Friday, December 12, 2008

Bad Astronomy Part III

Good ole Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy fame has been heard from again. It seems he is annoyed that we, in the UFO community, haven’t caved to his wise logic which tells him that UFOs are not extraterrestrial spaceships because amateur astronomers don’t report them as such.

Remember his original comments about this?

Amateur astronomers, of course. They are dedicated observers, out every night peering at the sky. If The Truth Is Out There, then amateur astronomers would be reporting far and away the vast majority of UFOs. But they don’t. Why not? Because they understand the sky! [Emphasis in original] They know when a twinkling light is Venus, or a satellite, or a military flare, or a hot air balloon, and so they don’t report it.

That, to me, is the killer argument that aliens aren’t visiting us. If they were, the amateur astronomers would spot them.

I argued that amateurs do report UFOs. As I mentioned in a response to a posting in the original articles, in a survey of 1800 amateur astronomers, something like 25% of them, or just over 400, had, in fact seen a UFO which, Plait is quick to point out is not the same as a flying saucer. UFO simply means they have seen something they can’t explain but that it is not necessarily an alien ship. Flying saucer is, well, an alien ship.

I’m tempted to say, Well, duh. We’ve known that for 50 years. We know that people can’t identify bright planets on cold nights, or are fooled by the landing lights of airplanes, or strange atmospheric conditions and extraordinarily bright meteors and a host of other things.

But then we reach a core of sightings, many by professionals, college-educated scientists, or police officers, or military and civilian pilots that aren’t easily explained. As I’ve said before, the higher the level of education and the longer the object was in sight, the less likely it’ll be identified in the mundane. And when you have a daylight sighting of a disk-shaped object no more than a hundred feet away, then many of the explanations fail.

I believed we had disposed of the nonsense that amateur astronomers don’t see UFOs but Plait countered this argument, writing, "The problem is, this doesn’t show me wrong. It misses the point entirely, which is the majority of UFO reports would be made by amateur astronomers if these were in fact alien spaceships. I don’t care if you can find a handful of reports from astronomers. This shows conclusively that the majority of UFOs reported are not flying saucers, but misidentified mundane objects."

This strikes me as a fairly arrogant statement. It changes the conditions of the argument by adding a new element, not that amateurs don’t report UFOs but that they don’t report flying saucers. And he says that he doesn’t care if we can find a handful of reports from astronomers. Well, didn’t he say that astronomers don’t report these things and now when that is shown to be inaccurate, he says he doesn't care. He wants reports of spacecraft and not reports of UFOs.

And he suggested that amateur astronomers would make the majority of those sightings because they are (a) familiar with the sky so what they report won’t be mundane and (b) they are looking into the sky more than anyone else...

Except, of course, pilots, who spend a great deal of time looking at the sky, both during daylight hours and at night. Wouldn’t you expect a large number of reports from pilots? And of those, wouldn’t most of them be of mundane objects that are misidentified rather than of alien ships? And finally, what do we do with that core of sightings in which a structured craft that resembles nothing built on Earth and that maneuvers outside the capabilities of a craft manufactured on Earth?

In fact, the Air Force, which investigated UFOs (and flying saucer) reports for 22 years was most interested in the sightings by pilots, especially military pilots. Their reasoning was the same as Plait’s, except they applied it to pilots. Pilots would be familiar with the sky and since they spend much of their flight time looking at the sky, they would report spaceships, as opposed to UFOs, at a higher rate than the rest of the population, including amateur astronomers. Or so the Air Force would argue, from it’s logical position.

Except this argument, for either amateur astronomers or pilots is based, not on evidence, but on an assumption of evidence. Plait argues that if some UFOs are alien spaceships, then amateur astronomers would be reporting them. The Air Force argues it would be pilots... and neither uses any facts to back up the premise.

We can point to amateur astronomers who have seen something that could be classified as an alien spaceship based on the eyewitness description of it. And, there are hundreds of reports from pilots, including fighter pilots, who have given chase to objects that would be classified as alien spaceships based on the eyewitness descriptions of them.

Oh, yes, I forgot. Plait won’t accept eyewitness testimony... he wants physical evidence that he can hold in his hand and that is available for independent testing. He doesn’t want cases where the craft interacted with the environment, was tracked on radar, multiple witness cases, or photographs and movie, as opposed to video.
So now we move into his latest, well, I was going to say rant, but that really isn’t fair. It is a somewhat reasoned response that, to me, lacks a single, obscure point of logic. He wrote:

Friedman is no fan of me, either. A few years ago I wrote an article for Sky and Telescope magazine about UFOs, basically making the same claim I made here last week: all these UFO sightings we hear about were real, the majority of them would be seen by amateur astronomers.

Friedman took exception to that (shocker, I know). In his internet newsletter// subscription required), he said: "Plait among other gems says about Amateur [sic] astronomers [sic] ‘Logically, they should be reporting most of the UFOs’. This is logic?"

