Analyst vs. Critic: States of Mind


In each installment of Analyst vs. Critic I take on an article written about suspected paranormal phenomena. I will examine the breadth and depth of the investigation and look for signs of bias and flawed thinking. I don’t do this to put down skeptics, but rather to inform those interested in serious investigations of the paranormal. 

Today I will analyze a piece by noted Skeptic Joe Nickell entitled; “States of Mind: Some Perceived ET Encounters.” Mr. Nickell wrote this piece after an interview on April 24th, 2012 with Anderson Cooper.

I’m not going to go into every detail in this article but rather point out the more glaring issues I have with it. You can read the article in it’s entirety here. 

Together, as we shall see, these cases illustrate that UFOlogy continues its long tradition of mystery mongering and the implicit reliance on a logical fallacy called “arguing from ignorance”: “We don’t know what was seen in the sky; therefore, it must have been an extraterrestrial craft.”

Perhaps I should have saved this for last but since Mr. Nickell introduces it first I will follow suit. You will notice that Mr. Nickell never offers any of his explanations as proof. He uses the words probably and could be to describe what the scientific community calls hypotheses for these events. What I can’t understand is how Mr. Nickell can take a paper full of hypotheses – unproven mind you – and make a statement like this. This demonstrates a clear bias against believers of UFO phenomena and although I won’t point out ever instance, you can clearly detect an automatic disbelief of each eyewitnesses testimony.

 First up was Denise Murter, age fifty-two, from Levittown, Pennsylvania… Thereupon, she “noticed a light in the sky,” which she guessed to be “about 1000 feet in the air.” While it seemed to be “moving very quickly from spot to spot,” nevertheless, she stated, “It was hovering over the trees in the yard.” There was no noise and Alex became “perfectly well behaved.” The light hovered for some twenty minutes, but she does not say what became of it…

The incident was repeated about four weeks later, but the night sky was more overcast, so she said of the UFO that she “could just see parts of it creeping in the clouds.” Depending on how it moved, it appeared circular or boomerang shaped.1 She saw windows that were “bluish green” and “were all the way around the craft.” A “little pink light” was following it, and “On the bottom there were three giant headlights in a triangle shape.”

After another month, Alex again woke her and she “immediately knew that they were back and I had to go outside again.” The craft appeared closer to the house “but still hovering over the trees.” Then she saw a beam of light and a sparkling powder that “looked like it was dancing in the trees” (Murter 2012a).

Murter stated, “I was paralyzed. I could not move.” She waited until the next day to tell her husband because this particular experience “was just too unbelievable. . . . I didn’t want people to think I went bonkers; it was like it was in a movie.”

The “paralysis”—together with the strange as if “in a movie” experience—provides a clue as to what probably happened on this occasion: Being half asleep (and perhaps having rested on one of the lounge chairs in her back yard to watch the hovering UFO),3Murter had a hypnagogic experience (or “waking dream”). This occurs in the interface between being fully awake and asleep. It is typically characterized by hallucinations, often with bright lights reported, and sleep paralysis, the body’s inability to move because it is still in the sleep mode (Mavromatis 1987, 14–52). This state probably explains Murter’s perceived beam of light and sparkling powder. I suspect that during at least part of each of her reported events Murter was not fully awake, and that that affected many of her perceptions.

The first problem I have with Mr. Nickell’s hypothesis is the number of assumptions. She was asleep, perhaps resting in a lounge chair, experiencing a waking dream. Real investigation would merit speaking with Mrs. Murter to determine more information. Instead Nickell relies on his own image of what happened and puts aside the hard investigative work of fact-finding. It is easy to shape a narrative that fits your own agenda. I also have to point out that many similar instances are witnessed be people wide awake, some are even recorded on video. Nickell’s explanation could be a likely explanation for this particular case, but it certainly does not account for many other cases. Additionally if other witnesses of these types of phenomena are wide awake, perhaps Mrs. Murter wasn’t witnessing a waking dream as Mr. Nickell postulates. The objective investigator needs to consider all of these possibilities, not simply the hypothesis that proves their own viewpoint as Mr. Nickell Does.

Regarding the UFO itself, I discussed Murter’s sightings with James McGaha… He suggested that the UFO might have a ready explanation, given the direction in which Murter was looking at the approximate times and place reported: that is, a celestial object, some twenty-five times brighter than the stars in her field of vision—namely, the planet Jupiter. That it seemed to move was probably due to the autokinetic effect (McGaha 2012). This occurs when one stares at a bright light in the dark, particularly when it is well above the horizon (so there is no frame of reference). Autokinesis is due to “small involuntary jerking movements of the human eye” (Hendry 1979, 26). (In one UFO case, for example, a light that “zigzagged” while remaining in the same basic position for forty minutes proved to be a combination of star and “autokinetic motions” [Hendry 1979, 95].)

