From the Radford Files archives:
In October 2009, a six-year-old boy named Falcon Heene was thought by many to have been floating alone through Colorado skies on Thursday in a silvery weather balloon created by his inventor father. It turned out that the whole incident was a hoax, staged by his parents in hopes of getting their own reality TV show. One issue that has been lost in the story is that a lying “eyewitness” was at the root of the story.
The fact that a large silver balloon flew in the air was, by itself, hardly worth noting. No, what propelled the story to international importance was the first-person eyewitness account of Falcon’s brother Brad. According to Sheriff Jim Alderman, police questioned Brad several times about what he had seen shortly before the balloon flew away. “He said he saw his brother climb into that apparatus and he was very adamant, they interviewed him multiple times and that was his consistent story.” At that point the concern became for the safety of the young boy, not an escaped balloon: Had he fallen to his death? Was he still aboard the balloon? He had been abducted? Where was the child?
Police were skeptical, but the boy repeated his story and insisted on the truth of what he’d seen. Many people (and journalists) probably thought, “Why would a child lie about something like that?” Much is often made of first-person eyewitness testimony in our society; indeed it is the basis for most ghost, monster, and other paranormal claims. Some people have even been convicted of crimes based on little more than one person saying, “I saw this happen.” But as this case reminds us, just because a person—even a seemingly guileless young boy— swears to have personally seen something, and consistently sticks to the story, does not mean it’s true.
This piece originally appeared in the Briefs Briefs column in the September 2009 Skeptical Briefs newsletter.
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