Thursday, January 12, 2012

Anecdotal Testimony and Scientific Observation

Here is a question that will become increasingly important in the coming years. When does anecdotal testimony become scientific observation? Or conversely, when does scientific observation deteriorate into anecdotal testimony?

We have been gathering data in the UFO field for decades (I’m not sure when a real effort began because we have divided everything into periods... The Great Airship of 1897, the Foo Fighters of WW II and the Ghost Rockets in Europe in 1946.) During some of those periods serious scientific investigations were attempted. The Foo Fighters were of intelligence interest during the war and were taken quite seriously by the military according to the good work done by Keith Chester. The Ghost Rockets were investigated by Lieutenant General Jimmy Doolittle in 1946, and the Air Force began a serious look at UFOs in 1948.

We have seen, in scientific enquiry where what would be considered in our world as anecdotal testimony has become scientific observation. Back in 1803, French naturalist, Jean-Bastiste Biot undertook a study of rocks that had fallen from the sky. The French Academy of Sciences, just the year before, had suggested that there were no rocks in the sky.

Here’s what is significant today. He talked to the witnesses of the falling rocks. These were untrained and unschooled people who had been on the scene when the rocks fell. He didn’t reject what they had to say because he knew that rocks couldn’t fall from the sky. He listened to them and recorded, carefully, what they had seen. He was careful to separate interpretation from the facts. This anecdotal testimony became scientific observation because it had been properly recorded even though the witnesses themselves were not scientists, and often had no formal schooling at all.

In today’s world, when we have witnesses to a UFO event, we are quick to dismiss their observations because they are anecdotal. They are not trained witnesses, even when we can talk to them within days of their sighting, even when they have written down what they have seen, and even if there is some sort of independent observations by instrumentality or photography. We argue about the validity of what they have seen because they are not reporting what we wish them to say.

A couple of years ago two young skeptics decided to perform an experiment to prove that eyewitnesses were unreliable and that UFO investigators were incompetent. They launched flares attached to balloons and waited for the UFO reports to come in...

But what we saw was that the witnesses, if they didn’t identify the balloons and flares for what they were, described, accurately, what they had seen. They talked about the nature of the lights, meaning they were red and moving slowly. They didn’t, for the most part, talk about anything other than the lights moving through the sky, though one of the witnesses did talk about a strange formation.

UFO investigators, called in, immediately identified the lights as of terrestrial manufacture and one police officer even told reporters that the lights were flares on balloons.

The point was that the witness testimony, and a careful listening to what the witnesses said, proved that they had been accurate. Trouble emerges when everyone begins to speculate about the nature of the lights... and most of these were reporters who tried to turn the story into something alien. One reporter even asking a child about aliens, when none of the witnesses had said anything about spacecraft or aliens.

Yes, I understand that with UFOs we need more than witness testimony, but the real question is why do we reject that testimony by labeling it as anecdotal? At what point can we accept the testimony as something more than the unschooled observations of the rube?

And why is it that only that testimony that seems to suggest that the observation was mundane is accepted at face value while that which suggests something strange is rejected automatically?

In other words, when does anecdotal testimony become scientific observation?


Sharon Day said...

Brilliant post! I actually based my book "Was That a Ghost?" On what I call the Trinity of Relevance in witnesses: Context, Belief System, Explanatory Style. When you believe in UFOs, the unexplained can be explained by that belief. If you believe in God and the rain stops when you need to go on a picnic, it is the Divine's hand. If you can get a witness to only give physical facts and not feelings or interpretations, you have a great testimony. Keep up the great work!

Steve M said...


Isn't Jean-Bastiste Biot a poor example to use after all he had physical evidence, ie 3000 rocks, to support the witnesses’ statements. He was able to proposes a theory that rocks fells from space which could be proved scientifically

Most UFO accounts are lights in the sky which even Hynek said weren't worth investigating. So that doesn’t leave an awful lot to investigate scientifically.

And to answer your question "when does anecdotal testimony become scientific observation?" When it can be tested, proven and verified.

cda said...

Rocks fell from the sky. They were there on the ground to be examined. They were examined. They were finally pronounced as meteorites.

UFOs (a few of them) are said to fall from the sky. But they are never there to be examined. In 65 years where is one single hard example of a UFO? Hence science cannot examine them. Hence science rejects them. Hence they become anecdotal evidence.

The upshot is that the conspiracy brigade then step in and tell us that a few UFOs did indeed fall to earth, but in every case those guys in the military swooped and confiscated all the evidence.

KRandle said...


As usual, your comments are not very helpful, especially when you remember that the leading scientists in those days had said that rocks do not fall from the sky. This, even when a very good example of a thunder stone was seen to fall in Germany.

