Many people I discuss UFOs with cringe when I mention the word skeptic (let alone when I verbally equate myself with being one in their presence). Sadly, skepticism is looked upon as a bad thing by many who study phenomenology, mostly due to the attitudes exhibited by those who openly label themselves “skeptics”. Conversely, it is just as unfortunate how the self-proclaimed “skeptics” unfairly label and judge those who, according to their ideology, exhibit belief… or anything similar to it. Strangely, I remember it being John Keel, author of The Mothman Prophecies, who famously (and perhaps best) stated the undying words of caution meant to fall on the ears of every blooming researcher of the unexplained: “belief is the enemy”.
I try to see it from both sides, and learn a little something from each. After all, I can’t go through my life existing without belief in something from time to time (I believe in that burrito I ate hours ago, for instance). Nor can I very easily convince myself that every light I see in the sky, however anomalous they may seem at times, are actually UFO craft from another realm. Fair, healthy, and even discriminating skepticism is an absolute must for anyone who hopes to look at claims of the paranormal seriously. However, what must be completely eliminated, in my opinion, is having a derogatory or otherwise negative attitude toward people from the opposite end of your ideology, regardless of where you may stand.
For instance, I’ve had underdog physicists (usually guys who, because they have PhDs, feel like they have to “bait” you constantly, searching for mistakes while you try and discuss science with them) try and tell me tall-tales about monitoring submarine activity with 1970s laboratory-grade VLF equipment from clandestine points in the middle of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and in the same breath snicker as they ask me “now, how many times a day is it that you watch Close Encounters?” This is the sort of attitude I’m talking about; as opposed to trying to pick my brain (or anybody else’s) and learn what my views really are, so many individuals are content to assume immediately that guys like myself are probably “one of those crazy UFO guys”. On one occasion, while chatting with a physics teacher from a college in Western North Carolina, the fellow admitted to me that he actually preferred to use cynicism around “paranormalists” as opposed to honest, probing skepticism. This had been just prior to a series of lectures we gave at a weekend festival we were both attending. I wasn’t very surprised when, later that same day, this gentleman stood up and attempted to “debunk” a presentation I had given earlier on the Brown Mountain Lights, in which I discussed the theory proposed by my buddy Joshua P. Warren that these bizarre Earth-lights are likely nothing more than ball lightning-like plasma activity. To my amazement, the fellow proceeded to use video footage created by associates of mine in his presentation (without asking permission, I might add). To add insult to injury, once he finally revealed his “expert analysis” of what the Brown Mountain Lights were, my jaw dropped… with a straight face, he stood there and told us he had determined that they were ball lightning! Deja vu, to say the least!
If I were the skeptic giving the presentation (shoes I have indeed filled before), and a “wacko UFO guy” had just presented a theory that drew many of the same conclusions as mine, I would initially try and embrace their knowledge base, and try and confirm that we had reached our similar conclusions by observing, scientifically, the same patterns or similar data. Instead, it seems that many would rather engage in territorial “pee-pee matches” with people they presume to be the enemy. We witness this phenomenon all the time on internet message forums also, where people who are clearly too intimidated to get out and have open discussions and debates among friends resort to plotting minuscule “attacks” against other users, taking advantage of being able to plan and research what they’ll say in their replies prior to posting, as well as hiding behind the pleasant ambiguity of user-names and never having to meet the folks whom they’ll be trash-talking.
But placing all my ranting on the subject aside, since this site tends to focus on an open-ended approach to observing and interpreting various strange phenomenon, I felt it was high time I detail clearly a few aspects of skepticism which can be useful, especially with regard to Ufology in this case. This month’s issue of Skeptical Inquirer Magazine features a piece by James McGaha, director of the Grasslands Observatory, Tucson, Arizona, as well as a pilot and retired U.S. Air Force major, who outlines what he deems “The Trained Observer of Unusual Things in the Sky (UFOs?)”. A note provided by the Editor first clarifies that “Unfortunately, UFO reports seldom if ever come from anyone really knowledgeable in trained observation of the skies and unusual phenomena. Nor do they come from those who understand perceptual issues and how beliefs and expectations can influence the interpretation of unidentified phenomena. People often think pilots and police officers are trained observers in these regards, but experience has repeatedly shown that they are not.”
According to McGaha’s specifications, a good observer has various skills, knowledge, experience, and abilities that allow critical analysis of things observed in the sky (or anyplace, ideally). McGaha states that a reliable observer has to be capable of
a) observing without prejudice (being mindful of how belief can tarnish one’s perception)
b) accurately record phenomenon being observed, and
c) evaluate the collected data
In the article, McGaha gives “basic astronomical, psychological, and perceptual knowledge needed to identify a UFOby