Slamming the astronomers-should-see-UFOs myth

By Phil Plait | July 21, 2009 8:09 am

In my first book, Bad Astronomy, I have a chapter about UFOs in it. I have the usual sort of debunking in it, but I made a point I had not seen anywhere else at that time: why don’t astronomers see relatively more UFOs than laypeople?

Think about it. Astronomers, both amateur and professional, are constantly viewing the sky. There are tens of thousands of amateurs out observing all the time: a large sample population, and far larger in observing man-hours than the regular population. If UFOs are so common, then why do we not see an unusually large number of reports from astronomers?

My assertion is that this is because the vast majority of UFO reports from people are misidentified objects like Venus, the Moon, satellites, balloons, and so on. These are things every amateur astronomer has seen countless times, and knows are not alien spaceships bent on probing the backsides of rural citizens. While this does not mean every single observed object is something more mundane, it does mean that the huge numbers quoted by UFOlogists are most certainly wrong.

When I published the book, I got lots of criticism from the UFO culture who, predictably, couldn’t parse my very simple logic. I got some amusement from it, I’ll admit, since trying to reason with some people is clearly a losing game.

Why bring all this up now? Because amateur astronomer Tim Printy has published an article about this in his online magazine Skeptical UFO Newsletter lite (SUNlite) — you can download the issue directly here (PDF). He does an excellent job rebutting the usual silly claims of the UFO crowd when they froth and rail about my statement. He picks their arguments apart point-by-point, showing just why my claims are accurate and theirs are not. It’s a good read… and I’m not saying that because he supports me. I’m saying that because he’s right.

Regular readers may remember Tim’s excellent debunking of the Phoenix Lights as well, which I wrote about on the tenth anniversary of that particular silliness. I think I’ll keep my eye on him. Another skeptical astronomer is most welcome!


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