Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Bad Astronomy and Phil Plait, Part Two

Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy fame strikes again. This time, rather than making a pronouncement that is not backed up by facts, he raises a couple points that are worth examining because I am nothing if not reasonable.

He wrote, "What do I count as evidence? Hard, physical data. Not eyewitness reports (because even the most highly-credentialed person in the world can misidentify something, or not understand what they are seeing, or may suffer from an episode, or decide to lie, or just be simply wrong)."

Fair enough. He wants "hard physical data" and not creepy eyewitness statements, so I will ignore the highly-qualified, technically-oriented people who have reported UFOs. I will ignore the statistic that tells us that the higher the educational level and the longer the object, thing, light was observed, the less likely it would be identified in the mundane, which is, of course, the opposite of what the skeptics would tell us. No eyewitness testimony... well, not much, anyway.

And yes, I’m aware of all the problems associated with eyewitness testimony. I would think, however, a multiple witness sighting, with those witnesses separated by miles and independently reporting the same thing would go a long way to providing some strong, if not hard, evidence.

Yes, you always want examples and here I’ll refer to the Levelland, Texas sightings of November 2, 1957 with witnesses in thirteen locations reporting an object close to the ground that interfered with the electrical systems of cars, stalling engines, causing radio stations to fade and lights to dim until the object moved away and disappeared.

The Air Force investigated but only found three witnesses and to the Air Force, if they didn’t talk to the witnesses, then they simply didn’t exist. The Air Force attributed the sightings to thunderstorms in the area, though the storms were over when the sightings began.

In the end, we are left only with the statements of the witnesses, even though the object interacted with the environment, we only have the testimony of the witnesses to that. We have the witnesses making their reports prior to any media suggestion, and the reports match, generally, but in the end, we have only eyewitness testimony and Phil Plait said he didn’t want to hear it.

He also said, "Not fuzzy photos."

Again, fair enough. I will point out here that while about 99% of the UFO pictures were taken by teenaged boys and 99% of those are faked, there are some very good pictures out there and they weren’t taken by teenaged boys.

Here I think of the pictures taken by Paul Trent of McMinnville, Oregon on May 11, 1950 (seen here). According to their story, Evelyn Trent had been out feeding the rabbits when she spotted a slow moving saucer-shaped object coming from the northeast. She alerted her husband, who came out, saw the object and rushed back inside to grab a camera.

Trent took a picture, advanced the film manually (in those pre-motor driven or digital days) and took a second. Before the object disappeared, Paul Trent’s father glimpsed it.

Now, in what Phil Klass, the late UFO skeptic found strange, the Trents did not immediately have the film developed but waited to finish the roll. Trent did, eventually mention the sighting to his banker, Frank Wortman, who got the pictures for a display in the bank window, which lead to a newspaper interview, and eventual national interest.

The Condon Committee examined the photographs as part of their alleged scientific study. Dr. William Hartmann did the analysis and in the report wrote, "...it is unlikely that a sophisticated ‘optical fabrication’ was performed. The negatives have not been tampered with."

Okay, so Hartmann is telling us that the object in the photograph is real in the sense that it is not some kind of optical trick and he is telling us that the negatives have not been altered. What you see on the film is what was in the sky. He sees nothing to suggest trickery at this point.

His conclusion is, "This is one of the few UFO reports in which all factors investigated, geometric, psychological and physical appear to be consistent with the assertion that an extraordinary flying object, silvery, metallic, disk-shaped, tens of meters in diameter, and evidently artificial, flew within sight of two witnesses. It cannot by said that the evidence positively rules out a fabrication, although there are some physical factors such of the accuracy of certain photometric measures of the original negatives which argue against a fabrication."

For a report that suggested there was nothing to these UFOs, this conclusion seems to strongly indicate otherwise. But, of course, that’s not the point here. We just needed to find a sharp photograph (seen here).

The debunkers, and here I’m thinking again of Phil Klass and Robert Sheaffer, know that there is no visitation and therefore any evidence offered to the contrary must be in error. Klass, in his UFOs Explained and Sheaffer in his The UFO Verdict Examining the Evidence claim to have found proof of fraud. Klass claims that the shadows, underneath the eaves of the garage are too dark and given the orientation of the garage proves that the photographs were taken, not in the evening, but in the morning, and if this is true, then they were taken in the reverse order. Case solved and evidence dismissed.

Dr. Bruce Maccabee, an optical physicist who worked for the Navy, and is a believer in UFOs as extraterrestrial craft, disputed this claim. He said that the shadows were due to random light scattering and based this on the clouds in the photograph. He said the shadows were not strong enough for Klass’ claim.

