Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Skeptical UFO Investigator, Part 1.

This post is a companion to the talk I gave at Balticon 47, and is for people who would rather not watch the video, or would like more more details not in the video.

I've been investigating UFOs for over a year now, and plan to continue. Rather than explain exactly why this is, I am going to try and show you, one bit at a time. Much of the interest is driven by the human element, but perhaps not all of it.

As I have explained before, I don't know whether the Earth has ever been visited by non human intelligences from elsewhere, and I think it's highly unlikely that anyone else does either. I am skeptical we would know it when such an encounter was happening, though right in front of us. Our perceptions of such events would be fragmentary and distorted, and we would likely interpret them as magic, or supernatural.

Encounters of that very sort have been recorded all through human history, and continue to this day. Puzzling, often frightening, and frequently life changing events take place every day. Many of these, it turns out, are due to known bugs in the human perceptual and conceptual machinery, and others are merely hoaxes. UFO investigation has a more than 60 year history, and the truth continues to elude. I want to know why this is.

Let's go and have a look, I say, and let's see for ourselves what is going on.  Woody Allen once famously said that 80 percent of life is just showing up.  Let's show up where the saucers are seen and look for whatever patterns are there.

The Whacky World of UFOlogy

Do I need to recount for you the whole boring skeptical litany concerning UFOs? UFOs  are hoaxes, or misperceptions of known phenomena, or mass delusions, or waking dreams, or false memories. We can ignore the whole mess. And it IS a mess. The thick, toxic fog of ridicule that has descended upon the whole subject of UFOs was largely fostered and maintained by the believers themselves. You will not find many better examples of confirmation bias; of "believing is seeing" then among the UFO subculture.  Low standards of evidence, wishful thinking, convoluted belief systems, cults of personality, an unsupportable faith in human memory, and just plain old gullibility are rife in this little world.  The UFO mythos now includes such likely red herrings as sinister government conspiracies, crop circles, alien breeding experiments, cattle mutilations, cryptids, and monuments on Mars.

But there are still some compelling sightings that are hard to explain.  To make any progress on these we are going to have stand a bit aside from the usual crowd and focus on what we can reasonably hope to verify. However, we may also have to adopt a more naive stance, since if there is anything at all to these phenomena, we will miss it if we enter with excessive epistemic hubris, and if we find anything, we would expect it to make no sense to us.

 I do not know whether investigating UFOs will ever yield an answer to the alien visitation question, or even better questions about aliens. Perhaps the best answers to these questions will come from the patient pursuit of astrobiology and SETI, supported by advances in astronomy and other mainstream science, rather than chasing ephemeral experiences. Some people believe there is no signal in the noise, and I can't dismiss this view easily, although it strikes me as premature. Perhaps, however, there is a signal, and even more fascinating, some of the noise may be part of the signal, as J Allen Hynek proposed.

I am driven largely by personal experience and intuition here.  I sense from poking around in the fog that the silliness surrounding UFOs is not all there is to the subject, and I have seen a small number of very good cases, too weird and too credible to be nothing, so I persist in the sense that there is something, though I am not entitled to say what it is (and it may turn out to be more than one thing).  I may be wrong - if you think so, come investigate with us.  I want to knwo where and how I am wrong.

What is a Skeptic Again?

A few entries ago I offered my own simple model of a skeptical person. This is what the true skeptic embarking into the unknown on an investigative enterprise. The overriding characteristic was the embrace of doubt and uncertainty. Add to this a natural curiosity and love of puzzle solving, aesthetic sensibilities that help us to see the best solution to a problem, an understanding of the shortcomings of human perception, memory and reasoning, and appreciation for how the scientific process and our species unique capabilities for accessing other minds - even those long dead - helps us to overcome these inescapable features of our thought processes.
The Skeptical Virtues

Note that Critical Thinking in this model, though necessary, is not sufficient.  No mind can hold everything at once, or reason about all there is simultaneously.  We have to have the largely unconscious skills that precede critical thinking, and the social skills that help us to converge on coherent truths.  What is more, the ability to think logically does not insure us against delusion.  There seems to be some anecdotal evidence that highly educated people are more easily misled, because of their highly tuned (and overtuned) mental models of reality, and their epistemic hubris.

