Fantastical hypotheses often overshadow unexplained observations in the physical sciences, and the same is true in the modern UFO subject. Since the Royal Society established “take nobody’s word for it” as their motto in 1660 there have been countless breakthrough discoveries of rare and elusive natural phenomena, and important lessons can be drawn from this extensive history of frontier science.
“…I’m 100% sure that some UFOs are something anomalous. I’m 99.9999% sure that none of them are aliens. But they might be.” (West, 2021)
Table of Contents
- 01 – Interdisciplinary Analysis
- 02 – The Invisible College
- 03 – Image by Accident
- 04 – Nothing More Than the Light
- 05 – I Make No Hypothesis
- 06 – Unrecognized Phenomenon
- 07 – Dispelling Demons
- 08 – Accepted Logical Limits
- 09 – Selling Mystery
01 – Interdisciplinary Analysis
People have been reporting observations of UFOs for thousands of years. Goddard Institute for Space Studies astronomer Richard Stothers wrote the paper “Unidentified Flying Objects in Classical Antiquity,” published in The Classical Journal in 2007:
“A combined historical and scientific approach is applied to ancient reports of what might today be called unidentified flying objects (UFOs). Many conventionally explicable phenomena can be weeded out, leaving a small residue of puzzling reports. These fall neatly into the same categories as modern UFO reports, suggesting that the UFO phenomenon, whatever it may be due to, has not changed much over two millennia” (Stothers, 2007, Abstract).
University of California, Irvine anthropology professor William J. Dewan explains the value of adopting an interdisciplinary approach when academically studying the UFO subject in “‘A Saucerful of Secrets’: An Interdisciplinary Analysis of UFO Experiences,” published in The Journal of American Folklore in 2006:
“[A] supernatural experience widely reported in the United States-the sightings of anomalous lights, including so-called ‘ghost lights’, orbs, unidentified flying objects (UFOs), and other labels attached to the observance of unexplained lights or aerial phenomena.
The use of folklore theory, an experience-centered approach, and cognitive anthropology provides an enriched perspective on how UFO experiences are perceived, interpreted, and incorporated into broader traditions… Taken together, these approaches suggest that so-called UFO encounters are often based on real, sometimes bizarre experiences” (Dewan, 2006, Abstract).
Interpretations of UFOs have changed with human culture, but the reports continue. Sheffield Hallam University Assistant Professor of folklore and journalism Dr. David Clarke writes about UFOs on his personal blog, and discusses modern interpretations of UFOs in the post “Do I Believe in UFOs?”:
“Myth does not mean that something is false, although this incorrect usage of ‘myth’ is often employed by journalists and leads many people to believe that myth = falsity. In fact, myth is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as: ‘a traditional narrative sometimes popularly regarded as historical but unauthenticated.’
As a) many people believe UFOs are of alien or supernatural origin and b) there is no evidence or proof to support that view, it cannot be disputed that UFOs are, to paraphrase Carl Jung, a modern myth.” (Clarke, n.d., pp. 10, 11).
Evidence for UFOs has historically come primarily by way of eyewitness reports. Tens of thousands of UAP eyewitness reports have been compiled by the National UFO Reporting Center (NUFORC) (NUFORC.org, 2019).
The article “The Most Common Words Used to Describe UFOs From Reported Sightings” was written by Brit McGinnis and published by Stacker.com in 2019 (McGinnis, 2019). In the article, McGinnis reviews NUFORC report data and identifies UAP eyewitness key word usage rates. The most frequently reported term used to describe a reported UAP is “Light,”, with 24,343 uses. In distant second place with 12,456 uses is “Circle” (McGinnis, 2019).
The sheer number of reports is sufficient to convince some people that UFOs exist, and it may be tempting to think that the simplest explanation for so many similar eyewitness reports is that they do. Either way, to base a conclusion on eyewitness reports would be a mistake.Occam’s razor is frequently employed as a useful problem-solving maxim. Also known as the principle of parsimony (parsimony, from the Latin ‘parcere’ = to be sparing), the rule goes: the simplest explanation is usually right.
When parsimony serves as a founding proposition for a chain of reasoning, it does generally lead to the correct conclusion, but the devil’s in the details. Those of us who identify as skeptics frequently appeal to parsimony in debates with believers, but the irony must be acknowledged: Occam’s razor is named after its alleged creator, a fourteenth century Franciscan friar who used it to justify his belief in miracles based on the high number of eyewitness reports.
