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Kids See the Darndest Things

by Daniel Loxton, Feb 15 2011

Ghastly Beyond Belief, Neil Gaiman and Kim Newman’s wonderfully weird book of science fiction quotations, relates an amusing anecdote involving skeptic Isaac Asimov.

Asimov once penned a novelization of the sci-fi flick Fantastic Voyage (the story of a submarine miniaturized for a mission inside a human body). He recalled his daughter’s reaction to the film’s ending, in which the crew members escape from the patient’s body and return to their normal sizes, leaving their vehicle behind.

“Won’t the ship now expand and kill the man, Daddy?”

“Yes, Robyn,” I explained, “but you see that because you’re smarter than the average Hollywood producer. After all, you’re eleven.”1

Funny how kids sometimes see straight to the heart of things. I notice this often when talking with my five-year-old son.

Portrait of Kenneth Arnold.

Kenneth Arnold displays drawn reconstruction of his unidentified objects.

Recently, on a long evening walk, I told my boy the whole story of flying saucers in the 20th Century, starting with the case that started it all: pilot Kenneth Arnold’s 1947 sighting of a “chain, which looked to me like the tail of a Chinese kite,” of objects that “looked something like a pie plate that was cut in half.”2 (Hear Arnold tell his story in this radio interview recorded the day after his sighting.)

“These objects more or less fluttered,” Arnold said, in another interview. He added,

When I described how they flew, I said they flew like if you take a saucer and throw it across the water. Most of the newspapers misunderstood and misquoted that too. They said that I said they were saucer-like. I said they flew with a saucer-like fashion.”3

As I described what happened next, my son hung on every word. He eagerly followed the dominoes, as the Arnold sighting made national headlines, and gave rise to the media concept of “flying discs,” or “flying saucers.” He followed as I described how those headlines ignited the public imagination — creating the flying saucer hysteria of the summer of ’47, with its hundreds of flying saucer sightings across the USA (including a forgettable flash in the pan in Roswell, New Mexico). I explained how this led to an ecology of UFO subcultures, from cult leaders to skeptics, Contactees to Abductees, investigators to hoaxers. I told him about cases solved. I told him the unlikely tale of Roswell’s eventual resurrection as a pop culture phenomenon.

We even covered Mothman.

At the end of this long, long story, my son walked on in thoughtful silence. Then he stopped, and turned to me, and asked, “But Dad… what were those boomerang things the first pilot saw?”

Bingo! That is the exact right question — not only for flying saucers, but for all weird mysteries: “How did this legend get started in the first place?” Never mind the edifice of later embellishments. Never mind the decades of escalating yarns and rhetoric. The place to look first and hardest is always the origin of the story. If the foundation is rotten, it doesn’t matter how imposing the structure built upon it may appear.

Surprised into laughter, I smiled down at my son and ruffled his hair. “Exactly!” I said. “That’s the question! And do you know what? I don’t know the answer. I’m not sure that anyone does. Some people think that pilot really saw balloons, or secret airplanes, or even birds.”

We walked on, hand in hand. “It’s a mystery,” I said, as we took in the sunset and the evening breeze. “Maybe one day, you could be the one to solve it.”


  1. Gaiman, Neil and Kim Newman. Ghastly Beyond Belief. (Arrow Books: London, 1985.) p. 325
  2. Kenneth Arnold interviewed by Bill Berquette. June 25, 1947. As hosted at Retrieved Feb 14, 2011.
  3. Kenneth Arnold interview, broadcast April 7, 1950. Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World. (Ballantine Books: New York, 1997.) p. 70. (This audio is reproduced in Wendy Connors’  A Primer in Audio: Ufology 1938 -1959. An Audio Retrospective in American Ufology. 2003.)

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19 Responses to “Kids See the Darndest Things”

  1. And…. that is what skeptics really do. :)

  2. Steven Kelly says:

    Exactly, always check the references – like your ref. 2, which you claim is “Retrieved Feb 24, 2011″, despite posting this story Feb 15, 2011. Clear evidence of time travel, and hence vindication of all UFO stories, Charlie Chaplin cell phones, John Titor etc. I bet you’ll now change the date to Feb 14 to cover it up, just like the government always does :-).

  3. Andres Pabon says:

    Great post. Heartwarming, too. I hope my son, when he’s old enough to ask about such things, surprises me as much with such clever questions.

  4. Max says:

    Steve Novella’s post on gullibility last week showed that kids believe virtually everything they hear.

    Here’s more proof:

    Example: “My dad once told me when i was little that my bum would fall off if i put a screw driver in my belly button and turn it three times. I thought it would be cool to have a detachable bum so i tried it and when my bum didn’t fall off i cried because i thought my bellybutton was broken.”

    • SebEless says:

      Sorry… that example is the saddest and funniest thing I’ve heard in the last… well, five minutes at least.

      Kids belive things they hear from their parents, as in your example, because the parents are authority figuers whom the kid trusts. That is usually not the fault of the kid, but of the parent being, if you pardon the expression, an arsehole and messing with the poor kid’s head.

    • Ed Graham says:

      When people tell my grandson (now 7) stuff like that, which is often, I just say, “that’s not true.”

      Really makes them angry. I then explain why. That makes them even more upset.

      Grandson loves it. Wants to knoow more…

  5. Steven Brent says:

    As the father of a young kid, I’ve had the pleasure to find that the stereotypical view of kids as credulous rubes is way overdrawn. My son regularly astounds me with a seemingly effortless ability to cut right to the heart of the unknown and ask the really smart questions. Then again, I *have* made a deliberate effort to help him develop critical thinking skills!

  6. Kenneth Polit says:

    My son, at the tender age of four-and-a-half, was asked by his grandmother what he wanted Santa to bring him for xmas. He responded, “Santa Claus is a lot of crapola.” That’s my boy!

