How Not to Unexplain a UFO Debunking

June 4, 2012

Along with chupacabras, ghosts, and other weirdness, I also investigate the human mind. My background in psychology reveals how people approach these topics-and evidence for these topics-through their own prisms, perceptions, and pre-conceptions. People filter new information through a particular set of beliefs; few people truly have an open mind and are willing to consider evidence both for and against their beliefs. Our minds selectively pay attention to information that supports our pre-existing beliefs; in a real way people see what they want to see.

There are few places where this psychological process is clearer than when I get responses to my skeptical analyses from the public. When I do investigations, it is always using scientific methodologies, which means that any conclusion is tentative. I give it my best analysis based upon my years of research and experience, and if later evidence disproves my theory, I'm happy to correct my analysis and say I was wrong. I don't have a vested interest in the truth or falsity of a claim, or in debunking anything. If the evidence suggests that it's real, I'm happy to announce that.

As you might expect, people are often unhappy when I can explain an "unexplained" photograph or video. If it's a hoax, the hoaxers are not happy with me-and neither are the people who fell for the hoax. Nobody likes to admit that they were fooled, and some people twist logic in trying to defend their beliefs. I don't mind people questioning my conclusions or challenging me, as long as they get their facts and logic straight.

In late March 2011, folks in Lafayette, Colorado, reported strange lights in the night sky. Two eyewitnesses, Leroy van der Vegt and his son Nick, said they saw three strange, bright red lights. They hovered in the air silently, changed formation, and then moved away. Lester Valdez who also saw the lights, said they all got into a pattern and they stood in a pattern, and they all moved in a direction and then they pretty much dropped and that was it."

Some thought it was ET coming to visits; others suggested it was a top-secret Pentagon spy plane. Based on my analysis (which was reported on AOL News and elsewhere, and far too detailed to present here), I noted that the formation of the lights was consistent with independently moving objects, probably road flares tied to balloons.

Within a few days I got an e-mail from an obviously peeved reader who thought my road flares explanation was ridiculous.

A guy named Ted wrote: "Road Flares tied to balloons.....Pleeese! How do you get them to fly in formation and spaced? Absurd. Then ‘The Balloons' just flew away? Perfectly spaced? Lots of holes in your ‘theory'" (quoted verbatim).

I gamely replied: "Hi Ted. Thanks for your note. What evidence do you have that the lights flew ‘in formation, perfectly spaced'?"

Ted: "From reports on line form [sic] all the observers. They were there."

Me: "Ted, You'll have to do better than that... Did ‘all the observers' report this? Can you provide even two or three eyewitnesses who stated that the lights flew ‘in formation, perfectly spaced'? Thanks!"

Ted: "Ben, you are not doing your homework! How can you say this stuff is ‘Flares' when you have not even looked at the Eyewitness Reports? I don't think you are serious, at all."

Me: "Of course I've looked at the eyewitness reports... I quote two of them in the piece. Neither of them say that the lights flew ‘in formation, perfectly spaced.' I will ask you again: Please direct me to the eyewitnesses you are claiming that reported that the lights flew ‘in formation, perfectly spaced,' since I can't seem to find them and you say that there are many."

Ted replied by quoting back to me verbatim the piece I'd written, putting two key phrases in bold: "'They hovered in the air, changed formation... they all got into a pattern and they stood in a pattern.' a Formation is perfectly spaced. a Pattern is perfectly spaced. I also know you won't believe any eyewitness because you are a professional skeptic!"

I re-read the eyewitness reports; they did not contain information that Ted was reading. Ted was reinterpreting the evidence to support his conclusions.

I replied, "Ted, Where did you get the idea that a formation or pattern is ‘perfectly spaced'? You must be using some definition that no one else is using.... Look it up: A pattern or a formation is simply a repeated design, it does not imply perfect spacing. One eyewitness you quote in fact contradicts your point, saying that they ‘changed formation.' Can you explain to me how a formation can remain ‘perfectly spaced' (your words) and also ‘change formation' (eyewitness's words)? It is logically impossible; try this yourself on a table with three pennies, having the formation change while keeping it ‘perfectly spaced.' What's ironic is that I'm the one who believes the eyewitnesses, and apparently you don't!"

Ted had one final reply: "yer hopeless..."

I gamely responded, "Maybe so, but I can read eyewitness reports-and look up the definition of formation!"

With that, we parted ways, each of us concluding that the other was wrong.

The mind is a funny thing.


#1 Kenneth Biddle (Guest) on Monday June 04, 2012 at 6:16am

I feel your pain, my friend. I still find it fascinating how so many will deny, ignore and/or twist logic and facts…in order to support a photo, video or even an eyewitness report that’s not even from themselves! I admire the way you handle these situations.

#2 TsuDhoNimh (Guest) on Monday June 04, 2012 at 8:40am

It’s easy enough to make the flares fly in a good formation. Tie the balloons together.

#3 cwbeall on Monday June 04, 2012 at 9:50am

Ah yes. That reminds me of my Sunday routine of tea, and playing chess with pigeons…

Some people just can’t be helped.

#4 Ciarán MacAoidh (Guest) on Monday June 04, 2012 at 10:05am

I was discussing a possible hoaxing with friends recently (we have an insanely busy ufo hunting community around here) and a way to set them into a perfect formation that won’t disintegrate would be to use, say, five or six floating Chinese lanterns on a simple bamboo or dowel 2D frame. Those things are reported as ufos all the time. There are some hilarious YouTube videos of teenagers freaking out at Chinese lanterns… Hoaxing is really, really easy (partly why we didn’t bother) as the hoaxed do almost all the work.

#5 MikeMercede on Monday June 04, 2012 at 2:08pm

I don’t see how that anecdote is a good example of your thesis if you are saying “Our minds selectively pay attention to information that supports our pre-existing beliefs.” It seems to come down to a semantic argument. In fact, your quote back to him is a misquote. More importantly, I think you know what he meant. He was trying to say that balloons should exhibit randomness over time, and pattern is not suggestive of randomness (although it doesn’t discount it: infinite randomness exhibits infinite patterns). So, he does have a point if you look at it with some degree of charity. Had you pointed out that the actual point he is trying to make is flawed, he may have responded without the closed mindedness of your thesis. Your method of responding to him may have given rise to the closed mindedness you were trying to prove in a kind of experimental bias. Why not accept what he is trying to say and respond by saying that balloons sometimes can keep a pattern, or that it is not that hard to keep balloons in a pattern, or that patterns and randomness are not actually mutually exclusive? Or that we would have to look at what was meant by “pattern” not from our perspective, but from the observers’ perspective?

#6 lff on Tuesday June 05, 2012 at 9:06am

Interesting thanks for the article.  I have a whole collection of similar conversations I had on the alt.astrology newsgroup in the 90’s.  Many followed a similar pattern - though not perfectly spaced - to the dialog you related. 

c h e e r s

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.