Wednesday, 29 August 2012

What do you do if you see an unknown animal?

When I looked up, for a few seconds I was confused. I literally had no idea what I was seeing. It was certainly a bird and, by its ponderous flight, presumably a big one. But what species? Luckily, as we were out birding, I had binoculars and a bird field guide handy. After a few anxious seconds of alternately looking through the binoculars and leafing through the guide we had it - a Black Stork! This species is very rarely seen in the UK, being just an occasional visitor. It was rare enough for me to report the sighting to the county bird recorder.

I was reminded of this event by the recent reports of a big cat in Essex. I wondered what I would do if I saw an unknown species before realizing that, in fact, I had already done so - the stork. I had never seen a Black Stork before, not even in a zoo, far less in the wild. So it was completely unknown as far as I was concerned. That would explain my moment of confusion when I had no idea what I was looking at, beyond the obvious fact that it was a bird. However, I was able to determine what it was quite quickly. I had several advantages compared to many finders of unknown animals. I was an experienced birder, I had binoculars, a field guide and other experienced birders nearby to consult. Most people who come across rare or unknown animals have none of these things.

So what would I do if I'm ever in that situation again? Firstly, if I have a camera I will try to take video or photos. I prioritize such recordings because, unlike witness statements, they can be examined at leisure for additional detail. Then I would look carefully at the animal, ideally using binoculars, and make notes of what I see. After describing the basic shape, comparing it to a known species (eg. like a Jay but with the following differences ...) I would note the pattern of colours and describe any noise the animal makes. I would then try to assess its size. This is usually the most difficult thing to do so it makes sense to leave it until last and devote any time remaining before the animal goes away to it.

Purple heronSize is generally crucial in determining what a species is. The obvious way of measuring it is to compare the animal with the size of any object it is interacting with, like a bush or tree. Note that I said 'interacting', not simply close to. Objects can appear close to one another simply because they are in the same line of sight when they might be some distance apart. If the animal is not interacting with anything, I would try to reach the spot where it was seen, if possible, and place an object of known size there. Then I would return to where I made my original sighting. This will allow me to get some idea of scale. While at the spot where the animal was observed, I would look for any possible tracks which could help identify the species. If the animal is only seen flying it can be difficult to estimate its size. The best guide is that larger species (like the Purple Heron in the picture, right) tend to flap more slowly and deeply compared to smaller ones.

This might all seem obvious but the problem is, when you DO see an unusual animal, the chances are that it will catch you by surprise and it won't be visible for long. And if, like me, your initial reaction on seeing something unknown is momentary confusion, not unusual when having a xenonormal experience, it will lose you valuable viewing time. Being a witness to anomalous phenomena is not easy!

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

EMF meters and ghosts - an accident of history?

Suppose someone showed you a graph of the output, over time, from a photometer (which measures light intensity) that they had captured while witnessing an apparition. The graph clearly showed light levels rising suddenly, as the alleged ghost appeared, and then dropping as it disappeared. Would you regard that as compelling evidence that they'd really seen a ghost?

Magnetic frequency chartI suspect many people would remain unconvinced. While the graph clearly showed that there had been a temporary increase in light levels, there could be any number of natural causes to account for such an event. All a photometer does is measure overall light levels. It can give few, if any, clues to the nature of the phenomenon responsible for that light.

Now suppose the same person said they also had an EMF meter running at the time and it showed a 'spike' while the ghost was visible. I suspect many people would consider the EMF 'spike' to be much better evidence of a ghostly presence. But why?

Take the graph, above, for instance. It shows frequency (bottom axis) against magnetic flux density ('field strength') over a short sample period, made using a magnetometer. The instrument was near to a washing machine during its spin cycle. The huge frequency peak at 50 Hz is caused by the mains supply to the appliance (standard frequency in Europe). The big peak down near 1 to 3 Hz region is caused by the rotation of the washing machine drum. I'm not sure what is causing the small peak at 45 Hz but it is certainly related to the operation of the machine because it stops when the machine is off. Maybe it's a water pump. It would be easy to test that idea by simply listening for the pump and noting when the 45 Hz peak appears. If you put an EMF meter in the same physical position, near the washing machine, you see a steady high reading (with slight wobbling) during a spin cycle. Without frequency information, EMF meters cannot even identify whether there are single or multiple sources of a field, far less offer any clue as to what any of them might be.

Photometers and EMF meters give an overall reading of light and electromagnetic fields respectively. Neither allow us to easily identify possible sources. And yet photometers are hardly, if ever, used in ghost research whereas EMF meters are ubiquitous. So, why is this?

My best guess is cost! There is an excellent, cheap alternative to the photometer which provides much more information and allows the identification of sources of light - the camera. The alternative for the EMF meter, which allows sources of magnetic fields to be identified, is the magnetometer. However, it is both much more expensive and more difficult to use. It is my opinion that, if magnetometers were as cheap as EMF meters, they be used widely instead of the meters. So we may be stuck with EMF meters simply because of an economic accident of history!

But we are where we are. Anyone choosing to use an EMF meter should be fully aware of its limitations.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Is ufology still about UFOs?

UFOIs ufology concerned with UFOs any more? That was the question posed by Hilary Evans (well-known anomaly researcher and one of ASSAP's founders) in the early days of ASSAP. He noted that ufologists had become more interested in alleged alien abduction experiences than actual 'lights in the sky'. He wanted ufologists to return primarily to examining reports of puzzling aerial objects.

There were reasons to question whether abduction cases were even related to traditional reports of lights in the sky. For instance, many abductions showed strong similarities with near sleep experiences. And the content of some experiences displayed signs of being influenced by well-publicised prior reports and even science fiction. Hilary's call for ufologists to return to studying contemporary UFO reports was largely ignored. Instead, the field has become increasingly concerned with re-examining a few 'classic' cases. One reason for this may be the apparent lack of dramatic UFO incidents being reported these days, in itself a matter worthy of discussion. Nowadays UFO reports are dominated by sightings of Chinese lanterns and toy balloons!

