Saturday, July 05, 2008

Seeing is Believing

I know I'll get complaints for deconstructing all that is magical, poetic, spiritual and transcendent in the world, but if this story doesn't make you question the inherent reliability of human perception, and with it the likely veracity of any and all accounts of miraculous and extraterrestrial visitations, then there is nothing more I can do to help you.
Moon mistaken for UFO
By Urmee Khan
Last Updated: 11:17AM BST 05/07/2008

Police in Wales were called to investigate a mysterious flying saucer, only to discover it was the moon.

The confused caller asked: 'If you've got a couple of minutes perhaps you could find out what it is?'

The moon was mistaken for a "bright, stationary" UFO which had been loitering for at least half an hour, by a confused local in South Wales who made a 999 call to the police.

Today officers released a transcript in order to highlight the time wasted by unnecessary 999 calls.

The bizzare conversation ran as follows:

Control: "South Wales Police, what's your emergency?"

Caller: "It's not really. I just need to inform you that across the mountain there's a bright stationary object."

Control: "Right."

Caller: "If you've got a couple of minutes perhaps you could find out what it is? It's been there at least half an hour and it's still there."

Control: "It's been there for half an hour. Right. Is it actually on the mountain or in the sky?"

Caller: "It's in the air."

Control: "I will send someone up there now to check it out."

Caller: "OK."

After the police patrol car arrives, the script reveals the exchange between the control room and the police officer sent to the scene.

Control: "Alpha Zulu 20, this object in the sky, did anyone have a look at it?"

Officer: "Yes, it's the moon. Over."


Blogger Harry Eagar said...

During World War II, mistaking Venus for an attacking Japanese plane was frequent in the Pacific. U.S. ships often opened fire on Venus.

This mistake was made by men who were trained in celestial observation.

When people are keyed up, they tend to see what they are keyed up about.

If they simultaneously engage in practices (like fasting) that interfere with brain function, of course the circuits go swry.

July 05, 2008 10:20 AM  
Blogger David said...

So, the unreliability of our senses means that the positivists are right?

July 05, 2008 12:17 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Luckily, we can reduce the uncertainty of observations by mechanizing them.

Doesn't help with one-time events, like resurrecting from the dead, though.

July 05, 2008 3:34 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

The unreliability of our senses means you shouldn't rely on eyewitness testimony when it comes to miraculous and extraterrestrial visitations.

But of course you already know that David, otherwise you'd be a Christian.

July 06, 2008 7:04 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

We now know we should not rely even on eyewitness testimony of ordinary events on the street.

My very short list of books that every citizen -- at least, every juror -- should know is Elizabeth Loftus' "Eyewitness Testimony."

July 06, 2008 12:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The unreliability of our senses means you shouldn't rely on eyewitness testimony when it comes to miraculous and extraterrestrial visitations.

Why is the caution restricted to those? Every law student is exposed in evidence class to staged classroom disruptions (eg. a woman running in and out of the class chased by a man in a gorilla suit) followed by instructions to write down what they just saw. Everyone writes a different tale. Do you think eyewitnesses who give conflicting evidence are consciously lying? I'm told it has been known to happen in science labs too.

But Duck, the good news is that the magical, poetic, spiritual and transcendent are still alive and well despite this confused and nutty soul.

July 09, 2008 3:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And BTW, what is spiritual or transcendent about UFO's and extra-terrestrial visitations? Aren't they perfectly rational and logical possibilities for those who believe there is nothing unique about the Earth and human life?

July 09, 2008 3:56 AM  
Blogger Duck said...


I don't restrict my skepticism to people's experiences with the supernatural or extraterrestrial. You are very right about the legal problems with eyewitness territory. Even with such skepticism our justice system seen such eruptions of irrationality as the repressed childhood memory quackery and child molestation witch hunts like the McMartin Preschool debacle.

The point I'm making is in reference to Christian or religious apologists who try to persuade one that the sheer fact that many people came to believe that Jesus rose from the dead, and that it was written about is in itself strong evidence that he really did. That is only persuasive based on an assumption that human perception and cognition is largely reliable, or that it its only failings occur in mentally unstable and/or unintelligent people. Every time I read an account like this Welshman's, I like say to myself, or to my pitifully small but highly intelligent and sophisticated audience on the Daily Duck "by this I refute thee!"

The parallel between divine visitation and alien visitation/abduction stories is I think very real. Yes, alien visitations are well within the bounds of a materialist worldview, but the fact that people come to believe they've experienced them when they haven't highlights the same flaws in human perception. And alien myths share parallels with religious myths. Many people see aliens as messianic figures, superior beings that will come to redeem us with their superior knowledge and technology. Groups like the Raelians and the Heaven's Gate blur the distinctions between traditional religions and ET enthusiasms.

July 09, 2008 9:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I know what you are saying, but isn't it amusing that although many of our most sophisticated scientific thinkers hold that the existence of life elsewhere and even other civilizations is highly probable (to the point they keep trying to search for and contact them), only religious nutcases actually encounter them?

July 10, 2008 6:17 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I don't know whether the existence of other advanced civilizations is highly probable or not. Where's the evidence for drawing a conclusion? The Drake equation is almost all unknowns, several of which could have the value 0.

However, there is good evidence for thinking that, even if they exist, it is highly improbable that they are visiting us.

Even less probable that they would do so in secret.

And even less probable than that that they would behave as the alien encounterers describe.

We are getting almost, but not quite, into the realm of the improbability that a man whose existence is unattested rose from the dead.

No one, I think, disputes the existence of spiritual values. Just whether they are external or internal.

July 10, 2008 2:03 PM  
Blogger Duck said...


Yes, I admit that I find it amusing. Nutcasery is not limited to the religious. There are many secular nutcases out there.

But I'm not even saying that the Welshman is a nutcase. I've made serious perceptual errors myself, but luckily none of them ever caught the attention of the press. The point is that perceptual error is a normal human condition, not something restricted to the lunatic fringe.

July 10, 2008 9:51 PM  

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