Thursday, May 03, 2007

Sceptics? Or Unbelievers?

I'm getting a little ticked off - no, make that very ticked off by the scathing and self-righteous posturings of soi-disant 'Sceptics.' (Skeptics if you're an American.) These are not so much sceptics as Unbelievers. Their attitude is that anyone who doesn't think as they think is, by that fact alone, a gullible fool.

This is not scepticism. True scepticism is listening to all sides of an argument and suspending judgement until such time as incontrovertible evidence is produced. It is not pre-judging an issue in the absence of said incontrovertible evidence.


Absence of evidence is NOT evidence of absence; it's absence of evidence. Just that. Nothing more, nothing less.

So what is the cause of this particular outburst? A recent headline in The Register declared:

UK airline pilots spot giant UFO

This records that two commercial airline pilots independently reported an object that they could not identify over the Channel Islands. It was stationary at an altitude of 2,000 feet. Both pilots, one on each side of the object, reported this to Air Traffic Control at around the same time. It did not show up on the A.T.C. radar, which was not considered unusual since this is set to record moving objects.

Captain Ray Bowyer, aged 50, described it thus:
"It was a very sharp, thin yellow object with a green area. It was 2,000ft up and stationary. I thought it was about 10 miles away, although I later realised it was approximately 40 miles from us. At first, I thought it was the size of a [Boeing] 737. But it must have been much bigger because of how far away it was. It could have been as much as a mile wide."

Now there is (almost) certainly a perfectly rational, scientific explanation for this, in the same way that we now understand such previously mystical phenomena as will o' the wisps and St. Elmo's fire.

The fact that such things as are classified as U.F.O.s - that is, airborne objects which we cannot, at the present time, identify - does not mean that they should be dismissed out of hand as fanciful or fraudulent. They may be, but we don't have any evidence that says so. They may be alien spacecraft flown by little grey men with big black eyes, but we don't, so far as I'm aware, have any evidence for that either...

What really niggled me about this whole thing was not the report itself, but the number of pseudo-sceptical comments that followed on:

"The Channel Island [sic] are nigh on impossible to get to even by air."


So, like Svarlbard near the North Pole then? This writer was therefore Sceptical that there would be more than one plane in that air space and ergo, "Someone is telling porkys."

Another wrote: "This sounds like a bunch of hocus-pocus to me. These boy wonder pilots should stop wasting people's time and get a real job instead of trying to flummox gullible people with a load of old hoaxes."


Boy wonder pilots? Somehow, I have great difficulty on conflating a fifty year old commercial pilot with Dan Dare, the Red Baron or Charles Lindbergh. Wonder what he calls 'a real job' too?

Someone suggested that both pilots visit specsavers.


Like commercial airlines employ blind pilots? Okay, there really are a number of blind pilots around, but not, I think, flying passenger planes.

Yet another suggested: "Sounds like a lenticular cloud to me."


A lenticular cloud? Formed at high altitude? So not at a mere 2,000 feet then? Not to mention that lenticular clouds look like... CLOUDS!

Over the past fifty years and more, there have been hundreds of thousands of reports, worldwide, of 'Unidentified Flying Objects' - airborne objects that the observer couldn't identify, yadda, yadda.

The vast majority of these can, and have been, explained, or the reports are deemed unreliable. For instance, there is not a lot of point in investigating reports from, for instance:
  • people who were drunk or on drugs at the time
  • an individual's sighting, i.e. with no corroboration
  • people who have already compared notes and then come up with the same description
  • people with some sort of vested interest
  • people who do not have the educational background to rule out obvious explanations like planets, planes, the International Space Station and such like
  • observations made in poor visibility
But that still leaves quite a sizeable number of plausible and reputable sightings from two or more witnesses who are sane, sober (one hopes in the case of those commercial pilots!) and able to identify a wide variety of aircraft and natural phenomena, especially in good viewing conditions in daylight.

There will still be rational and scientific explanations for this smaller collection of reports; we just don't know what they are.


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