Jul 01 2024

BBC Gets Into UFOs

Paranormal phenomena tend to wax and wane in the public interest. Typically a generation will become fascinated with a topic, but eventually the novelty will wear thin and interest will fade. But the flame will be kept alive by the hardcore believers. Wait long enough, and interest will come around again. We are seeing this today with UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects, now technically terms UAPs or Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena).

Not surprisingly the BBC wants to get in on this UFO action, and they are doing that with their Paranormal series, which they are promoting on their news outlet. They clearly are trying to remain respectable, and not completely abandon their journalistic integrity, but they predictably fall for all the usual fallacies that skeptics have explained many times over decades.

They focus on an incident in Wales in 1977 at the Broad Haven elementary school. This is often referred to as the Roswell of Wales. There were reports that day of something strange going on, including a silver humanoid walking around town, and possible UFO sightings. Some of the students thought they saw something in a field near the school’s playground, and many students then went out to take a look. What UFO believers point to as “compelling” evidence that they saw an actual space craft is that the students, under questioning by the school staff, all drew similar images of what they saw – a pretty typical flying saucer. The BBC captions a picture of some of these drawings: “The children reportedly drew near identical images of the UFO, which captured widespread media attention.”

This is where subjectivity comes in to bias reporting. What the BBC calls “near identical images” I would consider vaguely similar images. This is where scientific and critical thinking comes in. Scientists often have to address the question of whether or no similar phenomena have a common origin. Do two species with a similar feature derive that feature from a common ancestor? Are the pyramids of the Americas and the pyramids of Egypt related? The standard method for determining a common origin amount to the details – do the phenomena share details that would defy coincidence? With the pyramids the answer is clearly no – they look superficially similar, but not in details.

Look at the UFO drawings. They are all variations on a common flying saucer theme, but do not match in any significant details. Perhaps most importantly, there are no new details, not already part of UFO lore, that are shared by the drawings. How come they match at all? Because the flying saucer was already part of the culture. We generally underestimate how pervasive culture is, and how much even young children absorb. They drew flying saucers because that’s what UFOs look like.

In other similar cases children have eventually come out (often as adults) and admitted they started the whole thing by making up a sighting, but then the other students joined in. No one has come forward in the Broad Haven case, but that is not surprising. Perhaps no one did make it up, and it started with a genuine sighting of something the child could not identify, and that triggered the rest. Harrier jets were in operation in the area. The military did come in and investigate the site and found no evidence of anything physical. And someone did later come forward to admit they walked around town that day in a silver firefighting suit as a prank, which was likely the trigger of the whole episode.

We may not have a complete and rock solid explanation for exactly what happened that day – but we also have no compelling evidence that there was alien activity there, and there are plenty of mundane explanations that cannot be ruled out, and fit the available evidence quite well.

There is another point worth emphasizing. The BBC reports: “And one aerospace expert tells the BBC that in 2024, thanks to everyone having a phone in their pocket and many people using apps to follow air traffic, we are in ‘a much stronger position to be able to track what’s known and what’s unknown’.”

We are also in a much stronger position to conclude that aliens are not visiting the Earth, at least not grays zipping around in flying saucers and occasionally crashing. Like many such phenomena, time is a great test. In 1967 with the Patterson-Gimlin film of an apparent Bigfoot, one might be forgiven for thinking that it’s possible for a population of large primates to be living in the Pacific Northwest that has so far evaded scientific detection. But here we are, almost 60 years later, and we still do not have a shred of hard evidence for Bigfoot. If Atlantis existed, by now there would be museums full of Atlantean artifacts. If there were a JFK assassination conspiracy, that would likely have been declassified by now. If the moon landings were hoaxed, that lie would have been exposed a long time ago.

And of course, if aliens were buzzing the Earth, the existence of so many smart phones would dramatically increase the chance of someone catching a good photo or video, one that withstands technical examination. But we have nothing – not one solid piece of evidence. We are still living in the same realm of fuzzy evidence – because, as I often say, the ambiguity is the phenomenon. If UFOs were alien, then the evidence should get better over time. If the fuzziness is the phenomenon, then it should remain so, because whenever the evidence is more clear it turns out to be something identifiable and mundane.

This is one explanation for the cycle. I do thing that “the public” gets bored with specific paranormal phenomena because there is nothing there. The excitement is largely around the idea that a revelation is right around the corner. It makes sense – a revelation should be coming soon if something so big were actually happening. You can only string people out for so long, because they move one. They may still think there is something to it, but the emotional connection and excitement fade. There are ghost hunting shows where they never, ever, find a ghost. There are bigfoot hunting shows where they never find a bigfoot. Paranormal shows are entirely about mystery, about the unknown. They are a giant tease, and the audience is made to feel as if the hammer is about to fall. But it never does.

People get bored, and the phenomenon recedes to the shadows where it awaits a new naive generation that can become infatuated with the mystery all over again.

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