The Skeptical Teacher

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

What is it?

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 14, 2009

I frequent the JREF Forum quite a bit, and if you’re at all into skepticism and whatnot, I suggest you go over to check it out sometime. Anyway, recently someone posted an interesting photo there and essentially asked: “What is it?”


No doubt you can see what I see – a strange light which seems to be among or beyond the branches of the tree. It appears to be a ghostly entity sometimes referred to as a “spirit orb” by some woo-proponents; others will insist that it is some kind of UFO or alien craft. I’ve seen some posters on the JREF Forum (not all are skeptics) seriously make these arguments – no kidding.

We all basically know the story behind UFO claims, but I want to focus specifically on the orb claims. Orbs are a certain subset of UFO phenomena, because they are technically unidentified – the implication is that they are some kind of marker or indication of supernatural, paranormal, or ghostly activity in the area. The photography of orbs and other supposed “spirit photos” is a minor cottage industry in ghost-hunting and New Age circles, and the claims about these seemingly otherworldly entities range from the amusing to outright deluded.

There are a variety of ways to easily replicate a wide range of orb photos, none of which require any sort of supernatural causation. For example, it so happens that a couple of years ago I took a pair of photos during a skeptical analysis of a supposedly haunted graveyard, the first of which was a “before” picture (with no orb) and the second which was an “after” picture (with an orb). They are posted below…



Note that this particular kind of orb is very similar to the “What is it?” photo above. I think that is because they are likely generated in the same manner. First of all, a cool analysis at the JREF Forum revealed that the orb in that photo was actually in front of the tree limbs, so this seems to knock out any idea that it is some kind of alien craft up in the sky. Secondly, the consensus seems to be that the orb feature is the result of nothing more than lens flare due to either dust or moisture on the camera lens.

Remember my “spirit orbs” from the graveyard? Well, in addition to taking the photos, I also made a quick video showing you exactly how I made the orb…

Now, of course, this isn’t proof positive that our mysterious orb is not an alien craft, ghost, or leprechauns, but isn’t it more reasonable to conclude that it’s simply lens flare as opposed to one of these woo-ish explanations? The problem with these explanations is that they fall victim to the logical fallacy called argument from ignorance and/or incredulity. A careful application of Occam’s Razor can help one to cut through the nonsense and avoid self-delusion. As Bad Astronomer Phil Plait once said: “The universe is cool enough without making up crap about it.”

I couldn’t agree more, Phil 🙂

5 Responses to “What is it?”

  1. rana said

    good article, thanks

  2. Pett said

    I have already seen it somethere…


  3. im bored said

    This is the most boring blog I’ve ever visited in my entire existence. Get a real life, nerdy!

  4. Nadine said

    Ugh, I liked! So clear and positively.
    Have a nice day

  5. […] 13. Optical Illusions – This is a really broad category: it includes a PowerPoint I give on illusions and pareidolia, an article I have my students read on so-called “mystery lights”, and some stuff about how spirit orbs are not what New Agers claim. […]

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