As to the shifting colors Murter described, McGaha (2012) noted that that effect would be due to scintillation—that is, the “twinkling,” not only of stars but also of planets like Jupiter when the atmosphere is especially turbulent. Scintillation can occur on the clearest nights, even affecting a single celestial light, and it results in refraction (bending) of the different wavelengths to cause the changing colors. Like autokinesis, scintillation can also produce “an illusion of motion” (Hen­dry 1979, 26). Both probably helped cause the illusion of changing shapes Murter described, aided by her own imagination. After the show’s taping she sent me an angry note in which she said, “I know what I saw” (Murter 2012b). Actually, of course, this no doubt well-meaning lady only “knows” what she thinks she saw.

Again there is a great deal of conjecture. How much movement did Mrs. Murter actually witness in the object? Can the autokinetic effect account for this amount of movement? These are basic questions to determine if the hypothesis is valid and Mr. Nickell has not addressed them. This is what I call basic conditions analysis. Does the hypothesis match the all of the conditons of the phenomenon? It is interesting that this could be the explanation but Mr. Nickell’s investigation is lazy! It is another example of lazy science and is no more than a poorly evaluated hypothesis to prove his own viewpoint. It could be an explanation and then again it may not. It doesn’t serve to prove or disprove that Mrs. Murter witnessed a UFO or ETs.

Anyway, as I told Cooper on his show, it seems farfetched that extraterrestrials would traverse the incredible distances involved—on some secret mission to Earth—then repeatedly hover over Murter’s back yard with their bright lights on!

Skeptics constantly criticize believers for claiming to know the intentions of alien beings and here Mr. Nickell does just that. How does he have any idea what the motivation, goals and capabilities of an Extra-Terrestrial race would be? He doesn’t. This is in fact an example of the “arguing from ignorance” fallacy Mr. Nickell uses to describe UFO witnesses: Because we don’t know anything about an alien race they must have no interest in us? Come on Mr. Nickell! This is his bias surfacing to answer a question that the objective investigator would have no answer to.

The next segment on Anderson featured two young women from Law­rence­burg, Kentucky, Brittany Fields and Jennifer Morgan…

Their story began April 26, 2011, when, about midnight, the two went on a drive with three young male friends. As they turned down one road and looked over farmland, they saw a light above the trees speeding toward them. Jennifer first thought it could be a helicopter: It was “somewhat long” with lights on the front and back. However, when it flew over them it was “huge,” she said, “bigger than a helicopter,” and made a noise that was like no helicopter she knew. It sounded like a loud, high-pitched, thumping rhythm. There was also a high-pitched whining noise.” Soon, she says, there seemed to be lights everywhere, “red, white, and green,” that were “blinking sporadically” (Morgan 2012). Brittany described somewhat similar events, except that she had first thought their initial sighting was of a blimp (Fields 2012).

No doubt the young people saw something, and they categorically deny they were under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. However, the three males’ unwillingness to come forward does suggest that they were less inclined to become caught up in the imaginative possibilities (rather like Murter’s reticent husband in the previous case).

Mr. Nickell suggests that the three men’s unwillingness to discuss the events indicates a disbelief in the accounts of the two women. This is another assumption that indicates a clear bias on the part of Mr. Nickell. The three males could have witnessed something just as profound but choose not to be labeled as crazy and delusional as UFO witnesses often are. After all Mr. Nickell’s who purpose in this article is to prove UFO witnesses are prone to fantasy. Would you want to take that credibility hit? Without knowing what the three men’s motivations are for not talking about the incident this is unsupported conjecture that does not add to or detract from the credibility of the two women’s stories.

I also discussed this particular case with James McGaha—this time not in his persona of astronomer but as a former special operations and electronic warfare pilot. He stated that the witnesses’ UFO description had “helicopter written all over it.” He pointed out that the area was well within the reach of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, which is where American military helicopter training occurs. Stationed there is the famous “Night Stalkers” special-operations unit. (Indeed, it was out of Fort Campbell that the training for the days-later, successful “Night Stalkers” mission against terrorist Bin Laden took place.) The Night Stalkers unit has an impressive variety of huge and odd-looking helicopters that the public rarely sees. Major McGaha suggests that some nighttime helicopter training operation could explain the young people’s UFO sighting. As to the red, green, and white lights reported, those are the colors of lights on all aircraft—military or civilian.

As a former all-source intelligence analyst at the mighty 101st Airborne Division, or Ft. Campbell to the uninitiated, I can say this is a possible explanation but there is one glaring red flag. The witnesses claimed what they saw was not a helicopter. Now it is reasonable to assume the Night Stalkers utilize advanced (and highly classified) helicopters, far different then what the public is used to. I would imagine the use of these aircraft would be restricted to the expansive training area Ft. Campbell has just for it’s helicopters. I find it difficult to believe, but not impossible, that SOAR (The Night Stalkers) were using classified helicopters outside of the training area. That would risk exposing the design to foreign governments and the public. Again, the objective investigator needs to consider all angles impartially not choose the explanation that suits his or her own bias.

