Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Intro to Ufology

"Experiment adds to knowledge, Credulity leads to error." —Anonymous

When sifting through the endless deluge of information that cascades daily through the global communications systems of the human race, seeking those out-of-the-norm, out-of-the-box, not-in-Kansas-anymore incidents for inclusion into the NCSI database(otherwise known as the Omnifariam Diablerie Depositorium, or the O.D.D. files), it is to be expected that during the course of the search we will come across many reports of events that lay within the purvey of that particular brand of Fortrean science known as Ufology [(yoo•foluh•jee), noun].

Ufology is the study of Unidentified Flying Objects--otherwise known as UFOs.  Yes, you heard correctly, we did in fact refer to it as a science.

There is every bit as much reason to refer to Ufology as a science as there is, say, Astronomy.  This may sound utterly ludicrous at first(and we can hear you laughing--yes that's right, you there in the back), but if you will give us a few moments to explain, perhaps we might begin to change your mind.

First, let us take a look at the word science:
"Science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe[...]In modern use, "science" more often refers to a way of pursuing knowledge, not only the knowledge itself."
Science, Wikipedia
So science is, among other things, a method of pursuit of knowledge.  Very well, let us then look at what it means to approach something scientifically--to employ the scientific method:
"Scientific method refers to a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning[...]the chief characteristic which distinguishes a scientific method of inquiry from other methods of acquiring knowledge is that scientists seek to let reality speak for itself, and contradict their theories about it when those theories are incorrect."
Introduction to the Scientific Method, Wikipedia
(For more detail into the definitions of science and the scientific method, the histories of both, and their evolution from their beginnings to the modern era, follow the links to the Wiki articles, both of which are extremely well constructed and referenced.  For the purposes of this article, the quotes above taken from the introductions are sufficient, however.)

Science, then, is a method of pursuit of knowledge, this method being a body of techniques for investigation of phenomena.  These techniques are commonly referred to as the Process Skills of Scientific Inquiry, and are generally listed as follows:
  • Observe
  • Classify
  • Infer
  • Interpret
  • Measure
  • Predict
  • Question
  • Hypothesis
  • Experiment
  • Model Building
A proper scientific investigation would ideally follow this list, beginning with observation and ending with experimentation and model building.

Now, let us consider Astronomy, which we previously stated as comparable to Ufology as a science, thereby contributing to our readers' good health through that best of all medicines, laughter.
Astronomy presents some difficulties for the aspiring scientist, in that it presents some difficulties--and as yet outright impossibilities--in regards to the scientific method.  The phenomena studied by astronomers differs from that of physicists or chemists, because it cannot be brought into the controlled environment of the laboratory.
Out of necessity, astronomers focus primarily on the very first process skill, Observation.  They build hugely delicate and expensive tools to assist them in observing astronomical phenomena.  Should they wish to focus on one particular type of astronomical phenomena, such as supernovas, they must wait for one to occur, in conditions favorable to them and their instruments for observing it.
Astronomers do employ many of the other process skills of course.  They classify, infer and interpret and measure, make predictions, and formulate questions and hypothesis.  Lacking the ability to experiment, however, greatly impairs the ability of astronomers to solidify their knowledge base, because they cannot demonstrate principles through repeatable controlled experiments.
Instead, they must wait for the universe to supply such data on its own.  So they spend a lot of time observing.

Now, imagine if Earth had a permanent globe-encircling cloud cover, such as Venus does.  Anyone looking to the sky would see dull gray clouds in daytime, and a pitch-black blankness at night.  Most people would probably never bother looking skyward if that were the case.
Even so, let's say that two or three times a week, in random, unpredictable places on the globe and at random, unpredictable times, there would appear a small, brief break in the cloud cover.  Most of these would occur over oceans or the vast unpopulated areas of land.  Those that appeared over populated land would most often be missed by humans who never look skyward because there's nothing to see there usually.
Of the breaks in cloud cover that are actually noticed, most would be during the day, as the difference between blue sky and dull grey cloud would draw the attention of any eye that happened to be lifted at that moment.  The cloud cover breaks at night would be hard to spot even should someone be looking directly at it--not much difference in pitch-black clouds and pitch-black sky.  Those that happened to be looking in exactly the right place at exactly the right time when the break was positioned to allow a star or two to shine through would probably just blink a few times and wonder if they maybe sat up too quickly.
Meanwhile, most people would shrug and laugh at the occasional wild-eyed redneck hillbilly that insisted one night he saw a giant hole in the sky rimmed in glowing silver, lit by a bright white disc with mottled gray markings that looked like a face, and shining so brightly that it illuminated him and everything around him with an eerie glow.
And most people would probably roll their eyes and walk away if that hillbilly went on to insist, with religious fervor in his eyes, that the blessed silver light of the Sky Face had shown him that evil hides in everything, including himself, but that evil flees from the cold burning light of the Silver Visage and he himself had witnessed this as a deep blackness stretching away from everything that was lit up by that light...a blackness that took a distorted shape of whatever it stemmed from and ran along the ground away from the light of that Terrible Face!!

