The Radford Files
Seeing What We Want to See—Including UFOs
Along with chupacabras, ghosts and other weirdness, I also investigate the human mind. My degree in psychology helps me look at how people approach supernatural topics—and the evidence—through prisms of perception and preconception.
People filter new information through their beliefs, and few are willing to consider facts that contradict their beliefs. Our minds selectively pay attention to information that supports our views. People see what they want to see.
There are few places where this psychological process is as clear as the public’s responses to my skeptical analyses. When I do investigations, it’s always using scientific methodologies, which means that any conclusion is tentative. I give my best analysis based upon my years of research and experience.
If later evidence disproves my theory, I’m happy to correct my analysis and say I was wrong. I don’t have a vested interest in the truth or falsity of a claim, or in debunking anything. If the evidence suggests that it’s real, I’m happy to announce that.
But people are often unhappy when I can explain an “unexplained” photograph or video. If it’s a hoax, the hoaxers are not happy with me—and neither are the people who fell for it. Nobody likes to be fooled.
In late March, folks in Lafayette, Colo., reported unusual lights in the night sky. Leroy van der Vegt and his son, Nick, said they saw three strange bright red lights. They hovered in the air, changed formation and then moved away. Lester Valdez, another witness, said, “They all got into a pattern, and they stood in a pattern, and they all moved in a direction, and then they pretty much dropped, and that was it.”
Some thought it was E.T. coming to visit. Others suggested it was a top-secret Pentagon spy plane. In my analysis (which was referenced in an article by Lee Speigel published on AOL News), I noted that the formation of the lights was consistent with independently moving objects—probably road flares tied to balloons.
Within a few days I got an email from a peeved reader who thought my explanation was ridiculous. A guy we’ll call Alex wrote: “Road Flares tied to balloons.....Pleeese! How do you get them to fly in formation and spaced? Absurd. Then ‘The Balloons’ just flew away? Perfectly spaced? Lots of holes in your ‘theory’ ” (quoted verbatim).
I gamely replied: “Hi Alex. Thanks for your note. What evidence do you have that the lights flew ‘in formation, perfectly spaced’?”
Alex: “From reports online from all the observers. They were there.”
I told Alex he’d have to do better than that. How many witnesses reported this? Could he come up with two or three people? He shot back that I was not doing my homework and reading the reports. But of course I had, and I even quoted them in the piece. None of them used the words “in formation, perfectly spaced.”
Alex replied by quoting to me verbatim the piece I’d written, putting two key phrases in bold: “They hovered in the air, changed formation” and “They all got into a pattern, and they stood in a pattern.” A formation is perfectly spaced, he said, and so is a pattern. “I also know you won't believe any eyewitness because you are a professional skeptic!” he wrote.
I reread the reports and it was clear: Alex was reinterpreting the evidence to support his conclusions. A pattern or formation, by definition, is simply a repeated design, and it doesn’t imply perfect spacing, I told him. “One eyewitness you quote in fact contradicts your point, saying that they ‘changed formation.’ Can you explain to me how a formation can remain ‘perfectly spaced’ (your words) and also ‘change formation’ (eyewitness' words)? It is logically impossible; try this yourself on a table with three pennies, having the formation change while keeping it ‘perfectly spaced.’ ”
What's ironic is that I was the one taking the witnesses at their word.
Alex had one final reply: “Yer hopeless.”
We parted ways—each of us concluding that the other was wrong. The mind is a funny thing.
Benjamin Radford has investigated unexplained phenomena for more than a decade. He is a columnist for LiveScience.com and Discovery News, and deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine. He is author of six books, including Scientific Paranormal Investigation and Tracking the Chupacabra. Both are available at better Albuquerque bookstores.