White: UFOs, the organization trying to find them

The truth is out there. Who is taking the action to find it?

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Image by Ava Weinreis

by Spencer White

Have you ever laid out in the grass on a cool summer night and gazed at the stars overhead? Maybe you traced the constellations in your mind and pondered who was first to play this cosmic game of connect-the-dots. You start to wonder if there is more to the night sky than the stars. Perhaps there’s some life behind those lights.

UFOs and other strange aerial phenomena have been sighted for centuries. For as long as there have been these strange sightings, there have been people and organizations looking to explain them. One of those organizations is the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), which works to investigate potential extraterrestrial sightings and educate the public about UFOs.

“We’ve been studying these light phenomena for decades,” said Anna Scott, who has been a field investigator with MUFON’s Minnesota chapter for around five years.

Most investigations that MUFON conducts are completely online or over the phone. Sites like Whitepages help verify reports. Otherwise, they try to find aircraft, satellites or any other aerial phenomena that could explain the sightings.

In the event of a UFO sighting, a MUFON investigator will contact anyone involved and verify the validity of the sighting and the identities of those involved. Once the people involved have been identified, they will try to find any explanation from records of satellites, weather balloons or anything else that would’ve been visible from the spot of a sighting. Most investigations are as simple as locating a sighting on a map and finding a record of anything flying in that area at that time.

Only about 10–20% of the sightings MUFON investigates are deemed unidentifiable, said William McNeff, the chief investigator of MUFON’s Minnesota chapter. McNeff primarily oversees the other investigators and their assignments and picks up some cases himself along the way.

So, how does one become a field investigator? First, you need to be a member. Membership dues range from $60–$300, depending on what perks you’re interested in.

“If you want to become a field investigator, you buy a manual, which costs about $100,” Bob Spearing, MUFON’s director of international investigations, said. “Then you take a test online after finishing going through the manual. And then we’ll certify you as a field investigator.” Spearing has been with the organization for about nine years.

“We get a lot of our money from membership. Right now, we have 5,000 members, and approximately 500 of them are field investigators.” Spearing said.

MUFON sells a great deal of merchandise and has a donation page on their website. You can choose your own amount to donate, but they do have pre-set donation amounts. These range from the $150 enthusiast level to the perk-laden $5,000 inner-circle level.

It makes sense that a non-profit, volunteer-based organization would rely heavily on donations, but those numbers seem absurd. Sure, things like their lab in Missouri and yearly symposium need funding. Still, the extent to which their website is monetized seems ridiculous.

MUFON also keeps a lot of their information and records behind a paywall. This includes access to their members-only section.

For an organization claiming to have an interest in educating the public, these monetary barriers seem counterproductive. But, MUFON needs funding to do their research, and they don’t want funding from sources like previous funder and billionaire Robert Bigelow.

Bigelow provided funding for MUFON’s Starteam — first responders to any high-importance UFO sightings or interactions — until he parted ways with MUFON around 15 years ago. This was due to disagreements on funding allocation and Starteams’ less than impressive results, Spearing said.

MUFON is attempting to bring back Starteam by the end of this year. This time, without the funding of a billionaire behind them, investigators will have to supply most tools and materials themselves, Spearing said.

With greater amounts of independence, the Starteam will get a fresh start. Though it is unclear how successful a rag-tag group of investigators will be as a first-responder organization.

Another one of MUFON’s ventures is the Experiencer Resource Team (ERT), which Scott and McNeff are both a part of. The ERT, which helps people who have had encounters like UFO sightings or abductions, holds support groups and vets therapists or other professionals who are open minded to the possibility of unexplainable phenomena, Scott said.

As a registered nurse, Scott said she can tell if someone is showing symptoms of mental illness. Scott said if individuals seem to need help past an abduction support group or an open-minded therapist, they can refer them to their own psychiatrist.

“Most people demonstrating symptoms of severe mental illness already have a psychiatrist,” Scott said. “We can refer them back to their own psychiatrist, but we aren’t a health care provider or a referral system.”

Most people MUFON interacts with are of relatively of sound mind. It is a great minority that demonstrate severe mental illness like schizophrenia, Scott said.

Granting people the ability to talk to others who will listen and believe them can be a huge plus, but it should be done with care. Simply validating extraordinary experiences without care for how sound of mind the experiencer is could be dangerous. Even if it is only a great minority of experiencers who demonstrate mental illness, the fact that any are dealt with at all means great care should be taken to ensure those ideas don’t lead them to harm themselves or anyone else.

It would be unfair to say MUFON is neglecting to help people who need it. The extreme cases are few and far between and are usually handled with care by the ERT. However, care must be taken to prevent those in need from slipping through the cracks.

Unfortunately, there is more to MUFON’s history than Starteam and the ERT.

Former MUFON national director Jan Harzan was arrested in 2020 for soliciting sex from a detective whom Harzan believed to be a 13-year-old girl. He was immediately removed from his position in MUFON. While the organization acted swiftly, this is not the only time they attracted undesirables.

In August, the Minnesota chapter had to cancel a guest speaker last minute when the organization discovered he had Nazi ties. While they quickly removed him as a speaker once they found out, Minnesota Chapter Director Tom Maher said this individual had already spoken at one of their previous meetings.

The question that arises is: does MUFON do enough to prevent these situations?

There is only so much that can be done to prevent the wrong people from gaining a platform. Often, the best thing that can be done is to right a wrong that you were unable to prevent. Historically, MUFON has been quick to do that.

Maher called events like Harzan’s arrest “frustrating and disappointing.”

MUFON is an imperfect organization to say the least. Some of their practices are questionable, and they have been associated with some nefarious characters.

However, the average member just believes there is more in the sky than airplanes and astronauts. Can you blame them?

Often, people who believe they have experienced an otherworldly or unexplainable event are written off as crazy or liars. But, with so much out there we don’t understand, how can we be sure these extraterrestrial experiences are fiction?

“Human history is just a history of being wrong all the time. So I try not to be too attached to being right.” Maher said.