Prosaic Explanations: The Failure Of UFO Skepticism

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"If I had found even a single case that defied prosaic explanation, I would have rushed to my typewriter (now my PC) to write the most exciting story ever published by Aviation Week & Space Technology Magazine."
-in a letter from Philip J. Klass to Dr. Eugene Mallove

Could some UFO sightings actually be manifestations of Other Intelligences (OIs) or Non-Human Intelligences (NHIs) such as extraterrestrials (ETs), visiting the earth and interacting with human beings? Or are all reports of such sightings simply mistakes, hoaxes, or dreams of the hopeful believers? It all comes down to explanation. If there were no sightings which are richly detailed, credible, and yet unexplainable, the UFO subject would be based totally on "will-,o the wisp-like, indistinct observations or on theoretical expectations, as is the so-called Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). SETI is based on the theory that we could detect electromagnetic radiation, such as radio waves or light, that is radiated toward us, intentionally or unintentionally, by extraterrestrial civilizations.

If all the richly detailed sighting reports had reasonable explanations, then theoretical speculations about ET intelligences visiting the earth might be interesting but of little practical consequence. Ufology, if there were such a thing in the absence of unexplainable sightings, would consist of studying witnesses who, evidently, failed to identify explainable (identifiable) phenomena or who simply made up "tall stories" about ET visitation. "Ufological science," if it existed under these circumstances, would consist of psychology, psychiatry and perhaps sociology.

There are skeptics who believe that this is exactly what should constitute ufology.

Noted UFO skeptic Philip J. Klass has provided perhaps the most straightforward statement of the skeptic's position on UFO sightings in his book UFOs: the Public Deceived (Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY, 1983, pg. 297), wherein he writes that the "Occam's Razor" alternative to unexplained UFO sightings, is this: "...roughly 98% of sightings are simply misidentifications of prosaic, if sometimes unfamiliar, objects by honest persons..(and) ... the balance, roughly 2%, are self-delusions or hoaxes by persons who like to spin tall tales and become instant celebrities." In other words, UFO reports are the results of misidentifications, delusions, and hoaxes, period! More recently he has indicated that in his thirty or so years of investigation he has found not one case for which he could find no "prosaic explanation" (see the quote at the beginning of this article). As evidence of this Mr. Klass has offered prosaic explanations for a number of famous sightings. Of course, Mr. Klass has not attempted to explain each of the hundreds of thousands of sighting reports which have been made over the last half century. However, he has proposed explanations for a representative sample of reports which are classified as "good" by most ufologists and, on this basis, he has generalized his statement to apply to the bulk of the UFO sighting reports.

Mr. Klass claims that he has found "prosaic" explanations for all the reports he has studied. A reader of Mr. Klass' discussions of sightings would likely assume that each prosaic explanation is, in fact, the actual explanation for a particular sighting. At least, that is what the typically logical, but uneducated (in the deep lore of ufology) and trusting reader would infer from Klass' statement. It is also what the generally skeptical scientific community and the news media would infer from Klass' statement. This would be an unfortunate and incorrect inference, as I will show below.

Klass would have the reader believe that he has correctly explained all the sightings he has investigated. If he were correct then his argument about misidentifications, hoaxes, and delusions making up 100% of UFO sightings would be unassailable, at least for the sightings which he has investigated. (One can always imagine that some sighting(s) not investigated by Klass is (are) unexplainable, but that's not the point of this discussion.) However, in some cases he has offered prosaic explanations which are demonstrably wrong. In other cases he has proposed explanations which may not be provably wrong but which are are, at the very least, weak and unconvincing. (Note that in the absence of confirmatory information, it may not be possible to decide whether an explanation is correct, but it is possible to decide whether or not an explanation is convincing.) Hence, whereas Klass' claim (that sightings are all misidentifications, hoaxes and delusions) seems, on the face of it, to be correct (because he has offered prosaic explanations for the all sightings he has investigated), a deeper analysis of his explanations often shows that they are very weak or just plain wrong. One can conclude, then that Klass, claim is, itself wrong and there are sightings which he has investigated but has not actually explained. From the scientific point of view, it is not sufficient to propose explanations. They also have to be demonstrably correct or at the very least, not contradicted by the sighting information.

To say that at least some of Klass' prosaic explanations, even explanations for well publicized sightings, are wrong is a strong statement. However, an even stronger statement can be made: Klass' analysis has demonstrated that at least some of the cases he has investigated have no prosaic explanations. Why is this? Because Klass, having analyzed these cases carefully, has proposed the only potential explanations that remain after all other explanations have been rejected. That is, there are no other potential prosaic explanations that make any sense. Hence, when his proposed explanations are proven wrong there are no remaining candidate explanations and the sighting becomes that of a TRue UFO (TRUFO), which might be evidence of OI/NHI/ET.

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