 The true skeptic is first skeptical of himself.  The skeptic has cognitive biases, inaccurate memories and probably a delusion or two.  An emotionally colored narrative runs through his memories to justify and unify his life, beliefs and actions - in other words, all the skeptics we are aware of are human.  I doubt that a truly unbiased person has ever lived - or would even be able to live.

So, let's set aside the notion of the skeptic as defender of dogmas, the debunker of woo, or a high priest of a privileged worldview.  The skeptic the curious and careful inquirer, the thoughtful and self aware sifter through the firehose of randomness and the gentle stream of real information that our universe, stranger than we can imagine, has to offer.  No one is entitled to jump to conclusions, regardless of the depth of their supposed commitment to rationality.  A skeptic asks tough questions of all sides, partly looking for answers, but also to improve the questions.

Getting Started

Before starting to investigate UFOs, I knew I would need help. I needed someone with the
Antonio Paris
investigative knowledge and experience, the energy, the leadership skills and the persistence to launch an enterprise bringing together witnesses to strange events with serious inquiry. I also needed to work with someone whose goal was neither to debunk nor to confirm a belief system. In 2011, Antonio Paris offered me just this.

Antonio brings a background as a trained investigator for the US Government and the willingness to engage the public through every communications medium available. He wanted to collect fresh reports, train UFO investigators and start working on cases.

Starting in 2011 and 2013, we investigated nearly all of the cases we received, which was more than 100. Antonio documented the best of these is his 2012 book Aerial Phenomena.  This was an excellent exercise, but taught us the hard way that most cases are not worth investigating.  Cases hanging solely on the distant memories of a single person of lights in the sky are not only of negligible evidentiary value, but never lead us anywhere except down a rabbit hole.  We needed recent cases, with multiple witnesses, an emphasis on daytime sightings and whenever possible, physical evidence. Physical evidence with a clear chain of custody is rare in UFO studies, but that is where we hope to focus our efforts.

There are many good skeptical questions regarding the wider UFO mythos that go unanswered.  This leads us further away from the routine cases.  For example, the recent meteor fall in Russia resulted in many good videos of the same event.  Why are there are not more, better videos of UFOs, given the number of reports?  This question, and several others are unanswered in my opinion, and we can not just dismiss the null hypothesis - no videos because no phenomenon.

Toward High Strangeness

There may not be much signal in the noise of routine UFO reports.  Everyone who has investigated these reports has found examples of Venus or satellites or stars or aircraft landing lights sparking far more excitement than you might think.  Amateur astronomers are not frequent UFO reporters, even though they are outdoors at night more than the average person.  So, we are moving away from lights in the sky toward the rarer cases.  It can just be strange, though.  There needs to be some hard evidence and corroboration associated with the case.

In my opinion, the case for the reality of alien abductions and related strange experiences has not been persuasively made, and there is real cause for concern with regard to the ethics of some of the investigators.  In these cases we are primarily dealing with a person's memories, and memories of disturbing, even traumatic events.  Not being professional psychotherapists, we risk real psychological damage to these witnesses if we try too hard to "recover" their memories, and right now the best science indicates that recovered memories are unreliable at best.  However, many of the highest strangeness cases involve this kind of encounter.  So, we have to tread lightly and emphasize only those memories that we can verify, or at least test.

12-058: A High Strangeness Case

In August of 2012, a high strangeness case came our way.  This witness - whom I will not identify publicly here, but has allowed us to use his name in other contexts - is a young man living in the Baltimore area who as had a lifetime of strange and emotionally powerful experiences, include UFO sightings, at least one of which he witnessed along with a friend.  Many of his experiences resemble lucid dreams, and involve close encounters with strange beings.  

The Witness's father has spoken with API investigator Marsha Barnhart, and although he discounts the physical reality of his son's experiences, he does not believe his son is lying or confabulating.  Everyone who has met this witness, including myself, regards him as sincere and mentally stable, although we observed him trembling with emotion as he recounted one of his experiences.  Whether this witness is fantasy prone (like Nikola Tesla or Charles Dickens) I am unqualified to judge.

In July or August of 2011, the Witness awoke one morning in Ocean City, Maryland to find one
Witness sketch of sliver (not to scale)
point of a small, oddly shaped sliver of metal in his arm.  He had no memory of any event that could have resulted in this.  He removed the sliver and showed it to his family members, including his father. He placed the sliver in a polyethylene ziploc bag, and kept it with him all day.  The evening before retiring, be placed the bag in his upside down hat along with his wallet and keys.

