Understanding the Unidentified


An advantage of having worked in the skeptical business for 30 years is institutional memory that enables me to place current claims and controversies into historical context.

Michael Shermer | Quilette

Image: Qulette.com

So, when the New York Times published their article on “The Pentagon’s Mysterious U.F.O. Program” in December 2017, and CBS’s 60 Minutes reported that “UFOs Regularly Spotted in Restricted U.S. Airspace” in May 2021—the reports bracketing the latest wave of apparent sightings—I immediately recalled similar waves dating back to the 1890s groundswell of “mystery airships” (later identified as dirigibles). Historian Mike Dash’s description of the 1896–1897 reports in his book Borderlands: The Ultimate Exploration of the Unknown will sound familiar to those energized by the latest round of UFO videos:

Not only were [the mystery airships] bigger, faster and more robust than anything then produced by the aviators of the world; they seemed to be able to fly enormous distances, and some were equipped with giant wings … The files of almost 1,500 newspapers from across the United States have been combed for reports, an astonishing feat of research. The general conclusion of investigators was that a considerable number of the simpler sightings were misidentification of planets and stars, and a large number of the more complex the result of hoaxes and practical jokes. A small residuum remains perplexing.

Residues and distortions

The final “small residuum” qualification hints at a reality in all skeptical and scientific investigations. No hypothesis or theory in any field accounts for 100 percent of the phenomena under investigation. The “residue problem” means that no matter how comprehensive a theory is, there will always be a residue of anomalies for which it cannot account. The most famous case in the history of science is that Newton’s gravitational theory could not account for the precession of the planet Mercury’s orbit, subsequently explained by Einstein’s theory of relativity. Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection could not account for anomalies like the Peacock’s large and colorful tail (which would be a bullseye for predators), but his theory of sexual selection did, demonstrating how females select for mates based on certain traits males develop to stand out from other males and to attract females.

The residue problem in UFOlogy is instructive because it enables skeptics to find common ground with believers and allows us to live comfortably with the fact that we can’t explain everything. For example, in her bestselling 2010 book, UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record, UFOlogist Leslie Kean notes that “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 planets Venus or Mars, meteors or meteorites, space junk, satellites, swamp gas, spinning eddies, sundogs, ball lightning, ice crystals, reflected light off clouds, lights on the ground or lights reflected on a cockpit window, temperature inversions, hole-punch clouds, and the list goes on!

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