Steve M -

I thought the same thing and had there not been a survey of the minerals in the area a couple of years earlier, I'm not sure he could have made the case.

With UFOs, we do have cases in which evidence can be tested, but we always seem to argue the reality before any work is done.

There are cases of direct evidence, such as Ubatuba, but the chain of custody of the debris was compromised several times.

In other cases, such as Levelland, the two sides were arguing over the number of actual witnesses rather than looking at the case itself. That simply was not helpful.

And now, every case, it seems, is dismissed as anecdotal testimony regardless of the caliber of the witnesses. This is one thing we must change...

And yes, we could go the other direction and point out that many witnesses claim credentials they do not possess which nullifies their credibility. This is one thing we must change.

cda said...


We hear of crashed UFOs but never find any hard tangible evidence. With Ubatuba we have, or had, hard tangible evidence. But alas no provenance for the story of how it got where it was allegedly found. The source was anonymous, no date was given and there were no known witnesses.

Do you consider this a scientific discovery or an anecdotal tale?

Bear in mind that as something allegedly foreign to planet earth (vide Lorenzen & APRO) the fragments did not withstand future scientific scrutiny.

What about the UFO fragments Wilbert Smith used to talk about? What happened to them? Did they exist? Are his tales anecdotal or not?

Lance said...

"But what we saw was that the witnesses, if they didn’t identify the balloons and flares for what they were, described, accurately, what they had seen. They talked about the nature of the lights, meaning they were red and moving slowly. They didn’t, for the most part, talk about anything other than the lights moving through the sky, though one of the witnesses did talk about a strange formation."

This quote above demonstrates the great will to believe among UFO proponents and the desire to legitimize their beliefs even against the evidence.

In the New Jersey hoax (which I thought was an idiotic stunt), witnesses were BOTH accurate and inaccurate in their descriptions of what we know was in the sky. Some witnesses descibed the lights as maneuvering and "zooming off" at high speed. There were other witnesses who insisted that the lights formed a solid single craft.

One can only guess which descriptions would be picked up by the erstwhile UFO "experts" had this case not been revealed as a fraud. The Hudson Valley case might have had a similar origin (though the mythology is so strong now that I am quite sure that the next comments here will insist upon the authenticity of that can never denigrate the saucer religion).

That Kevin above doesn't even mention any of the wilder reports for the New Jersey hoax (because it doesn't fit his premise) speaks volumes for how one of the best UFO author performs his work.


Robert said...

When does anecdotal testimony become scientific evidence?

Interesting question--especially when people supply video/film, and that video/film is scrutinized by experts using computers.

Take the Patterson film of Bigfoot back in 1967. One of the experts,from a show on Animal Planet, using a computer, was from Hollywood that worked on films such as Star Wars, etc; and he said that he seen no folds in the bending of the legs and arms revealing some sort of costume. (The gentleman said that that sort of technology didn't exist back then to fake that particular kind of effect.)

Another analyst, using background details such as trees for calculating size, determined the creature to be exceedingly tall, and when the picture was enhanced it showed the subject to be female.(Why go to such lengths to fabricate the encounter when back in 1967 it would be hard to see the sex of the animal at such a distance with present technology?)

Later Patterson took a polygraph test over the authenticity of the encounter and passed it.

My thoughts on this? If lawyers can take these sort of findings to a court of law to either convict or save a person, why can't science take anecdotal testimony a little bit more seriously?

I guess a scientist is like a horse; you can take him to water but you can't convince him that it's wet enough to drink.

Terry the Censor said...

There's a little too much complaining in the post and comments about people who are on believers and not enough scrutiny of the bias of believers themselves.
If you read the UFO reports in the local newspapers, you'll often see birds or lanterns or remote control planes being described/photographed with witnesses saying, "We don't have any technology that can do that." Then a day or two later a followup article will show all those statements for what they are.
Reading Keyhoe's "Flying Saucer Conspiracy" last night, I noticed the very same argument from ignorance (chapter 1). Also, Keyhoe was using the term UFO when speaking in generalities, but when discussing specific cases, he drops UFO for "flying saucer" or "machines." Pretty blatant statements of dogmatic faith.
One can complain that people outside ufology discount anecdotal evidence, but let's not pretend believers don't inflate the value of anecdotes. The fandom of ufology and too many of the popular writers take everything literally, uncritically, and unscientifically. This predilection gives way to paranoia (or at the very least, whining).
That is not the fault of skeptics or the media (who have their own weaknessness).

Lance said...

Total agreement with Terry above.

