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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: