Missing the mark

An article in the Listener makes much ado about very little.

The week after the Listener won Best News-stand Magazine of the Year its cover featured three mug shots of ordinary-looking people and the headline:

6000 NZ cases each year


What if someone you love just vanished?

Six thousand people vanish a year? That’s more than 16 a day! Many if not most of us would infer from these words that the people had been missing for a long time and would probably never be found.

I thought, this can’t be true, and my suspicion was soon confirmed as I read the article. The problem was that the writers, Denis Welch and Olivia Kember, had failed to come to grips with a range of differing statistics on ‘missing’, ‘disappeared’ and ‘vanished’ people, and the ambiguities inherent in those terms. Actually the article quoted a figure of 12,000, taken from the police website, but omitted the website’s crucial next sentence: “… within 48 hours most missing persons will either be found safe and well or will have returned home.” Later I was to discover that the figure of 6000 came from a Missing Persons Unit police officer.

This struck a familiar chord. Twice in the past when members of my extended family have been on a motoring tour there has been some misunderstanding over their itinerary, resulting in anxious calls to the police and presumably adding more “missing persons” to the statistics. But no one was really missing: there was just doubt as to whether they were safe, and for a short time they could theoretically have vanished.

So I wrote a letter to the editor, making most of the above points and saying that the statistics were “disgracefully muddled … a mish-mash of confused figures.”

Welch himself replied, saying, “I think you’ve been a bit harsh on us. I agonised a lot over what figure of missing people was correct and consequently feel that you have been rather selective in your own quoting of the article, as I did say ‘All figures should be treated with caution’.”

Yes, he had said that, and no, I hadn’t quoted it. But I thought it was ironic that readers were expected to treat these figures with caution when the journalists had been so careless with them. For one thing, the caveat wouldn’t be read by anyone who just saw the cover at the newsstand. If Welch “agonised” over the missing-persons statistics, why didn’t he make more effort to clarify them?

Welch continued: “I was also careful to refer to ‘cases’ of missing people (I insisted our coverline should use that word) and not to imply that at any given time thousands were missing.” But I couldn’t see how the word “cases” clarified anything-and still I can’t.

There were other things in the article that bothered me too, for example the statement that psychics hadn’t located any missing persons “so far”, and tabloid-style innuendo in the comment on one genuine vanished-person case that “some of the original police files and photographs have gone missing.” There was further innuendo about missing children (“child abduction continues to be rife in the US”) and a man “allegedly a member of a paedophile ring” had been accused of murdering some children “but proof has still to be produced”. Of course, each of these tidbits on its own is minor, but there were more like them and overall I thought this was a sitter for the Bent Spoon.

I wrote back to Welch and said this. He responded by inviting me to write “a new, more balanced letter”, so I did (without quibbling over what was “less balanced” about the first). And he said that he was happy to print it-except for the following:

“Now, of course, the damage is done, and the ‘6000 a year’ figure on your cover will probably become committed to folklore, like ‘one girl in 4 will be molested before the age of 18’, for which we have the promoters of the 1988 Telethon to thank.”

This bit, he said, was “pure sensationalising”.

Nonplussed, I replied that it was the most important point of the whole letter: that the Listener was fomenting an urban myth. It felt as though I was being censored, so I chose not to have my letter published at all, and turned my energies to writing this instead.

And I’ve thought long and hard about where the line lies between abridgement and censorship. I just don’t know. Certainly editors shouldn’t have to publish any old half-baked and ill-informed diatribe (though I think that describes some Listener letters pretty well). But Welch arguably had a personal interest in abridging a letter that criticised not only the magazine, but his own work as well. This perhaps amounted to censorship, and would be all the more deserving of a Bent Spoon.

Some UFO Experiences

Recently I had a UFO experience in the comfort and privacy of my own home. Or rather, I would have had a UFO experience if it had been a UFO. Unfortunately, however, I found a rational explanation for it, which means this story’s not nearly as interesting as it could have been.

It was very late, past midnight, and my wife and I had just come home from a dinner party to our house in Cashmere, at an altitude of about 100 metres on a ridge at the south end of Christchurch. She went straight to bed, but I felt somehow restless. In hindsight, if I had more imagination I might be able to say I felt as though something was telling me to stay up, to walk outside on to the deck, and look out to the west.

