The WHY-Files

The Journal of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York

Volume 5, Issue 3 March, 1999


March Meeting

Darwinian Medicine:

How Evolution affects the Disease process

The evolution of disease has been influenced by how we live and how we treat illness. On March 3, 1999 Dr. Lois Hooverman of Schenectady County Community College will give a talk about the evolution of pathogens. Some members who have already seen Dr. Hooverman talk said this meeting should not be missed.

This month's meeting is being held from 7:00 pm until 9:00 pm at the Guilderland Public Library, 2228 Western Avenue, Guilderland, NY. Meetings are free and open to the public. We schedule our meetings at the Guilderland Public Library on the first Wednesday of each month. Check our web site for information about future and past presentations.

February Meeting

Our program was a talk by Mike Sofka on The UFOs of October. Mike is presenting that talk as a three-part article in The Why-Files with the first part appearing in this issue. The audience included some new folks attracted by the topic, some non-members who attend frequently although not skeptical, and a core of members. A lively discussion followed Mike's talk, and, not surprisingly, ``believers' '' minds were not changed.

-Dorothy Sager

Dot Sager is ISUNY's Secretary and co-editor of The Why-Files She can be reached by email at

Newsletter Articles

If you attend local meetings, view programs of interest to ISUNY members, or have a skeptical topic you wish to discuss, consider writing an article for The Why-Files. Membership articles contribute greatly to the quality of The Why-Files. Articles and letters can be emailed to the editor at, or by U.S. mail to Michael Sofka, 8 Providence Street, Albany, NY 12203. Disks and hardcopy will be returned at the next ISUNY meeting. The deadline for articles in the April, 1999 issue is March 15th, 1999.

Membership Renewals

The expiration date for your ISUNY membership is printed on your mailing label. Dues can be mailed to the treasurer at the address on the back page of this newsletter, or paid at our monthly meeting (make checks out to ISUNY). Your dues cover newsletter and speaker expenses. If the date on the mailing label is circled, it means our records show your membership has expired, and you may be dropped from the mailing list. If your renewal date is incorrect, please bring the error to our attention. Despite our best efforts to keep the mailing list up-to-date, we do make mistakes.

First ISUNY ``Chat N' Chew''

7:00 pm, Tuesday, March 16, 1999, Ocean Palace Restaurant, 855 Central Ave, Albany, across from the Hannaford Plaza,

In an attempt to see if purely social events, with no formal program, are of interest to our members, Ken Meyer and Peter Huston are holding the first ever ISUNY Chat N' Chew at this excellent local Chinese restaurant. If you enjoy the after meeting get togethers, this is an attempt to hold the same type of informal gathering, but at an earlier hour and a different location. We have chosen a non-Wednesday as many people have wanted non-Wednesday events as well. This is an experiment, and its success or failure will determine the likelihood of other events of this sort. If you are interested, please make an effort to be there. For more details call Peter Huston at 393-3478 or e-mail

A Note From The President

Over the past few months some people have come to me asking how decisions are made in this organization and what they should do if they have an idea for a project or something they wish to do or have run in our newsletter. Others have felt that ISUNY should behave more like some other organization they are or were involved in. One of my goals as president has been to share more about how the organization is structured. We do wish to clarify any such matters with all interested persons.

To obtain information on ISUNY's internal structure, we recommend the following:

  1. You can consult our by-laws which are available on our website. If you do not have access to the internet simply ask me or another officer and we will try to get you a copy.

  2. Ask an officer. This can be done either at a meeting or by calling me at 393-3478.

  3. If there is interest in addressing questions about how the group is run or structured, we can set meeting time aside to discuss this, if people wish us to do so. Unlike some of the larger skeptics groups, we are a not-for-profit, all-volunteer organization. We do what we can as best we can. Naturally, as a volunteer organization, those projects and ideas that come with ``labor-included'' tend to get done first. Also, due to liability issues (several skeptics and skeptic-related groups have had very real problems with law suits in the past) we do tend to be conservative about what is or is not an official ISUNY activity or policy.

Once again, if you have questions, please feel free to ask and we will try to answer your questions.

-Peter Huston

The UFOs of October

Part I: The Autokinetic Effect and

Perceptual Illusion in UFO observations

In October of 1994 several residents of Stillwater, New York saw something unusual in the sky. According to an article in the Albany Times Union entitled: ``Twinkle twinkle little starmen?''

