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RIP Philip Klass
August 15, 2005 9:13 PM   Subscribe

Philip Klass, dead at age 85. (Also at the NY Times.) Electrical engineer, aviation editor, and renowned UFO debunker, as well as CSICOP founder/fellow. Checking Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy blog, he left an interesting last message.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan (38 comments total)

 
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posted by Optimus Chyme at 9:17 PM on August 15, 2005


He was a great man, a fascinating thinker, and a classic smartass. I hope that someone can step in to fill his shoes.

A lot of the CSICOP people are getting old, and we need new people to come forward and actively fight against ignorance, making it their life's work. Klass will be missed.
posted by interrobang at 10:03 PM on August 15, 2005


Very sad. It took me a while to realize that the 85 year old Philip Klass who died was a different 85 year old Philip Klass than the pseudonymous "William Tenn". Who is also an 85 year old Philip Klass.

Not that this is any more or less sad. Oh bother.
posted by Justinian at 10:04 PM on August 15, 2005


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posted by Igor XA at 10:27 PM on August 15, 2005


shit, i feel like a heel now. i thought i read philip GLASS. i don't know who this guy is. but still, requiescat in pace.
posted by Igor XA at 10:30 PM on August 15, 2005


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I was involved with CSICOP for a number of years, when I lived in Chicago. I met Philip Klass on a number of occasions, and interrobang hit it right on the head with He was a great man, a fascinating thinker, and a classic smartass. He will be sorely missed.

I remember sitting with James Randi one night in my back yard not long after he won the MacArthur award, and he talked briefly about how he and others needed to find ways to inspire people to continue working on fighting ignorance (and the people who prey on it) after they were gone. I'm certainly glad that Randi has his Foundation going, and am sure he has provided for it's continued mission in the event of his death. Still it's not too late to acknowledge people like Penn Gillette and Teller, who very visibly get in the public's face about fraud and fakery, and are the best hope for attracting new blood.
posted by pjern at 10:40 PM on August 15, 2005


Dang it. The planet needs critical thinkers too much for them to be keeling over.
posted by brundlefly at 10:41 PM on August 15, 2005


Yeah, I heard Klass died a few days ago on "Coast-to-Coast AM." George Noory was characteristically good-hearted about it, but Klass always reminded me of the type of guy I saw today on a streetcorner. He was holding a sign that said, "THERE ARE NO GODS" while wearing a t-shirt that said on the back, "JESUS IS PRETEND." In other words, someone who contributed more heat than light.

Even though I would take anything Jerome Clark has to say with a big-ass grain of salt in regards to Forteana and UFOs, there is a kernel of truth in what he says about Klass, thoug maybe not in the way that he realizes. Klass was someone who was, in many ways, a mirror image of Clark, both people who held very tightly to their largely dubious hypothesies, the "undiscovered ball lightning" of Klass and the ET hypothesis of Clark. Both are quick to attack, and it is not to Klass's credit that, like many others who venture into the field, Klass and CSICOP have gotten emboriled in the internicine and petty infighting that is also endemic to the Fortean and UFO community. (i.e., the Seckel/SCS affair, to name one.)

In my readings, Klass did little that was not done or could not be done by other better, more level-headed, and less vitrolic sceptics and debunkers. The Maury Island affair, of June, 1947, one of the most famous UFO sigthings that's elements had a huge impact on ufology and UFO folklore, was debunked and explained by John Keel, not someone anyone could accuse of being a close-minded CSICOP drone. There are plenty of people in the field already who debunk and explain cases perfectly well without resorting to bizarre theories or personal hobby-horses.

Forteana needs less Klasses and more Hyneks. Even Jenny Randles, or John Keel, who has is own theories for Fortean phenomana, and who has shown evidence of his own credulity, (namely, the Vadig case, talked about in The Mothman Prophecies,) dosen't seem to let that get in the way of actual research and reporting. It's the one's who stop at nothing to try to fit everything into a very small and usually shaky theory that we need less of in the Fortean and UFO community, as there are two many idelouges and egotists there already, on both sides.
posted by Snyder at 11:19 PM on August 15, 2005


My only experience with Klass was seeing clips/interviews of him on TV.

He always sounded like a pompous, angry jerk to me. I never remember hearing him say anything very interesting, funny or productive.

I wonder if he hadn't become a professional cynic, rather then a critical thinker.

