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UFonies

by Phil Plait, Dec 10 2008

I had to laugh when I read fellow Skeptologist Brian Dunning’s article about the UFO True Believer™ Stan Friedman hating him. What an elite club! Friedman is no fan of me, either. A few years ago I wrote an article for Sky and Telescope magazine about UFOs, basically making the same claim I made here last week: if all these UFO sightings we hear about were real, the majority of them would be seen by amateur astronomers.

Friedman took exception to that (shocker, I know). In his internet newsletter (subscription required), he said: “Plait among other gems says about Amateur [sic] astronomers [sic] ‘Logically, they should be reporting most of the UFOs’. This is logic?”

Um, yeah, Mr. Friedman, it is. Maybe you should acquaint yourself with it. Note that this is all he said, just dismissing my point without actually saying anything about it. I know, it’s hard to believe that someone with such stature in the UFO community would make a claim with no evidence, and dismiss a claim that does have evidence!

Mr. Friedman has company, too. I got an email from a reader named Chris Rutkowski, who also posted his thoughts to an internet newsletter. He does Friedman one better (just barely) by actually addressing my claims about amateur astronomers, but blows it when it comes to logic. Rutkowski basically says that amateurs do in fact report UFOs, and so I am wrong.

The problem is, this doesn’t show me wrong. It misses the point entirely, which is 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.

I have said this, over and over, very clearly, but the “UFOologists” can’t seem to understand it. And then they accuse me of being closed-minded. That part slays me. They cannot imagine that aliens aren’t visiting us, and every light in the sky is a spaceship, and I’m the one who has a closed mind.

Sheesh.

Rutkowski piles bad argument after bad logic, too. He also says:

There are a few other problems with Plait’s reasoning. One is that amateur astronomers aren’t interested in moving lights in the sky any more than they are in identifiable aircraft. The ones I hang out with want to do some specific imaging of nebulas and galaxies, and spend a lot of time looking through eyepieces with tiny fields of view. Of course, many have now switched to computer-guided scopes and spend their time in warm-up rooms, often miles away from the telescope itself. Professional astronomers are even worse in terms of observation. Few actually DO any optical observations. Many haven’t looked through a telescope or spent any time looking at constellations since their undergraduate days.

There’s so much wrong in there it’s hard to know where to start. I can dismiss the entire argument about professional astronomers, because I never talked about them in my article. I know most pros don’t do much actual sky observing, so I never brought them up. That’s a straw man argument on Rutkowski’s part.

And he’s completely wrong about amateurs. Amateurs aren’t interested in moving lights? What a crock! Of course they are! They observe satellites, and meteors, and are very interested in airplanes, to make sure they don’t screw up any pictures they are trying to take of the night sky. If you actually go to a star party with amateur astronomers, you do see them looking through telescopes, of course. But they are also just looking up, using their eyes. All amateurs do that. I do that!

I don’t think Rutkowski knows very many amateurs astronomers. I know a few hundred, and have been to dozens of star parties. If he’d like to compare notes, I’m all ears. Or eyes, in this case.

I recount these two tales of woe not just to entertain you, but to show you what we as skeptics are up against. People who want to believe are prone to ignoring contrary evidence, and may twist logic to the breaking point (and beyond) if it suits them. We all do this — in fact, it’s one reason true skeptics are even harder on themselves when they are investigating a topic they themselves wish to be true. It’s too easy to fall into logical traps when you have a stake in the outcome.

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.

Antiscience is not a fair fight. But we cannot cheat; we’re not allowed. All we can do is never tire, never waver, and always make sure that the evidence is on our side. And you know what? It always is.

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37 Responses to “UFonies”

  1. I have at times reminded people that UFO simply means ‘Unidentified Flying Object’, not ‘spacecraft with little globe-headed, brain stealing space aliens’. As with evolution, there are people who insist on inserting imaginary beings to explain away anything they cannot or will not understand.

  2. Along with the prevalence of amateur astronomers, there’s the little manner of about 8 kazillion orbital satellites looking back at earth that also seem to miss all these alien space ships.

