UFOs have landed – and they are….WTF?

Written by peterkienle on July 21, 2009

After listening to the 11/23/2008 episode of Tim Harold’s  Paranormal Podcast featuring an interview with Stanton T. Friedman I had some more thoughts about the relationship of the UFO phenomenon with Science.

I want to say upfront that while I more often than not highly disagree with Tim Harold’s guests he is an excellent interviewer who somehow manages to keep a straight face (or tone of voice) while his guests tell the most outlandish stuff. I have heard Mr. Friedman interviewed on other shows before, I have checked out his website and viewed some of his video material on youtube. While I actually agree with him and many other ‘fringe’ or paranormal people that there might be more to a certain phenomenon than current scientific knowledge can explain I find the way they on one hand condemn scientists, universities and research in many fields when it contradicts their ideas while on the other hand eagerly striving to be scientific themselves to be a little inconsistent. Alright, I think I understand where they are coming from. People like Stanton Friedman used to work in a scientific field. They believe the stuff they research now is for real, too. What struck me with that particular interview was that Mr. Friedman spent a whole hour telling how close-minded scientists are when the subject of UFOs comes up. He specifically mentioned Brian Dunning, who produces the excellent Skeptoid podcast. I have listened to every episode of Skeptoid. I find them well reasoned, thoroughly researched and occasionally disturbing (I am a vegetarian and the episode about organically grown food didn’t go down easy.) Mr. Friedman also mentioned Seth Shostak from the SETI Institute who produces a podcast called ‘Are we alone’. The SETI Institute listens for intelligent signals from outer space (remember the movie ‘Contact’?) The podcast deals with scientific topics around that. I have learned much about robotics, astrobiology, physics, etc. listening to that show. Stanton Friedman called the search for extraterrestrial life a ‘religion’.

When I found out about podcasting I was surprised how many science shows there were. Scientific American offers two podcasts. Groks Science Radio Show is a great podcast with different guests each week. Not to forget The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, Skepticality, Geologic Podcast, Quirks and Quarks. There are many more but they don’t all fit on my iPod. The days are too short to catch them all. All of them have one thing in common: I actually learn something from them. And they actually talk about real things, or sometimes hypothetical things. It’s about stuff that has something to do with my reality. The people on these shows are not whining about not being accepted by the general science community (probably because their research has passed the peer review process?) Funny, too, when they talk about the fringe stuff (at least they do on the skeptics’ shows) the consensus is that if there was a real flying saucer or compelling evidence for ESP or life after death scientists wouldn’t hesitate to probe the subject in depth. Anyway, to make it short: podcasts or TV documentaries, books or magazine articles dealing with UFOs have often been about how serious scientists ignore the evidence for alien visitation accompanied by a few blurry or inconclusive photos, and the demand that more research needs to be done (and that the US government must release all the secret documents pertaining the Roswell incident.) I haven’t really learned anything new or conclusive from the UFO guys. And it’s not that anybody prevents people like Stanton Friedman from producing their own weekly podcast. I might actually tune in, in search for new information but for some reason I think it might be a bit repetitive after a few episodes when the reality I live in somehow turns out to have no relationship with what they talk about on the show. It just doesn’t hold much water to see a light in the sky and to extrapolate from that observation that grey aliens and reptilians are at war, etc. I know it’s oversimplified but my call goes out to the UFO folks: If you have real things to report about then produce your own podcast and convince me with compelling evidence.

An un-american speed limit?

Written by peterkienle on July 8, 2009

Recently, as I was pedaling to town on my bike I had an interesting thought. Having  just passed a ‘Speed Limit 40 mph’ sign I quietly chuckled thinking  to myself that at that moment I would not have to pay attention to any speed limits because unless I strapped a rocket to my back I would not be able to go any faster. When I got home that thought expanded itself into the idea of self-enforcing speed limits.

Practically it works like this: You pass a speed limit sign in your car. There is a chip embedded in the speed limit sign and your car will pick the signal up, and magically refuse to go faster than the posted speed limit. At least superficially workable – except that everyone I mention this to thinks it sucks. And come to look at it closer I too have a strange feeling about it.

From a logical standpoint it makes total sense. If there is a speed limit you are not supposed to go faster – it’s against the law!
Just like Religion – you are not supposed to commit sin. Why then did God leave the sin-enable switch in us in the ON position? Or, in regards to the speed limit situation, why does everybody hate the idea that they could NOT go faster if the wanted to, even when it is against the law?

Could it have something to do with ‘free will’? Does such a self-enforcing speed limit evoke the notion of a driver who is ‘guilty’ by default? Rationally it makes total sense to me – as would disabling the sin-switch – and yet there is something weird. Could it be that committing a sin/breaking the law is *fun*?

Call the Police – UFOs have landed!

Written by peterkienle on July 2, 2009

Around 1976, back in Albstadt, Germany, I heard about UFOs for the first time. Being interested in all things space I immediately took to it. There wasn’t a lot of information available but I managed to write a short paper about the topic for a class in Gymnasium. I did get an 1+ for it which corresponds to an A+. The paper was pretty critical about the whole thing. There was just not enough information to make up one’s mind.

