Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Phil Plait, Bad Astronomy and UFOs

Well, I see that good old Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy has struck again. I’m not sure why, if he is so convinced there is nothing to UFO reports, he feels the compulsion to return to the subject so often, but he does. And, surprising me if no one else, he makes grandiose claims that are not supported by evidence. Instead we are treated to his uninformed opinion and a suggestion that he "...got some amusement from it [arguing with we uninformed UFO nuts], I’ll admit, since trying to reason with some people is clearly a losing game."

Oh, Phil, I understand what you mean. I keep putting out facts and then have to listen (well read actually) your opinions. I quote the sources and you quote your own mind. Clearly this is a losing game... but it is somewhat amusing.

And then he retreats into his favorite, though unsupported argument that "Astronomers, both amateur and professional, are constantly viewing the sky. There are tens of thousands of amateurs out there out observing all the time: a large sample population, and far larger in observing man-hours than the regular population. If UFOs are so common, then why do we not see an unusually large number of reports from astronomers?"

Good question Phil... of course, I might ask who all these astronomers viewing the sky are since it seems that many of them are using instrumentation to view very narrow fields rather than standing around outside with a pair of binoculars, but I digress.

Or, I suppose, I could point out that pilots, especially those on long, overnight flights, get good views of the night sky and they do report UFOs frequently. Some have noted that their corporate leaders frown on UFO reports and encourage the pilots not to make them, but again, I digress.

I will point out, again, that there is a negative impact on the careers of astronomers would report UFOs. Once again, I’ll point to the study conducted for the Air Force by Dr. J. Allen Hynek, in which he suggested that if any astronomer reported a flying saucer, meaning an alien spacecraft (and as opposed to a UFO) it would be headlined the next day and the following day the man’s, or woman’s, career would end.

Hynek, in fact, was sometimes ridiculed by his colleagues in the field. I took an astronomy course while at the University of Iowa and we were treated to an appearance, guess lecture you might say, from James A. van Allen... yes, the radiation belt guy. Someone asked about Hynek and the answer was, "Allen always wanted to discover a new constellation..."

Which was strange because I had a couple of serious conversations with van Allen about UFOs. He seemed interested in the topic but was disturbed by the lack of critical standards. Too much passion in a field that could stand a little dispassionate research.

Hynek’s study, to get back on topic, showed that astronomers actually reported UFOs at a slightly higher rate than the general population. So, Phil’s comment about astronomers and sky observations is right. They should see UFOs at a higher rate and according to the available statistics, do.

I could, once again, cite some of those who have reported, not UFOs, but flying saucers. Clyde Tombaugh comes immediately to mind with his sighting near Las Cruces, New Mexico, of something with square, glowing windows. Donald Menzel, the rabid anti-UFO guy, a man who never met an explanation other than extraterrestrial that he didn’t like, explained Tombaugh’s sighting as lights from houses reflected in the light haze over the city...

Except Menzel wasn’t there and Tombaugh was. Tombaugh was a qualified observer who said there was no light haze over the city so it didn’t matter what Menzel thought. Menzel’s explanation didn’t work but Menzel didn’t care because he had explained the sighting.

Which isn’t to say that Tombaugh saw a craft built on another planet, but that he saw something sufficiently strange that he couldn’t identify it as Venus or a weather balloon. This would be a real UFO, reported by an astronomer, but not while he was working out at the observatory, but while he was sitting in his backyard looking at the night sky.

Plait also gets worked up because of the sheer number of UFO reports. Plait wrote, "My assertion is that this is because the vast majority of UFO reports from people are misidentified objects like Venus, the Moon, satellites, balloons, and so on. These are things every amateur astronomer has seen countless times, and knows are not alien spaceships bent on probing the backsides of rural citizens. While this does not mean every single observed object is something more mundane, it does mean that the huge numbers quoted by UFOlogists are most certainly wrong."