Clairmont Road residents were drawn outside Friday night by red and green blinking lights in the sky....

``A whole bunch of people witnessed this, including a member of the Stillwater Police Department,'' said Ray Cecot of Niskayuna, section director of the Mutual UFO Network. ``I have multiple witnesses all saying the same thing. Nobody was drinking; there were no drugs around.''

The lights were first seen at about 8 pm by a woman and her daughter, who won't speak to the press. About seven neighbors came out to watch,...

And, the article goes on to elaborate that there were up to a dozen saucer-shaped objects the size of a dime held at arm's length. Think about that for a minute, 12 objects the size of a dime held at arm's length. How big is that? If you held a dime at arm's length, how would it compare in size to the full moon?

Two television news stations even showed up, and filmed the object---the film crew saw only one---the next day, which provided an inadvertent, but very important, clue.

What would cause sane, sober people to believe they saw a UFO? What was seen over Stillwarter? This article is about the perceptual effects, particularly illusions of motion that lead, people to believe they saw a UFO. It's about the ``lights in the sky'' reports, which result in calls to the airport or local planetarium.

In the interests of full disclosure, I personally don't believe UFOs are alien space craft. But, a lot of people, as many as 11% according to some polls, believe they have seen a UFO. If these people are not delusional, or impaired, then what did they see? That is the question I hope to answer, at least in part, in this article.

I am specifically going to concentrate on the autokinetic effect and other illusions of motion that contribute to most, if not all, UFO reports. I'll also be briefly discussing the effects of expectation on perception and recall. The message to take home is that ordinary people can see something unfamiliar in the sky, and interpret it in ways consistent with what they expect of UFOs, even though in reality they saw nothing unusual or abnormal.

I won't be dealing with alien abductions, Fox autopsy films, crashed flying saucers, cattle mutilations, UFO cults or any of the more exotic UFO-related claims. I also won't be discussing hoaxes, although there have been some famous UFO hoaxes. And, I won't be covering the history of UFOs, even though I find that topic to be fascinating in its own way.

Any of these other topics could be the source of many other articles. But, I'm going to stick to your basic bread and butter ``lights in the sky,'' which still make up the majority of UFO reports, and are the foundation of the pyramid of UFO claims. That is, if there were no underlying real phenomena---the illusions of motion---there would be many fewer reports of ``lights in the sky,'' and they would not have the same degree of credibility. Without that base, hoaxed UFO photos, and claims about finding a landing site, or talking with occupants would be less believable to the general public.

Skeptics and UFOs

Before discussing the UFOs of October, a little background is in order: background on illusions of motion, on group dynamics and, most importantly background on Skeptics. Skeptics attempt to apply science and rational methods to claims of the paranormal and fringe science. They work within established scientific framework, although some creativity may be necessary to apply science to such bizarre topics as UFOs, bigfoot sightings, and so on.

I contrast this ``scientific skepticism'' with ``philosophical skepticism,'' which takes more of a Doubting Thomas approach to claims. The philosophical skeptic is likely to doubt anything they don't see themselves, or at least strive for complete consistency in all aspects of belief. I'm more concerned with what science can tell us, and leave the non-scientific alone.

For example, since it is believed likely that there are some extraterrestrial intelligences, and since they may exceed our technology by millions (even billions) of years, we cannot dismiss out of hand the claim that some UFOs are of extraterrestrial origin.1

If any part of these sightings are real, however, we would expect to be able to find some positive evidence that UFOs are not of this earth--such as a piece of metal whose isotope ratio is different from that of the earth metals (and, preferably, different from that of meteoric iron and nickel). Negative evidence---for example, a blanket claim that we can't explain with 100% certainty what Mrs. McDonald saw on the night of September 1st, is not evidence that UFOs are extraterrestrial, or even something unusual. It is only evidence that Mrs. McDonald saw something she was unfamiliar with or could not identify under the circumstances.

The simple fact is that most UFOs can be identified, or they have good competing explanations, such as advertising airplanes, satellites, weather balloons, or celestial objects enhanced by common but misunderstood perceptual illusions. A skeptical investigator strives for this type of explanation---it has a far greater probability of being correct. A good investigator (skeptical or not) attempts to use science to eliminate the normal---if only to highlight the better claims.

