Grey Matters: Erroneous at Exeter

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“I, Norman J. Muscarello, was hitchhiking on Rt. 150, three miles south of Exeter, New Hampshire, at 0200 hours on the 3rd of September. A group of five bright red lights appeared over a house about a hundred feet from where I was standing. The lights were in a line at about a sixty-degree angle.

They were so bright, they lighted up the area. The lights then moved out over a large field and acted at times like a floating leaf. They would go down behind the trees, behind a house and then reappear. They always moved in the same sixty-degree angle.

Only one light would be on at a time. They were pulsating: one, two, three, four, five, four, three, two, one. They were so bright I could not distinguish a form to the object. I watched these lights for about fifteen minutes and they finally disappeared behind some trees and seemed to go into a field.

At one time while I was watching them, they seemed to come so close I jumped into a ditch to keep from being hit. After the lights went into a field, I caught a ride to the Exeter Police Station and reported what I had seen.

signed,

Norman J. Muscarello

This statement comes from one of the most infamous cases in UFOlogy, the subject of John G Fuller’s classic “Incident at Exeter”. Hailed as one of the great unsolved cases, until recently. In the The November/December 2011 issue of Skeptical Inquirer, Senior Research Fellow for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) Joe Nickell claims to have solved the cold case with the help of former military pilot James McGaha.

Their shared epiphany came from the witness’ description of the five red lights,”…  pulsating: one, two, three, four, five, four, three, two, one.” In Nickell’s article, ‘Exeter Incident’ Solved! A Classic UFO Case, Forty-Five Years ‘Cold’, they relate the description with that of the light array on the KC-97 Stratotanker refueling plane, postulating that the light panel on the underside of the fuselage reflected off of the refueling boom, which happens to hang at approximately 60 degrees, the same orientation as Muscarello’s  UFO.

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Left: As the photo appeared in the print publication. Right: The photo as it appeared in the online article.

Fortunately, I read the article online, and was tipped off by the picture. Something looked fishy about that light panel.

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So I looked around online and found a more suitable photo of the panel. Not only do we see that the middle light is blue, but the two foremost lights have “DWN” and “FWD” labeling, leading me to believe that each light signifies a command to the refueling aircraft, aiming it into position to dock with the fuel boom of the KC97, contradicting the idea that they would flash in the “ one, two, three, four, five, four, three, two, one” sequence described in the report.
There are several other flaws in Nickell’s solution, though I believe it can be thrown out in regard to only the aforementioned. Before I get ahead of myself, I want to discourage the readers from drawing any wild conclusions. With the dismissal of this explanation, I am not suggesting that the object witnessed was, in fact, an alien craft, but only that it has once again avoided identification. The point I wish to make is that we should all be wary to brazenly declare something identified without adequate evidence, whether that be alien craft or, in this case, a solved case. As a skeptic, I require sufficient evidence to believe a claim and therefore try to refrain from making bold assertions. Declaring this case solved places the burden of proof upon Mr. Nickell and unfortunately, the proof fell short. I say unfortunately because I can see a number of repercussions resulting from this error. Namely, this being used as “evidence” of the object’s unearthly origins. Sadly, to some, unidentified or mysterious often translates to supernatural.

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Grey Matters: Erroneous at Exeter

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

Lies, Damn Lies & Statistics