Um, yeah, Mr. Friedman, it is. Maybe you should acquaint yourself with it. Note that this is all he said, just dismissing my point without actually saying anything about it. I know, it’s hard to believe that someone with such stature in the UFO community would make a claim with no evidence, and dismiss a claim that does have evidence!

Far be it for me to defend Stan Friedman here, but I don’t really get the logic of Plait’s statement either. I have seen him offer nothing in the way of evidence that amateur astronomers don’t make flying saucer reports (as opposed to UFO reports). Stan certainly could have offered some evidence as well, as I attempted to do in the last couple of postings. We all should be arguing from the evidence at hand, not from what we believe that evidence to be.

As a single example, I offered some of that evidence, including a very good sighting made by an atmospheric physicist using instrumentation... yes, I know it was only eyewitness testimony, but was using instrumentation, it was multiple witness, and it suggests that this claim about amateur astronomers is absurd.

But having taken care of Stan Friedman, which seems to be a logical argument to me, given that Friedman offered no evidence to support his claim, Plait goes after Chris Rutkowski. He wrote:

Mr. Friedman has company, too. I got an email from a reader named Chris Rutkowski, who also posted his thoughts to an internet newsletter [which, of course, I’m doing here though I think of this as a blog rather than a newsletter]. He does Friedman one better (just barely) by actually addressing my claims about amateur astronomers, but blows it when it comes to logic. Rutkowski basically says that amateurs do in fact report UFOs, and so I am wrong.

And then he gets nasty, which sort of surprises me because so much of his stuff seems to be reasoned. He wrote:
I have said this, over and over, very clearly, but the "UFOologists" can’t seem to understand it. And then they accuse me of being closed-minded. That part slays me. They cannot imagine that aliens aren’t visiting us, and every light in the sky is a spaceship, and I’m the one who has a closed mind.

And, yes, we know that the majority of UFOs can be identified in the mundane. We all have said the same thing. We also say that there is some very persuasive evidence that some UFOs are alien spaceships. What’s so hard to understand here? We get it, and I haven’t, as far as I know, labeled anyone with a derogatory title in this little dust up.

In fact, I’ll add a note here, once again and that is a bias against reporting a flying saucer. Does he really think that an amateur astronomer who reported a flying saucer would be trusted in any other observations? Didn’t J. Allen Hynek, in his survey of professional astronomers, learn that none of them wanted to admit to seeing anything unusual based on their perception of how their peers would react? In other words, there is a self-policing that keeps the amateurs from offering the descriptions that Plait would want... but then he would reject them all as eyewitness testimony anyway and not be impressed.

I’ll let Rutkowski respond to this and I believe that Plait will be surprised at Rutkowski’s credentials as an amateur astronomer himself. I will just add this because Chris Rutkowski was involved with the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and was even the president of one of the chapters. He has also received the RASC’s Simon Newcomb Award for science writing and education. So, his words do carry some weight when speaking about amateur astronomers and what they see and what they report. I suspect that Plait didn't know this about Rutkowski.

My point here is that Plait rejects, without evidence the idea that amateur astronomers see flying saucers and used his assumption to prove that there are no flying saucers. (Isn’t this a circular argument?) He believes that amateur astronomers should report flying saucers at a larger number than the general population if there is anything to this alien visitation, but overlooks the number of reports of flying saucers by all categories of pilots. And rejects sightings of flying saucers by professional astronomers for some reason that I don’t understand... except, of course, that they are eyewitness testimony.

Since he is unaware of those reports, then they simply don’t exist. My point is that they do exist, and therefore, you can’t use that as evidence that there is no alien visitation. And yes, before we go on, I understand that this interpretation, that these amateur astronomers see flying saucers, could be in error... I’m merely saying that there is a body of eyewitness testimony that proves the theory, that they don’t see flying saucers, wrong. Believe or don’t believe, but you can’t dismiss the phenomenon with this argument. You need something grounded in reality.


JRobinson said...

Stan Friedman pointed out in Flying Saucers and Science that an Astronomical League poll revealed that some 24% of amateur astronomer respondents had seen UFOs, while a Roper Poll among the population at-large turned up only 7% admitting to UFO sightings.

I found it interesting that Phil Plait had contributed a UFO article to Sky & Telescope. I had also written for this publication in the distant past (but not about UFOs), but when I sent a letter-to-the-editor concerning UFOs, they refused to publish it. The reason cited was "the subject of the letter is non-astronomical".

Bob Koford said...

“The question of the ability of large astronomical observatories detecting any unusual objects with any of their telescopes or meteor cameras was brought up. It was agreed that their chances of observing an object at random was low, unless they knew of its presence and directed their equipment toward it. This was very interesting because some people have had the theory that no unusual objects could exist because they would have been detected by observatories. In the future, cameras, professionally termed “patrol cameras”, will be developed that can detect such objects, but this development is not contemplated in the near future.”

