More Options

The Trained Observer of Unusual Things in the Sky (UFOs?)


James McGaha

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 33.1, January / February 2009

Unfortunately, UFO reports seldom if ever come from anyone really knowledgeable in trained observation of the skies and unusual phenomena. Nor do they come from those who understand perceptual issues and how beliefs and expectations can influence the interpretation of unidentified phenomena. People often think pilots and police officers are trained observers in these regards, but experience has repeatedly shown that they are not. James McGaha, an astronomer who has spent thousands of hours observing the sky, is a retired Air Force C-130 pilot and a longtime analyst of UFO claims and reports. He is concerned with misunderstandings about what makes a good observer. In his view, a good observer has the skills, knowledge, experience, and ability to critically analyze what is observed in the sky (whether natural, rare, or unfamiliar). The observer has to a) observe without prejudice, b) accurately record what was observed, and c) evaluate the data. Listed below are examples of basic astronomical, psychological, and perceptual knowledge needed to identify a UFO—important factors no trained observer would lack. Also given are potential causes of lights in the sky and some perceptual and psychological aspects of interpreting reports. All are excerpted from McGaha’s presentation “The Trained Observer,” which he gives to skeptic and scientific groups.

—The Editor

Examples of Astronomical Knowledge Needed

Areas of Expertise Needed

Human Perception:

Studies for more than one hundred years have demonstrated how unreliable human perception actually is. People are not objective recording “instruments.”


There is a strong human desire to believe the myth that alien spacecraft along with alien occupants are visiting the Earth. These beliefs are perpetuated by wildly incorrect reports, claims, and statements made by totally unqualified individuals. There is no empirical evidence that such visitations are occurring now or have occurred in the past

Perception, Belief, and Psychological and Sociological Understanding Needed


Lights in the Sky—Causes

James McGaha

Astronomer James McGaha is director of the Grasslands Observatory, Tucson, Arizona. He is a pilot and retired U.S. Air Force major, a longtime evaluator of UFO reports and claims, and a scientific consultant to the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.