Prosaic Explanations: The Failure Of UFO Skepticism
Debunking Rules: "Any Explaination in a Storm"
From studying the approach
of the skeptics to explaining just the Arnold sighting, one learns
Maccabee's First Rule of Debunking: any published explanation
is better than none. The Second Rule is, if the
first explanation seems unconvincing or just plain doesn't work,
publish another. The Corollary to the Second Rule is (you
guessed it!) if that doesn't work try yet another.
The procedure of proposing
explanations is part of the scientific approach to explaining
UFO sightings. However, simply proposing explanations is not
sufficient. It is the "first half" of the method. The
other "half" of the method is to test each proposed
explanation against the information from the sighting and to
decide whether or not it is, at least, convincing (you may not
be able to determine whether or not an explanation is correct,
but it is possible to determine whether or not it is convincing).
Unfortunately Menzel, Klass and other skeptics generally have
not carried out this second half of the scientific method. Menzel
simply proposed explanations, one after another, as if it were
logical to believe that the more prosaic explanations one could
offer for a sighting, the more likely it is that the sighting
could be (or has been) explained by one of the explanations.
This, of course, makes little sense. Each sighting has one and
only one explanation. Thus the analyst should pick the best or
most convincing explanation out of a collection of potential
explanations (by using the complete scientific method on each
sighting and rejecting the unconvincing ones) and then publish
that explanation and only that explanation. As a "rule of
thumb" to help the reader decide whether or not a sighting
has been explained, I would suggest that the larger the number
of proposed, unconvincing explanations, the less likely it is
that the sighting has been explained.
The Fantastic Flight of JAL 1628
Klass followed the
scientific procedure when he published his analysis of the Val
Johnson case discussed above. Klass clearly stated that the only
prosaic explanation was a hoax by officer Johnson, all others
having been rejected by the testimony and the hard evidence.
He then left it up to the reader to decide whether or not he
had made a convincing case for it being a hoax. However, he did
not follow the scientific method in his attempt to justify the
meteor hypothesis for the Arnold sighting, nor in his analysis
of the following sighting that occurred in 1986.
Japan Airlines Captain
Kenju Terauchi had been mildly interested in UFOs for years,
but didn't get to see one close-up until November 16, 1986. He
and two other crew members were flying a 747 Jumbo jet (designated
JAL1628) that was transporting a load of wine from Paris to Tokyo
(and they didn't have one drop to drink...nor one drink to drop!),
when suddenly, while over northeastern Alaska, they were confronted
with a startling event: the appearance of two objects or "crafts"
right in front of their aircraft. These objects suddenly appeared
and maintained a fixed distance, estimated at 1,000 feet, ahead
of their aircraft for about ten minutes (they were flying at
35,000 feet at about 600 mph). The captain reported that he felt
the sudden occurrence of heat on his face. Each object had two
parallel vertical rows of yellowish lights that appeared like
exhausts emitting flames. Each object rocked from side to side,
and the rocking of the two objects was synchronized. Initially
the objects were one above the other (FIGURE 4), but after several
minutes they suddenly moved to a side-by-side orientation (FIGURES
5, 6, 7).
They were not recognized
as any known aircraft by the crew, which reported the event to
the Anchorage, Alaska, Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC).
The ARTCC tracked the airplane on radar and tried to detect the
objects but was unable to do so. About ten minutes after their
initial appearance, these "crafts" suddenly disappeared
from ahead of the airplane. Within seconds of the disappearance,
the captain noticed a strange light, like a long narrow fluorescent
glow, at the left side of the airplane, quite a distance away.
He turned on his airplane weather radar and noticed a large radar
return about eight miles away in the direction of the faint glow.
As the plane flew southward, this light drifted behind the aircraft.
Suddenly, a lot more of it became visible (by self- glow or by
silhouette) and the captain referred to it as a "gigantic
spaceship" (FIGURE 8).
This caused the captain to request a decrease
in altitude to get away from it. A few minutes later the ARTCC
requested that the plane make a circle to see what was behind
it. Nothing was seen, but a radar target was detected momentarily
behind the aircraft. Subsequently the aircraft was flying southward
toward Anchorage when the captain last saw the "gigantic
spaceship" far to his left and behind him, that is, roughly
north of the aircraft.
