Nov 12 2012

Bugged by UFOs

UK UFO enthusiasts recently called a meeting to discuss the future of the UFO movement, specifically whether or not there is going to be one. Numbers of groups and members are plummeting as enthusiasm for talking about the latest Chinese lantern to be misidentified as a flying saucer is waning.

If history is any guide this is just a temporary generational downturn, and interest in UFOs will eventually rebound. It is possible, however, that the most recent decline is more than just the usual cycle. Perhaps the internet has changed the game, allowing for rapid turnaround of possible UFO stories. Before the ink would be dry on traditional print media, the new social media can debunk UFO stories and nip them in the bud.

Here is an excellent example: Mile High mystery: UFO sightings in sky over Denver. The beginning of the news report (it is just crappy local news, but it’s a Fox affiliate which means such stories can be picked up nationally) has all the red flags for sensational mystery mongering:

Strange objects caught on camera flying over the city and nobody can explain it.

We first learned about these sightings when a metro area man, who does not want to be identified brought us his home video. He captured the images on his digital camera from a hilltop in Federal Heights looking south toward downtown Denver.

He said, “The flying objects appear around noon or 1:00 p.m. at least a couple of times a week.” The strangest part is they are flying too fast to see with the naked eye, but when we slowed down the video, several UFOs appear.

The objects are not so strange, they actually are not appearing “over” the city, and there are probably millions of people who can explain it. The fact that the source of the video of the “UFOs” would not be identified is a problem. Finally we learn that no one actually saw the UFOs – they were only noticeable after reviewing the video, which itself is a red flag that perhaps this is a common video phenomenon, not an uncommon UFO phenomenon.

Take a look at the video and try to figure out what it is before reading further.

OK – everybody now… it’s bugs.  This bug-UFO is especially bad because on some of the shots the insect actually hovers and moves around like an obvious insect. The videographer did not notice them because they were small fast-flying insects. Or perhaps they did notice the insects, but did not connect them to the unfocused black dots buzzing about on the video. It is also possible they know exactly what they are, but is just pranking  the local news station (hence the anonymity).

One or two shots in there are probably birds. You can see an apparent wing flap. Birds and bugs are common sources of UFO artifacts in the video age. They are small objects close to the camera that will appear as out-of-focus dots and streaks that can be mistaken (by the willful or truly incurious) for objects that are large and farther away. The fact that no one saw them live and there was no radar tracking should be a clue, but for the believer can just add to the mystery.

The lameness of this video being presented in breathless terms as a compelling UFO might have something to do with the declining interest in UFOs. Anyone with a genuine interest – enough to join a UFO group and try to find real evidence that UFOs are visiting ETs, would probably get tired of all the bugs and lanterns after a while. The classic cases like Roswell can only be picked over so many times.  The signal to noise ratio in UFO reporting has always been low (I would argue, zero) but now there seems to be a high incidence of truly worthless evidence.

Another way to look at this is that as cameras and videos have become ubiquitous, one would think that if UFOs were a real alien phenomenon we would start to see an increasing amount of genuine and compelling digital evidence. This has not occurred, and rather we have seen an increase in low quality noise, like bugs, birds, and lanterns. As digital technology has advanced we have also seen an increase in digital fakes, but the same technology allows for their identification.

The internet makes all this happen very quickly. By the time someone sees a video online and then tells their friend about it, someone else in their group is likely to point them to a response video in which the source picture or video that was manipulated was found, revealing the whole thing as a fraud. This rapid turnaround means that when talking about such things in your social group it pays to be skeptical, otherwise you are likely to be on the embarrassing end of an exposed hoax or mistake. After a couple of episodes of being proved immediately and objectively wrong, many people might think, “Hmm…perhaps I should check this out on Snopes before I tell my friends we finally made contact with aliens and look like an idiot again.”

Being internet savvy is now part of being socially savvy, and being skeptical is an essential part of being internet savvy.

This is, at least, an optimistic view of things. I don’t think there has been a fundamental change in human nature, and interest in UFOs is not going to disappear. Perhaps it has moved a bit more onto the fringe. It can survive in the conspiracy community, like a virus that can survive in a non-human population only to return when resistance is low or it has mutated a new strain.

The equation has changed, however. Access to information has increased in amount and speed, allowing for rapid crowd sourcing of new claims. We are much less dependent on traditional media for our information, and stories can barely take root before they are destroyed by accurate information.

Fox31 and everyone involved in this story should be embarrassed by the sloppy and sensational reporting.  Because of the internet, they will be.

23 responses so far

23 thoughts on “Bugged by UFOs”

  1. Peter Wingate-Saul says:

    The real challenge is to identify the species of the camera owner, see partially and fleetingly in the foreground pointing at his UFOs.

    From the amount of body hair I would plump for Homo Heidelbergensis. But I guess it could be homo sapiens in a body wig.

  2. Kawarthajon says:

    Yes, one of the videos was definitely bug like. They were talking about the UFO flipping end over end, which many kinds of insects do while flying, like grasshoppers and flies caught in a gust of wind.

