[Dr. Bruce Maccabee is an optical physicist and one of America's leading experts on the analysis of UFO photos and film. The December 7 edition of CNI News carried Carl Sagan's latest Parade Magazine article; and we are now pleased to carry Bruce Maccabee's response.]
[Jan 24, 1996] -- Dr. Carl Sagan has written yet another article in Parade Magazine (Dec. 3, 1995) regarding UFO sightings and aliens. "What's the evidence," he asks. "On so important a question as UFOs, the evidence must be airtight. People make mistakes. People play practical jokes. People stretch the truth for money, attention or fame. People occasionally misunderstand what they're seeing. And sometimes even see things that aren't there." According to Dr. Sagan, there is no convincing evidence that UFOs are real.
Methinks Carl doth protest too much, for a person who, as a young man, was at least favorable toward, if not totally convinced by, the early UFO sightings: "It seemed pretty believable to me [Sagan said] ... apart from a few harrumphs and giggles -- I couldn't find any counterarguments. How could all these eyewitnesses be mistaken?"
After all, he is a proponent of listening via radio to the universe in order to detect signs of intelligent life "out there." Hence he must be a believer in life out there.... enough of a believer to commit his and other people's time and money to hours and hours of "listening." Is there any evidence of life out there to listen for? Only probabilistic arguments based on the existence of intelligent life here. There are no observational data. This is in stark contrast to the situation regarding UFO sightings, for which there is a lot of observational data, whether or not Dr. Sagan considers it "airtight."
Dr. Sagan points out that as he grew up and learned "how science works -- the secrets of its great success," he became skeptical of UFO reports. He decided that, "Essentially all the UFO cases were anecdotes," just stories by people "who reported what they saw." Some saw "natural, if unfamiliar phenomena ....unconventional aircraft... conventional aircraft with unusual lighting patterns; high altitude balloons; luminescent insects; planets seen under unusual atmospheric conditions; optical mirages and loomings; lenticular clouds; ball lightning; sun dogs; meteors, including green fireballs; and artificial satellites, nose cones and rocket boosters spectacularly re-entering the atmosphere." He also points out that "the field attracted rogues and charlatans," that "many UFO photos turned out to be fakes" and at least in one case a mass UFO sighting was of a hot air balloon with candles. In other words, in Dr. Sagan's opinion, because some or many UFO sightings can be explained as he has suggested, then all UFO sightings can be explained as he has suggested and hence there is no "airtight" evidence.
At the end of his article (in which he also discussed crop circles, which I do not discuss here because they may not be related to UFO sightings), he appeals to skepticism as a counter to credulity and laments that the "tools of skepticism are generally unavailable to the citizens of our society." The implication is that anyone who "believes" in UFO reality is not being properly skeptical but, rather, credulous (willing to believe in *anything*). Again methinks that Carl protests too much, for it was by using the "tools of skepticism" that I arrived at the conclusion that UFOs are real.
My "conversion" to "belief" (really, acceptance) of UFO reality was a result of considering and analyzing explanations for UFO sightings. I analyzed a number of the classic (older) sightings and the explanations for them and realized that the explanations were unconvincing, at best, and just plain wrong, at worst. It was at this time that I became skeptical of the skeptics. I also discovered that some of the more vocal skeptics act as if they have a desire to disbelieve, and some go so far as to become debunkers who discount UFO sightings without so much as a sideways glance at them. Sometimes these debunkers disparage or make fun of people who report such sightings.
Consider, for example, Dr. Sagan's suggestion that some sightings were actually of high altitude balloons (see above). Is he aware that some of the earliest flying saucer/UFO sightings were made in clear daylight by the scientists who launched those balloons? Is he aware that these scientists saw their own balloons and strange, circular shiny objects flying past or around the balloons? These men were trained observers of things in the sky, not to be tricked by any of the natural or manmade phenomena regarded by Sagan as *the* solutions to UFO sightings.
So what if "many UFO photos" turned out to be fakes; not all are. Does Dr. Sagan know about the cinetheodolite films shot on April 27, 1950 by technicians at the White Sands Proving Ground? According to mathematician Wilber Mitchell, triangulation showed that the objects were traveling at a high rate of speed over the Holloman Range at an altitude of about 150,000 ft. The objects were about 30 feet in diameter. Several films of unidentified objects flying over White Sands were taken in the late spring of 1950.
So what if many sightings could be explained by natural phenomena, as Dr. Sagan suggested. There are also many which can't, such as the first widely reported sighting, that of Kenneth Arnold on June 24, 1947. Many people have tried to explain Arnold's sighting; none has succeeded. The late Dr. J. Allen Hynek, astronomer and consultant to the Air Force Project Blue Book, was initially a severe skeptic of flying saucer reports. He was the first scientist to analyze Arnold's report to the (Army) Air Force and attempt to explain it, in 1948. By 25 years later he had reversed his opinion about UFO reports and realized that he hadn't explained Arnold's sighting.
In November, 1986, the Japanese pilot and two man crew of a jumbo jet freighter flying over Alaska witnessed a series of sighting events, including radar detections, which was investigated by the Federal Aeronautics Administration. In March, 1987, the FAA released a package of information on the sighting to the public and announced its "solution": the ground radar had been fooled by malfunctions that occurred just as the crew was reporting objects/lights near the aircraft. The FAA had "no comment" on the visual sighting and no comment about the object detected on the airplane radar. The Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) publicized its explanation for the sighting -- misidentifications of Mars and Jupiter -- before the FAA released its report. A month or so later, when it became apparent from the FAA-released information that the visual sighting direction was not in the direction of these planets, the skeptics revised their explanation to moonlight reflected from clouds. Neither explanation was satisfactory in view of the descriptions given by the three witnesses on the plane.
Try as he may, Dr. Sagan cannot get away from the fact that UFO sightings have been reported under "unimpeachable" conditions, including multiple witness daylight sightings of structured objects (seen well enough so that identification would be immediately obvious if it were possible), multiple radar/visual sightings, multiply witnessed photographic and video sightings and sightings that involved landing traces (several thousand of these on record). It is true that we, the civilian community of UFO investigators, do not have something which we are positive is a piece of a flying saucer. However, there is a mass of circumstantial evidence of the type which, if this were to be tried in a court of law, would be sufficient to prove the case.
If Dr. Sagan wishes to ignore all this, that is his choice. He can go back to listening for aliens. But he should leave the ufologists alone. We have enough inborne healthy skepticism to keep us from being overly credulous, while not throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Furthermore, contrary to Dr. Sagan's stated opinion that we might "have a vested interest in discouraging skepticism," we encourage skepticism on both sides of this issue.
Original file name: .CNI - Maccabee to Sagan 1.25f
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