Your Weirdest Thing, Vol. 4
One of the most valuable experiences, I think, that can happen to a scientist — or, for that matter, to anyone who values the scientific method and learning the way the world really works — is to have an unexplained experience. To wake up and see what looks like a ghost. To see a UFO with no Earthly explanation. To have a premonition of something so specific that it can't be a coincidence. It is experiences such as these that remind us how powerful and persuasive our brains can be, how even the smartest people can develop a firm belief in the supernatural that has every indication of being based on solid evidence. These are the experiences that teach us we must always be vigilant, and that when we're forced to leave a question unanswered we must never fall into the trap of considering it unanswerable. Today is another episode of inexplicable stories sent in by you, our listeners, and my thoughts thereon.
Every once in while I send out an email to all of our thousands of premium members and solicit your stories to put through the Skeptoid wringer. People are always trying to challenge me with their weird experience and say "Explain that, Mr. Skeptic!" and so once again, here I go, this time with four new stories.
The Indigenous Gremlin
This one comes from listener Marc (with a C; his friend in the story is Mark with a K). In 1985 they found themselves in a land of ancient people, a land with a distant past bridged to the present:
First of all, I love four wheeling through Canyonlands. Some incredible trails with scenery you won't find anywhere else, and it's simply a wondrous, magical place. So I can very much empathize with how you must have been feeling, and with how overcome you could have felt. Visiting the sites of the Anasazi, it sometimes seems like they're right there at your side.
So the presumed coincidence here (which I know you're not claiming is real) is a cause-and-effect. You violated the sacred site, and your camera was rendered temporarily nonfunctional as a punishment. This seems like a particularly powerful coincidence, probably due to the strong emotional impact of being at the Anasazi site. But if we take the emotional element out of the equation, we can then regard the coincidence of these two events as we would any other.
How often do any of us do something deserving of bad karma? Maybe we hastily say something a bit rude to someone. Maybe we grab a second brownie when nobody's looking. Maybe we drive 30 in a 25 zone in front of a school. Most likely, many of us could find some transgression of some degree in just about every day.
Similarly, how often does some minor thing go wrong for us in our day? That can be anything, from stumbling as we walk, accidentally deleting an important email, breaking a glass, bumping our elbow, or having some function on our phone lock up for a minute and refuse to work. Isn't it just possible that every so often, these two things will happen close together during the day? It's not just possible, it's a mathematical certainty. This probably happens to all of us several times a year, and the cause-and-effect of punishment for a transgression is just one of uncounted types of coincidences.
If you try and say that this one was especially unusual, then I put the question to you: What the heck would an Anasazi know about a Bolex movie camera, and how to jam it up. If the spirit of an Anasazi wanted to punish Mark for violating the sacred site, I promise you Mark would have been bitten by a rattlesnake or would have had a rock ledge fall on his head. Mark's innocent friend wouldn't have had a subtle mechanical glitch with a modern piece of camera gear.
The Tumbling Alien
Early one morning, listener Rich Cattle was out walking in the wee hours before sunrise, something you should never do if you don't want anything strange to happen to you:
I'm jealous because this is really cool. There are basically two kinds of things in the night sky that blink as they cross from horizon to horizon — well, three if you count aircraft with blinking lights, which is not what we're talking about here. They are satellites that rotate — known as spinners in the biz — and spent rocket stages that are tumbling their way through the sky. They can reflect the sun at just the right moment and appear surprisingly bright.
What you describe is more consistent with a tumbling rocket than with a spinner. Spin-stabilized satellites are usually round so wouldn't really blink; some are hexagonal or octagonal so would blink pretty rapidly, and would present relatively small reflective surfaces. But a big booster stage would rotate more slowly and present a much larger reflective surface, thus making a much more dramatic show for people on the ground. If you had logged the date and noted the period of the flashing, it would have been easy to look it up and see exactly which stage from which rocket launch it was, which is kind of cool.
The Terrible Triangle
A quarter of a century ago, listener Chris was on a most unusual night drive in rural Pennsylvania:
Notice how many of these stories are funny lights in the night sky? Once we even did a whole episode devoted to these stories. And while there's never been any empirical evidence of anything truly unusual in our skies, one thing we know for sure is that there are a whole lot of people up there, in planes and helicopters or even on the ground operating remote vehicles. One might suspect that there's a chance we're seeing ordinary aircraft up there at night, but we just don't recognize them as such because the night sky offers no reference points; and all the details of the vehicle — like its size, shape, speed, and distance — can't be judged from the ground. Well, let's just keep that in mind.
You reference the famous triangle UFO best known from the late 1980s and early 1990s, discussed in depth in episode #538. A UFO group blanketed the press with claims that people all over Belgium were seeing triangular UFOs and repeatedly solicited the population to send in their own similar experiences, and guess what, people began responding that they'd seen UFOs sometime in the past too. The phenomenon fed on itself, but after several years, the only evidence that anything had been seen by anyone was a single photograph; and in 2011, a guy named Patrick Maréchal invited reporters to see how he and his buddies at work had hoaxed that photograph. He even had a whole box of other photos of the same model that weren't quite as good. Hoax or not, once everyone in Belgium saw that photo reproduced in the news, their own descriptions of what they believed they'd seen changed to match it. It was a fascinating sociological case.
Now I'm not saying this is what happened to you; I've no idea what you saw in the sky, and probably nobody ever will. But there's no testable evidence suggesting to me that it was anything noteworthy. Would your description of it have been the same if you hadn't seen the TV show about the Belgian triangle? I don't know; but I do know that in Belgium, researchers determined that the people's descriptions changed to match whatever they were prompted with. Your mileage may vary.
The Phantom Electrician
About 13 years ago (about the time this podcast started), listener Dustin had his apartment go haywire in a manner not consistent with normalcy:
Your story is a good example of why skeptical ghost hunters will often hire an electrician for an hour or two to check out a place when the ghost report includes inexplicable behavior by appliances or other electronics. I make no assertion that this is what happened in your case, but I've heard a number of cases in which settings were changed on modern electronics following a power surge. Power surges can cause just about any random thing to happen to TVs and stereos and such, to the point that many manufacturers include a section in the manual with steps to restore the original factory settings after a power surge. Can these changes include toggling the option to start up automatically after a power failure? Sure. You probably don't still have that old TV, but it would be interesting to check its post-incident state and compare it after a factory reset.
What about the breaker panel with nothing flipped? Depending how many units are in your apartment building, and the local laws and codes, you may or may not have the "real" panel. Sometimes there's a master panel that only a superintendent can access, separate from the subpanel in your apartment. There's no way I could speculate from here, but it's another great reason skeptical ghost hunters keep an electrician's number on hand.
As far as your battery powered clock? Who knows. I do find it hard to believe that you could have known that it went off and on at the same time as your power did unless you happen to have been inspecting it at both moments. To my mind, confirmation bias seems to be about a .99 probability on this one — especially in combination with a dying battery.
And so, as always in these episodes, I've tried not to presume to tell you what your experience was. There's no way I can have any meaningful insight into something that happened to someone else, that I wasn't any part of, and for which no testable evidence exists. But what I can do, and what I do have experience with, is to report what these types of stories usually turn out to be, based on the ones we are able to solve. Does that aggregated explanation apply to your experience? Well, maybe it does, and maybe it doesn't. But what I hope it instills in all of us is a reminder that when we're faced with a seemingly inexplicable circumstance, we should always be skeptical.
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