In any event, Brittany says that later, “no one remembers a period of time after we turned left at a four-way stop towards the end of the night.” Because of this “missing time” and other concerns, she also contacted MUFON and “They proposed the idea of us getting hypnotized” (Fields 2012). Under hypnosis she “remembered” four small humanoid beings, one of whom held her hand, while the others poked at and examined her body. She “locked eyes” with the entity that was holding her hand and she “felt a flood of emotion.” He, too, seemed “overwhelmingly concerned” and “just wanted to make me better.” In a second session she explored the period of “missing time” and reported that she and Jen­nifer had been in a state “like frozen animation” (Fields 2012).

For her part, Jennifer says she “was not as responsive to hypnosis as Brit­tany.” Her session seemed “almost like a dream.” “The only thing I can remember,” she says, “was seeing a bright light, Brittany pulling off the road, and then literally my memory jumped from being in a car to being in a circular white room.” Completely naked, she felt a pain in the back of her head, and later her boyfriend found a scar on the back of her neck that she did not recall having. Did she think she was abducted by aliens? “There’s no other explanation. It’s the only logical explanation,” she concluded (Morgan 2012).

Actually, there is quite another, much more rational explanation for such en­counters. They have their origins in a now-ubiquitous UFO myth­ology. Brit­tany said, on describing their first sighting, “Listen, I’ve always believed in this kind of thing” (Fields 2012). The willingness to presume that an un­known object is an extraterrestrial craft (an exercise in illogic called “arguing from ignorance”) sets the stage for other expectations. The familiar humanoid likeness, the “missing time,” the unremembered scar—these are common motifs of UFO lore.

The skeptic uses the term rational as a subjective measure to determine the validity of paranormal claims. Since Mr. Nickell offers a more rational explanation – an explanation rooted in natural phenomena – it is automatically given preference over competing hypotheses. I have my own doubts about regression hypnosis, but I have not seen conclusive proof that it is either effective or ineffective. Both sides of the table have published studies supporting the merits or lack thereof for this technique so it is difficult to draw any conclusions here. Doing so at this point amounts to picking sides. Mr. Nickell would need to do more to prove his claim.

In fact, there is nothing remarkable about a scar going unremembered, especially in an out-of-sight location. As well, “missing time” may result from nothing more than the percipient having been lost in thought. As to the supposed recall under hypnosis, that is simply mistaking imagination for memory. Hypnosis is merely an invitation to fantasize (Baker and Nickell 1992, 216–31). (Being easily hypnotized is even one of the indicators, though not diagnostic in itself, of a personality type that is characterized by proneness to fantasy [Wilson and Barber 1983]—discussed more fully later.) For these reasons, on Anderson I called for MUFON and others to immediately stop using hypnosis to elicit “memories” in UFO cases.

While certainly some scars can go unremembered Mr. Nickell should note that there are many cases of quite obvious scars on suspected alien abduction victims. These scars would be hard to miss. As for missing time could be the result of the victim being lost in thought… I find that one hard to swallow. These are weak arguments that don’t stand up to scrutiny when compared to the bulk of encounters. Let’s see these compared to a much larger sampling of cases, then we can start to see whether the hypothesis has validity and relevance.

I find it funny that Mr. Nickell cites himself to backup his statement “hypnosis is merely an invitation to fantasize” and I imagine many psychologists would take issue with that statement. Hypnosis is about increasing suggestibility of the patient not opening them up to create false realities based on their beliefs. Now if the hypnotist used suggestion to influence a memory that is another thing entirely, but to suggest that hypnosis in general is an invitation to fantasize is silly.

Mr. Nickell would do well to be clear and concise with his statements instead of using these generic and superficial declarations. Is he accusing the psychologists at MUFON of suggesting memories?  We don’t know because he doesn’t tell us. Can he expand, give us proof, more citations? When we are dealing with investigation clarity and explanation is good, generic statements and generalizations are bad. Unfortunately we continue to see the latter.

Like UFOlogical cases generally, these examples from Anderson are telling. They illustrate how distorting the eye of the beholder can be, and how—through credulity, pro-UFO bias, illusions and misperceptions, altered states of consciousness, personality traits, and other factors, including a UFO-mythmaking culture—it can transform mundane phenomena into perceived alien encounters.

