Mar 29 2011

Video Evidence

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.

Now that cameras are nearly ubiquitous there has been an explosion of poor quality ambiguous pictures and videos. There are probably a lot of high quality unambiguous pictures and videos also, but these don’t make the local news because they are unambiguously mundane. Also thrown into the mix are hoaxes. There are higher quality, but there is always something wrong about them – the signs of Photoshop or similar software manipulation are evident. The fakes also tend to have a more shady past, their origin hidden to “protect the innocent.”

What we never get is clear and unambiguous video evidence, with a clear source, and original recordings that can be subjected to analysis to rule out fraud. I think it is reasonable to conclude that if any of these phenomena were real, then at least occasionally we would get such compelling evidence. Rather paranormal believers must feel like Tantalus – such evidence is always just out of reach.

UFOs Over Colorado

Here are the latest such videos to hit the news cycle. The first is a UFO sighting in Colorado. What we see are three points of light in the sky. This is invariably reported as being a triangular shape or object. Of course, any three points (unless they are in a perfectly straight line) will form a triangle.  That must be why there are so many triangular UFOs.

I don’t know what these points of light are, but the possibilities are numerous. They can be high flying craft – too high to be audible from the ground. They could be ultralights, or balloons, or even floating lanterns. When all you can see are points of light against the blackness of the night sky, you have no way of judging size, distance, or speed.

Here is a comment from the conspiracy website abovetopsecret:

They said that they might be Stealth Bombers?! We all know there is no need for Stealth Bombers over a small city in Colorado so it is def not a Stealth Bomber, so we can cross that off the list. And no I don’t think they’re floating lamps like people thought the UFO/UFOs over California were so…

Ladies & Gentleman, a genuine UFO sighting. Genuine enough to make the news. I think the media is slowly starting to hint that we aren’t alone because they may know stuff.

Only time will tell…

I thought of stealth bombers also – that’s a viable hypothesis. Of course, they could be any military aircraft, or even experimental aircraft. I love the casual dismissal of this possibility – “there is no need for Stealth Bombers over a small city.” What does that even mean? What would constitute “need?” Does this mean that when the military flies aircraft from one location to another they avoid any path that would make them visible from any small town in the US? He then dismisses another token alternative, floating lanterns, out of hand.

After prematurely dismissing just two alternatives, the commenter concludes that this must be a “genuine UFO” – which is also a problematic statement, but I take it that he means it is an alien craft or some other extraordinary phenomenon, and not something earthly and mundane.

Finally he interprets the behavior of the media as reflecting the possibility that they have secret knowledge and are slowly hinting about it, preparing for the big reveal to come. I have to admire the restraint of the media in not breaking the biggest news story of human history. In fact (if you believe the UFO community) they have been coyly hinting about UFOs (along with the government) for decades, and the big reveal has been just around the corner since the modern UFO phenomenon began. Tantalus indeed.

Poltergeist The Video

The second video making the rounds is of an alleged poltergeist, or mischievous ghost. These stories all turn out the same – there is typically one family member pulling off the pranks, usually a child.

In this video we see a closet door open and a chair move across the floor. There is enough clutter in the room to obscure the bottom of the door and chair, making it easy for someone to be moving either. A fishing line would also do the trick and not be visible in the video.

The news report of the incident notes:

The family claim a catalogue of bizarre events the read like a collection of scenes from every scary movie – but they insist they all happened and they have the video to prove it.

Most of the family member may be sincere, and simply not aware that one of their own is doing the pranking. But let’s address the implied claim that this video is “proof.” Scientific evidence is only useful when it is of a nature that can distinguish among the various hypotheses – the evidence has to be for or against some specific hypothesis. This video of doors and chairs moving could be evidence of a ghostly force doing the moving, or it could be a child pulling on a fishing line. The video does not in any way distinguish between these two phenomena. Therefore it is not proof of a ghost. We can then apply Occam’s razor, which favors the parsimonious explanation that this is just another example of a kid with an active imagination, and not proof of the paranormal.


