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Amateur Astronomers and UFOs (One More Time)

Not content to flog a dead horse once or twice, the Bad Astronomer has returned to his criticism of the lack of sightings of UFOs by amateur astronomers, titled (incorrectly?) “Slamming the astronomers-should-see-UFOs myth“:

In my first book, Bad Astronomy, I have a chapter about UFOs in it. I have the usual sort of debunking in it, but I made a point I had not seen anywhere else at that time: why don’t astronomers see relatively more UFOs than laypeople?

Think about it. Astronomers, both amateur and professional, are constantly viewing the sky. There are tens of thousands of amateurs out observing all the time: a large sample population, and far larger in observing man-hours than the regular population. If UFOs are so common, then why do we not see an unusually large number of reports from astronomers?

My assertion is that this is because the vast majority of UFO reports from people are misidentified objects like Venus, the Moon, satellites, balloons, and so on. These are things every amateur astronomer has seen countless times, and knows are not alien spaceships bent on probing the backsides of rural citizens. While this does not mean every single observed object is something more mundane, it does mean that the huge numbers quoted by UFOlogists are most certainly wrong.

Now firstly, here’s the news flash. Phil’s right. At least that the “huge numbers” of reported UFOs are nearly all simple misidentifications. That’s because when Phil talks about “UFOlogists”, he means “the nutty UFO believers that email me”. As Chris Rutkowski pointed out the last time Phil trotted this out, “First of all, no serious ufologist believes that the majority of reported UFOs are flying saucers….It’s nice to see that Phil has arrived at the same view as we have, only 40 or 50 years behind.”

Anyhow, Phil’s reason for resurrecting this old topic was to promote a new skeptical UFO newsletter called SUNlite, published by Tim Printy, which looks to be an interesting and worthy read on the topic. Two issues have been released so far, both available as free PDF downloads, with the second one featuring an article which defends the Bad Astronomer from all those nasty ufologists out there taking issue with his claims:

Ever since his book came out, Dr. Phil Plait has been criticized by UFO proponents for his statements regarding UFOs. Phil has wondered aloud why more UFO reports do not come from the amateur astronomy community. The howls and catcalls from the UFO proponents is to list various obscure observations by astronomers over the years. However, they appear to be confused at what Dr. Plait is trying to state. He is not stating that amateur astronomers do not make any UFO reports but why don’t they report more events than the few isolated incidents that populate the UFO literature? UFOs by their own definition are “unidentified” and could be just about anything. It is not improbable for amateur astronomers to see something they might not be able to identify during their observations. While UFO proponents like to state that astronomers are seeing UFOs, the real question is “Do astronomers see physical objects that are actual ‘craft’ operating under ‘intelligent control’ that defy explanation?”

Printy neatly evades one of the big issues here with that final sentence. Just as Phil Plait’s “UFOlogists” aren’t anything of the kind, neither are his “UFOs”. According to Printy, Unidentified Flying Object has become “physical objects that are actual ‘craft’ operating under ‘intelligent control’ that defy explanation”, or later “immensely large “aerial vehicles” hovering over their observing site.” Maybe the Bad Astronomer should be a little more specific if he wants to avoid criticism, because I don’t believe that serious ufologists are claiming anything of the sort.

As Chris Rutkowski has previously pointed out though, Phil’s skeptical view is not a new one, and it has been answered (to a degree):

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.

… 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). …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.”

I don’t know for sure what unexplained UFOs are. But when Phil Plait says that amateur astronomers don’t report UFOs, based on his discussions with them over the years, but a survey has shown that they *do* report them based on their own input, I’d probably be putting more weight on the latter. According to his book Bad Astronomy, Phil has “never heard about any amateur astronomers seeing something in the sky they absolutely could not explain.” Consider yourself told BA.

Printy’s article is a good read, and has some excellent information in it. But far from picking apart the criticisms “point-by-point”, it misses some of the key criticisms of Phil Plait’s “debunking” (notably his definitions of “UFOlogist” and “UFO”, and claim that “UFOlogists” think that most UFO sightings are ET craft), and fails to address previous surveys which show that amateur astronomers do in fact report seeing unexplained things in the sky. Which kinda renders Phil’s whole argument, ummm…wrong.

It would also have been nice to see Printy give a point-by-point on Phil’s claim “I don’t think Rutkowski knows very many amateurs astronomers“. Some of his best work

Previously on TDG:

  1. Astronomers and UFOs
    Phil bores the hell out of me. One of the first astronomers to see a Flying Saucers was guess who Phil…the famous debunker Donald Menzel. He never explained them but of course he knew they weren’t spaceships. How he knew is only discussed at the good old debunkers clubs who’s attendees never knew a UFO witness that was not mistaken.
    If he would read National UFO Reporting centers UFO reports he would come across amateur astronomer who do see object they report and can’t explain. Of course Phil is not going to do that he knows already just like Menzel knew. Phil and the rest have nothing but distain for the UFO witness who usually get grilled from both sides skeptic and believer. I had telescope a 6 ” reflector with an electric clock drive. This was decades ago. I know you are usually looking at a very small point of light in the sky…a star a planet a UFO could go right over you head and you wouldn’t know it. Phil knows that but he preaching to the choir and the uninformed. Finally is Phil so niece as to think professional Astronomers will go public about seeing UFOs? Many respectable UFO researchers have had Astronomers tell of UFO reports anonymously. But to come forward publicly…It would take a great deal of courage to do that. Most scientist today don’t have the courage of a sponge. For those who want to read what Menzel UFO sighting “he must be wrong” just read “The World Of Flying Saucers Or Keyhole’s ‘Flying Saucers From Outer Space”
    Joe Capp
    UFO Media Matters

  2. Professional astronomers
    [quote=Jacques Vallee]On two occasions I have tracked some unknown objects, using small telescopes. A few of my astronomer colleagues made similar observations, and, after making inquiries, we became aware of sightings kept confidential by professional astronomers the world over.

    p224, Dimensions (1988)[/quote]

    Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Bad Astronomer.

