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UFO Hoaxes
Photographs can be faked on with image editing software.

In 1897 Alexander Hamilton, of Yates Center, Kansas, came out of his house to discover a cigar shaped UFO was hovering over his farm. Humanoids in the ship had a rope around one of Hamilton's calves and were trying to winch it aboard. This story appeared in the Yates Center local newspaper along with statements from leading citizens vouching for Hamilton's honesty. For almost a hundred years it was considered one of the best documented UFO cases on the books. The only problem with it was that it was a hoax.

Hamilton, along with the other "leading citizens," were part of a local liar's club and regularly practiced out doing each other with tale tales. Hamilton's cigar airship story was so good that it was put in the newspaper as a joke. The members of the club had no idea at the time just how effective this lie would be at fooling thousands of people around the world. It was only in 1977 when Jerry Clark, in FATE magazine, published the results of Robert Schadewald's work on the "calfnapping" story, that the truth came out.

Objects as mundane as a dry cleaner bags, balsa wood and birthday candles can be used to perpetrate a hoax. Many people have been fooled by balloons constructed by these simple materials. The candle provides the hot air needed to lift the balloon as well as an eerie glowing light that floats through the air, fooling the unwary. Teenagers in Oneonta, New York, mystified residents with this prank. Unfortunately these devices can have more serious consequences than inspiring a false UFO report. The flame, after a crash landing, may start a fire.

Though only a tiny minority of UFO reports turn out to be hoaxes they challenge the credibility of all sightings. They can also call into question the professionalism of UFO enthusiast organizations. A number of years ago English physicist David Simpson decided to see how effective UFO investigators would be a spotting a hoax. While a group of UFO spotters were on a neighboring hill he used a purple light, a horn and bogus faked photographs to generate a "close encounter of the first kind." The hoax was not detected at all and the photographs declared to be, "genuine beyond all doubt."

Though there are reputable UFO organizations that do their best to screen out false reports it is not always an easy job. Even when an organization suspects a hoax they may be reluctant to say so unless they are absolutely sure. In theory a libel lawsuit could be filed and the accusers must be prepared to prove their case.

One of the most well known hoaxes involved with the "Hudson Valley Sightings." Between 1983 and 1987 thousands of people along New York's Hudson Valley witnessed a boomerang-shaped UFO estimated to be between 200 and 1000 feet from tip to tip. The ship was marked at regular intervals by multicolored blinking lights. A group of UFO investigators found that at least some of the incidents could be traced to a spoof perpetrated by the "Stormville Flyers," a group of small plane pilots. By attaching multi-colored lights on to their planes and flying in formation they could give the impression of a huge UFO sailing majestically across the sky. By turning off their lights on cue they could make the ship mysteriously disappear. Although this hoax did not explain all the sightings over the years in the Hudson Valley it did explain a percentage of the cases.

Some skeptics believe certain categories of items are almost all hoaxs. This includes things like the English crop circles and just about every "flying saucer" pictures ever taken.

As time goes on it may become more and more difficult to detect hoax photographs. In the past faked photographs were subject to careful analysis that might spot problem in the picture: a hidden string holding up a flying saucer, or evidence like a shadow that would show the picture was not taken at the time of the day claimed. More and more though sophisticated computerized image processing is available even in people's home. This makes it easier and easier to create a seamless fake photograph. (Above right: Detail from the above photograph at the top of the page.)

Although tens of thousands of UFOs have been reported over the past forty years, less than 1% have been shown to be hoaxes. For the most part, competent UFO investigators have been able to recognize hoaxes almost immediately. The most common type of UFO hoax is a prank balloon, which involves tying a flare or candle to a helium-filled balloon.
On rare occasions elaborate hoaxes have been perpetrated, necessitating a more extensive investigation.

To eliminate the possibility that a UFO report is a hoax, one must examine the credibility of the witnesses, the details of the report, and any physical evidence, especially photographs. The reliability and validity of these factors must be ascertained before a researcher can have confidence in the data. A witness's reliability can be checked by interviewing neighbors, friends, relatives, co-workers, and other associates. In particular, an investigator is interested in determining whether the individual has a reputation as a sincere, responsible person, or as a practical joker, prankster, or hoaxer.

The researcher also examines the UFO report to determine if there are any unbelievable claims or glaring inconsistencies. For example, are there elements in the report similar to those found in science fiction or so unusual that they do not appear in other UFO accounts? Does the witness claim to have seen the UFO many times, although other witnesses cannot be found? Does the witness claim that important evidence is mysteriously missing or taken by unknown "government agents"?

While such facts may not prove a hoax, they can cast doubt on the report and must be considered during the investigation.

Finally, the UFO investigator must examine the evidence to check if it has been altered, falsified, or hoaxed. If the evidence looks faked, or if it can be explained by more prosaic methods, doubt is cast on its validity. Often an experienced ufologist can determine that a UFO photograph is a hoax upon first viewing. Clues, such as a noticeable difference between the sharpness of the UFO image and that of foreground and background objects, can indicate a hoax. Computerized photo enhancement can also be used to prove a hoax. Enhancement techniques can reveal supporting strings or wires and can provide information about an object's actual shape, material, and density.

Remember, in any investigation you must critically and thoroughly examine the evidence. The more evidence that is proven to be unreliable, the greater the doubt to be cast on the validity of the UFO event. A rule-of-thumb to consider when investigating any UFO case is if something appears too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true." (This is also true in life, not just ufology.)

So--investigator beware, and never let your critical thinking skills down.

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