Prosaic Explanations: The Failure Of UFO Skepticism

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Debunking Rules: "Any Explaination in a Storm"

From studying the approach of the skeptics to explaining just the Arnold sighting, one learns Maccabee's First Rule of Debunking: any published explanation is better than none. The Second Rule is, if the first explanation seems unconvincing or just plain doesn't work, publish another. The Corollary to the Second Rule is (you guessed it!) if that doesn't work try yet another.

The procedure of proposing explanations is part of the scientific approach to explaining UFO sightings. However, simply proposing explanations is not sufficient. It is the "first half" of the method. The other "half" of the method is to test each proposed explanation against the information from the sighting and to decide whether or not it is, at least, convincing (you may not be able to determine whether or not an explanation is correct, but it is possible to determine whether or not it is convincing). Unfortunately Menzel, Klass and other skeptics generally have not carried out this second half of the scientific method. Menzel simply proposed explanations, one after another, as if it were logical to believe that the more prosaic explanations one could offer for a sighting, the more likely it is that the sighting could be (or has been) explained by one of the explanations. This, of course, makes little sense. Each sighting has one and only one explanation. Thus the analyst should pick the best or most convincing explanation out of a collection of potential explanations (by using the complete scientific method on each sighting and rejecting the unconvincing ones) and then publish that explanation and only that explanation. As a "rule of thumb" to help the reader decide whether or not a sighting has been explained, I would suggest that the larger the number of proposed, unconvincing explanations, the less likely it is that the sighting has been explained.

The Fantastic Flight of JAL 1628

Klass followed the scientific procedure when he published his analysis of the Val Johnson case discussed above. Klass clearly stated that the only prosaic explanation was a hoax by officer Johnson, all others having been rejected by the testimony and the hard evidence. He then left it up to the reader to decide whether or not he had made a convincing case for it being a hoax. However, he did not follow the scientific method in his attempt to justify the meteor hypothesis for the Arnold sighting, nor in his analysis of the following sighting that occurred in 1986.

Japan Airlines Captain Kenju Terauchi had been mildly interested in UFOs for years, but didn't get to see one close-up until November 16, 1986. He and two other crew members were flying a 747 Jumbo jet (designated JAL1628) that was transporting a load of wine from Paris to Tokyo (and they didn't have one drop to drink...nor one drink to drop!), when suddenly, while over northeastern Alaska, they were confronted with a startling event: the appearance of two objects or "crafts" right in front of their aircraft. These objects suddenly appeared and maintained a fixed distance, estimated at 1,000 feet, ahead of their aircraft for about ten minutes (they were flying at 35,000 feet at about 600 mph). The captain reported that he felt the sudden occurrence of heat on his face. Each object had two parallel vertical rows of yellowish lights that appeared like exhausts emitting flames. Each object rocked from side to side, and the rocking of the two objects was synchronized. Initially the objects were one above the other (FIGURE 4), but after several minutes they suddenly moved to a side-by-side orientation (FIGURES 5, 6, 7).

They were not recognized as any known aircraft by the crew, which reported the event to the Anchorage, Alaska, Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC). The ARTCC tracked the airplane on radar and tried to detect the objects but was unable to do so. About ten minutes after their initial appearance, these "crafts" suddenly disappeared from ahead of the airplane. Within seconds of the disappearance, the captain noticed a strange light, like a long narrow fluorescent glow, at the left side of the airplane, quite a distance away. He turned on his airplane weather radar and noticed a large radar return about eight miles away in the direction of the faint glow. As the plane flew southward, this light drifted behind the aircraft. Suddenly, a lot more of it became visible (by self- glow or by silhouette) and the captain referred to it as a "gigantic spaceship" (FIGURE 8). This caused the captain to request a decrease in altitude to get away from it. A few minutes later the ARTCC requested that the plane make a circle to see what was behind it. Nothing was seen, but a radar target was detected momentarily behind the aircraft. Subsequently the aircraft was flying southward toward Anchorage when the captain last saw the "gigantic spaceship" far to his left and behind him, that is, roughly north of the aircraft.