Then in 1978 I saw my one and only UFO on a night hike a few kilometers from my mother’s house in the woods. It was a light, hovering in the air like a helicopter some distance off over a valley. The thing that was strange was that there was no sound. There is a military practice grounds pretty close by and we were all familiar with the various sounds and sights from the different flying contraptions used in the practice. Seeing airplanes or helicopters at night was pretty common. My sighting happened during a clear and cold night in November. No crickets. Germans go to bed early. No cars on the road where I was walking. Dead silence. I think even at a distance of several kilometers I should have heard some sound. There was no wind. But for some reason, while I wished for it to be a spaceship that would pick me up, nothing much happened. I could see that mysterious light for 30 minutes or so as I was looking over my shoulder while walking back home. I lost sight of it for maybe 15 minutes until I went to the living room window of our apartment on the 6th floor. The light was still there. Moving about a little. When nothing further happened I went to bed. A good camera would have been nice.

A true Unidentified Flying Object. I don’t know what it was. At the same time jumping to the conclusion that it was an alien spaceship seems a bit far fetched. Other people have been taking this subject much more seriously. Since, in 1947, Kenneth Arnold reported his famous ‘saucer’ it developed its own mythology. There are UFO believers, UFO skeptics, UFO researchers and books, movies and documentaries dealing with the subject. There are claims, people who honestly think they saw something or were even abducted, fraud, faked photographs and videos, books full of unchecked, anecdotal stories. I don’t personally have an opinion about it other than people seeing something and jumping to conclusions. In the small cracks of our reality there are quite possibly countless things we don’t know about yet which together might turn the image we have about that reality upside down many times over. While I don’t know if there is other conscious life out there on some planet or if Earth is actually the only place in the known Universe bearing life my personal feeling is that we are not alone. However, what this other life looks like and how far away from Earth it developed is another question. The assumption that beings from another world have, or are visiting Earth has been been investigated for over a century by science fiction in written and later filmed form. In the written variety of science fiction one can find fantastic aliens, truly different. At the same time many alien cultures depicted appear almost ‘human’. Skipping to SciFi (the cinematic form of science fiction) popular TV series like Star Trek have a long history of depicting beings from other worlds. Most of these have more with us in common than Eskimos with Australian aborigines. Alright, they tend to have different foreheads. In many of the classic SciFi movies aliens – who often look just like us – visit Earth in their flying saucers. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some cross breeding of ideas going on. When the expression ‘flying saucers’ came up it was quickly adopted by movie makers as the obvious form for alien spaceships. And then people who saw something in the sky they couldn’t explain had an easy label to put on their observation. Herein of course lies the rub: UFOs in older photos or videos mostly look like hubcaps and lamps as do UFOs in movies made at that time. It’s hard to tell a real UFO photo or video from all the fakery, fraud and prank. And then don’t forget that UFO means Unidentified Flying Object but when people say they saw a UFO they usually do mean an alien space ship. The well is poisoned as in other ‘paranormal’ stuff such as ESP, near death experiences, ghosts, etc. It seems we try to impose archetypical explanations, thousands of years old, on a very thin layer of actual data. By the time a report of some paranormal activity actually goes on record the actual experience has been blurred, interpreted and totally mutated out of proportion and any sensible inspection is futile.

Perhaps there is stuff going on. Things our senses can’t really pick up because our eyes only see a narrow band of the electromagnetic spectrum and our ears have a pretty limited frequency band and range. Our mind (or brain, consciousness, whatever) uses all these inputs to fabricate the image of our reality from these inputs. That’s a pretty complicated task come to think of it. It doesn’t seem at all far fetched that small fluctuations in an input stream might trigger funny interpretations. There might be a lot more fluctuations on a small scale than our crude senses can perceive. Atoms are quite small and it takes a lot of them to form any visible structures. The overused but effective comparison with what you see on your computer screen comes to mind. You don’t think about all the electronic components involved in showing a youtube video in your web browser. One dead pixel on your LCD screen may not have too much of an impact but you do notice when a hard drive starts acting up or a virus or malfunctioning system extension spoils your experience.

Before any labels are put on anything we need to make sure that there actually is something to put a label on. So we are really dealing with two big problems:

1) sort the ‘actual’ physical phenomena taking place outside of the observer, from imaginations, deliberate fakes and other artifacts

If there are actual physical effects provoking observations which then get interpreted as UFOs its signal-noise-ration is very narrow. It may be even harder to come up with a good theoretical framework for these effects than it is in traditional physics because there is hardly anything to build a theory from. And it seems literally out of this world to base the gigantic theories surrounding alien interference in Earth matters on such thin data.

2) drop our preconceptions of what these phenomena might be, follow the data

Forming preconceptions is a human thing and it helps our minds to create the ‘inner’ picture of reality by drawing on previous experiences and acquired knowledge. At the same time, once we have a deep enough storage of preconceptions we tend to apply these first to make sense of what our senses pick up.

UFO and aliens in Legoland

UFO and aliens in Legoland

Copyright © by Peter Kienle