A couple of weeks ago there was a story about how a UFO might have hit a wind turbine (see my post here with links to source stories). It made the front page of the Sun, the BBC and various other news outlets. One could see it as obviously nonsense, though the stories didn’t seem to be written that way. I suspect that there are people who will file that away in their head as ‘one of those things that science can’t explain’. So, with a couple of weeks passed, I thought it might be interesting to see how much news there has been about what DID cause the failure. Well, the Telegraph had an article on the day giving more likely explanations (here). The Guardian also got in on the same day, and managed to sort out the strange lights (see here). Fireworks. Never seen them before!
Ecotricity, who own the turbine, have a news item on their web site from Friday 15th noting that whilst they haven’t definitively worked out what caused the issue, they are confident it wasn’t an impact with an object :-
“Sadly for the UFO enthusiasts we can still see no evidence for collision. If an object collided with the turbine you would expect some debris on the ground and some ‘exchange’ of materials on the blade surface. Investigation of the ‘bent’ blade once it’s removed may shed some light on this. It is more than likely, as many have suggested, that the fallen blade hit and broke the second blade on the way down.”
That this wasn’t a UFO was completely obvious. So, why did news media do so little due diligence? Why did they not follow the logic that if it looks wrong it probably is wrong, and needs extra care? Maybe they knew it was rubbish, but made ‘good news’ so published anyway. Who cares that they are misleading people? Well, at least they could make amends by publishing a correction. So, I thought it would be interesting to look at the Sun paper which made the biggest fuss.
Well, it did publish two more stories. The first went under the headline ‘THE UFO wind turbine mystery went international yesterday as debris was sent to Germany for forensic analysis.’ (well, the real headline was ‘Take me to your lederhosen’ in typical Sun fashion, but that sub-headline was as I said). It pours fuel on the fire, and includes some absolute gems – e.g.
UFO expert Nick Pope called for the Ministry of Defence to take over the investigation. He said: “The finding that ice was not to blame narrows down further the possible causes and makes a UFO more likely.”
From a purist perspective, what he says is correct, but it is also completely irrelevant. Let us say that the probability the wind turbine being hit by an UFO was 0.000001% before (and that’s probably a very very generous guess). If we took away potential causes that amount to 90% of the probable causes, such as chunks of ice, then the probability would now lift to 0.00001%. Still so small that is is orders of magnitude beyond statistical certainty not to be true, even though it is technically ‘more likely”.
This wonder piece of languge is followed up with another piece of linguistic trickery :-
Ecotricity managing director Dale Vine said there was no evidence to point to a logical cause. He said: “We’ve ruled out ice from other turbines or passing jets.”;“We’ve examined the turbine, the fallen blade and the surrounding area. We have been crawling all over it. To make one of these blades fall off, or to bend it, takes a lot.”
Two of the ‘quotes’ are in quotation marks, so I take it that those are things that Dale Vine actually said. The piece that isn’t is ‘said there was no evidence to point to a logical cause’. I could take issue that even if it was a UFO, that would be a logical cause. At some level every cause must be logical. But, my gut tells me that he listed some things that had been discounted, and the first quote was simply made up when the reporter or the dodgy UFO ‘expert’ couldn’t think of anything else.
For a moment, let me be charitable and note that this was only the next day, so the Sun reporter (a guy called Bryan Flynn) might not have had chance to realise that the lights were just fireworks. Lets move to his next article on the 12th Jan. Does this set the record straight. Sadly, but not in the least surprisingly, it does nothing of the sort. Now we have the headline “SECURITY guards have sealed off the area where a UFO wrecked a giant wind turbine.”. No maybe’s or might have’s. No probably’s. No equivication. Any hope of balance is abandoned. If it were and advert the ASA would dismiss it. This is, apparently, news. Written to mislead.