The Logical Trickery of the UFO Skeptic
By Brian Zeiler
The answer, of course, lies in the incentive structure of the analyst. An equally intelligent non-scientist has no incentive nor predisposition to favor one type of error over the other, but scientists do. For scientists, it would open a whole new confounding problem domain, and it would make them look incompetent in the public's eyes for missing out on this fact for 50 years. That's why the incentive structure of contemporary scientists is such that they will not accept alien visitation unless they must, which would be when they get irrefutable physical proof. Their incentive structure prohibits them from making any such inference unless it is unavoidable, and they will strain the boundaries of logic and reason to no end to dismiss all evidence other than physical proof, no matter how powerful it may be. This scientific predisposition toward disbelief, rooted not in science and logic but rather in dogma and paradigm, brings us to the logical trickery of the scientific UFO debunker.
What Exactly is "Extraordinary"?
First, the scientific debunker will say that because alien visitation is an extraordinary claim, it thus demands extraordinary proof. Therefore, no evidence is suggestive of alien visitation unless it is accompanied by irrefutable physical proof -- even if the observations directly indicate, within normal scientific evidential standards, the presence of a solid object under intelligent control with propulsion technology beyond human understanding. No matter how directly the observations indicate an anomalous vehicle of nonhuman origin, skeptics maintain that a prosaic explanation must be adopted unless physical proof is obtained. But such a stance, rigid beyond the normal standards of scientific methodology, is a direct product of the incentive structure, not of logic, as indicated above. Normal standards of science would require meeting the evidential threshold for each of the above conditions necessary to establish extraterrestrial origin; yet the same degree of evidence for physical substance is rejected for anomalous vehicles when it would otherwise be accepted for observations of more conventional vehicles.
Thus, the debunkers have failed to define the boundary of extraordinariness, which renders the declaration logically specious due to its wholly arbitrary implementation that is easily contaminated by individual and collective incentives. They exploit the arbitrary classification of "extraordinary" by applying absurdly rigid evidential boundaries to cases that clearly feature anomalous, physical vehicles that humans could not have built. Instead of assessing the case for physical substance on its own merits with the radar-visual observations, they merely apply a priori probabilities of nearly zero to the detection of anomalous vehicles, with no logical defensibility in the face of insufficient information to estimate the a priori probability, and therefore give themselves license to reject all evidence of any quality unless a physical specimen is obtained.
For instance, if SETI receives an anomalous repeating signal with intelligent content such as a mathemtical constant, and rules out all known causes of terrestrial and deep-space interference, do they need a chunk of the alien radio dish or a dead alien to attribute it to alien origin? It would be just as easy to apply UFO-skeptic logic and insist that the signal is nothing more than anomalous until we obtain physical proof of aliens; after all, why ascribe a radio signal to alien
origin before we have physical proof of the existence of aliens? After all, we cannot rule out
malfunction, fraud, or human error with 100% certainty, so the simplest explanation is an
undetected flaw, not an alien message. Right?
Or is it really just the case that the a priori probability assumed by scientists of alien radio detection is higher than that assumed for atmospheric detection? Is this a priori probability differential between radio versus atmospheric detection logically defensible? Or do we lack sufficient information to make anything but a wild guess, a guess contaminated by incentive, dogma, and mere habit? Why do so many scientists, including Tipler and Fermi, argue that interstellar travel would be feasible for advanced civilizations whose productivity growth has created such vast wealth that journeys are less expensive than they would be for us humans?
Do we know what alien energy resource stocks are? Even right now, we have the technology to mount a journey at 10% of the speed of light and arrive at the nearest star in 40 years. How"extraordinary" is it to consider that, several billion years ago, one culture might have mounted a gradual expedition that took them to our solar system and many others? We sure don't know whether this is "extraordinary" or the natural outcome of technological advancement, but many
scientists wish to believe, simply due to heavily entrenched ideologies with absolutely no basis in logic nor fact, that such interstellar expansions are far less likely than the human interception of alien radio signals.
So just what is "extraordinary", aside from a word referring to a claim for which extremely low a priori probabilities of truth are applied? I consider extraordinary a claim which undermines fundamental precepts of physics. Alien visitation does not do this. And no matter the difficulty as we perceive it, interstellar travel does not violate the laws of physics. Neither do aliens. Therefore, alien visitation does not violate the laws of physics, and nor does it require a straining of credible probabilistic expectations. We simply don't know how likely it is. And that is hardly a strong case for considering alien visitation an "extraordinary claim."
Nevertheless, skeptics will insist on applying to alien visitation an a priori probability of nearly zero for some strange reason. Interestingly, many scientists such as Fermi and Tipler were skeptical of both UFOs and of alien life in general; they contended that interstellar travel would be easy for advanced civilizations, so the lack of overt contact disproved alien existence. Yet most UFO skeptics do believe alien life exists out in the universe -- just not here. So they defend the near impossibility of interstellar travel, which contradicts a considerable portion of the scientific community.
