Seeing is Believing? ABC interviewed Palin -now they’re on to UFOs

Back in 2005, ABC’s Primetime aired a special on UFOs.

Tonight, they aired another special -same topic; same title.

There’s a companion website, Could So Many UFO Witnesses Be Right?

The very title of the site reveals an appeal to popularity, but the question is still one that probably seems intuitive to most people. Obviously the term UFO stands for unidentified flying object and thus there’s no assumption of space aliens or extraterrestrials. Observers who state they witnessed a UFO are simply stating they saw something that appeared to fly which they cannot identify.

A Flying Assumption

There are some other assumptions inherent to the term UFO beyond “unidentified.” The “flying” part of “unidentified flying object” assumes that what was observed was “flying,” which is to say “traveling through the air.” This assumption, if taken at face value, would eliminate extraterrestral phenomena like planets, the Moon, the Sun, other stars, satellites, etc. By “extraterrestrial,” I mean not currently on Earth or in the atmosphere.

An Object?

A final assumption found in the term “UFO” is that the observed phenomenon includes one or more “objects.” This assumption would seem to exclude reflections of light, gaseous explanations, chemical reactions, hallucinations, hysteria, delusion, hoaxes, lies, etc. (though, technically, I suppose one could refer to photons and molecules of light, gases, chemicals -even if in the brain- as “objects).

Space Aliens?

That having been said, the colloquial form and expectation of “UFO” is one that equates or is related to “extraterrestrial craft” and the extraterrestrial hypothesis as an explanation for unexplained sightings. The natural tendency of humans to look for significance and mystery -perhaps our curious nature- seems impair our abilities to think critically and rationally. Fantastic and outlandish explanations become favored over the mundane and more prosaic.

Some of the Show’s Sightings

One of the first sightings the program discussed was the recent Stephenville, TX sighting. What the witnesses described was consistent with military maneuvers. Of course, the witnesses included various hyperbole like “they flew off toward the President’s house [in Crawford].” Crawford is about 70 miles from Stephenville. Nothing described by the witnesses cannot be explained by Air Force jets chasing each other in a military exercise using anti-missile countermeasures, which are flares. The airspace around Stephenville and the surrounding region has been used for training for decades.

The next sighting discussed was the Phoenix Lights (Phoenix, AZ). Again, there was witness after witness offering unfettered hyperbole. The witness that shot the video can be heard saying, “Ahh, you tell me what it is.” They were flares dropped on parachute, probably by an A-10 Warthog on the Goldwater Test Range near Phoenix. Nothing the described by the witnesses cannot be explained by military aircraft on exercises, flying in v-formation and then dropping flares on a military test range.

Another sighting covered in tonight’s episode was the St. Clair County, IL sighting of “a giant craft with multiple bright lights moving silently across the sky at a very low altitude” witnessed by many people, including five police officers, in different towns back in 2000. Nothing the witnesses described was inconsistent with a blimp. Such blimps are used often in baseball and football games on both the collegiate and professional levels. They move slow and relatively silent, have various exterior lights for illumination, and have to travel long distances to and from games.

That’s not to say a blimp is the only explanation, I just found it to be the first thought that came to mind based on their descriptions and it is the one that introduces the fewest new assumptions about what we know about the universe today.

What About ‘Credible’ Witnesses?

From that point, it seemed that the program focused on sightings that were from “credible” eyewitnesses rather than just people. They mentioned pilots, soldiers, airmen, etc. The appeal to authority was obvious, as was the assumption that pilot training, military servicemen, police officers, etc. are somehow infallible, better observers, less prone to deceit or desire for attention, etc.

There is some intuitive merit to this, since we expect such people to be better trained and experienced in ways that improve their critical observation skills, reliability and overall knowledge of things that fly. But the fallacy arrives in two ways:

1) People are moved by the mysterious and not all things we observe can be readily explained. There are plausible explanations for many things which for which we cannot be 100% certain of. The reflection of light in the bedroom down the hall was probably headlights of a car since that window faces the road, but I didn’t actually see the car. I’m reasonably sure, it was a car, however. When I observe something that has no analog -nothing I can say with experience is a plausible cause- I’m left with a mystery. It would matter not how experienced a pilot I was, the first time I witnessed a parhelic circle or halo from above, reflected on clouds below, I’m going to wonder what it was.

2) People lie and seek attention, going to extremes in so doing. Even highly-trained, skilled, and experienced people of high stature lie. The story in the news last year about the astronaut that put on a diaper and drove from Florida to Texas to attempt the kidnapping of Colleen Shipman drives that point home well.

The Bentwaters case was discussed on the program. Briefly, two airmen allegedly encountered a “craft” one night and others, including a Colonel, joined a search the following night. The key things are that the fewest witnesses actually saw the alleged “craft” up close. Close enough to allegedly touch. That was the two airmen. The other witnesses, the following night, only saw some lights in the woods and a cleared space that was alleged to be the “landing site.” Nothing the witnesses described was inconsistent with a hoax by the two airmen. Nothing. There simply is no good reason to accept an extraordinary explanation when a very mundane, and probable explanation already exists that introduces the fewest new assumptions about what we know: the two airmen lied and possibly planned a hoax.

The rest of the program focused on “alien abductions” and the “Roswell incident.” Should I really bother with the rest?