Why it's Hard to Investigate Unusual Phenomena that Have Captured the Popular Imagination.

written by Dr. Sten Odenwald (Astronomer) on May 27, 2002.

I just watched a History Channel program called 'History's Mysteries' at 7PM on Saturday, May 25 2002. In its 1-hour format, it had 2 segments of which one was about the Bermuda Triangle, and the second was about what they called the 'second triangle' in the Great Lakes. In the later instance they talked about how the Great Lakes has claimed between 6,000 and 10,000 ships since the 1600's, and that legends say the Lakes never give up their dead. The background music was the usual fare of creepy music and choir singing. [An obvious question is, where did the 10,000 ships figure come from. It seems to defy common sense!]

They spent 20 minutes on the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald in ca 1975. But they prefaced the story with comments like 'The strangest ship disappearance, and the most famous one, continues to be the E. Fitz. Even from its christening in November 1959, 'some' say that it may have been cursed." Apparently it took three hits with the champagne bottle before the bottle broke; the ship slid sideways out of the dock and hit the far side of the dock causing slight damage and a big wave; one onlooker dies of a heart attack on the spot. The sinking itself happened when the 700-foot ship was carrying 27,000 TONS, that's right TONs, of iron ore, and soon after it left harbor a major storm hit the lakes, some said the likes of which they had not seen since the devastating storm in ca 1913. The program made it sound as though the location of the ship, or even its existence, was a mystery. No trace of the 700-foot ship was found until Jacques Cousteau and his team dove to it in ca 1982 and found its wreckage. By that time, many 'theories' emerged in official investigations; three of which were authored by apparently 'official' agencies. These explanations had to do with: the ship being caught on giant waves and snapped in two or hatch covers being forced open and flooded with water. But there were also other 'theories' suggested including the one that came up several more times in the program: an alien UFO abducted the crew. The program mentioned that no bodies or wreckage was ever found, as though that was mysterious given the severity of the storm. Also, they made it sound like there was still an essential mystery about WHY such a ship, with all its technology, 'mysteriously' sank even in view of the major storm ongoing at the time. Periodically, a ghostly alien head would float across the TV screen!

Even after the remains of the first bodies were recovered, a 'scientist' mentioned that bodies tend not to float in cold water because the gas-producing organisms involved in decay do not work very well under cold conditions so the corpses and decaying bodies would not have floated to the surface. As the legends say, the Great Lakes do not give up their dead. Still, there was an implied mystery about 'where did all the other bodies go?' and the program again raised the question 'why did the ship sink in the first place?' A person that was interviewed who was identified as a maritime historian for the Great Lakes, said incredibly 'There is not a shred of proof we can use to discount any of the theories about the ships sinking that have been offered, not even the alien UFO abduction theory'. The program then ended with more ethereal music to non-verbally run home the message that science can't prove everything.

The bottom line is that we have a very entertaining program, which presumes to discuss in a dispassionate, balanced and factual way, the circumstances surrounding unusual events, but it heavily biases the conclusion by raising certain expectations in the viewer. This is done through the very powerful use of music, sound tracks, and overlays of photographs and semi-transparent 'ghostly' imagery. The interviews are also well selected to make all facts sound tentative, and all insightful conclusions sound controversial. The wife of the lost sailors said that she did not believe in UFOs or a Bermuda Triangle-like event having claimed the ship, but that it was simply 'their time' to die according to God's will. Now who can argue with that? Also, the program was shown on a cable channel known for its excellent historical programs that are presumably very factual presentations of past events. The viewer was 'set up' to view even irrelevant coincidences at the commissioning of the ship, as being harbingers of the fate of the ship!