The most complete report of this sighting ever published, along with analysis and a discussion of the proposed explanations, is presented in the article entitled "The Fantastic Flight of JAL1628, which appears in the May-June, 1987, issue of the International UFO Reporter (IUR), which is published by the Center for UFO Studies ( An email version is available from the author. The information presented above is a very shortened version of the sighting but it contains enough information to allow a proper evaluation of the "prosaic explanations" proposed and publicized by the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). The sighting occurred in November, 1986. The Federal Aviation Administration announced in early January 1987 that it was going to investigate the sighting because of all the press interest. (This is anomalous by itself since, so far as I know, the FAA had never investigated any sighting before.) Less than a month later, and more than a month before the FAA announced the results of its investigation, CSICOP announced that the sighting had been explained ("UFO Mystery Solved, press release by CSICOP on January 22, 1987, Buffalo, NY).

The press release stated that, "according to a leading UFO investigator (Philip J. Klass) "at least one extraterrestrial object was involved - the planet Jupiter, and possibly another - Mars. The press release asserted that at the time of the sighting Jupiter was "extremely bright at a -2.6 magnitude and would have been about ten degrees above the horizon on the left side of the aircraft where the pilot first reported seeing the UFO. Mars would have been slightly lower and about twenty degrees to the right of Jupiter. According to the press release, "Although the very bright Jupiter and less bright Mars had to be visible to JAL Capt. Kenjyu Terauchi, the pilot never once reported seeing either - only a UFO that he described as being a white and yellow, light in his initial radio report to the Federal Aviation Administration controllers at Anchorage.

The press release could have mentioned, but did not, that Terauchi did report seeing numerous stars in the sky, city lights, and a glow of sunset in the west.

The CSICOP explanation was based mostly on Klass, interpretation of an early version of the transcript of the audio tape made at the Anchorage ARTCC. The radar tracking data were not made available until over a month later, so Klass had no information on the precise locations and flight directions of the plane at the times of the various sighting events. Therefore, he couldn't prove that Jupiter and Mars were in the locations or sighting directions (relative to the airplane) that he stated in the press release. On the other hand, there were rather explicit descriptions and drawings by the captain which had been widely publicized and which certainly were available to Klass but apparently he ignored them.

Klass made a major error in not waiting for the release of the complete information package by the FAA, because, if he had waited, he would have found that the publicized versions of the sighting were quite close to the descriptions of the "crafts" that were given by the crew during interviews. These descriptions rule out Jupiter and Mars as possible causes of the sighting. Without the FAA data package he did not know that initial drawings (FIGURES 4 and 5) were made only about two hours after the event. Nor did he know that the other crew members, in separate interviews, supported the captain,s report of the objects that appeared in front of the plane. Nor did he know that at the beginning of the sighting the two crafts were almost directly ahead of the plane and not in the direction of Jupiter and Mars. Nor did he know about the sudden rearrangement of the relative positions of the objects from one above the other to one beside the other, a maneuver that Jupiter and Mars would have difficulty carrying out during the time of the sighting (!). Nor did he know that at the end of the sighting, while the plane was flying southward, nearly toward Jupiter and Mars, that the pilot reported the "gigantic spacecraft was behind and to the left, in a direction nearly opposite to the direction to the planets.

The CSICOP press release discussed and rejected the FAA and Air Force radar detections. Curiously, however, it completely ignored the claim by the pilot that the airplane radar did detect a radar-reflective object at seven to eight miles in the direction of the UFO. Perhaps Klass rejected this claim, but if he had waited for the data package from the FAA, he would have learned that the other two members of the crew confirmed the pilot,s statement about the radar detection.

Thus, the Jupiter-Mars explanation is contradicted by the sighting directions to the UFO at various times, by the descriptions of the crew members, and by the airplane radar detection. (Another "prosaic explanation" bites the dust!) Unfortunately, the "gullible press did not know that at the time. The explanation was widely publicized. It made the captain look like an idiot, but as far as the press was concerned, that,s OK. Only idiots report UFOs. Having done their duty the news media promptly forget about the sighting. (Note: Terauchi was a senior captain at the time but he was temporarily grounded after the press reports of his sighting.)

