Monday, September 1, 2014

What Good Are 25 Years of UFO Reports?

"UFOs Over Canada: 25 Years of UFO Reports" was issued in July from Ufology Research. The media has given the report some good coverage, but mostly short bits not allowing for detail. At the end of August, Chris Rutkowski was invited to appear on the Paracast (a UFO and paranormal talk show), and their format allowed for an in-depth discussion. His intro:

Explore 25 years of UFO sightings in Canada with long-time investigator Chris Rutkowski. He and his colleagues have accumulated a huge archive containing some 15,000 UFO cases in Canada. The new survey covers the years 1989 through 2013. When you check the report at his Ufology Research site, you'll notice that the number of sightings increased in 2012 before settling down to a somewhat lower, but still historically high, level in 2013. Says his bio: "Chris Rutkowski, BSc, MEd, is a Canadian science writer and educator, with a background in astronomy but with a passion for teaching science concepts to children and adults. Since the mid-1970s, he also has been studying reports of UFOs and writing about his investigations and research."

Chris Rutkowski, as seen on TV

The interview turned out to be a far-ranging one, touching on many major issues in the examinations of UFOs, from their study to media coverage. Several cases were discussed, both famous and obscure, including one of great personal interest to me, the Cash-Landrum incident.

The Paracast August 31, 2014 — Chris Rutkowski

Required Reading

Chris was asked to be on the show to primarily to discuss the study, "UFOs Over Canada: 25 Years of UFO Reports." The report itself is very interesting and it makes excellent points about the value of data collection and analysis. I recommend highly reading it no matter what your views are on the subject. The study strives to accurately record what is reported, and does not seek to characterize the unexplained cases beyond saying they are unknown.

"If UFOs are not 'real,' then why are tens of thousands of Canadians (and others worldwide) seeing unusual objects in the sky?"

Ufology Research: 25 Years of Canadian UFO Reports (introductory article)

UFOsOver Canada: The "25th Anniversary Written Report" (in pdf format) 

Applying the Data

Utilizing the database in the 25 year study, Chris Rutkowski, made
A Comparison of UFO Sighting Reports Between 1989 and 2013 with the list of Visually Observed Natural Re-Entries of Earth Satellites compiled by Ted Molczan

This re-entry comparison study is interesting for several reasons. It immediately demonstrates the practical application of having a disciplined body of data. Having Ted Molczan's list allows for a comparison of the success rates of ufologists (or at least this group of Canadian ufologists) in identifying reported objects. 

Another, interesting point is that the orbital object re-entries allow a good sample of reports generated by known stimulus, allowing for an examination of how well witness are reporting the objects they see. Skeptics tend to distrust eye witness reliability, but this collection shows that the objects and actions were reasonably well described, if not understood, by the  witnesses. 

Re-entries of man-made objects provides an excellent opportunity for science and ufology to work on a common area of interest and share information. UFO proponents and skeptics alike should be able to agree on the value in that kind of dialogue. 


  1. Hi Curt, Love the new web design!

    Chris's quote is a snapshot of how UFO proponents misframe the situation.

    "If UFOs are not 'real,' then why are tens of thousands of Canadians (and others worldwide) seeing unusual objects in the sky?"

    The truth is that almost all of these sighting are easily shown to be prosaic. And there is precious little evidence to indicate that the small subset left over isn't the same weak stuff.

    This quantity over quality argument at this point is actually laughable. It is meaningless rhetoric.

    A MUFON disciple, Roger Marsh, recently started posting raw reports to the UFO Updates Facebook group. It was startling how bad and ridiculous they were. I am a hard core skeptic and I was actually taken aback at the idiocy of virtually every single one of them. In one case, the witness stated that the events were just a dream. But some silly MUFON "investigator" wrote the thing up as though it meant something.

    I have no doubt that those stupid cases go into the databases and then are used as "data" for UFO buffs to point to (for instance,a moronic UFO hotspot map that MUFON peddles). So when discussions come up about doing something with the data to learn something about UFO's, I am decidedly dubious about the possibility.
    Garbage in, after all.

    Indeed, I have asked over and over for some example or insight gleaned since 1947 about UFO's and the answers from the faithful are always decidedly vague.



    1. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Lance!

      As I understand it, the Canadian Report differs significantly from the reports collected by some other groups. There’s an attempt only to classify, not to promote the unknowns as coming from outer space, Area 51, dimension 69 or anywhere else.

      The data collection seems to be using valid scientific discipline, but in promoting the study in the press, there is an appeal to the sense of wonder, that there could be something out there, just as SETI does. But, I’ve not seen the Ufology Research team take it further than that. The newspapers are another story, using titles calling the efforts an “Alien Probe.”

      You’re right about Marsh, but the game has changed. The Open Minds team seems to have taken over the PR machine, developing their website content and presenting a slicker wrapper for those bite-sized Marsh MUFON chewy nuggets. Thus, there are new UFO Internet headlines almost every day! Each is breaking UFO news, but there’s no headlines for the lens flare, Chinese lantern and astronomical solutions for the majority of them.

      Getting back to the Canadian studies, Chris Rutkowski is asking, "Are we looking at real phenomenon? Is there a psychological phenomenon accounting for all this? Why do people persist in seeing something that supposedly shouldn't be there?" I’m interested in the search for those answers, even if it all turns out to be only about perception and psychology.

  2. Thanks Curt.

    What I am suggesting is that the question is poorly formed. It isn't "something". It is a variety of "somethings"--some are real, some only exist in the mind of the observer. As far as the evidence goes, all are almost certainly prosaic with a few puzzlers. The act of lumping all these things together is, I submit, dishonest rhetoric.

    UFO believers constantly point to the big (and mostly steaming) pile of UFO reports with an emphasis on the size of the pile. That shows how thoroughly unscientific the average believer is.

    And it gets us nowhere.



  3. Having gone through the report and hearing Rutkowski interviewed several times, including The Paracast,,I'm impressed by the dispassionate objectivity he strove to bring to the study. If only more "researchers" and "skeptics" would use him as a role model.

    Although I'm not a blind believer neither do I outright reject the notion that an unexplained phenomenon exists and accounts for a small percentage of the high strangeness reports of UFO activity. I suspect there really might be a handful of needles buried in that gigantic haystack of reports.

    Skeptics do as much damage as true believers in that they, too, discourage any serious scientific exploration of UFOs, which also might be, in fact, deterring the discovery and identification of some hitherto unknown natural phenomenon or phenomena.

    Both sides need less knee-jerk cheer leading for their points of view and a few Rutkowskis on their teams.

  4. Lance used a debunking bias to interpret my question, apparently.

    "If UFOs are not 'real,' then why are tens of thousands of Canadians (and others worldwide) seeing unusual objects in the sky?"

    He assumed that I was using argument by quantity to show that UFOs are "real" and that aliens are visiting Earth. (He also called me a "UFO proponent," whereas most UFO buffs would not.)

    What I was asking was that since there are so many UFO reports on record, if there is no such thing as a "real UFO," then why do so many people report them? As I've noted in my published studies (which Lance seems not to have read), I have wondered if there is a psychological or sociological mechanism(s) responsible. Is it "nuclear jitters" (as suggested in the 1950s)? desire for self-worth? lack of education? peer pressure? distrust of science? etc.

    As for the quality of UFO reports, I'm in a better position to comment, as I handle 1000+ every year. And I have in fact noted the decline in quality over time in the 25-year study.

    But the number of UFO sighting reports continue to increase.