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Your Weird Turn

Donate We try to figure out some of the creepiest stories ever sent in by Skeptoid listeners.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under General Science

Skeptoid Podcast #625
May 29, 2018
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Today, once again, we turn to strange and unexplained stories sent in by you, the listeners, for discussion. In my position, people are always asking me what I think of some experience they had that seems paranormal or supernatural. And a lot of times, they don't suspect that, but they honestly can't think what might have really happened. I'll cut your suspense short right now: I don't know either. But I usually can muster up some thoughts. So today I present three stories: an unexplained apparition, a UFO in broad daylight with multiple witnesses, and a home disturbance that seems like it could only be a poltergeist. We're going to see what explanations we can offer — if any.

We'll get started with a "Good day" from Stephen from Australia:

Good day, Brian. This is Stephen from Australia. Long time listener since the beginning. About three years ago, myself and my girlfriend arrived home from a wedding like one night. And we went to her parents' house. No one was home, and we parked in the driveway, but as we pulled up we saw what looked like the shape of a 3-man dome tent. It was completely filled with light, in her back yard. It wasn't bright, it wasn't shining, it was just filled with light. We both looked at each other in amazement. We both looked back at the back yard and we said "Let's turn the car lights off." So we turned the car lights off and then after a few seconds it just diminished. The light just dimmed down to nothing. We checked, there was nothing in the back yard. I have no idea what this light was, and the fact that my girlfriend saw it at the time, meant it was definitely real. What was it?

What I like about Stephen's story is that he doesn't take the path so often chosen by people with similar experiences, which is "I don't know what it was, therefore I do know, and it was a ghost/alien/interdimensional rift, etc." This tendency is so common that we also see it among people who only heard the story and didn't experience it themselves. Because no mundane explanation leaps forward, such people will often declare for a fact that the report has no Earthly explanation and must be something outside our experience. This is called the appeal to ignorance: I don't know any explanation, therefore there is no explanation.

So I would expect some people to scoff at any proposed explanation. Since none of us were there and we don't know the layout of the place or what influences might have been afoot that night, we have no hope of guessing what it could have been. But it's still fun to try. I think of a trick of the light: perhaps a reflection of something behind them seen in the car window and appearing to be in the yard (this is the illusion called Pepper's Ghost, responsible for the dancing ghosts in the ballroom at Disneyland). I also think of some light source elsewhere in the neighborhood, either direct or reflected, making a dome-shaped projection on a fence or building. Who knows. If ten people listed every possibility they could think of, one of them would probably be right. We don't have any reason to proclaim that it had no possible Earthly cause.

Let's hear now from Robert:

Hi Brian. My name is Robert White, and I love your show. I've owned a business in the Denver Metro area for thirty years now, and consider myself a skeptic and I really appreciate the coverage you give to a lot of topics. Anyway, one day back in the early 1990s I was working downtown Denver on the 20th floor and it was about 2pm on a Friday afternoon, broad daylight, and I noticed this strange object outside flying among the buildings at a very low rate of speed, but it was flying nonetheless. And it looked very improbable that it could fly. It did not have right angles, it was large, it was metallic, large meaning 20 feet long, metallic. I would say drifting among the buildings at the same level. I brought my various coworkers over to the window and we saw this object. We couldn't figure out what it was, and we lost interest after about ten or fifteen minutes. It had no visible means of support, didn't look like it should be able to fly, and so this is really really it. To this day I have no idea what that was.

This is a great example to talk about for two reasons: First, it had multiple witnesses, all those coworkers. Second, the fact the people eventually lost interest and walked away means it might not have been as impressive at the time as it seems it was now in Robert's memory. But since there were multiple people, the thing to do would have been to interview each of them separately and describe what they saw and what they thought — all these years later, or even if it was only hours or days later, the fact that they've all had a chance to discuss among themselves means their collective recollection is now blurred and contaminated.

Often when multiple people have a shared experience — seeing something strange, or witnessing an accident — they start talking about it right away. Our memories will conform to what our fellow witnesses report, even if it's wrong. In the study of memory, this is called the misinformation effect. This purely unconscious shift in memory is compounded by the bandwagon effect: Your friends all saw blinking lights on the UFO, so you say you saw them too, because you consciously want the event to have a consistent and quantifiable description.

But without uncontaminated, immediate, separate interviews to compare, a very solid body of research tell us that neither Robert nor his coworkers likely have a very accurate memory of what was visible outside that office window.

