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Don’t fall into this trap: ‘I don’t know what it is; therefore it’s aliens.’

  • ‘Close Encounters,’ Steven Spielberg’s classic UFO mystery, helped feed into the UFO narrative.


Tuesday, December 26, 2017

You may have heard stories recently about a former military pilot who’s pretty sure he saw something in the sky that he can’t explain. Therefore, it must be aliens.

Well, I have my own former military pilot who’s pretty sure he saw something in the sky he couldn’t explain. He even thought it was aliens.

Turns out, it was Venus.

Which helps explain why I’m so confident that when it comes to UFOs, the answer is never aliens. The answer is always that the observer misunderstood what was seen, or remembers it wrong.

Steve Lundquist of Bow – he’s my former Air Force pilot – puts it more colorfully. When it comes to analyzing unexpected observations, he says: “Our brains are crap.”

I contacted Lundquist, who is now a program manager for a defense contractor and who serves on the board at the Discovery Center, in the wake of reports that the Pentagon has spent tens of millions of dollars studying reports of inexplicable flying things. Those reports produced accompanying stories of military pilots who saw lights in the sky going faster than possible or otherwise breaking the laws of physics, with strong implication that alien technology is the only answer.

Both Lundquist and I think it’s perfectly fine for the military to spend our tax dollars studying these reports, even though we’re quite sure that they won’t uncover beings from other solar systems.

“It’s about threat assessment,” Lundquist said. “It’s reasonable to look into unusual aerial sightings, to make sure that it doesn’t present a threat.”

The problem comes, he said, “When it turns into: ‘We don’t know what it is, therefore it’s little green men.’ ”

In New Hampshire, we have plenty of precedent for the military to study UFO reports, as well as plenty of people who conclude that they’re due to little green men.

A website called NHUFOresearch.com, for example, includes reports that the Pease Air Force Base had an official “UFO Investigating Officer” in 1967, a truly awesome job title that was presumably created in the wake of the Incident at Exeter, a 1965 UFO sighting along New Hampshire’s Seacoast that still gets adherents very excited.

Then there’s New Hampshire’s most famous UFO connection: Betty and Barney Hill’s insistence that in 1961 they were taken into a spaceship near Lancaster and probed. I don’t know that the military ever studied the Hills’ tale, but it certainly resonated in the civilian world, launching the whole alien-abduction craze and forming the basis for at least one feature film.

Of course it’s not totally impossible that alien civilizations are playing peek-a-boo among the clouds, just as it’s not totally impossible that the Tooth Fairy exists or that I will wake up tomorrow speaking fluent Spanish after years of being confused by Sábado Gigante.

But it is so staggeringly, incredibly unlikely that space invaders might as well be impossible. It seems to me that people who are not concerned about national defense should act as if UFOs are impossible and get on with more useful things in life.

Not so fast, you cry: What about the many reports that have come in over the decades from pilots, both civilian and military, about lights in the sky that are traveling at impossible speeds or with impossible acceleration at impossible angles covering impossible distances? Isn’t that evidence of alien technology?

No – it’s evidence that people are worse observers than we think we are. This gets us, finally, to Lundquist’s alien-sighting story.

I first heard his tale in 2012 at SkeptiCamp, a free-wheeling conference for skeptics, and he confirmed it last week.

It seems Lundquist was flying over the Middle East on a military flight when he saw a strange light moving way up ahead of him, flying at impossible speeds and elevations, “doing things that no aircraft can do.” This is your classic pilot-sees-UFO scenario.

Lundquist was stupefied and alarmed and came this close to radioing in a report before he realized that he was looking at the planet Venus. All that apparent motion was an optical illusion.

He’s thankful that he came to his senses in time instead of embarrassing himself over the military airwaves.

“I know a few instances where pilots did radio in, or filled out paperwork, and then later figured out what was happening. But no one remembers that they did eventually figure it out, and only remember the call or the paperwork,” he noted.

Lundquist’s error is particularly surprising because he is a longtime skeptic of UFOs and he knew, even then, that Venus is frequently mistaken for an alien craft. How could he be so misled to think that this bright, unmoving object was traveling in fantastic ways?

Blame natural selection.

“We evolved to see things on the plains of Africa from eyes about 5 feet off the ground,” Lundquist said. Shifting this evolved skill to tens of thousands of feet in the air, moving at hundreds of miles an hour, is asking for trouble, he said: “Our brains are going to try to make sense of the data, using a frame of reference we are familiar with.”

Which means that as often as not, we’re going to fool ourselves.

So the assumption you and I and everybody else should bring to reports of an extraordinary sighting – UFO, Bigfoot, Nessie, ghosts, Elvis, whatever – is that the person’s central nervous system tricked itself. They will insist “I know what I saw,” but that really means “I know what I think I saw,” and what they think is wrong.

Without lots of evidence, and evidence stronger more than a blurry video or photo or sound recording that’s open to interpretation, they can be safely ignored.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)