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Encounters of the third kind? Not even close… Oh, really?

This is a special guest post by Andrew Nicholson –

A recent article by an Australian astronomer on UFOs and extraterrestrials illustrates the continuing ignorance of many within the scientific community in relation to the UFO phenomenon and other aspects of the paranormal, and exposes the double standards employed when it comes to making extraordinary claims.

In Encounters of the third kind? Not even close published on The Sydney Morning Herald website on 19 January 2012, Perry Vlahos, an astronomy educator, author, broadcaster and past president of the Astronomical Society of Victoria discusses the subject of UFOs and extraterrestrials.

Vlahos begins by taking a refreshingly objective point of view in relation to the possibility of intelligent life existing elsewhere in the universe.

“From my experience, astronomers disagree on the possibility of sophisticated civilisations among the stars – some think ‘yes’ and others think ’no’,” he states.

But he is far less flexible in his thinking when it comes to the possibility that we may have been visited by any such ‘sophisticated civilisations’. “But most agree on one point,” he continues. “There is no credible evidence to suggest we have ever been visited by extraterrestrials.”

“If they exist, they’ve not been here yet,” he confidently concludes.

Oh, really!

This is a bold statement. In fact, it is an extraordinary claim. And as Carl Sagan famously said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. This should be as true for a scientist claiming we have never been visited by extraterrestrials, as it should for an ancient alien proponent claiming we’re the descendants of a slave race of alien-human hybrids.

Perhaps he should’ve said that, “If they exist, we have no conclusive evidence that they have ever been here”. A far more scientifically acceptable approach, one would think.

Vlahos then takes it upon himself to share the thoughts of the astronomy community.

“Most astronomers think reports of unidentified flying objects (UFOs) are just that – objects in the sky that are yet to be identified. Certainly, all reports of such sightings cannot be hoaxes and so we must accept that some of them are genuine.”

I commend Viahos for at least acknowledging that some UFO reports are genuine.

He then adds that, “It does not necessarily follow, however, that they are craft piloted by extraterrestrial beings.”

This is true. We do not know that such sightings are craft piloted by extraterrestrials. Unfortunately, there is a widespread misconception that any poor misguided soul who takes the subject of UFOs seriously believes they must be piloted by aliens from elsewhere in the universe. The Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH) is just one theory on the origin of the UFO phenomenon. There are other equally valid theories, and not everyone open minded enough to take the phenomenon seriously automatically equates UFOs with extraterrestrials.

The fact is, we do not know who or what is responsible.

Vlahos then discusses the astronomy community’s involvement in investigating sightings. “Many astronomers, including the author, have been involved in identifying sightings that have puzzled the public.”

“In most of these cases, natural phenomena, astronomical objects or local intelligence in the form of aircraft, balloons, satellites and the like are the cause.”

I agree with Vlahos here. The vast majority of UFO sightings, once investigated, usually have a more prosaic explanation.

It’s time to redefine what a UFO is.

It is time to weed out such reports that, with a little investigation, can be easily explained. The current convention that any anomalous object seen in the sky remains a UFO until it can be identified otherwise only damages the credibility of the many genuine, inexplicable UFO sightings. We need to turn this on its head. Only after a sighting satisfies certain criteria, and all other possibilities ruled out, should an anomalous object be classified as a UFO.

Such criteria might include, for example, the number and/or credibility of witnesses, the size and shape of the craft, the ability of the object to defy known laws of physics, and the object demonstrating speed impossible for any known aircraft.

Tick two or more boxes, and you have a UFO sighting. No more sightings of satellites, Jupiter, Chines lanterns, balloons or swamp gas please.

Double standards … what happened to scientific rigour?

Next, Vlahos links the UFO phenomenon with crop circles through the religious fervour of some believers.

“In some instances, it becomes almost a religious experience to people and no amount of explanation seems to change their beliefs.

“A good example of this is the crop circles that started appearing in England in the late 1970s. Some members of the public thought these to be the work of artistic aliens.

“Some years later, however, two men, Dave Chorley and Doug Bower, decided the joke had gone on for long enough and declared to news reporters how, under cover of darkness, they had made the circles in the wheat fields with rope and boards. They even gave a demonstration for the cameras.”

Ok, this is fair enough. This pair of pranksters was obviously responsible for some crop circles. But all crop circles? And where their claims rigorously tested as the scientific process dictates?

No. Because they came forward and admitted to some reporters they were responsible and gave their demonstration with a couple of planks and some rope, that’s good enough for this scientist. Case closed!

Similarly, the famous Belgian Triangle UFO photo was declared a hoax when last year, a Belgian man identified only as Patrick, obviously wracked with years of guilt, announced to the world that as an 18 year old, he had hoaxed the photo by making a simple polystyrene model and photographing it.

Okay, maybe he did perpetrate a hoax. But where was the scientific testing to prove or disprove his claims? There was none. Because he said he did it, again that’s good enough. Why weren’t his claims treated with scepticism until he could successfully reproduce the photos using the same camera he supposedly used to take the original photos?

Here is a case of double standards, as the scientific establishment is often quick to dismiss the claims of the paranormal due to the inability of paranormal investigators and researchers to replicate results.

A mystery no longer, should all the facts be known.

Vlahos concludes in his article that, “The tiny percentage of UFO reports that remain unsolved would almost surely be a mystery no longer, were all the facts known.”

Tell this to the former Head of Operations at the Belgian Air Staff and to the Iranian and Peruvian fighter pilots who contributed to Leslie Kean’s acclaimed book UFOs Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go On The Record.

It is time for all of us to take a more mature, open-minded approach to the UFO phenomenon. This includes scientists taking a more objective stance and treating the true phenomenon with the same scientific curiosity admirably demonstrated in so many other areas of our everyday world.

And it applies equally to the so-called ‘true believers’ who treat every coloured light in the sky as a sign that our space brothers are lovingly watching over us.

Only then can we hope to have an intelligent conversation and perhaps gain some understanding of the perplexing UFO mystery.

This is a special guest post by Andrew Nicholson –

Aaron Wright is one half of the Mysterious Universe team who brings expertise in the sciences. Ben and he formed 8th Kind Pty Ltd in 2008 to take MU to the next level.
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