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.


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