Your Weirdest Thing, Vol. 1
Rarely does a day go by that I don't receive an email from a random person describing a strange experience they've had and asking me for my take on it. This is not limited to wooists who believe their experience was unequivocally supernatural and intended to challenge me with it; just as often, I hear from skeptics who are lucky enough to have witnessed something without an evident explanation. So, as I do from time to time, I sent a special invitation out to all of Skeptoid's premium members — if you are one, you probably read that email — and asked those of you with such experiences to share them on the show. Here they are.
I do want to start with a preamble that applies to all of these. I wasn't there, and am therefore a terrible person to presume some kind of superior insight to what you experienced. And normally I wouldn't; however, today's exercise is explicitly for me to offer my particular take on your stories, for what little it may or may not be worth.
The Imploding Window
Let's begin with a creepy tale from England. This comes from premium member Phil, who did ghost hunting in college and was called to a local business:
Maybe it's because I wasn't there because I'm not seeing a mystery; I can think of at least two ways to break the window like that. First, just throw something through it from the outside. Second, pop a small hole through it from inside and pull the rest inward. Perhaps other options might present if we had a look at the place.
If someone has suggested that a ghost was involved here, I'm not seeing where that suggestion is coming from. I don't hear anything at all that excludes human intervention; and I expect that if you'd left a hidden camera instead of just a cross you'd have caught the culprit. It's never helpful to note the shopkeeper was a level-headed person and would never make something up. You and I and most people are level-headed and people make things up all the time for all sorts of reasons, like gaining publicity for your shop; and on top of that we know nothing about their friends and neighbors and mischievous little brothers, or what role some laughing unknown rapscallion might have had in this.
The Dying Pope
Next we have a common type of story; several of you sent me essentially the same one, and I chose this one as a representative sample. It comes from listener David in Adelaide, who had met the Pope once when he'd been a young boy:
So while this seems like a coincidence so radically improbable that only some supernatural intervention could be behind it, mathematically it's actually quite common.
Let's estimate the average person wakes up early for no good reason about once a month. That gives a 1-in-30 chance that your one special famous person will die on a day you wake up early. With 7.7 billion people in the world, this will happen to about 256 million people. But let's narrow it down to the exact same time of day; and let's make that a 5-minute margin of error. There are 288 5-minute blocks in a day. This means that about 891,000 people alive today will wake up on the same night and at the same time that their one special famous person dies. If you remove the restriction to just the one specific famous person you've met, and include your own friends and family, this number multiplies enormously, by the hundreds. We call this the law of large numbers. In the same way that casinos will always make money even giving out many jackpots, we require no supernatural explanation even with so many people waking up at the exact same moment as their one particular famous person dies.
So, apologies to you David, but your experience is not unusual.
The Splinted Finger
Our next mystery comes from Kevin in Arcata, CA:
Of course this may have no relevance to your experience, but what you've just described has all the characteristics of the classic case of déjà vu, which has been studied a lot and we now have a pretty decent handle on what's going on.
When a moment of déjà vu is triggered — for example, when you came in and saw your dad with the splint — brain scans have shown that the decision-making centers of your brain are activated. The theory is that these moments are attention-grabbing because a tiny seizure or synaptic misfiring happens when the brain is attempting to correlate what it sees with relevant memories, resulting in a perceptual double-take, and force-feeding you a reconstructed memory.
Innocuous and insignificant events like looking at your hand or thinking of your dad happen countless times a day to all of us, so we rarely form specific memories of them happening. In many of the cases studied, that moment of seeing the finger and thinking of Dad turns out to be a distorted memory formed after the fact — possibly even completely false — which is 100% indistinguishable to you from an actual memory, and it makes no difference how certain you are that it happened. In fact, often researchers find that the memories we are most certain of turn out to be the least reliable.
Now, obviously, there's no way to say that this is what happened in your case, so I'm not saying that. But without compelling evidence that this is not what happened, I'm afraid a skeptical memory researcher would not find your story to be especially compelling.
The Popular Aliens
Here's a story from listener John:
The first thing I did when I heard this was turn to the lists of mass UFO reports, and I didn't find anything from May 1966 in Wisconsin. I did find, however, that the month before, there was a popularly reported news item in which a pair of Ohio police officers pursued the planet Venus across two states. It's possible your mother was referring to that case because it had just been the talk of the town, or that memories conflated the two over the decades.
You do bring up a pair of other points I'd like to address. First, your mention of swamp gas. Although UFOlogist J. Allen Hynek proposed this as an explanation for some UFO sightings, it was never an acceptable one. Under no naturally-occurring conditions can swamp gas (basically methane) spontaneously ignite; and when swamp gas is burned in a lab, it flashes with a sudden green pop. It cannot, as Hynek suggested, form a glowing orb that produces a sustained light drifting through the sky. So I'm curious to know more about what you mean when you've seen it.
Second, I'd like to address your proposed explanation of a military aircraft. Although this is one of the first solutions many people reach for when they hear of any strange-looking aircraft, it's just as bad as the swamp gas. From the entire 20th-century history of experimental military aircraft — all of which are long since declassified, well known to the public, and now sitting in museums — not a single successful example differs substantially from a conventional aircraft's configuration and performance characteristics. But if you insist on going on to claim (without evidence) that there must have been a super-secret design consistent with a flying saucer that was so successful it remains classified today, then you're really just committing the logical fallacy of a special pleading: your claim can't be disproven because it requires special knowledge not available to investigators. But even if this was true — which it's not — super secret military aircraft are tested in secret at places like the National Classified Test Facility. They are never, ever presented to the public by flying them in plain view outside of controlled airspace. In summary, a "secret military aircraft" is among the worst possible explanations for most UFO reports, as they share no common characteristics.
What's missing from all of these stories, of course, is the actual explanation for what might have happened. In many cases, it's lost to memory and to history, and will likely never be known. Nevertheless the exercise does have a valid purpose: it keeps our critical analysis skills limber, and prepares us to more readily — and effectively — question the next weird thing.
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