The most complete report
of this sighting ever published, along with analysis and a discussion
of the proposed explanations, is presented in the article entitled
"The Fantastic Flight of JAL1628, which appears in the May-June,
1987, issue of the International UFO Reporter (IUR), which is
published by the Center for UFO Studies (www.cufos.org). An email
version is available from the author. The information presented
above is a very shortened version of the sighting but it contains
enough information to allow a proper evaluation of the "prosaic
explanations" proposed and publicized by the Committee for
the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP).
The sighting occurred in November, 1986. The Federal Aviation
Administration announced in early January 1987 that it was going
to investigate the sighting because of all the press interest.
(This is anomalous by itself since, so far as I know, the FAA
had never investigated any sighting before.) Less than a month
later, and more than a month before the FAA announced the results
of its investigation, CSICOP announced that the sighting had
been explained ("UFO Mystery Solved, press release by CSICOP
on January 22, 1987, Buffalo, NY).
The press release stated
that, "according to a leading UFO investigator (Philip J.
Klass) "at least one extraterrestrial object was involved
- the planet Jupiter, and possibly another - Mars. The press
release asserted that at the time of the sighting Jupiter was
"extremely bright at a -2.6 magnitude and would have been
about ten degrees above the horizon on the left side of the aircraft
where the pilot first reported seeing the UFO. Mars would have
been slightly lower and about twenty degrees to the right of
Jupiter. According to the press release, "Although the very
bright Jupiter and less bright Mars had to be visible to JAL
Capt. Kenjyu Terauchi, the pilot never once reported seeing either
- only a UFO that he described as being a white and yellow, light
in his initial radio report to the Federal Aviation Administration
controllers at Anchorage.
The press release could
have mentioned, but did not, that Terauchi did report seeing
numerous stars in the sky, city lights, and a glow of sunset
in the west.
The CSICOP explanation
was based mostly on Klass, interpretation of an early version
of the transcript of the audio tape made at the Anchorage ARTCC.
The radar tracking data were not made available until over a
month later, so Klass had no information on the precise locations
and flight directions of the plane at the times of the various
sighting events. Therefore, he couldn't prove that Jupiter and
Mars were in the locations or sighting directions (relative to
the airplane) that he stated in the press release. On the other
hand, there were rather explicit descriptions and drawings by
the captain which had been widely publicized and which certainly
were available to Klass but apparently he ignored them.
Klass made a major
error in not waiting for the release of the complete information
package by the FAA, because, if he had waited, he would have
found that the publicized versions of the sighting were quite
close to the descriptions of the "crafts" that were
given by the crew during interviews. These descriptions rule
out Jupiter and Mars as possible causes of the sighting. Without
the FAA data package he did not know that initial drawings (FIGURES
4 and 5) were made only about two hours after the event. Nor
did he know that the other crew members, in separate interviews,
supported the captain,s report of the objects that appeared in
front of the plane. Nor did he know that at the beginning of
the sighting the two crafts were almost directly ahead of the
plane and not in the direction of Jupiter and Mars. Nor did he
know about the sudden rearrangement of the relative positions
of the objects from one above the other to one beside the other,
a maneuver that Jupiter and Mars would have difficulty carrying
out during the time of the sighting (!). Nor did he know that
at the end of the sighting, while the plane was flying southward,
nearly toward Jupiter and Mars, that the pilot reported the "gigantic
spacecraft was behind and to the left, in a direction nearly
opposite to the direction to the planets.
The CSICOP press release
discussed and rejected the FAA and Air Force radar detections.
Curiously, however, it completely ignored the claim by the pilot
that the airplane radar did detect a radar-reflective object
at seven to eight miles in the direction of the UFO. Perhaps
Klass rejected this claim, but if he had waited for the data
package from the FAA, he would have learned that the other two
members of the crew confirmed the pilot,s statement about the
Thus, the Jupiter-Mars
explanation is contradicted by the sighting directions to the
UFO at various times, by the descriptions of the crew members,
and by the airplane radar detection. (Another "prosaic explanation"
bites the dust!) Unfortunately, the "gullible press did
not know that at the time. The explanation was widely publicized.
It made the captain look like an idiot, but as far as the press
was concerned, that,s OK. Only idiots report UFOs. Having done
their duty the news media promptly forget about the sighting.
(Note: Terauchi was a senior captain at the time but he was temporarily
grounded after the press reports of his sighting.)