What I saw astonished me greatly. There was a very bright light in the sky away to the southwest. It stayed there for some minutes, almost unchanging, poised in the sky above the suburb of Westmoreland, quite still but with a slightly tremulous quality about it. Knowing the landscape very well, I knew it could not possibly be a street light, car headlight or other normal phenomenon on the ground. It was definitely in the air, about four fingers at arm’s length above the horizon. But it was too still and bright to be an aeroplane. Moreover, there was no engine noise. “My God”, I thought, “am I seeing a UFO?” I’d certainly like to see a UFO. It was very exciting.

I rushed in and got our binoculars, a good pair of 8x50s, went back out and sat down to watch the light carefully. It continued to stay quite still and to flicker ever so slightly. Then I noticed another light beside it, smaller and flicking on and off. Curiouser and curiouser. Again I thought, “It can’t be a plane, because it’s been still for too long, and it’s too bright”.

Yes, I really was seeing something for which there could be no normal explanation. I thought of how some of my skeptic friends would respond to this, and continued for some minutes longer to observe it closely, so I could state with certainly it was not some figment of my imagination. Still it shone brightly, flickered ever so slightly and stayed still. I resolved to watch it for as long as it stayed. Minutes ticked by.

Then, abruptly, the light faded in strength and swung away to the north. It was a plane after all — suddenly looking no different from hundreds of others I had seen coming into Christchurch Airport. But what had been so different about this one? How could it have changed so rapidly, so totally? How could it remain still in the sky, be so bright, and yet silent?

Then I realised that this plane had been approaching from the southwest on a path which was some miles further south than the usual approach route. As a result, by the most extraordinary coincidence, it was heading straight towards my house. And not only was it on a compass course that took it right in this direction, but it was descending at an angle that meant it literally pointed straight at me. This explained the intensity of the light, which was aimed like a searchlight directly at me, albeit from a distance of perhaps 20 miles, gradually closing to about five before the plane turned away. Over such a distance, the intensity of the light was increasing so gradually that it did not appear to be moving towards me. And although descending, it appeared still because it was closing on the horizon at an imperceptible rate. The tremulous quality of the light simply resulted from the plane’s vibrating a bit in slightly turbulent air. The second light was one of the plane’s wingtip lights. As I’m slightly colour-blind (green looks white to me at a distance) I couldn’t tell what colour it was.

The explanation was absurdly simple, yet never in a hundred years would I have guessed it. Having watched approaching planes so often in the past helped reinforce the deception, because it was so different to what I was used to seeing.

But the most important part is this: suppose I had not persisted in watching it, or the plane had disappeared, say into a bank of cloud close to the ground, so I had not discovered the real explanation. I would have absolutely denied any suggestion that it was an aeroplane.

“No”, I would have said, “it was too still, too bright, and there was no noise. There was definitely a bright still light sitting in one place in the sky for some minutes.”

And there is another thing — every time an aeroplane is descending at night, with its lights on, in clear air, following a straight descent path, there will be a particular spot on the Earth’s surface where an observer, if there is one, will see exactly the same thing I saw. If you think about how many aeroplanes there are all over the world in the air at any time, there must be nothing unusual about my experience. Except that more imaginative observers than I are bound to have perceived it differently — they will have “actually have seen” a UFO.

It’s a pity I’m not more imaginative, because if I was I could have seen some much more exciting things like different-coloured lights and an interesting saucer shape. My inability to see such things if an obvious flaw in my personality which I have resolved to correct next time. Then I might have a more interesting story to tell.

Three more non-UFO experiences

  • In about 1960 my father thought he was “having a UFO experience” one night while sitting on the steps outside our house in Samoa. Flashes of light were darting back and forth across the sky. He got up and walked forwards for a better view and discovered the cause was a spider spinning a web about a metre in front of his face.
  • Fishing at Lake Coleridge on a perfectly clear night, I heard an aeroplane overhead but couldn’t see any lights. I looked in the general direction of the sound, and suddenly the plane’s navigation lights came on for about 5 seconds. Then they all went out again. If I had seen this without hearing the engine noise, I would have been unable to produce a rational explanation for it.
  • And another night I was fishing on the lake under low, rather loose cloud. As a plane came over, its lights, flashing brightly, made the whole sky very suddenly seem to pulsate brilliantly. The overall effect was extremely peculiar. Although the plane’s engines could clearly be heard, two fishermen nearby in the dark were totally confused by the experience. “What the f—– is that?” one gasped. “Dunno,” his mate responded in an awestruck voice. I wonder what story they may have had to tell the next day?