Dec 13 2011

Mercury UFO

The bright light in the center of this NASA photo is the planet Mercury. But what is the smaller light off to the right? This is from a video available to the public on the SECCHI website (Sun Centered Imaging package and Heliosphere Imager). This is an array of imagers studying the space around the sun – the heliosphere. This still is taken from a video showing a coronal mass ejection. Mercury happens to be moving through the field of view.

A short clip from the video was uploaded to YouTube and now has over 4 million hits. The person who uploaded it (pseudonym sinXster) does a voiceover in which he says:

“That is definitely some sort of manufactured object. It’s cylindrical on either side and has a shape in the middle. It definitely looks like a ship to me, and very obviously, it’s cloaked… There’s really absolutely no explanation for that other than it’s some sort of ship.”

I always worry with things like this that it’s a Poe – that it was created as satire. But because we have voiceover we can at least make a judgement about the sincerity of sinXster – he sounds sincere to me, and there are no red flags of a Poe. So – I acknowledge the possibility that it’s not serious, but will comment further as if it is.

The rest of the UFO blogging community, based upon my quick search, seems to be taking it lightly. They are mostly presenting it without  endorsing it.

Typically I am more interested in the psychological aspects of these stories than the subject itself Рbecause there is usually a simple explanation available. From the HuffPo we have this explanation from an actual scientist involved with the research, Nathan Rich:

“It’s a complicated effect,” Rich said. “It’s basically the background that is removed from the image to bring out the faint coronal signal. It’s a negative imprint on the background.”

Like so many of these alleged UFOs – it’s a photographic artifact. In order to get good quality images of the coronal mass ejection the brighter lights in the background have to be removed. This process is imperfect and can create afterimages or ghost images. The dimmer image to the right is a ghost image of Mercury, which is moving through the field of view.

This is very similar to another recent episode involving comet Elanin – an image of the comet appears to be trailed by two trains of UFOs in formation. This photo had a simple explanation too. The telescope is tracking the comet (the solitary light to the upper right), but stars in the background are fixed, so as the telescope moves with the comet to take a long exposure the background stars are spread out in a train in the direction of the comet’s movement. In other words – it’s another artifact of the photographic process.

The comments of sinXster are interesting in that, with very few words, he expresses the flawed logic that pervades the UFO and conspiracy communities. His analysis of the image is very superficial in that he takes it completely as presented, without considering the possibility of artifacts introduced by the imaging process. He assumes that what he is looking it is all completely real. He then makes a giant leap to conclude that the only possible explanation is a manufactured object.

He then further tries to resolve the blobs of light to infer the structure of the object. This part is humorous because he essentially describes the starship Enterprise, and yet does not consider the role of imagination in his analysis. Finally he concludes that the “ship” must be cloaked, and was only revealed by the coronal mass ejection washing over it. (There is a joke in there somewhere about the Enterprise stealing the cloaking device from the Romulans, but I’m sure any Star Trek geek like myself will have no problem going there on their own.)

The flawed logic is blatant, but it’s useful to tease apart the specific logical fallacies he is making. He is assuming that because he cannot provide an explanation there is no explanation (the argument from personal incredulity). He then confuses currently unexplained (by him) with unexplainable. And then finishes off with the argument from ignorance – I don’t know what it is, therefore it’s probably a ship. This is the UFO/conspiracy theory/paranormal believer trifecta – a very common combination of logical fallacies that lead straight to the desired conclusion.

Another bit of bad logic worth pointing out is the failure to adequately consider alternatives, and to look for features that confirm the desired hypothesis – a form of confirmation bias.

Contrast this to the scientific process. A scientist, if he or she does not know what the cause of the blob of light is and therefore considers it an anomaly, will first do some background research to see if it’s a true anomaly. This would mean consulting the published literature and appropriate experts. No one can know all of our amassed scientific knowledge, so chances are there is already an answer out there if you are willing to look for it. Apparently it took one phone call or e-mail from a journalist to turn up a NASA expert who knew the explanation.

If a reasonable search turns up no explanation, then an exhaustive list of possible hypotheses should be generated, with an eye towards what observations or experiments would distinguish among them. If the scientists is interested, they could do further observations or experiments to figure out which hypotheses are viable, and eventually which one is likely to be the correct explanation. At any points along the way they could present their ideas at meetings or publish their thoughts, observations, or experimental results and let the process of peer-review go to work. Perhaps someone out there knows the answer, or made a similar observation.

Along the way a good scientist should be cautious, not leaping to conclusions that are not justified by the data, and not prematurely dismissing or settling upon any hypothesis.

The scientific approach to apparent anomalies works – at least better than any other process. The “paranormal” approach (whether it’s ghosthunting or UFO mystery mongering) has not produced anything useful. Just an endless string of breathless claims that evaporate under close scrutiny. Well – they have produced one thing: excellent examples of flawed logic at work.

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