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A Token Skeptic vs. the HuffPo UFO Machine

by Brian Dunning, Sep 27 2012

Today I went on HuffPost Live for a conversation about UFOs: whether they’re alien spaceships, whether the government is covering them up, etc.; more or less, the usual stuff. Here is the video (and here’s a direct link if the embedded video isn’t working for you):

It was a fun chat. My favorite moment was during the discussion of the Rendlesham Forest UFO incident, in which a number of US airmen reported seeing a light blinking through the trees,  but later claimed that a spaceship came down (and one even claimed on later TV shows that he touched it). I reported what the local foresters had said about the claimed landing pad marks, which is that they were marks made by rabbits. The other guests all guffawed, quite amused, and one asked if I’d been there. Of course not (none of us had), but the other guests seemed to know more about marks they’d never seen better than the foresters who had seen them. This is the kind of logic that dominates so much of the UFO lore. The true believers often insist that the fringe interpretation must be the true one, even when it conflicts with the reports of experts who were actually there.

Anyway, please enjoy the video. I didn’t get to talk very much, but I had a lot of fun. (And next time I will have my proper microphone selected instead of the laptop mic.)

51 Responses to “A Token Skeptic vs. the HuffPo UFO Machine”

  1. Jason Goertzen says:

    Fun discussion. I was pleased that the host was actually reasonably skeptical, rather than your being alone in the lion’s den.

    The one point that always comes to mind for me is how the believers always assume there is one explanation for all of the sightings. I think it’s disingenuous when they claim they are ‘just asking questions,’ or that ‘I’m not saying it’s aliens, when did I say it is?’ Etc. The UFO hypothesis is the only one that would group all of these disparate sightings under one umbrella explanation. It’s like when IDers say “I said designer, not God!”

    Anyway. UFO sightings. Always fun. :)

  2. MadScientist says:

    What struck me was the level of disagreement between the believers.

    I like the French name better: Unexplained Atmospheric Phenomena (except of course in French). My only complaint is that it is not all atmospheric phenomena, but at least it doesn’t imply flying objects.

    • frskeptic says:

      actually, the french name is OVNI, objet volant non identifé, translating to UFO, at least in the overall culture, maybe there is a official name that translates to “unexplained atmospheric phenomenon” in use by the air force or something.

      • Venom says:


        MadScientist is talking about the word used by the CNES (the French equivalant of NASA, “Centre national d’études spatiales”) UFO department: “phénomène aérien non identifié”. His translation is correct (“unexplained atmospheric phenomenon”).

        Skeptically yours,

      • MadScientist says:

        Maybe I should have said “aerial”; my memory is not so good and I was thinking “atmospheriques” rather than “aerien”. I still think it is the best description even though claims have evolved over the years to include claims of actual spacecraft on the ground.

      • MadScientist says:

        Hmmm … “unidentified moving object” is just as bad; in most cases the apparition doesn’t move.

  3. d brown says:

    I want to ,and will, believe. Something.

  4. hardindr says:

    A good performance, thanks for going on the show.

  5. Max says:

    Pleasantly surprised by the skeptical host.
    Next time you talk to Col. John Alexander, ask him about the men who stare at goats.

    • Yannis K. says:

      He’s envious of the skeptic society ever since Jon Ronson’s documentary “Crazy Rulers of the world” ;) (just like Alex Jones btw)

    • MadScientist says:

      Is is he believer in Psi-power as well?

      I like how he seems to get whackier every year and yet with regards to well-documented events such as Roswell he’ll jump up and say “there’s nothing extraterrestrial there”. Maybe one day he’ll just stand up and say “well, I guess I was wrong all along”. I wonder if the getting whackier phenomenon has to do with self-affirmation from going to too many UFOlogist meetings.

  6. Glenn Cooper says:

    The evidence is mounting and slowly but surely the truth will come out.

    You are fighting a losing battle.

    And you deserve to lose.

    • tmac57 says:

      Glenn,the battle isn’t against the belief in alien visitation via UFO’s,it is about understanding the truth about what these unknown events really are.That’s it plain and simple.
      If it turns out that there are aliens visiting us,and that at least some of those UFO’s are alien craft,then that would be the truth,period.The idea that there has to be a loser in the search for truth,does not make much sense.

