Skeptics and believers to explore the truth about UFOs in new Teach-Out

UFO historians, skeptics, scientists and researchers come together to explore the UFO phenomenon

Sean Corp, Content Strategist

Front page of Michigan Daily News from Wednesday, March 23, 1966.

If you know the phrase, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” you indirectly know the work of J. Allen Hynek. Hynek was an astrophysicist at Northwestern who later developed the famous classification system for UFO sightings, but before he became a UFO researcher and believer, he was a scientist who visited Dexter, Michigan in March of 1966 to look into reports of strange lights and floating discs.

It also means you might have heard the phrase “swamp gas,” a common explanation for unexplained sightings and the infamous explanation given for the events that night in Dexter.

‘Swamp Gas’ in Dexter?

At the time a U.S. Air Force scientific consultant working on what would later be called Project Blue Book, Hynek said he could not explain the strange phenomena. Later, after receiving a call from Washington, D.C., he determined that the sightings were a result of “swamp gas.” 

Just before the 66th anniversary of Michigan’s most famous UFO sighting, the University of Michigan’s Center for Academic Innovation is launching the UFOs: Scanning the Skies Teach-Out. The Teach-Out is a free and open online learning event that looks to unpack the myths and facts surrounding UFOs.

As part of the Teach-Out, CAI created a short documentary on the Dexter UFO sighting presented by Lara Zielin, editorial director of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library and featuring archival footage and perspectives of former Washtenaw County Sheriff Douglas Harvey and former deputy Roy Couch about their experience. 

Lara Zielin, editorial director of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library, discusses the 1966 UFO sighting in Dexter, Michigan.

Harvey remains skeptical of the swamp gas explanation. 

“A few minutes ago you didn’t know what it was, but now you know that it’s swamp gas because you talked to Washington? He says, ‘I was told to say this,’ ” 

former Washtenaw County Sheriff Douglas Harvey

“A few minutes ago you didn’t know what it was, but now you know that it’s swamp gas because you talked to Washington? He says, ‘I was told to say this,’ ” Harvey says in the documentary. 

Learn How to Analyze Videos of UFOs

The full Teach-Out invites learners to apply video analysis practices to UFO videos, understand what makes a compelling UFO report and discover how the larger UFO discussion relates to science and society. The Teach-Out features videos from experts, scientists and researchers, companion readings and online discussions. 

Among the expert voices taking part in the Teach-Out are Bill Murphy, board member of the J. Allen Hynek Center for UFO Studies, Mick West, a conspiracy analyst and skeptical investigator who created Metabunk.org, and Bill Konkolesky, Michigan director of the Mutual UFO Network

For an academic perspective on the resilient popularity of the UFO phenomenon is Greg Eghigian, professor of history at Penn State University who is also currently writing a book on the history of UFOs in the United States. Also lending their expertise are Iain Boyd, a professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder, whose research is centered on computational modeling of gases, and Chris Impey, professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona. 

While UFOs are a popular topic the world over, one of the forgotten histories within Michigan itself is the 1966 UFO sighting over Dexter and near Hillsdale college. Sheriff’s deputies spoke to Frank Mannor and his son, and strange sightings were corroborated by others, including officers. 

Project Blue Book

The incident gained national attention and eventually led to the invitation of Hynek to the area by congressman Weston Vivian. The swamp gas explanation did little to quell interest and belief in UFOs, and eventually the Condon Committee was formed examining hundreds of UFO files from the Air Force’s project Blue Book. 

Interest in UFOs has recently been renewed when the U.S. government released a report on UFOs in July 2021.  

For his part, Hynek eventually went from skeptic to believer. As recounted by Zielin, Hynek determined, “sure, I mean, there is a chance that everyone is lying, insane or having a collective hallucination, but he certainly doesn’t think so.” 

The UFOs: Scanning the Skies Teach-Out is free and available to anyone interested in learning more about UFOs whether they are a skeptic or a believer, and no prior knowledge of UFO study is required to fully participate and immerse yourself in the online learning event. 

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