Would just add that the cherry picking of the witness reports for comments with maximum ooga booga by those who write up the stuff (almost always believers) exasperates the problem.


Terry the Censor said...

By the way Kevin, I ordered your new book last night.

Terry the Censor said...

First sentence should have been:
"There's a little too much complaining in the post and comments about people who are NOT believers..."
Sorry about that. I edited subtitles on three Astro Boys and a Daktari today. I'm a bit worn down.

KRandle said...

Geez Louise, Guys -

I try to ask a question about how we can improve the testimony that we gather and we go off into irrelevancies...


Yes, CDA, we all know that Ubatuba (which is an example of direct physical evidence) fails because we can’t get it from the beach into the hands of the reporter. Yes, we all know that Brazilian Laboratories, back in the 1950s, said that they found no evidence of impurities in the magnesium... which is not the same as the claim that Coral Lorenzen made saying that it was 100% pure. We know that the metal was sent to APRO and they provided a small portion to the Air Force for analysis, but the AF lab destroyed the sample without getting a good spectroscopic plate so they could offer no conclusions. We all know that the Condon Committee determined that metal of equal purity was made by Dow Chemicals, but the process used is quite expensive and time consuming and no one explained where the unidentified Brazilian found samples of the Dow metal. And we know that the remaining samples disappeared until Dr. Sturrock found them... but, of course, the chain of custody was broken there as well, so the samples, you might say lost any value that they had...

Yes, Lance, we all know that one of the witnesses to the New Jersey balloon flights said that one of them zoomed off. That doesn’t negate the point that witnesses described accurately what they saw and that the MUFON Star Team identified the lights as either Chinese Lanterns or flares. And, we don’t know the influence that the two “experimenters” had when they began to interject themselves into the case by saying that the objects or lights had zoomed over their car. Nor to we know the affect that their interviews in the Ford dealership had as they attempted to convince people to say things that they had not seen themselves.

My point was to generate a discussion on how we might elevate the standards of testimony here. I was hoping that we might see some ideas on how to improve the testimony so that we didn’t have to have these sorts of arguments and we could do away with this nonsense that all the testimony about UFOs is anecdotal in nature.

But no, instead we have to degenerate into the same old tired discussions. Yes, I know that some of you “know” that there is no alien visitation and anything that suggests otherwise is mistaken. Yes, I know that much of what has been gathered in the past isn’t worth much (like Chiles-Whitted who claimed the object “rocked” the aircraft as it shot passed, and I believe it was a bolide that wasn’t very close).

Let’s try to elevate the discussion and come up with some positive ideas rather than this incessant nitpicking.

cda said...


"And why is it that only that testimony that seems to suggest that the observation was mundane is accepted at face value while that which suggests something strange is rejected automatically? In other words, when does anecdotal testimony become scientific observation?"

Steve M gave the best answer to this, I believe.

I now give my answer.


Melvin Brown says he saw alien bodies at Roswell after the crash and recovery.

This is anecdotal only, because he first told this to his two teenage daughters, and nobody else, many years after the event. No 'alien bodies' are known to science, no such bodies have ever turned up in the decades since, and the originator is deceased.

Had he told them this and added a date and time, given the names of others who saw the bodies, what became of the bodies afterwards, and maybe even where people can view them, the story would become much more acceptable but still not quite what scientists desire. The weakness is that it was not told (to someone) at the time it occurred. And it is now very second-hand.

Had he told a scientific group or even a newspaper what he saw soon after the event and given them enough information for them to check his story, that also probably qualifies it as scientific evidence. But if the USAF then emphatically denied that any such bodies ever existed, it would wreck his story, which then becomes anecdotal.

You can conjure up 'in between' cases that are neither anecdotal nor scientific evidence, and therein lies the difficulty. It is not always a clear cut distinction.

I would answer by saying that it very much depends on what science finds credible and acceptable. Obviously different standards apply according to the nature of the reported claim.

'Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence' is the usual riposte. If something is being claimed that is unknown to science, far more rigorous rules apply than for an everyday commonplace claim.

The same would apply to courtroom evidence if it was something unknown to science.

Meteorites did eventually provide hard evidence in abundance. UFOs, let alone alien bodies, have not.

Does this answer your question?

Lance said...


If you had said about the New Jersey case that witnesses were both accurate and inaccurate about what they reported (which is, you know, the truth) I would have no argument with you about the matter.

Instead, you ignored the signs of witness embellishment (not even MENTIONING it). Indeed, in your comment above, you now makes it sound as though there was just one instance of this. As you are well aware this is not true.

Hilariously, you speak about the hoaxers possibly contaminating witness testimony even while you (and members of your "dream team") pretend that such contamination isn't possible, at least for Roswell.


