Wednesday, January 23, 2008

I Saw a UFO

I saw Kenneth Arnold's flying saucers. No kidding. Don't believe me? Here's my story...

The Ovoids of Oxnard

It was a bright, sunny day in 1993. Oxnard. California. I was riding my bicycle along a highway to the north and looked up and saw a formation of about twenty ovoid objects flying in formation. They were rotating along their axis of motion, like footballs, with one side black and one bright white, so they alternated in color while they spun. They were flying along the Ventura hills, off in the distance, north of my position. I estimated they were near the hills and thus about ten miles away, and they crossed roughly ten miles of hills in less than half a minute. This meant their velocity worked out to something over 1200 miles per hour. Yet I heard no sonic boom. The experience of seeing these strange objects, and then realizing their vast speed and mysterious silence, was quite surreal. I stopped (literally), along with my heart (figuratively), and tried to figure out what the hell I was seeing.

Then I realized what it was. A flock of seagulls. About half a mile away. By matching them to the hills, I had grossly misperceived their distance, and consequently I was measuring their speed against the hills, which they were in fact nowhere near. My brain didn't recognize them as birds, so instead it did its best, and saw only ovoid spinning objects. I am quite certain that's exactly what I saw--which means my brain was misinterpreting the data and creating in my mind a completely inaccurate model of what the objects actually looked like. Once I realized they were birds, their proper shape and motion resolved in my mind's eye and I could see them as seagulls plain as day. This change in my perception of the objects felt very much like what happens when you suddenly see one thing as something else, but can't see it as both at the same time (like the pic above...look at it...okay, book or cleavage?).

These were Western Gulls, with black feathers on top of their wings and white on the bottom. The birds' wings were flapping at a constant synchronized rate, thus alternating the white and black of their wings in my view, so rhythmically as to create the optical illusion that they were spinning round and round, like white-and-black footballs, and this led my brain to interpret the objects as ovoids, rather than as the more complex bird shapes they really were.

Ken Arnold said his nine objects flying in formation appeared almost round, but followed "flipping, erratic movements" and "two or three of them every few seconds would dip or change their course slightly, just enough for the sun to strike them at an angle that reflected on my plane." He said they appeared black on edge, but when they flipped over they flashed white in his direction, which is what he claimed had led him to notice them: "when a bright flash reflected on my plane" he says, he thought he might be too close to another aircraft, so he started searching the sky for one. Which would mean his mind was actually primed to see aircraft, not birds. However, in his earlier radio interview, Arnold never mentions this flash or any concern about nearby aircraft, and instead says he just happened to see them by accident, and even, "at first, thought they were geese, because [they] flew like geese," but since they were going too fast, he said, he concluded they must be jets. But even then he repeats that "they seemed to flip and flash in the sun," like my birds did. He also told the radio interviewer that "they looked something like a pie plate that was cut in half with a sort of a convex triangle in the rear," which sounds exactly like a bird to me. The whole flying saucer scare was started by a flock of birds!

It took me about a minute to finally resolve my perception and correctly identify my own Unidentified Flying Objects. So they are UFO's no more. But this was only possible because I was so close to the birds that eventually their relatively close range and angle of perspective revealed their complex shapes, as well as their relationship to objects on the ground near them (and in the sky). In other words: because they were close. Kenneth Arnold's birds were probably at a greater distance and thus would have been harder to resolve correctly. He got to see them for a little over two minutes, yet his description sounds almost identical to mine.

Many years before my experience I had read one of Arnold's accounts, in which he spoke of ovoids flying in formation and flipping or spinning as they went, one side white and the other black (I hadn't seen his drawings yet, which depict them more as crescents than ovoids). So when I saw my ovoids I started to get excited. I made the connection almost immediately. "Holy crap! That's just what Arnold saw!" Then when I realized what I was actually seeing, I made the less excited mental note: "Yep. That's probably just what Arnold saw."

