Up in the Air

There are cool things to see in the sky – but don’t waste your time on UFOs

July 14, 2013 

Daniel B. Caton is a physics and astronomy professor and director of observatories at Appalachian State University.

A recent news item about a UFO symposium turned my attention to another phenomenon that might exist up in the air. Or, not.

Apparently a good number of people spend a great deal of time reading about and “investigating” unidentified flying objects. At least at one time, “UFO” was the second-most searched three-letter word on the Internet. I am not sure this is time well-spent.

Even the UFOers admit that 95 percent of sightings are traceable to natural or manmade phenomena. If doctors or auto mechanics could make the correct diagnosis that often they would be happy as clams. Not understanding 5 percent of sightings does not mean they are ET: It just means we don’t know what they were. This “excluded middle” (“if not known as real they must be ET”) is an example of violating the rules of Baloney Detection as laid out by Carl Sagan in his book “The Demon Haunted World.” Other examples include pilots and generals brought in as experts, as if they somehow have superior observational skills (“argument from authority”). The scapegoat of “new physics we don’t understand” is often employed to turn tricks of light into impossible maneuvers by extraterrestrial spacecraft (“appeal to ignorance”).

Many people are grossly ignorant of natural phenomena these days, having grown up indoors and disconnected from nature. The nightscape is totally foreign turf to those with few clues as to what is out there. Anything slightly odd is automatically christened a UFO. On top of all this it is well-known that eyewitness testimony is very unreliable.

Photographs and movies were already unreliable and often poorly exposed in the days of film and darkroom techniques. In the era of Adobe Photoshop and After Effects, all bets are off for digital pix and videos. And, measurements taken with electromagnetic field meters, Geiger counters, etc., are often made out of context with little understanding of background noise levels and their sources. Further, no convincing physical evidence has been recovered. Bring me back a piece of one, please.

The study of real transient phenomena is difficult, whether it is of supernovae in the sky or tornadoes on the ground. Where and when they will happen is impossible to predict. The same is true for UFOs.

There are lots of cool things to see in the sky, both day and night. I encourage you to explore them. Before you try to explore the unexplained, you need to first become familiar with the well-known!

Daniel B. Caton is a physics and astronomy professor and director of observatories at Appalachian State University. Email: catondb@appstate.edu. More on this month’s column: www.upintheair.info.

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