SkepticblogSkepticblog logo banner

top navigation:

When we see them, they’re identified

by Phil Plait, Jul 22 2009

In my first book, Bad Astronomy, I have a chapter about UFOs in it. I have the usual sort of debunking in it, but I made a point I had not seen anywhere else at that time: why don’t astronomers see relatively more UFOs than laypeople?

Think about it. Astronomers, both amateur and professional, are constantly viewing the sky. There are tens of thousands of amateurs out observing all the time: a large sample population, and far larger in observing man-hours than the regular population. If UFOs are so common, then why do we not see an unusually large number of reports from astronomers?

My assertion is that this is because the vast majority of UFO reports from people are misidentified objects like Venus, the Moon, satellites, balloons, and so on. These are things every amateur astronomer has seen countless times, and knows are not alien spaceships bent on probing the backsides of rural citizens. While this does not mean every single observed object is something more mundane, it does mean that the huge numbers quoted by UFOlogists are most certainly wrong.

When I published the book, I got lots of criticism from the UFO culture who, predictably, couldn’t parse my very simple logic. I got some amusement from it, I’ll admit, since trying to reason with some people is clearly a losing game.

Why bring all this up now? Because amateur astronomer Tim Printy has published an article about this in his online magazine Skeptical UFO Newsletter lite (SUNlite) — you can download the issue directly here (PDF). He does an excellent job rebutting the usual silly claims of the UFO crowd when they froth and rail about my statement. He picks their arguments apart point-by-point, showing just why my claims are accurate and theirs are not. It’s a good read… and I’m not saying that because he supports me. I’m saying that because he’s right.

Regular readers may remember Tim’s excellent debunking of the Phoenix Lights as well, which I wrote about on the tenth anniversary of that particular silliness. I think I’ll keep my eye on him. Another skeptical astronomer is most welcome!

28 Responses to “When we see them, they’re identified”

  1. Printy has a lot of good stuff out there on UFOs.

    Excuse I heard from a Ufie about why more astronomers don’t see UFOs: It’s because their telescopes are focused on far distant objects out in space, while ‘real’ UFOs are in Earth’s atmosphere, too close for focus, sort of like how it’s impossible to ‘see’ (focus) on a fly when it flies by 6 inches in front of one’s binoculars.

    In essense, astronomers don’t see more UFOs because the operative word is ‘unidentified’. When it comes to identifying objects above Earth, little is unidentifiable to astronomers.

    This is also why the term ‘UFO’ says little about the object seen and everything about the witness. It’s merely a measure of what a given witness can and cannot identify.

  2. “IFO” just isn’t as catchy a term, somehow.

    • OneHappyAtheist says:

      That’s because there’s no mystery. You can’t have the WOW! factor if things are identified (and of course they’re less believable without that mysterious quality).

  3. In view of Plait’s apparent ignorance – i.e. failure to check facts of what he’s about to pontificate on – I refrained from calling him a definite liar. But have listed some facts he seems to be unaware of. Suppose I’ve called him a conditional liar.

    It’s at for the 22nd.


    Ray D

  4. Cthandhs says:

    Dude, Ray, you live in a weird little world. I looked at your link and your site. It all seemed a bit paranoid. I particularly enjoyed the analysis of Black Holes. You treat the subject like there’s a massive politicized underground movement. A power struggle between the ruling elite of academia and the scientific underground of courageous men and women willing to accept nothing less than the TRUTH, even if it means their reputations. In a way you’re right, but it’a a lot less exciting than that. Check out There’s no conspiracy. That’s just the way things fall out.

  5. MadScientist says:

    Bah, it’s obvious: you’re all in on the conspiracy. :P

    • NonGrata says:


      Everyone’s in on the conspiracy except me! How come I get left out?? Maybe it’s because everyone’s jealous of my shiny tinfoil hat… :)

      Ya think??

  6. Tom Vandermolen says:

    This brings up something that has always bugged me about UFO reporting. Often a report will refer to a source as a “trained observer”; generally this is either a military member or someone associated with the aviation industry. Well, I’m a career military intelligence officer with multiple assignments to aviation units, and I can tell you that military personnel–even pilots–are not trained to observe random objects in the sky. We ARE trained to identify whether a particular aircraft is the enemy’s (I performed a lot of that training myself) and then act accordingly…but if an object is the sky is not obviously an aircraft, we have no more clue as to its identity than anyone else. (The exception here might be the metereological guys.)

