Listener Feedback: Aliens and UFOs
Skeptoid digs into the feedback mailbag and answers questions about aliens and UFOs.
April 16, 2013
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By Brian Dunning, Skeptoid Podcast
Episode 358, April 16, 2013
Today we're going to dip into the Skeptoid mail bag and answer some emails specifically pertaining to episodes about UFOs and aliens. A lot of people who believe that UFOs are most likely alien visitors take their belief very seriously, and I always get quite a lot of hostile feedback when I don't confirm that belief for them. But many of their arguments are well worth discussing, so I've collected a few representative emails to answer today.
David from St. Albans wrote in response to the episode on Men in Black, in which I pointed out that the phenomenon of intimidating government agents originates not from actual witness reports, but from a 1950s fiction author:
it is a pity that this whole article dismisses the men in black syndrome, by citing literally one example of the phenomenon. There are accounts from different countries. The MIBs are undoubtedly alien in origin. The weirdness seems to be part of their game... The aim of the sceptic is to ridicule witnesses, because he cannot countenance something that he cannot understand.
I gave four specific witness reports and cited a number of books and articles giving many more, so I can't agree with David that I cited "literally one example". I also can't agree that there was anything at all in the episode that could be reasonably construed as ridiculing anyone.
But David's main point is that the Men in Black are "undoubtedly alien", based on their weirdness, the number of witness reports, and their nature of being hard to understand. In order to make a positive identification of an alien based on the characteristics of the evidence, we'd logically have to have a known alien to compare it with. Lots of things are weird, widely reported, and hard to understand: lucid dreaming, Elvis sightings, odd coincidences. David's stated characteristics don't make any of those things alien. I don't understand Mongolians and I find some of their traditions weird; is the best explanation that they're from another planet?
Eric from Illinois responded to another aspect of the story:
The fact is while the stereotypical MIB may be a figment of hollywood and those with overactive imaginations, the govt DOES intimidate, threaten and overall try to silence anyone who wont follow the govt line. Here are some well documented cases. The rancher who reported the debris in the rosewell case. The radio reporter in the ketchburg PA case along with firefighters and general public.
I'm extremely familiar with the case of William "Mac" Brazel, the rancher who found the initial debris at Roswell, and I'm absolutely confident that he never expressed having been threatened, intimidated, or even approached in any way. However, there were stories that he spent a few days in Army custody, but those stories did not exist until they were "remembered" some 50 years later in a third-hand account by UFO proponents interviewed for a 2001 book.
The Kecksburg UFO case has to do with the US Air Force being on the lookout for the late December 1965 re-entry of a Soviet probe called Kosmos-96, which was intended to land on Venus. The launch failed and the probe never got further than a low Earth orbit, and when a bright meteor was seen all across Pennsylvania, Air Force personnel descended onto the scene. Their habit in the day was to dress in civilian clothes and claim to be from NASA. One reporter, John Murphy, later produced a dramatized radio documentary about the incident, saying that the government had confiscated all the best evidence.
Besides these two accounts which clearly don't support Eric's case, I'm unaware of any credible stories of the government threatening or intimidating UFO witnesses. If you have some, send them my way.
Another case involved a UFO that was chased by a couple of Iranian F-4 Phantoms in 1976. Clark from Indiana questioned one part of the story from one of the pilots:
I'm an amateur astronomer, and I can tell you from experience that planetary light does not behave like that. Even closer to the horizon, where stars tend to have maximum "twinkle," planetary light tends to remain steady. In all my years observing Jupiter, I've never seen it display the kind of color-changing behavior that was observed by that F-4 pilot. I'd be very interested to hear Brian tackle THAT part of the story. I'm not saying that there was an alien spacecraft cruising over Tehran that night, but UFO stands for "Unidentified Flying Object," and that seems to be exactly what we are dealing with here...not an unusually phosphorescent Jupiter and a relatively minor period of meteor showers.
Actually we did talk about that part of the story. The pilot, Lt. Parviz Jafari, had actually never flown at night before — ever. We have a popular account that his description of the light he was sent up to investigate was a strobe light that flashed colors so fast you could see them all at once. This was a second-hand description that the Iranian officers provided to a US Air Force section chief as a courtesy, which was not considered interesting and was never classified. It's of very little value to take what's now a third-hand report, which was filtered through the Iranian military, and treat it as a precise literal account that demands explanation. There's no video, no data, nothing that can be studied. So there's nothing there worth "tackling", as Clark said.