  7. Greg says:

    Daniel – it should be noted that Arnold’s first descriptions *were* of a saucer-like object…just, as he mentioned, more a half-plate plus convex triangle, rather than full circle/disc. This is clear in the drawing he made for his Air Force report. The crescent/boomerang/flying wing diagram came out 4 years later, with possible contamination and peer pressure on Arnold to give a more ‘sane’ description of what he saw (ie. something that looked like prototype aircraft of the time). With this new imagery of the craft came Arnold’s dismissal of the ‘saucer’ meme as mistaken, even though it seems that’s exactly what he told reporters at the time (and again, is supported by his own AF report).

    You wrote: “The place to look first and hardest is always the origin of the story. If the foundation is rotten, it doesn’t matter how imposing the structure built upon it may appear.” That is exactly right, and in this particular case all the mythology should be left alone (including the current ‘skeptical’ mythos that the saucer analogy arose from how they flew, rather than their shape, based on Arnold’s *later* recollection).

    See Martin Shough’s article investigating the matter-at-hand at the Darklore website (PDF):

    • Thanks for the notes, and for the link to Martin Shough’s fascinating article on the Arnold case. I applaud the weight he gives to the case, and to the earliest documentation.

      Regarding the shape of the craft, I would still favour Arnold’s early testimony that they “looked something like a pie plate that was cut in half.” (We’re fortunate to have a recording of detailed early testimony to off-set the many uncertainties of newspaper soundbites.)

      But I hasten to note that my knowledge of the Arnold case is general. I know enough about the case to chat about it on an evening stroll, but I have not had the opportunity to research it to the depth I would prefer. That said, I stand by my emphasis on this unsolved case, for the reasons Shough underlines:

      Kenneth Arnold is the one witness to “flying saucers” whom we know could not have had any prejudicial prior expectation of seeing them, for they didn’t yet exist. This makes Arnold’s observation almost uniquely uncontaminated.

  8. Mario says:

    I recall, when Harry Potter books bonfires were taking place in the US, 20/20 or 60 minutes did a report about it, interviewing parents and even priest and pastors and all of them talked like the books were the satanic bible, then they interviewed kids between 6 and 12 years old and ALL of them recognized how silly is to think that a nerdy boy has magic powers, they actually made fun of adults without knowing it. That’s why I love South Park the kids always turn to be more logic than the adults.

  9. Ross Blocher says:

    Beautiful post, Daniel! It’s great to reminded why we’re skeptics in the first place.

  10. Greg says:

    Thanks for your response Daniel. For Martin’s in-depth investigation of the case (which includes analysis of trajectories, speeds etc), download the 147 page PDF “The Singular Adventure of Mr. Kenneth Arnold” here:

    Martin has also written or contributed to a number of other high quality UFO investigations, I linked to a few in this post last year – they make for fascinating reading, and are really the sort of thing that ‘ufology’ should be aiming at as a gold class standard:

    You wrote: “Regarding the shape of the craft, I would still favour Arnold’s early testimony that they “looked something like a pie plate that was cut in half.”

    I agree to an extent – you have only quoted the first half of Arnold’s statement; he goes on to say “with a sort of convex triangle in the rear”. Arnold’s illustration in his Air Force report clearly shows this shape (it’s reproduced in Martin’s article), and it’s not really too far off being a ‘saucer’ shape (a description which, as Martin shows, Arnold likely used as a shape metaphor before changing his tune a few years later).

    You wrote: “We’re fortunate to have a recording of detailed early testimony to off-set the many uncertainties of newspaper soundbites.”

    I agree – and these can sometimes affect ‘skeptical’ explanations as much as ‘believer theories’. For example, Arnold mentions in the recording that he observed the craft for “not more than 2 and a half minutes”, and yet Philip Klass (and apparently also Phil Plait: ) say that the objects were likely a fireball breaking up.

    Thanks for the post and comment response, always enjoy reading your thoughts on skepticism.

    • tmac57 says:

      Greg,both you and Daniel have used the word “craft”,referring to what at best should be considered an unknown object.Some might consider this a minor point,but I think that kind of language morphing can lead to an ever increasing warping of these kinds of stories into credulous tales of alien visitations.

  11. Chris says:

    Richard Carrier has an interesting take on the Arnold story:

  12. QuestionAuthority says:

    I’ve had some thoughts about this from the aviation perspective, having been in the airline industry most of my life. I also have a pilot’s license (not a Commercial one, though) and was a certified FAA aviation weather observer for some years.

    My suspicions are that Arnold saw some kind of optical illusion, but how it happened is beyond my ability to explain. I am not an expert on mountain flying, which is a sub-specialty all of its own.

    Alternatively, when I think of Mt. Rainier I almost inevitably think of Boeing in the nearby Seattle area. Considering when this ‘sighting’ allegedly happened (1947), it makes me wonder if Boeing was testing some captured or home-developed exotic aircraft designs…or maybe just some of those new-fangled jets…

    It is a matter of historical fact that the Germans had made some progress on flying wing-type aircraft before the end of World War II. They were very difficult to control (See the history of the Horten Ho-229) and the Ho-229 killed at least one test pilot. Flying wing planforms aren’t really controllable without fly-by-wire systems, which hadn’t been invented yet. Maybe the history books aren’t quite right and a few were captured more-or-less intact?

    However, my best guess is that Arnold saw some of the new jet aircraft like the P-80/F-80 and either misidentified them due to their speed, unfamiliarity or optical illusion. A less likely alternative is that he saw the testing of some more exotic design that is still classified for some reason. A real alien aircraft? That falls right off the bottom of the probability scale, IMHO. No way, no how.