25
Aug
10

UFOs and Self-Delusions

This is not the first time that I have been irritated at the transparent gullibility and superstitious inclinations rampant in our culture. It’s high time that you read a small selection of my comments.

Yesterday, Huffington Post had an article about a new book, “UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go On the Record” (Harmony Books / The Crown Publishing Group) by journalist Leslie Kean. The book’s website states “…she presents irrefutable evidence that unknown flying objects – metallic, luminous, and seemingly able to maneuver in ways that defy the laws of physics – actually exist.” The HuffPost article was the typical promotional article, and I was limited to 35 (35!!! ackk!) words of comment.

Ms. Kean was also interviewed yesterday on MSNBC‘s ‘The Dylan Ratigan Show‘. She stressed that her book was, effectively, written by many “people from very high levels”. The “people from very high levels” are politicians, soldiers, policemen, and others who are all equally un-skilled in analysis. The forward was written by President Clinton’s Chief-of-Staff John Podesta – a nice guy, but not an expert. Ratigan was as well-prepared as we can expect – that is, minimally. He did have graphics presenting skeptical criticisms: pilots aren’t reliable witnesses; UFOs are not merely only solved or unsolvable; the unexplained is not necessarily due to aliens. Ratigan was not prepared to do more than provide a forum for Kean to respond to these points. Kean claims to be a skeptic herself, distinguished from ignorant people whom she calls ‘debunkers’.

Scientists understand that “Exceptional claims demand exceptional evidence.” — Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything). The claims of Kean and other credulous folks are exceptional. They are not default – a priori – claims. ‘Oh, there isn’t a good explanation, so the most bizarre explanation must be true’ is an exceptional claim for which no exeptional evidence is offered.

A number of ‘UFO’ photos were published by HuffPost. I reproduce the first two here, under copyright Fair Use for scholarly analysis. My analysis will require more than 35 words. It will demonstrate that Kean cannot be a skeptic, because she is incapable of allowing for the possibility of explanations that are in plain sight. Photos 1 & 2 “photographed in 1971 by a mapping aircraft” contain obvious evidence of the exact nature of the ‘disc’.

Photo 1 is an enlargement of Photo 2.

The Huffpost caption for Photo 2 is: “Backing up from the close-up of the disc in the previous image to see it in context, the larger photograph shows the object over a lake (the darker area) with the terrain to the left. The sun is reflecting off its upper surface. This UFO was photographed in 1971 by a mapping aircraft of the Costa Rican government flying above it. The camera ran automatically under the fuselage, shooting the terrain every 17 seconds; the disc appeared only in one frame. Extensive scientific analysis has been performed on this image of an opaque disc with no visible means of propulsion. © Collection of Bernard Thouanel

It is an incandescent reflector lamp in a fixture, within the aircraft.

Note these features:
1. The reflector surface’s circular edge is visible as a dark line at the bottom and left edges of the disc. Mirrored surfaces will appear dark when reflecting light away from a viewer.
2. The glass bulb protrudes almost spherically so that the dark line (1) is visible through the glass.
3. A hemispherical filament shield, typical of projector lamps, is the dark round spot at the apex of the shadow ‘V’.
4. The support for the filament shield curves upward from the shield to the base (neck) of the bulb. It is not illuminated.
5. The shadow ‘V’ is precisely the shadow seen in a conical reflector.
6. A light lazy ‘Z’ just outside the left edge of the bulb is a common sheet-metal shape for the supporting fixture; the lazy ‘Z’ is the end of this ring of sheet metal, perhaps exposing the cut bare metal that is otherwise painted a dark color.
7. The focus varies within the image; it is better at the bottom and fairly poor at the top. Focus of a distant object, outside the aircraft, would not vary.