    Technical question: Say an amateur astronomer is looking through a telescope at the moon, Mars, Venus, a star, etc. If a representative ‘UFO’ (20-100 ft across, altitude 500-50,000 ft) were to cross that telescope’s field of view, what would the astronomer see?

    I get this image of a bee flying through the field of view of my binoculars 6 inches past the lens…. But, I know virtually nothing about telescopes and their optical features, so I ask.

  3. Greg Taylor says:

    Hi Phil,

    Firstly, I would suggest being familiar with Chris Rutkowski’s background before addressing him in a post titled “UFonies”, lumping him with “people who want to believe” who “will twist logic to the breaking point”. It kind of makes you look all emotional and unscientific…perhaps even “close-minded”.

    Perhaps treating intelligent and discerning researchers, who differ from you in some opinions, with some respect and humour might be a good start in trying to gain victory on Dr Novella’s “Skeptical Battleground”?

    Kind regards,
    Greg Taylor

  4. patrik.e says:

    Thank’s Phil! I can’t believe that I’ve never heard this argument before. It’s so obvious! Nice blog entery as always. Cheers!

  5. Jason says:

    “…if all these UFO sightings we hear about were real, the majority of them would be seen by amateur astronomers.”

    Man, that is such a tired and ignorant statement. -Nevermind the fact that it is completely incorrect.

    Amateur astronomers due in fact see UFOs and report seeing UFOs.

    I would disagree with your biased belief that amateur astronomers would see the ‘majority’ of them. Last time I checked, most astronomers are only looking up at clear night skies and not during daylight hours. -What, did you never stop to think about that?

    The most credible sightings have come from pilots as well as the military.

    Might I suggest you actually research the subject instead of immediately enter ‘debunk mode’.

  6. BillDarryl says:

    “Star parties?” I’d never heard of those before.

    But now I know if I’m invited to one, I should replace expectations of seeing George Clooney and Angelina Jolie with expectations of being very, very disappointed.

  7. Venom says:

    Hello,

    Thanks for this clarification. I wasn’t convince by your argument on the “Bad Astrnonomy” blog because I also read it has “no astronomers see UFOs” wich is plain false.

    I understand your point better now.

    Anyway, you said in your previous blog entry that it’s a killer argument (for you at least). I don’t think it really is. As soon as you have to ponder in the balance how much astronomers vs. the general public see UFOs, it becomes a subjective judgement call (when enough astronomers sightings become a significant pourcentage according to you?).

    Well, I’m glad you posted this anyway. You should work more on UFOs…

    Keep up the good work.

  8. Phil Plait says:

    Greg– I reread what I wrote, and I see your point. I wasn’t trying to lump him in with that comment, so I went back and edited to the post to make my point more clear. We all become less skeptical when we investigate something we wish were true, and that point got lost, so I emphasized it.

    Jason– OK, even if I concede your “daytime” point, then amateurs should be reporting the majority of nighttime UFOs, and that’s still not the case. And note that amateurs are also awake during the day! I see all sorts of unusual things in the day: haloes, sundogs, and the like. Atmospheric phenomena like these are almost wholly unknown to the general public, because they never look up at the sky!

    Incidentally, I have researched this, and the overwhelming majority of pilot reports are objects like meteors and Venus. Even the report that started the craze — Kenneth Arnold in 1947 — is now understood to have most likely been a fireball breaking up.

  9. Dr.Q says:

    If christianity or evolution is hard to take, ufology is even harder. No concrete evidence has come clear of any doubt, to sustain we are being visited by entities of other worlds.
    When you see this programs with super aircrafts on tv, you know the goverment has much more powerfull ones kept for emergencies.

  10. dhawk says:

    @Phil

    amateurs should be reporting the majority of nighttime UFOs, and that’s still not the case.

    Actually that wouldn’t be what you expect, if you believed we were being visited, but only rarely. Many UFO proponents concede that the vast majority of reports are false positives, so the question boils down to which group would generate more false positives: amateur astronomers, or the general public?

