Government Documents: Applications in Skepticism

Note: the example that follows focuses primarily on UFO claims, but these resources and strategies can be applied to a wide variety of topics related to scientific skepticism.

Ufologist on Campus

United States Capitol in Daylight from Wikimedia Commons

United States Capitol in Daylight
from Wikimedia Commons, by Kevin McCoy (CC BY-SA 2.0)

It was November 2007, and “Extraterrestrial Biological Entities” was the title of the IEEE Student Chapter Guest’s Lecture. Like many other members of the campus community, I didn’t expect extraterrestrial life was outside the realm of possibility, given the size of our universe, but based on my understanding of distances and sheer number of places there aren’t life, I found the idea that we were being visited regularly a little doubtful. But intrigued, I resolved to attend the talk, at least to provide a written evaluation in a skeptical column in the campus newsletter.

As expected, the speaker – a longtime Ufologist and amateur investigator – offered personal anecdotes of his experiences witnessing unidentified aerial phenomena. But then he showed some evidence I wasn’t expecting.

Documented Evidence

Out of his bag came a treasure trove of government documents, many marked “Secret” or “Top Secret” or “Classified.” Some had stamps indicating they had been “Declassified.” The prize of his collection was a set of documents referred to in the UFO community as the “Majestic-12” documents, but he had several others as well. All of these, he told us, had been declassified by the U.S. government, allowing him to provide it to us in handouts we could keep.

A lot of people left that lecture very impressed. I had questions. Fortunately, this graduate student happened to work in a Federal Depository Library, so I had the means to get some answers about these documents. With access to an overwhelmingly large authentic Government document repository, as well as access to countless others via interlibrary loan, an extensive search did not turn up the “Majestic 12” documents, but it did turn up legitimate FBI documents concerning an investigation into claims of the document’s authenticity and classification.

Many of the attendees had no means to verify the speaker’s claims, and continue to believe they possess what were once highly classified documents and evidence of extraterrestrial contact.

What Can I Do?

  • Be wary when you encounter collections of “UFO Government Documents.” Lots of Ufology web sites host collections that contain (at best) a mixed bag of real and fraudulent documents. Often these bear very official-looking headers, seals, and stamps.
  • If you have questions about one of these documents, see if you can find them in your local Federal Depository Library collection, perform a search using one of the resources listed below, or consult a reference librarian, preferably at a research library attached to a local college or university.
  • If the document has a call number, that’s a good sign. If not, well…
  • Also, remember that these resources are useful for evaluating information resources pertaining to medical, agricultural and a host of other subjects related to scientific skepticism. It’s not just for UFO research.

What if I suspect I have a legitimate classified government document that has been illegally distributed?

If you’re browsing UFO conspiracy theory web sites, this is unlikely. But it is important to understand that distribution of classified material, no matter how you may have obtained it, is illegal in most countries.

Do not download, further transmit or distribute the document. Data spillage is a serious problem, and there are procedures for reporting them properly. When reporting potential information spillage, you should NOT attach any copies of the document in question.

Resources

Federal Depository Library Program, United States Government Printing Office

Federal Depository Library Program, United States Government Printing Office

  • Back in 2011, Google discontinued its Uncle Sam U.S. government search engine, which provided the ability to search U.S. government web documents. A Google Custom Search tool has been established to try and fill the void, at http://www.unclesamsearch.com.
  • The National Archives provides government publications, guides to federal information and government document indexes. The National Archives also provides information concerning legitimate documents associated with UFO research.
  • The U.S. government’s official web portal, USA.gov provides a search tool with advanced features to search across multiple government agencies.
  • The Federal Depository Library Program was established by Congress to ensure that the American public has access to its government’s information. A directory is available, listing all participating Federal Depository Libraries. Find the one nearest you.
  • Not all useful government information is going to come out of archives; you might be looking for something a bit more recent! If you are looking to monitor legislation pertaining to a particular topic, check out this guide by Tim Farley at Skeptical Software Tools.
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