My Ufological methodology
While investigating putative paranormal phenomena, I try to always follow this approach: determining the strongest conventional explanation compatible with all the data, even if the plausibility of certain elements can no longer be estimated.
There are three possible outcomes:
1)Anomalous: It can be shown that the BCT (Best Conventional Theory) is truly at odds with genuine aspects of the case. We can conclude that something anomalous was probably going on.
2) Probably explainable: a conventional explanation can plausibly account for all aspects of the sighting.
3) Potentially explainable: a conventional explanation can plausibly account for some aspects of the sighting. We are ignorant about the plausibility of other elements it involves.
UFO over Warrnambool in 1978
With that in mind, let us start our analysis of an Australian case.
I recently came across an interesting UAP sighting on a webpage of Australian researcher Keith Basterfield.
***** 20th October, 1978, 2100hrs Warnambool (West of Cape Otway) “Two witnesses observed a light about 4 or 5 times the size of the evening star in the north-eastern sky. The object was described as being orange, red in colour and to be hovering at a height of 70 degrees. It remained stationary for several minutes, then suddenly changed colour to yellow and moved rapidly to a ten degree position in the south-east, where it hovered again for a few minutes before speeding away to the south.” Source: „MUFON Journal“ Nov 1979 pp6-8. Analysis: The ‘evening star’ is a name given to the planet Venus when it is in the western sky. It was however, not to the north-east. Unknown. ******
(The brown text contains the own conclusions of Keith).
The late Australian Ufologist Paul Norman was the investigator responsible for that report. While I think he was a honest man, he was also very passionate about his belief in alien spacecraft and this hindered him from striving for objectivity. As we shall see, this probably kept him from approaching incidents while gathering as many elements as possible so as to enable an objective and informative analysis of the situation.
Geographical indications of the witnesses
Keith Basterfield dismissed Venus as an explanation on the grounds that it wasn’t situated in the right part of the sky. This assumes, however, that the witnesses were able to orientate themselves correctly. Since Norman gave us no clue whatsoever about their identities, we can’t entirely rule out the possibility they misidentified the basic geographical directions because they, say, came from a distant region.
Size of the luminous point
It isn’t clear whether these were the witnesses themselves who described the light as „about 4 or 5 times the size of the evening star“. In that case, this would mean they were familiar with Venus and saw something far larger. Or was it just Norman’s interpretation of their description? Did he even try to contact them directly? The lack of information prevents us from concluding anything more than the light appeared really large to the two persons.
Changing colour and position
The behaviour of the „star“ can be summarised as follows.
A) The large point was first emitting an orange-red light. It remained stationary for several minutes at a perceived height of 70 degrees in the north-eastern sky.
B) It suddenly changed colour to yellow and started moving rapidly to a perceived ten degree position in the south-east.
C) It hovered at its new position for a few minutes.
D) It finally sped away (or at least disappeared relatively quickly ) towards a direction perceived as being in the south.
I think this is a minimalist description of the incident. Now I’m going into the possible theories one could put forward for explaining it.
Venus or another star
The observers were immobile
Even if the two persons possibly got their absolute geographical frame of reference wrong, it seems that the object apparently covered a considerable distance beyond the reach of normal fluctuations of an average human visual field. If the sky had been mostly dark (which we don’t know), one could draw on the autokinetic effect, according to which without reference frame, natural movements of the eye make a stationary object appear to move irregularly, sometimes zooming up and down or swinging from side to side in a movement sometimes described as like a “falling leaf”.
The problem is that the movements of the „star“ do not appear erratic by any means: it remained stationary for several minutes without swinging, then moved straight to another distant position, hovered there for a few other minutes before quickly flying away. Can someone provide me with examples of autokinesis which spawned such regular illusory moves? I haven’t come across any one till now, and so I think it’s fair to discount this possibility unless data I’m unaware of emerge.
The sighting took place in a moving vehicle
Another hypothesis I could think of would be that the whole observation occurred as the individuals were driving. They would have then mistaken the effects of their moving car for the movements of the alleged object.
In comparison to the autokinesis-hypothesis, this scenario has a great advantage: it would naturally account for the lack of erratic behaviour of the heavenly body. But if faces a potent objection. It seems very unlikely that the driver and the passenger would have failed to mention they were conducting a car while sighting the odd light. It seems far more plausible they would have indicated, in one way or another, that they were in a moving vehicle. And if Paul Norman had received this information, he would most likely have evoked it, given its importance for the interpretation of the movements of the object. To the best of my knowledge, he seemed to do it systematically for other sightings involving a driving car or motorcycle, even if his choice of words wasn’t always very clear.
A conventional aircraft
Another hypothesis would be that of a conventional aircraft present in the nocturnal sky of Warrnambool for some reason. The long hovering phases allow us to dismiss the possibility of a plane.
A helicopter could be taken into consideration. But the weird colour of the object (red-orange and then yellow) as well as its strange behaviour offer a poor match. The angular size should also be taken into account. While human eyes are hardly good at coming up with precise distances, their subjective impression ushering into the phrase „about 4 or 5 times the size of the evening star“ does indicate a considerably large light.
