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UFOs, or the Joy of Skepticism (part one of two)

One topic I don't write about enough is skepticism and science. It's something I find interesting (in fact something I try to live my life by) but up to now I've never really come up with anything I thought I could write that would be worth reading.

Today I thought of something, so I'd like to remedy this situation. Here is a fun story (part one of two) about strange experiences I've had while flying. It may involve alien spacecraft!

Space aliens!

In this incident, I was on a normal commercial flight somewhere north of Washington state. I like to have a window seat and sit and stare out the window when I fly. Flying is an amazing experience that has never quite worn off for me, and I like to enjoy the sights.

On this flight, as I stared out the window, I saw some kind of orange sphere go whizzing backwards past the window. The plane was well above the cloud line at this point, and the "orb" was between the plane and the clouds, so I knew it wasn't on the ground. I thought to myself that this was very strange, but maybe my eyes were playing tricks. I was looking carefully out the window at this point, when I saw a second, similar orange sphere go flying past (again in the reverse direction of the plane).

How easy, how tempting it would be to say "UFO! Aliens! Experimental government aircraft! Ghosts! Demons! Sasquatch!" Maybe not sasquatch, but still. This thought immediately occurred to me as I sat on that plane. (More on this later.) This is the kind of experience wacky UFO beliefs are made of.

Or maybe not

I'm happy to say this line of thought didn't last long in my mind. The first question I must ask myself is how genuine my experience actually was. What did I really see?

  1. I have no idea how big the orange globules were. It's extremely difficult to judge the size of something in the air if there's nothing close to it for reference. Scroll down a bit and look at the picture of two planes on this site. I don't know if the photo is genuine or photoshopped (yay skepticism) but I don't have much reason to doubt, and you can find many similar photos all over the internet.

  2. I likewise have no idea how fast these things were going. To me they appeared to be going backward, so did everything else, because the plane was going forward at many hundreds of miles per hour. Maybe these things were stationary and the forward motion of the plane made them look like they were going backward. Maybe they were even going forward, but more slowly than the plane. They would still appear to be going backward to me.

  3. More importantly, did I see something that really existed? It's very possible it was a trick of light. Maybe a reflection in my window. Maybe a play of sunlight on the clouds. Interestingly, no one else on the plane seemed to see anything. I didn't ask around, but I didn't hear anyone yell "Oh wow, look!" This leads me to suspect that maybe I was just seeing things that weren't there.

  4. If I did see something real, did I see it accurately? At the time this happened, I was very excited about the plane trip I was taking. It's not hard to imagine that I was so excited as to be distracted. I was also pretty hungry (I never eat when I fly, as a rule); my brain may not have been at full operating capacity.

  5. I also must consider that my eyesight is terrible. (I asked my eye doctor what my vision was once, and he laughed at me and said "blind".) Maybe my coke-bottle glasses caught a reflection. Maybe my sucky eyes see spots sometimes.

  6. Perhaps most importantly, maybe none of what I remembered ever even happened. This was years ago. I am telling this story from memory. Is my memory real? Maybe I did see something, but I'm misremembering important details? Maybe there was only one sphere, not two? Maybe they weren't orange? Maybe I have all kinds of details wrong. Maybe I dozed off for a minute and I'm remembering a dream. I have had dreams before that I later remembered as "real" but that the people involved tell me never happened.

The human mind is a highly fallible piece of hardware and memory is a lossy storage system. A lot of people greatly overestimate how accurate their eyes and their memories are. Eyewitness testimony and anecdote are the least valuable form of evidence, for good reason. The entirety of the scientific method, testability and repeatability of testing, is intended in one sense to make up for the deficiencies of a single human brain. Lots of brains testing a theory lots of times gets us close to answers, but one experience in one brain, even my own, is highly suspect.

But what was it?

Suppose I really did see something, and I really am remembering properly. I have no idea what these things could've been. But I can think of a lot of things more likely than space aliens. "Balloons" is the obvious first guess.