Well, again, this isn’t quite right. True, there are a large number of UFO reports but it is also true that the vast majority are of mundane things. Everyone who studies UFO reports will tell you that ninety to ninety-five or six percent are of mundane objects. We get it and we identify them.

I have reported here, and have mentioned in various lectures and speeches, that I investigated a case with a domed disk and alien creatures made by two witnesses. I solved the case because I went out and looked. For those interested in the details, see the Mount Vernon, Iowa sighting on the April 2007 blog.

And, yes, I have listened to people describe Venus, including those who suggest they have seen searchlights playing down from it. And people who saw very bright meteors. And listened to some strange stories but with no other witnesses, think of them as insufficient data though I suspect I might have an answer.

So, yes, there are thousands of UFO sightings and only a few of them are of interest to us here. And while Plait trots out that old cliche about rural citizens, those of us who have studied the phenomenon (meaning the UFOs as opposed to all the other things often lumped in) we know that the statistics show that the higher the level of education and the longer the sighting, the less likely it is to be identified.

And I have to wonder about the perception that everyone who lives in a rural environment is some kind of a rube unable to tell a weather balloon from Venus from a structured craft that out performs those we build. Does living in a city confer some sort of additional intelligence on an observer, or is this just another example of a cultural bias? Are we who live in Iowa, or Nebraska or Wyoming, or West Virginia somehow less intelligent than those who live in Washington, D.C. or Los Angeles?

I guess my question would be when is Plait going to take a look at the actual data rather than live by his personal bias? That is something most of these nay-sayers never do... oh, they’ll talk about no physical evidence, they’ll claim what we do have is anecdotal, but they won’t sit down to look at it.

If they do, and still feel there is nothing to UFOs, then hey, they’ll be in a better position to argue the case. But maybe they’ll understand that the evidence they desire is right there. All they have to do is look.


Bob Koford said...

quote (revised slightly):

"when is [fill in name here] going to take a look at the actual data rather than live by his personal bias?"
..."All they have to do is look."

This could be a cookie cutter type question package that fits for more than I could relate here. It is the most disturbing facet in this arena. Who are really the un-informed? We know the answer to that.

Anonymous said...

His original claim to fame is critiquing fantasy movies for scientific errors. I’m an amateur astronomer who is very familiar with the night sky and I have seen several objects I couldn’t explain. None of which I was able to view in a telescope because of the unpredictable rapid movement.

cda said...

Skeptics such as Phil Plait are always at risk if they try and trash the entire UFO subject. Instead they should concentrate on the fringe areas, abductions and conspiracies (including crashes).
With pure sightings, there are plenty galore in the astronomical journals going back two centuries.
Undoubtedly some of these are explainable now (but perhaps not then). But even then there will be a residue that defy explanation, probably forever. And there are of course some recent ones that also defy explanation. Not many in percentage terms, but always a few. You can rightly challenge Plait to explain these. But it is very doubtful if he will bother.
He won't have the time, interest or motivation to do so.

Bob Koford said...

"...Instead they should concentrate on the fringe areas, abductions and conspiracies (including crashes)."

That would be all fine, and good, except that its the manner in which the subject is being handled that is the problem. If any of these subjects you mention, including crashes, were presented with the known ACCURATE facts, first, and then reviewed in an honest manner, then that would be great.

Alfred Lehmberg said...

Dr. Plait pretends to write poetry, Kevin. I'm rather more serious with regard to my own... See, sometimes the hypothesis must be complicated of needs. Occam didn't rule that out, eh?


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Greg Bishop said...


Nice post.

I wrote a comment on Plait's blog about a year ago on the subject of astronomers never reporting UFOs (citing Vallee's experience and Hynek's study) but he apparently ignored it. I guess it might be easier to ignore him.

It's rather like the trial that physicist Dennis Rawlins went through when he protested that CSICOP's first public critique (of the so-called "Mars Effect") was not scientific because it ignored data that seemed to confirm elements of astrology. It doesn't matter whether astrology is "true" or not--the point was that CSICOP's executive committee suppressed and ignored data that didn't conform to its hypothesis rather than torture the data until they got the answer they wanted (which is what they do now.)