    A couple of things to consider. 1) The total man-hours viewing the sky put in by amateur astronomers is likely much less than the total put in by everyone else in the world. (Although this is a complete guess on my part. Anyone have any numbers?) 2) By your own admission, amateur astronomers are better trained and using better equipment, and so are less likely to misidentify various phenomena as alien spacecraft.

    The expectation that amateur astronomers would submit the majority of reports would only be reasonable if your premise was that the rate of alien visitation were on par with the rate of all commonly misidentified phenomena. If your premise is that alien visitation is relatively rare, then you would not expect amateur astronomers to submit the majority of reports.

    Anyway, I don’t happen to find the evidence that we’re being visited compelling, but I don’t think your argument would convince many people who aren’t sure.

  11. Small point, but I was struck by this claim: “The most credible sightings have come from pilots as well as the military.”

    Are these sightings alleged to be more credible because they come from pilots or the military? If so, then this is just circular reasoning. If the sightings are more credible for other reasons, what are they? I am pretty well read in the UFO literature – I think that alleged UFO sightings of pilots, etc. are not substantively different than any other sightings – except for the fact that they are given a-priori more credibility, which is not (in my opinion) deserved.

    There are, in fact, numerous documented cases of pilots falling victim to common optical illusions. They are not magically resistant to them.

    Also, an aside – the most commonly reported UFO’s are astronomical objects (the moon, Venus). Amateur astronomers should be less likely to misidentify astronomical objects. One could argue this skews the numbers. The question is – if you factor out misidentified astronomical objects, what percentage of UFO reports come from amateur astronomers vs the public. This does not invalidate Phil’s point – which I think is that Amateur astronomers would be in the best position to notice and recognize actual visible alien spacecraft, so we would expect more sightings from them, and we do not see this.

  12. Jason: “The most credible sightings have come from pilots as well as the military.”

    In that UFO reports are basically a report from a witness who could not identify something he/she saw, no report is more credible than another. If you meant that UFO reports where the witness was a pilot or from the military are more credible, that’s a total falsehood.

    As early as the 1960s it was well established by a highly repected UFO researcher of the time, Allen Hendry, that pilots, military or civilian, are among the worst witnesses. Police fared no better. Hendry’s work was followed up the grandfather of modern-era Ufology, Dr. J. Allen Hynek, and found the same.

    Hendry found that the error rate of pilots in the 1300 cases he investigated was 75%. For police officers the error rate rose to over 90%. And these are just the percentages of pilot and police witness reports that Hendry was able to correct – the actual numbers would be higher.

    Hynek, in his book The Hynek UFO Report (p.271 of the paperback edition) wrote that “commercial and military pilots appear to make relatively poor witnesses”.

    So Jason, may we suggest you actually research the subject instead of immediately entering ‘debunk mode’?

  13. dhawk says:

    @Steven Novella

    This does not invalidate Phil’s point – which I think is that Amateur astronomers would be in the best position to notice and recognize actual visible alien spacecraft, so we would expect more sightings from them, and we do not see this.

    I agree that amateur astronomers would be in the best position to report actual alien spacecraft, but that’s somewhat removed from Phil’s statement. He asserted that if we were being visited, amateur astronomers would be producing the majority of reported sightings. That’s not necessarily the case. For instance, if in the next year we were visited by two actual alien spacecraft, would we expect a huge change in the pattern of reporting? No – even when only factoring out the obvious misidentifications, because there are thousands of reports every year.

    Phil’s point could be used as an argument that the vast majority of sightings are likely false positives, because if they were actual sightings, we would expect amateur astronomers to be reporting a high percentage of them. But that does not do anything to sway people on the fence who say, “well sure most of the sightings are misidentifications, but surely there’s at least a few.”

    Really my only point is that the trends in UFO reporting are consistent with a low rate of visitation, from a purely mathematical perspective. Therefore it is not a good argument for no visitation. Far better just to stick with, “there is no compelling evidence as yet to suggest that we are being visited.”

