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Close encounters of the skeptical kind

Like many other scientists, I have been accused by True Believers of ignoring 'evidence' for UFOs.

Daniel Caton

Special to The Observer

Published: Tuesday, October 6, 1998


Page 13A

"Have you ever seen anything in the sky that you didn't recognize?"

This is one of the most common questions I get when I have the opportunity to show the stars to a group. There is usually a gleam in the questioner's eye, a reflection of the hope that there is something out there we are keeping secret. So, have I seen anything outside the usual?

Well, actually, yes. Thrice.

Like many other scientists, I've been accused by True Believers of ignoring the 'evidence' for UFOs. However, the important difference between my sightings and theirs is not the sighting but the reaction. Skepticism instead of obsession. There is a difference between an open mind and one that accepts all theories equally. And, quoting Sagan, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

My first encounter of the First Kind occurred as I was driving home from the observatory late one night. On a straight stretch of road I became aware of a beacon-like light extending up from the horizon about a third the way to the zenith. I slowed the van to a stop and turned off the headlights. Still there. I turned off all the lights and got out. Still there a faint, narrow fan of light, slightly to the south of due west.

I kept it in my sight until I turned south, and picked it up again after resuming my westward travel toward Boone. It stayed off my port bow until lost in the glow of the town. I would sight it on two more occasions, always while alone (thus feeling some of the angst that UFO sighters experience!) My students would kid me about it and call it "Caton's Light."

What was it? I don't know, but I know what it wasn't likely to be: an alien spacecraft, Elvis' return, an angel making a landing. We must apply Occam's Razor the criterion that says that we must accept the simplest explanation that will suffice. It may have been related to the gegenschein an faint glow sometimes seen in the direction opposite the sun. Maybe a distant spotlight or the occasional aurora seen this far south.

It would be fun to figure it out and write it up for a journal article but, in "Skeptical Inquirer" rather than the "National Enquirer." Sadly, like UFOs, Caton's Light is difficult to study since it appeared randomly and not recently.

On the other hand, there are some phenomena that are repeatable enough to investigate. In our area there are the Brown Mountain Lights mysterious luminaries seen from several vantage points around the Linville Gorge. A year ago I began an investigation of this phenomenon, allotting a small amount of time to the project. On the trips so far I've only seen one Light that was unexplainable a soft, bluish horizontal beam clearly under the tree canopy in an area devoid of roads. My second Encounter..

What are these lights? Swamp gas at 3,000 feet? Probably not. Perhaps some kind of geological 'Certs Effect' of stressed rocks (chew some of those wintergreen breath mints in front of a mirror tonight for a glimpse of some physics only recently explored!) Or, some kind of electrostatic discharge, a bigger version of the flash seen when pulling your socks off in the dark on a dry winter night.

Further study may tell, but again, I don't think the Lights are likely to be ET taking a Parkway cruise.

The trouble with this kind of work is that it is difficult to do and brings few rewards. I would not bet tenure or promotions on such speculative research. Yet it is important, not only for whatever knowledge to be gained but to show that science does investigate the 'paranormal.'

The real downside is that after something is proved to be natural or nonsense it will in all likelihood still live on as a legend anyway. What is the point of research if the results are ignored? You simply can't have it both ways if you want us to investigate then you will need to accept our best conclusions until they are overturned that's the game of science.

This is what drives us away from studying and debunking pseudoscience. At least in mainstream science my results will be (rightly) challenged by peers, and on the basis of logical reasoning. Not mocked by those who are arguing from authority ("I say [begin ital]it works[end ital]"), confusing correlations with causality, generalizing from anecdotes, ignoring the bulk of the evidence, and cutting themselves on Occam's Razor.

And my third Encounter? To be continued ...

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