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.