In any case, I'm perfectly comfortable settling on "I don't know". I don't have a need to know. Bad answers are worse than not having answers.

Who cares about this?

This story is important to me partly because of my childhood. As a young child I had a lot of superstitious beliefs, and I was plagued with fear of a lot of silly things. One of those things was UFOs. I slept with my window closed so I couldn't see the night sky, and I never looked up when I went outside at night. I was terrified I'd see something scary in the sky. I had nightmares for years.

I cured myself of this fear by educating myself. I learned that the chance of there being aliens flying around earth is very close to zero. The physics of space travel nearly precludes any such thing from happening. The logic of a bunch of super-advanced beings coming all this way just to poke people up the bums with pointy rods and leave doesn't really make any sense. There is no actual evidence that UFOs are anything other than natural phenomenon, urban myth and the misunderstandings of a gullible public.

One day I read Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, which is an awesome book for many reasons, one reason being the serious treatment of "space aliens" by a scientist who apparently would really love them to exist on Earth, but is forced by lack of evidence to say they probably don't.

Sagan makes some excellent points in the book. He mentions for example that many people claiming to be abducted by aliens would contact him and offer to ask the aliens questions for him. Sagan would ask some people to ask the aliens "Should we be kind to other humans?" (and the answer was always "Yes"), and others he would ask to solve unsolved (at the time) mathematical problems like the Poincaré conjecture. It stands to reason that any race of beings advanced enough for interstellar travel would have answers to such mundane mathematical problems. Sadly Sagan never got an answer to the latter question.

In any case, via countless similar little data points collected in my 29 years of life, via a lot of thought and reading the thoughts of others, today I'm no longer afraid of the dark. Science was certainly a candle for me, and continues to be one. As I sat on the plane that day, I enjoyed the puzzle of thinking about what I saw (or didn't see?) and what it could be. I enjoy living in a world without demons.

Part two will follow. It's about rainbows.

February 13, 2010 @ 11:32 AM PST
Cateogory: Skepticism


Dion Moult
Quoth Dion Moult on February 13, 2010 @ 1:24 PM PST

Today I saw a portal into another dimension on the ceiling of my room.

Turns out I had some glass object right next to my window and it created an amazingly colourful and rapidly vibrating show of lights on my ceiling.

Steve Purcell
Quoth Steve Purcell on February 15, 2010 @ 5:41 AM PST

Those were most likely Chinese Lanterns, which are kinda like small orange hot air balloons, launched from the ground in a series. I've been fooled by the same thing, and apparently they're currently the most common cause of UFO reports.

Quoth Roy on March 29, 2010 @ 4:30 AM PDT

How topical, I actually read some of the "The Demon-Haunted World" book today (and even one part, I suspect one of many, on UFOs), and it's currently sitting on the bookshelf to my right.

As I read through it, one thing that I can't help but dislike is the dryness, or the unadulterated skepticism. He often mentions in passing how some of the topics he debunks are better explained by satisfyingly fabulous scientific phenomenon. He mentions these things in single sentences and then goes on. For example, he mentions that humans have a biological imperative to recognize faces, from infancy onwards, and how that helps explain the "man-on-the-moon" appearance of moon craters.

I kinda have to feel that this is a failure of his writing skills or understanding people skills or something, because I think that the most compelling part of things like the UFO and Face-on-inanimate-object phenomenons is that people like that feeling of wonder and mystery. So to just say "here's why these concepts don't work" misses the broader opportunity of emphasizing the often similarly amazing scientific phenomenon.

The main example is that I feel it's if anything more amazing how ingrained human facial recognition is than that people find faces in weird places. The concept of the sometimes subtle, sometimes brute-force pressures of evolution that lead to humans NEEDING to see find faces first is much more amazing than that the faces are actually carved by the martian wind or by erosion. And he misses it.

Disclaimer: Just impressions, haven't read through it all yet, but these are the senses that I get so far.