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Scientific American

UFOs, UAPs and CRAPs

published April 2011 | comments (7)
Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) offer a lesson on the residue problem in science
magazine cover

ONE MORNING SEVERAL YEARS AGO a black triangular-shaped object flew over my home in the San Gabriel Mountains in southern California. It was almost completely silent, made rapid turns and accelerations, and was so nonreflective it looked like a hole in the sky, almost otherworldly. It was, in fact, the B-2 Stealth Bomber, looping around to make another run over the Pasadena Rose Parade on January 1, an annual tradition. But had I not known what it was and seen it first, say, out in the desert at dusk, I might easily have thought it a UFO.

For decades black triangularshaped objects have been labeled UFOs. Now a cohort of military, aviation and political observers would like to change the label to a less pejorative phrasing—Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP)— and their efforts to be taken seriously have resulted in a new book by investigative journalist Leslie Kean entitled UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officals Go on the Record (Crown, 2010). Kean asks readers to consider that such sightings represent “a solid, physical phenomenon that appears to be under intelligent control and is capable of speeds, maneuverability, and luminosity beyond current known technology,” that the “government routinely ignores UFOs and, when pressed, issues false explanations,” and that the “hypothesis that UFOs are of extraterrestrial or interdimensional origin is a rational one and must be taken into account.”

How much data do we have, and can they help us distinguish between UAPs and what I call Completely Ridiculous Alien Piffle (CRAP), such as crop circles and cattle mutilations, alien abductions and anal probes, and human-alien hybrids? According to Kean, “roughly 90 to 95 percent of UFO sightings can be explained” as “weather balloons, flares, sky lanterns, planes flying in formation, secret military aircraft, birds reflecting the sun, planes reflecting the sun, blimps, helicopters, the planet Venus or Mars, meteors or meteorites, space junk, satellites, sundogs, ball lightning, ice crystals, reflected light off clouds, lights on the ground or lights reflected on a cockpit window,” and more. So the entire extraterrestrial hypothesis is based on the residue of data after the above list has been exhausted. What’s left? Not much.

For example, Kean opens her exploration “on very solid ground, with a Major General’s firsthand chronicle of one of the most vivid and well-documented UFO cases ever”—the UFO wave over Belgium in 1989–1990. Here is Major General Wilfried De Brouwer’s recounting of the first night of sightings: “Hundreds of people saw a majestic triangular craft with a span of approximately a hundred and twenty feet and powerful beaming spotlights, moving very slowly without making any significant noise but, in several cases, accelerating to very high speeds.” Even seemingly unexplainable sightings such as De Brouwer’s, however, could simply have been an early experimental model of a stealth bomber (U.S., Soviet, or otherwise) that secretkeeping military agencies were understandably loath to reveal.

In any case, compare De Brouwer’s narrative with Kean’s summary of the same incident: “Common sense tells us that if a government had developed huge craft that can hover motionless only a few hundred feet up, and then speed off in the blink of an eye—all without making a sound—such technology would have revolutionized both air travel and modern warfare, and probably physics as well.” Note how a 120-foot craft becomes “huge,” how “moving very slowly” changes to “can hover motionless,” how “without making any significant noise” shifts to “without making a sound,” and how “accelerating to very high speeds” transforms into “speed off in the blink of an eye.” This language transmutation is common in UFO narratives, making it harder for scientists to provide natural explanations.

In all fields of science there is a residue of anomalies unexplained by the dominant theory. That does not mean the prevailing theory is wrong or that alternative theories are right. It just means that more work needs to be done to bring those anomalies into the accepted paradigm. In the meantime, it is okay to live with the uncertainty that not everything has an explanation.

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7 Comments to “UFOs, UAPs and CRAPs”

  1. Robert Sheaffer Says:

    Michael, you’re giving Kean’s book far more credit than it deserves, as if she had just uncovered some amazing anomalies that “we’ll just have to wait and see what they were.” Her book is a one-sided, entirely slanted view of mostly well-known UFO cases, ignoring all published skeptical analysis and explanations. See my review of her book in the March/April issue of Skeptical Inquirer.

    The Belgian wave of sightings mentioned was a classic outbreak of local UFO hysteria. Kean ignores that fact that the wave apparently started when the owner of a disco started shining colored lights on clouds to attract attention. The widely-publicized sighting by the two policemen matches up exactly with Venus. After hundreds of claimed sightings, we have just a single photo supposedly showing the Belgian UFO, and that one is blurry and inconclusive. Wim Van Utrecht, a Belgian investigator, has published a detailed analysis of the Belgian UFO wave, showing the weakness of the claimed “evidence,” but Kean and DeBrouwer have both ignored it (and DeBrouwer surely knew about it as he was interviewed by Van Utrecht).

    I agree with the point that the occasional anomaly must be expected, and tolerated. But to depict such classic UFO hysteria as a “genuine anomaly” seems quite unwarranted in light of the history of UFO claims. One soon comes to realize that “reliable witnesses” aren’t, and that claims of close encounters, impossible movements, etc. simply cannot be accepted on the basis of testimony alone. And the notion of the U.S. testing a new secret aircraft by flying it over a densely-populated foreign country like Belgium is simply absurd: that’s why they have Groom Lake in the Nevada desert. Kean’s intention was obviously to bamboozle and B.S. those who are unfamiliar with published skeptical analyses of the cases she chose, and in that she has succeeded brilliantly.

  2. Dimo Says:

    Being a forum devotee that debates science, spirituality and the unknown, I find myself frequently asking questions of those who adamantly believe that crop circles and UFOs are sure signs of an alien presence from the stars. Any cited testimonies of sightings or abductions are usually well-known and ultimately inconclusive.