1st Lt. E. J. Ruppelt;
Project Blue Book Report number five (5), page four (4),
Re: the Beacon Hill Group Briefing of March 26, 1952,

This was based on similar complaints, back then, yet dealing with the major observatories.

Richard Lalancette said...

Let me add my grain of salt to this, would you?

I have been watching the sky, fairly frequently in the last 2 years, but never with telescope. It is way too limiting.

I have been out about 12 times in 2007 and about 6 times in 2008, for between 5-9 hours each night. Let me tell you some of these nights are just out of this worlds...

I use my eyes and binoculars when I need to zoom in a bit.

I completely agree with the author here. Astronomers are poor reporters because they are quite often looking in their telescopes, but for another reason too. They wouldn't risk the ridicule even if they saw something unexplained.

Richard Lalancette

rutkows said...


Yes, I too have been lambasted by Phil Plait for daring to suggest amateur astronomers do report UFOs and thus invalidating his argument. He seems to be playing semantics of some kind, by shifting his comments to using the phrase "flying saucers" now, as opposed to "UFOs."

Thanks for noting my astronomy background, which allows some perspective on Phil's boast in his post that he knows more astronomers than me. (I don't keep a running count.) Even with Bachelor and Master degrees with specializations in astronomy, I decided not to pursue my PhD because I was a single dad raising two kids and so I'm officially classified as an "amateur astronomer"; I know a bit about the field.

It seems that Phil's argument is really that amateur astronomers would be the ones to detect approaching interstellar spaceships with their digital CCDs and therefore be the ones to herald their arrival. Although it was relatively recently that amateurs were the discoverers of new comets, I understand that many are now found through image analysis software on satellites and ground-based scopes.

It's good that it is recognized that "amateur" astronomers are the ones who spend the most time looking at the night sky as opposed to "professionals." I will note that it was a classmate of mine, Ian Shelton, who discovered Supernova 1987a (or was it b?) while a graduate student at an observatory in Chile. He happened to look up in the sky while walking between buildings one night and noticed that one star in particular seemed out of place. His knowledge of what's in the sky was so remarkable, he knew instinctively that this one star out of the thousands visible was something odd. And he was an "amateur."

But I digress...

As Richard Lalancette commented:

"Astronomers are poor reporters because they are quite often looking in their telescopes, but for another reason too. They wouldn't risk the ridicule even if they saw something unexplained."

I think the last point is the most salient. If it is politically incorrect to report a UFO, an astronomer won't do it. The same has been true of pilots and military personnel, although this stigma is slowly eroding.

But astronomers reporting the observation of UFOs is greatly different than astronomers reporting distant approaching interstellar spaceships, and that may be what Phil is hung up upon. That scenario might be true, but it assumes that any interstellar spaceship would be detectable by Earth-based instruments, something that may not be true. It also assumes that all UFOs would originate in space, which may not be true. (Friedman poses a possible scenario whereby a "mother ship" might exist on the Moon and smaller craft could zip to the Earth relatively undetected.)

Phil's grasp of ufology is primarily that UFOs are alien spaceships, and he has preconceived notions of what such craft would be like. My arguments about UFOs and astronomers say nothing about what the observed UFOs are, only that they are reported.

Furthermore, it is fascinating to read the internal discussions within each camp. Reading Updates and the various UFO-related blogs in response to Plait's comments, it is worth noting that the respondents are engaged in rational commentary for the most part, noting details on observations of ball lightning, actual numbers of pilot reports, citing and reviewing previous studies, etc. On the other side of the argument, debunkers seem to be doing little more than chortling and giving themselves high-fives for their brave stand in "defence of rational science."

If anything, it is seems that the "ufologists" rather than the "skeptologists" are the ones who are displaying and applying the more sound reasoning and scientific approach.

Such as it is.

Richard Lalancette said...

I had the chance to talk to an airline Pilot about the Phoenix lights when traveling back from San Francisco on my trip to Mt. Shasta. I asked him, if he was allowed to speak about this and he responded that while wearing his uniform, He would get fired if he spoke about sightings or unusual sky encounters.

I was very surprised to get a confirmation directly from a Pilot.

Steve V. said...

I've been an amateur astronomer for 40 years. It should be noted that the goal is usually spending as much time as possible peering through your telescope looking at some tiny galaxy, nebula or planet. You are seeing only a tiny portion of the sky. That being said, I am appalled more by the false attributions of UFO sightings to astronomical phenomenon that bear no resemblance to what was sighted. For example, ascribing a UFO sighting to Venus when the sighting was too late or in the wrong direction. Or ascribing a sighting to a meteor when the sighting involved changes in direction.

Richard Lalancette said...

You mean, meteors won't make a 30deg turn or even 90deg turn? :)