  14. dhawk says:

    One small addition: In my comment above, when I supposed what would happen if two actual alien spacecraft visited the Earth, I of course assumed that they would be difficult to see. That is, no Independence Day scenarios, or mile-wide motherships hovering over New York on a sunny afternoon.

  15. The Mile-Widers are all in Texas.

  16. Mchl says:

    Just wondering… Would another group with similar, let’s say predispositions to report majority of UFOs would be amateur meteorologists?

  17. Perhaps, though I’d suppose their numbers small. Amateur ufologists, now there’s a hot source…..

  18. dhawk – Phil states quite clearly as his premise “if all these UFO sightings we hear about were real.” This could be extend to “most” as well and his point would be valid.

    You are talking about a completely different scenario – most sightings being false positive. I agree that Phil’s principle would not apply in this situation – in other words, it would not (as you say) distinguish few true positives from no true positives. Other lines of reasoning are needed for that, such as the absence of compelling evidence that any sighting or encounter is genuinely an ET phenomenon.

  19. CrookedTimber says:

    I have long wondered about the point made above regarding satelites. With the constant imaging of earth via various systems such as high resolution imagery, Landsat, and other platforms shouldn’t a UFO have shown up somewhere by now. Many of the aforementioned are sun synchronous and would miss the night time phenomena, but there are night imaging platforms as well. Even Google Earth captures quite a few planes in flight.

    Anyone else have more info on this?

  20. dhawk says:

    @Steven Novella

    You’re right, in this post he did make that distinction, and I missed it. I unfortunately skimmed through it and had in my mind something he had written previously, where he failed to make that distinction and referred to it as a killer argument.

    If The Truth Is Out There, then amateur astronomers would be reporting far and away the vast majority of UFOs.

    That, to me, is the killer argument that aliens aren’t visiting us. If they were, the amateur astronomers would spot them.

    The bolded section should have been revised to read, “alien’s aren’t visiting us in large numbers.” While this post did reflect that qualification, it certainly was never a good argument that we aren’t being visited at all.

  21. RE: Satellite surveillance

    In that they don’t see any alien space ships, there’s little info obviously, but the UFO promoters just toss this aside with the Military Conspiracy, that the military isn’t about to reveal alien space ships captured by their satellites. Point out that a great many satellites are non-military, and they include Big Corporations and/or Mainstream Science in the great conspiracy to cover up the reality of aliens in our midst.

    Sat surveillance is pervasive, covering nearly the entire surface of Earth from high altitude, there for many different reasons, which is good because it means the sats use many different technologies, optics, and ways of surveilling.

    I’m unaware of any image of a ‘UFO’ taken by a satellite that has eluded explanation, but there is no lack of sat photos wherein believers see alien ships. There is one from 11/21/99 where a NOAA sat shot ‘something’. UFO believers were already pointing out how it emitted steam and had windows when it was quickly identified as the moon. Another internet fable had believers mistaking an out of focus drop of condensed water on a sat-mounted camera lens as a ‘real’ UFO over Florida. Ironically, sats are frequently mistaken for UFOs, especially the NOSS sats, which orbit in a equidistant group of three, confusing witnesses.

    Beyond satellites,another damning aspect is the prevalence of so many outdoor security cameras attached to building eaves, utility poles and other sites that afford recorded views of the lower portion of our atmosphere. Where are all the UFOs that should be recorded by these devices? This is even harder to sweep under the conspiracy theory.

  22. patrik.e says:

    This makes me think of Carl Sagan and his comparing todays UFO reports with the demon reports of oldern days. The similarities are remarkable. The only things that really has changed in the stories, is that the culprits now use a shiny space craft and look a bit different. The stories are the same though. Abuctions, medical and sexual experimentations, walking through walls, coming into the bedroom at around midnight, unable to move or speak during the procedure…

    Just for the record, I don’t doubt the sincerity of ALL the UFO reporters (just the majority of them), but I do doubt their explanaitions for what they saw or experienced. However, I’d give anything for it to be true. Perhaps one day…

  23. Cambias says:

    The attempt to sidetrack Phil’s argument by trying to factor out false positives just hurts the UFOnauts’ case. If the vast majority of UFO reports are false positives, then the odds are good that ANY given report is a false positive, which means the UFO believers basically have to admit they have no phenomenon at all.