KRandle said...

Lance -

You just never get the bigger picture do you?

I mentioned that many of the witnesses in New Jersey got the facts right. It was some of the interpretations that were wrong.

And some of the witnesses got the facts wrong... but then, it is the job of the investigators to figure that out. I thought we might inject a little science into this, but you'd rather argue about wording.

And where in the hell do you get the idea that the Team doesn't acknowledge the possible contamination of Roswell witnesses? I have, myself, pointed out areas of possible contamination. You have no idea what we think as we look deeper into this. But I notice that doesn't inhibit a few conclusions on your part anyway.

At least CDA gets it. He brings up Melvin Brown, but no investigators talked to him. We have the tale told by Beverley Bean, and later by her sister and her mother. So, yes, this is not only anecdotal, but heresay as well. We know what Brown said he saw, but only because his family told us. He didn't... so there really is no way to elevate this from anecdotal to scientific observation... unless it leads us to something much more tangible and that means the testimony is still anecdotal.

So, it seems that CDA and I agree on this one aspect of the case... but that doesn't change the original question about anecdotal testimony and scientific observation.

Terry the Censor said...

In science, one way investigators test their data and theories is by making predictions.
Can UFO observations be used to make predictions on why, when, where they appear? Are extrapolations made about their flight paths to determine start and end points? Do investigators do data analysis to predict where flying saucers might be stationed between appearances?
Simply put: do UFO investigators try to track down the UFOs, or are they content to collect stories?
Going just by blogs and youtube videos, I would say the answer is people don't much care about science, they care about stories that reinforce theor worldview.
Kevin has been in the field (quite literally) and I bet has read thousands of proper reports. I'd like to know what he sees from UFO investigators: real investigation using scientific processes or just compilation of narratives?

zoamchomsky said...

Kevin; Here's a positive idea: There aren't any REAL "UFOs" of any kind and there never were. It was all nothing but a media-manufactured myth and collective delusion.

There are no "UFO" facts in the world, period. The very idea unknowns existing in our atmosphere is absurd. The entire subject is nothing more than insane Shaver/Palmer pulp trash that hasn't changed one bit since GeBauer and Newton, Scully and Keyhoe.

uFOOLery not only has all the hallmarks of pseudoscience, most importantly in being a failed hypothesis, it is antiscientific neopagan rubbish posing as a plausible alternative reality when it's nothing but a pseudorationale for being stupid and attacking science, rationality and knowing the world as it is.

Yes, Kevin, there is knowing the entire subject is a complete load. Armed with the Null hypothesis of “UFO” reports; knowledge of the history of the myth and collective delusion as an easily understandable cultural phenomenon, and the very obvious product of the human imagination (and a conceptual absurdity); and the biological and astronomical implausibility of the ETH: the Psychosocial hypothesis not only destroys the delusion, it destroys the reasons for believing.

Paul Kimball said...

Hi Kevin,

First, I don't think the term "anecdotal testimony" is accurate, or helpful. It is "eyewitness testimony". There are some who will see that as a distinction without a difference, and that's a shame for them.

Second, I think it's time to take "science" out of the conversation. Unless and until one has something that scientists can actually study (an actual crashed spaceship, for example), it's not really something amenable to scientific study (and I would prefer any money that might be spent on UFO studies to go towards cancer research or something like it anyway).

There's been this long-time struggle to achieve scientific "respectability", which has been a waste of time and resources, because it is never going to come without that hard evidence.

But that doesn't mean that UFOs (or other supposedly paranormal phenomena) are not amenable to investigation. The proper methodology, however, is that used by oral historians, and criminal investigators (whether lawyers or police officers). People are sent to prison on that kind of evidence. The history of the world has been written using that kind of evidence.

This will frustrate both the disbelievers, who treat science like a religion, and the true believers, who in a strange way also treat science like a religion. But it's the proper way to look at it all. The absolutists on either side of the divide should be ignored.


Paul Kimball said...

It strikes me that having chastised the "only science will do" crowd, I should add that UFO research has been pretty shoddy when it comes to oral research methodology. This has resulted in equal measure because most of the researchers went in with pre-conceived notions of what they were looking for (I saw this close-up with Scott Ramsey in a couple of "interviews" he conducted re: the Aztec hoax), but also because they have no education or training in the area of oral research methodology, and don't seem to think that's terribly important.

Stan Friedman, for example, was a far more competent nuclear physicist than I could ever hope to be (or most of his critics, for that matter), because that was what he was trained for. He was not trained to interview witnesses, and conduct what amounted to oral history research. I was. It was a required graduate level course when I took my MA in history, and it was absolutely required training in law school. For a reason - because there is a method that needs to be followed.

