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Never More Than Three Possibilities…

by Brian Dunning, Jun 24 2010

This is a frame from Westall 66: A Suburban UFO Mystery which aired on the Australian Sci-Fi Channel on June 4th. I did not get to see the show, as it has not aired in the United States as of this writing; but my educated guess is that the filmmakers were attempting to illustrate the investigative process, by eliminating possibilities. (To learn about the 1966 Westall UFO, you can check out my Skeptoid episode about it.)

Their presentation purports that there are only three possibilities to explain the UFO sighting: Hoax or hysteria; experimental aircraft; or an object of extraterrestrial origin. Actually, that’s four possibilities, since a hoax and mass hysteria are two completely different things.

After we eliminate hoaxing, hysteria, and experimental aircraft, the only remaining possibility is that this was an extraterrestrial object. Let’s hope Australian television audiences are outraged by that insult to intelligence.

I’m going to help out the show’s producers. They left out the two overwhelmingly most likely possibilities: mistaken identification, and unknown. Their list should have read like this:

  1. HoaxNot very likely in this case, but always a possibility.
  2. HysteriaHighly unlikely. Mass hysteria does not create shared visual hallucinations.
  3. Mistaken identificationMost likely. The witnesses did see something, they were simply unable to identify it. Maybe it was seen from an odd angle, maybe it was something weird looking they weren’t familiar with. This doesn’t mean nobody would have known what it was.
  4. UnknownWe do not have an explanation for what the witnesses reported.
  5. Extraterrestrial objectI’ve struck this one out because it’s not a supportable conclusion. In order to positively identify the Westall object, we’d have to be able to reliably test it against a known sample. We don’t have a known sample of an “extraterrestrial object” to compare it against, so there’s really no way to get past #4 on this list and make a positive identification of “alien spaceship”.

Before this “documentary” came out, I was able to scoop it on my Skeptoid podcast by a few days, thanks to a heads-up from Maynard in Australia, who also provided this screen capture (many thanks, sir). On that show, I found that there are indeed some good possibilities for what the witnesses saw. The first half of the sighting coincided with a weather balloon, known to be in the area at the time, and sounding quite a lot like what some of the witnesses reported. The second half of the sighting is harder to pin down, so I’m completely comfortable with calling it unidentified. I’m reasonably comfortable saying it was probably a misidentification, and there’s a good explanation of that if you want to check out my episode.

Remember: “I don’t know” does NOT mean “I do know, and it was an alien spaceship.” To those who say this is the only possible explanation, I invite them to show us exactly how they were able to match up the Westall story to what’s known of alien spaceships. If they can’t, I invite them to revise their conclusion to admit that maybe the explanation is unknown.

17 Responses to “Never More Than Three Possibilities…”

  1. Zenn says:

    Well written. Objects of extraterrestrial origins do exist. We have found samples of rock from other places not of this earth. Now, artificially made objects by alien beings may exist but it is extremely unlikely that they have ever visited our piece of rock.

    So I am a believer that life is plentiful and inevitable where the proper conditions exist. Intelligent life probably exists in the universe but the distances and time involved to traverse it to get here is a block wall that essentially removes the possibility of alien UFOs. But it is not impossible.

    If by some chance that they make contact, hope we are considered worth leaving alone and that their viruses/germs/bacteria that they bring with them doesn’t take over our DNA based organisms. But if they are smart enough to come here without the intention of feeding on us and our resources, they should have the knowledge to prevent that (wishful thinking of course).

    • Stephen Hawking says:

      “But if they are smart enough to come here without the intention of feeding on us and our resources, they should have the knowledge to prevent that (wishful thinking of course).”

      Wish-ful in-deed. Ha-Ha-Ha.

    • Dax says:

      Of course, this is assuming that the Inhibitors do not eradicate all sentient star-faring civilisations (geekpoints for if you get this ref.).

      But seriously, I am actually of the opinion that if intelligent, star-faring alien life exists in nearby star systems that it might actually be likely for them to cruise by our solar system. Although the distances in space are enormous, they are not necessarily insurmountable, given that some slightly more exotic propulsion technology is feasible. With emphasis on ‘slightly’ since I am not talking about SF technology that bends and/or breaks the known laws of physics. But just with a constant acceleration of 1g (decelerate at 1g halfway), Epsilon Eridani would only take 12 years (~5 years ship time). Now, the greatest problem with travel like this is that we have to deal with conservational laws of physics: we will require huge amounts of fuel that we slowly deplete during a travels. It might be possible for us or some alien species to solve this problem (it’s not outside of the laws of physics) but it will most likely mean they’ll not be flying in fast-moving, stealthy ships that just whisk in and out of our earth orbit, secretly abduct people, etc.

