In Plain Sight: An Investigation into UFOs and Impossible Science
Ross Coulthart | HarperCollins | July 2021 (Australia) / Oct. 2021 (U.S.) | 281 pages | ISBN: B08VYR4DZ6 | $17.99
Until this summer, Ross Coulthart was best known as a correspondent for Australia’s 60 Minutes and the winner of several prestigious journalism awards for his reporting on issues such as human trafficking and organized crime. He left Channel Nine and 60 Minutes following a round of cost-cutting a few years ago, claiming that journalism was full of “type A” personalities who were “barking mad.” And for reasons he never made entirely clear, like so many men of a certain age—what Australia refers to as those receiving superannuation and we call the AARP crowd—he suddenly developed a passionate desire to return to an adolescent interest in the paranormal. The result: what Coulthart claims is a two-year “investigation” into UFOs, a subject that he says first caught his attention as a teenager in the late 1970s, though he claims to have disbelieved at the time. And like many products of a late-in-life conversion, the result, In Plain Sight: An Investigation into UFOs and Impossible Science is less a serious analysis and more of a book report on the last works of the leaders of the faith. It also serves as an application for Coulthart to join Leslie Kean and George Knapp on the lucrative UFO speakers’ circuit, a “serious” journalist with paranormal conclusions.
HarperCollins published In Plain Sight in Australia this month. It will be released here in the United States in October. Coulthart produced an accompanying documentary for Australian’s Channel Seven, where he had previously worked as a journalist between stints at Nine.
I read the Aussie edition of In Plain Sight cover to cover in two afternoons. It is neither long nor complicated nor particularly dense. I struggled to figure out how to review a book that doesn’t have anything original to say about UFOs, metamaterials, cattle mutilations or any of the other detritus associated with the flying saucer faith. To summarize the book’s “evidence” would be tedious; to analyze it pointless. But I’ll try to make it interesting anyway.
In Plain Sight is a slipshod summary of the past seventy-five years of ufology, limited only to military interest in UFOs, the better to give it the glint of seriousness. Coulthart conducts little original research. Most of the first three-quarters of the book is simply summary of previous ufologists’ books, particularly those of Richard Dolan and Stanton Friedman. Coulthart presents the history of flying saucers from a credulous perspective—again, like innumerable men of his age who lose their critical faculties around their teenage fantasies—rarely dissenting from ufology’s extraterrestrial conclusions, except where overwhelming evidence makes it impossible not to retain some semblance of credibility by acknowledging the obvious. He also has an unpleasant habit of failing to cite neutral, scientific, or skeptical perspectives except to identify the weakest and attack it as a straw man. Generally, he will document every ufologist’s work thoroughly but reference only “sceptics” (Australian spelling) collectively with no specific citation before dismissing dissent from the extraterrestrial hypothesis. His “investigation” is loaded, and it shows.
The first third or so of the book’s 23 chapters are devoted to a potted history of American and Australian military involvement in UFO investigations from the dawn of the UFO era in 1947 to the early 1990s. Coulthart summarizes famous cases, including Roswell and Rendlesham Forest. He offers no specific conclusions about any of them, but his refusal to challenge witness testimony and his dismissal of skeptical conclusions make plain where his sympathies lie. This portion of the book introduces Coulthart’s far-too-obvious shortcomings: credulous research uncritically repeated from ufologists, a lack of analytical rigor in making arguments, a fetishization of the military, and a naïve trust in the accuracy of witness testimony.
The latter two failures are by far the most important. Throughout the book, Coulthart is in thrall to the military. That doesn’t mean he is uniformly pro-military. He toggles between worshiping their masculine authority and blasting their secrecy and supposed conspiracies to hide the truth about UFOs. Good daddy, bad daddy. Both of these positions are united around a common theme: Coulthart, being of a certain age, buys into the old twentieth-century notion of the best and the brightest and can’t imagine that some people in an organization as big as the Pentagon, or its Aussie equivalent, might be looney UFO nuts. Therefore, interest in UFOs, no matter how ridiculous or improbable, has to come from some secret well of hypercompetent, hyperrational knowledge. After watching the military and its civilian overseers stumble through a series of failed wars and false rationales over the past half century, it’s difficult for me to have that knee-jerk assumption of hyper-efficiency and boundless rational competence.
Similarly, Coulthart’s repeated assertion that eyewitness testimony to UFOs—though, oddly, not to abductions, anal probes, or any of the unsavory parts that might make UFOs seem silly—constitutes a body of serious evidence for alien spacecraft shows his lack of insight into the science of memory, the scientific method, and plain logic. It also reinforces his fetishization of military members’ innate superhuman superiority since most of the testimony he cites is from military members.
