Perception and belief are central to our understanding of the world. Seeing is believing, as the saying goes, but also believing is seeing. As skeptics we have be aware not only of the need to ``see the evidence,'' but also of the need to know how our own beliefs can affect what we see in the evidence.
In this, the first issue, of the first volume of our journal we have two articles about belief systems. The first is Alan French's UFO column, and the second is a book review by yours truly. We also introduce our resident psychic David Quinne who's job will be to challenge our beliefs, whatever they may be. I hope you enjoy.
With this issue we introduce a new section called: ``Ask the Psychic.'' In this column you can ask questions about the paranormal that require some prognostication, and our resident psychic will attempt to answer them. For this segment, there are two questions asked of our psychic by an anonymous club member. In addition, since this is our January issue, and in keeping with psychic traditions that go back to the earliest days of tabloid journalism, we present our psychic's predictions for the coming new year.
We have two starting questions and answers.
Question: Is Elvis really alive and running around doing good deeds?
Answer: In what sense? Metaphysically speaking, yes Elvis's energy continues. Elvis's body was buried some years ago.
Question: Is JFK responsible for the attempts on president Clinton's life?
Answer: If you mean John F. Kennedy, no. J.F.K was shot and killed by Lee Harvey Oswald and Jonathan Henry Black.
Predictions for the year 1995:
Sue and I sometimes travel to West Texas for the Texas Star Party, an observing convention of amateur astronomers. In 1987 we decided to take a longer vacation, and included visits to Big Bend and Carlsbad Caverns. On our way to Big Bend we stayed in Alpine, which is just east of Marfa, home of the ``Marfa Lights.'' An excursion to view the Marfa Lights has always been a cloudy night activity at the Texas Star Party, but we had never made the trip. We decided this would be the perfect chance.
Marfa is a West Texas town of about 3,000 people. The brochure provided by the Chamber of Commerce is headed: ``Marfa, Texas, Home of the Mysterious Marfa Ghost Lights.'' About 9 miles west of Marfa, toward Alpine on Route 90, the Texas Highway Department has provided a viewing sight for watching the Marfa lights. A brochure obtained from the Museum of the Big Bend, Sul Ross State University, in Alpine says, ``A favorite pastime in the Big Bend is parking near the entrance to the abandoned airport on Mitchell Flat, nine miles east of Marfa on Highway 90, to watch the Marfa Lights flicker and move against the Chinati Mountains about 60 miles to the southwest. They look like faraway flashlights, they turn on and go out, sometimes one or maybe five or six.''
We arrived at the viewing sight well before sunset, and set up a pair of 14x70 Fujinon binoculars, a 60mm. Bushnell Spacemaster with a 22 power wide field eyepiece, and Sue's custom 4.3 in. APO refractor. A careful inspection of the view toward the southwest showed that parts of distant Highway 67, which runs between Marfa and Presidio could clearly be seen through the telescopes. Cars traveling along the road would be visible for seconds to minutes, and then vanish around a curve or in a dip in the road. As the Texas landscape darkened the cars vanished and were replaced by moving lights, red or white, flickering in and out of view. With the naked eye, they did look rather strange, but the telescopes revealed the paired headlights and taillights of cars.
While we were there, people arrived to look for the lights. Most quickly spotted the car lights along Route 67, exclaiming, ``There they are!'' Those who looked through the telescopes quickly realized they were nothing unusual. At one point a school bus pulled up, and a group of people got out. The driver launched into a pitch about the Marfa lights, while pointing out the lights along Route 67. They group soon jumped back on the bus, heading home with the knowledge that they had seen the strange and unexplained Marfa lights.
Two years later we spent a night in Marfa itself, at a motel sporting a ``Home of the Marfa Lights'' banner. We again visited the official viewing sight, although this time we left the telescope behind. We were not surprised to find people were still pointing to the distant car lights on Route 67 as Marfa Lights. We got to talking with one gentleman, and explained our experiences two years earlier. He admitted some of the lights certainly could be from cars on Route 67, but claimed that the colors were wrong on many of them and that they must be something unusual. At one point he even pointed down Route 90 toward Marfa, claiming the approaching headlights were something else entirely! It would have been nice to have the telescope along, but I doubt he would not have been convinced even then.
