Lies, Damn Lies & Statistics

UFOlogy can be considered a fuzzy term. In one aspect, it could refer to the study of the abstract concept of UFOs as a cultural phenomenon. More commonly, it describes the study of an unsupported claim, that unidentified flying objects are (occasionally) alien space craft. The larger figures of this field would argue that this is not, in fact, an unsupported claim, endorsed by mountains of collected data. And their numbers DO seem impressive. In the case of Project Blue Book, a study conducted by the USAF from 1952 -1970, a staggering 22% of the 3200 cases were deemed “unknown”. but are these numbers substantial? Project Blue Book and more specifically, Project Blue Book special report 14 are frequently cited as solid evidence for the existence of alien spacecraft, yet mainstream science is not convinced. Are scientists simply not looking at the evidence or are the proponents of UFOlogy cherry-picking?

In December of 1951, US air force captain Edward J Ruppelt, the first director of Blue Book, met with members of the Battelle Memorial institute, A Columbus, Ohio based think- tank, in an effort to make the study “more scientific”. The Battelle group evaluated over two thousand reports and classified them into four categories: Doubtful, Poor, Good, and Excellent based on the following factors:

1. The experience of the observer deduced from his occupation, age, and training

2.The consistency among the separate portions of the description of the sighting

3. the general quality and completeness of the report

4. Consideration of the observer’s fact- reporting ability and attitude, as disclosed by his manner of describing the sighting.

the resulting figures of the mentioned categories are:

Doubtful produced 13% unknowns

Poor- 16.6% unknown

Good-24.8%

Excellent- 33.3%

These are very provocative results and they didn’t go unnoticed by flying saucer proponents, such as Stanton Friedman. In many of his lectures and interviews, he claims that if only the “debunkers” (skeptics) actually read special report 14, they would have the evidence they ask for. But does this study support the extraterrestrial hypothesis?

The Battelle group didn’t seem to think so, as written in the report:
“…the danger lies in the possibility of forgetting the subjectivity of the data at the time that conclusions are drawn from the analysis. It must be emphasized, again and again, that the conclusions contained in this report are based NOT on facts, but on what many observers thought and estimated the true facts to be.”

This seems a little strange coming from the “holy grail” of ufologists. More so from the study’s conclusion:

“It is emphasized that there was a complete lack of any valid evidence consisting of physical matter in any case of a reported unidentified aerial object.

Thus, the probability that any of the UNKNOWNS considered in this study are “flying saucers: is concluded to be extremely small, since the most complete and reliable reports from the present data, when isolated and studied, conclusively failed to reveal even a rough model, and since the data as a whole failed to reveal any marked patterns or trends.

Therefore, on the basis of this evaluation of the information, it is considered to be highly improbable that any of the reports of unidentified aerial objects examined in this study represent observations of technological developments outside the range of present day scientific knowledge.”

When all is said and done, you have a very subjective report on what could be, at best, described as UNKNOWN occurrences. This is to say, if it is possible to determine who is a reliable witness in the event of a UFO sighting, but how is one more adept at such a thing than others? Are there certain professions or personal characteristics that mitigate or even eliminate the tendencies of misinterpretation, exaggeration, or false memory? It’s the UFOlogist that makes the leap, connecting UNKNOWN with alien space craft, being that there is no supportive evidence of such a connection. The only mystery left here is how anyone could make such an assumption based on the information contained in Blue book special report 14. Surprisingly enough, the report speculated on this phenomenon as well:

Could it be that UFOlogists are being taken in by a handful of the more exciting cases and running with them or is there more merit to the UNKNOWN cases than the report give credit?

In an effort to establish a standard “flying saucer model” the group re-evaluated the 434 best unknowns and produced a sort of top 12 list. Included in this list are such cases as:

While a few of the other cases did, in fact, appear to be more saucer-like in nature, in one way or another, each case failed to meet the standards of the report. As mentioned in the introduction, the data was very subjective and it is unknown in each case how much time may have elapsed before the accounts of each event were written down and submitted to the study, not to mention the fact that this entire report is based only on anecdotal evidence. A hard pill to swallow for any rational mind.

So, remember not to be taken in by impressive sounding statistics, because they are usually being twisted to bolster a weak argument. And in the case of Flying saucers, remember that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and a few figures from a half- century old report does not extraordinary evidence make.