By far the largest part of the book is devoted to recounting the history of the team that, in various guises, probed UFOs from the late 1980s through to today—the group that swirled around Robert Bigelow and then Tom DeLonge, first as the National Institute for Discovery Science and later as To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science. The interconnections between and among the revolving cast of core players aren’t worth discussing here, but Coulthart goes through all of it in excruciating detail without bringing to it much by way of critical analysis or anything new. Again, his sources are for the most part ufologists’ previously published work, including UFO books, blog posts, and podcasts. The narrative is coherent if not insightful.
Coulthart has trouble accepting the most extreme ideas—Bigelow’s interest in the paranormal aspects of UFOs, for example, or Tom DeLonge’s fantasies about Atlantis and Lemuria. But he makes very plain that he has a huge man-crush on DeLonge, whom he credits with a renaissance in ufology and an avatar for—again—some hypercompetent, hyperrational cabal secretly controlling the UFO narrative for unknown purposes. He can’t believe that government operatives would engage with a rock star on UFOs unless there were a serious alien secret behind it all. I might question why they would engage with Tom DeLonge if there actually were aliens. Coulthart makes a big deal of DeLonge’s “Aliens Exist” song from Blink-182’s Enema of the State album, implying that it opened the way to UFOs for my generation. Apparently, he isn’t aware that it was a filler track on the album and one of many novelty songs from that era with silly or bizarre lyrics. “Pretty Fly for a White Guy” anyone? “The Bad Touch”? How about “Barbie Girl”?
The final few chapters of the book look at the Art’s Parts UFO wreckage in the TTSA context, the hoax Admiral Wilson memos supposedly confirming captured craft and alien bodies, and the claims of Gordon Novel about the military reverse-engineering a UFO. Coulthart is less enthusiastic about these outer-fringes ideas in ufology, and he does not endorse these ideas. He does, however, return again to his unshakeable belief that if a man—and they are all men—in government service believes something, there must be a good reason for it:
Wild conspiratorial claims from believers in the ufology community are one thing. Hearing shockingly similar assertions from former senior government scientists the calibre of [onetime U.S. Navy director of technology] Nat Kobitz and his friend Sidewinder are another thing entirely. I am sure the debunkers will say that my quoted sources never saw any hard evidence of extra-terrestrial technology held by the US government, and they are absolutely right. In the end, what these men have said proves little.
I’ll go further—Kobitz doesn’t quite provide the solid evidence Coulthart thinks he does. Kobitz was 92 and by Coulthart’s own telling enjoyed having someone listen to his long, rambling stories as a distraction from his terminal illness. (Kobitz died shortly after Coulthart spoke with him.) Even so, when Coulthart asked him about recovered UFOs, Kobitz said “I only have hearsay information.” Coulthart also asked if he were “read into” a “program” involving crashed UFOs, to which Kobitz answered “Yes.” The two statements cannot both be true unless the program itself had no evidence of crashed UFOs. (If it were a case that he simply wasn’t privy to the UFO part, how did he know it was a crashed UFO program unless by less-than-definitive hearsay?) He claimed to have seen unusual metal at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, a few feet of titanium alloy he considered impossible to make on Earth. This is the book’s big revelation, but it is the recollections of a dying man some forty or fifty years after the fact, with nothing to substantiate it, and in seeming contradiction to Kobitz’s own claim that he had only “hearsay” information of crashed UFOs. Obviously, all of the claims Kobitz made cannot be simultaneously true. Coulthart doesn’t acknowledge this, apparently out of respect for the deceased, but he does admit to finding the stories unbelievable.
The book ends, however, with Coulthart deciding that while nearly every piece of evidence he has examined is incomplete, inconclusive, unbelievable, or wrong, the sheer number of people formerly in government or the military who believe in various parts of the combined UFO grand conspiracy means that the conspiracy must be true, even if there is nothing substantive to support it: “As incredible as it feels to write this, I strongly suspect from what my own sources tell me that technology not made by human hands has been recovered, not only by the US but by Russia and China. […] Too many insiders have dropped too many hints for me not to think that there is a reckoning coming.”
He closes by complaining that the U.S. government has lied too often about UFOs and asserts, falsely, that it has “criminally persecuted” those who speak out about them. (He means that Bob Lazar got charged with pandering, for which he got a very light sentence.)
In buying into the conspiracy narrative, Coulthart has positioned himself as the next Leslie Kean, but the story he tells reveals more about his own complicated relationship to military and government failures across his lifetime. Through the medium of UFOs, he seems to want to find a way to restore Western militaries, if only in some diabolized form, to the prestige and glory of the postwar heyday, when it was still possible to believe that secrecy and silence meant that the very best of us were defending freedom with unmatched dynamism and competence.
This week a former defense official ran to Politico to complain that the U.S. Space Force doesn’t want to investigate UFOs because they fear social media might make fun of them.
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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