Arnold had estimated that his objects were at his same elevation (about 9500 feet) traveling roughly across his path and were about fifty to a hundred miles away, and that they traveled between the crests of two mountains in less than two minutes. Based on cartographic data placing the distance between the mountain crests at greater than 40 miles, this gave a speed of over 1200 miles per hour, coincidentally exactly the same speed I had calculated for my ultrasonic seagulls. However, Arnold mistook the mountain tops to be at his own elevation, when in fact they stand 5500 feet, which means they were 4000 feet below him. Since he was actually looking down at the mountains, thinking he was looking on the level, his ovoids had to have been below him, too, and not at his same elevation. My seagulls were about half a mile from me, but I took them to be ten miles away, which is wrong by a factor of twenty. Given his miscalculation of the mountain heights, he was making hugely erroneous estimates of location and distance. If Arnold misestimated the range of his ovoids the same way I did, by matching them with a distant object (my hills, his mountains), then his distance calculation could have been off by as much as a factor of 40, which if corrected gives an actual velocity of 30 mph, closer to a realistic bird speed.

The details line up too well not to be birds: all their flight behavior, their "fluttering" and "flashing," their shape. For all these birdlike details to just "happen" to converge for alien craft (or jets or mirages or anything else) is much less probable than that Arnold simply miscalculated the distance of the objects. For that's the only element that supports any conclusion contrary to "it was birds." Though Arnold also claimed in written reports that the objects briefly passed behind a mountain peak, thus establishing their great distance, this crucial memory did not occur to him in his earlier radio interview, so I suspect this is another example of how we can sometimes edit our memories according to what we think happened, rather than what actually did, a phenomenon well documented by psychologists.

Bruce Maccabee's argument about bird luminosity (relative to mountain snow) does not count against this conclusion, either, because he ignores the fact that flapping wings change their angle of reflection rhythmically (exactly as Arnold reported), as do birds that bank to change direction (as Arnold reported they did). Thus the flashes would correspond to moments of maximum solar reflectivity, something that mountains (by not moving) never achieve. Maccabee did not take this into account, and since my seagulls also flashed, in the same rhythmic way, it sure sounds like the same thing to me. Hence it seems far more likely than not that the original flying saucers were just birds.


The Disk of San Diego

I had seen an even more amazing UFO about two years before, while I was training in sonar at San Diego's FLEASWTRACENPAC (yes, the Navy loves absurdly monstrous and silly-sounding acronyms). I was rollerblading down a major avenue toward downtown San Diego from the sonar base on Point Loma (taking the long way down the hill on Rosecrans) when I saw a giant gleaming silver saucer hovering over the city. It was quite a shocking and marvelous sight. Once again I stopped (literally), along with my heart (figuratively).

I couldn't believe my eyes. It was indisputably a silver metallic object. The sun was glinting off of it brightly exactly as it would an aircraft hull. I could even detect faint dimples and plates in the metal. It was flat on bottom and paraboloid on top, but very thin relative to its diameter, which I estimated at about twenty city blocks. It just stood there, motionless, above an area of the city just my side of downtown, at about a quarter the height of that downtown area's largest skyscraper. So anyone in those buildings would have been looking down at it. I was at a relative elevation, atop a long hill sloping down into the rest of the city below me, and the saucer was at roughly my own level.

I was sure hundreds of people, indeed thousands, should be seeing what I was, but no one seemed to take any notice. Yet it was so huge, so visible on a bright, clear, sunny day, so awesome, how could no one else react? So I watched it as long as I could, trying to remember as many details as possible in case I had to describe it later. But then I realized what it was. An airplane. A large silver airliner, in fact, landing at San Diego airport, on an approach vector directly towards me. This resulted in giving it an apparent velocity of zero (hence it seemed to be hovering), and the angle of the plane was just enough to create the profile of a flat metal disk with a curved upper surface. Hence with the wings blurring into the hull, my mind again constructed a single continuous shape instead of recognizing the different contiguous components and correctly producing a perception of a plane.

The approach was long and slow enough that it appeared to hover for an impossibly long time. But of course it was landing, so it was inevitable that I would see its nose rise and the whole vehicle descend out of view, and as it got near to touching down, its apparent velocity was no longer zero, its shape changed, and my brain corrected itself and reconstructed what it plainly was: a silver jumbo jet, landing at the city airport.