Two problems for Klass. He never explained the motive for saying the pictures were taken in the evening, if they were morning shots and he couldn’t get around the unsophisticated nature of the Trents. Not a single person ever expressed any doubts about the Trent’s sincerity and no one ever suggested they would have been able to fake a photograph using a 1950 box camera.

Of course, I could say to Phil Plait, I don’t want to see fuzzy photos of extra solar planets and I don’t want to hear about some esoteric wobble in the star that tells me there is something orbiting it. I want some hard evidence that these things exist and not theoretical constructs, but that would be splitting hairs.

I could say the same thing to palaeontologists who give me pictures of what dinosaurs looked like based on some bones. I could say how do you end up with a hunting strategy used by predators based on bones... and by the way, explain fossilization so that it makes some sense in the real world rather than this idea that minerals in the soil replace the structure of the bone. Real evidence and not just theory. But I digress...

Phil Plait also said, "Not fuzzy video."

Okay, how about 16 mm color film? Here I move onto shaky ground but only because the film is of two bright white lights moving across Great Falls, Montana in the middle of the day in the summer of 1950.

Nick Mariana, the manager of a minor league baseball team had gone to the field to check it out when he saw two bright objects in the sky (seen here over Great Falls). He ran back to his car, retrieved his 16 mm movie camera and made a short, color film of them as they crossed the sky, flew behind a water tower and then disappeared.

The sighting was also witnessed by Virginia Raunig, Mariana’s secretary. She told investigators she had seen "two silvery balls." Mariana said they had a definite disk shape and he thought they were about fifty feet across and about three or four feet thick.

Quite naturally the Air Force investigated the film and just as naturally, they thought the objects were two F-94 jets that might have been in the area at the time. Sunlight from the fuselage washed out the other details. Mariana and Raunig said they had seen the jets in another part of the sky.

Ed Ruppelt, the chief of the Air Force investigation in 1952, when the film was reexamined reported, "We drew a blank on the Montana Movie - it was an unknown."

Dr. Robert M. L. Baker, had looked at it in 1955, reported that if the objects had been the jets, given all the information he had, they would have been identifiable as jets on the film. He ran experiments using a similar camera and filmed objects at various distances to reach his conclusions. He reaffirmed them in 1972.

Quite naturally, the Condon Committee wanted to study the film (blow up of objects seen here), after it had been examined by other experts. Dr. Hartmann wrote, "Past investigations have left airplanes as the principal working hypothesis. The data at hand indicate that while it strains credibility to suppose these were airplanes, the possibility nonetheless cannot be entirely ruled out."

Depending on the exact date of the sighting, there might have been two airplanes in the area. Hartmann wrote, "Assuming the 15 August date was the correct date, Air Force investigators found that there were two F-94 jets in the vicinity and that they landed only minutes after the sighting, which could well have put them in circling path around Maelstrom AFB [Great Falls], only three miles ESE of the baseball park. However, Witness I [Mariana] reported seeing the two planes coming in for a landing behind him immediately following the filming... thereby accounting for those aircraft."

Yes, yes, these are points of light, but they are on film and clearly Mariana didn’t have the equipment or expertise to fake something like that, especially in 1950. He also said that the Air Force had removed the thirty-frames from the film and in those frames you could see the disk shape. The Air Force said that they had removed a single frame because the sprockets were broken and they just wanted to repair it.

I could mention the Trementon, Utah film made in 1952 by a Navy warrant officer, but again, it’s just bright lights in the daytime sky. The warrant officer said that he had seen the disk shape as the objects had passed over his car, but by the time he got his 16 mm camera out of the car the objects had moved off and only the bright glow showed against the bright blue sky.

Phil Plait said, "I want hard, physical data. I want an alien on the White House lawn. I want a piece of metal with clearly non-terrestrial isotope ratios of components, or be composed of some currently non-discovered element. I want some piece of predictive evidence — a map of an alien world that can eventually be verified, or an alien-given advance in physics that can later be verified with the LHC or some other cutting-edge technology. And nothing vague like ‘a unified field theory exists’; it has to be definite and precise, so that there is no controversy."

How about instrumentation with visual confirmation? In other words, radar sightings along with both commercial and military pilot observation?

In July 1952, radars at the Washington National Airport showed numerous blips. Air Traffic Controllers, when they asked pilots for visual confirmation received it. Radars at other locations confirmed the sightings as well, and jet interceptors, vectored into the area also saw the objects. In one case the fighter was surrounded by the objects before he was able to break away.

