You’ve probably heard a lot about the “Skinwalker Ranch” lately. Between swirling blue lights, cattle mutilations, Bigfoot stepping through a dimensional door, and just about every weird/paranormal trope ever supposedly occurring on the nearly 500-acre Utah property, you might wonder why it’s taken this long.
I mean, Project Blue Book investigated it back in the ’50s! Except no, despite the History Channel’s dramatized series of the same name having J. Allen Hynek and Michael Quinn (a stand-in for actual Blue Book director Edward J. Ruppelt) show up and poke around in a recent episode, stories surrounding the ranch (and that’s all they are, as there isn’t a single piece of evidence or even a blurry photo for any of it) didn’t really start circulating until Bob Lazaar-popularizer George Knapp got hold of it in 1996.
So why cram it into a historical pseudo-fiction show taking place 40 years earlier? What? History Channel’s Curse of Oak Island-esque pretend investigation series on the Skinwalker Ranch debuted less than a month later? Oh. I see.
But forget all that; the most interesting thing about the “Curse of the Skinwalker” episode of Project Blue Book, one that you probably didn’t catch, was how Hynek and Quinn debunked all the strange happenings — by invoking something called the “tectonic strain theory” (TST).
Developed in part by geophysicist John Derr, the TST holds that earthquakes and other seismic events may be the true cause of UFOs. If that sounds weird, consider that plenty of other luminous phenomena have been attributed to the Earth’s activities, including above-thunderstorm red sprites and blue jets and ball lightning (which has also been used to explain some UFO reports, though proof of its own existence is hard to obtain).
On about the same level of scientific acceptance as ball lightning is the more grounded (get it?) phenomenon of earthquake lights which, on the surface (okay, I’ll stop now) might not seem all that different from the TST. Luminosity occurring before, during, or after large earthquakes has been reported throughout history, with varied presentations such as sheets, columns, diffuse patches of light and, yes, floating balls.
Possible mechanisms proposed that might create such things include piezoelectricity (the charge produced when quartz and other materials are subjected to stress) and the idea favored by geologist and weird stuff-researcher Sharon Hill, the “peroxy defect” hypothesis. Peroxy defects occur when oxygen molecules in rocks are bonded differently than usual. Stress causes those bonds to break, releasing positively-charged particles that could flow to the surface and ionize the nearby air, creating visible light.
The TST kind of piggybacks on that, but you can probably see the problem there. Balls of light, sure, but no one’s calling the United States Geological Survey to report flying saucers, giant black triangles, and ships with windows in them around the time and place of an earthquake. And what about the stories of alien abduction?
That’s where the late psychologist Michael Persinger picked up the baton. Persinger actually became the public champion of the TST, and how the electromagnetic fields created by these phenomena might affect the human brain. Plugging electrodes onto something he called the “god helmet,” Persinger ran laboratory experiments that exposed the temporal lobes of test subjects to magnetic fields similar to those usually produced in the brain.
The temporal lobe has a lot to do with creating our overall sensory experience. It pretty much handles all the sound input, and seems to deal with the more complex visual data, like faces. It’s thought the temporal lobe also plays roles in language recognition and long term memory. It should be no surprise, then, that disorders of the area — like schizophrenia and temporal lobe epilepsy — can cause the hearing of voices as well as visual, and even olfactory hallucinations.
Over 30 years, the test subjects Persinger put his god helmet on reported religious experiences, visions of ghosts or smeared-out gray beings, and decades-old memories popping up. Persinger was convinced that earthquake-generated UFOs could cause a similar effect, which gets taken to the extreme outside the safety of the laboratory where a person understands what’s happening, causing the perception of hauntings, alien abductions, and even psychic powers.
So that’s it, huh? Everything strange you could ever imagine is caused by some rumbles beneath our feet? No wonder Project Blue Book used it for the Skinwalker Ranch. But as anyone who follows quack medicine knows, if someone promotes a “one true cause” for everything, you should be suspicious.
That “trying to do too much” has further been highlighted by UFO researcher Chris Rutkowski, who’s written about the TST in-depth and points out that one of the major differences it has with earthquake lights is that Persinger extended the range of the phenomenon from “pretty close to the epicenter” to over a hundred miles away. He also included low magnitude seismic events and claimed there could be lag after bigger ones before a sighting occurred, all of which sounds like fitting the data to the theory, not the other way around.
Despite all that gerrymandering to match as many UFO sightings with earthquakes as possible, research by Rutkowski in his home region of Manitoba, Canada, amazingly showed an opposite effect. Waves of UFO sightings over the years there could not be correlated with the locations of fault lines, even using Persinger’s generous parameters.
The TST might be attractive to people who think the extraterrestrial hypothesis of UFOs is ridiculous, but still believe there’s something “out there” to be explained. When you consider that the sources of 95% of all UFO reports are eventually identified, and misperceptions and lack of information are pretty good culprits for the remaining 5%, it may be an explanation in search of a mystery. Even if there is something “to” UFOs, despite its terrestrial attractiveness, the TST seems to fail in practice.
The world is scary right now, even more than usual. That’s why, for the next few weeks, AIPT Science is taking skepticism back to its roots with some more lighthearted fare. Keep coming back for stories on ghosts, UFOs, Bigfoot, and everything in-between, in OUR NEW PARANORMAL.