Interestingly, Occam’s razor can also have the opposite effect, depending on who’s applying it. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) published the article “The Origin and Popular Use of Occam’s Razor” on their website in 2012:
“While Occam’s razor is a useful tool, it has been known to obstruct scientific progress at times. It was used to accept simplistic (and initially incorrect) explanations for meteorites, ball lightning, continental drift, atomic theory, and DNA as the carrier of genetic information. Once more research was done and more evidence brought to light, however, new theories emerged based on the new information” (Borowski, 2012, para. 9).
The value of Occam’s razor seems to be primarily conditional on the user’s grasp of the scientific method.An individual’s capacity to assess the available evidence is the relevant factor, not the maxim, and more complicated explanations may prove to be increasingly plausible as additional verifiable empirical evidence emerges over time.
02 – The Invisible College
A Smithsonianmag.com article from 2017 titled “Scientists Didn’t Believe in Meteorites Until 1803” explains how the question of whether stones could fall from the sky was only scientifically resolved when a meteorite happened to break apart over a town in France in 1803:
“The l’Aigle meteorite fall involved more than 3,000 pieces of rock and numerous witnesses, and it changed everything[…] it was the presence of a townful of witnesses to more than 3,000 stones falling from the sky that finally helped scientists confirm that meteorites came from space” (Eschner, 2017).
In retrospect it may seem ridiculous that scientists refused to accept what is now known to be an uncontested fact, but the reasons why scientists resisted the idea that stones could fall from the sky should be seriously considered so that lessons can be drawn from the past.
In the 17th century The Royal Society adopted its motto:
“Our origins lie in a 1660 ‘invisible college’ of natural philosophers and physicians. Today we are the UK’s national science academy and a fellowship of some 1,600 of the world’s most eminent scientists.
The very first ‘learned society’ meeting on 28 November 1660… from 1663 it would be known as ‘The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge.’. The Royal Society’s motto ‘Nullius in verba’ is taken to mean ‘take nobody’s word for it.’. It is an expression of the determination of Fellows to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment” (RoyalSociety.org, n.d., paras. 1, 2, 3).
The founders of modern science adopted “take nobody’s word for it” as their motto: all statements must be verified by an appeal to facts determined by replicable experiment (RoyalSociety.org, n.d., paras. 1, 2, 3).
By applying the principle of parsimony, it can be reasonably concluded that when a UFO is seen the likeliest explanation is that it’s a misperception of something mundane, a hallucination, or a hoax. David Hume was an 18th century Scottish philosopher of science who wrote about the assessment of unverified claims:
“…no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact which it endeavours to establish…
I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates should really have happened…
If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion” (Hume, 1748, as cited in Oxford, 1902, p. 114, 115, 116).
Recall that Occam’s razor was created as a tool to defend a friar’s belief in miracles due to the number of eyewitnesses. If independent eyewitness testimony was sufficient to scientifically prove the existence of a phenomenon then it would be necessary to recognize many unverified phenomena as real.
Even testimony from events with multiple eyewitnesses has been consistently shown to be unreliable, one example being historic reported sightings of the Virgin Mary:
“Apparitions of the Virgin Mary, inspiring wonder and devotion among millions, have been tracked for centuries[…] From a village in Rwanda to a rock cave in France, sightings of the Virgin Mary have been reported across the globe since A.D. 40. Since 1531, the Roman Catholic Church has investigated these reports and offered approval to multiple sites where bishops believe miracles occurred” (NationalGeographic.com, 2015, para. 1).
NASA scientist James E. Oberg has written about more recent mass misperception events:
“‘Classic’ satellite reentry fireball swarm mass misinterpretation[…] Majority of posters saw a structured hull with mounted lights, although a significant minority correctly reported separate lights [which some interpreted as a ‘fleet’ of UFO orbs]” (Oberg, 2021, p. 4).
“The unexplained fireball swarm chronicled by this team was, we NOW can demonstrate, caused by the atmospheric reentry of a Soviet satellite’s discarded rocket stage
• Exactly such heavy vehicles break into many dense fragments that create a formation-flying pattern of bright lights
• About half the witness reports essentially accurately described the grouping of meteor-like individual objects
• The other half of the reports describe a large flying vehicle with lights and jets arranged on its body
• The actual shape of that perceived body varied enormously, to a startlingly degree of “fill-in” structural details” (Oberg, n.d., p. 8)
People have filmed examples of these debris reentry events, and they’re unquestionably visually stunning and totally outside most peoples’ normal frames of reference. A fascinating video of a fireball swarm was posted on Reddit in the r/UFOs subreddit:
Skeptic Robert Scheaffer comments on misperception events:
“Here we have… [an] example of extraordinary reports… arising from a… rare phenomenon. Therefore, the existence of extraordinary reports does not suggest the existence of extraordinary objects. It is perfectly possible to get extraordinary reports from ordinary objects” (Scheaffer, 2012).