Part of why my brain failed to look up the correct matching pattern in its index of familiar sights, and thus failed to "see" an airplane, was the fact that I had forgotten the airport was there. It's not where you would expect an airport to be (so close to skyscrapers, and packed in against the sea by a chaos of businesses and homes and major streets, avenues, and freeways), and intervening buildings concealed the airport from my view. The area appears to be urban sprawl there, since it is surrounded by that, and yet below it, so my brain was "filling in" what it couldn't see with more of what it could see. It was subconsciously thinking "there could never be a plane there, and besides, planes that big don't hover." So my brain scrambled to find some other pattern to match the data and came up with a flying saucer. Of course, my brain was wrong. Hence the UFO.


The Terror of Texas

Mass sightings of a UFO in Stephenville, Texas, recently made international news. Larry King even did a show on them. It's clear many people in different places and circumstances saw something around the same time. But many saw nothing, and all the reports of what was seen disagree, often radically. MUFON is investigating and will come out with a report in a few months that I'm sure will be definitive [alas, it ended up bogus; see closing note]. Since journalists seem uninterested in reporting any of the actually important details (like exactly when and where in the sky the object appeared, and what features most witnesses agree on), we need private organizations like MUFON to investigate these things, as long as they employ sound critical methods, since without such data there's little way to guess what might have happened. But regardless, from my own personal experience (and what organizations like MUFON have documented before), I think we can be sure the sightings will almost certainly turn out to have a rather mundane explanation.

Despite the press lamely failing to actually do their jobs properly, there are reports at least worth reading on the subject from the Associated Press ("Dozens in Texas town report seeing UFO: Large silent object with bright lights was flying low and fast" by Angela Brown), the Texas Star Telegram ("Maybe it came from the Dog Star" by Susan Tallant), and The Dallas Morning News ("Texas UFO investigators probe Stephenville sightings" by Jeffrey Weiss).

All agree the appearances occurred this January 8 soon after sunset (between 6 and 7 pm, though some "sightings" occurred as late as 9 to 10pm). That's already a suspicious time for sightings, since it's exactly when (1) daylight is transitioning into night and thus stars, meteors, planets, and satellites begin to become visible, while clouds (for example) that can obscure them (and thus make them appear to blink on and off) begin to become invisible, and also (2) the sun is below the horizon at just such an angle as to cause startling reflection effects on objects in the sky as viewed from the ground, objects including not just planes, balloons, and clouds, but ice, vapor, dust, even air masses of varying density. In other words, it's the time of day you should be most on guard against optical illusions.

Already from what has been reported, many people evidently saw, or recollect, very different things, and sorting the reliable from the unreliable is no easy chore. In fact it's clear some people are reporting what are in fact entirely different things. For example, one lady reported a strange lighting-effect on a stationary night-camera of hers, which anyone can see is obviously something that was stuck on or near her camera's lens, and which has nothing to do with the sightings that made the news. Simply because of the hullabaloo, she reinterpreted what she would have dismissed before as somehow now significant. Likewise, a trucker's cellphone video of a fireball hovering in the sky around the same time has already been identified as a natural atmospheric phenomenon known as a sun dog (solar light reflecting off a mass of ice crystals in the atmosphere), but since it clearly does not conform, again, to any of the details whose report caused the original stir, clearly it's an entirely different object, which he just happened to video at the same time around the same place, the coincidence creating in his mind the notion that it must be the same thing, or related to it.

But if we look at the details on which most witnesses agree, we can see we're talking about something quite different entirely. As the Associated Press reports:

Several dozen people—including a pilot, county constable and business owners—insist they have seen a large silent object with bright lights flying low and fast. Some reported seeing fighter jets chasing it. "People wonder what in the world it is because this is the Bible Belt, and everyone is afraid it's the end of times," said Steve Allen, a freight company owner and pilot who said the object he saw last week was a mile long and half a mile wide. "It was positively, absolutely nothing from these parts." ... [while] Erath County Constable Lee Roy Gaitan said that he first saw red glowing lights and then white flashing lights moving fast, but that even with binoculars could not see the object to which the lights were attached.
So the end of the world is now coming because some flashing lights streaked across the sky. Lights that were apparently attached to no actual object, and separated from each other by an apparent distance of thousands of feet.