Transient Lights

Transient Lights seem to fall into this same kind of 'trap' because they are always mentioned in the context of some peculiar story involving a first-hand account. Subsequent reports always mention the past 'bizarre' history of the setting. This makes sense because you usually find out about these locations through word-of-mouth and local folklore. All of the reports I have uncovered and identified geographically, came from this kind of reporting in articles or web pages devoted to 'hauntings' and supernatural places. In many situations, observers actually state that they were very agitated as they stood and watched the lights - hardly a state that doesn't force one to jump to conclusions and form firm beliefs about what you are seeing. Even the popular monikers 'Ghost Light' or 'Spook Lights' bias the visitor with an expectation that at least a part of what they might be seeing is going to be weird and unexplainable. There are numerous technical problems with the reports one finds about the sightings at any of the locals.


The history of every one of these ghost light locations is invariably bound up in the otherworldly and allegedly mysterious element of the story. Not a single location as avoided being described in supernatural terms. Eyewitness accounts are surprisingly amateurish. No one describes the exact time of day/night, or even date when the sightings occurred. Most accounts include explanations that are credited with being 'scientific' even though it is pretty clear that no named scientist was ever involved in proposing the idea. Explanations that may at one time have worked at one location, at least for a limited number of the sightings, seem to be applied to any other location as though 'one size fits all'.

Just as the History Channel account of the Edmund Fitzgerald described all the explanations, including UFOs, as having equal weight in terms of provability, ghost light explanations are very diverse and all are viewed with equal value. Amazingly, these explanations include headless railroad workers swinging their lanterns, swamp gas, mirages and car headlights. Moreover, the less sensational explanations are dismissed because they are claimed not to explain some technical factor of what people are claimed to see, or some purported ancient account of a sighting. For example, the car headlight explanation is dismissed at one location (e.g. Marfa) because it is claimed that they were seen by local ranchers in the 1800's and 'some say' the Native Americans of this region had 'stories' about them much earlier than the 1800's. These, however, are verbal and not written accounts, and more significantly, these accounts are not reported until after the 1920's when roadways and automobiles were becoming commonplace.

There is a problem with witnesses describing what they have seen. Separating uniquely unusual events, if they exist, from commonplace events is a matter of definition that clouds every report. In some cases such as Marfa, the casual observer identifies every light seen as a ghost light including the certifiable lights from distant cars that local residents are aware of and do not call ghost lights...at least not anymore! This confusion is often encouraged by local merchants who have an obvious vested interest in keeping the story alive so that people will keep coming.

There is also the very obvious problem of eyewitness reliability. All accounts at a given location are treated with exactly the same degree of seriousness. All that is required is the ernest and sincere belief by the witness that they really did see something they couldn't explain. Only in the investigations of UFOs and the so-called paranormal is the same sloppy degree of reportage tolerated and encouraged. It is often claimed that just because 5, 10, 100 people have seen something they couldn't explain at a particular location, that surely there must be something behind this. They can't all be wrong. The fact is that in the court of law, eyewitness testimony is often at variance with the facts of an event for any of a number of reasons. Everyone sees specific optical illusions in exactly the same way, but that doesn't mean the illusions are themselves real, only their interpretation by the brain may be. The most unusual reports often occur at night under poor illumination when the visual system operates at its poorest level of reliability. If that is the case, why don't more of these ghost lights get reported?


There are many similarities between the locations where some of these ghost lights have been reported. But there are many more places across the country where one might expect to see similar kinds of geometry and outwardly similar geographic conditions. The peculiar thing is that there are not hundreds of these sightings everywhere, in more or less random places. Unlike the random sightings of ball lighting and meteor falls, which were once also thought to be supernatural in origin, ghost lights seem to frequent very specific geographic locations. There is little similarity between the open desert locations of Marfa, and the forested locations of many of the other lights. There is one class of these lights that have strikingly similar geography involving railroad roadbeds with long, straight sections of roadway and often a distant highway that can provide on-coming headlights aimed at the observer. Some lights have only been seen once, or have stopped appearing altogether after an allegedly long history of sightings.


