Friday, January 19, 2018

Shadow of a Doubt - January 2018

The Monthly Calendar of the National Capital Area Skeptics

  • January 20 lecture - Sharon A. Hill - Scientifical Americans: Paranormal Researchers and the Public Understanding of Science 
  • February 17 lecture - Neuroscientists Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen Macknik will discuss their new book, Champions of Illusion
  • Torn from Today's Headlines: UFOs
  • AmazonSmile: Thanks to our members who are supporting NCAS!
  • Shadow Light
  • Member renewals

NCAS Public Lecture Series

Scientifical Americans:
Paranormal Researchers and the Public Understanding of Science

Sharon A. Hill

Saturday, January 20, 1:30pm - 4:00pm
Chevy Chase Library
Downstairs Meeting Room
8005 Connecticut Ave
Chevy Chase, MD [map] [directions]
FREE admission – Everyone welcome, members and non-members
In the 21st century, reality television and the Internet have fed public interest in ghosts, UFOs, cryptozoology and other unusual phenomena. By 2010, roughly two thousand amateur research and investigation groups formed in the U.S. – ghost hunters, Bigfoot chasers, and UFO researchers, using an array of (supposedly) scientific equipment and methods with an aim of proving the existence of the paranormal. American culture’s honorific regard for science, coupled with the public’s unfamiliarity with scientific methods, created a niche for self-styled paranormal experts to achieve a measure of respect and authority without scientific training or credentials. These groups of amateurs serve as a surrogate for scientists in examining strange claims. And, they provide a unique lens by which we can examine the wider public understanding of science and research.

Sharon A. Hill is an advocate for science appreciation, critical thinking, and evidence-based inquiry, specializing in pop culture discourse on ghosts, monsters, mysteries, anomalies, and oddities. She is the creator of,, and the host of the podcast 15 Credibility Street. She has degrees in Geosciences and Education with a focus on science and the public. Her personal website is

Refreshments and socializing after the talk.

February NCAS Lecture

Neuroscientists Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen Macknik will discuss their new book, Champions of Illusion: The Science Behind Mind-Boggling Images and Mystifying Brain Puzzles.  Saturday, February 17 at 1:30 PM at Argosy University, 1550 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 712, Arlington, VA.

Torn From Today's Headlines
By Scott Snell
A UFO Report in the News, and the Most (Only?) Interesting UFO Report in History
The front page of the December 17, 2017 New York Times featured an article headlined, "Real U.F.O.’s? Pentagon Unit Tried to Know."  Alongside the remainder of the article on an inside page was a related story, "2 Navy Airmen and an Object That ‘Accelerated Like Nothing I’ve Ever Seen’."  Both articles were written by two Times reporters and Leslie Kean, a journalist and author of the 2010 bestselling book, UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go On the Record.  (UFO skeptic Robert Sheaffer noted in his review of Kean's book, "It's easy to tout UFO cases as having no conventional explanation as long as you completely ignore everything that's been written to the contrary.")

To the Times' credit, both articles were categorized "Politics," and the second article started with a disclaimer: "Experts caution that earthly explanations often exist for such incidents, and that not knowing the explanation does not mean that the event has interstellar origins."

The articles were published the same day that a video from the Navy incident was publicized by "To The Stars Academy of Arts & Science," a group describing itself as "a consortium of scientists, aerospace engineers and creatives that will work collectively to allow gifted researchers the freedom to explore exotic science and technologies with the infrastructure and resources to rapidly transition innovative ideas into world-changing products and services."

The original video is a product of an Advanced Targeting Forward-Looking Infrared (ATFLIR) sensor, built by Raytheon Company.  (The posted video is probably a low-resolution copy of the original.)

By intent or happenstance, the timing of the video release appeared perfect for maximum "buzz" effect during the holiday season.  With a week to go before Christmas, most news consumers would be busy in the holiday rush, might see the mysterious video on the news, and probably wouldn't have time to try to read about it.  There would be little opportunity for critical analysis from skeptics to get into the news stream before families would gather over the holidays, so the video could be a topic of conversation with nary a critical word to share.

The Navy story (generally known as "The 2004 USS Nimitz UFO Incident") had received some publicity on October 11 at the "To The Stars Academy of Arts & Science" launch event.  (The entire event is available at . The Nimitz incident, presented by Chris Mellon, former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, begins at .)

Kean wrote a piece about it that day in The Huffington Post:

Mellon's presentation indicated that the story first appeared in March 2015 at "Fighter Sweep," a site described as "Insider aviation news and information from real military aviators."

A few days after Kean's Times articles, Raytheon posted on its News Feature page, "The UFO spotter: Navy pilots used Raytheon tech to track a strange UFO."

“To really be sure [of the sighting], we would need the raw data,” said Dr. Steve Cummings, vice president of Technology Development and Execution at Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems. “Visual displays alone are not the best evidence...I would want want at least two sensors, like radar and [electro-optical/infrared], to search the skies...One way to actually verify these and be absolutely certain that this is not an anomaly is to get the same target, behaving the same way on multiple sensors.”

The video is still receiving news media attention a month after its release, but was relegated as a background visual in a recent Kean appearance.  (During her January 11 interview on "Tucker Carlson Tonight" on Fox News, the video was shown but hardly discussed, and most of the time was devoted to a 2006 UFO sighting at O'Hare International Airport in which no witnesses took any photos.)

Interested readers can follow the skeptical coverage of developments at Robert Sheaffer's "Bad UFOs" blog and at Mick West's "Metabunk":

Author's note:
During the weeks that the news media focused attention on the 2004 Nimitz incident, a much more interesting (in my opinion, and of course I speak only for myself and not any organization with which I'm affiliated!) "UFO sighting" took place--namely, the first interstellar asteroid was discovered.

The asteroid is named 1I/ʻOumuamua, which comprises Hawaiian words describing it as "a scout or messenger sent from the distant past to reach out to us (ʻou means reach out for, and mua, with the second mua placing emphasis, means first, in advance of)."

Its Wikipedia page is an excellent resource for the latest findings:ʻOumuamua

In my opinion, this is the most (only?) interesting "UFO sighting" in history.  The object definitely exists, its trajectory is interstellar, it has remarkable properties (no surface ices, elongated shape, remaining intact with relatively fast rotation), and it came fairly close to Earth.

And we'll never be sure about whether it could be artificial or not. It's leaving the Solar System and we won't be able to catch up unless/until our spacecraft propulsion capabilities of the future can overtake it someday.

Pin onto ʻOumuamua every speculation that you can think of that fits the facts. No harm done as long as it's labeled "speculation."

Other references:
"To The Stars Academy of Arts & Science" launch press release:

Designation of interstellar objects:

AmazonSmile: Thanks to our members who are supporting NCAS!
When holiday shopping at, you'll find the same low prices, vast selection, and convenient shopping experience as, with the added bonus that a portion of the purchase price (0.5%) goes to NCAS! It's simple and automatic, and it doesn't cost you anything!

AmazonSmile's disbursements to NCAS in the third quarter of 2017 came to $27.55, meaning that over $5500 of purchases were designated in support of NCAS.  (As an example of how NCAS can put that money to good use, it's more than enough to cover an hour of a Montgomery County lecture room rental.)

Thanks again to our members who have chosen to support NCAS!

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