Prosaic Explanations: The Failure Of UFO Skepticism
"If I had found
even a single case that defied prosaic explanation, I would have
rushed to my typewriter (now my PC) to write the most exciting
story ever published by Aviation Week & Space Technology Magazine."
-in a letter from Philip J. Klass to Dr. Eugene Mallove
Could some UFO sightings
actually be manifestations of Other Intelligences (OIs) or Non-Human
Intelligences (NHIs) such as extraterrestrials (ETs), visiting
the earth and interacting with human beings? Or are all reports
of such sightings simply mistakes, hoaxes, or dreams of the hopeful
believers? It all comes down to explanation. If there were no
sightings which are richly detailed, credible, and yet unexplainable,
the UFO subject would be based totally on "will-,o the wisp-like,
indistinct observations or on theoretical expectations, as is
the so-called Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).
SETI is based on the theory that we could detect electromagnetic
radiation, such as radio waves or light, that is radiated toward
us, intentionally or unintentionally, by extraterrestrial civilizations.
If all the richly detailed
sighting reports had reasonable explanations, then theoretical
speculations about ET intelligences visiting the earth might
be interesting but of little practical consequence. Ufology,
if there were such a thing in the absence of unexplainable sightings,
would consist of studying witnesses who, evidently, failed to
identify explainable (identifiable) phenomena or who simply made
up "tall stories" about ET visitation. "Ufological
science," if it existed under these circumstances, would
consist of psychology, psychiatry and perhaps sociology.
There are skeptics
who believe that this is exactly what should constitute ufology.
Noted UFO skeptic Philip
J. Klass has provided perhaps the most straightforward statement
of the skeptic's position on UFO sightings in his book UFOs:
the Public Deceived (Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY, 1983,
pg. 297), wherein he writes that the "Occam's Razor"
alternative to unexplained UFO sightings, is this: "...roughly
98% of sightings are simply misidentifications of prosaic, if
sometimes unfamiliar, objects by honest persons..(and) ... the
balance, roughly 2%, are self-delusions or hoaxes by persons
who like to spin tall tales and become instant celebrities."
In other words, UFO reports are the results of misidentifications,
delusions, and hoaxes, period! More recently he has indicated
that in his thirty or so years of investigation he has found
not one case for which he could find no "prosaic explanation"
(see the quote at the beginning of this article). As evidence
of this Mr. Klass has offered prosaic explanations for a number
of famous sightings. Of course, Mr. Klass has not attempted to
explain each of the hundreds of thousands of sighting reports
which have been made over the last half century. However, he
has proposed explanations for a representative sample of reports
which are classified as "good" by most ufologists and,
on this basis, he has generalized his statement to apply to the
bulk of the UFO sighting reports.
Mr. Klass claims that
he has found "prosaic" explanations for all the reports
he has studied. A reader of Mr. Klass' discussions of sightings
would likely assume that each prosaic explanation is, in fact,
the actual explanation for a particular sighting. At least, that
is what the typically logical, but uneducated (in the deep lore
of ufology) and trusting reader would infer from Klass' statement.
It is also what the generally skeptical scientific community
and the news media would infer from Klass' statement. This would
be an unfortunate and incorrect inference, as I will show below.
Klass would have the
reader believe that he has correctly explained all the sightings
he has investigated. If he were correct then his argument about
misidentifications, hoaxes, and delusions making up 100% of UFO
sightings would be unassailable, at least for the sightings which
he has investigated. (One can always imagine that some sighting(s)
not investigated by Klass is (are) unexplainable, but that's
not the point of this discussion.) However, in some cases he
has offered prosaic explanations which are demonstrably wrong.
In other cases he has proposed explanations which may not be
provably wrong but which are are, at the very least, weak and
unconvincing. (Note that in the absence of confirmatory information,
it may not be possible to decide whether an explanation is correct,
but it is possible to decide whether or not an explanation is
convincing.) Hence, whereas Klass' claim (that sightings are
all misidentifications, hoaxes and delusions) seems, on the face
of it, to be correct (because he has offered prosaic explanations
for the all sightings he has investigated), a deeper analysis
of his explanations often shows that they are very weak or just
plain wrong. One can conclude, then that Klass, claim is, itself
wrong and there are sightings which he has investigated but has
not actually explained. From the scientific point of view, it
is not sufficient to propose explanations. They also have to
be demonstrably correct or at the very least, not contradicted
by the sighting information.
To say that at least
some of Klass' prosaic explanations, even explanations for well
publicized sightings, are wrong is a strong statement. However,
an even stronger statement can be made: Klass' analysis has demonstrated
that at least some of the cases he has investigated have no prosaic
explanations. Why is this? Because Klass, having analyzed these
cases carefully, has proposed the only potential explanations
that remain after all other explanations have been rejected.
That is, there are no other potential prosaic explanations that
make any sense. Hence, when his proposed explanations are proven
wrong there are no remaining candidate explanations and the sighting
becomes that of a TRue UFO (TRUFO), which might be evidence of
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© copyright B. Maccabee, 2000. All rights reserved.