| The sight of a bright light last weekend had some Californians wondering if they'd witnessed an extraterrestrial flight. Credit Julien Solomita, via Associated Press |
November 14, 2015 - UNITED STATES - When strange things appear in the sky, many people can’t help but turn their thoughts to extraterrestrials. But there’s usually a more down-to-earth explanation.
That was the case when a bright light in the sky off the Southern California coast last weekend touched off a flurry of excitement about unidentified flying objects.
After news reports, the Navy reluctantly confirmed it had been testing a Trident II (D5) missile fired from a submarine. A second and final missile was tested on Monday, The Los Angeles Times reported.
It was one of several recent sightings in the sky to cause talk about U.F.O.s. Others included a group of strangely shaped clouds over Cape Town, also over the weekend, and an Army veteran’s claim that he spotted a “solid, dark-gray triangle-shaped craft” in the sky over Portland, Tenn., last week. Most of these sightings go unreported in the mainstream news media, though a variety of blogs and sites track them.
“The mind abhors a vacuum of explanation,” said Michael Shermer, 61, the publisher of Skeptic magazine and a columnist for Scientific American. “Short of a good explanation, people just turn to the one that most immediately comes to mind which, in pop culture, is extraterrestrials.”
A poll of a random sample of 1,114 American adults conducted by National Geographic in 2012 found that 77 percent believed “there are signs that aliens have visited Earth.” (It also found that President Obama would “handle an alien invasion” better than Mitt Romney, who was running for president at the time.)
Another, more rigorous survey frome Time and CNN conducted in 2000 found that 20 percent of respondents said they knew someone who had seen a U.F.O.
Peter Davenport, 67, is the director of a two-person organization called the National U.F.O. Reporting Center in Washington State. He compiles reports on sightings, like one in 2013 that came from a former astronaut, Byron Lichtenberg, who is based in North Texas.
(Texas is a hotbed of U.F.O. sightings, including many that turn out to be the atmospheric phenomenon known as the Marfa Lights.)
Mr. Lichtenberg confirmed that he did call in the report, though he pointed out by email that a few months after his sighting, details began to emerge about the Lockheed Martin SR-72 aircraft.
“It would make sense if that’s what we saw,” he said.
Mr. Davenport, of the reporting center, was dismissive of the idea that the naval exercise near Los Angeles should even be discussed in the same breath with possible alien sightings.
“We’re struggling with a semantic issue here,” he told me. “The term U.F.O. from my vantage point alludes to a genuine alien craft that has exhibited flight characteristics that are altogether incompatible with terrestrial aircraft or any kind of object of terrestrial origin.”
Mr. Davenport sent links to several reports of the kind of phenomena he was interested in, and described in detail the Phoenix Lights incident, playing a recording from a witness over the phone.
Fife Symington, the former governor of Arizona, initially denied having seen the mysterious lights that floated over Phoenix in 1997. He eventually confirmed to various news organizations that he had seen them, calling them “otherworldly.”
Mr. Davenport said that his principal responsibility was to avoid misleading people with data that had “nothing to do with the authentic U.F.O. cases.” But he said that many of the reports he receives are “from sincere and qualified witnesses that are seeing something that is dramatically bizarre.”
The scene Mr. Davenport describes in Phoenix is an echo of several famous films about U.F.O.’s, like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Steven Spielberg’s 1977 contribution to alien mythology. The cultural landscape has been saturated with stories about U.F.O.’s since the beginning of the Cold War and the “first stirrings of the space age,” as Mr. Shermer, the Skeptic publisher put it.
The popular “X Files” series, due for a six-episode return in January, popularized the idea that the government was hiding secrets about alien technology. Many episodes of the show opened with the tagline, “The Truth Is Out There.”
More likely, the truth is in our heads. Mr. Shermer, who is also the author of a book called “The Believing Brain,” is of the opinion that the possibility of alien life speaks to a spiritual need, calling it ”almost a replacement for mainstream religion.”
“In a way, extraterrestrials are like deities for atheists,” he said. “They’re always described as these vastly superior, almost omnipotent beings coming down from on high, very much like the Christ story, the Mormon story or the Scientology story.”
Although he is about as professional a skeptic as it is possible to be, Mr. Shermer said that he remained interested in the “supernatural, the paranormal, science and religion, God, extraterrestrials, U.F.O.’s, ESP.”
He added, “It is all fascinating and, if it were true, it’d be fantastic.” - NY Times.