Category Archives: UFO

New Year, Old Struggle

We are now into the sixteenth year of the twenty first century, but it’s hard to believe it. Mankind has created the most scientific and technological society that has ever existed on this planet, and yet we are still surrounded by primitive superstition that would stop it dead in its tracks if it can ever get away with it.

Although I was brought up within a religious and superstitious family, I was able to notice after I left school and got out into the big wide world that the religious beliefs, superstition and, frankly, bigotry that I was taught as I was growing up, just didn’t match my own observations. And after several decades of those observations, I conclude that reality, supported by testable and confirmable evidence, is more reliable than (and preferable to) untestable and unconfirmable belief or faith.

Look around you and notice things. While the religious zealots are torturing and killing people, science has landed a spacecraft on a comet half a billion miles from Earth. It’s easier, I’m sure (although I couldn’t do it myself), to kill someone in the name of some god or other than it is to study science for years and do positive things that no amount of prayer will ever achieve.

Is the paranormal real? It’s certainly easier to make excuses for why psi claims don’t actually work than it is to produce the claimed effects. And just as easy to whine that those like me – sceptics – are just nay-saying curmudgeons who are just “desperate to protect their world view.”

Do the quack nostrums of homeopathy, chiropractic, faith healing, reiki and all the rest of the nonsense peddled for profit by (maybe some) well-meaning but unqualified (in scientific terms) practitioners do any real good for people? Someone suffering an ailment might be able to say honestly during such treatment (self-reporting) that they actually “feel better” as they undergo that “treatment,” but that is not the same as actually being cured. Germs and cancers do not disappear as a result of quackery, even if the sufferer has, as they often say, even with the latest medical treatment, “good days and bad days.”

Will your horoscope in the daily newspaper really be accurate today? Or maybe it would be better to pay through the nose for a personalised chart that will give you nothing other than a self-fulfilling prophecy – as long as you interpret it in the way that confirms your expectations and beliefs after the events you think they are predicting.

It could be that you will consult any pro paranormal website or blog that tells you why sceptics are “wrong in their beliefs” but don’t provide any testable evidence for that claim, which is really just sour grapes because the woomeisters have to face the fact that rational, scientifically literate people don’t go along with belief over testable evidence.

I could go on and on about all of the superstitions people prefer over actual reality, but by now if you have read this far, you might be starting to understand my frustration. I am one of those people that the paranormal promoters call, disdainfully, a “materialist!” Even worse than that, I am what they call (gasp, shock-horror) a “pseudosceptic,” one of those rationalists who don’t believe without question the paranormal anecdotes presented to me.

What can I say to it all, except, do you deny that the universe we inhabit does, in fact, have an actual material existence? I have to wonder why, but get no answer to the question, how can the “immaterial” exist for a start off, and how can it affect or interact with, the actual material (real) universe we all live in? Why don’t the physical laws of nature prevail over the immaterial (non-existent) “laws” of, er… the paranormal? In fact, what (physical or non-physical) laws control this immaterial paranormal “energy” or whatever it is? Where is the actual theory of the paranormal? (And when I say theory, I mean “theory” in the scientific sense.)

There is no such theory. A scientific theory can exist only if there is something there that can be shown (with a high degree of probability) to exist. At the moment, as has been going on for over a hundred and fifty years, paranormal investigators are still trying to show that there is anything paranormal going on at all. None of that has been demonstrated conclusively; so far, there is no compelling reason to think any of it is true.

And yet, no one needs any supposedly precognitive ability to just know that the year 2016 is going to be another non-stop tsunami of woo. That will include everything from serious paranormal researchers failing again to prove their claims, to outright frauds bilking the gullible for personal profit. There will also of course be well-meaning but off-beam believers spouting incorrect claims supported by totally wrong assumptions about the nature of, well… nature itself.

I will say this yet again: I do not believe in the existence of the paranormal or the supernatural, but my mind can be changed if anyone can prove the claims they make. However, those claims will have to meet the rigorous standards required by science, which does not mean someone’s heartfelt belief, or a single experiment that no one else can replicate, or an anecdote from some “eminent person of good character,” or any number of ad hoc rationalisations to explain what is maybe anomalous but not necessarily paranormal.

And don’t get me started about conspiracy theories:

 

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Chemtrails?

“Chemtrails for Jesus,” perhaps.

In 2016 we are going to see more TV shows, books, and everything else about UFOs, ghosts, and all manner of irrational nonsense, supported by ignorant people who are willing to subscribe to it all and therefore pay for and perpetuate a kind of mind-numbing, modern-day “opiate for the masses.” Sensible programming about science – the true reality programmes – are (still) going to be side-lined, or given the least prominence because actual reality does not have the same commercial value to TV producers. That’s a shame, but it illustrates the problem.

For the forthcoming year of 2016 CE, I wish all of my readers a Rational New Year and freedom from Bad Thinking, while I continue trying to do my bit to fly the flag of reason. Wish me luck. (No, not luck, it doesn’t work like that… er, no, it really doesn’t; it’s a struggle.)

 

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What’s the difference between a donkey and a UFO?

I recently came across another piece of inane blather from a self-styled paranormal “expert.” And it’s just too good to pass up.

This blog, Bad Thinking, is dedicated to exposing the logical fallacies and poor arguments used by the promoters of, and believers in, woo generally. I’ll not name the “expert” in question, but some people might take an educated guess – it’s more guff about UFOs, after all.

Like a lot of fallacies, this falls into an area of overlap, so to speak. And a lot of fallacies do. This could be called a category error, or it might be called a false analogy. It also comes under the heading of the appeal to popularity and, in the context of the original article, the appeal to authority. It’s one of those errors of reasoning that doesn’t fit neatly into one specific slot, but it’s an error of reasoning, nonetheless. But it’s also an exemplary example of how to fit so many fallacies into so few words.

First of all, I will give the relevant quote from the newspaper column I found it in. Here we go:

If 1,000 independent witnesses tell me they’ve seen a donkey running down the middle of King Street, odd though that may be, I’d be pretty tempted to believe them.

Why? Because the idea so many people would independently decide to tell such a fib without any apparent motivation is far more difficult to swallow than the idea of a donkey running down the street.