Some people have a strong desire to believe they have seen something exceptional, and people have a strong tendency to see what they expect. This combination can easily turn the mundane into the unusual. It can also turn the unusual into the bizarre.
In southern Nevada, northwest of Las Vegas, is the Nellis Air Force Range. It has been used for nuclear testing, weapons testing, and testing new aircraft. It is not open to the public. In recent years there has been much publicity about ``Area 51.'' It seems there are strange things going on there, and the Air Force does not like people trying to look in on them. To me, this doesn't seem surprising, and the explanation that new aircraft and weapons are being tested seems quite adequate. Some people have decided, however, that the strange lights and strict security indicate that either recovered UFOs are being flight tested there, or that the Air Force is testing craft developed using knowledge obtained from crashed saucers or cooperative aliens.
During our first visit to Marfa, we met two very nice local couples who were home on vacation from college. They were quite interested in astronomy and enjoyed some views through the big binoculars and the telescopes. Naturally, we got talking with them about the Marfa lights. They claimed that the true Marfa lights were something entirely different. They are quite rare, and when they are seen they appear as lights moving and bouncing around on the desert, and not against the distant mountains. I can certainly say that many people who think they have seen the Marfa lights, simply saw the lights of distant cars, but I can't say there isn't something else going on here.
Over the years, I have seen the Marfa Lights featured on segments of several shows about unusual phenomena. At least one of these shows featured a video of what was obviously the same lights from distant cars that people have been mistaking for unusual lights.
Anyone with information or thoughts about the above, or UFOs in general is invited to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone (518) 374-8460.
Watch the Skies: A chronicle of the flying saucer myth. by Curtis Peebles, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994, 342 pages, index.
On June 24, 1947 Kenneth Arnold was flying towards Mt. Rainier when he saw a bright flash. Looking in the direction where the flash seemed to come from he reported seeing: ``a chain of nine peculiar looking aircraft flying from north to south at approximately 9.500 feet elevation and going, seemingly, in a definite direction of about 170 degrees.'' On June 25th, the East Orgonian published a brief column describing the sighting, which went out on the Associated Press wire. With this event began the modern era of the UFO.
In a book packed with footnotes and historic details Curtis Peebles chronicles the major events of this modern myth or ``system of beliefs that have developed around the idea that alien spacecraft are being seen in Earth's skies.'' This is a refreshing view, and one that makes for fascinating reading. As I read the book memories of early television snows, movies, and news events kept coming to mind. The age of flying saucers is our age. Few and far between are the readers who would not recognize some part of this shared belief system.
The book is written in chronological order starting with Arnold's sighting. It describes in detail the earliest sightings, the major waves of sightings in the 1950's and 1960's, the rise and fall of NICAP, project Blue Book and the Condon Report, and the rise of alien abductions, and Roswell New Mexico. I have only two complaints: First, the book is too short. Crop circles, for example, are not even mentioned. Second, Peebles states that UFO sightings seemed to have stopped in the late 1970s, as UFO abduction reports increased. While it may be true that there have been no nationwide ``flaps'' such as in the early days, there have been many local reports. The Pine Bush, NY and Gulfbreeze FL cases being two recent examples. (Not to mention the Stillwater, NY sightings.) He is right, however, in that most of the press coverage is about alien abductions.
I recommend this book for critics, skeptics, and believers alike. Regardless of one's opinions about the extra-terrestial hypothesis, the fact remains that public perception of UFOs is shaped by mass-media, and the shape and direction of those beliefs over the year make for an interesting story.
The Annals of Improbable Research has scheduled a UFO sighting for March 21, 1995 at 1:00 pm in Detroit. Events are also scheduled for Santiago Chile, Kobe Japan, Riga Latvia and Cambridge UK.
Our next meeting will be held at the Guilderland Public Library on Wednesday January 4th at 7:00 pm. We will be presenting a video tape by James Randi entitled ``Secrets of the Psychics.''
Thank you to Alan French, Daniel Forrest and Carla Sofka for helping to prepare this newsletter. Thank you also to Bob and Dee Mulford for doing the publicity for our meetings.
The Journal of Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York is the newsletter of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York. The manuscript was typeset using the TeX document preparation system written by Donald Knuth of Stanford University, and made freely available over the Internet. Public domain copies of TeX and macros are available to authors from the editor. The views expressed in this newsletter are not necessarily those of ISUNY, or its individual members.