This a priori probability allows them to reject evidence arbitrarily that would otherwise confirm the presence of a solid object under intelligent control with propulsion irreproducible by human technology. For instance, when a certain degree of corroboration of physical substance for an airplane is obtained for an unconventional disk-shaped vehicle, this degree of evidence is accepted for the airplane but rejected for the anomalous vehicle. The only way to do this is to
apply a priori probabilities of nearly zero to the detection of such an anomalous object. The problem, of course, is that first of all, we don't have enough information to defend a low a priori probability, and second of all, this approach guarantees automatic rejection of normal avenues of evidence. Effectively, what the skeptics are saying is that radar evidence is too "ordinary" to suffice for an "extraordinary" claim. They succeed in eliminating from review all types of indirect
and direct evidence, except for physical proof.
This type of logic can be successfully applied to any claim. For instance, let's declare that dinosaurs are an extraordinary claim. This declaration requires no logical substantiation, just the way skeptics use their nearly zero a priori probability of extraterrestrial visitation to declare the claim extraordinary with no logical defense whatsoever, given the insufficient information to determine this probability. So, we have declared dinosaurs to be an extraordinary claim. The next step is to reject all fossil evidence for dinosaurs, since fossils are only acceptable for ordinary claims such as woolly mammoths; for extraordinary dinosaur claims, fossils are
worthless. What we need, as dinosaur skeptics, is physical proof of an intact dinosaur. And, to make it even more similar to the skeptic approach, we don't need to defend the rationale of the demand for physical proof of dinosaurs; the fact that it is an extraordinary claim allows us to demand the very upper boundary of conceptually feasible modes of proof -- but conceptual feasibility does not translate into practical feasibility. Sure, I can demand physical proof, but will I get it? Is it worth ignoring fossil evidence in my wait for physical proof?
We could extend the analogy further by applying more skeptic logical tricks. For instance, dinosaur articles are published in journals which already believe in dinosaurs; therefore, it is biased and one-sided, and hardly representative of truly critical peer review. We could assert that all fossils are best explained as hoaxes, misidentifications of known and unknown geological processes, and hallucinations and/or misinterpretations by overzealous paleontologists imposing their belief system on an anomalous rock. This, I can contend, is the "simplest explanation", and I don't have to worry about using overstrenuous logic because, in an absence of physical proof of dinosaurs, any explanation is simpler, no matter how contrived and convoluted! This is the essence of the scientific rejection of the UFO evidence: an overwhelming need to disbelieve coupled with a shameful lack of research into the actual evidence.
The Demand for Physical Proof
If aliens were visiting, I find the expectation of physical proof quite illogical, since it's going to be hard to obtain. In fact, it may even be impossible. But the skeptics don't mind, since they have already decided to disbelieve until they obtain the highest conceivable level of proof. In the above discussion, it was noted that anybody can apply this logic by insisting that dinosaurs should not be accepted until we find an intact, frozen, preserved dinosaur with the flesh still on the bones, and if that's impossible -- well, too bad. Is it rational to reject fossils the way skeptics reject radar-visual cases and ground-trace cases and then demand a preserved dinosaur specimen the way skeptics demand an alien and/or vehicle specimen? I contend that physical proof is an unattainable evidential boundary which guarantees rejection of the hypothesis of extraterrestrial origin.
Despite the table-pounding insistence by skeptics on physical proof, they have simply not been able to defend this demand, one which is far beyond the scientific rigor that standard scientific methodology would require. The UFO evidence has satisfied the evidential threshold of normal scientific protocols; unfortunately, the evidence has been rejected by the dogmatic, specious demands for physical proof. For all these demands for physical proof, the skeptics have not been able to meet any of the following logical criteria necessary to defend the imposition of this arbitrary evidential threshold:
- How can one declare a claim to be extraordinary without sufficient information to defend a low a priori probability?
- Are there degrees of extraordinariness?
- How does one relate a degree of extraordinariness to a fair and reasonable evidential threshold?
- What is it about extraterrestrial visitation that implies the availability of physical proof?
- How can we obtain physical proof?
- How can an evidential threshold be imposed with no logical defensibility nor any rational expectation of actually meeting such a stringent threshold?
Occam's Razor and the Skeptics
The UFO skeptics don't understand Occam's Razor, and they abuse it regularly. They think they understand it, but they don't. What it means is that when several hypotheses of varying complexity can explain a set of observations with equal ability, the first one to be tested should be the one that invokes the fewest number of uncorroborated assumptions. If this simplest hypothesis is proven incorrect, the next simplest is chosen, and so forth.