  24. dhawk says:

    @Cambias

    If the vast majority of UFO reports are false positives, then the odds are good that ANY given report is a false positive, which means the UFO believers basically have to admit they have no phenomenon at all.

    That logic simply does not hold. The only thing you can conclude from a high rate of false positives is… a high rate of false positives. You cannot conclude that there are no true positives. Of course, that doesn’t imply that you can conclude that there are true positives either. Which is why (as always in science) the most you can say is, “there currently is no compelling evidence to suggest we are being visited.” Recognizing what statements are scientifically justified is critical.

  25. We allude to the UFO believer idea of “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” – the idea that UFO sighting reports can’t all be wrong, that the smoke of sighting reports can only come from the fire of actual alien ships in our midst. We know that said ‘smoke’ can come from other ‘fires’ of course – like wishful thinking, conclusion jumping, and plain old sincere perception errors. During wistful daylight reveries I envision UFO believers finally seeing this fallacy, which causes them to make a fundamental change. They switch to a new, innovative belief-serving formula: “Where there’s steam, there’s water.” *sigh*

    I’m not sure there’s any definitive stat on this, but most accounts I see hold that about 90% or more of UFO sighting reports are eventually resolved as mundane origins when a sufficiently thorough investigation is conducted. Scientists know there will always be a small set of unresolvable data that defies explanation and that this is no guarantee or evidence of ‘fire’. Most of rhese cases suffer from a dirth of info which preempts thorough investigation. I suspect a very small percentage of UFO sighting reports are thoroughly investigated, if investigated at all, so who knows how reliable these statistical assumnptions are?

    The Trojan Rabbit Affair

    10 years ago or so I read a claim by a director of a leading UFO org that all UFO sightings reported to them were investigated within a period of days to months. Wishing to test this claim, I submitted a fake UFO sighting report, including all poassible vectors for contacting me for investigation: address, phone #s, email addresses, etc. While my fake UFO report was posted in their online database as an investigated and unresolved case within 12 hours, I was never contacted and the case was never investigated.

    I revealed this sad fact at a message board where I knew a poster (using ‘rabbit’ as part of his online nick, hence the Trojan Rabbit Affair) who was a junior field investigator for the same UFO org. I knew he’d inform the UFO org of the false UFO report. The same director of this org made excuses for why this particular sighting report had not been investigated and assured members it was an anomaly, that submitted sighting reports were investigated in a timely manner. A ‘this one’s a hoax!’ notation was attached to my fake report in their database. I had counted on this.

    At this point in time I announced that I had submitted not one, but two fake UFO sighting reports, and looked forward to assisting them in their investigation of the other one “within a few months” as was promised. A decade later there has still been no contact, no investigation, and both fake reports remain in their database, one tagged as a fake only because I informed them it was a fake, the other promoted as an investigated case that defies explanation.

    Not that it’s any surprise or great revelation, but the databases of UFO sighting reports are unreliable, and to what degree is not knowable. I cannot accept that mine was the only case of UFO sighting reports going straight to database, falsely ID-ed as investigated and unexplained. A secondary revelation emitting from the Trojan Rabbit Affair was that this UFO org completely changed the details of my sighting report. I had purposely described my fake UFO as boxy and angular (where almost all are described as disc-like and smooth, aerodynamic), and they edited my report to make it conform with expectations – my boxy, sharp-angled ‘UFO’ was now a traditional disc! One can see what this does to yet another UFO believer fallacy: “The consistency of details among reports lends them credibility.” Obviously, if they don’t conform to the standard model on receipt, they will by the time they are published.

    I would be dismayed if anyone was interested further in this sorry afair, but I still have most of the data, links, and details on this.