The Air Force said that the sightings on radar were the result of temperature inversions over Washington, D.C. at the time, but were unable to explain the visual sightings or why the radars in different locations, and different scopes had the same objects on them. Weather experts said that the inversion layers were not strong enough to create the blips and besides, the Air Traffic Controllers were familiar with blips created by the inversion layers (yes, I know that the inversion level bends the radar beam giving a false echo but that just didn’t fit the flow of my sentence).

The Air Force wrote off the sightings as weather related, but independent analysis by atmospheric experts suggest they overreached for the explanation. The Air Force abhorred an "unidentified" sighting which is why so many in their study were marked as "Insufficient Data for a Scientific Analysis." It wasn’t explained, but then, it wasn’t unidentified either. About 40% of their sightings were marked as "Insufficient." Condon, by the way, had about 30% as unidentified which doesn’t include the sighting identified "as a natural phenomenon that it has never been seen before or since," but which is never identified.

Phil Plait then asked, "Do you think this is too demanding? I have news for you: you’re asking me to believe in something that will revolutionize all of human existence. I think demanding some actual evidence for such a thing is not only not too much to ask, but is to be demanded."

As a note to Phil Plait, no, I don’t think this is too demanding. Yes, we’re asking you to accept the idea that we have been visited. No, not nearly as often as has been reported by some, but often enough to get noticed and certainly often enough to leave some of the evidence you require. The only question left is will you look at it all, believer and skeptic, or will you just assume that the skeptical information is somehow more accurate than that assembled by those on the other side of the fence? When the opening premise is that there has been no visitation and therefore anything that suggests visitation is in error, you are not going to learn much of anything.

This means that the skeptics have obscured the truth, provided ridiculous explanations and written off cases as hoaxes when they have absolutely no evidence of hoax.

You want an example?

Sure. The Lubbock Lights photographs (seen here). True, they show indistinct blobs of light, but they are flying in a "V" formation. Carl Hart, Jr., who took the pictures in 1951 said that he didn’t know what they were then and when I interviewed him in the 1990s, he said the same thing. He didn’t know what he had photographed.

Dr. Donald H. Menzel, the Harvard astronomer who attacked all things UFOlogical suggested, at first, the lights were mirages, but mirages don’t fly in "V" formations. He then said, without a shred of evidence to support it, that the photographs of the lights were a hoax. Not exactly the scientific method in action. Besides, if they weren’t a hoax, then Menzel had no scientific explanation for them, but since we all know that there is no visitation, it must be a hoax.

So, I suppose all we need to know now is if this brief survey of some of the evidence is of sufficient strength to create a desire to learn more by Phil Plait, or will we just hear more reasons to ignore it. True, I’m not talking about aliens on the White House lawn or pieces of debris with strange isotopic ratios, but I am providing cases where the UFO interacted with the environment, pictures that was not fuzzy objects and movie footage from the early 1950s that have been examined by some of the leading experts. The best they can do is suggest hoax, often without a shred of evidence to suggest hoax because the only other explanation can’t be right. If McMinnville, if Great Falls, if Levelland were not hoaxes, then just what were they.


doug said...

Here's the comment I left on Plait's Dec. 1 post:

Concerning the possibility of any serious advances occurring with regard to the debates surrounding the UFO phenomenon, what is most needed is a shift in the specific demands placed by skeptics upon proponents as well as in the points most strongly emphasized by proponents in efforts to persuade skeptics.

Skeptics ask, perfectly reasonably, why they should be forced to take seriously a matter in which there is "nothing to investigate." The age-old (and somewhat tired, by now) image of "a UFO landing on the White House lawn" is frequently invoked by skeptics who stand most strongly by the lack of physical evidence available for investigation to support the claim that UFOs are not worth our time, or that there is nothing (interesting) to them. This also offers the extremely effective (ultimately, because of the rhetorical work it does) characterization of the skeptic as remaining eternally open to the consideration of evidence, should such evidence ever appear.