The next morning, the sliver was missing from the bag and could not be found.  There was a hole in one corner of the bag, about 1 centimeter long, matching the witness description of the size and shape of the sliver.  The witness did not notice anything unusual on his wallet or hat.  Fortunately, the witness kept the bag.

On the 19th of August 2012, the API team met the witness at his residence.  We interviewed him extensively about his recent experiences, including his discovery of the sliver.  

We examined the bag
The ziploc bag that used to contain the sliver.
closely and found the hole and the damage to the bag interesting.  It looked as if heat had been applied right at the opening of the hole, but there was no damage at all anywhere else. Lacking sophisticated forensic analysis capabilities, I decided to see if I could reverse engineer the damage by experiment.  After all, ziploc bags are cheap.  I also decided to try a simple test for traces of blood using Luminol.

First, a fact about polyethylene.  Depending on the type used, it melts between 105 to 115 degrees Centigrade, which is just hotter than the boiling point of water, but not very hot, really.  It shouldn't be that hard to melt it, but was it really melting that caused the damage to that bag?  We should at least try other ways of producing the damage that didn't require heat.  The hypothesis under test here is now pretty simple:  the bag exposed to heat in a small local area local to the corner of the bag.

I tried, tearing, cutting and poking.  Tearing produced results that were superficially similar, but not quite the same when examined with a hand lens.  Perhaps with more work a tear could more closely reproduce the effect seen.  Poking and cutting were completely unsatisfactory.

The problem with heat was how to apply it.  I wanted to see if I could apply heat from inside the bag.  I thought of placing a small wire inside and then placing the bag in a microwave oven.  I think this would work, but was concerned about the safety of doing this.  I need a surplus oven and could not locate one easily.

The solution I came up with was to drop hot solder into the bag from above.  Now note, the hypothesis was not that solder was responsible for the hole, I was just trying to transfer heat rapidly to the bag.  Hobby electronic solder is about 200 deg C when it leaves the soldering iron, and so should easily melt polyethylene.

The result was encouraging.  I get an almost clean hole in the bag, and the damage at the opening of the hole was very similar.   From this, all I can conclude that the damage is consistent with heat.  I have not yet experimented successfully with heat applied externally - is it even possible to use a flame to achieve the shallow (about 2mm) crescent shaped hole?  I can't say yet that it isn't.  More experiments can be done.

After running a control sample with fresh blood to verify that it worked, the luminol test was completely negative.  If we had found a small amount of blood, it would have provided some more corroboration, but the absence of blood surprises no one, including the witness.  He was not sure if there was any blood on the sliver when he removed it from his arm, and if heat was the means by which the bag was opened, any hemoglobin could have been destroyed.

This case remains open.  We are still in touch with the witness, who has answered questions publicly about his case, and we hope to find similar cases involving small slivers.  There was a similar case that came to our attention recently, but the bag containing the sliver was destroyed.   We simply don't know what the sliver was, or what happened to it.

Approaching the Great Divide

So, here's a couple of things we can learn from this and other cases: a skeptical investigator's job is not to come up with pat answers.  Producing any half-baked explanation in a storm discredits you. If you claim to stand on the side of reason and the scientific approach to evaluating evidence. you will go where the evidence leads, and I wonder if it may lead someplace many self-described skeptics are uncomfortable with.

More than a year in, I don't know what to conclude about UFOs, and that doesn't bother me at all.  The quest is for better questions.  Each investigation pulls me towards those questions, but so far they just elude.   The Hercule Poirot moments when all is clearly explained and the culprit confesses are rare and will get rarer as our cases get stranger. 

The 12-058 case with the plastic bag has moved me toward the fence on the stranger cases, although I'm still on the same side of that fence.  I  think it likely purely psychological explanations will work in the vase majority of cases, and I don't believe we can rely solely on the witnesses' memory as evidence, but I have learned that blanket dismissal is not helpful to further understanding.

Note that I haven't said much about extraterrestrials here, and this is for good reasons, some of which I have discussed in earlier posts.  I don't know how to tell you if a particular item of evidence is evidence for or against extraterrestrial visitation.  This is a problem that I don't believe anyone has properly addressed, and is a major thread of this blog.  As I have stated before, I think the only hope is to be wrong a lot, but precisely wrong.

In the next installment, I will discuss some more ways that I am particularly wrong and what I learned from that.

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