Politics Magazine

The Falling Satellite

Posted on the 26 September 2011 by Erictheblue

A six-ton satellite falling out of the sky might seem like a metaphor for something, though if it were falling back to earth on a trajectory aimed roughly at your garage the metaphors would presumably dissipate.  Yesterday's news was that the satellite had landed and that, as there were no reports of damage or injuries, the Pacific Ocean apparently took one for the team. 

I was struck by the following sentence from the article that appeared in the electronic edition of our local daily:

While NASA did receive reports of people who saw lights in the sky that they thought were pieces of the disintegrating satellite, none of them occurred at a time and place where the satellite would have been passing by, and people looking at the correct time and place did not see anything.

This raises a question about what the people who were looking at the wrong place, and the wrong time, nevertheless did "see."  It wasn't the satellite.  Maybe they saw a flying saucer.  But there is an explanation for "seeing flying saucers" that is explained by this general phenomenon I want to talk about.  As far as I know, there were no reports of flying saucers before human beings had at least begun to contemplate sending up our own flying objects.  It was only then that people reported seeing the flying objects of other civilizations.

It seems like what people report "seeing" can be influenced by what they expect to see.  I see no reason to limit skepticism about their reports to heavenward gazes.  In criminal investigations, for example, the testimony of eyewitnesses can surely be influenced by the way the investigators put their questions.  There doesn't have to be an elaborate conspiracy to "frame" someone.  The police need only suggest their own suspicions to the eyewitnesses, who will then corroborate the preferred theory of the crime.  The psychology of the witness is another important factor.  People who saw the falling satellite in the sky, or the suspect commit the crime, or had a "religious vision"--in every instance, isn't it a little suspicious that one effect of their reports is to make them at least temporarily important, candidates for fame, the object of attention?

But the people looking at the right time, at the right place, saw nothing.  That they knew where and when to look places them in a different demographic group.  They might also have been influenced by what they expected to see.  Nevertheless, they saw nothing.  Possibly this group self-selects for possessing the skeptical sensibility that guards against delusion.


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