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I posted last week about attacks by ‘Skeptologists’ Brian Dunning and Phil Plait on ufologists Stanton Friedman and Chris Rutkowski respectively. Plait’s complaint against Rutkowski concerned Chris’s criticisms of the Bad Astronomer’s thoughts about astronomers and UFOs (notably, the apparent lack of sightings reported by amateur astronomers).

In seeking more information about this topic, I came across an article from 1981 which contains actual data regarding the percentage of amateur astronomers who have sighted UFOs. Rather ironically, the article is written by…Chris Rutkowski! I’m reproducing a large part of the article below as it’s quite interesting and very topical to the question of amateur astronomers and UFO sightings:

In his book, “The Promise of Space”, Arthur C. Clarke makes a statement to the effect that amateur astronomers have not reported seeing UFOs. An amateur astronomer named Gert Herb read this and decided to determine if the statement was indeed true. The effort was encouraged by the fact that in January of 1977, Peter Sturrock published his report of a survey of professional astronomers on the subject of UFO’s. Now known as the Sturrock Report (published as the Stanford University Institute for Plasma Research Report Number 681), it received a 52% response rate from 2,611 astronomers surveyed. Only 20% of the respondents thought that UFO’s were not worthy of scientific attention. However, this
included a bias whereby individuals who were strongly opposed to the notion of UFO’s would be inclined to not respond to the survey. (It is obvious, though, that some strongly opponent individuals might be impelled to respond with their negative opinion.) A startling 4½% of the respondents indicated that they had seen UFOs.

… Mr. Herb sent a questionnaire to 8,526 amateurs in the Astronomical League, the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers (ALPO) and the International Occultation Timing Association (IOTA). The AAVSO was also asked to participate, but it declined. A total of only 1,805 individuals responded to the survey. Of that group, 67% felt that UFO’s “certainly, probably or possibly exist”. Asked whether they had ever seen an object which they could not identify, despite their efforts to do so, 427 of the 1,805 answered to the affirmative. That is 23.7% of the responding group, and 5.2% of the entire sample polled.

Mr. Herb also asked the amateurs about their observing experience, in terms of whether they kept a regular observing log, followed a structured observing program, worked in conjunction with a group like IOTA or ALPO, and their length of active amateur observing. On this basis, he selected 261 “senior” amateurs whom he felt possessed higher-than-average abilities. These were considered as being most familiar with objects in the night sky. Of the 261 selected, 74 had seen objects which “resisted most exhaustive efforts of identification.”

While most sightings were of point- or slightly-extended sources, 24 were of objects observed “at short enough distance as to leave no doubt in the observer’s mind that something strange was reported.” Sixty-six were observed through a telescope, and forty objects were observed through binoculars.

Again, a certain bias is evident. Amateurs who had seen a UFO were more likely to have returned the questionnaire, having more motivation. As is usual in surveys of this nature, peer pressure might have served to suppress many sightings, so that these results therefore reflect only the reported sightings, rather than the actual number of sightings made.

… But UFO’s are not extraterrestrial spacecraft, as many people assume. They are merely unidentified objects, and nothing can realistically be said beyond that. No one is able to identify everything he or she sees. This writer has two reports of UFOs from members of the RASC Winnipeg Centre on record, and neither suggest anything resembling an interstellar spaceship. They are just unidentified, and it is even possible that with enough information, they could be explained as mundane objects. Just as easily, however, they can remain unidentified.

The Sturrock and Herb reports show that both professional and amateur astronomers have seen UFOs, bearing out the statement often quoted that all kinds of people have seen UFOs. A large percentage of both groups believe that UFOs deserve attention from the scientific community. This writer also shares that belief. If “UFOs do not exist”, then a very unusual sociological mechanism is at work, affecting large numbers of people by causing them to report UFOs. This would indicate that a study of this phenomenon is definitely warranted. If “UFOs do exist”, then they deserve serious study in that regard as well. Note that this has no bearing whatsoever on the question of extraterrestrial life. Although ET life may or may not be involved, UFOs are, at present, a terrestrial human problem.

As I mentioned previously, in a further irony, Chris also has a new book out in which he discusses this very topic (is Phil Plait doing some viral marketing on his behalf?!): A World of UFOs (Amazon US and UK).