Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Gone in a flash

Sometimes being a skeptic means answering the question, "So what happened?" with the rather unsatisfying response, "We don't know and may never know."

That was my immediate reaction upon reading a report out of Argentina from a little over a week ago, over at the website Inexplicata.  (Here are the links to part 1 and part 2 of the report.)  The gist of the story is as follows.

On Tuesday, November 15, a woman from the town of Jacinto Araúz went missing.  A search was launched in the area where she was last seen, but there were no traces -- no signs of a struggle, no note, no vehicle missing that she might have taken if she'd run away from home.  The search, in fact, turned up nothing.  Trained search dogs were brought in, and they easily picked up the woman's scent trail near her house, and then abruptly lost it after only 150 meters.  Neighbors said that there was no way she'd simply walked away -- her physical condition was poor, and a leisurely one-kilometer walk was enough to tire her out.

The mystery deepened when several relatives received messages from the woman's cellphone number, but the messages contained nothing but a mechanical buzzing noise and static.

Then, twenty-four hours later, she turned up again -- in Quinto Meridiano, sixty-five kilometers away.  She had a cut on her forehead, but otherwise was physically unharmed.

She seemed to be in a profound state of shock, however, and wasn't able to (or at least didn't) speak a word to authorities.  She was taken to a local hospital, where she wrote down what she claimed had happened to her.  She said that on Tuesday, she'd been in her house when she'd heard a noise.  She went outside, and there was a sudden, blinding flash of light.  When her vision cleared, she was in Quinto Meridiano -- with no apparent lapse of time.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons, Spectre Brocken, CC BY-SA 3.0]

The report, of course, made all the UFO aficionados start jumping up and down making excited little squeaking noises.  The area around Jacinto Araúz is a "hotspot," they said.  I saw a reference to the "Dorado Incident" in the report, but I wasn't able to find a good account of it; apparently it was some sort of UFO sighting nineteen years ago.  The report mentioned other sightings in the vicinity that have included spacecraft that landed, leaving scorch marks on the ground, and a "red-eyed creature" that has been seen more than once nearby.

But that's about all there is to the woman's story.  She's missing for a day, then turns up with a superficial injury, apparent emotional shock, and a strange tale of vanishing in a flash of light.

So what really happened?

Seems to me there are five possibilities:

  • Her story is substantially true, and she was teleported (for want of a better word) from Jacinto Araúz to Quinto Meridiano more or less instantaneously by some unidentified, possibly extraterrestrial, agent.
  • She's lying -- she made the whole thing up for her "fifteen minutes of fame."  She went to Quinto Meridiano by one of the usual means of transport, and invented the flash-of-light stuff.  The dogs lost her scent because that's the point at which she got in a car and drove (or was driven by an accomplice) away.  The phone calls with the buzzing noise were manufactured.
  • She's mentally unbalanced, and got to Quinto Meridiano somehow but doesn't remember how.  Sixty-five kilometers would be a significant walk in twenty-four hours even for someone in good shape, but there's no reason she couldn't have hitchhiked.
  • She was kidnapped -- knocked on the head (thus the injury on her forehead, and possibly explaining her perception of a flash of light), and then driven to Quinto Meridiano, where she was dumped by the kidnappers.
  • The people who reported the story made it up, and the mysterious and unnamed woman doesn't even exist.

All of these explanations, however, leave some serious unresolved problems.  In order:

  • Instantaneous transport, or even something very close to it, seems to break just about every law of physics we know. 
  • This all seems like quite an ordeal to put oneself through just to give UFO enthusiasts multiple orgasms.  Not only do we have an apparently weak, unwell woman taking off for the next town for a day, but giving herself a deep cut on the forehead, for no other reason than to fool a bunch of people and worry the absolute shit out of her friends and family.
  • If she is simply mentally ill, and hitched a ride from Jacinto Araúz to Quinto Meridiano, why hasn't anyone turned up saying that they'd seen her or given her a lift?  According to the sources, her disappearance was widely publicized -- it seems like someone would have reported seeing her.
  • Why was she kidnapped?  There's no mention of her being robbed or raped.  It seems like there's a complete lack of any plausible motive for kidnapping.
  • It's possible the story is made up from stem to stern, but there's been enough mention of it in other news sources (such as here and here), with enough details about which police departments were involved in the search, that if it was an out-and-out hoax, it would have been debunked by now.

As I asked before: so, what really happened?

The answer is: we don't know.  Perhaps more evidence will surface that will allow us to eliminate one or more of the explanations in the list, but given all we know at the moment, there's no way to narrow it down further.  We have to fall back on the ECREE principle -- extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence -- which would suggest that the supernatural/paranormal explanation (#1) is less likely than the natural ones (#2-#5), but "less likely" doesn't mean "impossible."

As I used to tell my Critical Thinking classes, you don't have to have an opinion about everything; being a skeptic means that in the absence of conclusive evidence, we have to accept the rather unsatisfying outcome that we need to hold off making a conclusion, perhaps forever.

So that's our exercise in frustration for the morning.  A peculiar story out of Argentina with no clear explanation.  It'd be nice if everything was neat and tidy and explicable, but we have to accept the fact that there are things we don't know -- and may never know.


I've always loved a good parody, and one of the best I've ever seen was given to me decades ago as a Christmas present from a friend.  The book, Science Made Stupid, is a send-up of middle-school science texts, and is one of the most fall-out-of-your-chair hilarious things I've ever read.  I'll never forget opening the present on Christmas morning and sitting there on the floor in front of the tree, laughing until my stomach hurt.

If you want a good laugh -- and let's face it, lately most of us could use one -- get this book.  In it, you'll learn the proper spelling of Archaeopteryx, the physics of the disinclined plane, little-known constellations like O'Brien and Camelopackus, and the difference between she trues, shoe trees, and tree shrews. (And as I mentioned, it would make the perfect holiday gift for any science-nerd types in your family and friends.)

Science education may never be the same again.

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