DonkeyThat’s from an article promoting the idea that UFOs and their alien pilots are here, but that it’s all being covered up by governments around the world, and we should all believe it because, well, you know, why demand evidence when other people say they’ve seen it – just believe what you’re told: lots and lots of people say so; what more do you need? And this author makes a living from writing about what other people say. Yeah, right…

Here’s a brief analysis of this published piece of certifiable bad thinking:

The fact is that

  • 1: There is no doubt that donkeys are real.
  • 2: There is plenty of justifiable doubt about the existence of aliens and their space ships visiting this planet.
  • 3: Unproven claims of UFOs are entirely different from claims about established facts (they are in different categories).

It wouldn’t take a thousand witnesses to convince me that they had seen a donkey running down the middle of my local High Street. Even if it seems unlikely, I would probably reserve judgement until I got some further confirmation (a report in the local newspaper, say) but I wouldn’t be too worried about it. After all, there are news reports from time to time about escaped animals causing havoc, so the idea of a donkey causing inconvenience to some local shoppers would be unusual, but not totally implausible, and certainly not impossible.

It wouldn’t even matter if just one person told me he had seen it himself, even if he just happened to be a pathological liar who had fabricated the whole story just to wind me up. That would not alter the fact that donkeys are real, and that no one disputes their existence.

UnicornWould the author of the article believe what he was told if a thousand people informed him that they had seen not a donkey, but a unicorn running down his local high street? Like UFOs, no one has presented compelling evidence – and especially not proof – of the existence of these mythical creatures, so believing an uncorroborated report of what is certainly an extraordinary claim would be irrational.

The same goes for UFOs. These alleged alien spacecraft are not proven to exist, however many former astronauts and military personnel claim to have had access to aliens and their technology. Many of these people are making a handsome living from their books, articles, public speaking engagements, television appearances and so on. But not one of them has provided testable and confirmable evidence of any of their claims.

Has NASA been exploiting alien technology since the so-called alien flying saucer crash in Roswell in 1947, as many conspiracy “theorists” assert? You might want to believe it, but I would point out that rockets are still using chemical propulsion to get into orbit, not anti-gravity devices. Has transportation been revolutionised by teleportation technology, or are we still using cars, trains and planes? Can anyone prove that the truly massive structures being designed and built nowadays are being put together using the same alien technology that some would have you believe was the only way that the ancient Egyptian pyramids could have been built? Is humanity so stupid that we can’t do anything ourselves on a big scale unless someone else from light years away just provides it for us?

To put it plainly:

  • The number of people who make a claim is irrelevant to the claim’s veracity (that’s the appeal to popularity).
  • The status of those people is also irrelevant, even if they are former military personnel or astronauts (that is the appeal to authority).
  • Claiming a link between things that have no connection is a category error, and also quite often an argument by false analogy.
  • Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence; hearsay just won’t do if you want to be taken seriously.

The author of the article obviously thinks that claims about donkeys (which exist) are equivalent to claims about aliens (for which there is no evidence to show). He is wrong. Maybe he believes in flying horses and talking ants. Who knows?

Pegasus 

So the difference between a donkey and a UFO is simple: one of them really does exist; the other has as much evidence available for its existence as there is for unicorns, i.e., none at all.

Belief without evidence is called faith, and it is also bad thinking.

Darwin Day And Other Musings

I’m a bit late posting this, but better late than never, perhaps. Work and family commitments have kept me away from blogging for the last few weeks.

Charles DarwinCharles Darwin was born on 12th February, 1809, and yesterday we celebrated that event. Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection unifies all of the biological sciences, and has led to some of the greatest medical breakthroughs in history. It is arguably the most important theory in all of science, and is also perhaps the most tested and confirmed.

Unfortunately, religions in general do not accept it because to do so means that there is little room left for a creator god. Although evolutionary theory does not disprove the existence of any gods, it certainly disposes of the idea of the supernatural creation of all life in its present form within the last few thousand years. Consequently, some religions have been forced to modify their interpretation of their holy scriptures, and reluctantly reinterpret their creation myths as being allegorical rather than factual accounts of how life arose on this planet. Even the fact that we live on a planet orbiting the Sun was a discovery that some early astronomers paid for with their lives after contradicting church dogma.

That’s the problem with religion. Dogmatic beliefs will not be swayed by evidence or logic.

Although evolution has been accepted – at least in part – by many religions, there are the fundamentalists who deny it unconditionally. It’s particularly worrying in America, where some elected politicians make repeated attempts to either have evolution dropped from school lessons, or have bills introduced to “teach the controversy” (although there is no controversy within science about the fact of evolution).

I find it incredible that, even though the evidence for evolution is overwhelming, not to mention easily available and well promoted, there are those who claim, quite seriously, that “there is no evidence at all for evolution.” This is denialism on a breathtaking scale. Anyone interested in the subject can buy an introductory book in almost any bookstore; there are libraries full of information; there are many high quality TV documentaries that explain evolution (anything by David Attenborough is worth watching); there are websites and blogs that cover the subject in exquisite detail and there are even museums displaying physical artefacts that can be seen and sometimes even physically handled. Yet despite all that, there are plenty of people who simply say the evidence is not there, despite it being offered to them. Denying evidence when it is offered is just seriously bad thinking.

Maybe it’s just the other side of the woo coin. As a sceptic, I doubt that the Earth is being visited by alien beings, for example, but I would love the chance to examine the evidence that UFO promoters say is out there. There’s a snag, however. No one will offer any testable evidence whatsoever. There’s no shortage of people claiming to have been abducted by extraterrestrials (up to four million claimants in the USA alone), or former military people claiming they have seen or personally examined aliens and their alleged craft, but that is not evidence of anything. If you happen to believe extraordinary claims on nothing more than someone else’s say so, then you will believe anything.

That’s where religious and paranormal claims seem to meet – in a disjointed sort of way. Believing in gods on faith without evidence is similar to believing that ET is here, also without evidence. The difference, however, is that the religious will deny the existence of evidence for evolution despite it being there; the believers in aliens expect others to believe their claims but cannot provide believable evidence even though sceptics like me keep asking to see it. It would be particularly fascinating to have physical contact with an alien civilisation, to be able to study their own biological evolution in comparison with our own.

