Saturday, November 29, 2008

Astronomers and UFOs

Medieval Astronomer and Flying Saucer
By Greg Taylor
The Daily Grail

     Discovery Channel is launching a new series called UFOs Over Earth (sample videos available via the link), and as part of the publicity for the premiere have included a commentary by Phil 'Bad Astronomy' Plait on the skeptical view of UFOs. Plait - the skeptic du jour, and inheritor to the crown of James 'The Amazing' Randi - has said pretty much the same before, such as in this video:

In both versions, one of Phil Plait's main assertions is that a certain group of people provide clear evidence that UFOs are simple misidentifications of natural phenomenon, because they - apparently - don't report them:
Amateur astronomers. They are dedicated observers, out every night peering at the sky. If The Truth Is Out There, then amateur astronomers would be reporting far and away the vast majority of UFOs.

But they don't. Why not? Because they understand the sky! They know when a twinkling light is Venus, or a satellite, or a military flare, or a hot air balloon, and so they don't report it.

That, to me, is the killer argument that aliens aren't visiting us. If they were, the amateur astronomers would spot them.

It sounds good and makes for common sense doesn't it? Just one small problem with the argument: it's patently false. Astronomers *do* report UFOs - that's not to say that they are seeing alien spaceships, but in plenty of cases it was certainly something which didn't conform to any natural cause that they can think of. Plait's skeptical argument is not a new one, and has been answered previously, before he put it on like an old jacket. BUFORA's Geoff Falla wrote of this standard skeptical response in his article "Astronomers and UFOs" (PDF):
It is sometimes claimed that astronomers never see UFOs, and that for this reason such objects cannot possibly exist as truly unexplained events. After all, astronomers must spend more time looking at the sky than anyone else, so if there is anything in the sky which should not be there they would surely be aware of it. But astronomers of course do not always have a wide view of the sky. A telescope eyepiece only provides a narrow angle view, and a very small fraction of the sky. Astronomers do, however, sometimes see UFOs - although what may be reported or discussed in public is not the same as what may be admitted in more guarded statements. in 1976, over a thousand members of the American Astronomical Society were asked in a survey if they had experienced any UFO-type observations. A small but significant number, amounting to about five per cent of the members, responded that they had in fact seen an object which they were unable to explain, and which they would classify as a UFO.

There have been several noted reports from astronomers, and from observatories. As far back as 1949, Dr Clyde Tombaugh, famous for his discovery of Pluto in 1930, was at his home in New Mexico with other members of his family when they saw a very strange object in the sky. He was so astonished and concerned that he reported the matter to the FBI, on the understanding that details would not be revealed to the public.

...The search for evidence and for more definitive answers will continue. Where exactly UFOs come from may be neither here nor there, and perhaps in a somewhat different direction, but if anyone says that astronomers never see UFOs - don't believe them. [my emphasis]

Besides Tombaugh (who said of his sighting, "In all of my several thousand hours of night sky-watching, I have never seen anything so strange as this"), Falla lists a few other examples of astronomers reporting unidentifiable phenomena in the sky in his article - but this page goes into far more detail (probably too much - there are some reports I would take issue with...*cough* Adamski *cough*...but you will still find plenty of interest in amongst the dross). Most people interested in the UFO topic could also probably list a few well-known cases - not least that of astrophysicist Jacques Vallee who had his own sighting in the 1950s, as well as being involved in a curious incident while working at the Paris Observatory in 1961.

For all his good points, Phil Plait currently has *no* relevance to the UFO debate, because he seems to have no idea or background knowledge of the topic (quite odd actually, for a prominent skeptic interested and knowledgable in astronomy and space matters). Unless he does and just ignores it for his own convenience. In any case, until he stops simply referencing lights in the sky which might or might not be Venus/swamp gas, and goes further into the more detailed sightings and encounters (including high strangeness reports and effects such as electrical interference), his arguments hold no weight. And as I've said, that's not to say that UFOs are alien vehicles (I tend to think not, personally). But there is a mystery here, something which might provide new knowledge through good science, and it's just...goofy and keep on ignoring it.

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