  7. Willy says:

    It isn’t.

    We aren’t.

    We don’t.

    I have found that folks that I know who believe all manner of odd stuff (not just UFOs) tend to have one characteristic in common. They are generally dissatisfied with the way things have turned out for them in life (even ‘though often they should not be). Believing that they know things others do not improves their sense of self-worth.

    It is not about the facts or lack of them, it is about people who believe things or not and why they do or do not.

  8. Trimegistus says:

    UFOs are the best example of that depressing kind of quackery which requires an ever-escalating conspiracy to explain away the lack of any evidence. Someone sees something, maybe Venus. But they insist it’s an alien spacecraft (and it’s ALWAY “an alien spacecraft”). Why couldn’t the Air Force intercept it, then? So they insist the Air Force is covering it up, for vaguely-insinuated reasons. Okay, so why don’t other governments report it? So they insist the conspiracy is transnational. Okay, so why doesn’t policy change when a new administration comes in — even if the evil Demoblicans are part of the conspiracy, surely the Repucrats you voted for won’t go along? So they insist every election since 1947 has been a sham stage-managed by the conspiracy . . . et cetera ad nauseam.

    The “we never went to the Moon” crowd are much the same. As are the more outre Creationists, the antivaccination crowd, and so forth.

    It shouldn’t surprise people that this attitude is so widespread. We see it entrenched in places that aren’t “crazy conspiracy theories.” If the economy is in trouble, people blame “the 1%” for doing it. If women are dissatisfied with their role, they blame “the patriarchy” for causing it. If black Americans are mired in poverty and dysfunction, people blame “racism” for causing it. If those conspiracies are considered articles of faith by one of the major political parties, why shouldn’t conspiracy thinking be universal?

    • rpowell2u says:

      Yes, there is plenty of quackery in the topic of UFOs. The question is whether the topic is worthy of scientific investigation and unless one has studied the history of the phenomenon then one doesn’t have the background to understand the phenomenon beyond the quackery that is displayed.

      The source of the UFO phenomenon is not known but there is no doubt that a portion of the unknown sightings are caused by an unknown physical object. The Air Force has stated that in Air Force documents. The Air Force HAS attempted to intercept UFOs. This is all documented. The source of these objects is unknown.

      Other governments do investigate this phenomenon. With all due respect, you should study this topic before making statements like that. And of course, this has nothing to do with Republicans and Democrats.

      • MadScientist says:

        The Air Force had indeed attempted to intercept UFOs – but that’s to find out if there’s some new Enemy Gizmo being tested or deployed. A few pilots have chased the large reflector balloons all those decades ago and if I remember correctly, one even died – the balloons were out of the reach of even most modern aircraft. The balloon work of course was secret so the vast majority of people in the Air Force didn’t know about them and went about their duty of trying to find out if it was a security threat. Most UFO phenomena have actually been explained; the unexplained ones ted to be cases where someone probably just made up a story or there is too little evidence to work out what was observed (but ‘extraterrestrial spacecraft’ isn’t even a serious consideration).

    • Loren Petrich says:

      So conservatives never blame liberals or “the government” for *anything*? Not even the “liberal media”? Do they always blame themselves for their misfortunes and accept their misfortunes as a well-deserved beating up?

    • Janet Camp says:

      Your comments are racist and sexist, stereotyped to the extreme and overgeneralized to the point of absurdity–to say the least, and I have a great life, thank you very much.

  9. Venom says:


    Also pleasantly surprised by the skeptical host. And good job Brian!

    Skeptically yours,

  10. stixx23 says:

    I think my favorite part was the woman saying if someone claimed to be the Messiah and then recanted, she’d believe the original statement more than the recantation.

    • Max says:

      Her point is that if you start with the conclusion, and accept all the evidence for it, and reject all the evidence against it, that’s begging the question, i.e. circular reasoning.
      So, you assume that there is no messiah, and anyone claiming to be one is lying or delusional.
      Compare that to the Bush administration assuming that Iraq developed nukes, and any Iraqi general who said it didn’t must have been lying.

