to hunt UFOs. By year’s end, he had brought in Elizondo and Mellon as advisors and was touring the UFO podcast circuit in hopes of raising $100 million. Loeb headlined Contact in the Desert, speaking alongside racist pseudohistory writers like Ancient Aliens star Erich von Däniken. Scott Wolter claimed to be in psychic contact with aliens and to have learned of treaties between the U.S. and ETs. The American Conservative defended nineteenth-century cultural genocide against Native Americans as “worth it” to Christianize the Americas.
In August, my new book Legends of the Pyramids dropped, my second new book in two years. It reached number one on the Amazon.com Archaeology bestseller list. Erich von Däniken complained that cable TV pseudohistory alien shows were stealing ideas from him, apparently forgetting that he is a consulting producer on Ancient Aliens, which originated as an adaptation of his work, or that he stole those ideas from other writers’ books first. Australian journalist Ross Coulthart published a book claiming to provide new evidence UFOs are space aliens and are being covered up by world governments, but the resulting book was a dull rehash of old conspiracies. A Gallup survey found that belief in UFOs as alien spacecraft jumped considerably among Americans, especially among the college educated (up from 21% to 37%), over the past two years, likely due to uncritical elite media coverage. Scott Wolter claimed the CIA and the Vatican conspired to withhold proof of aliens from the ODNI and Congress, and he added that he believes one percent of all Americans are space aliens. In reality, internal documents showed government officials were instead getting their ideas from popular media stories about UFOs.
Motivated researchers attempted to prove the Biblical story of Sodom was true by tying it to an ancient site they claimed had been obliterated by a space rock. Yale University announced the results of yet another study confirming that the Vinland Map is a forgery. Diana Muir announced plans to use hoaxed Templar documents as the basis for a planned TV series with Scott Wolter to search for a global Templar cult. A former Defense Department employee calling herself Añjali held a news conference on the Mall in Washington to announce an expedition into the Mojave Desert to commune with purple space aliens. Over the next few months, the effort degenerated into hoax accusations, culminating in the launch of a hybrid New Age/Christian faith movement. Ralph Blumenthal complained that the New York Times spiked a planned story about alien abductions because a new cabal of “skeptics” formed within the paper. When the story eventually ran in The Debrief, it was rehashed, credulous nonsense. Donald Trump, Jr. promoted an MMA event in which his father would commemorate the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 by answering questions about Area 51 and space aliens. Tom DeLonge used space aliens to promote his new album. Lue Elizondo successfully used space aliens to promote his planned memoir, which landed him a lucrative contract at William Morrow after a competitive auction. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill required the creation of a government office to study UFOs, but few at the time thought it would survive the reconciliation process with the Senate.
Zak Bagans visited the site of James Dean’s death in the hope of making contact with his ghost ahead of the opening of the Haunted Museum exhibit devoted to Dean’s supernatural curse. A planned presidential-style motorcade to publicize the exhibit was scrapped, and publicity for the grand opening fizzled to a couple of tweets and one local newspaper article. Chris Mellon announced his opposition to House UFO office legislation, claiming it made it too easy to keep UFO information secret. James T. Lacatski, Colm A. Kelleher, and George Knapp self-published Skinwalkers at the Pentagon, a book claiming to reveal the truth about the U.S. government’s and Bob Bigelow’s investigations of Skinwalker Ranch. The book revealed that researchers believed the ranch to be haunted by a creature that looked like a beaver-dinosaur hybrid, and the authors claimed Lue Elizondo believed he had psychic powers, which he used in Afghanistan. To convince lawmakers of the national security threat of flying saucers, UFO researchers restaged a 2010 press conference at the National Press Club to again allege that UFOs menace America’s nuclear sites, using half-century-old claims. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, who is old enough to remember the first flying saucer in 1947, gave an interview about space aliens in which he speculated about parallel universes where other civilizations might reside. Avi Loeb brought Lue Elizondo and Chris Mellon on board the Galileo Project while Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand began working on legislation that echoed proposals for UFO research from an October blog post by Chris Mellon and a summer PowerPoint presentation from Lue Elizondo. The original draft of her plan would have given Loeb the authority to appoint members of an advisory board for a Pentagon UFO office. American Horror Story devoted half of its season to an uncritical dramatization of conspiracy theories about MJ-12, space aliens, and UFOs from the 1950s to today. Uri Geller, whose alleged psychic powers Hal Puthoff investigated for the CIA, claimed vindication when the CIA put out a lighthearted Halloween post saying that their long-ago tests produced results slightly better than chance but were useless.
Fresh off their Peacock streaming UFO reality series, Demi Lovato joined Gaia-TV as a brand ambassador and began promoting noxious Reptilian conspiracy theories. The Director of National Intelligence and the administrator of NASA joined Avi Loeb and Jeff Bezos to talk space aliens and UFOs at the National Cathedral as part of the annual Ignatius Forum. While the officials were noncommittal about assigning UFOs to aliens, Loeb speculated that aliens could be indistinguishable from gods and would provide us with clues to the meaning of life. Loeb asked Bezos to help fund his $100-million UFO project, but Bezos turned him down. The Pentagon announced plans for a secretive internal UFO study group. Kirsten Gillibrand proposed legislation for a more robust and accountable UFO office, but with bizarre requirements to research crashed UFO wreckage and the medical maladies of UFO experiencers. Lue Elizondo and Chris Mellon traveled to Washington to lobby for the Gillibrand amendment’s passage. Elizondo speculated about the “zoo hypothesis” and suggested we are an alien experiment and revealing the truth would lead to a complete social restructuring of human society. GQ magazine named Lue Elizondo a “GQ Hero” of the year. Giorgio Tsoukalos claimed on social media that ancient aliens have their own ancient aliens who had their own ancient aliens, and so on. A TikTok user caused a social media stir by claiming the Roman Empire never existed and its ruins are really Greek.
A group of Mormons hunted an imaginary lost ancient Jewish city from the Book of Mormon in Iowa. An official NFT of James Dean’s cursed Porsche sold for just $5,660—less than the $20,000 an actual photo of the car sold for at auction earlier in the year. Perhaps the car was cursed after all. The House and Senate agreed on final language for the National Defense Authorization Act, which included a provision to establish a UFO office within the Pentagon that would investigate UFOs while using the “special expertise” of “persons outside the Federal government” to test alleged crashed saucer wreckage and probe medical maladies of UFO witnesses, a transparent effort to bring the old BAASS / AAWSAP Bigelow-Vallée-Elizondo circle back into power. To make this more obvious, Vallée published a paper with government-sponsored colleague Garry Nolan, who previously examined an alleged alien body, on testing UFO wreckage. The paper ended with a call for funding of exactly the kind the NDAA mandates. I discussed the situation in The New Republic. Avi Loeb asked NBC’s Gadi Schwartz to connect him with Elon Musk following a credulous NBC report on the UFO office so Loeb could ask Musk to fund his $100 million Galileo Project. Scott Wolter told an audience of about 1,000 YouTube viewers (as of this writing) that he discovered the text of a lost book mentioned in the Bible and found within it a description of a flying saucer wielding a death ray.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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