There is likely to be an endless succession of videos like these – ambiguous and useless as scientific evidence, not compelling to anyone with even the slightest skepticism, but good for a slow news day. They are fodder for those who “want to believe.” They always seem to be of a nature that allows for a mundane explanation, and are in line with our current technological capabilities. As video editing software improves, the hoaxes are likely to look better.

But the explosion of video and still cameras has yet to result in a single compelling image or video. That is a meta-experiment of sorts – with pretty clear results.


23 responses so far

23 thoughts on “Video Evidence”

  1. CrookedTimber says:

    RE: Colorado lights – my money is on military aircraft

    We have multiple military bases here in Colorado and of course the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. I often see aircraft on maneuvers all over the state. For instance, I was camping in a remote location about 3 weeks ago on a rock climbing trip. Late that night were helicopters doing low elevation maneuvers (and keeping me awake). There was no mystery about what they were in this case, but to say that the lights couldn’t be military because it was a small town at night is absurd.

  2. mrwilson41 says:

    I would agree, CrookedTimber.

    ABC News certainly isn’t helping by stating, “For now, it’s clear this is an unidentified flying object.” until the FAA comes forward with new information. Occam’s razor doesn’t seem to work for some people, because they consider aliens to be the hypothesis that makes the fewest new assumptions.

  3. I love a good debunking as much as the next skeptic, but part of me doesn’t like debunking such videos and photos with probable or possible explanations, as the credulous tend to infer legitimacy when you can’t provide an alternate explanation for a certain video or photo. “You explained the other things, but you can’t explain this, therefore I’m right!”

    How many times have you heard a UFO “researcher” say something to the effect of, “Yes, 90% of UFO sightings are explained as normal, earthly or astronomical phenomena, but that leaves 10% unexplained!”. Rather than assume that there just wasn’t enough quality data collected for the remaining 10% to be able to determine what those mundane events were, they assume they were alien encounters.

    If I can’t come up with an explanation for a trick by an illusionist, it does not mean he is using actual magic to accomplish the trick.

    The burden is really on the claimant to provide credible evidence for their claim. When you have an unexplained photo or video, what you have is an unexplained photo or video, not de facto proof of something extraordinary.

  4. sonic says:

    It seems that it can be true that there are UFOs (obviously not all objects have been identified).
    How those turn into flying saucers or creatures from outer space is what is interesting.
    I mean if they are unidentified, then how can I know they came from outer space?

  5. tmac57 says:

    Regarding the poltergeist story,I took note of these two statements:

    We called our landlords and they sent in a priest who blessed the house but said himself that we shouldn’t live here, we definitely shouldn’t stay.


    The family is talking to their landlord about getting out of the house.

    Maybe the family is trying to get out of their lease using an unusual tactic.

  6. scienceandreason says:

    Here is my $0.02. While we may not know the exact cause for this particular event, I tend to think there are people in Gov or the military with a sense of humour that find it amusing whenever they can do something, perhaps as benign as flying high-altitude aircraft from one place to another, to let a gullible segment of the population ‘see lights in the sky’ and immediately postulate space aliens (or whatever). Rather than just coming out and clarifying whatever caused the event they just remain mum out of the sheer entertainment value of watching silly people display their ignorance like a badge of honor. Also, it gives the media something ‘serious’ to report between wars or natural disasters.

    I never give much thought or argument to these types of stories or videos. Clearly the people (and news media) promoting them have not thought through even some of the most basic logistical questions surrounding interstellar space travel or alternative (and plausible) explanations. Credulity, like stupidity in the famous Frank Zappa quote, seems to be the most ubiquitous element across America.

  7. Kawarthajon says:

    My house has “poltergeists” too – caused by my slanted floors. The house was built on very damp ground and it has slowly settled in one corner (eventually it will look like the leaning tower of Pisa, which has similar problems). In my office, I often find my wheeled chair shifting across the room from where I put it or a cupboard door falling open spontaneously. In fact the video of the poltergeists looks very familiar to me. Unfortunately, my house is not “a bus stop for spirits”, as the family in UK claims, but suffers from an affliction known as “gravity” which pulls things across my floors and spontaneously opens doors. Wind can help too.

