Monday, July 21, 2008

The Mugging of Stanton Friedman

For those who may not know, Stanton Friedman is a nuclear physicist and one of the most articulate voices for the reality of UFOs as extraterrestrial craft. Two nights ago, he appeared on the 'Larry King' show which also featured skeptic Bill Nye ('the Science Guy' and member of the Skeptic Society) and an astronomer involved with SETI work.

While Stanton attempted to make his case, especially in regard to the evidence for missile interference that occurred in 1967 in Montana, Nye kept interrupting and casting cutesy aspersions. Stanton attempted to defend his position and was promptly smacked down by King who barked, 'Don't interrupt, Stanton!'.

As far as I could see, that was it. Following that "mugging" by King (who never should have had the likes of Nye on) one scarcely heard another cogent peep from Mr. Friedman. Which was most unfortunate.

As a person who has taught critical thinking myself, I was absolutely ashamed of the act the two skeptics put on. It distracted from what could have been a serious discussion, and ended as more of a row than anything meaningful.

The difficulty in formulating UFO hypotheses, and interpreting UFO reports, is a first-hand experience for me. Not only have I investigated other people's reports and published the results[1] but I've observed a "UFO"myself. The incident occurred in March of 1962 while at the opening of a shopping center in Carol City, Florida. While awaiting the start of festivities I happened to look up at the night sky, being the amateur astronomer that I was. Amazingly, I witnessed a brilliant orange disc, at least the same diameter as a full Moon, moving rapidly from north to south.

It hovered for two to three seconds above the crowd at the shopping center and I detected the odd "Oooh" or "Aaah" from random spectators. Thus, I knew I was not having a simple hallucination (at least not by myself!) The most ironic and notable thing to me was the complete absence of sound. No whirring, like one would expect from a helicopter's propeller blades, or engine noise. The object - if "object" it was - appeared to be a light source rather than just reflecting light from elsewhere. After about three seconds it took off due south at what I estimated to be an incredible speed. As a seasoned sky observer, even at the age of 16, I was able to quickly eliminate all known man-made or natural objects from consideration. The exceptional luminous and dynamical behavior allowed this. Nevertheless, to this day I am not prepared to pinpoint a specific hypothesis in any dogmatic sense. Nor am I prepared to assert it as a "craft" from another planet.

To me, it was and remains a "UFO".

What IS a "UFO"? The late Prof. Allen J. Hynek (former Professor of Astronomy at Northwestern) offered the first truly scientific definition of the UFO:

A UFO is the reported perception of an object or light seen in the sky, the appearance, trajectory and general dynamic behavior of which do not suggest a logical, conventional explanation and which is not only mystifying to the original percipients but remains unidentified, after close scrutiny of all available evidence by persons who are technically capable of making a common sense identification, if one were possible.”

A common misperception is that UFOs are “flying saucers” or space ships. However, this is actually only one possible hypothesis among several. The main thrust of Hynek's definition is one must not automatically jump to any conclusion that conflates the UFO with an extraterrestrial craft.

But let us get back to Stanton Friedman and what he had to endure with Nye and the astronomer. To be sure, this is not the first time such an altercation has occurred, but with different subjects. It's interesting that not even the late Carl Sagan could refute Jacques Vallee's extensive reports (cf. Forbidden Science, North Atlantic Books, 1992) , nor did he even attempt to go after the sole UFO report in Edward U. Condon's Air Force commissioned Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects(1969, NY Times Books): Case 46, p. 396 from McMinnville Ore. (11 May, 1950) that concludes - and I quote, from p. 407:

"This is one of the few UFO reports in which all factors investigated: geometric, psychological and physical appear to be consistent with the assertion that an extraordinary flying object- silvery, metallic and disc shaped flew within sight of two witnesses. "

Vallee himself has also taken Sagan to task in this case, for proposing a scientific process:getting extraordinary evidence first, before forming a hypothesis on the basis of existing investigations and doing an extraordinary investigation. Nowhere else in science, or its possible objects of inquiry, are we expected to start with extraordinary evidence (which usually isn't available yet) then go to the process.

A perfect case is plasma double layers, which possibly occur in coronal arches and help to trigger solar flares. Despite the fact no one has proven these artifacts exist, they are regularly used to support the observations of certain solar flares.

