I am constantly being sent links to YouTube videos or news reports of alleged video evidence. The classics are still the most common subjects – UFOs, ghosts, Bigfoot, with some recent additions such as the chupacabras. I guess these are the iconic types of misidentification. If you see something weird in the sky it’s a UFO, in the woods it’s Bigfoot, and in your home or some spooky place then it’s a ghost.
The formula is simple – start with a picture, video, or just sighting of a poorly defined object, or photographic artifact. This could be something at too great a distance to see clearly, or obscured by partial cover, or under poor viewing conditions, or just out of focus. Then you add the prevailing cultural belief of the observer with a pinch of the argument from ignorance, and you have a paranormal sighting. This process can be summarized as “believing is seeing.”
This process is made more obvious when people of different cultural backgrounds interpret the same basic experience according to their own cultural beliefs. A waking dream in one culture might be a visit from the Old Hag, while in another it is a demon, and in yet another it is an abducting little gray alien.
The UK has recently released some of its files on unidentified flying objects – UFOs. It does not appear that there is anything shocking in the reports. In the end it seems like the release will result in just another round of news headlines with “UFO” in the title, but nothing else.
The documents do provide further evidence for what I call the psychocultural hypothesis. UFO sightings and encounters are certainly an interesting group of phenomena – but are they evidence of anything alien. Many people I talk to (including a documentary producer just recently) are left with the sense that there must be something going on. No explanation seems satisfactory to explain all the accounts, and there is a residue of unexplained reports.
This is the “where there is smoke there is fire” argument. But I think it misses an important question – there may be fire (a phenomenon) but what kind of fire? I think the fire is a multifaceted psychocultural phenomenon.
Have you seen the latest viral UFO video – this purports to be of a UFO spotted hovering over the Dome of the Rock Temple Mount in Jerusalem. This is actually presented as confirmatory evidence of a previous UFO video of the same location. Viral videos are a great opportunity for a little “armchair skepticism” – applying critical thinking to assess the logic and probability of a claim and to think of potential alternate explanations for what is being claimed. If you are ambitious you can then follow up with some actual investigation, or at least see if someone else has.
I also like to think about how an individual case fits into the bigger picture. What patterns of behavior does this reflect? First take a look at the videos and we’ll analyze them for plausibility.
The first video I linked to above seems superficially compelling. At least it does not seem like any natural or mundane phenomenon. It’s not a helicopter, flare, floating lantern, or ultralight. It’s not a re-entering satellite, or an out-of-focus blimp. But also – it does not look like an alien spacecraft, meaning that we are not seeing details of what can only be a technologically advanced craft. What we are seeing is a pulsating blob of light. Blobs of light, no matter what they appear to do, are never compelling because you cannot tell what they actually are. You also often cannot tell size, distance, and speed. Blobs of light are common photographic artifacts. They are also easy to fake.
On a regular basis I am sent links to YouTube to review the latest UFO video footage. Most often it is by a fellow skeptic who just wants to share the latest crappy evidence being offered by the UFO community. Sometimes the links are sent by readers who are perplexed and are looking for an explanation, and occasionally they are sent by UFO believers as a challenge.
The YouTube UFO phenomenon (or “YouFOs” – yes, I just coined that) is a good way for budding skeptics to practice their skilz. This is purely armchair skepticism, unless you want to do some actual investigation, which can be fun too. But armchair skepticism has its place – it is an exercise in logic and plausibility. Someone is presenting you with evidence and you analyze it critically. You may not have the time or resources to do investigative journalism, or to replicate experiments. But asking good critical questions is an essential part of science, and since the burden of proof is on those making the claim it seems reasonable that they should be able to answer our questions.
As many of my readers/listeners know, I am an amateur birder. What this means is that if I see a bird at my feeder (or anywhere, for that matter) it immediately captures my interest. If my camera is handy, I will reach for it as fast as I can (having a permanent picture to consult makes later identification much easier). Of course, if I see a bird I cannot identify I don’t assume it is the controversial ivory-billed woodpecker, and I certainly would not claim it is a phoenix or something supernatural.
Likewise, if you look up into the sky and see a light or even an object you cannot identify, that is an interesting experience, and is certainly worth grabbing your camera. But (as skeptics are fond of pointing out) your inability to identify the object does not mean it is an alien spacecraft.
It does mean, apparently, that local news stations will show up to grab some video and interview witnesses so they can write headlines like, “Local witnesses baffled by UFO.” To the media, any strange light in the sky is a UFO.