People would not believe him, and who could blame them?  What the hillbilly saw was the full moon, which does indeed generate enough light to cause shadows.  But what human would believe him?  Perhaps those who had witnessed a startling chunk of purest lovely blue one day and had wondered and pondered about it ever since.  Maybe a few who had seen a portion of the bright stars of the constellation Orion or Scorpio would listen to his wild tale and believe he saw something, but was just exaggerating and looking for attention.  Other than that?  Probably no one.
Perhaps, eventually, humans as a race may come to believe that there was indeed something going on up there in the sky.  If there were a couple of mass-sightings of the full moon, where thousands of people at once saw it, resulting in many people watching the skies whenever they had a spare moment and thus resulting in many more reports of stars, patches of blue, an impossibly blinding bright yellow-white disc...eventually, Astronomy would begin.  It would be, of necessity, almost nothing but Observation for a long, long time.
Eventually, people would begin to grasp that there was, in fact, a lot of different, strange stuff up there...but would they ever figure out the solar system?  Other planets, stars, comets and meteors, galaxies and neutron stars and pulsars and quasars and black holes and nebulae and supernovas?  The moon?  How long would it take them to figure out that the thin fingernail-shaped arc was the same as the misshapen oval which is the same as the bright silvery disc?

What would they think about tides?

The purpose of the above scenario is to take a familiar and accepted observational science--astronomy--and impose upon it circumstances which would make it comparable Ufology.  The difficulties of studying something when you never know when or where it is going to manifest are obvious.  That does not mean it cannot be approached scientifically.
Consider again the testimony of the poor hillbilly redneck.  The first part of his description is fairly objective for a layman.  He describes the glow as "eerie" and refers to the break in the clouds as a "hole in the sky," but aside from that he sticks to the facts--this includes the mention of a face, because he only says it looks like one, not that it is one.
The second part of his description shows that he has gone off the deep end.  But to those of us who know what he is really seeing, his description--though laughably colorful--is still recognizable.  The proverbial "grain of truth" is actually a thread of reality with which he has woven a tapestry of subjective fancy.

"Ok, ok, that's all well and good," you say, "but that's the moon and stars and stuff.  They're real.  But UFOs?  Little green men in flying saucers??  There might be aliens out there somewhere, it's a big universe and all that, but they aren't flying around our planet beaming people up and probing them, ok?"

Ah...but Ufology is not about "little green men" or abductions or..."probing."  It's not even really about "flying saucers," though they may be a division of data classification.  Ufology is about UFOs--objects, flying or floating in the air, that are unidentifiable.  Equating UFOs with flying saucers and aliens is a common misconception resulting primarily from media sensationalism.  Remember the example of the hillbilly; let's try and stick to known facts.

Given the unpredictable nature of the appearance of UFOs, most of the direct observational data is captured by accident by people who are not endeavoring to be a Ufologist.  As a result, Ufologists have spent a lot of time running around gathering witness reports in an attempt to build a collection of observational data.  Most serious Ufologists only became Ufologists after having been a witness to a UFO.
Recently, Ufologists have begun to form large groups or networks that coordinate investigations using the internet.  They have websites with submission forms so that UFO witnesses can easily report sightings and include any photo or video evidence.  Submissions are automatically entered into a massive online database that is searchable in numerous ways including time, location, type of encounter, et cetera.  Most sightings are merely noted and filed, adding to the database.  Some are singled out by the Ufology group for further study, and some of those are found intriguing enough to warrant on-site investigation, and are assigned to a member of the group who lives nearby.
Many people have pointed out that such easy submission systems lead to an increased number of bogus reports.  This is true, and it is actually a good thing.  As the database of information continues to grow, and computational power continues to increase, the ability for software to detect a false claim becomes more and more accurate, as the statistical universe of data begins to show definite trends.

"Ok, so UFOs and Ufology aren't all about little green saucer guys.  It's about that white plastic shopping bag floating around in the wind, or little Johnny's lost helium balloon or whatever," you say.  "Sounds boring.  People actually study this stuff, and build databases for it?"

It is indeed about that bag, or least until it is confirmed they are a bag and a balloon.  Then they become identified, and filed as such, where they add to the Ufologists' ability to identify similar cases in the future and rule them out as well.

But in the end it is not the plastic bag, or the lost balloon, that Ufology is about.  It is about the cases in which there were multiple credible witnesses, such as police or military officers or airline pilots, along with anomalous radar data, and accompanying video or photo images, and the UFO still remains a UFO--that is, Unidentified.  It is those cases in which Ufologists are most interested.

To date, there are quite a few extremely interesting--and utterly mysterious--UFO incidents which we here at NCSI feel should be brought to your attention, even if only for entertainment purposes.  As such, this is the first of a short series of NCSI publications in which we will explore the UFO question in some detail.  This first entry, heavy on the text and wholly lacking in imagery, is a tad thick to wade through, and we apologize.
But it is over now, and we hope you will look forward to the next installment, which will be posted in a day or two, wherein we shall look at a synopsis of the history of modern Ufology, touching on some of the classic and famous sightings as we go.

In the meantime, keep your eyes on the sky!