03 – Image by Accident
The Royal Society established verification by replicable experiment as the necessary standard of evidence in science. Oakton Community College provides a summation of the challenges encountered when applying the scientific method to earth sciences:
“The classic scientific method where a convenient laboratory experiment may be devised and observed often cannot be done in the earth sciences. This is because most of earth and geological phenomena are too big (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions) or too slow (mountain building, climate change) to be observed easily or replicated; the earth itself is the ‘laboratory’” (Oakton, 2003, para. 4)
A variety of natural phenomena that are accepted without question in the modern scientific world first went through a gradual shift from outright rejection to conclusive verification based on new empirical evidence becoming available over time:
- Meteorites: “In the 18th century, the French Academy of Science denied that stones could fall from the heavens, and rejected the mass of witnesses’ testimony as superstitious nonsense” (Dolan, paras. 5, 6), until “The l’Aigle meteorite fall involved more than 3,000 pieces of rock and numerous witnesses, and it changed everything… it was the presence of a townful of witnesses to more than 3,000 stones falling from the sky that finally helped scientists confirm that meteorites came from space” (Eschner, 2017).
- Red sprites: “Johann Georg Estor, a German theorist of law is credited as the person who made the earliest report of the red lightning in the year 1730. The first photographic evidence was made much later in the year 1989 by scientists from the University of Minnesota. They captured the image by accident, using a video camera, and ever since then, the red lightning has been extensively researched” (Cirjak, 2020, para. 1).
- Rogue waves: “Rogue waves and sprites were ‘discovered’ by accident, detected by recording devices set up for other purposes” (Ruch, 2019).
- Blue jets: “First reported way back in 1886, [blue jets] weren’t photographed until 1989” (Forbes, 2021, para. 9).
Chance has consistently played a role in the eventual scientific verification of rare natural phenomena with extraordinary features. These phenomena share a set of commonalities:
- The nature of many natural phenomena make them difficult to scientifically study;
- Some natural phenomena are only conclusively proven to exist after chance events result in one-off incontrovertible evidence;
- Eyewitness reports later shown to be largely accurate are disbelieved, often on reasonable grounds, for decades or even centuries.
This historic pattern suggests that it’s possible that a similar effect may be occurring with respect to the modern UFO subject. Philosopher of science Thomas Goudge explains:
“...most physical scientists were initially reluctant to admit now accepted theories of meteorites, fossils, the circulation of the blood, bacteria, and in our times, ball lightning, into the area of respectable science…
the present establishment view… [is] that UFO phenomena are either not really scientific data at all (or at any rate not data for physics) or else are nothing but misperceptions of familiar objects, events, etc. To take this approach is surely to reject a necessary condition of scientific advance.’” (Goudge, as cited in Hynek, 1972, p. 23)
04 – Nothing More Than the Light
The likeliest explanation for any individual UFO experience is misperception, hallucination, or hoax. However, consideration of the possibility of something more occurring shouldn’t be dismissed at face value, given the extensive history of the discovery of novel phenomena under similar circumstances.
So what is actually being described by the people who report UFO experiences?
Chair of Northwestern University’s Astronomy Department, UFO researcher, and author Dr. J. Allen Hynek wrote the book The UFO Experience – A Scientific Inquiry, published in 1972, and identifies a shared set of commonly reported features in UFO cases that he had investigated for the Air Force and assessed to be credible but failed to resolve:
“...at night almost invariably only the brightness, color, and motion of a light are reported. Rarely is the object noted to which the light is presumably attached (this is purely an assumption; the UFO may be nothing more than the light)” (Hynek, 1972, p. 46).
“Frequently the object is described as having a general fluorescent glow with no specific lights” (Hynek, 1972, p. 77).
“…the object (often objects in pairs) is variously described as oval, disc-shaped, ‘a stunted dill pickle’, and ellipsoid. It generally is shiny or glowing (but almost never described as having distinct point source lights), yellowish, white, or metallic” (Hynek, 1972, p. 92).
“…the reporters are conscious primarily of a luminous object, sometimes very bright… and sometimes merely glowing, like a neon bulb or a luminous dial watch. The shape of the craft seems to be secondary to the luminescence in the perception of the observer, but when a shape is described, it is generally stated to be oval, ‘football shaped,’, often with a dome atop it. Rotation of the lights and presumably of the craft is often reported to be in a counterclockwise direction. Hovering is common, as is lack of sound, and very frequently a rapid takeoff without an accompanying sonic boom is reported” (Hynek, 1972, p. 125).
“...the Nocturnal Light and the Daylight Disc. The trajectories and kinematics of the two categories are strikingly similar, perhaps suggesting that Nocturnal Lights are Daylight Discs seen at night and that, therefore, the distinction between the two groups is purely observational” (Hynek, 1972, p. 91).