In retrospect it appears that the CSICOP press release which was marked "FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE" should have been marked "FOR PREMATURE RELEASE".

The FAA finally did make a public report on the sighting on March 5, 1988 ("FAA Releases Documents on Reported UFO Sighting Last November, by Paul Steucke, Office of Public Affairs, Alaskan Region, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), U.S. Department of Transportation, March 5, 1987, Anchorage, AK). This report concentrated on the controversy over the radar detections or non-detections by the ARTCC. It did not discuss the airplane radar detection nor did it discuss the visual sightings. It basically said that the ground radar did not support the claim of a sighting. This was not, of course, the same as saying there was no sighting, but the national press presented the FAA investigation results as if they proved there was no sighting.

The most important result of the FAA investigation was a data package which the FAA made available. This included radar data listing the exact airplane locations, headings and speed, the complete transcript of the ARTCC audio tape of the event and all the transcipts of the interviews with the crew members and air traffic controllers. With this data package anyone could have analyzed the sighting and concluded that Mars and Jupiter were not the solution.

Apparently that is exactly what Klass concluded after my detailed article was published by the Center for UFO Studies, because several months later CSICOP published another explanation (recall Maccabee's Second Rule of Debunking mentioned above). This time it was moonlight on clouds! (Klass, P.J., "FAA Data Sheds New Light on JAL Pilot,s UFO Report, The Skeptical Inquirer, Summer, 1987, Buffalo, NY). Since the moon was low in the eastern sky Klass argued that the "crafts" were explained as reflections of moonlight from the clouds and "turbulent ice crystals. According to Klass, the turbulent ice crystals "could have generated flame-colored lights (he didn't explain how) and "this would also explain why the undulating lights would periodically and suddenly disappear and then reappear as cloud conditions ahead changed. When the aircraft finally outflew the ice clouds and the initial UFO, disappeared for good (the Captain) would search the sky for it, spot Jupiter further to the left and conclude it was the initial UFO. Klass attributed the airplane radar sighting to "an echo from thin clouds of ice crystals.

Klass,s explanation verges on scientific garbage. Although the crew reported there were thin clouds far below the plane there is no reason to suppose that moonlight reflected off ice crystals in these clouds would generate "flame colored lights. Klass, explanation certainly could not account for the heat which Terauchi felt on his face. Nor would it explain the peculiar parallel arrays of flames or yellowish lights (illustrated in detail in FIGURES 6 and 7) associated with two independently flying objects that appeared ahead of and above the plane, continuously for many minutes. Nor would it explain the sudden rearranging of these arrays of lights. According to Klass, the reflection from crystals could explain the colors of the lights. However, the reflected light would be basically the color of the moonlight. A variation in color would occur only if the moonlight were "broken into its spectrum by refraction of light in the crystals (similar to what happens with rain and a rainbow). But the spectrum of white light contains more than just the yellow, amber and green which were reported. Blue and red should also have been noted if the air crew were looking at what would essentially be a "rainbow.

The lights ahead of the aircraft were described as bright. The copilot compared them to headlights of oncoming aircraft. A reflection of the moon from thin clouds would cover large areas of cloud and would be dim, diffuse, or "patchy, but not point-like. Klass, explanation for the airplane radar target is total conjecture on his part since the clouds were reported by the crew to be thin. Would there be any return at all from such clouds? One might ask, if there were so many clouds, why didn,t the radar pick up numerous "blobby returns on the right side and ahead of the aircraft as well as on the left where the "gigantic spaceship appeared to be. And, of course, Klass, explanation does not account for the appearance of a "gigantic spaceship.

The bottom line is that Klass proposed two prosaic explanations for this sighting but neither explanation was correct. Each one failed for physical reasons when compared with the information in the sighting report. The fact that he was able to propose seemingly reasonable prosaic explanations was valuable from the standpoint of publicity for the skeptical viewpoint and debunking sightings, but it was useless from the point of view of scientific analysis of UFO sightings. This sighting, along with those of officer Johnson, Kenneth Arnold, and A.C. Urie remain unexplained and, in my opinion, will remain unexplained.

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© copyright B. Maccabee, 2000. All rights reserved.