Most people are confused by atmospheric optics. Rainbows, and solar/lunar halos are seen as being 'miraculous' or weird. Mirages receive the largest degree of interest and the most degree of disdain. To tell someone they 'only' saw a mirage is tantamount to calling them an idiot, and you can almost see them bristle at the accusation. Everyone thinks they know the circumstances for causing mirages, and what they will look like. These expectations are mostly wrong. Here are some popular ideas:

This is false. They appear whenever the ground is warmer than the air and you have a temperature gradient.

This is false. You can see them on roadways nearly every day of the year.

False. The conditions for roadway mirages, for example, can persist many hours after sunset and will cause distant headlights to be reflected from the roadway.

False. Usually the images are badly distorted and almost unrecognizable. Mountain ridges can look like castles looming at the horizon, etc.

False. Mirage sources can be hundreds of kilometers away, or the image itself may be so distorted that it only looks like something familiar. Inferior mirages look like water but in fact are simply a reflection of the sky seen at a shallow viewing angle.

False. Don't tell this to the dozens of people who die in the desert after chasing a mirage that looked like a distant lake. These reports can be found in stories told by illegal aliens in the southwest, and by pioneers crossing Utah and other desert climates in the 1800's. Under the right conditions, mirages can seem so authentic, that they badly confuse people.

False again. Stories of 'ghost ships' and 'castles in the air' abound in the literature, especially in the stories by sailors. Biblical accounts of the parting of the Red Sea by Moses have been credited to common desert mirages, but interpreted as real phenomena. Merely looking at a mirage will not give you enough information to fully understand what you are seeing, especially if you are not familiar with the phenomenon from past experience.

False. Even many roadway mirages seem perfectly stable and do not show any subtle shimmering. The familiar atmospheric distortion which causes the horizon to 'turn up' doesn't shimmer.

False. There are many different kinds of mirages with different sources. One size does not fit all.

This is hard to assess. This may be true of the observer is careful enough, but it will not be true if the witness is relying on second-hand information.


A popular style of investigation is to take many different eyewitness accounts and compare their details to predictions, or to a set of common-sense beliefs. Example, the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald must have been mysterious because how could a ship that large, equipped with the latest technology, sink? Where did all the bodies go? Why was there no 'mayday' message? What about the person that had that heart attack at the christening? Why did it take 3 hits with the bottle to break it? And so on...... The so-called 'investigators' are adept in collecting together many different 'facts' and then demanding a single 'scientific' explanation. Only one such explanation fitting ALL of the purported facts is deemed acceptable. No allowance is ever made for human error in the reportage or in the crew.


In a similar vein, the ghost light phenomenon must be intrinsically mysterious because one explanation that works in, say, Maco or Hornet, does not work for Marfa or some other location. All anecdotes and reports are given equal weight and credibility. Testimony by 'people who lived there long ago' is accorded considerable weight even though the testimony and interviews date from after the time the location has become notorious for the phenomenon. No one can seemingly produce a dated, printed page from the 1800's that corroborates these older sightings. All observers are credited with being honest and reliable, even though in a court of law, it is very clear that even honest and sincere observers of a well-defined event often cannot accurately produce a sketch of the perpetrator or the crime/accident scene. No one ever admits that they were unsure of what they saw, and it is not even clear that they were seeing the same things we see today. For example, the 1800's rancher near Marfa and the Native Americans there 'saw' some lights, and so did the horseback rider near the Hornet light in the ca early 1900's, but there is nothing to suggest in their accounts, reported after the 1920's, that the modern and old lights are the same things except the issue of geographic location.

Once a specific geographic area is singled out, it is rather easy to find 'odd' things about it now that you know where to look, especially if you are led to believe there is something supernatural and scary about the area. This is also why astrological forecasts work so well, and why people insist that the full moon is responsible for many odd things. Nothing galvanizes the mind for looking for patterns better than fear, even when these patterns are not causal. Finding them combines two very bad factors; rare events and our innate inability to discriminate between simultaneous uncorrelated events and those connected by cause-and-effect. We downplay those things that do not reinforce the seeming correlation, and recall only those occasional times when the correlation did seem to work statistically.