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.
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.