So, here is where Sagan fell down, by allowing his skepticism to undermine his objectivity. Sagan himself has also been taken to task by the likes of astrophysicist Frank Tipler for instigating millions of dollars for planetary, or SETI research when "he hasn't demonstrated adequate criteria or justification for doing so". In particular, many of Sagan's papers to support or rev up funding for planetary explorations (like with the Viking probes) were entirely based on speculations to do with mathematical probabilities of life existing - say on Mars- rather than any inherent hard data for such. Such critiques could also be leveled at the astronomer skeptic who appeared alongside Nye.

Nye himself, sad to say, demonstrated the same promotion of skepticism for skepticism's sake in his appearance on King, which merely reinforces the sterility of his position. To be far more cogent, the REAL skeptic must take one step further. If his adversary makes a claim, he needs to make a counter claim or offer an alternative hypothesis, to neutralize it.

Thus, if Nye didn't accept Friedman's claim of an actual craft, the onus was on him to offer an alternative hypothesis as to what the interfering Montana UFO was.

It was, of course, acceptable for Bill Nye to simply withhold acceptance of Friedman et al's claim passively, but this usually makes the hard-edged skeptic position much more difficult to hold. If you adopt the passive stance, in other words, you really cannot be too aggressive in your take on the event, or use clever putdowns. You merely open yourself up as a target.

Something Mr Friedman would no doubt have alluded to had he not been "mugged" (shushed) by Larry King earlier!

[1] See Stahl,P.A.: Transient Optical Phenomena of the Atmosphere - A Case Study, in The Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 74, No. 3, June 1980.


Regan Lee said...

Enjoyed the article, and your blog. (I added a response and link to your piece on Snarly Skepticism.)

Copernicus said...

Thanks, Regan! I appreciate your comment and I also very much appreciated reading about 'Brane Space' on your blog. It is regrettable that so much negative emotion (from the "skeptic"
side) must enter a field of inquiry in which the results could well be of high import.

Would that the skeptics were really honest skeptics, and not merely snarling caricatures of such. (Look, for example, at some of the comments on UFO speculations from Dec., 2007)

In the next few days I will have a two-part article on the Blog dealing with possible faster-than-light means of communication for interstellar craft.

I also plan another entry dealing with what exactly constitutes proof in science, and whether Stanton's (craft) hypothesis may already meet the crtieria.

Stay tuned!

Red Pill Junkie said...

May I ask a question?

Do you feel your openness towards the possibilities glimpsed around the UFO phenomenon might be different, if you haven't had that extraordinary experience—the UFO sighting—at such an early age of your life?

An experience which, BTW, Mr. Friedman himself hasn't had the luxury to have.

Copernicus said...

"In the next few days I will have a two-part article on the Blog dealing with possible faster-than-light means of communication for interstellar craft. "

That should read: possible faster-than -light means of propulsion.

Copernicus said...

red pill junkie wrote:"Do you feel your openness towards the possibilities glimpsed around the UFO phenomenon might be different, if you haven't had that extraordinary experience—the UFO sighting—at such an early age of your life?"

Well, that's an interesting question! I would like to believe so. I'd surely like to think I would have this openness irrespective of my early experience (which remains indelibly etched in memory). But who can say for certain?

One thing I have found, even with this openness, is that in my experience most (95%) of reported UFOs are really IFOs. This is why I have been so energetic in astronomy education. I suspect if people knew more about the sky and the objects there, they'd make fewer misidentifications.

Thanks for your question!

Red Pill Junkie said...

And thanks for your response :-)

We're discussing your blog post at UFO Mystic, a site which delves with these sort of things, but with a healthy dose of skepticism and open-mindedness (you'd like it, the guys who run it are neither die-hard "nuts & bolts" ETHers, nor obtuse one-sided denialists). May I share your response with them?

Copernicus said...

red pill junkie wrote:

"May I share your response with them?"

By all means!

Greg Bishop said...


I'm one of the writers over at UFOmystic, and was the one that linked to your thoughtful post.

As you point out, Nye could have stayed quiet when he had no contrary facts to back up his "skepticism," but I would guess that his new position as point man for CSI(COP) does not allow him to table arguments pending review of any known facts. Plus, that looks bad on television.

I suppose what it all comes down to is the question "Is there something in the UFO subject that remains unexplained and deserves serious scrutiny by serious people?" Along with scientists such as James Mac Donald, Bernard Haisch, Jacques Vallee and others, you say "yes." I'm always gratified that some scientists are brave enough to be scientists, rather than cheerleaders for a belief system.

You may already know about the Society For Scientific Exploration and the 1908s journal entitled The Zetetic Scholar. If not, you may want to look them up for more in this non-dogmatic vein.


Greg Bishop