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Rebuttal to a Bad Book Review

April 7, 2002

When I wrote a book taking aim at bad science , I was not so foolish as to believe that adherents of pseudoscience wouldn't fire back. My book has been getting a fair share of positive reviews, but it has now garnered a negative one.

I should have expected it: it's from a mailing list about UFOs. You can read the review in its entirety here. It was written by a man named Chris Rutkowski, a Media Relations Coordinator for the University of Manitoba. I am not in the habit of rebutting every comment made about my site or my book, but in this case I think I should. He makes quite a few logical errors in his review, and it's worth looking at them.

[Note added May 21, 2002: It was brought to my attention by several people that in the article below, I say that amateur astronomers "never" report UFOs. That's not true, and I am embarrassed to admit I used the word "never". I never do that! So I changed it to "very rarely". My point remains: if amateurs watch the sky far more than laymen, then they should see far more UFOs. They don't, which shows that the vast majority of reported UFOs are simply misidentified mundane objects.]

Mr. Rutkowski starts with some polite comments about my site, and then gets into my UFO chapter. In it, I relate a story about how I mistook a flock of ducks under unusual circumstances for a UFO. I was never seriously thinking they were alien spaceships, but I was pretty befuddled by what I was seeing, until they were pretty close by and obviously ducks.

I make the point that amateur astronomers watch the sky more than any other person, and very rarely report UFOs. This is the point with which Mr. Rutkowski disagrees. He says amateurs do report UFOs, and some professional astronomers have too. He mentions a survey saying that two amateurs in Canada reported seeing UFOs last year. However, Mr. Rutkowski also says there weren't many total reports in Canada last year, but doesn't give the actual number.

This is critical: I claim that amateurs spend far more time watching the sky than the average person. Therefore, there should be a proportionately higher instance of UFOs observed by them. If there aren't, then it's probable that most UFOs reported are just things people see when they are unfamiliar with objects in the sky. Amateurs, being more familiar with the sky, don't report Venus, balloons, satellites and the like as UFOs. Without any real numbers, Mr. Rutkowski's point is without real meaning. Were those two reported sightings out of ten total, or a thousand?

Still, therein is Mr. Rutkowski's only solid criticism in his review: I never saw that survey report. Perhaps I should have done more research, or perhaps I should have asked noted UFO debunker James Oberg, with whom I consulted for that chapter. I would actually like to read the report, but somehow I missed it. I cannot report on something I didn't know about. Anyway, I have indeed hung out with many amateurs over the years, and to my best recollection, none has ever said they saw something in the sky they could not explain.

Getting back to the review, Mr. Rutkowski then goes on to say sarcastically that "since someone [meaning me] with such an advanced observational ability can be mystified by ducks, other UFO witnesses must be misidentifying things all over the place, too."

Well, I am an astronomer, and a practicing amateur too. I have spent literally thousands of hours under night skies, and I am fairly familiar with them. This is no idle boast; it's just the plain truth. I was fooled once, so the odds of someone not as familiar with the sky being fooled are high. This is not exactly rocket science.

Then he penned this astonishing statement: "... amateur astronomers aren't interested in moving lights in the sky any more than they are in identifiable aircraft". He implies that this means they wouldn't notice UFOs because they aren't looking for moving objects.

What an odd thing to claim! This is completely wrong. First, amateurs use their own eyes, as well as binoculars; they are not glued to the eyepiece. They commonly see moving objects. Second, many amateurs love to track satellites, and we all watch meteor showers. Those are both moving objects. Third, can anyone honestly say that an amateur astronomer, or anyone, wouldn't notice a bright flickering multi-hued object zipping around the sky, stopping suddenly, hovering, then taking off again in a different direction? To say that amateurs wouldn't see that... well, it's just wrong. Of course they would. Moreover, amateurs are far more likely to have photographic equipment with them if they see something, and are far more likely to know how to use their equipment under those circumstances. Where is the photographic evidence from amateurs?

He does make the point that amateurs are less likely to report them because they would meet with ridicule. He says "... since Plait makes it clear he thinks UFOs are nothing more than ducks and stars, would any amateur astronomer in his right mind tell him about his sighting? Not a chance." Mr. Rutkowski clearly doesn't know me very well. I am pretty open minded about such things. I have had many people talk to me (via email or after talks) asking me about things they have seen in the sky. I am polite, suggest alternatives to alien spacecraft, and tell them to become more familiar with the sky. If someone came up to me with convincing evidence, believe me, I'd be interested! But in all the footage, reports and the like that have cropped up over the years, none has ever been convincing to me or other scientists as solid evidence of alien spacecraft.

Also, Mr. Rutkowski should re-read that chapter. I never say that aliens are not visiting us. I say that it is highly unlikely that when someone reports a UFO, it really is an alien. It's far more likely to be a duck than an alien, but I never say they are all ducks. Sure, he is being metaphorical, but so am I.

Mr Rutkowski missed the entire point of that chapter. It wasn't to say that UFOs aren't real. The point is to make people think critically about the UFOs that are reported, and to be skeptical when reviewing the sighting. As a matter of fact, on page 206, I say "... there are mundane explanations for the vast majority of UFO sightings." Note I did not say "all sightings". Since I have not looked at all the sightings, I cannot dismiss them. That would be unscientific.

So I disagree with the majority of Mr. Rutkowski's negative review. Besides missing the point I was making, he also makes the unjustified claim that amateurs wouldn't see UFOs (and then says some do). He then says I am close-minded, which couldn't be farther than the truth. As the saying goes, be open minded, but not so open minded your brains fall out. That's a pretty good credo for skeptics and believers alike.

©2008 Phil Plait. All Rights Reserved.

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