Archives for posts with tag: UFOs

I had the privilege of speaking at the First Friday’s at the Castle in CIT Blackrock Castle this weekend. My talk was “Hoaxes and Hysteria in Astronomy”, where I took a sceptical look at Astrology, UFO’s and the Moon Landing “Hoax” conspiracy theory.

I first spoke about astrology. To understand why astrology is wrong, you need to understand how it originated, and how astronomical discoveries since the 1500’s have completely overturned the basis of the belief system. It also gave me the opportunity to present Phil Plait’s frequently posted diagram:

Then I gave a potted history of UFO’s and our culture’s fascination with all things extraterrestrial. Part of it featured Orson Welles’ infamous radio broadcast that panicked half of America in 1938. Here is the first piece of the radio show. Even now, over 70 years later, it still works as a monumental piece of broadcasting.

Orson Welles later described why he did it:

 

While a great many people claim to have seen UFO’s, there has never been any hard evidence provided. UFO reports have been plagued by problems of mistaken identity, delusion and hoaxes. One of the best hoaxes was crop circles: initiated by two drinking buddies in the south of England.

I then spoke about the widespread perception that the moon landings of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s were a hoax and that NASA staged a cover-up of monumental proportions. There have been many rebuttals, most comprehensively done by the Mythbusters team.

Personally, I love Michell and Webb’s take on it.

At the end of the talk, I got around to my Baloney Detector Kit:

That last one, the “lone mavericks” suffering for their ideas, is particularly true. There have been far, far more wrong-headed lone mavericks” in history than the tiny number of people who have eventually been proven right.

Finally, if you have managed to read through to the end, here are some useful links should you wish to know more.

  1. BadAstronomy.com : Phil Plait waxes lyrical about his wonderment of the universe, while regularly debunking the widespread misinformation.
  2. Snopes.com : If you hear a strange tale or you get an email that sounds fishy, check this website out. It will give you some food for thought.
  3. Skepdic.com : The Skeptic’s Dictionary is a tremendous resource for people who want to understand the scientific view of modern delusions and weirdness.
  4. Randi.org : The James Randi Educational Foundation has been fighting baloney for years. There are plenty of resources there for budding sceptics.
  5. Skeptoid.com : Brian Dunning has created a comprehensive list of ten-minute podcasts debunking all sorts of strange ideas. You name it, it’s probably there.

We run regular “Skeptics in the Castle” meetings in Blackrock Castle, where experts are invited to talk about the reality behind modern misconceptions, fads and strange beliefs. Check out our website corkskeptics.org. We are also on Facebook and Twitter.

 

Photo via mitopoietico (Flickr / CC Licensed)

So, you are out one night and you see an object in the sky that you can’t quite explain. You have never seen anything quite like it in your life before. Could it be an alien spacecraft? Have you had a Close Encounter of the Third Kind?

An alien visitation would be a truly outstanding occurrence if it were validated scientifically. It would possibly rank as the greatest discovery ever since science began. For centuries however, astronomers, both professional and amateur, have been looking into the skies without ever finding good evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial beings. Given our knowledge of the Universe, this is not surprising. Although there are many billions of stars around us, the distances involved are stupendously large. The practical difficulties involved for alien spacecraft traveling to Earth beggar belief. This is not to say it is impossible; just very unlikely. When you see a strange light in the sky, you should not jump to the conclusion that you have seen a UFO. Other, more mundane explanations are possible in the majority of cases.

Here’s a quick guide to some strange lights in the night sky, and what they might be.

  • Steady moving lights, flashing each second, possibly green or red; sometimes very bright white lights.

It’s likely to be an aircraft. This is probably a trivial case as most people are aware of what planes look like at night. Near airports, planes can have very bright landing lights turned on that can drown out any flashing beacons.

  • Steady moving light with no flashing. Moving slowly. Seen after sunset or before sunrise. Can be very bright, but usually quite dim objects. May disappear almost instantaneously.