But for fun, we can still speculate about what the object described in Robert's three-decade-old report might represent. His description did call to mind a recent event we mentioned in episode 621 on the Pentagon's secret UFO program. You may recall that Tom Delonge — former front man of the rock band Blink-182 turned promoter of alien visitation — showed a photo at one of his events of something a lot like what Robert described. It was actually a big metal foil party balloon in the shape of a number 1. Could it be that such a balloon had gotten loose from someone's office party and was floating around downtown Denver, just deflated enough that it had neutral buoyancy? We know for a fact that people are terrible at judging the size and distance of objects in the sky; it might be a possibility that's hard to disqualify.

Let's hear a bit of a creepier story from Tony:

Hello, my name's Tony, and I'm a skeptic. I've got a story here that I still haven't got a satisfactory explanation for. It happened in the year about 2002. My second son was a baby. He slept in a big sturdy wooden cot. One morning, my wife was downstairs with the baby and his older brother, who was about five at the time, there was a sudden crash from upstairs, and my wife went up to see what happened. She found the cot on the floor, blankets tipped out, exactly as if it had been pulled over. When I got home, she told me about what happened and I went upstairs to look at the cot. She'd already put it back up. I pushed it, I pulled it, I tried to see what had made it fall over, because I didn't want the baby to go back if there was a fault with the cot. So I kept pulling, tugging, looking at it, examining it. I couldn't find anything wrong with it at all. It was as solid and perfectly safe as it has always been. Obviously I didn't experience this myself, but I really think the only explanation, which is totally irrational, is that my wife made it up. She obviously insists she didn't. The other explanation, which she offered, is that the cat had knocked it over. But to me, that is not a rational explanation at all, because it took a great effort for me to pull it over, and to think the cat has got that sort of strength. So here's a case of the rational case is more ludicrous than just saying I don't know what happened. So if you have any idea of how a large, solid, wooden cot can be pulled over by a nobody, I would be delighted to hear it. Thank you.

I don't know anything about the room or the furniture other than what's in the description, but I think we can safely say the cat didn't do it, and the baby didn't do it either. Either some person did it, or it never happened. I don't know anything about your wife or the circumstances, so I won't speculate about your thought that she may have made it up — neither will I speculate on the possibility that you're making it up yourself. However, the possibility of someone lying is the most interesting area of discussion in this case you've presented.

When we talk about ghosts and UFOs and Bigfoot, people are rarely lying about their experience; for the most part, they're honestly mistaken about what they think they saw. But not in the case of the crib being knocked over. That's hard to mistake. Either some person knocked it over, or someone's lying about it having happened.

Research is clear that all of us lie nearly every day, an average of about twice. We lie for many reasons, not all of which are malicious or for personal gain. Even a detective who plants evidence on a suspect he knows to be guilty to insure a conviction is, in his mind, doing the right thing. I can think of perfectly virtuous reasons that someone might have lied about having found the crib knocked over: perhaps they want to persuade you of the need for a nanny cam. Perhaps they believe the house is haunted and want to move out, and want to raise your level of concern so that you'll agree. All such lies are for reasons that are perfectly virtuous in the mind of the person telling them. There is not a thing about this possible explanation that makes it unlikely. Behavioral science has proven that we all do things like this, and most of us do them every single day. I'd say it's a lot more likely than the crib having actually fallen over without a person involved.

Something I always avoid is offering what I think is the explanation for someone else's experience, because in almost all cases, there's no way I could know. The best we can usually do is show the person that avenues are available that lead to explanations other than paranormal ones. Because, as regular listeners all know, whenever you experience something that seems hard to explain and doesn't seem to fit within the confines of our Earthly sciences, you should always be skeptical.


By Brian Dunning

Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.

 

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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Your Weird Turn." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 29 May 2018. Web. 15 Aug 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4625>

 

References & Further Reading

Ariely, D. The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone - Especially Ourselves. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012.

Arkowitz, H., Lilienfeld, S. "Why Science Tells Us Not to Rely on Eyewitness Accounts." Scientific American. Nature America Inc, 1 Jan. 2010. Web. 22 May. 2018. <https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/do-the-eyes-have-it/>

Bhattacharjee, Y. "Why We Lie: The Science Behind Our Deceptive Ways." National Geographic. 1 Jun. 2017, Volume 237, Number 6.

Loftus, E., Hoffman, H. "Misinformation and memory: The creation of new memories." Journal of Experimental Psychology. 1 Jan. 1989, Volume 188, Number 1: 100-104.

Nickell, J. Secrets of the Sideshows. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2005. 288-289.

Secord, J. "Quick and Magical Shaper of Science." Science. 6 Sep. 2002, Volume 297, Issue 5587: 1648-1649.

 

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