I won't miss seeing him. Good riddance to him, the world could use less jerks.
posted by joedharma at 11:20 PM on August 15, 2005


It was the aliens that done him in!
posted by TwelveTwo at 11:22 PM on August 15, 2005


Although longing for a lucid and eloquent skeptical voice, my lasting impression of Klass was of somebody who delivered 99 parts of mockery and ridicule for every 1 part elegant, skeptical argument and, ultimately, did absolutely nothing of significance that I am aware of to either furthur the skeptical position or shed new light on the subject as a whole. Klass became the guy who just repeated the talking points even when the talking points seemed irrelevant to a particular case in question. Perhaps there is a certain honor is this to some but I wish he had put more effort into it.

However, I think he is likely to be exactly right with his parting curse so I guess I can't fault him too much.
posted by well_balanced at 12:29 AM on August 16, 2005


Klass would've felt right at home on MeFi.
posted by alumshubby at 3:38 AM on August 16, 2005


What was Klass's opinion regarding the likelihood of extraterrestrial intelligent life somewhere out in the universe? I'll agree that most people who claim "close encounters" are probably speaking untruthfully, and that it's very unlikely that this planet has ever had contact with extraterrestrial life-- and even more unlikely that the government is somehow covering it up-- but to unreservedly claim, as some "debunkers" do, that the Earth is the only planet on which conscious life has evolved has always struck me as the height of hubris.
posted by Faint of Butt at 5:49 AM on August 16, 2005


Klass was someone who was, in many ways, a mirror image of Clark, both people who held very tightly to their largely dubious hypothesies

How can both "P: aliens are visting Earth" and "P: aliens are not visiting Earth" be dubious hypotheses? One of the statements is correct, and all evidence points to the latter.

to unreservedly claim, as some "debunkers" do, that the Earth is the only planet on which conscious life has evolved has always struck me as the height of hubris.

I don't believe Klass had taken that position. If I am mistaken, please point out a quote of his that says as such.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 6:53 AM on August 16, 2005


I won't miss seeing him. Good riddance to him, the world could use less jerks.

Yeah, celebrating a man's death is such a classy, non-jerk move.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 6:54 AM on August 16, 2005


It seems to me that in his "curse" that he is admitting that ufos are real, but that the proof would not be found. And doesn't it seem weird to anyone else that this debunker and supposed man of the god of science would even engage in making a curse? Of course his supporters are going to say it was him having a last laugh but I suspect something deeper about the mans psyche showing through this statement. btw I have never heard of this guy so just put away any "ax grinding" comments you may be working up to fling at me!
posted by Yer-Ol-Pal at 7:37 AM on August 16, 2005


It seems to me that in his "curse" that he is admitting that ufos are real, but that the proof would not be found.

Uh, no.

And doesn't it seem weird to anyone else that this debunker and supposed man of the god of science would even engage in making a curse?

Again, no. Sometimes people make jokes. The funny part is that this curse requires no voodoo claptrap or rituals, just the knowledge that there is no evidence for alien visitation.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 7:53 AM on August 16, 2005


Yer-Ol-Pal, I think his point was supposed to be that since there are no UFO's, the ufoites won't ever find what they're looking for. They can't find out more about something that didn't happen.
posted by unreason at 8:01 AM on August 16, 2005


How can both "P: aliens are visting Earth" and "P: aliens are not visiting Earth" be dubious hypotheses? One of the statements is correct, and all evidence points to the latter.

I won't get into why the ET hypothesis is a weak explanation for UFOs and other unexplained phenomena, but Klass's hypothesis wasn't just "aliens are not visiting the earth," but that many otherwise unexplained UFOs were generally a heretofore unknown form of ball lightning, (or rather, super-heated plasma,) which has some problems as an explanation, as you can see from reading the wikipedia link. Essentially, he approached the phenomena and any case he examined with the a priori idea that the were entierly explicable by his theories or explanations. Not a good investigator. Same thing as Clark does, really, though Clark has, IMO, a less supportable thesis, but neither really contribute anything to the proper investigation of UFOs.
posted by Snyder at 8:12 AM on August 16, 2005


Oh, and while I'm not particularly glad he's dead, I won't mourn a whit either, and am pleased he won't be around anymore to confuse the issue and smear people who dare to disagree. Why do you have a problem with people celebrating a death, Optimus?
posted by Snyder at 8:17 AM on August 16, 2005


Yer-Ol-Pal, I think his point was supposed to be that since there are no UFO's, the ufoites won't ever find what they're looking for. They can't find out more about something that didn't happen.