  26. Mchl says:

    As a teen I wanted to join one of those organisations… to be a field investigator… on the front line of human-alien contact… Just couldn’t afford it from my pocket money… Glad for that now :P

  27. I applied and was accepted in the late 1980s as a self-assigned ‘undercover’ skeptic just to see what the training and investigations consisted of. Basically, I was handed a skinny UFO investigations handbook and a stack of blank sighting report forms and that was it – I was now an official UFO investigator.

  28. Mark Edward says:

    For all of us who are old enough to remember it, the first season of the late lamented 60’s television series “The Invaders” is now out on DVD. Talk about your UFO conspiracy! This is the one that possibly started it all churning around in the mass subconscious. Dark, well made and supremely paranoid, I have eally been enjoying re-visiting that classic era in television where belief in flying saucers was kept neatly in the area of dramatic fiction where it should have stayed. The series is actually better than I had remembered it to be. Full of bad alien police and corporate baddies, it’s quite a comment on the times and still holds up very well. Excellent music from Dominic Frontiere who gave me chills as a teen with his “Outer Limits” scores and chock full of all those wonderful character actors who managed to make the transition from 50’s black and white series to brilliant technocolor – and this series is very colorful. Anybody interested in UFO’s, our national obsession with them and all the government conspiracy hoopla deserves this boxed set in their Christmas stocking. David Vincent can’t trust anybody! He’s the ultimate skeptic throughout and Roy Thinnes even looks a bit like Shermer. There’s no doubt in my mind that the basic format of “The Invaders” that combined “The Fugitve” with “Invaders from Mars” paranoia, spawned a whole new generation of 60’s drugged-out crazies. Now we are looking at the children born out of that generation, whose parents were steeped in that genre. It had to have an effect.

  29. [Psssst, watch out for posts missing letters from the right end of the keyboard - probably Invader alien who cannot straighten out the pinky finger - shhhhh]

  30. baryogenesis says:

    As a lad in the late 50’s walking home from school with a friend, I recall seeing gossamer strands hanging in clumps over telephone wires and on tree branches. We asked an adult what they could be; he said they were jet contrails which had floated to earth! We didn’t believe him but had no other explanation. We pulled some of this material from a tree and it dissolved in our hands,leaving no apparent residue. It began to shower and as a consequence, the substance washed away. A few years later I read about so-called “Angel Hair” in the UFO literature and was convinced it had been “alien”. This started me on years of belief in UFOs. The most apparently credible witness to sightings (a friend) turned out to be (sadly) delusional. Now, decades later, after becoming very familiar with the sky and spending many hours in amateur observing, I have never seen anything that cannot be explained. I used to be a believer, can’t possibly be now. I am still curious about that “Angel Hair” though, for it didn’t seem at all like wind-blown migrating spider webs as is often the offered explanation. Cool experience, but not likely from Altair 6.

  31. Greg Taylor says:

    Phil wrote:

    “Greg– I reread what I wrote, and I see your point. I wasn’t trying to lump him in with that comment, so I went back and edited to the post to make my point more clear. ”

    Phil, thanks for the clarification. My extended point though was that you seem to have assumed a lot about Chris Rutkowski, and have passed these (misinformed) thoughts on to the greater public via this blog. You say that “I don’t think Rutkowski knows very many amateurs astronomers”. Considering the fact that Chris was extensively involved in the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada for many years – even heading up one of its local chapters, also a past winner of the RASC’s Simon Newcomb award for science writing and education – I think you’ll find that you are quite simply wrong on this particular point.

    Further, you say “I can dismiss the entire argument about professional astronomers, because I never talked about them in my article.” From my understanding, wasn’t Rutkowski discussing your Bad Astronomy book (the linked article is from 2002)? Or has he sent you a recent email? Or perhaps you printed the exact same thing in ‘Bad Astronomy’, but it still might be pertinent to point out how he has misinterpreted the particular passage from the book by quoting it?

    Phil also wrote:

    “Incidentally, I have researched this, and the overwhelming majority of pilot reports are objects like meteors and Venus. Even the report that started the craze — Kenneth Arnold in 1947 — is now understood to have most likely been a fireball breaking up.”

