“There’s only two possibilities,” a friend said. “Either people saw the sun dancing in the sky or they didn’t.” He was talking about Fatima, Portugal, where, 100 years ago, a field full of people claimed to witness the sun careening in the sky, showing many colours, and generally being unlike itself for about ten minutes. Some people saw nothing out of the ordinary. The only known picture shows nothing unusual.
I personally have no idea what happened. But I do know this: skepticism is about not assuming you know. We can say that it’s very unlikely that the sun actually danced in the sky. But equally we can’t dismiss what people say they saw by waving around phrases like “mass hallucination” and “delusional”. The far more interesting approach is to assume that the common factors in people’s testimony is most likely a factual report, which they interpreted according to their prior beliefs. And then the question is: what might have caused it?
For example: in 1985 there was an enormous fuss surrounding a statue in Ballinspittle that was said to be moving. Hordes of people flocked to see it and many other statues, and many reported seeing the statues move. The Catholic church was, perhaps surprisingly, dismissive. In Karl Sabbagh’s 1987 TV documentary, a camera crew went to Ballinspittle and mounted a camera on a tripod and left it to watch the statue all night. It never moved. But people don’t stand steady; we all sway slightly. The statue was brightly lit against a dark background. When a watching human moves, the lit statue appears to move against the darkness; it’s a well-established optical illusion, which Sabbagh illustrated with a shot taken while they jiggled the camera. So while we can mark down the wildest claims about how the statues moved to embellishment and dramatisation, there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for why people saw what they said they saw. And that explanation teaches us something far more interesting about the world and ourselves than we would ever have found by simply dismissing the whole thing as temporary madness.
In another example, sometime in the early 1990s I appeared on two TV shows in the same week, one on ghosts and one on alien visitors. On the first show (I think it wasone of James Whale’s late-night TV things), one of the co-authors of a book about ghostly apparitions explained that he woke up one night unable to move, cold, and feeling a heavy weight pressing down on his chest. He knew it was a ghost. On the second (I think it was Anglia Late and Live, or something like that), the author of a book on alien visitations told the story that he woke up one night unable to move, cold, and feeling a heavy weight pressing down on his chest. He knew it was an alien. It was impossible not to conclude that both were describing a real experience of the same phenomenon but interpreting it differently. Psychologists would recognise those descriptions as sleep paralysis, and while none of us will ever be able to prove that’s what happened, it seems the overwhelmingly most likely possibility.
So, to Fatima. Lots of sensible things have been said. Benjamin Radford, for example, has argued that given that the Earth has only one sun, if the sun was dancing around in the sky at Fatima, it would have been seen doing so by millions of other people in other locations. Those reports don’t exist. Long-time British skeptic Steuart Campbell suggested that atmospheric dust played a role by making it possible to stare at the sun, as many people reported doing, and causing the ocular effects of spinning and colours that were also frequently reported. The physicist August Meesseen has said that the claimed optical effects could be a result of staring directly at the sun.
This is not my area of expertise, but I’m most attracted to explanations that take into account the many reports of staring at the sun. Given that under normal conditions it’s too hard to do that for any length of time, it seems logical to surmise that the conditions were not normal.
Dust, clouds, other atmospheric phenomena I’m not familiar with all seem like candidates, with reports augmented by the excitement and the expectation that they would see a miracle. Because: the reason all those tens of thousands of people were in that field in the first place was that three local children had claimed to have received a prophecy from the Virgin Mary that there would be a miracle that would make them believe. The nature of the miracle, as far as I know, was not specified — which means that anything that happened that was out of the ordinary any time that day might have qualified. Were they just lucky that some atmospheric phenomenon made an appearance? For now, we can only say we don’t know.