The laws of physics operate all over the universe, so it’s likely – perhaps inevitable – that the cosmos is teeming with evolving life. Even so, the same laws of physics put limits on what can happen within the universe. Can alien spaceships travel faster than light? Maybe not, but what about warping space for fast travel? Theoretically possible, maybe, but maybe just not practical, given the astronomical amounts of energy it would take. Wormholes? Another theoretical possibility that apparently disappears up its own mathematics.

The hurdles that would have to be overcome to make interstellar travel possible – at least in any practical timescale – are huge, and the idea itself might be nothing more than a forlorn hope. Then again, if there are technological civilisations out there, then they are most likely to be discovered by detection of their radio signals – even if face to face meetings aren’t possible.

In the meantime, evolution deniers will continue to ignore the evidence that is there in abundance, and the alien visitation advocates will continue to fail to provide the evidence they say is there, but can’t provide. The evidence for evolution is there for everyone to examine; the evidence for alien visitation is not. Such is the power of faith (a belief held without evidence): at the end of the day, it is no wonder that the major advances made by modern civilisation have come about by scientific exploration, not religion or woo.

As far as ET is concerned, there is still an absence of evidence for extraterrestrial visitation, but for anyone who wants to claim some kind of victory over sceptics by quoting Carl Sagan’s famous dictum, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” it does not follow from the fact that the evidence is absent that the evidence is there, or even might be. The burden of proof is always on the person making the claim, but after decades of claims of alien encounters there is absolutely nothing – nothing at all – that the ET buffs have proven, nor is there even any physical evidence that can be tested. And they wonder why some of us are sceptical.

At least with evolution, Charles Darwin presented his evidence (coinciding with another naturalist, Alfred Russell Wallace, coming to the same conclusion independently). And since then, the foundations laid by Darwin have been built upon and gone far beyond anything Darwin himself could possibly have imagined. Evolution – descent with modification by the process of natural selection – is a fact. Only an uneducated fool could deny the evidence for evolution. But there are plenty of those around.

Charles Darwin deserves to be – and should be – remembered. Many of us would not be here without him.

My Very Own UFO

One thing that frustrates me when the woo folks have a tale to tell, i.e., some claim of the paranormal that sounds rather fantastical but might be reported to have many witnesses, is the triumphant shout of “How do you explain that?”

It’s an absurd thing to say anyway, of course, because the burden of proof is on those who actually make a claim. I’m not going to waste my time trying to disprove the notion that the US government, say, has alien spaceships hidden in a secret hangar. There might well be former astronauts who make such a claim, but if you are willing to believe their claims on the grounds of who they are, rather than solid evidence (that they always fail to produce), then you are guilty of bad thinking.

The evidence for UFOs – Alien Spaceships From Another Galaxy (ASFAGs as I think they should be called) – is actually non-existent over and above anecdotal accounts. And anecdotes are not evidence. I know that some of the woo promoters insist that anecdotes in the form of personal testimony are allowed as evidence in a court of law, but so what? Personal testimony in court is not accepted at face value; it is going to be challenged and witnesses are going to be subjected to often harsh cross examination and possibly have their credibility destroyed in the light of opposing evidence or even proof. If a witness gives an alibi for a defendant but the defendant’s DNA, fingerprints, and so on are produced to refute that personal testimony, then I think the hard evidence is going to be more compelling than the anecdotal evidence.

What if a defendant’s alibi is that he could not have committed a particular crime because he had been abducted by aliens and he had a dozen witnesses to say they had seen him “beamed” aboard the aliens’ mother ship at the time  the alleged crime was committed? I would suggest that any such testimony would be thrown out because such a claim is absurd – although it wouldn’t be classed as absurd if the existence of aliens had already been established. Which it hasn’t.

But here’s a conundrum (for me, at least). I saw my own UFO (ASFAG?) and I can offer only an anecdotal account of the encounter I had. But if you will bear with me, see if you can follow the logic of my narrative.

The striking aspect of my story is that I experienced or witnessed for myself an event that I had often wondered about – witness accounts of UFO sightings where an alleged UFO travels at amazing speed and then suddenly turns at a 90 degree angle and shoots away at equally high speed. OK, it’s easy to criticise the usual blurry photographs purported to be UFOs. It’s easy to criticise UFO claims that have subsequently been debunked. It’s easy to look with a jaundiced eye at former astronauts who rely on their status rather than testable evidence for their UFO claims. But one recurring claim that always troubled me was the alleged 90 degree turn at high speed that often crops up. That’s not so easy to dismiss as a light in the sky that could be almost anything.

Anyway, the scenario was this: I live on the North East coast of England, and I regularly drive along a road that runs approximately parallel with the coast. The road itself is about 1.5 miles long between two main junctions, and at night is very dark except for about four pedestrian crossing points that each have a couple of street lamps on either side of the road. Apart from that, the entire road is just complete darkness for night time driving, and the use of headlights is essential. Although the road edges can be seen in the glow of one’s headlights, anything further than the far kerb is just complete blackness. The only occasional sign of life might be the lights from a ship out at sea. But this night, there was not even that.

This is a photograph of what can be seen in normal daylight, but keep in mind the fact that after sunset there is just complete blackness beyond the kerb you can see in the picture.

20131009_133827

The road itself is one I have driven along thousands of times in almost forty years of driving, at various times of the day and night. It is almost always an uneventful drive except for this particular night: from the corner of my eye I saw a vaguely orange light shoot straight up in the air, and as I turned to look at it, it turned at 90 degrees and shot away at high speed in the opposite direction from my own line of travel.

I saw this out in the blackness that would have had to be the sea, and although I wondered at first if it could have been a distress flare perhaps from a fishing boat in trouble, it was immediately obvious that a flare would not have done such a sharp turn and headed out of sight at such high speed. Even if there had been a heavy wind, I would have expected it to curve through the air, not turn and shoot off.

But just as I was pondering the improbability of me having discovered an underwater alien base, it happened again! Another light shot up in the air and again did a 90 degree turn, again shooting away into the distance. This was just getting too weird for a sceptic like me.

When I reached the end of the road, I turned the car around and headed back – obviously keeping a keen eye on the seaward side. But this time – nothing.

Never mind, once I had returned to the original junction, I set back off in the original direction I was headed (north). Again – nothing.