This was certainly no sun dog. But if I had to place bets, mine would not be on spaceships or even airplanes. I would put my money on a string of meteors on a common trajectory (possibly the fragments of a single meteor that shattered as it hit atmo), which some people's brains "reinterpreted" as a single solid object with flashing lights. And that may indeed be what they saw [turns out, it was another case of dropped flares in a military exercise: see closing note]. That is, it may be the very thing their brain constructed for them out of the visual data available, just as my seagulls really were spinning ovoids, and my jumbo jet in San Diego really was a solid silver disk. "Really was," that is, in the sense that it's what my brain constructed from the data. In actual fact, though, they were just were seagulls and airplanes.

Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained discusses in some detail how the brain does this kind of thing, constructing bodies in space from disparate data, often incorrectly seeing bodies and contours where there are none, even seeing specific details that aren't there (such as occurs in cases of pareidolia). In fact the hardcover edition had a dust jacket with an example on the back of a particular optical illusion, where you literally see a pink patch where in fact there is only pure white space intersected by thin red lines, thus demonstrating how our brains quite innocently play tricks on us merely in trying to do their best to figure out what our eyes are seeing.

For instance, in the notorious 1997 incident called "The Phoenix Lights" (also featured on an episode of Larry King), witnesses swore a triangular object rimmed with bright lights was a solid body with detectable contours, because (as they said) it clearly blocked out the stars. But a mass of bright lights will also do that: relative luminosity will make the stars invisible to our eyes in the area around and between them, creating the illusion of a black patch ringed by the lights, which our brain then fills-in by assuming that this patch corresponds to a physical object.

Since the sighting (which many got on tape) was decisively confirmed as a train of flares dropped by a warplane on maneuvers, we know the truth. And yet some believers desperate to cling to the incredible still refuse to buy the flare story because (as even the governor of
Arizona claimed, despite being a former military pilot), "flares don't fly in formation." But they certainly do: if you drop a series of them in still air or low wind they will all fall at the same rate and velocity. They might gradually change relative position, but this is exactly what the Phoenix Lights did. And having parachutes, they will fall slowly, especially if they are very distant, as these were (for then their apparent velocity will be even slower). It was demonstrated later that witnesses greatly miscalculated how near the lights were because of their brightness. That's yet another illusion the brain is prone to. And since in many conditions such flares will remain in the formation they were dropped in until they go out or hit ground, any shape they form will trick the brain into seeing an object outlined by them. A military pilot sure as hell should know this, which goes to show that some people will still cling to stories and theories they ought to know are false, a phenomenon that further complicates efforts to get at the truth.

But let's get back to the
Stephenville UFO. That it was a meteor is supported by the MUFON online reports for sightings in Texas that night. These sightings were all toward the west, or clocking movement from east to west:
  • One witness "saw what looked to be two welding ark strikes" that appeared and went out in tight sequence, and that streamed "like pearls on a string and looked like bubbles with a light encased inside," which was "incredibly bright," and "there was no sound and they just trailed off to the west," appearing to follow a passing airplane.
  • Another "saw two very bright lights shining in no apparent direction...very bright, like a welding arc," and they "were dancing around and then they split in two different directions at a very fast rate of speed."
  • Another couple reports seeing "a bright red light...up in the sky" that "then turned bright white...then it faded out and appeared again just to the right of where it had originally been" and "then all of the sudden there were two of them" and "before we knew it they jetted off over the sky extremely fast."
  • Another witness saw "a light traveling from east to west" at amazing speed, evidently in a streak-like shape.
  • Another witness actually recognized the fact that he was watching a fragmenting meteor in the sky, but he gives a much later time of night (9:48 pm), whereas "around 6:45 pm" yet another witness "saw a flickering orange/amber colored light fading out" and as it faded another lit up a distance away from it at the same time, a sequence that continued "3 more times" producing 5 amber lights, and "each light was equally spaced from the light before it, creating a diagonal line."
  • Even the witnesses on Larry King saw fast red lights streaming across the sky, changing luminosity, then slowing, changing configuration, and bursting into flames.

Sure sounds like meteors to me. We know those can change color and luminosity as their different layers are burned away or break apart. And we know they can be extremely bright. All those who watched Larry King, you might have noticed that the only idiotic alternative suggested on the show was a comet, which is not at all the same thing. That only a comet was suggested and no one ever brought up meteors is a testament again to how lame and useless (and, frankly, idiotic) the press has now become.

