Denver Local News Sees Insects, but Thinks UFOs

The entire universe in blog form
Nov. 28 2012 1:51 PM

"UFOs" Over Denver Bug Me

No UFOs
You UFOs stay off my lawn!

Image credit: Shutterstock

As a skeptic and an astronomer, I’m sometimes asked what it would take for me to believe in UFOs (in this case, meaning alien spaceships). I usually say, “One landing on my front lawn.” But what don’t convince me are blurry photos and unreliable eyewitness testimony.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

Unfortunately, the media make my job a lot harder. I’ve seen local news reports and TV shows identifying all kinds of things as a UFO, including Venus, Jupiter, and once even bits of seed fluff from trees.

Advertisement

But sometimes I see a report so silly it leaves me a little awestruck. Such was the case recently, when several folks sent me notes about a report that aired on Fox affiliate KDVR in Denver. On Nov. 8, 2012, the station aired a UFO segment that was truly a thing of wonder. Watch for yourself.

While I watched this segment, one word rang through my head, echoing as it bounced around repeatedly: “Seriously?” Just: “Seriously?”

Generating a Buzz

Because if those are UFOs I’ll fight a xenomorph bare-handed. Those aren’t UFOs. Those are bugs. Insects. Insects flying around in front of the camera. Insects that can hover, change direction, zip away. Insects that look like blobs because they’re close to the camera, which was set to focus on infinity. Insects which were lit by the Sun so they flash a bit when they change direction.

And yes, I know: UFO means Unidentified Flying Object, and since no one could identify them, these are by definition UFOs. Except they aren’t. They’re insects.

I’ll note that perhaps not every object in that video is entomological. Some may be birds, and others small remote controlled planes (one in particular appears to move up, stall, then dive just like the RC planes I used to fly when I was in high school), but the one thing they aren’t is a mystery.

­­­On air, Heidi Hemmat, the reporter, talked to someone identified as “a former commercial pilot, instructor, and FAA accident prevention counselor” who was able to say those objects aren’t planes or helicopters … but he also says they’re not insects. I take exception to that. It sounds like he’s assuming they’re far away and therefore big, but we don’t know that. They could be close and small. In which case they’re entirely consistent with being insects.

Look, sometimes things are hard to figure out. Sometimes the evidence is ambiguous. But also sometimes the evidence is absolutely ridiculously overwhelmingly forehead-slappingly oh-my-God-this-is-so-obviously obvious. I’ll note the Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society agrees, too, and they do skeptical investigations like this all the time.

Apt Pupa

Let me go back to the size issue. With only one camera being used, there’s no distance information. You don’t know if those are big objects far away, or small ones seen up close. But it’s easy to get that info: Use two cameras. Set them up a few feet apart, aim them in the same direction, and make sure their clocks are synched. Then run ‘em. If these are truly distant objects capable of mind-altering feats indicative of fiercesome engineering, then both cameras will show the same thing: Compare the object to, say, a cloud or building behind it, and it’ll look the same in both cameras.

But if it’s an insect/bird a few feet away, it’ll show in only one camera. Boom! Done.

Since insects are the most obvious explanation, they must be the one thing you eliminate first before making any other conclusions.

With this in mind, I contacted Hemmat at KDVR to see if I could talk her into doing a follow-up. To her great credit, she replied almost immediately and was open to the idea, but she didn’t think her bosses would allow much more time to do more investigation. She suggested I or someone else do it ourselves and let her know. Fair enough, or so I thought at the time.

Picture of an insect.
Not a UFO.

Image credit: YouTube user UnderOathMeal.

A little while later, Scott Weikert, a local skeptic, got in touch with me and let me know some folks who frequent the website reddit.com went out and shot some video at the same location, but unfortunately didn’t get much.* One of them did get a fly to land directly on his lens, and shockingly it looks a lot like the UFOs in the original video. He also notes that the area had a lot of insects flying around. Hmmm.

Segmented

Still, we’re not done quite yet. On Nov. 20, a couple of weeks after the first segment aired, KDVR aired a follow-up segment, presumably due to the popularity of the first one:

In this segment, Hemmat did talk to another expert: Mary Ann Hamilton, a local entomologist with the Butterfly Pavilion (a great place to see and learn about butterflies and insects). We see her only very briefly in the segment, and only for her to say she didn’t think the objects were insects.

I was curious, so I called Hamilton. She relayed to me that she was shown only a few clips of the objects and was told that they were far away from the camera. So she was going on the idea that these were distant and therefore large objects. Also, the images are very fuzzy—again, consistent with insects seen up close and out of focus—which is why she couldn’t make out any body shape, or wings, or segmentation that would allow her to positively ID them as insects. That’s what she was saying in the clip.

“I did the best I could with what was shown to me,” she told me. And in my opinion, she didn’t have nearly enough information to go on, and some of the info she was given simply wasn’t correct. So in this case, contacting an entomologist did nothing to eliminate the possibility these are insects.

Also, notice in that second segment that in addition to showing the entomologist, Hemmat showed herself talking to people who went out and did more filming in the original area; she showed more clips; she showed herself looking through emails from around the world and answering phone calls; and in general, she shows that she went to a lot of trouble and time to make this second segment.

But despite all that, the one thing she didn’t do was go back to the site and use two cameras to see if these things were insects or not.

You can just guess how I feel about that.

Even more aggravating, at the very end of the segment, Hemmat mentions the idea I sent her about using two cameras, and said she’d take suggestions on how to triangulate on these objects … but I told her about this over a week before that second segment aired. If they had time to do all that other reporting in the segment, then they had the time to do a simple and proper investigation.

Bugging Out

You can talk to all the experts in the world, review all the footage they took, and perhaps not come to a solid conclusion for all the objects seen. But simply going back and using two cameras side-by-side would show for sure whether these things are far away or close by. And this investigation didn’t do it. In situations like this, people need to know how to think critically, gather evidence, and work out ways of testing hypotheses. None of that happened here.

I actually do hope KDVR and Hemmat do investigate this further, investigate it properly, and air a third report. I really do. But if it’s done, it has to be done right.

I don’t want to have to write yet another debunking like this. I do hate to be a buzzkill.

*Correction, Nov. 28, 2012: This post originally misspelled Scott Weikert's last name.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Lifetime Didn’t Find the Steubenville Rape Case Dramatic Enough, So They Added Self-Immolation

The Good Wife Is Cynical, Thrilling, and Grown-Up. It’s Also TV’s Best Drama.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 20 2014 7:00 AM The Shaggy Sun
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.