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.
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’).