In the episode Are We Alone? I mentioned that most astrobiologists believe there is certainly life out there somewhere. An anonymous correspondent said:
I wanted to listen to this one just to hear the ridiculous excuses and disinfo propaganda Dunning came up with to tell me that we're the only creatures in the Universe, but as soon as I heard this: "Most astrobiologists think so. The physicist Enrico Fermi..." I had to stop. So now he's going to fully acknowledge that MAINSTREAM SCIENTISTS that he so worships say it's possible, and then go on to tell me there's no aliens? You skeptics take brainwashing to a whole new level. This is absolutely ORWELLIAN.
This person is simply wrong. At no point did I say there are no aliens, nor do I believe it. I said there's no compelling evidence that we've been visited by any, but that's an entirely different question.
Rodney from Melbourne made a similar comment in response to my episode on the Westall 1966 UFO:
Since my UFO encounter in 1971, I have experienced occasional ridicule when relating my story to others. Most people are open to the possibility of aliens visiting & others, like many of your readers, are totally dismissive. I cannot convince somebody with a closed mind. All I can do is relate my experience & ask that people keep an open mind to the possibility. You are doing yourself an intellectural injustice by dismissing every report of UFO's as nonsense.
I've never said every UFO report is nonsense, and don't believe it. So, again, argue against what I said, not what you'd like me to think.
Rodney brings up the age-old question of open-mindedness vs. closed-mindedness. No evidence exists that we've ever been visited by aliens, nor is it very likely that we could be, given physics. Open-mindedness is being willing to change your mind based on the evidence; and insisting upon the preferred explanation of "aliens" regardless of evidence is textbook closed-mindedness. I'm eager to see evidence of aliens and would love to have sufficient reason to change my mind. Would you?
Dezi from Freeman was similarly dismayed with that episode, and wrote:
This skeptic article states.."I don't know" does not mean "I do know, and it was a spaceship". That also applies to skeptics who must admit that they too "dont know" and that doesn't mean they do know and therefore cannot say that it WASN'T an spaceship. Skepticism is like a blind religion that "believes" blindly the negative of everything and just rationalises evidence away and comes up with theories that are just as bizzare as anyone elses and then pretends those theories are facts. That is largely close minded arrogance.
Dezi is absolutely right that "I don't know" means neither "I do know, and it was a spaceship" nor "I do know, and it was NOT a spaceship". Like previous writers, she puts words in my mouth that I didn't say. In fact, the rest of my sentence that Dezi omitted went on to say that this case "remains one of many question marks in the books." That's hardly a positive assertion that it was not a spaceship.
Without evidence of what the Westall 1966 UFO was, it would be impossible to determine that it was not a spaceship. It's impossible to come to any conclusion without having anything to analyze. The best we can do in a case like this one is to find probable matches among phenomena whose characteristics and properties seem to match what was reported. We've never seen something known to be an alien spaceship, so we don't know what characteristics and properties one might have; therefore, it cannot now be logical to make a probable match to one. It is not closed-minded to follow a logical method to seek answers. However, it's arguable that it is closed-minded to hold logical conclusions in contempt in favor of a preferred conclusion.
Keep the feedback coming. I always welcome comments to the episode transcripts on the web site, where there's often plenty of lively discussion. Contrary to appearances, it's not all insults thrown at me.
© 2013 Skeptoid Media, Inc.
References & Further Reading
Editors. "Object Perhaps Balloon." The Age. 7 Apr. 1966, Newspaper: 6.
Klass, P. UFOs: The Public Deceived. Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1983. 111-124.
Matson, J. "Alien Census: Can We Estimate How Much Life Is Out There?" Scientific American. 10 Feb. 2009, Volume 301, Number 2.
Muller, Richard. "Chapter 7." Physics for Future Presidents. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, 7 Sep. 2007. Web. 9 Nov. 2009. <http://muller.lbl.gov/teaching/Physics10/PffP_textbook/PffP-07-waves-5-27.htm>
Oberg, J. "http://www.jamesoberg.com/statement_nasa_kecksburg.pdf." JamesOberg.com. James Oberg, 7 Jan. 2008. Web. 4 Apr. 2013. <http://www.jamesoberg.com/statement_nasa_kecksburg.pdf>
Sherwood, J. "Gray Barker: My Friend, the Myth-Maker." Skeptical Inquirer. 1 Jan. 1998, Volume 22, Number 3: 37-39.
Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Listener Feedback: Aliens and UFOs." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 16 Apr 2013. Web. 20 Apr 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4358>
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