At this point, it is crucial that skeptics recognize the validity of the proponent's counter-argument: you are asking us to do something which we are already telling you is impossible. In other words, the UFO proponent's argument includes an account of why no physical evidence is available to the scientific community--at least "hard" evidence, as it is characterized by skeptics, who discount the physicality of imagery and radar data and ask for the object itself to be presented for analysis. Proponents need to emphasize the documentation of Air Force programs designed to recover downed craft and other objects of possible extraterrestrial origin, as well as the documentation of efforts by the Air Force to deny that such programs ever existed, even while being presented with evidence that directly contradicts such assertions. (http://www.nicap.org/moondust.htm, for one example)

If this information was repeatedly insisted upon by proponents, skeptics might finally be forced to deal with its consequences. Scientists, in particular, may also be inclined to begin to wonder why there are government/military programs in existence whose focus is to restrict the potential scope of "public" science by removing certain forms of physical evidence or data from the sphere of non-restricted space, thus rendering certain phenomena unavailable for scientific study (save for study in a context of classification, the results of which would also be classified).

Proponents, if they are to have any hope of adding to their ranks or effectively combating debunkers (who are NOT skeptics), need to focus more on elucidating the mechanisms of secrecy surrounding the very real, well-documented study of UFOs that HAS occurred, and less on presenting the evidence which seems (to them) so obviously to already establish the reality of ETI/visitation.

Phil Plait, I am not saying that you need to go out and look for hard evidence of UFOs so that you may study them; I am saying that you won't find such evidence because it's someone else's job to get to it before you do. In light of that, you look like a bit of a fool asking why nobody has yet been able to place a UFO into your oh-so-scientific, authoritative hands.

Proponents are asking that we be able to see what our government has collected over the years and know about the results of its study. We would love it if more of you respectable scientist-types would join us.

doug said...

Sorry, I meant his Nov. 30 post, the one you quoted from.

John said...

Wait a minute. Didn't Phil Plait say he believes in aliens outside our solar system?

Where is the hard, physical data for that?

cda said...

Isn't Doug's verbose response just a reiteration of the old story that the UFO hardware does exist but that a very select group know about it and are determined that the public, plus the entire scientific community, is denied this information?
When called upon to produce 'the goods', ET proponents have the stock fallback: "The evidence is there but a few high-ups in the US military are suppressing it" (including wreckage, ET bodies and documentation galore). According to Tim Good, every advanced nation on earth is guilty of doing precisely this. Do you expect Phil Plait, or any other interested sientist, to fall for this twaddle?

doug said...

I expect good faith to be displayed in debating. I hope to render inoperable the fallback, supposedly game-ending argument, "Oh yeah? Then where are they?" Since we know retrieval programs have been in existence for decades, it seems to me irrelevant that proponents "can't produce the goods," because there's a good reason why we wouldn't be able to. Skeptics need to be shown that this is not a knockdown argument, and the terms of debate need to shift accordingly. Otherwise we're all (still, seemingly forever) talking past one another.

These retrieval exercises are in themselves "traces of physical evidence," though not directly of UFOs, of course. But we know that these operations do take place, wherein a physical area is deemed off-limits to the public by authorities (military or otherwise) and questions as to what they're looking for go unanswered. Sometimes it's as simple as a crime scene; sometimes there are trucks of cargo and black helicopters. To write this scenario off as unrealistic is to forget how common it actually is. If UFOs do sometimes crash, or are otherwise obtained, it probably wouldn't happen with much frequency, and it doesn't seem to me outlandish to assume that those situations which do occur can be dealt with to the satisfaction of those in charge. And if you're left with a confused public trying to tell the press that there have been uniformed men working in secret to collect debris on the edge of their town, so much the better--you've fed the media what they need to perpetuate the image of UFO claims as a kind of irrational, paranoid hysteria. But it's evidence that something happened, isn't it?

I simply wish skeptics, especially those with impressive credentials (e.g., Ph.D.), would stop holding UFO proponents responsible for there not being a UFO publicly available for scientific investigation. I think they need to be stripped of the ability to deploy that argument.

cda said...

It is a perfectly valid argument for skeptics to demand physical proof of the existence of ETs visiting our planet. If ETs have been visiting earth for 60 years (or far longer if you consider historical evidence) then I consider it is time the hardware was produced as proof of this. It may be that the ETs are so clever that they have never left any unmistakable traces behind, or it may be that the event occurred so long ago, maybe in pre-recorded history, that the evidence has long disappeared.

It is certainly not reasonable to suppose that the authorities (US or elsewhere) are sitting on any such evidence and keeping it under wraps for decade after decade. Maybe there are or were programs to retrieve certain hardware of unknown origin (i.e. unknown terrestrial origin) which, from the documentation, can be interpreted to include hardware of possible extraterrestrial origin. It would only be interpreted in this way by ET proponents. I am certain that Phil Plait, or any other like-minded scientist, would not accept that these retrieval programs in any way implied the recovery of hardware from an extraterrestrial civilisation. The US has no control over what the ETs do, neither does any other country, any more than they can control where meteorites land.