Consequently, if the thing had really been a helicopter, it must have hovered and moved impressively close to the observers. While the wind can sometimes reduce or even mask the sound of the rotors, all things taken together, this spatial proximity makes such a strong confusion far less likely.
Finally, one could consider the presence of a drone.
It makes more sense that such an unmanned aircraft would perform this kind of seemingly meaningless actions.
The main problem here is the size. Since a conventional drone (at least at that time) is even smaller than a helicopter, it must have been even closer to the witnesses.
Besides the unlikely absence of any noises, it seems implausible that one or several position lights of the alleged drone would have looked like a reddish star-like point.
Could the sighting have been caused by searchlights or beamers directed towards low-hanging clouds?
This seems hardly plausible in light of the fact the point remained stationary during most of the event and did not display any kind of back-and-forth movement.
Another (purely theoretical) possibility might be that the object was a bird reflecting off the light of the town.
Considering again the size of the point (involving a considerable spatial proximity if this had been a bird), its original redness, apparent colour change, long stationary behaviour and quick departure makes it an implausible explanation to my mind.
The non-spectacular character of the incident makes it incredibly unlikely it was a hoax.
It’s extremely hard to envision how two friends wanting to relate a faked extraterrestrial encounter would invent such utterly unimpressive details (in comparisons to the content of real swindles).
Now, someone might suggest they were undergoing some sort of delusional experience, either because they were psychotic or under the influence of certain drugs.
Given we know absolutely nothing about their personal background, we cannot strictly rule this out.
Yet, almost nobody would use that loophole if the witnesses had reported having seen something possibly explainable through conventional causes.
It is improbable that two independent brains would experience the same specific hallucination at the same time , let alone if it can’t even be obviously tied to specific themes driving popular culture.
So it seems that this possibility is pretty implausible unless one already knows from the outset that there are no such things as genuine anomalies.
As two examples of the next section will illustrate it, many now well-established phenomena were systematically debunked and written off as gross mistakes or hallucinations stemming from deranged witnesses.
We now know that these folks really (at least approximately) saw what they described and so we should avoid repeating the same mistakes too easily.
An unidentified aerial phenomenon (UAP)?
At this point of our analysis, it seems legitimate to seriously consider the possibility that the witnesses saw a UAP in the narrow sense, i.e. an aerial phenomenon which cannot be plausibly explained with our current publicly available knowledge.
It can never be emphasised enough that UAP does NOT stand for an alien starship.
In that specific case, I see at least two anomalous explanations which have nothing to do with little playful grey men.
Electromagnetic luminous phenomenon
While their existence have long been passionately denied (using arguments worryingly similar to those employed by modern-day debunkers), ball lightnings are electrical phenomena related to thunderstorms which have been increasingly recognised by the scientific community over the last years.
Likewise, a growing number of scholars take more and more seriously the existence of earthquake lights, even if our incredibly limited knowledge about them doesn’t allow us to currently easily embed them into scientific theories.
The very existence of these two aerial phenomena shows, however, that Mother Nature might be much fuller of surprises than we might imagine.
Therefore, it is quite possible that the rather bizarre light sighted by the two Australians was a not-yet discovered natural entity of that kind.
Is it possible that this might have been actually a genuine ball lightning?
Given the incredibly wide range of features they can display and our lack of knowledge thereof, this clearly can’t be ruled out.
In many cases, ball lightings lie in a grey area between conventional and anomalous aerial phenomena.
In that particular case, we don’t dispose of any physical model able to predict its (likely) behaviour, so I’m tempted to label it „anomalous“ even if it turned out to belong to this general category.
This is largely a semantic choice.
Secret military aircraft
Another anomalous explanation which readily springs to mind is that of a purely earthly aircraft which was being tested at this precise time and place.
We certainly know that armies often develop highly sophisticated vehicles (such as the B2-bomber) whose existence may be disclosed only much later on. If the project proved a failure, it might even never come to the surface.
While the luminous point behaved in a manner which does not easily fit in with it being a common aircraft, it didn’t show any otherworldly abilities either.
Conclusion: a seemingly anomalous experience
Despite the lack of information, this incident remains interesting. It does not appear to have been probably spawned by mundane and well understood causes, as we explored together.
Yet, it also falls far short of providing us with evidence for the presence of extraterrestrial visitors.
It is frustrating that the MUFON investigator did not dig up more vital details which would have enabled us to draw much sharper conclusions.
I think that this incident illustrates in a sad way one of the main problems of ufological „research“.
Most of the time, it is conducted by true believers who want to jump to their cherished conclusion, namely alien visitation, as quickly as possible.
As soon as their case sounds mysterious enough to their own ears, they officially attribute the incident to ETs and stop seeking for further evidence which might potentially even endanger that dearly held conviction.
On the other hand, we have die-hard debunkers who are very eager to endorse any conventional explanation they find, even if this leads them to conclude that a honest and respectable policeman damaged his own car and body just for the sake of a bizarre and pointless hoax.
Given this state of affairs, it is no wonder that the scientific community at large can only see Ufology as an utter waste of time and steers clear of the entire field.