Following the show, Anderson Cooper received flak from flying saucer proponents (like the Herald-Tribune’s embarrassingly gullible blogger Billy Cox [2012]) and even a bit from praise­worthy rationalists (like Ed Stockly [2012], who blogs for the Los Angeles Times and suggested I did a “fine job” while being “outnumbered”). In my view, Cooper did a very good job, from identifying himself as a skeptic at the outset to giving me the opportunity to respond throughout. As Stockly noted: “Perhaps the best measure of Nickell’s effectiveness was shown when Cooper polled the studio audience. Only a few hands were raised when asked how many believed that UFOs were alien visitors, and all but a few hands went up when asked how many didn’t believe. Mark that one for the skeptics. It seems that Cooper’s audience is on the ball.” I would add that Cooper himself led the way.

I skipped Nickell’s commentary of the last visitor on the show because it simply demonstrated more of the same we have witnessed throughout this piece.

In this particular passage the first paragraph is very telling of Mr. Nickell’s true agenda. Nowhere in this paper did Mr. Nickell prove anything, in fact he was careful to use qualifiers like probably, likely, could be, and possibly to mark all of his conjecture; yet somehow from this paper filled with conjecture Nickell reaches the conclusion that perception and bias are the key influencers of UFO phenomenon, and the witnesses themselves are eager to believe anything. These are stated as fact when in fact Nickell offers no proof to back these statements. He did not prove the events were based on mundane phenomena; he did not prove altered states of consciousness were a critical factor; he did not prove pro-UFO bias influenced these claims. These are statements of bias; more specifically Mr. Nickell’s bias to discount claims by believers of ETs and alien space-craft.

As an former Army intelligence analyst I spent a lot of time dealing with bias. In our line of work objective analysis saves lives while bias can get people killed. Of course bias is not entirely life-threatening in the field of paranormal investigation, but it is truth-threatening. Intel analysts learn to spot the signs of author bias and Mr. Nickell’s work is filled with them. The vocabulary he uses; the way he applies a generic characterization of eyewitnesses as credulous; describing the Herald-Tribune blogger as embarrassingly gullible while labeling a friendly skeptic (Ed Stockly) as a praiseworthy rationalist. An objective investigator does not make biased statements like this without the proof to back it up. Mr. Nickell does not give us proof, just possibilities.

1. A photo Murter snapped (see Howe 2008) shows a non-aerodynamic, banana-shaped effect, very grainy or pixelated, probably a photo artifact caused by a point of light photographed by a camera in motion while the shutter is still open (McGaha 2012).

This is one of the notes from Mr. Nickell. While it is interesting that the photo could be an artifact, if that is what Mr. Nickell proposes then Mrs. Murter would have to have lied about what she witnessed. This is of course a valid possibility but more work should be done to determine Mrs. Murter’s credibility. I also would have hoped Mr. Nickell would have pointed out that this assertion is in fact an allegation that Mrs. Murter lying.

Mr. Nickell offers nothing more than unevaluated hypotheses applied to a few cases and uses these as a tool to allude to his notion that cases of Extraterrestrial Encounters are just fantasy, brought on by the believer’s bias. That would be fine if it stopped there, but to use these types of hypotheses to disprove claims of UFOs en masse is foolish, but that is what commonly occurs. UFO witnesses are labeled as cooks and crazy even though no skeptic as proved their hypotheses against the body of cases. It is unfortunate that the scientific community takes a possibly legitimate unexplained phenomenon, something we could potentially learn a great deal from, and stamps some crude unproven explanations on it.

Furthermore anyone who expresses an opinion of dissent is labeled a pseudo-scientist. If no one takes up the mantle of objective paranormal investigations then we will never get to the truth. The fact is Joe Nickell may be 100% correct in his hypotheses, but let’s due the diligence and evaluate those hypotheses against competing ones to make sure we get it right. We owe it to the thousands of witnesses; some of whom are terrified for their life because of what they experience.

My other concern with Mr. Nickell is his style of investigation. He does not “show his work” and uses blanket statements to speak to an entire phenomenon without delving into the full depth and breadth of the occurrences. I see no respect for the sheer number of cases, the correlation of the cases or the fact that his explanations offered in this paper cannot account for the conditions in many cases. This is sloppy investigation from the world’s only full-time paranormal investigator. Mr. Nickell also shows a clear bias to disprove the paranormal. Again not a problem unless you label yourself as the voice of reason in the world of paranormal investigation as Nickell has. I would have a lot more respect for the man if he simply cut the BS and stated the facts: His goal is to disprove claims of the paranormal and he views believers as foolish and easily influenced. He is not an objective investigator, he is a man on a mission.

As an additional note Mr. Nickell has a Ph.D and takes time to highlight that fact in his CSICOP bio:

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and “Investigative Files” Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer.

The critical mind might question what field Mr. Nickell’s Ph.D is in. His major was in English Lit. and he specialized in literary investigation. Mr. Nickell also holds a B.A. and M.A. though I could not find what fields they were in after a quick search. If anyone knows please leave a comment.

Is Mr. Nickell any more qualified to be an investigator of the paranormal than me or you? I’ll let you be the judge.