    • Max says:

      I think she’d believe the SINCERITY of the original statement more than the sincerity of the recantation, especially if the person had nothing to gain and everything to lose by claiming to be the Messiah or seeing a UFO, but had tremendous pressure to recant.

    • Yannis K. says:

      My favorite part as well. Absolutely :D

      – “You have a peculiar attitude towards reason.”
      – “Why, thank you!”


    • Mal Adapted says:

      Heh. This was supposed to be satire:

      BRIAN: I’m not the Messiah!
      ARTHUR: I say You are, Lord, and I should know. I’ve followed a few.
      FOLLOWERS: Hail Messiah!
      BRIAN: I’m not the Messiah! Will you please listen? I am not the Messiah, do you understand?! Honestly!
      GIRL: Only the true Messiah denies His divinity.
      BRIAN: What?! Well, what sort of chance does that give me? All right! I am the Messiah!
      FOLLOWERS: He is! He is the Messiah!
      BRIAN: Now, f**k off!
      ARTHUR: How shall we f**k off, O Lord?
      BRIAN: Oh, just go away! Leave me alone.

  11. Yes, the host Josh Zepps (@joshzepps on Twitter) was great, be sure to tell him you enjoyed the segment.

    We all had a few minutes on the line together before the show started and were introducing each each. Col. Alexander asked me who I was, and I told him what I do and that I believed I was there as the token skeptic. He answered he thought HE was the token skeptic! :-)

    • rpowell2u says:

      Brian, your statement that “pilots are not good observers” is a little on the farcical side. If you want to argue that pilots are not necessarily good observers of objects they see for only a split second or that may be far away; you have a valid a statement. But your statement does not apply to Colonel Coleman who banked his B-25 and pursued an unknown object towards the ground; it does not apply to the Japanese Airline pilot in 1986 who described an object the size of an aircraft carrier; it does not apply to the pilots of the RB-47 in 1957 that were followed by a UFO for two hours with visual sighting as well as air and ground radar confirmation. I’m surprised that you would ever fly in a commercial aircraft if you really believed that pilots are not capable of making blatant observations of close up objects.

      Being skeptical is a very good trait but that must be tempered with the willingness to study the topic with an open mind. You have to separate the quackery from reality.

      • Chris says:

        The problem is that even pilots suffer from the same perceptual issues as everyone else – human beings are poor judges of the speed, size and distance of aerial objects, even more so when there is no ground backdrop to provide perspective (though even when there is, there are still perceptual issues). So you can’t take something like ‘the size of an aircraft carrier’ for granted.

      • Max says:

        If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If you’re trained to identify aircraft, everything looks like an aircraft.

      • Brian Dunning says:

        @rpowell2u I’m not sure what language I used in the video, but what I should have said is that pilots are not “better” observers than anyone else.

  12. mattlennon says:

    There’s Brian again, covering up the Anarctic Nazi military base. We see through your charade, man. Brian must in the pay either the Nazis or the aliens, or even the Anactic Nazi-Alien Lobby.

  13. d brown says:

    You know the first pilot who reported flying saucers did not say they were saucers. He said he saw planes that looked like they were like they were flying like saucers skipping on water. Not the same thing. The newspapers changed it to flying saucers. There was never anything about flying saucers in the report. Only in the newspapers, and the ones who “saw” them later.

    • Glenn Coopee says:

      No, he did not say he saw “planes”. He said he saw objects that were “crescent shaped”, that flew as though one were “skipping saucers across the water”.

  14. Henry Hawkins says:

    It escapes too many Ufies that an ‘unknown’ is unknown only to the observer/reporter. Another person may have been able to identify it immediately, and there is a long history of mysteries that were eventually solved once the problem of having insufficient data was solved. There is no such thing as global ‘unknown’, that is, it is illogical to say “unknown to observer/reporter, therefore mysteriously unknown or globally unknown to anybody, therefore meriting scientific investigation. A witness might not be able to identify an ‘unknown’, but if it was an airplane, the pilot knew what he was.

