The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Archive for February 18th, 2009

Texas Fireball Mystery

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 18, 2009

This last Sunday, there was an interesting anomaly in the skies over Texas, which appeared as a fireball in the morning over the Lonestar State – see the story here. In addition, here is some pretty cool footage of the event…

Now there is a lot of speculation about what caused the fireball. Some people think it was the debris of a recent satellite collision re-entering the atmosphere, but authorities have refuted this story since the path and timing of the fireball was inconsistent with the orbits of the two satellites. It seems, given the evidence at hand, that the best candidate for explaining this fireball is that it was simply a meteor.


However, true to form, there are already a number of woo-meisters out there coming up with all manner of nonsense to explain this event. These range from alluding to some kind of government conspiracy to cover up the falling satellite debris to insisting the fireball was aliens visiting the Earth!

For example, the folks over at are going overtime on this, spinning their CT wheels into a frenzy. Here’s just a taste of some of the nuttiness…

Same ol’ Tesla Flying Machine that been around for years now. The trail cover seems to be diminished at this low level pass. A ball of electrostatic discharge surrounds the craft in any case. In some ways its a flying radio antenna and who invented radio: Tesla. Unlock the books of electricity dudes before we hear more about global warming and have to be Illuminati jerkers.

So TWO Satellites and Two Nuclear submarines crash into each other in the space of a week while a plane carrying a 9/11 campaigner who’s husband was killed on 9/11 dies in an air crash because the plane was on autopilot.

Okay great…

Hope the fire in the sky was not a sign from the AC as predicted in the Bible.

so yeah, they probably wont make headline news because im sure there are government threats made to people, intimidation and what not. check out james gilliland iwebsite and look at the black helicoptor vids and what he says about them. so yes i believe there have been crashes, but the government just wont come out and say, “yeah we have retrieved crashed UFO’s from other planets, taken some technology..oh and have a good day” check out the links. i’ll i was trying to do with this thread was see if this could possibly be one of those incidents. does anyone have pictures of the debris that fell to substantiate the fact it is a satellite? if not, its still unidentified. Just because our government says thats what it is, doesnt always mean its true. Someone show me identifiable pics of fallen satellites and ill shutup

Can we talk about the video? Either my eyes are getting older, or, seconds before the object reaches the tree line, it is deflected off course.

Can a meteorite do that? Or something else that is trying to correct it’s course?

It’s very clear that it’s original line of trajectory was altered.

The reporter just concluded a live report with CNN and he mentioned that NASA just contacted the TV station
? He mentioned that right after CNN asked if any governement agency has asked for the video.

There was a report on one of the news stations that some debris had been located and was “turned over to government officials” but I doubt that will ever surface. Now all the reporters are telling everyone not to touch anything they find.

Now everyone this afternoon is saying it was a meteor???

I have a problem with the whole “meteor” theory.

A: We track these things. One astronomer being interviewed said it had to be the size of a pickup truck. We didn’t see this coming? Something the size of a pickup truck isn’t being tracked by NORAD?

B: It changes trajectory. It’s very clear in the videos and undisputable. I’m no physics expert, nor will I succumb to any stupid “magnetic deflection theory” or “thermal barrier wave theory” or “a tornado made it change course”.

Okay, to be fair there are some skeptics at that site who are calling the woosters to task for their nonsense, but sadly they aren’t in the majority. Note the mentality by those proposing a government cover-up or implying the fireball was somehow “intelligently driven” (i.e. an alien spacecraft).

Why is it that so many people are all-too-willing to, on the basis of incomplete or scant evidence, draw the conclusion that such things are, by default, extra-terrestrial visitors from another planet?

To explore the flaws in such thinking, we must first revisit the definition of the term “UFO”. A UFO is, by definition, an Unidentified Flying Object. This means that, quite simply, we do not know what it is – it doesn’t mean that it’s a bird, weather balloon, alien spacecraft, or even Santa Claus. It means that we lack enough information to state that we know what it is. Plain and simple.

But this area of uncertainty is where the alien spacecraft advocates insert their questionable logic. Usually, the argument goes something like this: “Well, it couldn’t be anything else but an alien ship!” Right?

Wrong. Such an erroneous argument is sometimes called the argument from ignorance or the god-of-the-gaps, and it is a very common mistake in reasoning. Times too innumerable to count have shown us the errors of this form of reasoning, and it is one of the most common mistakes made by pseudoscientists of all stripes.

In the past, strange & unexplained phenomena were often explained in explicitly religious terms via the “god-of-the-gaps”. In humanity’s ignorance, lightning was attributed to the moods of powerful deities such as Thor or Zeus, and other seemingly “miraculous” events were said to be the work of angels, demons, or God. In modern times, what seems to have changed is not so much our faulty reasoning, but the bogeymen we tap in an attempt to explain our ignorance. Rather than explain what we don’t know by making appeals to the blatantly supernatural (deities, angels, or leprechauns), more of us are using a new religion of “UFOlogy” to explain the unknown as aliens in their ships with advanced technology. Perhaps when discussing UFOs, we should speak not of the “god-of-the-gaps” argument but “alien-of-the-gaps” instead.

In exploring the universe around us, it is important that we employ a healthy balance of wonder & skepticism. Perhaps there are intelligent aliens out there (I’d like to think so), but wanting it to be true doesn’t make it so. Better to wait until there is solid evidence to reach that conclusion – besides, having the hard facts behind your convictions is so much better than wishful thinking.

So what’s the best response when confronted with something that we don’t understand, such as the Texas fireball? In the absence of any definitive evidence, the best answer is simply to state the most obvious truth: “We don’t know.”

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Woo Beliefs: What’s the Harm?

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 18, 2009

As a skeptic, many times when I argue with people about various woo beliefs, I hear them say, “What’s the harm in believing X?” My answer: there can be plenty of harm in believing in X.

X could be homeopathy, creationism, psychic or paranormal phenomena, Holocaust denial, or all manner of other pseudoscientific or pseudohistorical woo.

The next time you are discussing any skeptically-oriented topic with someone (whether they’re a woo believer or not), and they ask you that now infamous question, refer them to this website –


That website is a collection of stories relaying just how harmful such woo beliefs can be. As the opening line of the website states:

368,379 people killed, 306,096 injured and over $2,815,931,000 in economic damages

That’s a lot of harm. The damage in these stories ranges from minor financial loss, such as when believers are swindled by TV psychics or faith healers, to the death of a loved one at the hands of a “natural cures” practitioner. If you take some time to read through just a few of the topics over at, you’ll see pretty quickly that it is worthwhile to keep tabs on those who push such nonsense and the role that some basic skepticism & critical thinking can play in protecting you from the damage that can be wrought by this woo.

I think it was best said by famous magician & skeptic Penn Jilette when he said…

Well said, Penn. People really do need to see how damaging & dangerous pseudo- and anti-scientific beliefs can be, not just for themselves but the rest of us & society as well.

Remember it, folks – – and refer people to it often. Knowledge is power.

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