This was more than just a little bit irritating because (dare I say it?) I know what I saw. But to be honest, what I saw (twice) was a light shoot upwards, turn 90 degrees and then shoot away at apparently high speed. I’m not going to claim I saw an alien space ship. I still wanted to know what it was, however, and I was determined to at least try to solve this awkward riddle.

As I headed north for the third time, I realised that the time difference between my first and second sightings (maybe about eight seconds) was approximately the same time it took to travel between two of the pedestrian crossing areas with their attendant street lights.

I had noticed a correlation, but beware – any statistician can tell you that a correlation does not imply a causal link, although it’s true to say that if there is a causal link there will always be a correlation. So what next?

I did what any competent researcher does – I put together every salient fact I could think of and I tried to form a hypothesis that would explain what had happened.

The main facts were these:

  • It was a dark night.
  • The effect happened when I passed under street lights.
  • It was raining lightly.
  • My car window was partially open at the time of the sightings.
  • The local council had recently installed new lamp posts.

Given the fact that I have travelled the same route thousands of times over the best part of four decades, at all times of the day or night in all kinds of weather, one thing was different this time  – the new street lights. Could that have something to do with it?

Being the inquisitive person I am, someone who loves puzzles but hates mysteries, I really had to get to the bottom of this, and I drove back and forth along that stretch of road until I found what was at least a tentative answer. Maybe nine or ten times up and down the same road. But – Eureka! Here’s what happened that night, and over several following weeks of testing and retesting:

My habit, as I drive around town, is to drive with my window slightly open – just a gap of a couple of inches for a flow of fresh air. Even during light rain, that’s OK unless the rain is heavy enough to come into the car, in which case I drive with the window closed.

On this particular night, there was light rain and my window was slightly open as usual. If my memory was correct, then each time I had seen this mysterious UFO was just as I passed by one of the sets of street lights.

I also realised that the local council had recently been undertaking a programme of street light renewal. These particular lights were new and, unlike the old lights, are taller and the lights themselves are set at the top each lamp post rather than on an arm that extended over the road itself.

I wondered if it was possible that the angle of the lights in relation to the car window might be something to do with this strange phenomenon. So I drove back and forth until the exact effect happened again. And it turned out that with my window at a particular height, the effect could be reproduced, There was no end of UFOs that night. It seemed that the UFO effect was caused by light from the streetlights reflecting from the edge of the car window: one point of light travelling up the sloping lead edge of the window giving the impression of a light travelling vertically, and then travelling over the rising top of the window giving the impression of the light suddenly travelling horizontally.

Problem solved? Not quite.

Reproducing an experiment once or twice is hardly conclusive, so I repeated the drive a couple of nights later. Alas, nothing happened, even though I did the same run – back and forth – several times, and trying the window at different heights. Nothing.

Maybe the rain had something to do with it? I had to wait a week or two for more rain and set out again. This time – success! More UFOs!

And during the following weeks I did the same thing. Clear nights, rainy nights. On the clear nights nothing, whatever height I set the window. On very rainy nights, nothing, whatever the height of the window. But on nights with a light rain, and with the window set to a particular height, the effect of a UFO taking off vertically and shooting away horizontally could be easily reproduced.

I think I solved the problem: the effect was produced because of light rain forming a bead of water on the leading edge of the window, and that was where the light from the street lamps focused and reflected into my peripheral vision, causing what was nothing more than an optical illusion. When it happened, it was momentary and fleeting – but absolutely startling. If I had already been a believer in UFOs, I’m sure I would have been convinced that I had had a close encounter, and might possibly have contacted the press to make such a claim.

The reality is rather mundane: it all came down to a particular set of conditions that had to come together by chance. Consider what was involved:

  • New street lights that were taller than the previous lights.
  • The lamps attached to them were close in to the lamp posts rather than extended over the road.
  • There was a light rain.
  • My car window happened to be at a particular height.
  • The rain had formed a bead of water on the edge of the glass.
  • The light from the streetlights had been refracted through that bead of water as I passed by them.
  • The effect as it happened lasted only a very small fraction of a second.

At that moment, I really thought I had witnessed a light out at sea shoot vertically upwards and then turn at 90 degrees and shoot away.

I think most people would not have gone much further than the original observation, and perhaps some of them would be making  a song and dance about it. It is, after all, a staple of the UFO community – something strange is observed and – wait for it – it can’t be explained! Ta-Daaaaa! And as any believer can tell you, if it can’t be explained, then it must be [insert preferred woo here].

Yes, indeed, how do you explain that? Actually, you go out and investigate it.

I spent time over several weeks investigating this strange event, but I think it was worth it – at least to satisfy my own curiosity. Admittedly, my investigation into what happened doesn’t satisfy the criteria needed for publication in a scientific journal, but at least I followed some basic rules of research and I was able to eliminate some possible explanations until I came to a conclusion that is reasonable and is consistent with the known laws of physics (and optics, especially).

If only the promoters of the paranormal would do something similar in their everyday lives. It’s just too easy, however, to observe an event that appears anomalous and then just assume it is paranormal because it happens to fit neatly with existing beliefs.

Is there a moral to this story? Maybe. Believers in paranormal phenomena tend to accept claims of the paranormal at face value. A paranormal claim becomes a paranormal fact for them, and sceptical objections are dismissed as “just so stories” from nay-saying curmudgeons. The believers seem to be so committed to their beliefs, however, that possible explanations offered by sceptical critics must be swept away. Quite honestly, though, I still chuckle inwardly when I recall one of my correspondents calling me “deluded” for “not being broad minded enough” to believe. Quite. Silly me for preferring quantifiable reality to  unsubstantiated claims that no one can demonstrate to be fact.

As I said earlier, the claim of UFOs shooting in one direction and then turning at 90 degrees in an instant and flying off at equally high speed was something that puzzled me for some time. It’s not so easy to explain as just pointing out that a blurred smudge on an out of focus photograph is not proof of alien visitation – and of course the believers still think that the onus is somehow on sceptics to disprove paranormal claims rather than they themselves having any obligation to prove  the anti-scientific claims they promote.

The bottom line is this: I actually experienced a phenomenon that seemed unlikely, even though there are numerous eyewitness reports of “UFOs” doing high speed manoeuvres that seem to defy the laws of physics. It isn’t something for which a possible explanation is easily available. Even if you want to postulate an optical illusion of some kind, that’s not much to work on unless you can offer a plausible scenario. Without knowing the exact circumstances of any particular claim, you can’t really say much about it.