I want to emphasize: it cannot be claimed with 100% certainty that the effects I'll be talking about are the explanation for any particular event. But, they are good and simple theories, which should be considered before jumping to more complicated explanations. They are are also frequently overlooked explanations---particularly by those who believe they have seen a UFO, or those who want to believe UFOs are spacecraft. Finally, these effects are often misunderstood even by those who do not believe UFOs are extraterrestrial spacecraft.

With those preliminaries out of the way, let's get to some science.

What is the Autokinetic Effect?

I've already mentioned the autokinetic effect, and it is in the title of the article. What is the autokinetic effect? The autokinetic effect is a perceptual illusion in which motion is perceived in an object that is really stationary. It is an illusion of motion---and a very common one.

The autokinetic effect is most often perceived when a small bright object is seen against a dark background, such as a keyhole in a dark room2, or a bright star against the evening sky.3 It is caused by small eye-movements. Our eyes are constantly moving; the brain compensates for this movement to create a stable image. When compensating, the brain is using prior knowledge of background---that is, knowledge of what does and does not move. Against an ``impoverished'' background, however, the brain may mistake the eye's movement for object movement. Once your brain has made the ``decision'' that the object is moving, the effect is persistent and very realistic.

The autokinetic effect is robust: Everybody will see it under the right conditions, and the right conditions are easy to find. The early evening sky is an ideal condition. It has also been replicated in laboratories literally thousands of times as part of experiments on perception, and group dynamics (which I'll talk about shortly). A good time to see it is right now in the early evening sky Jupiter and Venus are high in the southwest at sunset. Look for them at about 6:30--7:30, as it gets dark, but before all the stars are visible. Just stare at them for a couple of minutes, choosing a vantage point that provides little background. (For example, not through the limbs of a tree). Eventually, the planets will appear to move.

Once the illusion of motion has set in, it is difficult to ignore; even if you know the object is stationary, it appears to move. To those who do not know what is happening, it is very difficult to convince them their eye, and not the object is moving.

Other Perceptual Effects

The autokinetic effect is not the only perceptual illusion that has a role in UFO reports. Some other contributing illusions are:

Autostatic Effect:
Similar to the autokinetic effect, the autostatic effect is when a moving object appears stationary. This can happen, for example, when watching a satellite traverse the sky. Many people do not realize that you can see satellites with the naked eye, and they are another suspected source of UFOs---one which is difficult to track down since orbital data for satellites is difficult to come by (some is classified).

Stroboscopic Effect:
lights blinking in sequence create an illusion of motion---for example, stars being seen through wispy clouds.

Induced movement:
An object may be perceived to move when it is the background that is really moving. We are all familiar with this from sitting in a car, and jamming on the brakes in panic when we think the car is moving backwards, only to discover that it was the car in front moving forward. This also happens when we watch the moon or a star ``racing'' through clouds on a windy night.

Moon or star chasing:
The moon and stars are so distant, that they do not change position against the background when we move. This creates the illusion that they are following us. If that is combined with some other event, such as a fireball, or if it occurs when a person is nervous or tired, a UFO encounter may be in the making.

Brightness/Size/Distance constancy:
In the absence of other cues, a brighter object is perceived as being larger and closer than a dimmer object. In the case of stars, they are all the same size to the naked eye---they are all point sources. Yet, the brighter stars are perceived and remembered as being ``bigger.'' (An amateur astronomer friend remarked that people will ask him about the star that was ``as big as a house.'')

Atmospheric shimmering:
can make a steady object appear unsteady, and can cause a prismatic effect so that a white object may appear to change colors. This often creates an illusion of rotation, as colors shift (similar to the stroboscopic effect).

It should be noted that training does not make these effects go away. At most, training can alert people to when they may experience an illusion of motion or perception, and maybe take action (such as viewing the ``UFO'' through tree limbs) to eliminate or adjust for it, or possibly temper or compensate their answers for such effects.

It should be specifically noted that pilots and military personnel do not get special training in how to ignore optical illusions, or how to observe the night sky. Quite the contrary, more advanced pilot training includes ignoring sensory feelings and believing instruments. Our senses can lie; we must trust our instruments. As such, reports of UFOs by pilots are as accurate or inaccurate as those of non-pilots under the same conditions.