      No, it’s just very unlikely, but indeed not impossible that sentient live visits us. My thought is that intelligent life by itself is relatively rare in the universe, but as a biologist I expect non-sentient life to actually be remarkably common, perhaps even in our solar system.

      But SF speculations aside (and that’s what this is, speculative SF mapped onto reality), it’s just people seeing something they cannot grasp and claiming it’s aliens. If aliens were really zooming around like this, then where are the hundred of thousands of amateur astronomers who should’ve seen them by now? They are continuously looking up and see nothing but Crocodile Dundee and Mr. Fosters from down under do?

  2. Let’s hope Australian television audiences are outraged by that insult to intelligence.

    Well, not exactly, but only because nobody saw it.

    Honestly, there are almost as many Australians who have actually been abducted by aliens as there are Australians who get the sci-fi channel – or any other subscription channel. If we did, how would we ever get anything done?

  3. MaikU says:

    Bravo, great short article :)

  4. feralboy12 says:

    One other possible explanation: Australians getting howling drunk and forgetting their country is upside down, which leads to mis-identifying cars and such as UFO’s.

  5. Buckaroo Banzai says:

    More often than expected people forget that UFO actually stands for “Unidentified flying object”. More usually it’s almost a synonym for “positivley an alien spaceship” or “very likely an alien spaceship”. No one things of flying whale ghosts anymore.

  6. billgeorge says:

    Sounds similar to Roswell – like wine, eyewitness’s need a couple of decades for their memories to mature.

    (With eager producers of pseudo-documentaries ready to pop the cork and sell to a thirsty public.)

  7. MadScientist says:

    Hey, what’s wrong with the “I don’t know what it is, therefore is must be aliens planning to shove things up my butt” hypothesis?

  8. John H. says:

    Aliens of the gaps, anyone? If it’s not a Cessna, then it must be from Alpha Centauri.

  9. PaulRugg says:

    After #4 you forgot:

    (Not sure if they should come before or after #5, though)

    super-intelligent shades of the color blue
    flying fairies

    To be fair, while many of us fairies may walk just above the ground (light in the loafers), very few of us have ever been seen to actually fly…

  10. I managed to catch the last 20 minutes of the show, and the majority of people they spoke to were in the 2nd grade or lower at the time this happened.

    I barely remember anything of the second grade, and what little I do recall I wouldn’t exactly call a reliable memory. They seemed to be operating purely off the memories of these people for their information.

    They also had some great confirmation bias by putting out ads in papers etc to bring people together who saw the UFO. Those who know it was something other than a UFO surely would not have any interest in coming to such an event, therefore they would not get any reliable information. They didn’t appear to make any attempt to track down others who were in the school at the time, just put out ads and get people to come to them.

    Very VERY poor indeed.

  11. andy g says:

    FYI some of the networks showed either it (or a different show on the same topic) a week or so later, so a bunch of people did see it. I watched for as long as I could stand it. 30 seconds I think.

  12. Maynard says:

    I thought the miracle at Fatima with the sun dancing around might have been a “shared visual hallucination”.

    For more info on the show and another opinion on Westall, here is an interview I did for the ABC the week the episode screened:

    • I would not have said that the “visions” as hallucinations. As the resulted from a group of people all having the same visual stimuli ie staring at the sun until it started to play tricks on their vision.

      So it was not really a hallucination but rather and sensory overload, but of course this is just based on how I would define and use the word hallucination.

  13. RBH says:

    I’m catching up in my reader so this is a little late.

    Every Thursday night I volunteer at a bingo game that’s a fundraiser for the local Humane Society. The clientele is mostly middle-aged and older women. Last Thursday night the game finished around 10:00 pm as usual, and we volunteers were cleaning up when one of the elderly players came rushing back into the game room shouting “There’s a UFO out here!” I went out and sure enough, a dozen of the players were standing in the parking lot, gazing in awe at a bright light in the western sky and marveling at how it wasn’t moving but just hovered there over the town. One speculated that it was a satellite, apparently never having seen one actually cross the sky, but the rest were sure it was a UFO hovering over the town. But, of course, it was Venus. People really don’t know much about what’s up there.

  14. Donna says:

    I agree with Buckaroo. UFO stands for UNIDENTIFIED flying object, and UNIDENTIFIED means you don’t know what it is. Do people not understand plain English??? GEEZ.