The Chinese UFO sightings were discussed in more detail on episode 8 of our Just Skeptics podcast, which is available now on iTunes, or you can use the direct link at the bottom of this page. If you like this blog post why not give us a listen?
When people find out that I'm a skeptic, the most common question I get asked is "what about UFO's then"? Because I'm far too pedantic for my own good I nearly always point out that a UFO is simply an object in the sky which the viewer can't explain - not necessarily an alien space craft that's travelled thousands of light years just to probe our livestock.
This may be a poor answer to the question, but it's still important to note that a UFO is simply an object which the observer cannot explain sufficiently, yet some will leap to their preferred 'supernatural' explanation. Instead of saying "I don't know what that is", they'll assume that it's some kind of alien spacecraft, or secret government aircraft.
Here's an interesting example from Greater Manchester - a UFO sighting from Ardwick, which can also be viewed on YouTube. The poster asks "Is this a UFO? You decide because I'm convinced it is". This statement doesn't make any sense unless by UFO he means something along the lines of 'alien spacecraft'. Taking into account the pictures of aliens, saucers and X-Files music in his video, I'm pretty convinced that he believes it to be an alien craft.
I haven't a clue what it is - all I can see is a blurry, zoomed in photograph of a white light. There is just not enough evidence for me to say what it was. That's fine by me - we can never know all the answers and although I'd love to know what it was, I probably never will.
That doesn't mean that nobody could explain those lights - I've seen plenty of examples where the person who sees the unusual occurrence is completely at a loss to explain what they saw, yet other people instantly knew what it was. A good example of this are Chinese lanterns - there are hundreds of "UFO" videos on YouTube that are blatantly Chinese lanterns, such as this one captured on video in Manchester.
This doesn't just apply to UFO's, but all manner of paranormal phenomenon. On episode 7 of Just Skeptics, the 'rather friendly skeptic' Hayley Stevens describes occasions where her team have found the perfectly rational explanations behind supposed ghostly experiences that have stumped ghost hunting teams in the past. While we shouldn't completely write off paranormal explanations for these events, we shouldn't jump to them unless there is sufficient evidence pointing towards this explanation - to do otherwise would just be an argument from ignorance - I can't explain it, so it must be x/y/z..
Another example - recently a UFO was spotted over Xiaoshan airport in China, forcing the airport to temporarily close. While many people were convinced this was yet another extra-terrestrial encounter more rational people were viewing the footage and found a much more likely explanation.
Geoffery Forden, an MIT weapons analyst, examined this incident on the Arms Control Wonk blog, where he came to the conclusion that "a DF-21* launch somewhere near Jiuquan and aimed at a point somewhere in the eastern Gobi desert is the most likely cause of this “UFO” even given the problem of illuminating the solid-motor discharge above the Earth’s atmosphere. "
This was somewhat confirmed later by the Chinese government, who said they knew what the object was, but were unable to make the information public because it had a military connection, according to the Daily Mail at least.
At this point many people would be all too willing to scream "conspiracy", and even though I cannot say for certain that this is the reason for the sighting, it's a much more probable explanation than alien visitors. People are all too willing to jump to conclusions based on an absence of evidence, this doesn't help anyone.
*A DF-21 is a Chinese ballistic missile.
- Gavin Schofield
Download Episode 8 of Just Skeptics (right click, then save file as)