But the skeptics forget two parts: the part regarding the test of the simpler hypotheses, and the part regarding explaining all of the observations. What a debunker will do is mutilate and butcher the observations until it can be "explained" by one of the simpler hypotheses, which is the inverse of the proper approach. The proper approach is to alter the hypothesis to accommodate the observations. One should never alter the observations to conform with a hypothesis by saying "if
we assume the object was not physical, despite the level of evidence that would imply the solidity of a conventional aircraft with near-certainty, then we can also assume the object was not moving, was not exhibiting the color orange, was not 50 feet in diameter as described, and then declare that it was really Venus."
But that's okay for the skeptics to do because it's an "extraordinary claim" being made that deserves to be explained away in a Machiavellian fashion as rapidly as possible with the urgent zeal of a religious missionary. Now, to alter observations to force conformance with the preferred hypothesis -- is that science? Or is that dogma? The answer, of course, is dogma. This practice is extremely poor science, and the approach undermines the very spirit of scientific inquiry. It is simply unacceptable to alter the observations that refuse to conform with the predetermined, favored explanation.
The ETH and Falsifiability
While a more thorough discussion of the formulation and potential falsification of the ETH can be found on the ETH page, one particular aspect is worthy of note as another logical trick. The skeptics complain that the ETH is not falsifiable, which is a condition that violates a necessary component of hypothesis formulation. This is not true, as explained on the ETH page. However, even if it were true, the skeptics fail to realize that their beloved SETI hypothesis of alien radio signal detection can be said to be nonfalsifiable! Does a lack of detection disprove the hypothesis that aliens are beaming mathematical constants at us? Certainly not, since our equipment may not be strong enough to detect them. It's been 30 years since SETI's beginnings, with absolutely no positive results whatsoever, yet the nonfalsifiability allows preservation of the project with hopes as high as ever.
Science versus Skepticism
Skeptics are skilled propagandists who appeal to base emotions just like a seasoned politician. Skeptics like to wrap themselves in the robe of science, declaring that their approach and conclusions are "scientific", in just the same way that a politician will cloak himself in the mantle of "family values" and "doing what's right for America." But is skepticism really as scientific as the skeptics want people to believe?
As has been explained throughout this essay, the clear answer is no. Their logical reasoning is rife with fallacies, from their arbitrary declaration of a claim as being extraordinary to their specious demand for physical proof to their abuse of Occam's Razor to their erroneous complaints about hypothesis falsification. So why do they claim that they are the real scientific side?
Skeptics are mostly scientists, but that certainly doesn't mean they behave scientifically, as has been explained. Their behavior stems partially from their distaste for public opinions that contradict the consensus of the scientific community. When a public consensus does contradict the scientific opinion, the scientists will mount a public campaign to discredit this opinion, because such an opinion undermines the role of the scientist in society as the appointed knowledge-seeker and truth-gatherer. What good are scientists if mankind will only insist on believing in warm, fuzzy superstitions anyway? So, these scientists who are guilty of the logical
infractions exposed in this essay are so consumed with the presumed validity of their opinions that, like a zealous religious fanatic, they must convert the masses to the side of truth in order to salvage their own self-image.
The second stimulus of pseudoscientific skepticism is that these scientists, who do not represent all scientists but rather a rogue band of propagandists, feel that science is about the mastery of nature. When nature introduces an anomaly -- a violation of expectation -- to science, the anomaly must be crushed. How dare nature violate science's laws and principles! The anomaly is supposed to indicate an incomplete framework or incorrect a priori assumptions, yet to the skeptical propagandists, it indicates misbehavior by nature that cannot be allowed to undermine their role in society. The anomaly is a threat to the validity of their work, so they must wish it away, convince themselves through wild logical fallacies that the anomaly does not exist, and return the public back toward the truths of nature that are approved by the scientific community. This tendency only changes when it becomes more work to deny the anomaly then to accept it; sadly, with UFOs, this is not likely to occur, because the scientific community will never deal with UFO reports.
The scientific community has vociferously resisted the acceptance of anomalies for centuries, with the Copernican Revolution being the most notable historical example. They threaten the paradigm and disturb the equilibrium. They undermine the community's self-perception of usefulness and value to society by threatening to destroy the assumptions behind their work. For the purposes of emotional well-being, they will be protested and debunked until they can no longer be denied; with UFOs, the breaking point will be physical proof. Yet as this essay demonstrated, the criterion of physical proof is a product of anomaly resistance, rather than a rational assessment of a priori probabilities or a rational interpretation of evidence. Instead of applying fallacious reasoning to the evidence, applying normal scientific standards to the UFO evidence would long ago have enabled the scientific community to embrace the ETH.