So, everything ever seen in the sky has been identified, either at the time, or later?
posted by Snyder at 8:21 AM on August 16, 2005


So, everything ever seen in the sky has been identified, either at the time, or later?

Snyder, I believe that Klass's thoughts were along these lines of logic:

1. There are no UFO's.
2. If you see something, and don't know what it is, you know nothing more than you did before about UFOs.
3. If you see something, and do know what it is, then it's not a UFO (see number 1), and therefore you know nothing more than you did before about UFOs.

Hence, if there are no UFO's, these folks will never know anything more about them.
posted by unreason at 8:35 AM on August 16, 2005


Why do you have a problem with people celebrating a death, Optimus?

Because he wasn't an evil man, no matter how you look at it. He wasn't a murderer, a rapist, a war criminal. He was a man who debunked crazy ufo visitation theories. Just because he wasn't always kind about it doesn't mean you should be happy he's dead, you sick fuck.

So, everything ever seen in the sky has been identified, either at the time, or later?

First: it's clear that the term "UFO" is commonly understood to mean both literally "Unidentified Flying Object," as well as "alien spacecraft." It's contextual, and you know it. It seems as if your problems with Klass - obfuscation and intellectual dishonesty - are the same problems you have.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 8:37 AM on August 16, 2005


He wasn't a murderer, a rapist, a war criminal. He was a man who debunked crazy ufo visitation theories.

Neither was the dead pope. Perhaps it would be more apporpiate if I responded in your manner in that thread?

Just because he wasn't always kind about it doesn't mean you should be happy he's dead, you sick fuck.

Ok, was that really neccessary? One, not being "kind" is an understatement, which you would get if you read the links, and wasn't, as I said, the sole reason I'm not all torn up about his death. Seems your also into the "Critical Thinking=Attacking and insulting anyone who dosen't toe your line."

First: it's clear that the term "UFO" is commonly understood to mean both literally "Unidentified Flying Object," as well as "alien spacecraft." It's contextual, and you know it.

Yup, I do. Which is why I was using it in the context Klass did in his 'curse'. Do you think Klass thought he was investigating things that never existed?

It seems as if your problems with Klass - obfuscation and intellectual dishonesty - are the same problems you have.

Nope, I just like clarity, and try to use them clearly. If people aren't using them clearly, I try to clairfy to understand what they are saying. The word UFO has become, to a degree, a muddied word, largely based on the unfortunate dominance of the ET hypothesis in American/European ufology. This can lead to confused thinking, since if someone can feel that the ET hypothesis is debunked, then UFOs are explained, hence UFOs don't exist. This is simply incorrect. If someone wants to say aliens, or alien spaceships, or alien spaceships visting earth, then maybe they should say so.
posted by Snyder at 10:26 AM on August 16, 2005


Neither was the dead pope. Perhaps it would be more apporpiate if I responded in your manner in that thread?

If you want, I guess; go nuts. I view the Catholic Church's position on condoms as insane and murderous, so there you go.

The word UFO has become, to a degree, a muddied word, largely based on the unfortunate dominance of the ET hypothesis in American/European ufology. This can lead to confused thinking, since if someone can feel that the ET hypothesis is debunked, then UFOs are explained, hence UFOs don't exist

what
posted by Optimus Chyme at 10:30 AM on August 16, 2005


Are you really confused, or are you just being a jerk?
posted by Snyder at 10:46 AM on August 16, 2005


I have no idea what this means: "if someone can feel that the ET hypothesis is debunked, then UFOs are explained, hence UFOs don't exist."
posted by Optimus Chyme at 11:14 AM on August 16, 2005


he's dead, you sick fuck

Optimus, I'd like to ask that you please stop being a big, dumb jerk.
posted by joedharma at 12:20 PM on August 16, 2005


2. If you see something, and don't know what it is, you know nothing more than you did before about UFOs.

Number 2 doesn't make any sense. For instance, I once saw, with many other people, a huge weird green light fly over a lake. Now I know some things about UFOs I didn't before:
1) They are not just made up for attention
2) They are not completely imaginary; many people saw it
3) They sure do look weird.

Do I know anything more about aliens? No. There is no reason to think that thing was from another planet, or that it was a craft.
Do I know a little more about UFO's? Clearly, yes.
posted by sonofsamiam at 12:31 PM on August 16, 2005


Optimus, I'd like to ask that you please stop being a big, dumb jerk.
posted by joedharma at 12:20 PM PST on August 16


I won't miss seeing him. Good riddance to him, the world could use less jerks.
posted by joedharma at 11:20 PM PST on August 15

posted by Optimus Chyme at 1:39 PM on August 16, 2005


I have no idea what this means: "if someone can feel that the ET hypothesis is debunked, then UFOs are explained, hence UFOs don't exist."

