Wednesday, December 10, 2008


UFO Debunker strikes again

I've been slagged by Phil Plait. Again.

Phil has been receiving some heat about a statement he made recently, to the effect that since astronomers don't report seeing UFOs, UFOs don't exist.

Several people have taken him to task on this, including Stan Friedman, who listed several cases of astronomers' UFO reports. In rebuttal, Phil went after Stan again and then mentioned another critic of his writings, namely me.

Curiously, Phil quoted something I wrote to UFO Updates six year ago, noting that many amateur astronomers have reported UFOs but that most amateurs don't pay much attention to objects in the sky that aren't things of astronomical interest. In fact, many amateurs sit in warm-up rooms and do their observing remotely, looking at small areas of the sky on computer screens. Some are outside, but use their computers to find galaxies and nebulae automatically without looking skyward all that much.

Now, it is true that many amateurs spend nights outside comet hunting, star hopping and doing real astronomy, and in the course of these actions might see something that was a bit odd. But to report such an object would not be something most would do. In fact, astronomers like Phil would be one really good reason not to report them.

Despite this, we know from a few surveys that astronomers, both amateur and professional, do see and report UFOs, the percentage of which is variable. If they reported the same as the general population, about 10% would see them. The surveys that have been conducted have them a bit lower than this, and we could speculate on why that would be so. Nevertheless, the percentage of astronomers and amateur astronomers who have seen UFOs is significant, and not just "a handful" as Phil Plait notes.

Phil then makes an extraordinary statement that really takes the cake. He notes:

...the majority of UFO reports would be made by amateur astronomers if these were in fact alien spaceships. I don’t care if you can find a handful of reports from astronomers. This shows conclusively that the majority of UFOs reported are not flying saucers, but misidentified mundane objects. (
Where does one start to show the fallacies of this? Let's try.

First of all, no serious ufologist believes that the majority of reported UFOs are flying saucers. Neither Stan nor I nor anyone else involved in serious research has ever held that contention. In fact, we provide evidence to show that most reported UFOs are either misidentifications or have insufficient evidence for a conclusion. It's nice to see that Phil has arrived at the same view as we have, only 40 or 50 years behind.

Second, does Phil mean that amateur astronomers are the only people watching the skies? If an alien spaceship was to approach Earth and be visible in the night sky as a brilliant non-starlike object, would only amateur astronomers notice?

If he means that amateur astronomers, with their advanced CCDs, would spot an approaching UFO before the general public and immediately realize its alien origin, and then report it publicly, that's likely an implausible scenario too.

This also assumes that all unexplainable UFOs are alien spacecraft, something I and many others do not contend. It also assumes that alien spacecraft would necessarily be recognizable by us and that an alien anthropologist would allow us to see him (or it) easily.


I just called a friend of mine who is an avid amateur astronomer. He goes to the famous Texas Star Party regularly, images distant galaxies and nebulae and spends a lot of time and money on his hobby. I even have fantastic photos of things like the Dumbbell Nebula and M-13 on my desktop, courtesy of his work.

I asked him about Phil's view that astronomers watch the sky intently and would notice UFOs ore than the general population. His reply, in no uncertain terms: "No."

He said, "I go out every second night or so, set up my scope and equipment, spend two hours getting it ready for use, take a CCD shot to align what I want, then click on my mouse and walk away as the computer does the rest. Occasionally, I'll sit back in my lawn chair and gaze at the Milky Way. Sometimes, I'll go to the house and pour me a rye and Coke. When the exposure is done, I'll set it for another object and do it all over again."

That's a dedicated amateur astronomer, one who produces photos you see in astronomy magazines and textbooks. I asked him, "Would you notice a UFO in the sky if it was visible?"

He replied, "Hell, it could be right behind me and I would never see it."

Not to be accused of over-generalizing, I will note that this is one individual I am talking about. I know some amateurs, like the legendary Jack Newton, had a more rigid and formal nightly schedule, but he's an exception, too. I would think that most amateur astronomers would fall somewhere between the two. And, if they have been indoctrinated with the skeptical view that UFOs don't exist and that anyone who sees a UFO is to be ridiculed, they won't be interested in much else than taking the best possible image of M-31 rather than being curious about the luminous object that seems to be hanging low in the sky opposite their selected target.

Phil concludes:

What Rutkowski said sounds true enough, unless you know better (or someone who does know better tells you). That’s one part of what makes it so hard to be an activist skeptic. We rely on reality, which means we have to play by the rules. The same is not true for antiscientists, who are free to make up anything they want.

Strange... that's what ufologists say about debunkers.

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