Computer scientist, UFO researcher, and author Dr. Jacques Vallee describes six UAP cases that he identifies as being representative of the UFO phenomenon in the paper “Estimates of Optical Power Output in Six Cases of Unexplained Aerial Objects with Defined Luminosity Characteristics”, published in The Journal of Scientific Exploration in 1998 (Vallee, 1998):
“Case no. 1: …a ‘bright light which was sharply defined and disc-shaped’ or ‘like a shiny silver dollar sitting horizontal,’ …photograph, a Kodachrome color slide, was subsequently analyzed by Dr. Bruce Maccabee who considered the hypotheses that the object was a cloud, a plasma phenomenon, or ball lightning…” (Vallee, 1998, p. 346).
“Case no. 2: …a large luminous object arrived slowly and silently from the west, flew to the south, made three complete loops in the sky over the French vessels, and vanished like a rapidly extinguished light bulb. …a large ball of light or a disk on edge… the color of a fluorescent tube… It left a whitish trace similar to the glow of a television screen. …hovered in the midst of a faint ‘halo.’ …the object vanished in the center of its glow ‘like a bulb turned off’” (Vallee, 1998, pp. 348, 349).
“Case no. 3: …a red-orange glow appearing through and above the trees… It appeared as a luminous hemisphere, pulsating regularly, ranging from dull red to bright orange, with a period of about two seconds …it suddenly brightened to a blinding white… After about four seconds it returned to its red-orange appearance” (Vallee, 1998, pp. 350, 351).
“Case no. 4: …a bright light outside… an intense white source crossing the sky at high speed… the light appeared to be spinning. …a luminous disk moving in the sky. …brighter than the full moon. It was slightly flattened (with an aspect ratio of 0.9)… The object was white in the center and bluish-white at the periphery. It was surrounded by an intense green halo… a similar object… leaving a trail, and that a bright disk was seen… a slightly flattened sphere, whose light was similar to that of a very bright neon tube, with a fiery red-orange area underneath…” (Vallee, 1998, pp. 353, 354).
“Case no. 5: …It was, by their descriptions, oval, red, surrounded with white ‘flames,’… ‘a large orange ball, very bright’… Mr. B. saw orange flashes above the pine trees…” (Vallee, 1998, pp. 354, 355).
“Case no. 6: …’one of the best-documented sightings in Europe,’…observed formations of luminous spheres hovering in the sky… characterized by rapid accelerations and abrupt changes of direction… two groups of luminous spheres that hovered nearly motionless… The brighter and closer group formed a circle of six luminous spheres. The second group formed the shape of a Y.” (Vallee, 1998, p. 356).
05 – I Make No Hypothesis
The anthropological folklore model used to study the UFO phenomenon supports the conclusion that people are having “real, sometimes bizarre experiences” (Dewan, 2006, Abstract). So what are these “real” experiences?
In the 2006 article “Why Not Angels?,” physics professor Dr. Donald E. Simanek from Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania discusses how explanations for preliminary observations arise before adequate data is available:
“When Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) began to wonder why the planets move as they do, for a while he entertained the then-popular notion that planets were pushed by angels. After all, planetary motion had been found to be quite lawful and regular, yet there was no obvious agent to give them a push, as Aristotelian physics required.
But Kepler did not leave it there, he wanted to know more about how the process worked, and after considering and discarding many hypotheses over many years (some of them fantastical and mystical), he finally stripped away the supernatural notions and worked out his three purely mathematical laws of planetary motion.
His model never answered the question of ‘what pushes the planets’, but his model didn’t have angels. (It turned out that that question was the wrong question, for Newton showed that nothing pushes the planets.) Still, Kepler’s laws worked, and stand as a landmark of science to this day” (Simanek, 2006, para. 6).
The example of Kepler shows how a scientist may appeal to supernatural hypotheses to attempt to explain mathematical laws of motion, even when explanations are not intrinsic to the observations under consideration. Philosopher Karl Popper explains the role of proof in the empirical sciences:
“In the empirical sciences, which alone can furnish us with information about the world we live in, proofs do not occur, if we mean by ‘proof’ an argument which establishes once and for ever the truth of a theory…
On the other hand, pure mathematics and logic, which permit of proofs, give us no information about the world, but only develop the means of describing it…
But although proof does not play any part in the empirical sciences, argument still does; indeed, its part is at least as important as that played by observation and experiment” (Popper, 1962, Ch. 11, para. 14).
Dr. Simanek also provides the example of Sir Isaac Newton:
“Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) proposed his theories of mechanics (in which the idea of force was finally interpreted in a useful way) and his law of universal gravitation.