In my particular case, however, I can say with some confidence that what I experienced was, indeed, an optical illusion. It was an illusion that was so startling and real at the time that I was momentarily stunned, and in that moment I thought of other accounts I had read about from UFO believers, and I think I can understand why some people would think they had had an extraterrestrial encounter.

But, the question is this: if you have an unusual experience, should you assume an answer that fits your beliefs, or do you try to find out what is really going on?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it would be cool if the existence of anything paranormal could be confirmed, and I would not object to it at all. But the confirmable evidence needs to be there. Prove that alien space ships are real, and even I will accept the possibility of alien abduction as a plausible alibi in a court of law.

Until then, I remain sceptical. In the case of UFOs claimed to be travelling at high speed and turning instantly at 90 degrees, I think the first question anyone should ask is, “Were there any reflective surfaces nearby?” Even reflections in a pair of spectacles might provide a possible answer to some alleged UFO sightings. It’s worth thinking about before assuming an answer for which there is no credible evidence.

Additional Note:

This is a genuine photograph I took when I was testing out my new smart phone thingy in January this year. This is the picture, with no “photoshopped” special effects added, no digital photo manipulation, just a cropped section of a picture that was recorded when I took the photo. I was looking at the moon, among other things, when this hove into view. If any UFO experts want to tell me what it is, I will be happy to publish all analyses.

20131014_231714

I have my own hypothesis, but should I leave it up to the UFO “experts” to decide? Should I send it off for “expert analysis” and see if there are any “startling results” to follow? Are there any local “photo analysts” that can help me?

I will post my own ideas about it in the comments in a couple of days.

Wrapping Up 2013 And Looking Forward To 2014

Well, it’s the end of another year and the beginning of the next, so I thought I’d do a roundup of the successes of psychics and other proponents of the paranormal, and the breakthroughs made by parapsychlogists. The list of notable positive achievements by the exponents of psi, UFOs, remote viewing, astrology, spiritualism, remote viewing, spoon bending, psychokinesis, exorcism, telepathy, ghost hunting, poltergeists, etc., is as follows (in no particular order):

1) Erm…

2) Yeah, right.

3) Umm…

4) That’s about it, actually.

seance

And the list of achievements for the practitioners of the various and assorted forms of medical quackery out there is:

1) Oh, give me a break…

2) What about a list of dangerous quacks who should be jailed…?

3) Really – don’t get me started.

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Actually, when I thought of doing a year-end round up, I thought of doing a comprehensive list of links to the failures of various psychics, deaths by exorcisms, people being duped out of their life savings by “money cleansers,” false or wrong predictions by clairvoyants, the failure of any pseudoscientific paranormal research to be published in any accredited scientific journals, the astoundingly stupid publications of self-professed but qualification-free “experts” in the paranormal, stage and TV psychics who aren’t really psychic otherwise they wouldn’t advertise their shows as being “for entertainment only” if they really were psychic (and if they were they would be able to prove it), dead people who eschewed medical science in favour of any form of quackery you can think of, and the list goes on and on and on. But a list of links like that could go on indefinitely, and I would guess that no one would have the inclination – or the stamina – to go through it all.

The bottom line is straightforward: there is still no confirmable evidence that the paranormal is real or that anyone is being cured of anything by supposed complementary and alternative medicine. The believers go on deluding themselves, and the promoters of woo are never short of eager suckers willing to part with their cash and even put their lives in danger to pursue a chimera.

I think the only uncontroversial thing to be stated is that the controversy will go on.

But what will 2014 bring? Like everyone else, I’m not psychic, so I will have to rely on my sceptical powers (which I have vowed to use only for good) to make some predictions:

  • Millions of people around the word will waste billions of pounds making thousands of psychics a little bit richer.
  • Millions of people will waste their money on unnecessary health supplements, unnecessary and often dangerous colonic irrigations, various quack remedies that are useful only to hypochondriacs; quacks will get a little bit richer and some of their patients will die because they should have seen a doctor before they went for “healing” rather than evidence-based treatment.
  • Exorcisms will continue to cause injuries and claim lives around the world because pre-Enlightenment religious superstition still pervades the lives of billions of people, reinforced by a lifetime’s indoctrination, and of course it will be promoted by people who can make money peddling it in their writings.
  • No one will be abducted by aliens from outer space or be anally probed by them, but the reports will continue to come in. Writers of this kind of nonsense will continue to believe that anecdotes trump testable evidence, and will wonder why they are being criticised for it.
  • Books and articles promoting the paranormal will be written by people with Ph.Ds who have moved away from science into pseudoscience; and books and articles promoting the paranormal will be written by people who have neither accredited qualifications  nor any knowledge of science but claim themselves to be “experts,” while the rest of us are not. In both cases, the existence of the alleged paranormal will not be proven to the exacting standards required by science.
  • Anything you can think of relating to any branch of woo will, in short, carry on pretty much as usual, and not a single thing within the paranormal or supernatural arena will gain support from science or become in any way a regular part of  life in the same way as we accept electricity, smartphones, (real) medicine and so on.
  • There will be no Nobel Prizes awarded to any promoter of woo who claims that the paranormal is explainable in terms of quantum physics – and let’s be honest, quantum physicists tend to think the idea of the paranormal is a load of old tosh anyway, without self-promotional oafs bastardising a scientific concept that real scientists have spent decades investigating – without discovering any links between unproven psi claims and hard science.

It looks like the battle for rationality will have to continue in the face of relentless pressure from those who believe in, but cannot prove, the paranormal claims they make.

It still all comes down to a simple concept: the burden of proof is on the person who makes a claim. It’s not up to me or any other sceptic to disprove anything that a psychic or woo promoter says, it is up to them to demonstrate clearly and unequivocally that what they claim is true. They’re going to be challenged. Someone asked me once, “Are you still trying to prove that psychics aren’t real?” My answer now is the same as it was then: “No, I don’t try to prove that psychics aren’t real; I try to get them to prove that they are real.”

And the same applies to those who claim that UFOs are alien spaceships from another galaxy (ASFAGs), but who can do no better than rely on unconfirmed anecdotes from alleged witnesses. Produce a piece of alien hardware or something; that might do it.