    The thing that amazes me is how UFO is automatically equated with alien technology. There are probably legitimate UFO’s out there – meaning things that we can’t identify and are flying. Just because we can’t identify it doesn’t mean that it is alien.

  3. SARA says:

    Is it just the title that makes you an investigative reporter? It is apparent that investigating is not what is required in order to be considered one.

  4. EO says:

    To your point, I tend to agree that the immediacy of the reaction on the internet to some of the lesser ‘evidence’ of UFOs can act to stamp it as absurd and dumb rather quickly.

    I think the concern is for an opposite reaction to a more sophisticated hoax or less explainable phenomena. I imagine the internet could exacerbate the reaction just as easily as it could damper it.

    That said, I am comforted once again that a good can of Cutter will word off the invaders!

  5. Bronze Dog says:

    I’ve been out of the UFOlogist loop, so I’ve been oblivious to trends. It’s encouraging, and I really hope skepticism is growing in this area.

    Of course, the crappy footage out there and the repetition of known errors makes it harder for people like me to blog about it, since what’s there to say other than the lastest video being another bug, orbs from dust, or whatever. Heck, the “weather balloon” jab they do is pretty outdated.

  6. Collin says:

    Good points, Steve. I think the news station is also assuming that the object in question is the same thing in each clip (as you mentioned, it could be a bug in one shot, and a bird in another).

    What’s frustrating me is the “Aviation expert” Steve Cowell, the “former commercial pilot, instructor and FAA accident prevention counselor”? Is this guy unreliable? And then the reporter at the story kept saying “and it’s not a bug, it’s not a bug,” and “don’t say bug, it’s not a bug.” Is this a form of response-driven well-poisoning? Question-begging, perhaps?

  7. norrisL says:

    A journalist’s job is to present a story, even if at the expense of truth

  8. norrisL says:

    And if there’s no story, just make one up

  9. norrisL says:

    Hmmm, must point out that this does not apply to good journos

  10. davidsmith says:

    Steven N said,

    “Another way to look at this is that as cameras and videos have become ubiquitous, one would think that if UFOs were a real alien phenomenon we would start to see an increasing amount of genuine and compelling digital evidence. This has not occurred, …”

    Really? Which particular longitudinal study on the quality of videographic UFO evidence are you refering to? Or are you simply guessing?

  11. Jim Shaver says:

    Collin, specifically, here’s what the reporter, Heidi Hemmat, said at the end of the report: “And it’s not a bug. People keep saying it’s a bug; it’s not a bug. That’s another one that he said, definitely not an insect.” And referring to the viewer tip line, she said, “I’m sure they will, but don’t say bugs, ’cause it’s not that.”

    Also, the anchorman introduced the story with this: “A strange object, caught on camera flying over the city, and nobody — I mean nobody — can explain what it is…”

    Seriously, these reporters have been told by so many people that the objects are bugs that they are fully exasperated with people telling them they are bugs, yet no one can explain what the phenomenon is? Interesting.

    Finally, Heidi began the segment with this classic: “When I first saw this video, I have to admit I was skeptical.” Heidi, the next time you think you’re being skeptical, try consulting an actual, you-know, skeptic. They are abundant, right there is Denver. Would your story not have been better if at the end you showed an interview with a knowledgeable skeptic or “UFO investigator”, who even demonstrated how he could precisely replicate the video using — wait for it — bugs?

  12. Bronze Dog says:

    Anecdotally, though my experience is more limited in recent years, the quality of “lasting” UFO videos has been pretty consistently low despite the ubiquity of cameras and the increase in quality. The high quality ones that do exist usually get caught using using stock 3D objects, camera trickery, and such pretty quickly and then vanish. The low quality ones don’t have corroborating footage, which would be consistent with bug hypotheses and similar.

    Last time I can recall encountering a UFOlogist, they linked to a bunch of YouTube videos that were slow motion pixelated closeups of dots against blue or black sky, with no comparison to the whole video where the zoom came from. Yeah, real convincing.

  13. Collin says:

    But again, what’s the story on the “Aviation expert,” Steve Cowell. They’re making an argument from authority with the “former commercial pilot, instructor and FAA accident prevention counselor”? The objects the lens picks up are most likely bugs and birds, but why is this guy so naive?

    He has a website for Cowell linked to from his Twitter account:

  14. davidsmith – fair point, my assessment is based on the fact that I have not seen such evidence, despite the fact that I regularly look for it and have a large audience of people who regularly send me such evidence (so I have a wide net of capture).

    I think it is fair for me to say that if anyone claims that the increase in availability of cameras and videos has resulted in an increase in evidence for alien spacecraft, they have the burden of showing that this is the case. No one, to my knowledge, has done that.

    A thorough survey would be best, either way. I am not aware of any, but will look again.

  15. steve12 says:

    “Really? Which particular longitudinal study on the quality of videographic UFO evidence are you refering to? Or are you simply guessing?”