In retrospect it appears
that the CSICOP press release which was marked "FOR IMMEDIATE
RELEASE" should have been marked "FOR PREMATURE RELEASE".
The FAA finally did
make a public report on the sighting on March 5, 1988 ("FAA
Releases Documents on Reported UFO Sighting Last November, by
Paul Steucke, Office of Public Affairs, Alaskan Region, Federal
Aviation Administration (FAA), U.S. Department of Transportation,
March 5, 1987, Anchorage, AK). This report concentrated on the
controversy over the radar detections or non-detections by the
ARTCC. It did not discuss the airplane radar detection nor did
it discuss the visual sightings. It basically said that the ground
radar did not support the claim of a sighting. This was not,
of course, the same as saying there was no sighting, but the
national press presented the FAA investigation results as if
they proved there was no sighting.
The most important
result of the FAA investigation was a data package which the
FAA made available. This included radar data listing the exact
airplane locations, headings and speed, the complete transcript
of the ARTCC audio tape of the event and all the transcipts of
the interviews with the crew members and air traffic controllers.
With this data package anyone could have analyzed the sighting
and concluded that Mars and Jupiter were not the solution.
Apparently that is
exactly what Klass concluded after my detailed article was published
by the Center for UFO Studies, because several months later CSICOP
published another explanation (recall Maccabee's Second Rule
of Debunking mentioned above). This time it was moonlight on
clouds! (Klass, P.J., "FAA Data Sheds New Light on JAL Pilot,s
UFO Report, The Skeptical Inquirer, Summer, 1987, Buffalo, NY).
Since the moon was low in the eastern sky Klass argued that the
"crafts" were explained as reflections of moonlight
from the clouds and "turbulent ice crystals. According to
Klass, the turbulent ice crystals "could have generated
flame-colored lights (he didn't explain how) and "this would
also explain why the undulating lights would periodically and
suddenly disappear and then reappear as cloud conditions ahead
changed. When the aircraft finally outflew the ice clouds and
the initial UFO, disappeared for good (the Captain) would search
the sky for it, spot Jupiter further to the left and conclude
it was the initial UFO. Klass attributed the airplane radar sighting
to "an echo from thin clouds of ice crystals.
verges on scientific garbage. Although the crew reported there
were thin clouds far below the plane there is no reason to suppose
that moonlight reflected off ice crystals in these clouds would
generate "flame colored lights. Klass, explanation certainly
could not account for the heat which Terauchi felt on his face.
Nor would it explain the peculiar parallel arrays of flames or
yellowish lights (illustrated in detail in FIGURES 6 and 7) associated
with two independently flying objects that appeared ahead of
and above the plane, continuously for many minutes. Nor would
it explain the sudden rearranging of these arrays of lights.
According to Klass, the reflection from crystals could explain
the colors of the lights. However, the reflected light would
be basically the color of the moonlight. A variation in color
would occur only if the moonlight were "broken into its
spectrum by refraction of light in the crystals (similar to what
happens with rain and a rainbow). But the spectrum of white light
contains more than just the yellow, amber and green which were
reported. Blue and red should also have been noted if the air
crew were looking at what would essentially be a "rainbow.
The lights ahead of
the aircraft were described as bright. The copilot compared them
to headlights of oncoming aircraft. A reflection of the moon
from thin clouds would cover large areas of cloud and would be
dim, diffuse, or "patchy, but not point-like. Klass, explanation
for the airplane radar target is total conjecture on his part
since the clouds were reported by the crew to be thin. Would
there be any return at all from such clouds? One might ask, if
there were so many clouds, why didn,t the radar pick up numerous
"blobby returns on the right side and ahead of the aircraft
as well as on the left where the "gigantic spaceship appeared
to be. And, of course, Klass, explanation does not account for
the appearance of a "gigantic spaceship.
The bottom line is
that Klass proposed two prosaic explanations for this sighting
but neither explanation was correct. Each one failed for physical
reasons when compared with the information in the sighting report.
The fact that he was able to propose seemingly reasonable prosaic
explanations was valuable from the standpoint of publicity for
the skeptical viewpoint and debunking sightings, but it was useless
from the point of view of scientific analysis of UFO sightings.
This sighting, along with those of officer Johnson, Kenneth Arnold,
and A.C. Urie remain unexplained and, in my opinion, will remain
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© copyright B. Maccabee, 2000. All rights reserved.