Monday, November 29, 2010

What's Wrong With This Picture?

January 24, 1988.

Evening. Cloudy. A somewhat secluded road, a few houses around, far apart.

A pickup truck pulls over. The driver gets out. He walks down the road, shouting, daring someone to show themselves. His name is Ed Walters.

The passenger gets out, holding a video camera, taping the event. He is a newspaper editor who was contacted by Ed that a UFO might appear. His name is Duane Cook.

Cook has been following Ed's story for some time, a story involving the strange appearances of a UFO, aliens sending mysterious messages to Ed via telepathy. Ed is a contractor in Gulf Breeze, Florida, who claims he hears a humming sound inside his head before a UFO appears. As on other occasions, the humming starts low, then grows to such intensity that it becomes painful.

So why doesn't Cook think all of this is just in Ed's head?

Because Ed has submitted pictures to Cook's paper, images showing an otherworldly craft hanging in the night sky. The pictures were taken with a Polaroid camera. In pre-digital days the Polaroid system provided the closest thing to instant gratification. Other cameras used film that had to be exposed, then developed as negatives or slides. Negatives needed enlargers or automated machinery to make prints; slides required a special projector that cast images on a screen. Both processes involved a long turnaround time from taking the shots to viewing them.

A Polaroid camera combined the developing and printing into two simple steps. Snap a shot. The exposed small print would pop out from the camera. Wait sixty seconds for the development process do its magic and after you carefully peeled away the protective top layer, there was the image.

Cook believed that Ed's Polaroids were good evidence of UFO encounters because Polaroids were hard to manipulate to produce fakes.

As Ed keeps shouting at his alien tormenters, it starts to rain. Cook decides it's now too dark to keep shooting. As he starts to get back into the pickup, Ed yells, the UFO has appeared. Ed snaps a shot of the object, his camera's flash going off.

Cook isn't quick enough. By the time he gets out to take a look, the UFO has disappeared, or so Ed claims.

Ed hands the exposed print to Cook. The newspaperman waits sixty seconds and then pulls the protective layer off, revealing an alien craft hovering in the sky, the rooftop rack to Ed's truck illuminated by the camera's flash.

But Ed is upset. He wanted Cook to see the UFO but the aliens are playing hide and seek once again. But Cook isn't disappointed. He tells Ed: "It's more important that you shot it, and I saw you shoot it, and this is what I saw you shoot. This is better if I had seen it and you had not gotten the picture."

Cook adds: "I can flat out guarantee anybody that I saw you take this picture."

Wait a minute. Back it up. At this point in Ed Walter's book, The Gulf Breeze Sightings, I had a problem. (And not for the first time.)

It's stated in the book that Polaroids were hard to fake -- but it doesn't state that such fakery is impossible. With everything going on -- Ed's hysterics about the aliens tormenting him, the rainfall starting up, Cook getting back into the truck -- how can Cook definitely say that Ed gave him the same print that popped out of the camera at that time?

Cook states: "[Ed] came over to my door, pulled the photo from the camera, and handed it to me." (Page 340). Or so he recalls.

With everything happening Cook could have assumed that Ed pulled it from the camera. Under certain conditions perception and memory can play tricks. Maybe another print, one exposed using a special method, was substituted.

Misdirection is a standard trick for magicians. Look over there while I'm making a switch here. So is misperception: the magician influences what you think you see.

No, I'm not saying Ed Walters that evening was only doing a magic trick. But the possibility still exists. And considering that a model of the same UFO was found in Ed's home after he moved away, I find myself leaning towards the skeptical.

I argue that it would've been better if Cook saw the object and Ed didn't get the shot. A hovering UFO is harder to fake than a picture.

Previously in the book another man -- Bob Reid, a videographer for a local TV station -- one night has a similar experience to Cook. Reid is keeping watch over Ed, his mini-van and observation set-up a block away from Ed's house. The videographer and Ed keep in touch via walkie-talkies. Ed leaves his house, walking over to the van to deliver an item to be passed along to someone else. During part of the walk Reid can't see Ed; trees obstruct the view.

Suddenly Ed on the walkie-talkie asks Reid if he sees the UFO. But the videographer can't see the object at that moment because he is looking at the wrong spot in the sky, distracted by a plane. Ed soon shows up, agitated, asking Reid if he witnessed the ET craft during its brief appearance.

Once again another observer misses viewing the elusive alien ship. But Reid believes he has the evidence he needs: his recording of the Ed's distraught state is proof that Ed did see an alien craft, that he was in contact with aliens. After all, Ed's terror is so convincing. It couldn't just be his imagination.

Again, a problem. Certain people can completely convincing on videotape, even though their emotions are faked, reacting in fictional situations. They're called actors. Hollywood awards them for being so apparently real. Maybe Ed did have a terrifying experience but his reaction by itself proves nothing.

Both incidents and the responses by the observers of Ed's actions involve what I call hyper-logic. Whether you're a harden skeptic or a true believer, don't try to win me over with such "logic."

[Disclaimer: I read The Gulf Breeze Sightings years ago and this time I only perused parts of the book to refresh my memory. I didn't read it from cover to cover a second time. My life is too short. But note I did more than scan the index.]

Sources: All from The Gulf Breeze Sightings (1990) by Ed and Frances Walters.

Chapter: JANUARY 21, 1988--TWELFTH SIGHTING--WITH REID ACCOUNT; pages 140-147.