Unfortunately, public figures like Plait appear to be Defenders of the Faith rather than scientists when it comes to UFOs.

MARLA said...

Excellent post Kevin! I was an amateur Astronomer back in México and saw a lot of very strange objects that were not satellites, the ISS, Venus, and all the other things that debunkers love to mention to discredit everything related to UFOs. I don't think this guy is a skeptic....he is a debunker and like a lot of his kind, he is just ready to deny without taking the time to do any research. A lot of scientists think that makes them look good and objective. They also feel they have the right to say anything stupid and everybody will believe them because of their title.

People may believe whatever they want.... I don't have a problem with that. However, I have a big problem with people that love to attack other people.

Jerry Clark said...

Phil Plait demonstrates -- as if it hadn't already been demonstrated more times than any human could count -- that it is easier to ridicule than to think. Plait is the laziest of thinkers, though his mouth and fingers seem energetic enough.

I recently had occasion to find myself at his website as I was searching for information on a non-UFO subject. It happens to be a subject on which I am no expert and on which I sought informed guidance. As I was reading what he had to say, it occurred to me that if this guy is full of horsehockey on a topic on which I know something (UFOs), how can I trust him on one I don't know?

It brought to mind an anecdote Carl Sagan liked to tell. He claimed that once he engaged a specialist in ancient history in a conversation on the (pretty conclusively discredited) theories of Immanuel Velikovsky. Sagan said something like, "Velikovsky's astronomy is terrible, but his ancient history is quite interesting." The ancient historian responded, "Well, I thought his ancient history is terrible, but his astronomy is quite interesting." Where UFO skepticism is concerned, Phil Plait is Immanuel Velikovsky: his credibility demands your ignorance.

Incidentally, in the first paragraph, where you write "arguing with we [sic] uninformed UFO nuts," I'm sure you meant "us uninformed UFO nuts."

Mr_Wikid said...

More on Phil Plait and Velikovsky can be found at the Velikovksy Encyclopedia. This is not to suggest that Velikovsky was right, but that Plait's criticisms were wrong.

Jerry Clark said...

This gives me the opportunity to make clear that I am not endorsing Sagan's larger anti-Velikovsky arguments. Sagan, in fact, was far from the most cogent Velikovsky critic. For details, see Henry H. Bauer's Beyond Velikovsky: The History of a Public Controversy (1984), esp. pp. 223-26.

Though Bauer devastatingly refutes Velikovsky, whom he judges a crank, he is not enamored of Sagan's efforts. He writes, "Carl Sagan ... evidences few inhibitions in making sweeping, simplistic generalizations in areas where he is hardly expert." Hmm ... you might almost think he could be referring to Phil Plait.

Rhode Island Jim said...

Very well stated Kevin. Although I'm not - an astronomer - average or otherwise - I am, I think a fairly intelligent person and it continues to mystify me - how some people have the consuming audacity to stand before the rest of the world (so to speak) and make assenine statements like Phil Plait and the rest of the so-called professionals who couldn't find the forest if they were neck deep in evergreen branches. It's like the ridiculous statements of "No life on other planets because there is no oxygen" - we can't live underwater, but fish and many other marine species survive just fine and I may be wrong but I thought they would be referred to as life-forms - not mammals to be sure, but life-forms nonetheless. I wonder what Mr. Plait's take on the possibility of UFO's and the idea of them knowing how to make their craft invisible? I mean we as a human race are so bright, we're using printed paper as money - backed by rocks - there is a concept so ludicrous as to be laughable if it wan't so sad. The money concept was designed by some highly intelligent and very very selfish madman who's only plan was to ensure their own longevity, while ensuring the total enslavement of the majority of the populace!!

LLJames said...

We have a SETI project to detect patterns of passed extraterrestrial intelligence somewhere in the cosmos, and I think that's fair enough for a balanced and well educated group of scientists.

The rest of this UFO stuff is hogwash.