References:

http://www.ufocasebook.com/pdf/specialreport14.pdf

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Lies, Damn Lies & Statistics

Standard Deviation

While I believe myself to have been careful in the process of creating and writing the Bent Spoon, with the intent of offering objective and open- minded views of the paranormal, I have come across a number of obstacles, which face every skeptic, that I

by Nick Callis

thought I should address and I wish both fellow skeptics and believers to consider before making any judgements on any particular paranormal topic. First of which is presupposition and bias, which I believe stems directly from the arrogance of the individual, whichever side of the fence they may inhabit.  This behaviour may, in fact, be unavoidable, for I struggle with it every time look at a new UFO photo or the latest viral poltergeist video. My immediate, gut reaction is that it is fake. While I have trained myself not to act on this instinct, I feel that it can’t ever be suppressed. Without speaking for everyone else, I will simply say that it is MY nature. By simply looking at a photo or online video, I cannot truly make a valuable judgment without supportive evidence and unfortunately, that is hard to come by. While this, by no means, equates as anything close to acceptable proof of the paranormal, I cannot rightly dismiss its nature. I can only state that I don’t know. This is a phrase that paranormal investigators should become comfortable with. “I don’t  know.”
This brings me to my second point, which is jumping to a final conclusion prematurely. In other words, referring to a case as solved. Unfledged debunking is becoming a common sight in my circles and unfortunately, other people are running with the conclusions, copy/ pasting more and more, until it’s become the official solution.

Image

To illustrate, we have what appears to be a photograph of a ghost. (If you are familiar with this photo, bear with me) Some may say that it’s clearly photoshoped, others might claim that it’s a case of pariedolia caused by a spider/ tent caterpillar’s web or a plume of smoke, and others may very well believe that this is a genuine full- bodied apparition.

Now without the remaining photos from this set, any of the above explanations are as good as the next, though some are more likely than others, yet none of the above are correct, as seen below:

ImageThese types of knee- jerk assumptions have become all too routine and they often result in vain dismissal, but does the end justify the means? Is a half -assed solution justified so long as you can cry “debunked” at the end of the day?

The fact of the matter is, with most cases, after- the- fact analysis is insufficient. Incidents of alleged paranormal activity occur in uncontrolled environments with innumerable variables to account for. The idea of ruling out the ordinary, thereby  leaving the extraordinary doesn’t logically work. To make a claim from either perspective is simply speculation without proper evidence to support that claim. Most cases will eventually have to boil down to what is “most likely” and mundane explanations will always trump supernatural ones. If you favor the supernatural solution, then the burden of proof lies on you to prove it and if we skeptics ask for conclusive proof then we owe it to the rest of the crowd to give the same.

Standard Deviation

Progression

by Nicholas Callis

Say I am in my bedroom and I want to go to the kitchen. The most efficient path, being a straight line, is obstructed by a wall. Let’s also say that I am… inexperienced in traversing my home. I plot my kitchen- bound course and, of course, I am impeded by the wall. What is my next plan of action? Continuing on my path, I can by no means make any progress to the kitchen.
As absurd as this analogy is, there is a parallel to modern ghost hunting. The assortment of tools and techniques used by the majority of paranormal investigators is fully known to be found lacking, to say the least. So why not abandon the K2 meters and digital thermometers? Why continue talking to dictaphones and “going dark”? It’s time we give up the ghost, so to speak, and make a course adjustment in the field of paranormal investigation.

While many make the claim, I have yet to see a ghost hunting team employ the scientific method. But why, you might ask, would we use the scientific method when investigating phenomena outside the realm of science? Well, to those who would ask this, know that the term paranormal does not mean outside the realm of science, but maybe more precisely, seemingly outside the realm. You see, by claiming that it is, indeed, outside of science’s reach, you are making leap of judgement about a phenomenon that has no true characteristics that have been documented or established by the field at large.
The reader should also be aware that the term science does not represent a body of knowledge, but a method of pursuing truth. An endeavour that I would assume appeals to all ghost hunters.

So, where does it all begin then? How do we tackle these extraordinary claims using science? Simple, We employ a Null Hypothesis! A null hypothesis is a prediction made by the investigator that they try to disprove or nullify. So, for example, instead of beginning an investigation by deliberately seeking the paranormal explanation, instead propose that all the claims are the effect of natural causes. Then you simply create tests to either confirm or reject your proposal. k2 meters and digital voice recorders don’t come into play. And why should they? There is no empirical evidence to support their use and so, should be discarded.