The most likely (far and away most likely) reason that there is no UFO hardware for scientists to examine is that none exists on earth. By this I mean none exists that has survived the initial test of authenticity.

As to PhDs, there are quite enough of these on the pro-ET side, never mind among the skeptics. Look at the list of MUFON consultants in the past.
I believe Dr David Jacobs' book 'The UFO Controversy in America' was entirely based on his PhD thesis. From this he 'graduated' into being an abduction expert.

T Doyle said...

When it comes to hard evidence, I'm very excited to see what comes of the new DNA extraction technology that will be used on the Starchild skull, now that some funding has come through for this. If you don't know what's going on, check out Lloyd Pye's site.....

The UFO topic is a great modern koan- frustrating, but that's partly why I love it.

SonofaBadger said...

I used to enjoy Phil Plait, but ever since he started hobknobbing with famous skeptics his head has swelled enormously.

KRandle said...

When I was putting this together, I opted for a simplistic explanation of the great shadow controversy. Brad Sparks sent along an analysis that might be of interest to the more technically oriented people who read this blog.

Brad wrote:

A bit of a correction is needed on your otherwise excellent Trent case comments yesterday in your blog. Some of this technical material can be very confusing and Hartmann and Bruce M can be a bit obtuse.

You wrote [here meaning me):

"Klass claims that the shadows, underneath the eaves of the garage are too dark and given the orientation of the garage proves that the photographs were taken, not in the evening, but in the morning, and if this is true, then they were taken in the reverse order. Case solved and evidence dismissed.

"Dr. Bruce Maccabee, an optical physicist who worked for the Navy, and is a believer in UFOs as extraterrestrial craft, disputed this claim. He said that the shadows were due to random light scattering and based this on the clouds in the photograph. He said the shadows were not strong enough for Klass’ claim."

Brad then wrote:

The problem is not that shadows are too dark. The problem is that the alleged shadow on the underside of the UFO in Trent Photo 1 is too LIGHT for a normal shadow, when compared to other shadows in the pics. The Hartmann theory is that this lightened shadow effect on the UFO is due to atmospheric scattering between the object and the Trent camera, which scatters sky light into the optical path.

Hartmann established a distance scale of how much brightening per mile occurred, by measuring brightening of shadows at known distances in the Trent pics, including a shadowed distant house 1/4 mile away. Hartmann, as confirmed by Bruce Maccabee's extensive reanalysis, estimated the brightening of the UFO shadow at about 4x that of the distant house, thus the UFO would be at about 1 mile distance. And thus the 1.5 to 1.7-degree diameter UFO would be about 130 to 150 feet in diameter.

The fatal flaw in their analysis is the assumption that the underside of the UFO is in shadow from the sun. In fact I determined that it is not in shadow at all and thus the Hartmann distance determination method cannot be used. The underside is within about 2 degrees of grazing illumination by the setting sun at about 7:20-7:30 PM and is thus illuminated by the bright sky near the sun. This sunset illumination explains why the Trents described the UFO as copper or reddish in color.

The best distance estimate is that given by the witnesses, the Trents, which was about 1/4 mile distant. Their size estimate of about 24-28 feet is consistent with the angular size on the photos.

The clouds and shadows argument comes from Sheaffer's claim that the shadows on the east side of the garage rafters prove the photos were taken at about 10 AM and not at about 7:15 to 7:30 PM as claimed by the Trents, thus proving them liars and hoaxers (even though changing the time gains them nothing, in addition to the fact both Trents had day jobs and would not have been home to hoax any pictures in the morning). Bruce proved that cumulus clouds can reflect enough sunlight to cast shadows on Bruce's garage rafters on the east side (he posted the photos to prove it). Weather records show there were cumulus clouds in the area of the Trent farm.

Thanks for the information Brad.

JRobinson said...

The photometric analyses of Hartmann & Maccabee led to an admittedly imprecise estimate of the UFO's distance & size, but it is not true that the Trents' estimate was better!
In order to make a meaningful estimate of an object's distance, it's size must be known, and vice versa. The Trents knew neither, hence their estimate was no more than a seat-of-the-pants guess.

Timothy Banse said...

OK. So how does the average guy establish eye-witness credibility? In defense of the Air Force, how could its investigators be expected to consider an eyewitness account where they themselves did not talk to the primary source, ie, the witness? In other words, how should we amateur UFO investigators gauge credibility?