    Joe Capp makes a good point, that amateur astronomers have their telescopes pointed at celestial objects — stars, comets, nebulae. I’m not sure where the Bad Astronomer has his telescope pointed, but that’s a Freudian can-of-worms I don’t want to go near.

    The overwhelming majority of UFO sightings occur in our blue and cloudy skies, anywhere from a few feet off the ground to 40’000 feet above the clouds. And the best people to assess the validity of UFO sightings are pilots and aircraft crew — and the UFO literature is rich in pilot testimony (which cynics and pseudoskeptics continually ignore). So the Bad Astronomer’s argument is an erroneous one, and he may be inflating the importance of his occupational status just a wee bit — the testimony of amateur astronomers isn’t even needed to validate the UFO phenomenon as one worthy of scientific respect. There’s a plethora of testimony from people of all walks of life in the UFO literature, with civilian, commercial, and military pilots providing the most compelling arguments for UFOs not being of this Earth.

    But the BA’s gotta eat, hence why he’s plugging his book (Amazon) with a worn-out strawman that would rather be pulled apart by flying monkeys than go through all this again.

    ~ * ~


  3. Good post overall, but…
    …downside being that you’re still addressing something he’s not saying any more (probably making it all the easier for him to ignore the valid points made here) – indeed, he claimed at some point that there were no astronomers seeing UFOs. But now he (and the author of the article he points to) seems to acknowledge that there’s astronomers seeing UFOs, and instead focuses on the small number of reported sightings among astronomers compared to the numbers among non-astronomers, and what he concludes from that.

    There’s numerous things wrong with his conclusions though, and there’s some good posts in the comment thread on some of the flaws. One guy for example points out convincingly that even with a big number of astronomers looking at the sky for hours each day, the number of hours resulting from the whole populace glancing at the sky for a couple of seconds daily adds up to many more hours in relation. Further down another one explains how Phil’s mixing up the words “sightings” and “reports”, and so comes to fallacious conclusions, etc.

    Point is, there’s lots of good material there for a second post on this topic, this time not focussing on Phil’s previous claims, but on the new ones. Because I’m almost certain he or anybody agreeing with him will completely not consider themselves told, because this time that’s not what they got wrong 😉

    1. Two points…
      [quote=Driftwood]…downside being that you’re still addressing something he’s not saying any more (probably making it all the easier for him to ignore the valid points made here) – indeed, he claimed at some point that there were no astronomers seeing UFOs. But now he (and the author of the article he points to) seems to acknowledge that there’s astronomers seeing UFOs, and instead focuses on the small number of reported sightings among astronomers compared to the numbers among non-astronomers, and what he concludes from that.[/quote]

      Moving the goalposts is one way of dealing with criticism. Given that Phil and Tim’s recent comments both want to say that ufological criticism of Phil’s original points were wrong, it’s worth pointing out his *original points*. Why should I chase shifting goalposts? 😉

      Kind regards,
      You monkeys only think you’re running things

  4. Education, not slamming
    [quote=Greg]Moving the goalposts is one way of dealing with criticism.[/quote]

    Exactly, and I would have loved to see at least a mention of that in the article, not in its comment section !:) Because here we have a skeptic of a certain authority, who initially has made a completely unfounded argument, that has been effectively taken apart here and elsewhere. But now, instead of owning up to that or at least leaving the topic alone, he just changes the goalposts…and not only that, but to an equally worthless argument, cleverly (or stupidly ?) ignoring terms and numbers involved in it to make it look valid.

    Pointing these things out in my opinion doesn’t mean chasing the goal poasts, it means further demolishing his authority on this topic. Now that might sound harsh, and to clear it up – I don’t see this as an ideological war of some sort, where one side needs to be “slammed” (ugh…) and defeated, neither do I have anything against the man (unless he’s in skeptic mode I usually find myself thinking that it must not be too bad to have a beer with the guy).

    What gets me really worked up though, is that this is a matter of education and misinformation. Like I said, he’s got a certain authority, and definitely publicity – if a person uses that position to spread an ignorant, misinformed point of view, backing it up by distorting the truth to something he would like it to be – that needs pointing out. And TDG has done a great job in that area so far (by educating instead of slamming), that’s why I was a little disappointed to see that you basically focussed on the old – already addressed often enough – argument, instead of the things he got wrong this time around.

    [quote=Greg]Given that Phil and Tim’s recent comments both want to say that ufological criticism of Phil’s original points were wrong, it’s worth pointing out his *original points*.[/quote]

    Yes, that’s why I called it a “good post overall” 😉
    Greetings and a great weekend !

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