Notice, by the way, how the details on which witnesses actually agree do not match any hovering vehicle (as some claimed was seen). Instead their testimony became conflated with misreported optical illusions (such as seeing a giant vehicle where there were only separate objects on the same trajectory, just like The Pheonix Lights incident), and then with
completely separate incidents. One witness claims, for example, that he saw a "blimp sized craft," but this was in the east, "too low for a commercial airline" moving slowly across the sky, and rather than being silent, it made "maybe a hum like a generator," and "it looked like there [were two] jets following it on both sides at the rear" and "there were red lights rear and front" of it, "not too bright but blinking." Then he saw it had "big turbines (jet engines) [like] you see on planes," one on each side.

It seems pretty clear this was not the same object at all. It was seen in the opposite direction, was far less luminous, slower, and quite obviously just an aircraft (which other witnesses reported having seen in the sky, correctly identifying it as just an ordinary commercial airplane unrelated to the lights they were talking about). The two "jets" he saw following it were probably just an optical illusion or some other perceptual error, and yet notice how this account became conflated with the others in the AP story, thus immediately creating an ominous legend that the bright and amazingly fast UFO "everyone saw" was being chased by fighterplanes. In actual fact, "everyone" was looking in the other direction at a completely different thing. In the very same way, another witness saw a motionless hourglass-shaped light in the sky, at about the elevation one would expect of a sun dog, and since we have video of a sun dog in the area at that time, clearly that's what he was seeing (and probably everyone else who saw a large hovering light that night), which is just as clearly not what "everyone else" was looking at.

Meteors and sundogs and misidentified airplanes. And yet look at all the buzz and hysteria this story has caused!



I think there are many lessons here. That we should all be educated in the way the brain works and how it commonly misperceives things or makes perceptual mistakes. That elementary astronomy education in this country sucks. That we can't trust the press even to research a claim properly, much less report it competently. That we need to dig deeper than they do before believing anything they say. That Larry King is one of the stupidest people on the planet. And that, above all, when your evidence is scanty, it's entirely reasonable to use the argument from analogy to dismiss amazing claims as unworthy of your time
(although I appreciate those who do specialize their time in just these kinds of inquiries, as I do myself in other subjects).

Maybe MUFON will confirm the sighting as something other than a meteor, but even if MUFON didn't exist we would be entirely reasonable to conclude that a fragmenting meteor (combined with ordinary human error) explains all the evidence, at least as well or better than any alternative, and is inherently far more probable than alien spacecraft. And both facts combined are enough to dismiss the event as ordinary (though certainly still cool!), even without any further inquiry, or even any certainty as to what actually happened. You would be well in your rights to do the same for my ovoids and saucers if I had failed to realize or discover the truth myself.

For the reasonable and known is always more likely than the amazing and incredible, so until you have truly exceptional evidence to the contrary,
there can be no reason to prefer the latter to the former.

Update January 2009: MUFON eventually produced a ridiculous report on the Stephenville case that cherry-picked radar data and emphasized only the bizarrest witness testimony, ignoring all other data (including the majority of witnesses), to imply there was a mysterious object being covered up by the government. This report is briefly critiqued by James McGaha (astronomer, UFO expert, and retired airforce pilot) who investigated the case for The Skeptical Inquirer ("The Stephenville Lights: What Actually Happened," 33.1 Jan/Feb 2009: 56-57). McGaha found that, in fact, nearby military trials of LUU flare drops (and F-16 fly-overs), at the very time of the sighting, explains all observations. From his description of these flares, they would give a visual report similar to meteors, and even better fit the descriptions of the majority of witnesses.



freethoughtguy said...

Funny, I was recently listening to John Lennon's Walls And Bridges album. On the back cover a strange isolated sentence reads "On 23 August 1974, I saw a UFO."

This sighting happened in New York City, of all places, and apparently many others reported a UFO at the same time. (Alas, not me, although I lived in NYC at the time and was obsessed with UFOs.)

Even the best of us can be fooled!

The Uncredible Hallq said...

Great post. As a 20 year old, red-blodded America male, I have only one question: where'd you score the great cleavage shot?

Richard Carrier said...

Hallq said... As a 20 year old, red-blodded America male, I have only one question: where'd you score the great cleavage shot?

