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A Social History of Ball Lightning

One of my favourite Fortean sites on the ‘net is Magonia, and one of my favourite researchers is Martin Shough. Put them together and you get a fascinating article, “A Social History of Ball Lightning“. In his essay (originally printed in Magonia 81, May 2003), Martin looks at how the ball lightning phenomenon has come to be largely accepted by modern science (if not totally, then at least accepted as a topic worthy of discussion), and compares it to UFO sightings:

Back in 1967 the astronomer Gerard Kuiper dismissed a 10% residue of unexplained ‘UFO’ reports with a wave of the hand, thinking it ‘reasonable to assume’ that this testimony must be “so distorted or incomplete as to defy all analysis”. Inconsistently, however, he advocated a major Defence Department/FAA programme to research “very rare natural phenomena” such as ball lightning. Why? Because “no adequate data yet exist of ball lightning”, even though its existence had been ‘known for at least a century’.

This raises a very interesting question: How was it possible for science to ‘know’ anything with ‘no adequate data’? The answer is that science did not ‘know’, and as a whole declined to have anything to do with such stories for at least a century. Unpicking some of the reason and unreason behind this curious condition of scientific double-think is instructive.

Logically and evidentially speaking, there is precious little difference between a ‘very rare natural phenomenon’ which is unexplained and an unexplained phenomenon characterised as a ‘UFO’. Even more subtle is the distinction sometimes drawn between ‘a unique natural phenomenon never before observed’ and a UFO. Because there will always be unique combinations of natural phenomena never before observed (in practice), how is a distinction to be supported be tween such effects and UFOs?

One approach to this difficulty is to abandon hope of finding any distinction. But why does this collapsing of the phenomenological distinction not translate into a collapsing of the epistemological distinction? How can there then be ‘unexplained natural phenomena’ which we say are allowed to be distinct from mere combinations of natural phenomena never before observed, and ‘unidentified flying objects’ which are not allowed to be distinct? Is this classification a matter of sense or mere semantics?

Some excellent insights, as always with Martin’s work. With your extra time on the weekend, make sure you also browse the rest of the content at Magonia, as the site is chock-full of win.

Previously on TDG:

  1. Perhaps, but…
    I can’t quite decide whether the author is right in posing this as a problem. I know it appears on first glance to be, but on reflection i’m not sure.

    How many philosophical conflicts are rectified by realising that the person made a mistake and that the conflict does not exist.

    If Gerard Kuiper was wrong to posit that its existence was known even though there was no data then the philosophical implications of the conflict disappear.

    Another thing interests me though. In his quote “no adequate data yet exist of ball lightning” what does he mean by ‘adequate’? The word can hide a lot of meaning. In a murder case their can be circumstantial evidence, which can be described as inadequate, so the detective may state they are going to look for adequate evidence for the person they ‘know’ did it.

    They may well be wrong in assuming the person they ‘know’ did it actually did, that will depend on the inadequate data. Perhaps they have motive and intent, plus a drunk witness, and now intend to collect the DNA evidence to make the evidence adequate to go to court.

    The author has recognised all this (‘The answer is that science did not ‘know’, and as a whole declined to have anything to do with such stories for at least a century.’), but then goes on to create a criticism based on it, but if the grounds for the criticism are false then the criticism must also be. Instead we are left with a criticism of an incorrect individual and his remarks, which is not nearly as profound as a philosophical conflict.

    As for unexplained natural phenomena and UFO’s:

    UFO’s are definitely real. People see unidentified things in the sky all the time, we even pick them up on radar. What is harder from a scientific point of view is saying what each one is. Perhaps some government has an alien spaceship with alien bodies locked up in cold storage. If they let people study these and the knowledge was freely available to the scientific community then the scientific community would no doubt hold up its hands and say ‘yep, we’ve got the evidence now’. If only one guy has been allowed to see them and he is sworn to secrecy then it is no surprise that scientists are skeptical of any specific claims – until more adequate data comes in.

    Of some importance to this post, i think, is that there is no available scientific theory that can be used to predict aliens being here. There are many predicting the odds that they are out there somewhere, but not that they are here. That relies on sightings, recordings, physical evidence etc. Not getting into the fact that there is amply enough evidence to make people suspicious of this, it is this lack of a specific scientific idea that would give scientists something to go on (such as the presence of organisms with different DNA etc).

    If you compare this to a reliable physical theory making predictions, such as ball lightning, gavitational waves, correlation of fossils across continents, existence of elements in particular points of the periodic table, i hope you can see that there is a slight difference between a statement of belief that something predicted exists that would explain what people had seen or felt, but that has not been observed or measured under scientific conditions.

    Those should be enough thoughts to at least complicate Martin Shough’s comments, even if they do not convince you that his application of the philosophy here is either incorrect or not specific enough.

    Also, i had to write this out twice as bloody internet explorer crashed. Bloody thing.

  2. Ball Lightning
    I was curious to read “Science has known about ball lightning for at least a century” with the added proviso “How was it possible for science to ‘know’ anything with ‘no adequate data’? The answer is that science did not ‘know’, and as a whole declined to have anything to do with such stories for at least a century”.

    Well I beg to differ. I have a science magazine dated 1884 which has a report entitled “How to make artificial ball lightning”.

    I have not tried the experiment as I am not sure of the chemicals or equipment named, nor do I have access to the D.C power quoted. But even if I am unable to replicate the experiment, it is not to say that others did not succeed.

    In conclusion I think the reason for the lack of any serious research into ball lightning in Victorian times onwards was that no practical use for it could be envisaged, so it remained a curiosity of the times, much like a Van Der Graf generator.

    UFOs on the other hand, if real, could provide mankind with machine to get to the stars. This is perhaps why we would all love them to be the genuine item, despite any hard physical evidence being available to the public.


  3. Anecdotal evidence
    I’ve read that ball lightning wasn’t accepted by the scientific establishment until a couple of incidents ocurred, after which the phenomenon was taken much more seriously.

    In one case a ball was witnessed by an eminent professor in his log cabin in the wilds (bizarrely, it seemed to trace part of the geometric design in the rug on the floor). The other incident was when a plane full of atmospheric scientists had one pass through the cabin.

    Unfortunately I can’t source this for you. I thought it was in Murray Gell-Mann’s “The Quark and the Jaguar”, but a quick search suggests ‘no’. Perhaps I was also reading something less ‘reputable’ at the time. Anybody else know?

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