    Steve, I think you’re being more accommodating to this point than you need to be.

    I don’t need a study t say that video capture devices of all sorts have become more common and better in quality, and I don’t need a study to say that we have no video proof of alien craft, bigfoot, ghosts, chubacabra, nessy etc.

  16. Aardwark says:

    I think that the ‘UFO’ subculture is, among other things, based upon a particular (unwarranted) assumption. It is the assumption that the meaning of the term ‘Unidentified Flying Object’ equals ‘extraterrestrial artifact’, ‘flying saucer’ or, at the very least, ‘unexplained phenomenon’.

    In fact, saying that something is a UFO, by definition, merely means that it is something that flies and cannot be identified at the moment.

    People see things that fly and that cannot readily be identified all the time. An insect is not just ‘mistaken’ for UFO, it IS a UFO (again by definition) for anyone who does not recognize that it is an insect – after being recognized, of course, it ceases to be a UFO. Same may be said of distant aircraft, unusual clouds or planets in the sky.

    In other words, UFO is a relational term – it is dependent on the observer/reporter being unable to identify it at the time.

    The problem is that to members of the UFO community the term means something other than just a thing that flies and is not recognized. And this is, of course, their ‘weakest link’ – the proposition ‘if you are not being able to say exactly what an object is, and it flies, then the object in question must necessarily be an alien spacecraft’ contains a clearly notable distortion of logic. Clearly notable, that is, for those who think sufficiently clearly to be able to note.

    There is, therefore, an amusing twist to the question ‘Do you believe in UFOs?’ A true skeptic can also rightfully define him/herself as a ‘UFO believer’ – one that honestly believes that UFOs are just what their name says – no more and no less. And those that consider themselves ‘UFO believers’ may also be designated ‘skeptics’, since they are skeptical about UFOs being just UFOs (as defined).

  17. DLC says:

    I watched the video at the TV station website, and saw 1 bird and about a dozen insects. The so-called “Aviation Expert” they interviewed was not an aerospace engineer or aircraft designer, but a former airline pilot. Hardly an expert witness.

  18. DLC says:

    Oh, and I note nobody interview an entomologist.

  19. DLC – I agree, I thought I saw one bird as well. The rest are obvious insects, probably bees. Bees tend to be most active at midday, and these “UFOs” are also most active at midday. Probably not a coincidence.

  20. Bronze Dog says:

    There is, therefore, an amusing twist to the question ‘Do you believe in UFOs?’ A true skeptic can also rightfully define him/herself as a ‘UFO believer’ – one that honestly believes that UFOs are just what their name says – no more and no less.

    That’s one reason why I like to say I don’t believe in “alien visitation.” The other factor is that if you say you believe in aliens, they assume you’re talking about the Greys riding around Earth’s atmosphere in flying saucers, and not, say, a high likelihood of bacteria on various planets scattered around the universe and maybe one sapient species or two in distant galaxies.

  21. sonic says:

    I don’t usually pay any attention to UFO stories; so this is my unrefined view:

    It seems the Fox people put together a good story (meaning good for ratings)- they have film footage and they have an ‘expert’ who has declared the objects to be UFO’s. The story has been covered in blogs and even has chimed in.

    Interesting to me–
    It seems the people who have watched the original footage on television quality monitors don’t think the images were made by bugs. They could be wrong obviously, but they probably have the best view of the situation.

    When I look at the video I see dots moving on the screen and I wonder if this is a new form of Rorschach test. 🙂
    Anyway, I don’t know what those dots are. I have lots of ideas about what they could be– certainly bugs would be in the running, but I don’t know for sure.

    I’ll bet you could make a video like this using any number of things– bugs, dust, video artifacts,… and that proves what, exactly?
    That it could be any number of things.

    Now I think this a perfect example of ‘unidentified flying objects’. It might not be possible to ever determine what made each of those dots.
    So I think if someone asks if there are UFO’s, I will use this as a fine example.

    Oh, and I will point-out that if someone knows it is an alien craft, then it isn’t a UFO.

    As an aside– I’m betting the reporter Heidi’s career is helped by this. What the stations want is ratings– and she has created a buzz with this one.

  22. BillyJoe7 says:

    Oh dear sonic, don’t you EVER reach a conclusion?
    I mean you are allowed to do that in science, really you are.
    It’s always provisional, but it is still a conclusion.

    Repeat after me: It’s bugs, bugs, bugs, bugs, bugs and bugs
    …oops, I missed the bird! (D

  23. DLC says:

    If I’m right, that video was shot from a farm field. Many people would think such a place to be desolate of life, but in truth there would be many animals and insects about. Particularly around planting or harvesting season, when fresh seeds or waste material were to be had. Particularly bees, which would be nearby anyway, for pollination purposes. I think what we’re seeing here is a lot of credulous reporters coupled with a UFO-believer initial report coupled with a not-so-expert expert. The result — an uncritical look at people seeing what they want to see.

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