The seeming coincident of capturing an external object during a once-in-17-seconds exposure from a speeding aircraft is resolved by noting that the lamp would be inside the aircraft, where focus could be highly variable. The camera would be shooting through a window. The lamp would have been turned off, since the support for the filament shield is not illuminated. Another light source, turned on inadvertently for a few seconds, illuminated what may have been the only shiny object in the camera bay. It appeared as a result of a reflection in the window for (perhaps) only one frame.

I understand that, in a situation which may produce bewilderment and consternation, it is easy to mis-identify something. I have witnessed exactly that in my only encounter with a UFO.

I arrived home after sunset and stepped out of my car onto the driveway. There was a moderately loud throbbing sound. I tried to locate it, but there was no apparent direction. The sound seemed to come from all around. In a minute, I noticed the source of the sound: a large, cigar-shaped glowing object in the sky. It was moving appreciably. I recognized it immediately as a UFO.

I went to the front door and called for the Kids’ Mom and My Favorite Daughter to come outside. They noticed the throbbing as readily as I had. I intentionally allowed them to be puzzled by it briefly. Then I directed their attention to the sky.

They were astounded. It was absolutely inexplicable to them. It was not inexplicable to me. I allowed them to only become slightly concerned, and I identified the Unidentified Flying Object.

It was especially easy for me to do so, because I had encountered this UFO earlier in the day. It had followed the highway as I passed by, driving from Springfield to Joplin. It was the Goodyear Blimp. Our house was near the Joplin Airport, and it was orbiting near our house in preparation for landing.

The throbbing sound of the blimp’s engines was reflected by houses and trees, to seem omni-directional. The glowing cigar shape was due to illumination of the bottom of the blimp’s envelope by city lights. The top of the shiny envelope was not visible, because (with low specularity) it reflected city lights upward.

I do not accept, in a situation which is clinical and unemotional, that a ‘skeptical’ person would be oblivious to obvious evidence. When Kean looks at a photo, in an unthreatening and unemotional setting, and cannot see a light bulb, it demonstrates that she is bringing bewilderment and consternation with her.

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4 Responses to “UFOs and Self-Delusions”


  1. August 25, 2010 at 12:17 pm

    Jim 1- Randi’s still alive and kicking arse. He’s disconitued the million dollar challenge and handed his foundation over to Paul Kurtz.

    Jim A- I’ve noticed that interest in UFO’s and other “X-Files” kinds of woo don’t have the hold they did in the 90’s.

    I credit the mass explosion of the Internet. I can film a chupacabra and upload it to YouTube instantaneously, sure, but the same goes for non-stupid people who can point out that what I filmed was a coyote with mange. Back in the early nineties, we just had credulous TV shows (remember Sightings? Unsolved Mysteries? Those wer the days) and books. You can’t leave a comment linking to Snopes on those things.

  2. August 25, 2010 at 9:05 am

    Jim,

    Nicely explained.

    Sometimes late at night I tune in to Coast-to-CoastAM radio as an anodyne for my insomnia and a sop for my amusement. It is about the only talk station that comes in clearly at night here. It is a station formerly dominated by, and now very occasionally staffed by, one Art Bell, an odd but personable man who is adept at making superstition believable to the gullible. The program is almost a parody of itself and even has a quirky theme song they occasionally play, making fun of UFO’s and the like. This apparently does not deter the faithful since the program has persisted for many years now.

    The range of outrageous subjects is amazing, including Big Foot, near-death experiences and sinister conspiracy plots. The thirst for such stuff is apparently enduring and this says something profound about human nature I think. The first time I ever heard Art Bell on the radio his subject was the chupacabra (sp?), a mysterious creature of chiefly Hispanic territories which is said to attack cattle and other animals, leaving them horribly ravaged. These creatures are remarkable in that no one has ever captured one. Wow.

    One of my heroes is The Great (James) Randi. He is pretty long in the tooth now, if alive at all. I hope he will have a successor – maybe it could be you, Jim too!

    Jim one


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All original material Copyright James R. Stone 2010, except where specifically noted. Some images licensed under Creative Commons, or GNU Free Documentation License, or unlicensed and public domain.

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