This is the end of part I. In Part II I'll review experimental studies of group dynamics in interpreting the autokinetic effect, and the effects of perception and expectation on recall. Part III will look at cases of these autokinetic effect in practice, including the Stillwater UFO sighting.

-Mike Sofka

This is the text of a talk presented at ISUNY's February 1999 meeting, and to be presented at the May, 1999 Syracuse Technology Club.

Skepticism as a Technique of Intellectual Self Defense

This is the final part of a four part series based on Peter Huston's talk to the Boston branch of the New England Skeptics Society.

-The Editors

Some hidden advantages.

Or, ``Ya mean I don't really need to claim I'm saving the world?!''

In this paper, I have offered a simple perspective on skepticism. My primary suggestion is that we stop trying to think of skepticism as a philosophy and instead simply treat it as a technique with limited utility and scope. Specifically, I suggested that we see skepticism as a technique of intellectual self defense.

It is my hope that if we attempt to do things this way then skepticism will become streamlined and simplified in several ways. At the current time, skepticism, arguably, often appears to bite off more than it can chew and in return it sometimes resembles a hodge podge of little bits and pieces of various philosophies, doctrines and sciences.

One of my key points is that we de-emphasize investigating paranormal claims as the be-all and end-all of skepticism. This may be controversial. First of all, I feel this is already happening, so what I'm suggesting is simply that we recognize it and address it. Secondly, there often appears to be a great deal of insecurity among some prominent skeptics about being involved in skepticism. At times, it seems that claims are made that virtually state that the future of mankind is in danger and can only be preserved if we conduct a systematic debunking of any and all haunted houses or UFO sightings. One of my hopes is that if the recommendations in this paper are followed, then some of this apparent insecurity and grandiose justification will be reduced.

If we realize the limitations of skepticism, seeing it as a technique and not a philosophy, then we will hopefully be able to accommodate differing philosophical viewpoints more easily. Skepticism, as an ``ism,'' has been indebted to the works of many philosophers. Unfortunately, at times it seems as if these philosophies are brought into skeptical discussions whether or not they are really relevant. Why can't skeptics be allowed to develop their personal philosophies in a diverse and natural manner? Why is any philosophy needed if all we are practicing is a technique of intellectual self defense? One of the underlying controversies within the skeptic movement is just how philosophical is this movement intended to be.

Another underlying controversy within skepticism is the controversy over who are we aiming skepticism at? There is ambivalence on this within skeptical publications. Some imply that skepticism and critical thinking should be practiced by all people. Others seem to see skepticism primarily as a means by which a carefully selected elite hand down wisdom to the masses. I am clearly advocating a populist approach to critical thinking. I feel that if we see skepticism as a technique of intellectual self defense then we have an obligation to attempt to show the value of these techniques to the public at large.

-Peter Huston

Peter Huston's work appears regularly in the Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptic. He is the author of two books, most recently Scams from the Great Beyond by Paladin Press, Boulder, CO. Peter's current writing projects includes a sequel to Scams.

The Puzzler

Questions for the fun of it.

  1. Which large (1 Million or more) French Speaking city is furthest north?

  2. China and India are the two most populous countries. What is the third most populous country?

  3. Most quadrupeds tuck their hind legs under their torso when lying down. What quadruped shifts its hind legs back when lying down?

  4. Are there warm blooded fish?

  5. In 1801 the planet Ceres with a diameter of 600 miles was discovered. What is Ceres' current ``status?''


(1) Paris, France. Paris is almost at the 49th Parallel. Montreal is about midway between the 45th, and the 46th. Quebec City (under 1 million) is just below the 47th. Because of the ocean's influence on their climate, it is easy to assume European cities are further south then they really are. (2) The United States. (3) Elephants, both African and Asian. (4) Yes. Tuna fish are an example of a warm blooded fish. A heat exchange system transfers heat from arterial blood going to surface areas to returning venous blood. This keeps the tunas' temperature elevated giving them greater swimming speed then their cold blooded prey. (5) It is now classified as an asteroid. It is the brightest and largest of the asteroids between Mars and Jupiter.