    J. Allen Hynek studied witness reliability using Blue Book reports as his database:

    Occupation % of Misidentification

    Military pilot
    (single witness) 88%
    (multiple witness) 76%

    Commercial pilot
    (single witness) 89%
    (multiple witness) 79%

    Radar technicians
    (multiple witness) 78%

    Technical person
    (single witness) 65%
    (multiple witness) 50%

    (multiple witness) 83%

    “As J Allen Hynek observered, from his results it would seem that, as a rule, the best witnesses are multiple engineers or scientists; only 50 percent of their sightings could be classified as misperceptions. However, Hynek expressed surprise that commercial and military pilots appear to make relatively poor witnesses.”

    An aside – I once ran a skeptical website and message board from roughly 1995-2005. On the very lively message board, one regular believer, a huge fan of J. Allen Hynek who regarded him as a sort of ufological Moses, was found of mocking skeptical alternate explanations with replies along the lines of “so, Mr. Skeptical, I suppose that one was caused by SWAMP GAS, huh? Hahahaha…” that sort of thing.

    I asked him if he knew who was the first and only ufologist to suggest swamp gas as a natural explanation for a UFO sighting. He did not. I informed him. It was J. Allen Hynek, of course.

  15. Bobco85 says:

    I found the group discussion very entertaining, and think you did a great job. Luckily there weren’t too many parts where I found myself “yelling” at my computer screen when I saw blatant displays of logical fallacy, although I groaned when I heard the “well, were you there?” response as if it were an argument in their favor.

    I noticed that the idea of believing everything that a military person or NASA person who has served for our country says seems to be an unquestioned obligation in the UFO community. Some of the other people really seemed to be offended that you would question the the witnesses of the Rendlesham Forest Incident, especially when their stories were expanding and adding new details over time. It’s like only people who think they have experienced an event can be believed. I’m sure there exists a portion of the UFO community that does not believe anything from the military or NASA claims, but it seems to be in the minority!

  16. Yannis K. says:

    Josh Zepps far greater than Larry King when the latter hosted Michael Shermer, Stanton Friedman and other ufologists here:

  17. Phil Bey says:

    I also laugh at the notion that high ranking military personnel are considered reliable eye witnesses simply because “if an Air Force major witnessed it, it MUST be true”. Kudos to BD for keeping his patience will conferencing with a clueless kid, and an couple of old grumpy geezers.

  18. Phil Bey says:

    I also laugh at the notion that high ranking military personnel are considered reliable eye witnesses simply because “if an Air Force major witnessed it, it MUST be true”. Kudos to BD for keeping his patience while conferencing with a clueless kid, and an couple of old grumpy geezers.

  19. Kneon says:

    The problem I have seen over and over is the equating of the acronym ‘UFO’ with the identifier ‘alien spacecraft’. The ‘U’ means ‘Unidentified’, so to immediately assume that anything that the observer could not identify MUST be a spaceship nullifies the use of the term. I am reminded of a story a friend of mine once used to explain the absurdity of making such leaps of logic-

    An astronomer trains his telescope on Venus, but can see nothing due to the dense cloud cover. He then reasons that dense clouds indicate abundant moisture and high temperature. He further reasons that such conditions on Earth are found in tropical regions with numerous swamps. The scientific thinking of the day suggested that such conditions were also prevalent during the age of the dinosaurs.

    In his log, the astronomer duly noted “Observations re. Venus: I can see nothing. Conclusion: Dinosaurs.”

  20. Bob Kaye says:

    As Neil deGrasse Tyson said, The next time someone’s abducted for medical experiments, when no one is watching – grab an ashtray or anything else off the shelf and hide it!! If it’s made from something we never saw before = proof!

  21. Tim says:

    Good work Brian.

    My question would have been “Why do the alien spaceships look so much like what science fiction TV and movies of the time of the report?” Everytime we hear a claim it always seems to be very similar to what they are expecting to see, rather than something we just wouldn’t recognise. Logically it would be more likely that we would battle recognise a real alien spacecraft.

  22. Gregory says:

    Good work Brian. The only thing I wanted to hear was more of a rebuke of anecdotal evidence as a logical fallacy and at least anti-science.

  23. Matthew Bailey says:

    One of the things I LOVE about the UFO community is that I have worked on two aircraft that are regularly “spotted” as flying saucers, or “extraterrestrial craft” due to their very bizarre mode of propulsion and their seeming size.

    I will hear people giving an account of a sighting of one of them, and think “Damn! I wish that I could say something.”