    In my opinion, the only “trained observers” are weathermen and astronomers.

  7. Tim Printy has a great article that includes consideration of pilots and police as UFO witnesses. Going from memory, UFO investigator Allan Hendry reviewed pilot and police UFO cases which were later explained as mundane causes. They performed miserably, for the reasons Mr. Vandermolen cites.

    Even trained observers like weathermen and astronomers work from the negative. They can tell us what isn’t an alien space ship, but I presume they can’t tell us much about what is.

  8. Tom Vandermolen says:

    Good link! And I’d forgotten about the Martian canals…

    The author mentions that a Japanese pilot misidentified two ships–I have to say, I’m not surprised. That is exactly why we have so much aircraft and ship recognition training for our pilots: identifying even a large, distinctive ship can be truly difficult under clear, calm conditions, never mind when you’re trying to fly a plane, evade the enemy, etc. For flying objects it can be even worse…I remember one of our Hornet pilots took his squadron’s intel officer flying and challenged him to correctly identify another aircraft when it flew past. He couldn’t–it was going too fast, and (I suspect) he was under a bit of sensory overload.

    Anyway, don’t mean to commandeer this thread with my anecdotal evidence. Great blog, and great books!

  9. Promii says:

    Why is it that conspiracy paranoia websites such as the one linked by Ray always have such atrocious web design?

    • OneHappyAtheist says:

      Because of The Ugly Truth? *grin*

    • MadScientist says:

      I can claim it’s coincidence and you wouldn’t have the numbers to prove otherwise. :) Just look around at the number of truly awful websites – most of them do not sport conspiracy theories. Of course if you have another theory and evidence to show for it … I’ll cover my ears and go “la la la la la! I can’t hear you!”

      • aaron says:

        As long as they understand that kids like me will post links to such sites for friends to laugh at. I think such ridiculousness is good, people will look at such a site and find among the obvious silliness a few things they might be on the fence about and hopefully group them.

  10. Richard E says:

    I suspect that, were there actual “UFOs”, then the probability of the majority of astronomers seeing them would, indeed, be smaller than the population at large, not because they were out of focus being near rather than far, but because a telescope has a very narrow field of view and you can’t look everywhere at once.

    However, I am sure that this unquantifiable hypothetical percentage is dwarfed by the fact that the majority of people “unidentify” perfectly ordinary celestial, and other, bodies.

    The question is, are there any objects left after all the misidentified objects have been excluded? My guess is not, but I don’t have any evidence to back that up. :)

  11. “I suspect that, were there actual “UFOs”, then the probability of the majority of astronomers seeing them would, indeed, be smaller than the population at large, not because they were out of focus being near rather than far, but because a telescope has a very narrow field of view and you can’t look everywhere at once.”

    Though no single scope can look everywhere at once, the sheer number of professional and amateur astronomers provides the effect of looking everywhere at once. Add up all those telescopes on a given night and I’d guess a fair proportion of the sky is under surveillance. Night after night after night, weather and sobriety permitting (hey, one hears stories…).

    I think a given Ufie would hurriedly clasp to willful ignorance were he to get so much as a hint as to how much of the Earth’s atmosphere and surface is under electronic surveillance at any given moment. Think of all the weather, military, intelligence, academic, business, etc., satellites with cameras and other gear up there looking down, along with all the telescopes and cameras and other gear down here looking up. Factor in all the security cameras on Earth that capture at least the first 15 deg’s or so up from the horizon. Why, we ought to be knee deep in aliens, kicking the little bastards out of our way with every step.

  12. gwen says:

    I saw an early satellite in 1960. I was 5 years old and happened to look at the sky at the right time,and watched it go by. I remember telling my dad, and he told me it was a satellite. I subsequently saw photos of those early satellites and it looks like what I saw. Can you imagine if I had a woo dad who believed in UFOs? I would be tainted for ever!!

  13. Carl says:

    Did anyone actually look at Ray’s “evidence”? I was especially taken by the incredibly obvious photo artifacts behind the Dome of the Capitol being a fleet of UFOs.

  14. Ray accuses Phil of lying, but in reality he cannot read carefully. Phil never said there are no UFO reports from astronomers – just that there are not “relatively more” reports from astronomers.

    I find that ideological extremists generally have poor reading comprehension – perhaps just selectively.