The next step is creating and performing tests to disprove your prediction. This would entail creating events and circumstances that would produce the effect of the paranormal claim. If they are successful, you will have supported your hypothesis that the phenomena was indeed natural. Of course, we should keep in mind that unexplained does not mean unexplainable. In other words, if your tests fail, it is still unwise to jump to the paranormal conclusion, since you may not have all of the factors at your disposal. Whatever caused the phenomena in question took place in an uncontrolled environment, so there are bound to be lurking variables that you cannot possibly account for. The most important thing to know is that it’s OK to say “I don’t know”.

Finally, we come to the results and what to do with them. Instead of pouring over hours of audio and video, searching for anomalies, publish your collected data (consisting of the claims, your hypothesis, and your tests) to a blog or your team’s facebook page so that your peers and colleagues can review and repeat the tests you created and add valuable input to your investigation.

Hopefully I’ve made a case for progression in paranormal research. While I understand that it may be hard to reject the familiar form of “tradition” in ghost hunting, we should all make sure not to trade what is rational for ritual.

Progression

A Picture of Paranormal Fraud

There is a paranormal group that goes by the name of Ghosts of New England Research Society.  G.O.N.E.R.S, for short.  Recently, they began publicizing a hoaxed ghost photo as authentic.  They have also been using the hoax, in part, to promote an episode of the Discovery Channel series “American Haunting” that they’ll be featured on this fall.

Understandably, this has gotten a number of people in the paranormal community up in arms.  Fraudulent ghost photos are something most investigators decry and, indeed, it was skeptical paranormal investigators themselves who spotted the fraud in the first place.

ImageThe photo, taken at Ryder’s on Main, a bar and restaurant in Meridan, CT shows the hazy silhouette of what G.O.N.E.R.S calls “The Holy Grail of Paranormal Research:  A Full Body apparition of what appears to be a women in 1920s-30s period attire…”  Of course, anyone familiar with famous ghost photos recognized this image as the well-documented “Madonna of Bachelor’s Grove” taken at the Chicago cemetery by members of the Ghost Research Society in the summer of 1991.  It had simply been superimposed on a photo taken inside Ryder’s on Main by way of photoshop or perhaps even a smartphone app.

Skeptical paranormal investigator Kenny Biddle who, in full disclosure, must also be noted as a contributor to The Bent Spoon, first spotted the forgery on Facebook, drawing attention to the striking similarities between the images and quickly swayed opinion.  While many on the thread were originally hyping it up as a great piece of evidence, they soon turned to castigating the paranormal team in question for using it to market themselves.

Image
The story soon went viral and Ghosts of New England Research Society took the image down, apparently not commenting publicly on the matter.  Many in the paranormal community have taken this incident to be the prime example why paranormal investigation is not accepted by the scientific mainstream.  Even Brian Harnois, former cast member of the longest running fraudulent paranormal reality series on television, Ghost Hunters, said it is incidents like this that caused him to retire from the field.

In defense of G.O.N.E.R.S, it is unclear whether they hoaxed the photo themselves, or were duped by the bar/restaurant.  Either way, however, the paranormal team is culpable.  They should have known how famous the Bachelor’s Grove image is, for one.  Secondly, they should not have publicized and promoted the photo from Ryder’s on Main to get attention for their upcoming television exposure.  They fell into a trap they set themselves with their own ignorance.

But is this really the cause of paranormal investigation not being taken seriously by science?  Is fraud really the reason ghost hunters don’t get more credit from the scientific establishment?  I think not.  Fraud happens in science as well.  Things like peer review help eliminate it, something most paranormal enthusiasts don’t seem to use.  But even having examples of fraud throughout the history of science gives no one logical license to distrust the scientific process.  It has worked for hundreds of years.

No, the reason ghost hunters are not taken seriously by science is because they do not respect science.  Ghost hunters, by and large, have a fundamental misunderstanding of how to operate under proper scientific methodologies or even to control their experiments.  The evidence they put forth is not given credibility because it isn’t evidence.  At best, it is often just anomalies they found on their digital voice recorders or readings they took on their EMF meters.  Anomalies which, by the way, have been explained countless times by science-based investigators.

If there’s a lesson that can be learned from Ghosts of New England Research Society, it is this:  your photographs are not proof of ghosts.  But it can be proof that you don’t seem to know what you are doing.  So, if you want to be taken seriously by science, start taking science seriously and educate yourselves.

A Picture of Paranormal Fraud