Critics called it an ‘occult theory.’. They complained that he hadn’t explained anything, just worked out the laws of how things operate.
They wanted an ‘explanation’ of this gravitational force that could act on bodies without anything between them. Newton responded ‘I make no hypothesis’” (Simanek, 2006, para. 7).
Dr. Simanek concludes:
“supernatural concepts grafted onto science are superfluous and unnecessary. They purport to ‘explain’, but are themselves unexplained concepts or lead to more questions, equally unanswerable” (Simanek, 2006, para. 14).
06 – Unrecognized Phenomenon
Dr. Hynek and Dr. Vallee had interacted with large numbers of independent eyewitnesses reporting similar things, and both of the UFO researchers noticed that these reports typically described illuminated objects that did not conform to the expectations one would typically have of extraterrestrial spaceships.
Dr. Vallee’s paper “Five Arguments Against the Extraterrestrial Origin of Unidentified Flying Objects” was published in the Journal of Scientific Exploration in 1990:
“Scientific opinion has generally followed public opinion in the belief that unidentified flying objects either do not exist (the ‘natural phenomena hypothesis’) or, if they do, must represent evidence of a visitation by some advanced race of space travelers (the extraterrestrial hypothesis or ‘ETH’).
It is the view of the author that research on UFOs need not be restricted to these two alternatives. On the contrary, the accumulated database exhibits several patterns tending to indicate that UFOs are real, represent a previously unrecognized phenomenon, and that the facts do not support the common concept of ‘space visitors’” (Vallee, 1990, Abstract).
From a scientific perspective, Occam’s razor suggests that for each individual report the likeliest explanations would be misperceptions, hallucinations and hoaxes. What did the ufologists Dr. Hynek and Dr. Vallee hypothesize as the explanation for UFO reports?
Based on the eyewitness reports he had investigated, Dr. Hynek began to personally subscribe to a supernatural hypothesis to explain the strange illuminated objects that people were consistently describing:
“Hynek was often evasive when asked to give his own theories on the nature of UFOs. Despite his cameo in 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, he had by then rejected the notion that UFOs were ‘nuts and bolts’ spacecraft piloted by extraterrestrials (Gardner 1997, 247).
His occult studies had pointed him in a very different direction… Speaking to the UFOlogist Jerome Clark, Hynek was more specific. The astronomer allegedly told Clark that he believed ‘elementals’—nature spirits—were behind the UFO phenomenon (Clark, 1998)” (Franch, 2013, para. 35).
In the 1972 book Passport to Magonia: On UFOs, Folklore and Parallel Worlds, Dr. Vallee connects modern UAP reports to historic accounts of interactions with nature spirits from folklore, and quotes from The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by Walter Evans-Wentz:
“…the mysterious folks the Irish call the Gentry, and the Scots, the Good People (Skagfr Maith): The Gentry are a fine large race who live out on the sea and in the mountains, and they are all very good neighbors. The bad ones are not the Gentry at all, are the fallen angels and they live in the woods and the sea…” (Evans-Wentz, 1911, as cited in Vallee, 1972, p. 26)
This supernatural explanation hypothesis mirrors Sir Isaac Newton’s own personal supernatural explanation of the purely mathematical concept of gravity. In public he was neutral:
They wanted an ‘explanation’ of this gravitational force that could act on bodies without anything between them. Newton responded ‘I make no hypothesis’” (Simanek, 2006, para. 7).
Despite this admirable public stance, Newton could not personally avoid a supernatural explanation for gravity. Dr. Simanek writes:
“[Newton] did speculate, at least privately. In a letter to the Reverend Dr. Richard Bentley in 1692, Isaac Newton wrote: ‘To your second query I answer that the motions which the planets now have could not spring from any natural cause alone but were impressed by an intelligent agent’” (Simanek, 2006, para. 7).
On skeptic Mick West’s YouTube show Escaping the Rabbit Hole, skeptic Jason Colavito discusses Dr. Hynek and Dr. Vallee’s supernatural explanations for UFO eyewitness reports:
“What they saw in the connection was that… [UFOs] were also supernatural because they existed beyond the material realm. They weren’t physical objects that had mass and matter, and yet they were having a physical impact on the environment around them.
So in the mind of poltergeist researchers, the poltergeists were both supernatural and had a material impact on this plane, and so what Hynek and Vallee were interested in is the question of whether the poltergeist phenomenon could be said to be parallel to or even part of UFO phenomena, so that UFOs were somehow or another these immaterial objects that were coming from either another plane or another dimension, popping into ours, having a physical interaction with ours while not themselves being physical, and then sort of dissolving back where they came from” (Colavito, 2022, 673s).
