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Lights in the Sky

How likely is the most common type of UFO report to be an alien spacecraft?  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Feedback & Questions, General Science

Skeptoid Podcast #576
June 20, 2017
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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:

My name is Andre from Germany. And the unexplained story that happened to me was a UFO sighting in the early 90s. I was in south Spain, looking over the ocean, where I saw a bright light in the sky which suddenly went to the left and to the right and back and forth really really quickly, and covered huge distances, in seconds. And I have, to this day, no explanation what it could have been. But ultimately, I started researching these things, and I got interested in unexplained phenomena. So it was something that ultimately led me to skepticism. So I think it was a good thing. But I still don't know what it was, to this day.

Hi Brian, I'm James from Brisbane, Australia. When I was about 12, my brother and I were in our back yard during sunset and looked up to see what looked like a very bright star moving at a steady pace across the sky in a perfectly straight line. My brother asked me if it was a UFO, at which point it turned into two brighter conjoined stars, and blasted at ridiculous speed in an arc upwards out of sight. We both remember it exactly the same way. I never thought it to be extraterrestrial, but I have no naturally occurring explanation for it. Thank you.

My name is Randy from southern California. A bunch of years ago, some friends of mine went on a ski trip to Utah. In the middle of the night, about two o'clock in the morning as we were driving, I see a shooting star come out of the sky and pointed it out to the driver and he sees it too. It suddenly stops in mid-air, long ways away, stays there for a few seconds traveling along, and then all of a sudden rockets back out, like it came down from the sky. It considered it my first UFO, and my only one.

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.

Pitfall #1

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.

Pitfall #2

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.

Pitfall #3

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:

Hello Brian, this is Mike Littorus. You can probably classify this story under UFOs in the strictest sense of the word, just undescribed lights in the sky. OK, here's my story. It's 1996, Idaho in the desert. It's April, still kind of cold out, and my friend and I are driving, it's five in the morning, we're going to a court date in Rupert, so we're driving from Hailey, Idaho to Rupert. Desert's completely empty. We're going down Route 75 in Idaho, right around the Fairfield turnoff there, and we come down this hill, and this bright light just comes right in front of the car. And it changes direction a couple times, just kind of hovers there, then blinks out. And my buddy and I looked at each other and kind of describe what we saw to each other, and we joked about how the judge probably wouldn't like it if we were late because we actually had been abducted by aliens, some kind of time warp. Anyways, the really strange part is that when I was sentenced to community service, the guard, I told him the whole story, and he looked at me and said "I can tell you exactly where you saw those lights: Outside of Fairfield, Idaho." He people said see those lights there all the time, just unexplained lights. Anyways, I hope you can help me out. This has been something that's bugged me and my buddy for over 20 years now. So thank you.

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?


By Brian Dunning

Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.

 

Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Lights in the Sky." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 20 Jun 2017. Web. 18 Aug 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4576>

 

References & Further Reading

Klass, P. Bringing UFOs Down to Earth. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1997.

McAndrew, J. The Roswell Report: Case Closed. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2013.

Nickell, J. Real-Life X-Files: Investigating the Paranormal. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001.

Oberg, J. UFOs & Outer Space Mysteries: A Sympathetic Skeptic's Report. Norfolk: Donning, 1982.

Rutkowski, C. A World of UFO's. Toronto: Canada Council for the Arts, 2008.

Shaeffer, R. UFO Sightings: The Evidence. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1998.

 

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