From one of many sites devoted to cataloguing optical illusions. This illusion has a name, but I can't remember it. It's not named for using a book-or-cleavage image, of course, but for any image containing two incommensurable visual interpretations (the lovers-or-goblet being most familiar, but boring)

Lucretius said...

My wife and I were on Larry King in 1993 as ex-Branch Davidians and based on the interview questions he asked, I concur, he is a very stupid man.

DFB said...

At least his wife is smoking hot. Doesn't he get studmuffin points for that? I think so. Calling him "one of the stupidest people on the planet" is somewhat hyperbolic and overestimates the intelligence of our species a little bit.

Regardless, ths is an excellent takedown, RC. The way the brain puts together images is fascinating and I don't think most people understand how fallible it really is. I'm going to go get that Dennett book.

Oh, and in the Lessons heading, you should have: "our alien overlords don't want us to know that they're here except they're not that good at hiding at dusk."

Alex Dalton said...

Richard Carrier - skeptic extraordinairre....he's seen and done it all....Had those religious experiences, realized you can explain them another way....Seen those UFOs, realized you can explain them another way....Jack of all trades....Philosopher, historian, scientist....He can do it all....You name it, he's got the answer....

Pikemann Urge said...

I think you could have added the Sherlock Holmes quote, "Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth".

Actually I'm being a bit of a smarty-pants here. Kind of. Well only a little. :-)

Anyway I enjoyed the piece. I used to read a lot about UFOs and stuff. I even went to the trouble of filming one with my (really cool Nikon) super-8 camera. Turned out that it was just a blimp lit up from the inside (and the footage wasn't much good either as I didn't have the right film).

I dare say the idea of ETs scared a lot of people. There is (or was) so much well-meaning drivel on the internet about it. A bit of research does help clear up a lot of stuff (like, IIRC, a picture of a beaten Nazi soldier being mistaken for an alien corpse - an example where the photo is genuine but the understanding of it is not).

BTW Alex, a good deal of supernatural events are misinterpreted natural events, that's true (see EMF messing with the brain; or miscellaneous physiological phenomena). Some are not. :-)

Kyle Szklenski said...

Hey Richard,

I have a few things that I thought of while reading your book, both constructive criticisms and destructive compliments (just real compliments, actually). Would you mind emailing me so I could shoot you an email on this stuff? Or, would you rather I make a post about it or something at my blog (which is bare right now) and post the link here somewhere? It doesn't matter to me. My email can be found in my profile. If you're just too busy and can't handle a probably lengthy discussion right now, that's cool too. I may still post it at my blog to see what kind of replies I get. Lemme know please. Thanks.

RantingAndRavingAngryPharmacist said...

[quote]I think there are many lessons here. That we should all be educated in the way the brain works and how it commonly misperceives things or makes perceptual mistakes. That elementary astronomy education in this country sucks. That we can't trust the press even to research a claim properly, much less report it competently.[/quote]

QFT UFO's are just that "unidentified" objects...and the reason they are usually unidentified is because of the 3 lessons you list.

Richard Carrier said...

Alex Dalton said... He can do it all....You name it, he's got the answer....

Not really. I don't know exactly how to forge iron, I've never milked a cow, I'm a bit fuzzy on integral calculus (despite having studied it long ago), I can't sing, and I have no facility for dance or zero-gravity satellite repair.

K. Szklenski said... My book contains an email address and instructions for contacting me about exactly what you ask. See pp. 5-6. But you are right, I am so busy that I often take months to get back to people (though I typically do eventually), and I can't usually say much. But criticisms are always welcome, as they may lead to an improved second edition some day, or even a blog posting.

Pod: I deleted your post because you attached it to the wrong thread. I moved my discussion of it to the appropriate thread.

feedergoldfish said...

Okay, I usually own a cat or two. I like the little beasties. And more than one of them has had the habit of sleeping on my chest. Awakening in the morning, I am greeted by a pointy-chinned face with large, unblinking eyes. It seems to be hovering over me. No, it's not a "Grey", it's my cat. I have a theory that this probably happens to a lot of people.

Richard Carrier said...

New information has come to light on the Stephenville case. See addendum at the end of the original blog entry above.