Appendix 2, pages 337 - 341, Duane Cook's January 24, 1988 account.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Martin Gardner

Shouldn't scientific thinking and logic work together?

Recently the Skeptical Inquirer magazine published an issue remembering the late Martin Gardner, a founding member of CSICOP/CSI (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, renamed Committee for Scientific Inquiry). I first encountered his work in Fads and Fallacies in the Name Of Science, a classic book in the skeptical field.

In a SI tribute by Ray Hyman this detail leaped out at me: Gardner would sometimes write a book review by just reading its index.

Hyman wondered how Gardner could read and review so many books with his busy schedule. Gardner replied that in most cases he didn't actually read a book, he just scanned the index for the info he needed to write his review.

As I've mentioned before, sometimes I skim-read / skip-read a book, i.e., I'll peruse a few passages and jump around from spot to spot. When writing a review I mention this, letting the reader know that I haven't read a book from cover to cover. That way the reader knows I'm only commenting on certain aspects, not the entire work.

And please note: I haven't read the SI tribute issue for Martin Gardner (September/October 2010) from cover to cover. I just read a couple of the tributes.

From what I gather, Gardner didn't inform his readers about his index scanning method of book reviewing. Not very journalistic or scientific.

But this doesn't surprise me. One time in a SI interview (published March/April 1998; link below) Gardner revealed that he believed in God and a soul that lives on. He admitted that he had no evidence that either God or a immortal soul existed; he invoked fideism, a view that such things can't be proven by reason but by faith alone and that's OK if it makes you feel good.

So what about those who follow astrology or other fringe beliefs that Gardner would criticize with scientific skepticism? Why can't they invoke fideism? After all, doesn't astrology make a believer feel good, giving meaning to life?

Maybe it's a matter of who you are. If you're a intellectual skeptic, you're allowed to believe in an unprovable idea because you can use a philosophical copout like fideism.

I'm an atheist. Martin Gardner, prove me wrong. Send me a message from the great beyond like Houdini.


-- Skeptical Inquirer, September/October 2010 (Print version): Martin Gardner: A Polymath to the Nth Power by Ray Hyman, page 28-29.

-- A Mind at Play: Interview with Martin Gardner

Friday, November 05, 2010

Are You There Zehaas? Its Me, Kal-El

Memory trigger.

Over at his blog, The X Spot, X. Dell (no relation) has been running a series of posts dealing with Ed Walters and the Gulf Breeze sightings.

In November 1987 a resident of Gulf Breeze, Florida, contractor Ed Walters, was nearly abducted during a UFO encounter, zapped by a blue beam. The aliens started to abduct Ed, lifting him off the ground with the beam, but he fought back. He screamed "Aagghh!" and the aliens dropped him and left.

Thus begins Ed's story in the book, The Gulf Breeze Sightings (1990), co-written (as such) with his wife Frances. (I don't notice any discernable differences in writing styles between Ed's and Frances's sections.) As explained in the book, the aliens kept showing up now and then, telepathically saying stuff to Ed like "Zehaas, in sleep you will know."

When X. Dell mentioned the name Zehaas it triggered a memory. The main detail I had retained after reading TGBS many years ago was the alien's name for Ed. So I checked out a copy of the book from the library and started skip-reading through it again. (Some books aren't worth a full read.)

Originally Ed tried to stay in the background, calling himself Mr. X (definitely no relation) when he submitted the Polaroid snaps from his first UFO encounter to the Sentinel, a local newspaper. On page 243 of TGBS it's mentioned that a Sentinel editor received a call from a woman who suggested that since the aliens spoke Spanish at times that Zehaas was really "cejas" (pronounced "See-hass"), the word for eyebrows. Ed wrote that since he had curly eyebrows maybe the aliens were eyebrowless, impressed by his prominent ones.

Yeah, right.

Ed's story doesn't hold up for a number of reasons. As X. Dell explains at his blog Ed faked a photo one time of a "demon." After he moved away from the house where all the weird stuff went down, the new owners found an UFO model similar to what was seen in Ed's photos hidden under some attic insulation.

Even without this revelation I find it hard to buy Ed's story with its old-style sci-fi pulp magazine details like a small alien who appears in a metal suit with a futuristic cattle-prod. Or the UFO that looks like something out of an old TV series like Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. And don't get me going about the hack-writer name for an alien, "Zehaas."

I haven't read the two books by Ed that followed TGBS so I don't know if the Zehaas mystery was ever explained. Going by what is offered in TGBS it seems that Ed might have been working towards a story that he was part alien or had some sort of alien connection. You know, the trite SF story about a prince from another world who is exiled to Earth as a baby because the bad guys on his own world have killed off the rest of the royal family. Or maybe his world just went BOOM! but he got away.

This isn't anything new outside of science fiction. In an article entitled "Alien Memories And Dreams" paranormal writer Brad Steiger observes:

"The whole matter of sensible men and women who claim alien memories and persistent dreams of extraterrestrial origin invites extensive speculation. Are these people, because of their higher intelligence and greater sensitivity, rejecting an association with Earth because of all the inadequacies and shortcomings, which they witness all around them?

"Does the mechanism of believing oneself to be of alien heritage enable one to deal more objectively with the multitude of problems, which assail the conscientious, and caring at each dawn of a new day?"

Steiger collects information on human hybrids with alien DNA with his Starseed Questionnaire. I don't know the validity of all those who claim to be "Star People" but if Ed Walters and his "Zehaas" rap was intended to go in that direction, faked Polaroids and a concealed UFO model undermine any of his claims.