I wrote about this a couple of years ago, at:

It's all fine to say that witness testimony means something, because it absolutely does. But not if it's been tainted by people who have no training in how to conduct it, which has far too often been the case with UFO research.


Paul Kimball said...

As if on cue, Anthony Bragalia presents a perfect example of how not to conduct oral history research.

Oh my...

Lance said...

In reference to Bragalia's latest travesty:

This is EXACTLY what I expected to pass as "research" from some members of this collection of "researchers" :

1. Calling veterans liars if they don't have the answer you want.
2. Using a dubious online lie detector (essentially an online Magic 8 Ball) to proclaim (in silly breathless insupportable prose) that someone is telling the truth.

Kevin, with every move, the "Dream Team" further hurts your reputation as at least being a sober voice among the rabid loons.

Hey, is it too late to add Scott Ramsey to the team? Or Steven Greer? Or Dan Akroyd?

Or do you need them to be nuttier?

Thank God you don't have any skeptics!


Paul Kimball said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul Kimball said...

Lance and I certainly disagree about many things, but on Bragalia we seem to concur.

Kevin, it concerns me that you would associate yourself with someone who would be so quick to label men who served in the US military as "dishonourable", based on such scanty (and I suspect misrepresented) "evidence".

Isn't this the kind of thing, in a slightly different way but with the same effect, that Korff tried to pull with you?

Bragalia's "work" (which is reminiscent of the writing style and content of Frank Scully) is an affront to proper historical research, and is absolutely shameful in this instance.


KRandle said...

Gentlemen -

If you have a quarrel with Tony's blog posting, I suggest you take it up with him at his blog. I will note that he has the right to his opinion. I will also note that Jesse Marcel Sr., who served honorably in WW II was attacked with all sorts of allegations that were not true (and please don't bring up the educational discrepancies because I know about them and do find them troubling.)

Lance -

Your transparent effort to drive a wedge in among the team members will not work... nor will your comments about what you expect. You have seen very little of the work we've done and when we get to the end, we will provide chapter and verse on the information we present.

Paul -

You have the right to your opinion, as does Tony (and this sounds harsher than I mean). But the final product of the research by all Team members will be reviewed by all Team members. We are getting started here, we have made some interesting discoveries, and we are moving forward.

Anthony Bragalia said...


If any of you have "issues" with what I write, I invite you to comment on my blog. There is no need to badger Kevin about me on his site when you can do it directly. All three of you know where to find me.


cda said...


One question that is relevant:

When the Dream Team completes their investigations and research, how is it going to present its findings to the world?

Will it be yet another book on Roswell? Will it be an on-line magazine (maybe in weekly parts), or on some new website or blog?

Do you have any ideas on this, or is it still being pondered over?

I suppose it depends on whether your conclusions are intended for the world at large or only the UFO community.

I cannot believe another Roswell book would excite any publisher nowadays, but you never can tell.

Unknown said...

I'll mention another issue worth considering: was there confusion evident in the various stories beginning with General Ramey's 20 or 25ft kitelike object? Were the Generals and Colonels, and reporters, and Brazel unclear as to the differences between a weather kite and a weather balloon and its radar target kite?
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Steve M said...


You make an excellent point, as Irvine Newton stated very few Rawin radar targets were used and mostly in the Pacific. Therefore the various Senior Officers, Marcel and Brazel wouldn't recognise it. Also Marcel's description of balsa wood, etc sounds more like the target than a crashed spaceship.

KRandle said...

You miss the boat on this. Marcel served in the Pacific during the war.

The officers and men of the 509th were used during Operation Crossroads, in which the balloons and targets were used.

There is nothing special about them and a farmer in Ohio who found one knew what it was... as did the local sheriff... as did the local newspaper reporter.

The balloons were off the shelf and the radar targets weren't all that rare, especially to the guys who had served in the Pacific.

Steve M said...


Your assumption is that because rawins were used in the Pacific therefore anyone who served in the Pacific knew about them and would recognise them. Ergo with tlhat assumption everyone who served in the UK in the Battle of Britain would know all about RADAR, IFF, Enigma, etc. As you must agree being there doesn't mean you know / recognise everything.

As Newton stated there were a specialist piece of kit and only in limited use. Therefore while a balloon is easily recognisable the target wasn't, especially when smashed into its component parts of balsa wood, tin foil, string and tape, which is what Marcel (sr & jr), Bessie Brazel, Calvert, etc described.

As for your examples without more information such as names, dates, location, etc they are not really useful as evidence to show these targets were easily recognisable.