    Firstly, the *only* time I have seen the Arnold report being explained by a fireball is by Phil Klass around 10 years ago, which almost immediately sunk like a lead balloon in an elevator. What sources are you using to assert that this explanation is “now understood” to be the most likely answer? It’s certainly news to me, and I would say to most people.

    Secondly, regardless of the ‘misunderstanding’ of your point about amateur astronomers, you’re tilting at windmills with a number of the accompanying arguments. When you claim “the majority of UFOs reported are not flying saucers, but misidentified mundane objects”, you have the full agreement of nearly every ufologist I know, and have had for the better part of 50 years I would imagine. Which brings me to my final point. When you point out that “the ‘UFOologists’ can’t seem to understand it”, who do you mean? Guys like Martin Shough, David Clarke and Chris Rutkowski, who are fascinated by the topic but bring hard science and skepticism to bear on it? I would submit you are committing the ‘sin’ of generalising, and tarring the whole field based on the frauds and charlatans out there.

    There is a lot of interesting research being done on the topic of UFOs which has no “believer in ETs” basis, and which may one day provide advances in science (ball lightning, plasmas, electromagnetic effects on the brain etc). I think it would be unscientific to throw the baby out with the grubby bathwater by continuing to slander the field in general based on the actions of one portion of the community.

    Quite apart from the above issues though, props to you for the great work you do in educating the public about science and astronomy.

  32. Steve says:

    These arguments will seem stupid(er) when we develop better cloaking technology than the aliens apparently have.

  33. Jimminy Cricket says:

    While ‘the odds’ and anecdotal evidence are interesting, do we have any solid statistics or surveys we can use to show that Astronomers don’t see many UFO’s or some of the other points raised?

    While I lean towards the points Phil raises being correct, I think I would have a hard time convincing anyone without some hard data.

  34. In that astronomers, pro or amateur, live for the opportunity to discover unknowns in the sky, I’d suggest the minimal number of reports from this collective reasonably reflects a minimal number of sightings.

  35. Greg Taylor says:

    Devil’s Advocate wrote: “I’d suggest the minimal number of reports from this collective reasonably reflects a minimal number of sightings.”

    I think Jimminy Cricket’s point was exactly that Phil (and now yourself) are saying amateur astronomers don’t see (report?) UFOs, without offering any corroborating evidence.

    Ironically, Chris Rutkowski (yes, the guy mentioned by Phil) summarised this topic for the newsletter of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada way back (1981 I think), citing in particular the survey of Gert Herb:

    “Mr. Herb sent a questionnaire to 8,526 amateurs in the Astronomical League, the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers (ALPO) and the International Occultation Timing Association (IOTA). The AAVSO was also asked to participate, but it declined. A total of only
    1,805 individuals responded to the survey. Of that group, 67% felt that UFO’s “certainly, probably or possibly exist”. Asked whether they had ever seen an object which they could not identify, despite their efforts to do so, 427 of the 1,805 answered to the affirmative. That is 23.7% of the responding group, and 5.2% of the entire sample polled.

    Mr. Herb also asked the amateurs about their observing experience, in terms of whether they kept a regular observing log, followed a structured observing program, worked in conjunction with a group like IOTA or ALPO, and their length of active amateur observing. On this basis, he selected 261 “senior” amateurs whom he felt possessed higher-than-average abilities. These were considered as being most familiar with objects in the night sky. Of the 261 selected, 74 had seen objects which “resisted most exhaustive efforts of identification.”

    While most sightings were of point- or slightly-extended sources, 24 were of objects observed “at short enough distance as to leave no doubt in the observer’s mind that something strange was reported.” Sixty-six were observed through a telescope, and forty objects were observed through binoculars.”

  36. “Of that group, 67% felt that UFO’s “certainly, probably or possibly exist”.”

    Are we talking about the literal definition of UFO: a visual stimulus the observer was unable to identify, or are we talking about ‘real’ UFOs, the believer’s definition that at least some UFOs represent alien craft in our atmosphere?

    The above quoted excerpt suggests ‘real’ UFO is the definition in play. Nobody denies there are literally defined UFOs.