Lights in the Sky
How likely is the most common type of UFO report to be an alien spacecraft?
This week I wanted to know about what strange experiences listeners are reporting these days. So I did something I often do: I reached out to the mailing list and asked. A few dozen of you replied with some tales of weird things you couldn't explain. But there was one trend. About half the stories were UFO reports, and of those, a lot of them were the same. Today I'm going to talk about those. I don't have the solution, because of course I wasn't there and can't speculate, but I do want to offer a few points of caution about assuming that alien spacecraft are the most likely explanation.
These are all stories about a fast-moving speck of brilliant light, often described as appearing to be a meteoric fireball, but that stops, hovers, reverses direction, goes up, or makes some other maneuver that a meteor cannot, and that's too abrupt for an airplane. Let's listen in:
What's fascinating is how similar these all are. They might as well all be describing the same event. And if you search UFO reports online, you'll find that this same basic observation is probably the single most common type.
So what's the natural human reaction to this? Take a moment and think about it. Lots of people report the same exact thing in the sky, all around the world, and have been for decades. We conclude that they're all seeing the same thing. And if we think about it a little bit more, we might go on to speculate that since it's been visible all around the world for a long time, it's probably something that governments and experts are aware of, and there don't appear to be any ready explanations. So where do our pop-culture influenced minds take us? To the conclusion that these are some unearthly visitors. Something unknown on Earth.
Now I'm not going to tell you what they are, because I don't know. But I will advise you of some pitfalls to watch out for when trying to draw conclusions like this.
Perceptions and memories are all fluid. We've all heard these stories before. So when we see anything in the sky that looks like any part of the basic story, our brains fill in the rest, and bring our perception into line with what it expects. Over the years, our memories react to other retellings of the same basic story, and keep our own version in line with its constantly-evolving definition of such an experience. It's impossible to be aware of these effects, since it's our own conscious perspective that is itself changing. Therefore, you must be very cautious to conclude that these stories, as similar as they sound, translate to the original experiences being equally similar. They don't necessarily.
Extraterrestrial visitation is among the least likely of all possible explanations the human mind can author. We talked about this in great detail in episode 262, "Are We Alone?" It is more likely that there is a secret supervillain base inside a mountain somewhere, launching advanced, but very earthly, aircraft. It is more likely that someone is standing behind you with some kind of mind-projection ray implanting a false perception into your brain. If we're going to jump to insisting that this experience must represent some source previously unknown to humanity, we must also allow all the radical explanations besides aliens.
Remember Shermer's Essential: Before we say something is out of this world, let's first make sure that it is not in this world. There are a ton of earthly things this might be, 99% of which we can't personally think of, because they're outside our personal experience. There are maybe only one or two that we can think of. Now compile a list of all the possible earthly, mundane causes for these lights that are within the combined experiences of every single person on Earth. That's an extraordinarily long list. Every item on that list is far more likely than alien spacecraft.
Showing these to a friend the other day who skydives, he told me that sometimes skydivers do night performances for festivals and things like that, where they fly around with wingsuits holding magnesium flares. They look exactly like meteors in whatever bright color they choose for their flare. When they fly right toward the audience, they appear to stop. Suddenly they veer left or right, or aim beyond the audience, thus appearing to go straight up vertically. I'd never heard of this before, and probably wouldn't have thought of it. Of course this is not the explanation for every UFO report of meteoric lights that stop or change direction. It's probably the explanation for a non-zero number of them though, and other equally obscure causes that I can't think of probably explain all, or most, of the rest. The point is that there are always potential explanations out there, whether you think so or not.
Now let's listen to one more, and pay special attention to its twist at the end:
Now as you might surmise, I'm about to point out that this one is different because it's a known location where this happens a lot. But I want to stress that's not necessarily the case. Refer back to our pitfall #1, that not only is Mike's recollection of the event subject to more than 20 years of memory drift, so is his conversation with the guard. There's our interpretation of Mike's retelling of what the guard said, and who knows what the guard thought or how the guard interpreted Mike's recounting of his experience. The guard might have had in his mind something wildly different than what Mike had in his. The way Mike tells this story, we might get the impression that this whole thing is neat and tidy: Mike saw X, the guard knew many people also reported X, and X is unambiguous and a reliable, quantifiable observation. The truth is almost certainly very different. We have third hand anecdotal interpretations of anecdotes. Please. This is why anecdotes — reports which cannot be tested — are of so little value.
But let's imagine that X did represent X, and examine the implications of this: the existence of a well-known point where flying craft could be regularly seen exhibiting unearthly characteristics. Certainly officials would have gotten wind of this at some point, and checked it out. Right off the bat, this tells us that anything at that location must not be anything interesting. Rather than magnifying the abnormality of this event, its frequent reproducibility actually reduces it.
I can't know what was there or what people were seeing, and won't speculate, but I will relate another solution a friend of mine found who always saw something similar to this outside of his apartment complex at night. There was a point in the sky where lights would appear and dash back and forth, left to right, far faster than aircraft. Then once in the day, he noticed there were powerlines in that same location. Apparently one of the lines had some reflective coating, and there was an improbable set of reflections from car headlights at the intersection turning into the complex. A vertical strip of light reflected off of something or other in such a way that it made a single bright speck on the reflective powerline, and would go back and forth as the car turned. Looked really weird at night. Never would have guessed it or thought of it.
There don't have to be powerlines outside of Fairfield, Idaho for there still to be a virtually unlimited number of possibilities for what might make a bright spot of light in the sky move in a predictable and reproducible manner. I'm not yet at the point of demanding the alien explanation. Are you?
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