  8. I always wonder. The idea of a military aircraft seems silly to them so they conclude… that it is a alien spacecraft from other world?

  9. BKsea says:

    Do I hear the fishing line snap at the end of the poltergeist video?

  10. Jim Shaver says:

    Kawarthanjon: I agree that gravity plays a role in the chair’s motion, insofar as gravity is the force that stops the chair after it has been pulled by a string!

    This poltergeist hoax video is child’s play, possibly literally (although as others have suggested, I don’t trust the parents). I find myself considering different ways to make a much more dramatic video, with objects hopping around, doors opening and slamming shut, and other effects that would surely rule out children playing pranks. But alas, once you put something like that out there, you can never fully take it back.


  11. Davdoodles says:

    My house has poultergeists. Or is the plural ‘poulter-geese’?

    Having ruled out my guilty-faced children as being responsible for occasionally breaking or moving my stuff around, on the basis that they usually deny it, there remains only one possible explanation.

    Plus, I have no compelling video evidence.

    So, its a lock!

  12. Jim Shaver,
    “Kawarthanjon: I agree that gravity plays a role in the chair’s motion, insofar as gravity is the force that stops the chair after it has been pulled by a string!”

    Technically that force would be friction. If there was zero friction between the floor and the chair, the chair would continue to move forever until it ran into an obstruction or ran out of frictionless surface.

    The force of friction is a function of the normal force (on a level surface, this is the force of gravity) and the coefficient of friction between the two objects.

  13. HHC says:

    The second video could be explained by a pulled line on a door or chair. But if the residence is near a high traffic roadway, slight ground movements could be responsible for shifts in furniture.

  14. Mlema says:

    People see what they want to see, AND they DON’T see what they DON’T want to see.

    if a space craft landed in the backyard and several small grey creatures climbed out, took some soil samples and gutted a cow, climbed back in their ship and sailed away,
    one “believer” witness would say it was a real alien space ship. And no matter if someone produced the fake ship, the alien costumes, and explained how it was done, that witness would still insist that the evidence was conspiratorial
    another “skeptic” witness would say it was a hoax. And no matter how profound the lack of evidence for a hoax and the convincing nature of the event, that witness would still insist the event was fabricated, and the explanation just hasn’t been found out yet.
    Also, people who hear about the event second hand will believe one or the other witness, also depending on their own beliefs.

    The more I interact with this web site, the more it becomes evident to me that, very often, we make our own reality.
    We all deceive ourselves at least some of the time, and yet we defend our personal “truth” (most strongly when we band together with others who believe the same truth)

  15. bachfiend says:


    Knowing that people do lie and people often misinterpret what they see, I’d regard the scenario you describe as being an extraordinary claim that requires extraordinary evidence. If the witness hasn’t thought to video record the event, then I’d still expect to be able to find some supporting physical evidence, perhaps boot prints from the aliens (easily fraudulently produced though), soil impressions from the craft’s landing gear (which may give an indication of its weight), unusual fuel residues in the ground or perhaps abnormal radioactivity. There has to be some supporting evidence to support it, if it otherwise rests just on the credibility of the witness.

  16. BillyJoe7 says:


    I am bit worried about you.
    Do you really think there is no way to objectively arrive at the most likely explanation?

  17. SteveA says:

    Kawarthajon: “Unfortunately, my house is not “a bus stop for spirits”, as the family in UK claims, but suffers from an affliction known as “gravity”.”

    Oh no. Not g…g…gravity!

    Perhaps when they pull the rubber mask off the caretaker’s face he’ll turn out to be Isaac Newton.

  18. Telephasic says:

    When I was younger I think I believed in both ghosts and UFOs (well specifically it seemed likely to me that they might be aliens). The thing is, I wasn’t necessarily all that gullible, because I fully expected both phenomena to come into science at some point.

    E.g. with ghosts, I thought there would turn out to be some genuine phenomena that would have real measurable effects, i.e. that science would ‘explain’ those kinds of phenomena in physical terms as well as establish their existence.