You may have seen an artificial satellite. There are hundreds of satellites in the sky, normally only visible in the night sky after sun-down, when the light is still shining on them. The sudden disappearance happens when it moves into the Earth’s shadow. If the light is very bright, it is likely that you have just seen the International Space Station, quite a common sight in our skies these days.

  • Orange flickering light, floating around 50 to 100 metres above the ground. May dim slowly after a few minutes.

You have possibly seen a Chinese Lantern, a small, inexpensive hot-air balloon made out of paper and wire. Chinese Lanterns have become very common around the country at celebrations, Halloween and New Year’s Eve.

  • Steady bright light. No apparent movement. May be close to horizon or visible in the southern sky. Much brighter than surrounding stars.

It’s possible you have seen Jupiter or Venus, two surprisingly bright planets at certain times of the year. After the Moon, these two objects are the brightest objects in the night sky.

  • A very bright point of light in the sky. It lasts momentarily, then disappears again. Object may move slowly. So bright you might even see it during the day.

You may have seen an Iridium Flare, essentially the reflection of a low-orbit Iridium satellite, originally used to provide satellite mobile communications. The reflections can be surprisingly bright.

  • Very bright green or red light in the sky, about 200 metres above ground. Appears to move slowly.

You may have seen an emergency flare. This is a very bright firework, shot up in the sky as a distress signal to nearby shipping. In Ireland, flares are often sent up during celebrations like the New Year.

  • Fast moving bright object. May travel a large distance across the sky in a split second. Possibly a greenish colour associated with the event.

You may have seen a fireball. This is a rocky object from space that has collided with the Earth’s atmosphere, heating up and exploding on impact. It may also be a satellite re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. Such an event is worth noting! You should make a note of your observation with the International Meteor Organisation.

  • Strange diffuse lights, illuminating clouds. Moving rapidly, possibly rhythmically. There may be more than one light in the sky.

You may have seen the effect of searchlights shining up on clouds. Local festivals and event organisers sometimes use searchlights to attract attention to their shows at night.

Other sightings may have arisen from light reflections, optical illusions or mistaken identity. It may be that the witnesses were very tired at the time or under the influence of drugs or medication, or they may have been the subject or originator of a deliberate hoax. The key thing is to always discount the more mundane answers before ever jumping to improbable conclusions.

Over the past few years, I have developed a habit of skepticism, which perhaps could be described as the careful use of critical thinking in the face of extraordinary, supernatural or highly unusual claims. So, if I hear someone talking about healing crystals or angels or UFO’s or homeopathic cures or divine miracles, my immediate reaction nowadays is disbelief.

Skepticism is not something that comes naturally to me. I have a relatively trusting nature, so for me, skepticism is hard work. I’d love to believe – I really would – it’s just that alarm bells go off in my head which can sometimes make for awkward situations in otherwise polite company. 

So, when I hear about people using the phrase “at first I was skeptical, but..” in the context of “witnessing” something such as a UFO or a miracle cure or some other such nonsense, it’s become clear to me that these people doesn’t know the first thing about proper skepticism. Most people simply don’t realise the extent to which they can be manipulated or deceived by false arguments, hidden prejudices, partial evidence and statistical anomalies.

My journey into skepticism has been a long, but highly rewarding journey. In my teens, I read Martin Gardner’s “Fads and Fallacies“, which presented the other side of Homeopathy, Biorythms, UFO claims and Scientology. Much later on, I read Carl Sagan’s “Demon Haunted World” and his “baloney detector kit”. Around the same time, I came across James Randi’s website with his million dollar challenge. I developed a keen interest in identifying logical fallacies and exposing urban legends using Snopes.com. More recently, I have become a keen subscriber to Brian Dunning’s Skeptoid and the superb “Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe” podcasts.

In the light of a media culture that seems to thrive on feeding mistaken notions rather than challenging them; in the light of a world where sophisticated marketing techniques are employed by all manner of cults and fringe groups; and in the light of multi-million industries peddling all manner of snake-oil cures, maybe it’s not too late to bolster our skeptical abilities. 

I would recommend the above books, websites and podcasts if you are interested in learning more.

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