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In January and February residents of Morristown, New Jersey, spotted some strange lights in the sky. I don’t remember seeing too much about it here on TDG, although I managed to track an item down in one news briefs post: “Genuine UFOs over the Garden State, or just road flares attached to helium balloons? Watch the video and decide.”

Well, it turns out that the UFOs were in fact…flares attached to helium balloons. On April 1, two New Jersey ‘skeptics’ – Chris Russo and Joe Rudy – came forward in an article for the eSkeptic newsletter claiming to have staged a hoax to test people’s gullibility.

[W]e set out on a mission to help people think rationally and question the credibility of so-called UFO “professionals.” We brainstormed the idea of producing a spaceship hoax to fool people, bring the charlatans out of the woodwork to drum up controversy, and then expose it as nothing more than a prank to show everyone how unreliable eyewitness accounts are, along with investigators of UFOs.

The hoax garnered the attention of local press and MUFON (although that was at least partially because the hoaxers contacted them), but hit paydirt when the History Channel’s UFO Hunters devoted an episode to the sightings:

The icing on the cake came when the popular History Channel show UFO Hunters featured the Morristown UFO as their main story one week. Bill Birnes, the lead investigator of the show and the publisher of UFO Magazine, declared definitively that the Morristown UFO could not have been flares or Chinese lanterns.

…This begs an important question: are UFO investigators simply charlatans looking to make a quick buck off human gullibility, or are they alarmists using bad science to back up their biased opinions that extraterrestrial life is routinely visiting our planet? Either way, are these people deserving of their own shows on major cable networks? If a respected UFO investigator can be easily manipulated and dead wrong on one UFO case, is it possible he’s wrong on most (or all) of them? …

Does this bring into question the validity of every other UFO case? We believe it does.

I’d have to say that there is a pretty lazy generalisation about “UFO investigators” here. I don’t write off stem cell research just because Woo Suk Hwang admitted to fraud. Like any other area of investigation, cases (and investigators) should be treated on an individual basis. It’s worth noting that these sightings attracted *zero* interest on perhaps the premiere public email list for ufology, UFO Updates.

However, the skeptical duo are right to say that there should be a question over the validity of all UFO cases (though it’s not because of their hoax). This is an area filled with speculation, hoaxing and misidentifications. They are certainly right, therefore, in calling on people to be more skeptical about lights in the sky, and media reporting about them. Hopefully people treat the ‘lights in the sky’ cases of UFO with a bit more skepticism in future, considering this hoax case, and last year’s “Chinese Lantern” invasion in the UK. Conversely though, it would be nice if skeptics acknowledged that UFO sightings go beyond simple specks of light in the sky.

There’s an interesting twist in the tale though. The Morris County prosecutor has now charged the skeptical hoaxsters with disorderly conduct. Actually, I’m surprised the pair came forward taking responsibility, considering that it seemed quite clear that charges were likely, given this story from mid-February which discusses the concerns of local air traffic authorities:

Capt. Jeff Paul, a spokesman for Morris County Prosecutor Robert A. Bianchi, said on Wednesday that federal authorities have expressed concern that the objects — which could be flares attached to balloons — might be a threat to flights on their final approach to Newark Liberty International Airport.

“The Federal Aviation Administration advised us that they would issue an advisory to aircraft in the area,” Paul said in a prepared statement.

…Morristown Police previously said the lights appeared to be a hoax, road flares attached to helium balloons. The lights were swaying, police said, and observers at Morristown Airport saw what appeared to be balloons.

Either these guys are very honest, or they’re a little dumb. Or maybe they couldn’t resist the reveal – as I’ve said before, in my opinion a large part of modern skepticism is about boosting the intellectual ego.

Interesting to note also that although some skeptics loved the prank, other prominent skepticks such as Ben Radford worried about how this might affect public perception of the skeptical movement (“Should skeptics hoax the public, or is that a breach of ethics that will ultmately harm the skeptical position?”). Others also worried about setting flares loose without precautions against them possibly starting fires.

‘Hoaxing as education’ is not a new phenomena in skepticism, and the ethics of it have been debated before. Randi has the dubious honour of being at the forefront of such pranks, with Project Alpha and the ‘Carlos’ tour. And if we take this recent SkepticBlog entry at face value, prominent skeptics are now encouraging a return to such tricks.

Coming back to the idea that this event calls into doubt the whole field of ufology, it is also worth noting that ‘real’ UFO investigators are more than aware that the hoax hypothesis should come into serious consideration when looking into a sighting. Canadian UFO investigator Chris Rutkowski pointed this out on his blog yesterday:

Actually, this doesn’t do much other than show how people’s perceptions can be affected by their beliefs, and how all UFO sighting reports have to be scrutinized carefully so as to rule out hoaxes.

That’s exactly what serious ufologists have been saying for, oh… about 50 years.

And as for UFO hoaxing, that’s been done too, back in the misty depths of time (in somewhat of a scientific manner too).

I’m sure many ‘UFO believers’ out there are having a bit of a giggle, or cheering, about these skeptics being charged by prosecutors. I’m not one of them. I don’t really agree with what they did, but I can appreciate what they were trying to do (excepting any feeding of their intellectual ego). Anybody laughing at these guys should ask themselves why they are doing so, because it might reveal a bit about any ‘beliefs’ they might have.

Anyhow, the whole hoax was carefully documented on video and posted on the ‘net. So if you want to check it out, I’ve embedded the first instalment below; parts two and three are here and here respectively.

On a final note, let’s not label this the “Great UFO hoax of 2009” as a Newsweek blog did. It garnered hardly any attention, apart from one UFO show primarily aiming at entertainment – if you’ll pardon the analogy, it didn’t even register as a blip on the radar.

Previously on TDG: