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I Want to Believe

I Know What I Saw: On the ‘Unreliability’ of UFO Eyewitnesses

Over on her blog at National Geographic, science writer Nadia Drake – the daughter of SETI pioneer Frank Drake – has taken Hillary Clinton to task for recent comments made about UFOs. “There’s enough [UFO] stories out there,” Clinton remarked during an FM radio show interview, “that I don’t think everybody is just sitting in their kitchen making them up.”

Drake notes her disappointment “that influential people are helping fan the flames of conspiracy theories”, saying it was “unhelpful and irresponsible for Clinton” to be “teasing the public”. Hillary, she says, is wrong to put any stock in eye-witness reports:

Check out the decades of research that have been done on the reliability of witnesses testifying in court. In these situations, our brains often fill in or edit details based on preconceived biases or post-encounter information—and then we subconsciously convince ourselves that our memories are accurate when in fact, they’re not.

This is where Clinton’s reasoning about people sitting in their kitchens making stuff up falls apart. Beliefs are potent. The brain is a powerful tool, and it can lead us to some incredibly wrong recollections and conclusions. And in these situations, assuming there’s safety in numbers is foolish (for more on that topic, start with the Salem witch trials).

Drake is right, of course, that eye-witness testimony can be flakey, and we should be very cautious in trusting it. However, to swing to the extreme and simply write off the vast number of sightings is also misguided.

Consider, for example, the eye-witness reports a few hundred years ago of an obviously ridiculous ‘phenomenon’: that rocks fell from the sky. For a very long time these reports of meteorite falls were dismissed as fanciful, or at the very best a confused sighting of some other phenomenon. It wasn’t until a confluence of factors around 1800 – ranging from influential publications to bizarre meteor showers – that opinion began to shift towards the belief that rocks did indeed fall from the sky.

One of those incidents was the ‘Wold Newton Meteorite’ fall in England in 1795, near the home of magistrate Major Edward Topham. Topham was acutely aware of the controversial nature of such incidents at that time, and thus “as a magistrate, I took [the witnesses] accounts upon oath”. Topham had some choice words for those who chose to dismiss these reports. “I mean not to enter into any literary warfare with those sceptics, who think it much easier to doubt every word of this account than to believe such an event could take place,” he remarked. “There is no shorter way of disposing of any thing than to deny or disbelieve it”.

Once the reality of meteorite falls became established, the historian Eusebius Salverte pointed out that scientists’ failure to recognise the truth of the matter for so long was borne out of “a predetermination to see nothing, or to deny what we had seen.”

And another meteor controversy that ran parallel with the ‘rocks from the sky’ debate was also often dismissed based simply on the supposed fallibility of eye-witnesses. When a large fireball tore across the sky over England in 1719, a witness reported that it…

…made so strong a light while it was in its greatest extent, that for a moment the Moon, which was above a day past the first quarter, and all the stars, seem’d to disappear by the superiority of this new light; and at that moment one might have read the smallest print by it. While it was throwing itself into this beautiful stream, I thought I heard a noise of hissing, like what is made by the flying of a large rocket in the air, but I heard no other noise.

Others too heard similar noises when the bolide lit the sky that night. But the famous and influential astronomer Edmund Halley (whom Halley’s Comet is named after) was quick to dismiss these claims as “pure fantasy”. Halley’s reasoning was based in hard science: from various ground observations of the bolide’s flight, he had been able to triangulate the height of the fireball. At more than 60 miles distant, Halley noted that it would have been impossible for anybody to hear the fireball at the same time as seeing it: as sound travels at ‘only’ around a fifth of a mile per second, it would have taken some five minutes to hear anything related to the event.

But over the years, people kept reporting this same ‘impossible’ thing. In 1784 Thomas Blagdon gathered a number of similar reports, but suggested that they might best be explained psychologically, as being the result of “an affrighted imagination”. And yet the reports kept coming. Almost 200 years after Halley’s ‘debunking’, the famous astronomer W.F. Denning would note that “hissing and similar noises…may be dismissed as imaginary…[an] observational illusion… They are either imaginative or due to causes not directly connected with the phenomena observed”. In 1932, C.C. Wylie, Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy at the University of Iowa, illustrated once again the dangers of using the words “without doubt” when he wrote that “the explanation [for meteoric sounds] is without doubt psychological”. In fact, even after the turn of the 21st century, I have seen skeptics dismissing these reports as nonsense.

But it turns out that these noises are real, and have even been recorded. Much is still unknown about them, but these ‘electrophonic meteors’ are now theorised to emit VLF (Very Low Frequency) electromagnetic waves – which travel at the speed of light – and transduce sound in objects near the witness, or perhaps even within their head.

Why did it take more than 200 years – during the great age of science no less – for scientists to recognise that witnesses were reliably reporting the phenomenon, and it was they who were wrong? Firstly, electrophonic meteors were said to exhibit impossible behaviour (instantaneous sounds). Also, they occurred suddenly, without notice, usually to witnesses alone or in small groups, often in remote areas and/or in the middle of the night, who provided the often dismissed ‘anecdote’ rather than more desired ‘evidence’. They were extremely capricious in the manner in which multiple witnesses in the same group might report different sounds (or no sound at all). And for a long time, the fireballs themselves were unidentified objects – without a solid understanding of what they actually were (i.e. rocks falling from the sky), the mechanism behind the production of such anomalous sounds remained a mystery.

Sound familiar?

I’m all for being skeptical of eyewitness reports of UFOs. But let’s not be so silly to dismiss them all out of hand without investigating the truly perplexing ones. Otherwise we might be missing out on something very important (and that certainly doesn’t have to mean ‘alien craft’).

  1. Nada to Nadia
    Well said–and the meteorite example is a good one. I’d be curious to know what Nadia would think of multiple eyewitness accounts corroborated by radar trackings, or trace residue at sites. (And I’d be curious to get her reaction to Leslie Kean’s writings.) She may have a scientific background, but she doesn’t seem to have done any serious homework on this topic, at all.

    1. Just another commentator
      Just another commentator lacking enough research experience to make such tendentious comments on the subject. People like that appear to be living in a bubble.

  2. Witness Reliability
    When a report isn’t hoaxed (as so many are now – thank you, Internet), it’s very possible the witness didn’t understand what was seen (it was mundane but totally unfamiliar to the witness) so it was misinterpreted or overinterpreted. The witness truly believes his interpretation of events, but his interpretation might well be based on a big dose of imaginative “fill in the blanks”.

    Nevertheless, there’s a percentage of cases that seem to represent true unknowns that are deserving of attention and investigation. So, if these types of cases get a second look in a possible “Clinton Administration”, I really don’t care what Nadia Drake has to say about it.

  3. rocks did indeed fall from the sky
    I suggest this is not a good analogy for UFO reports. For instance, investigators found the rocks. No one has found a spaceship.

    1. Well…
      Respectfully, I think you may be missing the point. In the case of meteorites, it was quite a while before the hard evidence caught up with the anecdotal reports. The fact that the rocks weren’t found right away (or rather, identified for what they really were) didn’t by itself negate the importance of those earlier eyewitness reports, which had trickled in for centuries. We need to treat eyewitness accounts a bit more humbly than with simple knee-jerk dismissals is the point, imo.

    2. Analogies
      [quote=terry the censor]I suggest this is not a good analogy for UFO reports. For instance, investigators found the rocks. No one has found a spaceship.[/quote]

      For a start, I’d point out that you’re approaching the subject backwards if you write it off based on no *spaceships* being found – the phenomenon may be an entirely natural one (or perhaps, as Nadia Drake feels, it really is no phenomenon at all). The point is, as Ray points out below, that we have a vast number sightings. Many are likely rubbish. But both examples I cite – rocks falling from the sky, and electrophonic sounds – show that eyewitness reports can be the only real evidence for *centuries* before enough evidence is collected to show that these anomalous sightings were genuine. That’s the lesson I’m pointing out as compared to Nadia Drake simply writing off eyewitness ‘anecdotes’ – that it would be unscientific, and perhaps to our detriment, to write things off just because they seem bizarre or against conventional science.

  4. Short term memories
    Even when evidence is provide it quickly falls into the murky past with new headlines of no evidence has been found in the next publication. Debris from the Roswell crash is said to still exist in private hands. This debris was sent to radio talk show host Art Bell which he believed was authentic. He had the debris analyzed by certified labs in a way they didn’t know what it was. He thought no one would analyze it if they knew what it could be and would damage their reputation if the results were found. Stupid politics. The results show the material to have been manufactured by a process unknown in 1947 and contained isotopes not of the Earth. But here we still are wondering where is the evidence with Art’s story faded into the glorious past. Even the credibility and mental status of people at Roswell involved in that event have been criticized in publications about our “filling in the gaps” and false memories. If the alien truth is out there then us pathetic puny little humans can’t seem to get past gods, devils, demons, and angels to consider there could be something else.

    1. My own very mysterious and
      My own very mysterious and very clear sighting some years back was of a “UFO” which does not mean it was ET tech necessarily. It was just very, very advanced tech. It could be “ours” for all I know. I get the feeling with this author that she is castigating sightings that have the “flavor” of being ET – that this is what really bugs her – and this is a typical hangup and bias of so called “skeptics.”

      1. Two Years and a week
        As I mentioned awhile back, four of us witnessed the most bizarre object in the noon day sun at 26000 ft over the western end of the Grand Canyon. This was like something out of a Farside cartoon. That is, it was not a balloon, nor a black triangle. Just a freakin’ self-illuminating billboard brighter than the clear sky. And LA Center saw nothing on radar.

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