    While I personally have no axe to grind and accept that there are (thus far) many unexplainable events, my perception of the proponents of alien spaceships and visitations is that many such people exhibit an increasingly desperate need to believe. The fervent support of numerous half-baked theories exists because it slots in perfectly with their own ideas, wishes and – most of all – cherished fantasies.

    Such beliefs seem to me more to do with coping with the realities of life here on earth than anything remotely extra-terrestrial.

  3. Frank John Reid Says:

    As a nice guy, Michael Shermer dismisses the UFO “residue” with pity and contempt (other modern Epicureans cut pity). But this scants the conservation-principle demands (“save the appearances” et seq.) in the puzzling cases that “really look like” an advanced technology.

    E.g., 10 or 15 years ago, Mr. Shermer surely would’ve dismissed (as Completely Ridiculous Alien Piffle) witness descriptions of objects that “changed shape,” or disappeared in daylit sky as if “switched off,” or were visible only fron very restricted angles of view. Had not Arthur C.Clarke shown absolutely all of science-fiction’s “invisibility” methods to be physically impossible?

    But today these cases could be used to describe the mature form of a now-developing technology…of ours. This transition at least, well, nudges towards taking them more seriously than CRAP. Many cases in the UFO residue (some of ‘em in Kean’s book) call for explanations–even if of subjective/endogenous causality–beyond pity and contempt and facile Epicurean notions of evolved Original Sin in the brain.

    (And IF these are ETs, why are they ever visible? Well, “why do UFOs have lights?” is an old question. Obviously, because they want to be seen, sometimes. Just maybe, just enough so people like Mr. Shermer can’t believe in them, and people like me can be possessed [metaphor!] by the wandering, paranoid spirit of James Jesus Angleton….)

  4. Bill George Says:

    To state the obvious, UFO is defined UNIDENTIFIED flying object, having some deluded with visions of “I want to believe”.

    With some balloons and glow sticks, a hoaxing 5th grader can easily confuse a skeptic and certainly bamboozle a believer, though fabricating spacecraft with advanced technology and alien DNA will perhaps take more than an imposter in which we “lie” in waiting.

    Note: Shermer should have disclosed the “CRAP” acronym from once fellow contributor to Scientific American, Martin Gardner. When reviewing a book by Frank Tipler and his wild speculations on his religious/physics flim-flam, Gardner stated “in my not so humble opinion I think the last principle is best called CRAP, the Completely Ridiculous Anthropic Principle”.

  5. justine Says:

    cool person
    interesting theory though it is not true

  6. Michael Says:

    Just goes to show you that anyone will say anything if they think it earn them some money. These debunkers are just as bad as the proven fakes like Billy Meier, just on the other end of the spectrum. You have to be exceedingly stupid that after having done any actual research into the subject you would still come to the conclusion that UFO’s are figments of people’s imagination. Every major country on this planet, including the US, has spent considerable time and money investigating these objects. And they don’t spend money like that on outlandish reports by delusional people. J. Allen Hynek, the original debunker even had to come to the conclusion that these are alien spacecraft. There are many nuclear physicists, heads of Intelligence and military leaders, governors,and so many other well educated credible people who have come forth with not only their expertise, but solid undeniable evidence as well. The numbers just don’t lie. There are so many billions upon billions of galaxies containing billions and billions of stars, each having planets of their own in a universe that is 14 billion years old. We’ve been here 200k years? Have only had advanced technology for 100 years, and it’s your conclusion that there’s no possible way for any of these UFO’s where they could have technology 14 billion years ahead of ours to be alien spacecraft. There is nobody on this planet that was born with a functioning brain who could honestly answer yes to that question after being given the real evidence. But I guess you came up with a great way around that. That “it is okay to live with the uncertainty that not everything has an explanation.” So basically if you can’t explain it, ignore it. Brilliant.

  7. Ellie Says:

    I’m a skeptic who believes that most reports of UFO sightings that aren’t obvious hoaxes, hallucinations, optical illusions or cases of people mistaking planets, balloons, flocks of birds and other commonplace objects for UFO, can be attributed to natural occurrences such as (but not limited to) ball lightning, swamp gas, so-called “earthquake lights,” and plasma effects like those that produce aurora borealis and aurora australis. But along with a growing number of reputable scientists, I believe that UFO research should be taken seriously, and that unexplained UFO sightings, especially those occurring in conditions not conducive to producing these effects, and UFO reports made by experienced airplane pilots and astronauts and supported by ground radar detection, warrant investigation. Instead of scoffing at such reports and dismissing them out of hand, scientists should investigate them.

    Not everyone interested in UFO believes in the Roswell lore or claims of alien abductions, or that ETs are responsible for cattle mutilations and crop circles. I don’t. Neither do I ascribe to the “ancient aliens” woo, including the notion that aliens influenced the Mayans or that aliens engineered the building of Egyptian pyramids. I also reject the idea that depictions of UFOs and aliens appear in primitive art and art of the Renaissance. Still, I don’t dismiss the possibility, however slight, that ETs may be visiting Earth.

    I wish the debunkers would stop lumping together everyone who thinks it’s possible ET could be zipping around out there. Sure, some of us are stupid and gullible and some of us are nuts, but some of us are reasonably intelligent and sensible people who would just like to know the truth, one way or the other.

    “Radio has no future.”

    “X-rays will prove to be a hoax.”

    ~William Thomson, Lord Kelvin – 1899.