    Sure, there are fewer astronomers than the general population – but they spend a lot of their time looking at the sky – and not always through telescopes.

    Also – have you ever taken your telescope and looked at nearby objects? Only someone who is both ignorant of optics and never played with a telescope would argue that they can only focus on astronomically distant objects.

  15. SStalin says:

    I’ve once seen something which may or may not be an alien flying object.

    Given that I’ve seen it above Serbia back in 1999. just days after the NATO stopped the bombing campaign, the thing probably is some experimental aircraft.

    The thing was flying at probably a high altitude. It seemed small and was flying “slowly” ( at least to the perception of someone on the ground ). Suddenly, it flashed and zapped across the sky, in a similar way to Enterprise going to warp speed.

    Anyway. I can understand how someone could think it’s an alien spacecraft and go all talkative about it.

  16. Hypatia's Daughter says:

    I posted this question to our astronomy club listserve several years back not one person had ever seen anything they could not identify.
    Actually, most professional astronomers don’t LOOK through a telescope – they usually have equipment attached and are recording data. And many of them are not very experienced at looking at the sky – often they cannot find their way around a constellation!
    Amateurs who DO look through scopes spend a lot of time roaming through the sky, moving their scopes, checking charts, socializing and looking up during the evening. They certainly DON’T spend hours glued to an eyepiece. They get to recognize almost everything that passes overhead, at different times of the night.
    I always think it is so funny that these smart aliens who are coming here in secret are too stupid to have an “off” switch on their exterior lights (Duh!) or they grab a cow, mutilate it and DROP IT IN THE SAME FIELD THEY TOOK IT FROM. (Double Duh! Like, couldn’t they zip over the Pacific Ocean and drop it there?)

    • The concept of interstellar space craft employing navigational lights is pretty silly on its own, let alone the apparent absence of on/off switching. Perhaps they are overregulated on their world, forced to use unnecessary nav lights and forced to leave them on as part of some ‘safety’ program forced by bureaucrats on their astroaliens. Politics certainly dogs our own NASA. They come to us to warn of overregulation and political interference in technical endeavors.

  17. Hypatia's Daughter says:

    Phil, Since I have your attention, I hear you are going to be doing an astronomy observing session at DragonCon. But the Astronomy Club in Atlanta has not been approached to help. Who do we talk to about helping out?

  18. Hypatia's Daughter says:

    Oh, and I forgot to add that the number of amateurs who are photographing the sky now would astonish non-astronomers. There are probably hundreds, if not thousands, in every state and all over the world. I have never heard of a UFO showing up on the millions of photos taken every year by amateur astronomers.
    But, maybe those dang smart aliens, know how to fly around the cameras, too.

  19. sonic says:

    “There are tens of thousands of amateurs out observing all the time: a large sample population, and far larger in observing man-hours than the regular population”

    This statement is probably false.
    Here’s the math—
    Suppose there are 100,000 astronomers looking at the sky 8 hours per day. That’s 800,000 man-hours per day.
    There are 6,000,000,000 people on earth. If the average person looks at the sky for
    800,000/6,000,000,000 = .0001333 hours = .008 minutes = .48 seconds, then the non-astronomers are looking at the sky as much as the astronomers.
    That is to say for each hour a day the non-astronomers spend looking at the sky, they amass 1728 times as many hours as the astronomers spend looking at the sky.
    So if your average non-astronomer spends 2 hours a day looking at the sky, then we should expect that they would report 3,456 sightings for every sighting by an astronomer.
    Perhaps the astronomers are reporting more often than non-astronomers given the correct mathematical analysis. (I don’t know the numbers of reports)

    • Jim Shaver says:

      Sonic, I think your estimate of global non-astronomer sky observation is overstated, especially when you assumed every man, woman, and child in the world, including invalids, the elderly, and the blind, are participating in your hypothetical sky survey. That said, 3,400 non-astronomer UFO sightings for every one astronomer UFO sighting seems about right…

      Also, a heap of low-quality data is still just low-quality data.

      • sonic says:

        It seems I made an error in my math (oops!)-
        If for each .48 seconds of viewing the non-astronomers match the astronomers in total viewing time, then if the non-astronomers spend an hour a day looking at the sky, we could expect 7,200 sightings for by non-astronomers for each sighting by an astronomer. If the non-as. spend 2 hours a day, then the number would be 14,400.
        I’m thinking it is possible the astronomers are over reporting sightings…