This supernatural explanation – “elementals” – proposed by the original, most prestigious academic UFO researchers became the story, dramatically overshadowing the actual content of the eyewitness reports.
07 – Dispelling Demons
Astronomer and science writer David Darling’s Encyclopedia of Science discusses eyewitness reports of luminous “elemental” phenomena traditionally observed around the world since ancient times:
“From every continent come reports of a similar nature. In west Africa, balls of light seen gliding over the surface of water are called ‘aku’ – the devil. In Malaysia, aerial lights known as ‘penangau’ are believed to be the phantom heads of women who died in childbirth. And in the northwest Australian outback, the so-called ‘min-min’ lights have a sacred significance to the Aborigines” (Darling, para. 4).
The article “Dispelling Demons: Detective Work at The Conjuring House” by science writer Dr. Joe Nickell was published in Skeptical Inquirer magazine in 2016. Dr. Nickell illustrates a paranormal experience:
“Much was made of a ‘solid blue tubular beam of light’ that shot down the chimney into a room, then retraced its route and disappeared… Hearing about it… Warren insisted that, writes Perron, it was supernatural… while the light was the ‘most amazing thing’ she ever saw in the old house—it was really ‘a tube of blue lightning’… consistent with the rare phenomenon of ball lightning that has been reported to enter houses, sometimes through chimneys” (Nickell, 2017, paras. 26, 27).
In 2006 the article “The Ball Lightning Conundrum” by William D. Stansfield appeared in Dr. Michael Shermer’s Skeptic magazine:
“The existence of ball lightning has been questioned for hundreds of years. Today, the phenomenon is a reality accepted by most scientists… Open-minded skeptics might wish to delay judgment until more is known about it. Even though it is a rare phenomenon compared to common lightning (linear, forked, or streak), sightings of ball lightning have been independently reported for over a century by thousands of people” (Stansfield, 2006, p. 50).
Mr. Stansfield’s argument sounds reasonable at face value. However, the Royal Society had established in the 17th century that no amount of eyewitness evidence could be sufficient to conclude that something exists.
Three years later Skeptic.com reversed course and published “The Case Against Ball Lightning.”. In 2009, science writer Steuart Campbell argued:
“The phenomenon exhibits no consistent characteristics and appears to be all things to all observers… contradictions might be explained if the observers are reporting many different phenomena, none of which are actually ball lightning… anecdotal reports are unreliable…” (Campbell, 2009, paras. 9, 10).
“There is no photograph, film or video recording that can be accepted unreservedly as showing BL. Many forget the null hypothesis, which has explained many postulated phenomena, such as phlogiston and the ether, that turn out to be nonexistent. The null hypothesis may also explains BLball lightning, which could be a chimera, a pseudo-phenomenon” (Campbell, 2009, para. 2).
This was an admirable reversal. Even with countless statements by high credibility professional physical scientists describing observations of ball lightning phenomena, scientists must take nobody’s word for it.
By 2009, a significant body of field study and experimental data about ball lightning had been published in peer-reviewed physical science journals, but due to the transient nature of ball lightning it had never been successfully recorded in a natural setting with a sufficiently high resolution optical sensor to allow for precise spectral analysis to conclusively identify the otherwise ambiguous photographic evidence of an unresolved light source.
Brian Dunning is the creator of the podcast Skeptoid. Dunning describes skepticism in the article “What is Skepticism?,” published on Skeptoid.com:
“Skepticism is not simply about ‘debunking’ as is commonly charged. Skepticism is about redirecting attention, influence, and funding away from worthless superstitions and popular misinformation, and toward projects and ideas that are evidenced to be beneficial to humanity and to the world” (Dunning, n.d., para. 4).
In 2010 Skeptoid Podcast’s “Episode 194: Ball Lightning” was released and host Brian Dunning pragmatically stated:
“It is fair to say that it’s likely that one or more unknown phenomena exist that have triggered eyewitness accounts of hovering balls of light, but there’s insufficient theory to support assigning these accounts a positive identification of ball lightning” (Dunning, 2010, para. 16).
Four years later, everything changed. In 2014, Cen et al.’s paper “Observation of the Optical and Spectral Characteristics of Ball Lightning” was published in Physical Review Letters (Cen et al., 2014).
While conducting field studies related to lightning in 2012, Cen et al. accidentally measured the optical and spectral characteristics of a natural occurrence of ball lightning for the first time. After centuries of eyewitness reports, a team of scientists had finally verified the existence of ball lightning phenomena by capturing a video including high resolution spectral characteristics with an automatic sensor system in a remote region in China.