Looking at old cases, whether of UFOs, ghosts or any anomalous phenomenon, seldom reveals new reliable information. Memories fade and change while occasional re-discovered contemporary records still have to be assessed for reliability and accuracy. Just because someone wrote something down at the time it doesn't mean it was necessarily accurate (we only have to look at contemporary cases to see that)! In addition, the sites of well-known incidents change over time, sometimes out of all recognition, making any contemporary reconstruction pointless. In most cases, there will be NO reliable new information revealed. The only new thing to emerge will be speculation!

One preoccupation of modern ufology is the popular idea that governments hold lots of information about UFOs, much of it unknown to the public. Personally, I doubt this. UFOs appear pretty much everywhere in the world and by no means all are reported to government agencies. Many are investigated by ufologists - the ones still interested in investigating 'lights in the sky' - who make their findings public! So, given the large number of UFO reports held by ufologists, we can assume they have a reasonably large proportion of the total number of UFOs reported to all agencies, including governments. Given such a large sample, it is highly unlikely that the range of UFO reports investigated solely by government agencies differs significantly to those researched by ufologists. It therefore seems highly unlikely that governments hold any important information about UFOs that ufologists do not already have in their own records.

Of course, you could argue that governments have access to specialist equipment, like radar and military aircraft, that ufologists cannot possibly use! However, there are many 'radar' cases and accounts from commercial aircraft personnel in the public domain. Again, it seems unlikely that cases investigated by governments using such equipment are going to be hugely different to public cases. That is certainly the impression you get looking at the cases released by the UK's MOD. There may be SOME specialist information held by governments that the public don't know but I doubt it makes any material difference to the overall picture of UFOs that ufologists already have from the vast number of public cases.

Ufologists probably already have the information they need to come to a few provisional conclusions about the nature of UFOs (for instance, many reports are clearly the result of misperception). You could say something similar about ghost researchers, many of whom still insist that ghosts are spirits, despite the lack of any compelling evidence. There is no obvious evidence, as yet, that UFOs are extra-terrestrial spacecraft but, as with spirits and ghosts, that will not change such a strongly-held belief.

What would Hilary have made of the state of ufology in 2012? Who can say but if you want to know, you should go to the ASSAP conference Seriously Unidentified at the University of Worcester on 17 November 2012 - details here.

Monday, 20 August 2012

'Lack of information' should be a word!

White noiseWhy is there no word for 'lack of information'? If it turns out that there is one after all, can someone please let me know! Anyway, let's call it LOI for now. Why do we need a word for LOI? Because it's so common in anomaly research!

Take misperception, a cause of many paranormal reports. Here are some typical situations when visual misperception might be noticed:

  • object seen in a quick glances
  • object seen in poor viewing conditions
  • corner of the eye phenomena
  • distant object
  • unfamiliar object
  • partial views of an object (eg shape obscured)
  • fast moving objects - may appear to vanish if they do not move as expected by the observer
  • objects blending together - part of a foreground object appears to vanish because it 'blends in' visually with a background object (accidental camouflage)

There is a clear theme running through these common causes of misperception - a lack of visual information about the object being seen! In all such cases, a better view (for longer, closer up, from different angles, with better lighting, having previous experience of the object, etc) would remove the misperception. When we misperceive, our brains play a cruel trick on us - they tell us what we are seeing is real even though, in reality, it is our unconscious brain's best guess. Take my example from 17 Aug below. I actually HEARD the voice of the actor I believed I was listening to. I could even see his face in my mind. I had no doubts whatsoever because my brain was telling me it was true. Once I'd heard more of the voice, the misperception vanished abruptly and the voice appeared to change. My brain now told me it was someone else - and that fact was now true!

Such a strong belief in the witness's own interpretation of what they've experienced is common in paranormal cases. Even where it becomes obvious that the witness has misperceived an object as something else (a tree as a human figure, for instance), they often resist the suggestion, even to the point of adding 'new' details to their statements that all support their personal interpretation. If someone sees a misperception vanish, by getting a better view, it's unlikely they'd report it as paranormal, which is why we don't come across such cases! Going through many witness statements it is clear that, in many cases, the phenomenon reported was not seen well.

But it isn't only misperception where LOI lurks. Paranormal photos, of which I've personally examined thousands, are rarely well exposed. They are usually one or more of factors that detract from their clarity, such as being out of focus, over or under-exposed, suffering from long exposure, containing excessive image noise, low resolution and so on. You almost never see a really well-exposed, high resolution photo of something apparently paranormal. Instead, they nearly all suffer from LOI. A clearer, better lit, higher resolution version of a photo of an apparently paranormal object could well reveal its true mundane nature (I've still yet to come across a photo that looks unambiguously paranormal). Have a look at the UFO gallery for an example of this. In most cases, LOI produces, or contributes to, the apparent paranormal nature of the photo.

Then there are things like EVP, whose recordings are rarely unambiguously distinguishable from ambient noise present at the time. And there are many other aspects of anomalous research where LOI lurks. Indeed, as soon as you start to investigate paranormal cases, you come across it everywhere. You will find many witnesses who are completely convinced they saw something paranormal even though other people nearby saw nothing unusual. One obvious possible explanation for this is that the other witnesses had a better view of the apparently paranormal phenomenon!

Some people, having noted the prevalence of LOI in our field, have theorized that the paranormal itself may actually require, or even be a product of, noise and random events. If that is so, it is going to be very difficult to disentangle it from real noise and random events!