    After a while the utter dearth of any good evidence all-but ruled all that out. In a way it’s a shame, but what’s ‘more interesting’ than the world? There are enough real mind-blowing creepy things to keep me going.

    And as for the UFO guys… seriously. Get us a clear video of a vehicle, from multiple angles, multiple sources, some in appropriately high resolution, and then we’ll talk…. 😉 The funniest thing about the UFOlogists is that they think skeptics don’t WANT to see alien spacecraft flying around. Well, I for one think it would be incredibly awesome. But you have to grow up and ask yourself ‘is this real’.

  19. Jim Shaver says:

    Karl, yeah, that’s what I meant — gravity (along with other things, sure) makes the frictional force that stops the chair. 🙂

    Which reminds me, I think if I were setting up a video camera to try to capture some alleged paranormal movement of my favorite chair, I would be careful to get the entire chair in the frame! But if I were making a cheap hoax…

  20. locutusbrg says:

    I would like to point out that evidence and belief are not interchangeable. Lack of evidence is not evidence for a fantastical opposite. That is what you call a false dichotomy. Everyone can be wrong, I am open to new evidence. I would love to be able to finally say there is other intelligent life in the universe, my grandmother came back to talk to me, or there is life after death. Unfortunately there does not appear to be any reliable independent evidence that says otherwise. Last weekend I saw a very convincing spectacle where aliens attacked the earth and Los Angeles was in ruins, when I left the theater the city was still actually OK. No apparent lasting effects besides lingering disgust due to the horrible acting. Why should I believe another video, with much lower production credits, is showing me real spaceships. I do see that there is a psychological behavioral need to belief in these things. There is a good amount of evidence to support this as the primary reason. Please enlighten me if you have good reason to believe other wise. I am open please convince me.

  21. Mlema says:

    I probably shouldn’t have used such an exaggerated example. I was just trying to make a point about how people interpret unfamiliar phenomenon.

    hey man, no worries! I’ve got you to keep me honest!
    and I do believe in an objective reality. i just think that you and I see reality differently! 🙂

    I’m sorry, but I’m not the person who can convince you of anything regarding the existence/non-existence of aliens. I don’t know anything about any aliens. And I’ve never seen a UFO. As I say to bachfiend above, just trying to say something about the psychology of this. As you say – psychology definitely plays a role in the UFO phenomenon. It not only fuels sci-fi fantasies, but it squelches earnest reporting and research, from fear of ridicule, or even reprisal.

    I have no stake in this game. But it is very interesting to me. And i certainly don’t have the credentials to judge what people say on either side of the issue.
    i found the report done by the NARCAP on the O’Hare UFO sighting to be fascinating.
    but I don’t expect people to have the time to read something like that. It’s 150 pages. And I admit: the part I found most interesting was the witnesses testimonies toward the end. These were the witnesses that could NOT be verified. (of course) But I don’t care. It’s fun.

  22. Mlema says:

    i also found “A Pilot’s View on Why Today’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicles
    Cannot Explain Unidentified Aerial Phenomena” on the same page
    to be very interesting.
    I’m thinking the author is not a U.S. pilot, to be so candid.

  23. SARA says:

    We are all the victims of our insatiable need to be entertained. Combine that with our need for validation and socialization and voila! We have conspiracies and silly videos.
    The media reports these sorts of “human interest” stories – because we the public want entertainment.
    The pranksters create the silly videos, etc to entertain and gain recognition either with peers and/or eventually the world.
    The conspiracies are even a way to entertain and link with a group of like minded individuals.
    The skeptics are also using the debunking of conspiracies to entertain ourselves and bond with like minded.
    Just entertainment and socializing. Despite the many on both sides of the fence who will say that this is serious minded stuff, its ultimately not.
    This is of course simplification. There are some conspiracy proponents who have a mental illness.
    There are some conspiracies and the like that perpetuate real social concerns or even dangers.
    But mostly not. I really do love conspiracies. Nothing is quite as funny.

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