The researchers filmed an object with a 5 meter (16.4 feet) wide “recorded glow” (Ball, 2014, para. 5) and a 1.1 meter (3.6 feet) wide nucleus (Cen et al., 2014, p. 2). They saw it “drift horizontally for about 10 meters [32.8 feet] and ascend about 3 meters [9.8 feet]” (Ball, 2014, para. 6).
The American Physical Society’s online magazine Physics reported on the significant discovery in the 2014 article “First Spectrum of Ball Lightning” by Philip Ball:
“Researchers measured a spectrum of light emitted by the rare and elusive ball lightning… Ball lightning has been one of the most mysterious natural phenomena for centuries, partly because it is so rare and transient and therefore hard to investigate…” (Ball, 2014, para. 1).
“The recorded glow was about 5 meters across—the actual size of the ball was much smaller [1.1 meters across]—and it changed from white to reddish during the second or so that it lasted. Although the darkness prevented the researchers from estimating the ball’s altitude, they saw it drift horizontally for about 10 meters and ascend about 3 meters” (Ball, 2014, para. 6).
“There are many historical reports of such ‘fireballs’ injuring or even killing people and setting buildings alight, and they have sometimes been given supernatural explanations” (Ball, 2014, para. 2).
In a 2014 blog post, Skeptoid contributor Mike Weaver updated Skeptoid’s position on ball lightning in consideration of the new peer-reviewed natural sciences paper by Cen et al. that was published in Physical Review Letters in 2014 (Cen et al., 2014):
“While video evidence is compelling in many cases, the spectrographic evidence is very compelling in this case… this evidence strongly argues for the reality of the phenomenon” (Weaver, 2014, para. 8).
Skeptics had been resistant to accepting reports of ball lightning for centuries due to reliance on eyewitness observations, but with high resolution video and spectral verification published in a respected peer-reviewed physics journal they had remained consistent with their adherence to the scientific method and finally accepted the phenomenon as likely real.
08 – Accepted Logical Limits
The contemporary cultural clashes between UAP believers and skeptics seem to mirror the recent conflict between the historic scientific camps that had been publicly debating the existence of ball lightning.
Dr. Hynek comments on the probability of whether so many people would make up these stories:
“Accepted logical limits of misperception are in these cases exceeded by so great a margin that one must assume that the observers either truly had the experience as reported or were bereft of their reason and senses…” (Hynek, 1972, p. 116).
Dr. Hynek describes the apparent “impossibility” of UFO phenomena:
“At present the average physicist dismisses the entire [UFO] phenomenon as impossible. He is entirely correct to do so, in his frame of reference, for from the standpoint of our present knowledge of the way nature works, ‘such things just can’t happen.’. But ‘stones couldn’t fall from the sky’, either, and ‘ball lightning is sheer nonsense’” (Hynek, 1972, pp. 145, 146).
University of Bristol scientists David J. Turner submitted a new theory of ball lightning to the Royal Society in 1993 (Chown, 1993, para. 4). In “The Missing Science of Ball Lightning,” published in The Journal of Scientific Exploration in 2003, Turner addresses the accepted logical limits placed on the study of ball lightning:
“One of the main problems in understanding ball lightning is that its properties, taken together, seem to be inconsistent with the laws of physics. This long-standing problem is completely eliminated once it is accepted that a plasma is both a phenomenon of physics and a mixture of chemicals… This may explain why ball lightning usually forms unexpectedly and unreproducibly… Phenomena result which are thermodynamically inevitable but, at first sight, totally unexpected. These can explain qualitatively all the seemingly impossible behaviour“ (Turner, 2003, Abstract).
The paper “Deep Weird: High Strangeness, Boggle Thresholds and Damned Data in Academic Research on Extraordinary Experience” by University of Wales Trinity Saint David anthropologist Dr. Jack Hunter was published in The Journal for the Study of Religious Experience in 2021:
“The historian of psychical research Renée Haynes (1906–1994), who coined the term ‘Boggle Threshold’ to refer to the point at which an extraordinary experience or phenomenon is deemed so outlandish and unlikely that it is entirely dismissed by the researcher.
She explains that: Individual boggle thresholds will vary […] with individual temperament, history, training, and aptitude. They will also be inﬂuenced by […] the groups to which each individual is linked: family, friends, school, employment, university.
In people brought up in the discipline of the physical sciences the levels of boggledom are likely to differ considerably from the levels found in those brought up in the humanities (Haynes, 1980, p. 94)” (Hunter, 2021, p. 8).
In 2019 American Economic Review published “Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time?” by Azoulay et al. (Azoulay et al., 2019). Dalmeet Chawla wrote about Azoulay et al.’s paper in Chemistry World:
“‘A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.’ This principle was famously laid out by German theoretical physicist Max Planck in 1950 and it turns out that he was right, according to a new study.