The fact is that there are many people out there who are determined to undo the Enlightenment. The tragedy is that so many of them truly believe they have “knowledge” that is unavailable to the rest of us and that methodological research, i.e., science, should be way down the list of priorities when it comes to finding out what is going on in the real world.

The biggest problem being faced by rational people – and the very foundation of science – is not so much the ignorance of those who promote woo in all its forms, but their illusion of knowledge. The fight has to go on.

So, although I’m not usually one to make New Year resolutions, I think I’ll try to make an effort to post more often than I have done recently. There’s no shortage of nonsense out there to blog about, after all.

A New Star In The UFO Firmament

So TV’s History Channel has produced yet another addition to the UFO stable: Shaun Ryder On UFOs.

Summary of what it’s about: Celebrity lead singer of The Happy Mondays (a popular music band, apparently) travels around the world not proving the existence of alien visitation.

Erm… that’s it.

Typical crap evidence for UFOs(I’ll admit I watched the first episode just because it wouldn’t be fair to comment on it without doing so, even though it was predictably banal, cast from the same mould as every other mindless UFO programme ever made. If you’ve seen the others, rest assured there are no surprises or special insights here, either.)

There still doesn’t appear to be much evidence of intelligent life out there – but those are the viewers that the producers of this kind of programming have to rely on, I suppose. A five-star rating from them, no doubt.

UFO Cover-Ups. No, Not Really.

Thought, without the data on which to structure that thought, leads nowhere.
— Victor J Stenger.

It gets a bit tedious to hear self-professed UFO experts going on and on about military personnel claiming that this planet is a regular destination for aliens from outer space.

A real space craftOne name regularly trotted out is that of Edgar Mitchell, one of only twelve astronauts to have actually walked on the Moon. He is, as most people know, one of the most prominent promoters of the idea that the US government knows about alien visitation but that they are leading a cover-up to prevent the public from knowing about it. What he has not done, of course, is to prove any of his claims.

The believers, of course, tout him as being someone who must know “the truth.” That, in itself, is a logical fallacy – the appeal to authority: the fact that he is a famous astronaut is supposed to somehow increase his credibility. But that is a false assumption. An extraordinary claim like alien visitation has no special validity because of who makes the claim – however prominent he or she might be, or however highly experienced or qualified they are.

There is an interview with Edgar Mitchell here. He is saying that there is a cover-up, but he offers no evidence other than the fact that some people told him that they had alien encounters. Or, to be more specific, he says:

“After my space flight, I was contacted by descendants of the original Roswell observers, including the person who delivered the child-sized coffins to the Air Force to contain alien bodies. Another was one of the children of the deputy sheriff who was patrolling traffic around the site.”

Now hang on a minute. Mitchell’s information comes from the descendants of the alleged original witnesses? And the children of the deputy sheriff? How accurate are their memories decades later? And how can their stories be corroborated?

He also says:

There was also a military officer who was a friend of the families not involved in that particular operation, but who did share office space there. They all seemed credible with their stories that the bodies found were alien.

Oh, right. An unnamed military officer, a friend of the families not involved…” But he did share office space. And they seemed credible.

You might see a slight problem developing here if I link to this article about UFOs, written by amateur paranormal researcher Mike Hallowell. The problem is this: he quotes, among many names he presents in his article, Edgar Mitchell as an authority. What he does not make clear is the fact that Mitchell, in turn, quotes descendants of alleged original witnesses, who, in their turn were told the stories from the original witnesses, supposedly. Mitchell also relies on the say-so of someone he says “shared office space” with someone else (unidentified, of course, just like the unidentified military officer).

So do we have, at long last, proof of extraterrestrial visitation? Mike Hallowell thinks so, because Edgar Mitchell (among others) says so.

Edgar Mitchell thinks so, because descendants of the original alleged witnesses said so.

The descendants of the original alleged witnesses believed it because they were told it.

And don’t forget the mystery military officer who supposedly shared an office with someone.

What more proof do we need?

Another interesting point: Mitchell was also asked in the above article:

Have you ever seen a UFO yourself?

His reply is illuminating, for someone who is convinced of the existence of UFOs:

I consider myself fairly well informed, although I have not seen one personally. I’m not out there looking — I’m pretty busy. [Emphasis added.]

So Mitchell has not seen a UFO, he relies on second and third hand information, he has no evidence to offer other than hearsay, and some commentators offer what he says as evidence?

I can see why I’m sceptical.

(Additional note: Although UFO stands for unidentified flying object, it is the term used by believers to mean Alien Spaceships From Another Galaxy. If they mean that, then they really should use the term ASFAG. At least it is unambiguous, and does not allow leeway for them to wriggle out of their big claim later when a “UFO” turns out to be just a Chinese lantern or something else just as banal.)

Alien Invasion Might Be More Horrific Than You Thought

I found an amusing takedown of another bit of credulous UFO apologetics. Yeah, UFOs must be real because you can’t prove they’re not. Sceptics are just awful.

I’m old enough to vaguely remember the beginning of mankind’s exploration of space, starting with Sputnik, and I’ve grown up with the fantastic advances in science and technology that we have all seen and gained the benefit of. In fact, for me, this is the most exciting time to be alive, and I hope that, before I snuff it, life elsewhere in the universe will be confirmed.

Right now, NASA is sending probes out into space to try to detect life; in particular, there are machines on Mars designed specifically to find out if that planet could have supported life in the past, or even if there might be the remnants of actual life there now. And the SETI Institute is constantly scanning the skies in the hope that we might detect signals from other civilisations.

All of this is being done very publicly, and there are some excellent documentaries being broadcast that deal with the latest ideas in science that discuss the likelihood of alien civilisations being out there, and the possible ways that other life might have evolved. It’s not settled yet, of course, but the laws of physics apply all over the universe: it’s likely that life is abundant. If life could arise on Earth, there is no reason to assume that the same couldn’t happen elsewhere.

(By the way – I mentioned “excellent documentaries”: I mean things like Wonders Of The Universe, not unmitigated cobblers like Ancient Aliens or UFO Files. )

“”Ufology” – a pseudoscience if ever there was one – is like any other aspect of paranormal investigation, and totally unlike any real science. The existence of the claimed phenomenon is inferred from the fact that the paranormal investigators just can’t think of (or accept) an ordinary explanation. A light in the sky? No idea what it is, therefore it’s an alien spaceship from another galaxy (ASFAG, as I call it – not UFO, which by definition is something that has not been identified).