I am away this week filming the pilot for The Skeptologists. For NeuroLogica this week I am updating and editing some previous essays that I have written. This one was originally published in my Weird Science column in July 2005.
Several years ago a “crop circle” (actually a crop square) appeared in Martha Bailey’s cornfield in New Milford, CT. Her field is surrounded by a 7-foot-tall fence of chicken wire and wood. Overnight, in the middle of the field, a “perfect” square of flattened down corn appeared. According to Martha, “Everything was secure, the gates were locked, [so] it had to be something that touched down and flattened it.”
By something, she probably meant an extraterrestrial landing ship. Rather than looking for simpler explanations-like, say, someone climbing a chickenwire fence-believers in crop circles often posit visits from aliens or other paranormal explanations. And, perhaps fueled by pop-culture references like the 1999 M. Night Shyamalan movie Signs , the ranks of believers are growing. For the last couple of decades, mainly in English-speaking nations, summer brings with it an increasing number of ever-more-elaborate pictures made in large fields of wheat and other crops. Crop circle season exactly coincides-amazingly-with the end of school and the beginning of summer vacation.
Crop circles began appearing in England in the early 1980s. At first they were little more than giant simple circles in wheat fields. Over the years they have become more intricate and complex. Many recent crop circles resemble beautiful spirograph-like pictures. Over time, the circles spread from England to America, Australia and other English-speaking countries. They later spread to other European lands and, recently, into Asia as well.
I am away this week filming the pilot for The Skeptologists. For NeuroLogica this week I am updating and editing some previous essays that I have written. This one was originally published in my Weird Science column in February 2005.
I once saw a UFO. That is, I saw an object in the sky I couldn’t identify. Chances are you have too, probably more than once. What I saw were lights in a large “V” shape, moving silently, too slow to be a plane, moving out of view after about 10 minutes. Was it a flying saucer, an alien spacecraft, a time-traveling psychic Bigfoot, or perhaps something more prosaic-something boring?
There are thousands of reported UFO sightings each year, and in this digital age you can easily find numerous pictures and video clips on the internet. Does this mean we are being visited by alien spacecraft? Probably not.
After more than half a century of fascination with flying saucers, there has yet to emerge a single piece of credible evidence that we are being visited by aliens. There isn’t one unambiguous photograph or video that holds up to scientific scrutiny, not one piece of physical evidence. No smoking saucer.
When I heard a long segment reporting on the recent UFO sighting over Stephenville, Texas on NPR I knew this was one UFO story that was getting a lot of media play. Such sightings are common, and often make a small splash in local media, but for some reason this story was making the mainstream media rounds.
The residents of Stephenville, Texas, claim to have seen a UFO, described as a mile-wide, silent object with bright lights, flying low and fast. So what was it?
What did the residents really see? Actually, they do not describe seeing a spaceship or any kind of craft or even a solid object. What they saw, by their own accounts, were lights in the sky. Common optical illusions and a dab of imagination did the rest.
On February 9, 1971 Edgar Mitchell (along with Alan Shepard) as part of the Apollo 14 mission walked on the moon. Astronauts are the rock stars of space exploration. The Apollo missions were genuinely hazardous and required a tremendous amount of physical prowess, skill, and training. So Mitchell deserves respect as a true and brave hero.
Unfortunately, this also means that whenever Mitchell utters anything controversial, no matter how absurd, the press will be there to report on what this astronaut says – primarily because they can then run a headline that reads “Astronaut Says.”
Here is a recent example, “Astronaut: We’ve Had Visitors.” Now, reading this headline you might be tempted to think that this astronaut (Mitchell) is revealing some first hand knowledge of NASA’s involvement with aliens – and you would be wrong. You might also assume, recklessly, that the astronaut has some new evidence to back up these claims, and again you would be disappointed.
On November 7th about a dozen United Airlines employees, including a few pilots, claim they saw an unusual disc-shaped object in the sky over O’hare International Airport, Chicago. The witnesses insist that what they saw was not a terrestrial aircraft of any kind, that it was anywhere from 6-24 feet in diameter, and that after hovering for a few minutes it vanished at impossible speed through the clouds.
Should we find it compelling that all of the witnesses insist that what they saw was real and that it was clearly visible? Should we lend credibility to the fact that some of the witnesses were airline pilots? How about the fact that the witnesses all seem sincere and were emotionally affected by the experience?
No. Because despite all this the witnesses suffer from a critical flaw that makes them unreliable as eye witnesses. They are human. Continue Reading »