The work investigates how the premature death of a star scientist working in the life sciences affects the literature. It finds that collaborators of star researchers publish fewer papers in the field after their prominent colleague’s death, while the field sees a boost in studies by researchers that didn’t collaborate with the superstar” (Chawla, 2019, paras. 1, 2).
09 – Selling Mystery
In 1953 Sir Arthur C. Clarke hypothesized:
“UFOs are not material bodies because: (l) ..observed to travel at accelerations which no material body could stand.. (2) despite the enormous speeds reported, no sonic booms are ever heard” (Clarke, 1953, in Catoe, 1969, p. 129).
By 1959 Sir Arthur C. Clarke wrote a paper explicitly proposing:
“many hard core unexplained UFOs may be ‘plasmoids’ – ball lightning” (Clarke, 1959, in Catoe, 1969, p. 129).
Dr. David Clarke provides Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s summary of his views about UFOs after a lifetime of consideration:
“...I would be failing in my duty if I did not say something on UFOs. So here, as briefly as possible, are the conclusions I’ve come to after more than fifty years of study:
1. There may be strange and surprising meteorological, electrical, or astronomical phenomena still unknown to science, which may account for the very few UFOs that are both genuine and unexplained. 2. There is no hard evidence that Earth has ever been visited from space, 3. If that does happen, there are at least three independent global radar networks that will know within a matter of minutes…
Having written thousands of words on the subject (and read millions) I refuse to go into further details” (Clarke, A., 1986, as cited in Clarke, D., n.d., paras. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7).
Dr. Hynek had contemplated the possibility that UFOs represent a novel natural phenomenon as early as 1952:
“In 1952… a wave of UFO sightings prompted Hynek to begin reconsidering his views on the subject. He openly speculated that UFOs might be a new kind of natural phenomenon he dubbed ‘nocturnal meandering lights’” (Franch, 2013, para. 13).
In the 2016 Skeptical Inquirer article “The Brown Mountain Lights: Solved Again”, science writer Dr. Joe Nickell (Ph. D., folklore) describes how unidentified lights are often associated with the supernatural:
“Although legends mostly interpret the Brown Mountain Lights as ghosts, since about 1960 tales of UFOs, alien contact, and ‘interdimensional beings’ have proliferated there, as well as of ‘little people, fairies and such’” (Nickell, 2016, para. 16).
“One researcher called attention to a few reports that could describe the rare phenomenon of ball lighting (Washburn 2012). Moreover, the lights are not limited to Brown Mountain but in fact have been reported throughout the entire area” (Nickell, 2016, para. 29).
“Proponents of the ‘mystery’ are quick to challenge the scientific explanations. But as Rosemary Ellen Guiley (2000, 156) acknowledges, ‘Ghost lights have a power to fascinate, and some individuals who see them do not want the mystique spoiled by an explanation.’
Neither do writers selling mystery. Whenever one explanation is offered, they describe other eyewitness reports (or alleged reports, since often no sources are given) that supposedly rule out that cause. They suggest, therefore, that no scientific explanation solves the ‘mystery’” (Nickell, 2016, para. 30).
In 2022 Harvard astronomy professor and Galileo Project founder Dr. Avi Loeb reflects on his decision to academically investigate UFOs:
“I prefer… a path that was not taken, the way Robert Frost phrased it… For me, it’s the ability as a physicist to find low-hanging fruit because nobody walked that path and there might be something really obvious that we will find” (Loeb, 2022, 4758s).
As a guest on The Singularity Lab in 2021, Dr. Loeb contemplates the possibility that UAP are natural phenomena:
“If it turns out not to be of extraterrestrial origin, if it turns out to be some atmospheric phenomena that we’ve never anticipated, it will be quite interesting, we will discover something new, so I see it as a win-win” (Loeb, 2021, 1448s).
On Witness Citizen podcast in 2021 Dr. Loeb again suggests that UAP may prove to be natural phenomena:
“…suppose the Galileo Project searches and, you know, figures out that these UAP are some natural phenomena.
So be it, you know, then at least we’ll put to rest all these speculations that people have…I wouldn’t feel hurt, I would just feel that we learned something new, and so we will be guided by evidence” (Loeb, 2021b, 3960s).
Campbell Moreira is a Canadian small business owner, science writer, and the creator of UAPstudy.com, a non-profit educational website designed to help people study the UAP subject through academic sources. Campbell graduated with an HBA (MCL) in analytic philosophy from University of Ottawa and attended Queen’s University’s Juris Doctor program before dropping out and founding a federally-licensed commercial cannabis cultivation business in 2019.
Find Campbell at UAPstudy.com and on Twitter at @UAPstudy