I’m not claiming it’s impossible for aliens to be here, just that it’s highly unlikely. If it’s true, then we need confirmable evidence, not the say-so of a few cranks who write uninformed magazine or newspaper columns, have books to sell and/or a profitable career to pursue on the UFO lecture circuit.

Despite the various science fiction scenarios we are all familiar with –- flesh-eating aliens, creatures that want Earth’s natural resources, the assimilation of this planet into some galactic empire, and so on, there could be something worse in store for us if and when these aliens do arrive. What if (shudder) these “people” have got… RELIGION?

Just think of it for a moment. Instead of spaceships with alien scientists and anthropologists on board, there might be exotic craft heading our way full of Missionaries! (Aaaargh!)

It might seem incredible to think of an advanced civilisation worshiping any gods. After all, the one thing that stands in the way of scientific progress here is religion. Some of the more liberal religious people accept much of their religion as being largely allegorical and metaphorical, without taking away their belief in a creator, which allows science to progress without too much interference (some scientists are religious, but at least they do tend to be deists rather than theists). Fundamentalists, however, will not accept science if it contradicts their religious beliefs. In fact, there are many fundie organisations that say categorically that anything that contradicts their dogma (especially science, which happens to be testable with no faith required) must be rejected. Creationists are trying to get their beliefs taught in science classes as though there is anything remotely scientific about any of it. If they get their way, then real science will be destroyed, along with any hope we might have of ever reaching the stars ourselves.

Given the history of religious strife on Earth – an enterprise that has turned countries into graveyards, the possibility of aliens being evangelicals is a thought that is quite horrifying.

Then again, aliens, if they arrive here, will (I hope) have probably ditched religion eons ago, but they might just clear off as soon as the fundies start knocking on their spaceship doors to “spread the good word” – or worse – “destroy the infidels.” The aliens might conclude that their search for intelligent life has drawn a blank in this backwater of the Milky Way.

No one knows for sure what’s out there; we can only say that alien life probably does exist, but is probably not here.

For an illustration of the probability of human/alien interaction, this is a good analysis (with thanks to xkcd):

I’m going to be optimistic on this one. If aliens still have religion, then they will very likely have done the same as the fundies on this planet have historically done, i.e., tortured and killed their best thinkers. Maybe they have been successful in replacing science with religion in their science classes. If that is the case, then there is no chance that they will have been able to develop the science that would enable them to cross the immense void of space to get here just to do the same thing to us. But if they have been able to outgrow a concept that belongs in the infancy of any advanced civilisation, then perhaps there will, one day, be meaningful contact between them and us without the barbarity that has afflicted humankind throughout its history and is still with us “thanks” to religion.

On our little planet – this pale blue dot — history is quite clear: religion delivers intolerance, death and destruction; science delivers computers, the internet, medical wonders, the beginnings of space exploration – and the actual possibility of travel across interstellar space.

But if aliens really are on their way here,  we had better just pray hope that they don’t have religion.

Was Carl Sagan Not Rational?

The problem with the Sagan Standard is the reasoning behind it; that extraordinary evidence should be produced to support extraordinary claims.

With all respect to Carl Sagan, this is not a very rational approach, for the term “extraordinary” is a highly subjective one.

If a person claims to have witnessed something truly extraordinary, should they really be required to produce “extraordinary” evidence before we take their claims seriously? I don’t think so. – Mike Hallowell, author of “WRAITHSCAPE: the UK’s stupidest spookiest newspaper column.”

carl-sagan So that’s Carl Sagan put in his place (Yes, THE Carl Sagan, BA, BSc, MSc, PhD; author of more than 600 scientific papers; author, co-author or editor of more than twenty books including best-sellers The Demon Haunted World, Cosmos (which also became an acclaimed TV documentary series), the novel Contact (made into a film); writer and presenter of the prestigious Royal Institution Christmas Lectures; winner of numerous awards, including the highest award of the National Academy of Sciences – The Public Welfare Medal, the NASA Public Service Medal, and many others; plus there are awards named in his honour: the Carl Sagan Memorial Award, the Carl Sagan Medal for Excellence in Public Communication in Planetary Science, and the Carl Sagan Award for Public Understanding of Science; and the list goes on and on.

The above quote, by the way, is from last week’s Wraithscape column in the Shields Gazette.

Anyway, do extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence or not? For Mike Hallowell, “extraordinary” is just a subjective term. He poses a scenario where if he were accused of a crime, then a solid alibi that he was elsewhere at the  time can be used to prove his innocence. And he adds that he shouldn’t have to provide extraordinary evidence, but “…just enough to establish that I could not have committed the crime.”

That, actually, is absolutely correct, but he is missing a very important fact: crime is real; some people commit crimes; sometimes people are falsely accused of crimes; sometimes innocent people are convicted of crimes they have not committed. No sane person could deny any of that; crime and everything associated with it are established facts, and there is nothing extraordinary about any of it.

So what is extraordinary? The word can be defined in different ways depending on context, but in the way that Carl Sagan meant it, he was talking about claims that contradict what science knows about the world and the universe. Science is not a closed book, of course, and new things are being found out all the time; but if someone wants to make a claim that contradicts science then they are making an extraordinary claim that really does require extraordinary evidence.

Try Mike Hallowell’s scenario again, but this time imagine that his alibi is that he could not have committed the crime because he had been abducted by aliens and was being anally probed aboard the aliens’ mother ship when the crime was committed.

Now keep in mind the fact that Mike is a proponent of alien visitation, and has even featured people who claim to be abductees in his weekly column. See here, for example, where he actually says, “Whether their captors are alien or not, something truly extraordinary is happening to them.” (Emphasis added) He regularly quotes former astronauts and military personnel who claim to have had contact with aliens and their space ships, and overall he is convinced of the reality of UFOs as extraterrestrial interplanetary vehicles. For him, anecdotal accounts and personal testimony are sufficient.

But whichever way you look at it, claiming abduction by aliens would be the most extraordinary claim anyone could make in their defence against a criminal charge. In the real world, a person’s alibi would have to be tested: in other words, witnesses for an alibi would have to appear in court and confirm that alibi. Better still, maybe CCTV footage could be brought in to show the defendant somewhere else at the time of the crime. And there are other ways that an alibi can be tested. How could the claim of alien abduction be tested?