It means that there are some who think that there is only one hypothetical explanation that's been posited for UFOs, namely, that they are alien craft, or slightly more broadly, that they are physical/mechanistic craft. If they feel this has been disproven, or that the evidence does not support this materialistic hypothesis, then 'UFOs' (in the popular term meaning mechanistic craft) don't exist. The thing is, UFOs, (as in actually honest-to-goodness inexblicable objects that are seen or otherwise detected,) do exist, and many hypothesis exist to explain them, some more credible, or at least more novel and thought-provoking, than the ET hypothesis, which is sadly still treated as the end and all and be all both among many ufologists (like Jerome Clark, for example,) and the general public as well, both believers and sceptics.
posted by Snyder at 1:47 PM on August 16, 2005


such a classy, non-jerk move.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 6:54 AM PST on August 16 [!]

doesn't mean you should be happy he's dead, you sick fuck.
Optimus Chyme at 8:37 AM PST on August 16 [!

If you want, I guess; go nuts
posted by Optimus Chyme at 10:30 AM

posted by joedharma at 2:12 PM on August 16, 2005


We can already read those comments, guys.
posted by sonofsamiam at 2:16 PM on August 16, 2005


sonofsamiam:

I agree with your comments regarding the light you saw over the lake.

I don't think it's particularly empirical to say, as Klass generalized, that either

1) there's a "prosaic" explanation for the observation you made or

2) that you (and everyone else who observed the phenomenon) are crazy or hoaxers

Scientifically, it seems to me that you saw something that didn't have an easy, conventional explanation. Clearly that doesn't mean that it was a craft from another planet, but neither does it mean that it was Venus or a meteor.

I recall that pilots and astronauts had been observing and reporting Sprites (reverse lightening) for many years. In fact, many pilots apparently stopped officially reporting their observations because of skepticism in the scientific community. Most scientists said that reverse lightening did not exist and rejected the many eyewitness accounts of trained observers.

It was only when the Sprites were recorded on video tape that the phenomenon was taken seriously by scientists.
posted by joedharma at 3:16 PM on August 16, 2005


joedharma: Um, don't sprites caunt as a prosaic explanation?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:24 PM on August 16, 2005


Now they do, duh. Before it's discovery, reverse lightning was not prosaic.
posted by sonofsamiam at 3:43 PM on August 16, 2005


Don't sprites count as a prosaic explanation?

I think they count as a natural phenomenon (not human, or alien, artifact).

But I would think definitely NOT prosaic by definition; I don't belive an unusual phenomenon undiscovered by science (i.e. Sprite) would be considered "normal" or "everyday."
posted by joedharma at 4:20 PM on August 16, 2005


I've been itching to stay out of this but it isn't working.

Many reports of unexplained aerial phenomena either 1) come from crackpots or 2) come from credible people who've seen something that doesn't have a clear explanation.

Many of the phenomena reported by the 2) group are eventually resolved. Not all of them, though.

I know a great deal about the evidence that exists, and I assure you that there really are some credible, unexplained reports left. However, before you all jump on me, I'll concede that the remainder isn't really accessible to science.

This can in no way be interpreted as discrediting either the reports or science itself.

Rather, it has to do with the nature of scientific progress. What we think of as scientific knowledge is the evolving consensus of a community of researchers who build on and gradually extend each others' work by minute replications and refinements. There's no place in the scientific community for outlying bits and pieces.

It's not so farfetched to think there might be other intelligences out there with an interest in us. (Carl Sagan thinks so, though he seems bizarrely confident they'll be using certain kinds of signals to get in touch.) Nor is it so farfetched to think they might be among us -- either travellers from afar, or inhabitants of dimensions that physicists assure us make sense to consider. Should we be scurrying around trying to determine if this is so? Perhaps not; science, as the gatekeeper for what our culture considers credible, can't in good conscience do it.

Respectfully, without slamming on some poor dead guy, I feel obliged to point out that there's nothing skeptical about "debunking" -- it's inherently a pretty biased exercise. Klass's brand of it seems oddly motivated to boot. Why would anyone would be so passionately upset by a possible explanation for unexplained phenomena as to ridicule and curse its proponents?
posted by tangerine at 12:25 AM on August 17, 2005


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