-Carl Sager

Future ISUNY Meetings

April 7, 1999. So you think you know your Yeti from your Champ, or your telekinesis from your clairvoyance. Or you have a secret passion in 19th century spiritualism. Then come to our April Skeptic's Jeopardy meeting. Audience members will compete with each other to show who is the most knowledgeable about skepticism, fringe science, and general science.

The program committee is working on topics for meetings next year. If you have a topic idea, please bring it to the attention of an officer at any ISUNY meeting.

All ISUNY meetings are free and open to the public. We usually meet 7:00 pm at the Guilderland Public Library, 2228 Western Avenue, Guilderland, NY. We always attempt to schedule our meetings the first Wednesday of each month (except for July and August), but the Library cannot guarantee that a room will always be available. Please check our web site, or The Why-Files in case of a scheduling conflict, or other changes to the meeting schedule.

Local Meetings

The Albany Area Amateur Astronomers meet the third Tuesday of each month at the Schenectady Museum. Meetings begin at 7:30 pm. For more information, contact Alan French at (518) 374-8460.

The Capital District Humanist Society meets the second Sunday of each month at the Sage Colleges Albany Campus on New Scotland Avenue. The meetings begin at 1:15 pm. For more information, contact Paul DeFrancisco at (518) 272-4772.

ISUNY Lending Library

The Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York maintains a library of books, newsletters, magazines, video and audio tapes addressing various paranormal topics. ISUNY members may borrow material from this library on a month-by-month basis. If you would like to borrow a book, newsletter or tape, see our librarian, Lewis Treadway, before or after any ISUNY meeting. All material is lent free to members except for tapes for which we ask a $1.00 donation that will be used to purchase further library material.

Thank You

Thank you to Peter Huston, Michael Sofka and Dorothy Sager for their contributions to this newsletter. Thanks also go to Peter Huston, Robert Mulford, and Dorothy and Ralph Hoyt and especially Dot Sager for their help planning and publicizing ISUNY meetings, and to Herb Jones for publicity and room arrangements with the Guilderland Library. A additional special thank you to Dorothy Sager for copy-editing. Dot does an excellent job removing typos and errors from our newsletter. How many remaining errors are there in the newsletter?

ISUNY thanks all of its members for their support. We would especially like to thank our Patron members: Jordan Coleman, Charles Davies, Larry Jones & Barbara Eisenstadt, Alan & Susan French, Dr. Richard H. Lange, Christopher Masto, Hugh A. McGlinchey, Bob & Dee Mulford, Dorothy and Carl Sager, Mike & Carla Sofka, Douglas Wells, William White, Guier Scott Wright.

About the Newsletter

The WHY-Files is the newsletter of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York.

Articles, reviews and letters can be sent to the editor at, or to 8 Providence Street, Albany, NY 12203. Hard copy and disks will be returned only if accompanied by a self-addressed and stamped envelope, or at regular club meetings.

The newsletter was typeset using the document preparation system written and placed in the public domain by Donald Knuth of Stanford University. Macros for this newsletter are available at The Why-Files are available at:

Unless otherwise stated, permission is granted to other skeptical organizations to reprint articles from The Why-Files as long as proper credit is given. The Why-Files also requests that you send copies of your newsletters that reprint our articles. All articles printed in The Why-Files remain the copyrighted property of their author.

Articles, reports, reviews, and letters published in The WHY-Files represent the views and work of individual authors. Their publication does not necessarily constitute an endorsement by Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York or its members unless so stated.

1 This is called the Fermi paradox. That is, a civilization that advanced should have contacted us by now. For a good review of the Fermi paradox see Zuckerman, B. and Hart, M.H., Extraterrestrials: Where are They?, Second edition, Cambridge University Press, 1982/1985, and Dick, S.J., The Biological Universe: The Twentieth-Century Extraterrestrial Life Debate and the Limits of Science, Cambridge University Press, 1996. Recent theoretical work on gamma-ray bursters, a celestial explosion which releases great quantities of life-threatening gamma-rays, suggests that intelligent life may be very recent. If true, this finding would resolve the Fermi paradox---we don't see extraterrestrials because there are none, or they are very rare and recent.

2 Hence, it is also called the ``keyhole'' illusion.

3 Goldstein, E.B., Sensation and Perception, Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1980, pp. 265--266 (or any introductory perception book), George, L., Alternate Realities: The Paranormal, The Mystic and the Transcendent in Human Experience, Facts On File, 1995, p. 27.