It seems to me that claiming abduction by aliens is an extraordinary claim that really does need extraordinary evidence. And in Mike’s example, that extraordinary evidence could be provided if the aliens were to park their shuttle craft in the court’s car park and the aliens themselves gave evidence in court (presumably through their universal translator gadget thingy).

In the case of an accusation of criminality, if a person had several witnesses that he was shopping in the local supermarket at the time of a crime, then that is entirely plausible because supermarkets are real. If the witnesses said they saw the defendant being beamed aboard a UFO, that is not plausible because there is no confirmable evidence whatsoever that UFOs, i.e., alien space ships, exist. It would need a lot more evidence than that – indeed, it would need extraordinary evidence.

I think it’s worth looking at the word “extraordinary.” Extraordinary means “outside of the ordinary,” in the same way that extraterrestrial means “outside of the Earth.” In that sense, or context, “extraordinary” is not a subjective term at all. Mike Hallowell’s argument, in his article, is: “What is extraordinary to one person, then, maybe quite mundane to another.” In other words, if you happen to believe in something, then for you it is ordinary, and therefore real. Nothing is extraordinary if you believe in it.

Does that argument work? For some people in certain parts of Africa, for instance, witchcraft is a mundane reality. So mundane and real, for them, that some unfortunate people find themselves being burned alive because of an allegation of sorcery. It’s so ordinary, in fact, that extraordinary evidence to prove such an allegation is simply not necessary. The poor bastards are just thrown on a bonfire to satisfy others’ superstitious beliefs (and sometimes just to settle old scores).

Believing extraordinary claims without extraordinary evidence is dangerous – deadly, even.

Mike Hallowell also trots out the old chestnut about sceptics constantly “raising the bar” in terms of evidence they will accept for various claims. As he puts it: “However, if one makes a claim that the sceptics in their wisdom find absurd, they’ll raise the bar to new and giddy heights so that those making the claims are faced with a monumental task when it comes to satisfying those who choose not to believe.”

But “raising the bar” is how science works. People who make extraordinary claims are not being asked to provide levels of evidence any higher than science demands for itself. How far would a scientist get if he produced a hypothesis that he could not prove? (For the pedantic, I’ll be more specific: a scientist actually tries to prove the null hypothesis.) It might be hard for the believers to accept this simple fact, but scientists are more ruthless with their demands on each other than they are even with the woo brigade (who can’t prove their claims anyway, and no one really expects them to be able to). Science is a process that starts with research that might show promising results, but a successful experiment is not definitive, it is just the start of what can be a long and arduous task. As research progresses, the hurdles that have to be overcome become, as Mike puts it, “monumental.” Scientists have to do it, so too should the paranormal claimants.

Even when a scientific hypothesis reaches the highest pinnacle, that is, it attains the status of a theory, it is not immune from criticism. Even a scientific theory is held provisionally: despite the best evidence, it might turn out to be wrong (or more likely incomplete, in which case it might need to be modified). There are no sacred cows in science, but if an established theory does turn out to be wrong, that would be extraordinary in itself and would require commensurate evidence. If you can prove that E=MC2 is wrong, you are in for a Nobel Prize and worldwide adulation. But you’re not going to get it if you think, like Mike seems to think, that extraordinary evidence is not required to overturn one of the most extraordinary findings that ever came out of scientific research.

If the pro paranormal people continue to think that low level evidence is sufficient to prove high level claims, I don’t think they’ll ever understand why they are not taken seriously by mainstream science. And if they really think that requiring evidence commensurate with a claim is “not a very rational approach,” then that is just extraordinary, as well as being bad thinking.

Carl Sagan

UFO near-miss: Not Really

MH900057495 I came across this report of an alleged UFO sighting on the BBC website at the beginning of the month. It was noticeable to me only because the BBC isn’t given to sensationalist reporting, so I tend to take things more seriously when a UFO claim is reported on a serious news site.

According to the local newspaper, the Daily Record,

An airliner carrying 180 passengers over Scotland came within just 300ft of colliding with a UFO, an official probe has revealed.

And of course, this was observed by airline pilots – the “trained observers” so beloved of UFO mystery mongers. The aircraft was thirteen miles from Glasgow Airport on its final approach for landing.

According to the pilots, a blue and yellow silvery object passed beneath the plane at high speed; nothing was detected on ground radar or the plane’s onboard instruments; fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, weather balloons and gliders were ruled out as the cause of the sighting.

This is all great news for the UFO believers, who will no doubt be adding this story to their ever-burgeoning list of alleged alien encounters. And this is where sceptics come in for a lot of flak from the believers. Although people like me can make some reasonable suggestions as to possible explanations for UFO sightings, we’re usually accused of just making stuff up for the sake of getting rid of awkward “evidence” that upsets our “materialist world view.” But I think that some rational speculation without claiming certainties is better than the UFO buffs’  irrationality that goes along the lines of, “We don’t know what it is, therefore it’s an alien spaceship from another galaxy.” (An ASFAG, if you like.)

 Picture credit: The Daily Record I suspect that this story is going to be held up by the believers as an example of a UFO encounter, but (mostly) without reference to the later follow up story in the same newspaper. At the time of the aeroplane coming close to its “UFO” a little boy in the same area lost his 6ft helium filled shark toy, which, when he lost his grip on it, floated up into the sky and away from him. This toy, like the blue and yellow silvery UFO was also blue and yellow and, er,  silvery. And he lost it in about the same place on the ground as the pilots had their encounter 35,000 feet overhead.

So much for “trained observers.” Pilots have no special immunity from misperception or various cognitive biases; they said of the “UFO”:

“Couldn’t tell what direction it was going but it went right underneath us.”

That gives the impression that the toy shark was itself travelling, but in fact it was the plane that was flying at speed. The object did not go under the aircraft, the aircraft went over the object. Yes, it might have appeared that the object was moving, but what is perceived is not always what is.

It might be hard for the UFO believers to have their (helium filled) balloon burst, but if they want to claim the reality of UFOs, they really have to supply stronger evidence than anecdotes. As Carl Sagan put it:

For years I’ve been stressing with regard to UFOs that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Something testable and confirmable would do.