17 January 2008

NPR's Crappy, Credulous UFO story.

Yesterday my daughter and I were driving to the store and listening to NPR. One moment the airwaves are full of the typical sober coverage I've come to depend on (it was after all the nationally aired NPR and not that bullshit interconnect from Oxford) then suddenly it was like I was listening to Art Bell. For those of you who don't know who Art Bell is he has had a radio show in which he credulously and breathlessly reports on any paranormal anecdote as if that were evidence for said paranormal claim.

My NPR! What the hell? A silky voiced reporter, a bit of the gloat in his voice, told the story of a small texan town in which several citizens witnessed UFOs. Allegedly the reports of the citizenry were independent. Maybe they were, but in a town with only one reporter, doesn't the possiblity that witnesses communicated bear at least a little skeptical investigation? Our man on the scene, Wade Goodwin never seems to ask, or want to ask what meterological experts might have to say about the sightings? What about astronomers? What do they think? Wade never mentions common observer errors made by laymen when looking at the sky. As a reporter he is content to take the story at face value, and bask in the absurdity of it all.
"I tell ya, the lights were moving, and banking faster than any jet." Said one witness.
"There were these yellow lights hovering....maybe 3000 feet up. Then they disappeared and a bit later there was yellow light."
There were other accounts, that may or may not be true. What's important to me is that the quality of the reporting was so lacking. In fact it was worthless.

Humans are not terribly good observers of phenomena with which they are unfamiliar. Much of the literature describeing UFO sightings boils down to observer error. That is when it isn't outright fraud. That NPR decided to report so sloppily on this is somewhat disheartening because it will do a great deal to reduce rational discussion.
And phrases like, "eerily reminscient of" other accounts have no place in a sober report. More than this the intrepid reporter Wade Goodman (doesn't that sound a name that belongs to a 1950s sci-fi movie) credulously reports that no one came forward until after the initial article in the local paper came out. Surely no one could inspired to make up up a sighting after such a story. Goodman doesn't even mention this. Then he goes on to say that all the witness accounts were the same. However in the report the accounts are not the same. The first witness sees a fiery red glow, then his son says red lights, then white lights. Every account reported by the less than industrious Mr. Goodman is different from the one that came before it. There was a red glow. No the next story reports white strobing lights, then another says yellow strobing lights.
All of this adds up to well lighted bullshit. I'm shocked that the reporter couldn't be bothered to even try to find a more prosaic explanation for what some of these people might have seen. What atmospheric phenomena might be accountable for the effects describe. Exhaust the known before jumping to the novel, and implausible.

It seems incredibly likely that life exists on other planets in this galaxy, and almost certainly in universe. The math is simply on the side of such a possiblity. The ubiquity of the raw materials of life, and number of planets on which life could evolve seems to staggeringly great to be over come. A brief reveiw of the numbers might help. There are about 10^11 galaxies in the universe, and each one has an average of 10^11 stars in each one. Thats 10^22 stars in the known universe. Given the ease at which we can induce the production of self-replicating molecules from raw materials, it seems-as a thought experiment- that the probablities favor life existing elsewhere. Almost no matter how conservative your estimate is it is bound to come up with a Universe that is teeming. So why haven't he been asked to join the United Federation of Planets yet?

Space is a damn big place and there is as yet no reason to suspect that we have been visited by the little green men, or -sadly- transforming alien robots, or any other of our screen imaginings. For starters how would they find us? Our oldest radio communication can't be greater than one hundred years old. That gives any signal we've given a distance of one hundred light years. Not a sufficiently great distance given the vastness of space. The oldest television broadcast of any real power is about 80 or so light years distant. That is less distant still for a signal to have alerted any of our alien neighbors. But even if we did alert them how would they get here? And how soon could we expect them?

The signal's I'm talking about got where they are at the speed of light. This is a very fast speed, but it isn't infinately so. More than that, it seems as if it is the maximum allowable speed in the universe, and never mind the warp drives.

You see the problems in this don't you? First the aliens have to pick up a signal (not an easy task) then mount an immediat expedition. If the aliens are just picking up the signal, it would take them at least 80 years (if they are watching Hitler rant on a tv broadcast) to get here assuming they could travel at speed limit of the cosmos, for our purposes 300,000,000 m/second will do. with out recieving an signal there would be no reason to come at all. We live in a peculiar backwater of the spiral arm of the Milkyway and our planet orbits an unremarkable star. What is the draw for a species looking out at us from the inner Milkyway too distant to have recieved our earliest electromagnetic transmissions? I can't think of anything. Of course my guestimations here depend a great deal on the technological capablities of the alien recieving it, and the prevelance of intelligent life in our galaxy.

We ought to be deeply skeptical of the UFOologists, UFOs and reporters who have left their brains at home when reporting on them. Not only is it unlikely when we examine our universe and local galaxy. It is unlikely such visitation would go un-noticed by the army of ametuer astronomers that go out nightly around the globe. It is that army of ametuers that puts the lie to the vast number of conspiracy theorists that cry cover up. There are just too damn many people outside looking up. There are also no small number of professional astronomers whose careers, and reputation could be made by the discovery of aliens. Why is it that the professionals, and the very able amateurs (who are always discovering things like comets, asteroids, nebulae and other phenomena) can never find these alien visitors?


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