'Bad Astronomy': Very Bad Indeed?
From: Chris Rutkowski
Date: Fri, 5 Apr 2002 15:19:36 CST
Fwd Date: Fri, 05 Apr 2002 17:24:43 -0500
Subject: 'Bad Astronomy': Very Bad Indeed?
One of my favourite sayings (which I have copyrighted) is:
"Don't believe believers, and be skeptical of skeptics." My
focus today is on the latter, particularly concerning a new book
by a popular skeptic, Phil Plait.
Plait's articles in the past have been very enlightening and
right on in terms of correcting some misconceptions about space
and astronomy. He was one of the loudest opponents of the Hale-
Bopp "spaceship" fiasco (and rightly so; he has some choice
words for Chuck Shramek, Ed Dames, et al.). He may go a bit far
in his criticisms of astronomy as portrayed in Star Trek, since
I think most people realize it's just a fictional TV show, but
then again, I have met some really wide-eyed trekkers.
Plait's book Bad Astronomy is just out. He has a link to
publishing info about it from his website: www.badastronomy.com
As skeptical books go, it's pretty good. And then there's his
chapter on UFOs. He starts by describing his visit to a launch of
the shuttle, and his bewilderment as he watched a formation of
lights approach the cape. He was puzzled by these UFOs until
they flew close enough for him to see they were nothing more than
ducks in flight. And, since someone with such an advanced
observational ability can be mystified by ducks, other UFO
witnesses must be misidentifying things all over the place, too.
But then he gives his most damning evidence. The people who
spend most of their time watching the sky (a lot more than the
average person) are amateur astronomers. And, since no amateur
astronomer has told Plait about their UFO sightings, no amateur
astronomers have ever seen UFOs, and therefore only people
unfamiliar with the sky see UFOs. And since witnesses are
unfamiliar with the sky, their UFO sightings are all
Nice argument, except that it's completely wrong. Even in the
small sample of UFOs reported in Canada last year, there were
two separate reports by amateur astronomers. Furthermore, Plait
has obviously never read the Gert Herb Report, published a few
decades ago, which gave the results of a survey of amateur
astronomers, noting that a significant percentage of them do, in
fact, see and report UFOs. Amateurs not good enough for you?
Peter Sturrock polled professional astronomers and found many of
them have seen UFOs, too.
[Note to Errol and anyone else: Are either of these available
online?] [Nope. Only a mention of your article at P-47--ebk]
There are a few other problems with Plait's reasoning. One is
that amateur astronomers aren't interested in moving lights in
the sky any more than they are in identifiable aircraft. The
ones I hang out with want to do some specific imaging of nebulas
and galaxies, and spend a lot of time looking through eyepieces
with tiny fields of view. Of course, many have now switched to
computer-guided scopes and spend their time in warm-up rooms,
often miles away from the telescope itself. Professional
astronomers are even worse in terms of observation. Few actually
DO any optical observations. Many haven't looked through a
telescope or spent any time looking at constellations since
their undergraduate days.
The second problem is that since Plait makes it clear he thinks
UFOs are nothing more than ducks and stars, would any amateur
astronomer in his right mind tell him about his sighting? Not a
chance. And get ridiculed? Forget it! And think of the way in
which UFOs are dealt with in college and university courses on
astronomy. In my experience, profs at most would offer a sneer
if UFOs were mentioned in class, and at best, would point to a
standard textbook such as Pasachoff, where UFOs were stated
emphatically to be rubbbish.
This approach by Plait to the UFO phenomenon made me pause to
consider how well he has researched and considered the other
topics in his book. Is his book Bad Astronomy exactly that -
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