I don’t know what this thing in Stephenville, TX, is. Ergo it’s a Mystery. Photo (cc) Broken Piggy Bank.
If you haven’t been following the press reports, there’s been a UFO flap in Stephenville. The best write-up of it I’ve seen is by Astroprof, who’s put up a couple of entries on it. He’s of the opinion that first it’s unidentified. He also argues that the witness statements don’t add up. For instance can anyone see the problem of a UFO one mile long, half a mile wide, flying just a few hundred yards above a town of 17,000 people and only 30 people noticing? I think there’s a few difficulties in saying that people saw a UFO like that. At the same time that doesn’t mean that the people who did see something were delusional or lying.
Newsweek opens its article on the flap by placing the event in the context of evolutionary history. Humans are social animals and for most of the past we’ve also been hunted animals. We’ve needed to learn to spot intent. The psychology behind that doesn’t have to be perfect. There’s a compromise between speed and quality of judgement. Spotting intent where there isn’t may have a penalty, but failing to spot intent where it is could be fatal. There can also be penalties if you take time for reflection. Our brains may still hold the software that knows hanging around to watch a sabre-tooth tiger does before it attacks is a Bad Idea. That would be triggered again if you think you’re being observed by intelligent and powerful beings of unknown intent. The people who have seen UFOs, of various types, around Stephenville are not idiots or conmen, they’re simply being human.
Astroprof’s follow-up post is interesting because it tackles the intellectual bankruptcy of simply throwing up your hands and exclaiming “It’s a mystery!” One of the UFOs is photographed and the photographer did a great job. It’s good enough to be able to see that it’s a sundog. The misidentification is not the fault of photographer. We’re growing more detached from the natural world. It explains the irony that Pliny the Elder knew more about sundogs than many modern journalists do today, despite the benefit of 2000 years of research. What Texan journalists have which the Romans didn’t have (nor the Peruvians in the puna) is access to scientists who have spent years studying phenomena. You’d think that the local paper in Texas could do better, but for some reason it doesn’t.
The Fort Worth Star-Tribune report that went with the report is poor. Laughably poor if you don’t live near Fort Worth. What happens if you want to report an apparition of spirits for a newspaper? Obviously you interview the witness, and the Star-Tribune does this. You can also interview the local witch-doctors. The Star-Tribune interviews MUFON, a UFO network which knows Our Universe is TEEMING with LIFE, but hasn’t got round to claiming the Randi million yet. It doesn’t mean they’re not interesting people. It doesn’t mean they should not be interviewed. It’s simply that something is missing.
You could also interview a scientist. Even an undergraduate in meteorology could be a help. There’s no comment from a scientist in the Star-Tribune. Why? It could be that scientists aren’t accessible in Fort Worth, which might be Texas’ contribution to the Third World. It could be that a large proportion of the editorial staff are scientifically illiterate. If they didn’t know that the picture was scientifically explicable then it wouldn’t occur to them to talk to a scientist. If that’s the case the paper needs to send reporters for training as soon as possible. The final option paints the Star-Tribune in a worse light. The paper could think that its readers don’t need or can’t cope with basic scientific information. That would be tremendous signal of contempt for the reader.
The cynical response is there is money to be made. The longer people are ignorant the longer it’s a story and the longer the period money can be made. Deliberately ignoring or withholding simple information also shows contempt for the people of Stephenville. If there is money being made, very few of the citizen of the town will see it. The papers will sell adverts, if it catches on television companies will sell programmes. None of this is about finding answers. It’s about planting fear somewhere else to make a quick buck.
It’s also about going “Oooh mystery!” without ever contemplating what mystery means. It’s not a mystery that something is unexplained if you choose to be ignorant. True mysteries are things which have defied explanations so far. Despite efforts dating back to Plato, at least, people have been trying to work out if life could exist beyond the earth. So far the answer has remained unknown despite every intellectual assault anyone could through at it. In contrast simply declaring a mystery unknowable and giving up research can only generate a very limp enigma.
Finally it’s about a narrow and parochial view of the universe. The existence of alien life is a mystery. It may exist, it may not. Either way if we find the answer it will be one of the great discoveries of all time. But if you actually look for answers you can find more mystery. Wouldn’t you like to know what conditions make visions of phantom suns? Aren’t you curious to know if your rational self is still haunted by its Palaeolithic origins? What’s happening in Stephenville is interesting. It would be a shame if they only ever got a one-dimensional parody of an answer.