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UFOs again

- August 6, 2008

My response to Bud Duvall’s and Alex Wendt’s “response”:https://themonkeycage.org/2008/08/_but_you_wont_find_it_that_way.html on UFOs below …

Bud and Alex criticize my response on three main grounds – that my skepticism about UFOs may not be scientifically warranted; that they have already dealt with my SETI objection; and that the UFO question is more of a puzzle, and more interesting, than other paranormal phenomena. They conclude that my critique doesn’t really address what they are trying to do in the piece. I’ll deal with each of these in turn.

First – my statement of my skepticism regarding extra-terrestrial piloted UFOs was not a statement that I positively _know_ that UFOs don’t exist. I fully accept that it’s possible that they may (just as I accept that it is possible that we are all evanescent fluctuations in a “Boltzmann brain”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boltzman_brain scenario). As far as I know, most prominent scientists who are skeptics similarly don’t deny that UFOs might exist; they merely claim that the evidence is lacking. Like these scientists, I would be highly surprised if the aliens are among us, but I don’t think that my world view would be thrown into complete disarray. If UFOs do indeed announce their presence, I’ll be proved wrong, and while I probably won’t be among the first to “welcome our new insect overlords”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deep_Space_Homer, I’ll be shuffling my feet nervously somewhere around the middle of the train of supplicants. But given the paucity of available evidence, I don’t expect this to happen, and I think it’s quite reasonable for me (and for states) to dismiss this as a quite remote possibility, and not worry too much about it.

Second, Bud and Alex do indeed briefly make a rejoinder against the SETI case in the article. They suggest in their original piece that SETI isn’t a problem, because “it matters greatly that They might be Here, rather than far away, as in the SETI scenario.” I’ll confess that when I originally read the piece, I missed this sentence. They argue at greater length in their rejoinder that:

bq. In fact, as we argue in the paper, with any ETs safely far away, success in SETI would pose no physical or ontological threat to anthropocentric sovereignty on Earth, both of which are necessary for the metaphysical threat to have political import. In this regard SETI’s commitment to looking for alien life only at a great distance, and strident opposition to UFO research, seems if anything only to reinforce the puzzle.

But I don’t think that this defence is especially convincing either – if SETI were to uncover evidence of spacefaring civilizations, this would plausibly be evidence that there _are_ aliens in our backyard. As I understand it, the mathematics of propagation are pretty straightforward – if a species can spread beyond its home solar system to others, even at speeds well below the speed of light, it would be able to propagate itself across large chunks of the galaxy in a cosmological eyeblink. This is one of the things that makes the Fermi paradox so puzzling – if there are alien species that have made the jump into space, we would expect to see lots, and lots, and lots of evidence out there of their existence. So unless the SETI search were somehow calibrated only to find civilizations that were (a) technologically advanced enough to have a detectable presence, but (b) not advanced enough to propagate themselves throughout space, positive results are likely to involve precisely the physical and ontological threats that Duvall/Wendt talks about. They would strongly suggest that we are likely to encounter the Other at less-than-cosmological distances.

Third, I don’t agree that UFOs are an interesting puzzle in a way that astrology, transcendental meditation’s consequences for world peace etc are not. The empirical evidence that Wendt/Duvall refer to is _at best_ evidence of significant anomalies (they themselves refer to the “anomalous cases that have resisted explanation” as the evidence that really matters). I don’t need to tell either of them (I’m certain that both have read more far more deeply in the philosophy of science than I have) that anomalies are ten-a-penny in science, and that they don’t necessarily signal that a research program should be radically modified or abandoned (I suspect that both of them, like me, are with Lakatos rather than naive-Popperians on this sort of thing). The suggestion that these anomalies can be explained with reference to extra-terrestrial agency is just that – a suggestion. Investigation of anomalies is certainly one way to advance scientific knowledge – but there are a lot more anomalies in science than there are resources to investigate them, and many, perhaps most, are the product of instrument failures, observer error and whatever. Given that many of the UFO anomalies seem to point in very different directions (supposed UFO identifications often differ dramatically from each other), the onus is really upon those who believe that these various anomalies are the result of the single cause of extraterrestrial intervention to provide convincing evidence that this is so, or, at a pinch, that it is worthy of devoting substantial resources to investigating further whether there is a single encompassing explanation.

Furthermore, some of the evidence that they cite is more plausibly sociological in origin than physical. For example, the claim, which they advert to, that UFOs stop car engines from working is nearly identical to 1930s stories about English tourists whose cars suddenly stalled in Nazi Germany, when scientists were carrying out mysterious tests nearby. These stories apparently had their origins in tests of German television towers – as car engines interfered with these transmissions, German authorities posted sentries to _ask_ people to switch off their engines during the tests, hence creating a pernicious urban myth (Sladek). Now it could be that the similarity between the purported effects of UFOs on car engines, and the purported effects of Nazi super-science on car engines is entirely coincidental. But it seems to me that this is highly plausibly a myth or an expectation that has jumped from one purported cause to another in recent history.

Finally, Duvall and Wendt suggest in their rejoinder that:

bq. A compelling critique of our theory would identify significant empirical, theoretical, and/or logical problems with our argument about the anthropocentric structure of modern rule. Farrell provides a useful reminder that, in the absence of systematic empirical work the argument should be taken as unproven – a point we readily concede. However, his criticisms offer no grounds for thinking that it is wrong, while we offer an extensive theoretical rationale for why it just might be right.

bq. In sum, we know from Farrell’s other work that he, too, is a “very smart guy.” Think harder Henry! After 5 drafts and 50 sets of written comments from other scholars, if our argument could be so easily dismissed we would have figured that out long ago, and certainly wouldn’t be putting this out in the public sphere now. You’ve written a critique of our paper as social science, which is fine; but in the process failed utterly to confront the larger political question – whether human beings really know that UFOs are not ETs, or just dogmatically believe it because of a commitment to anthropocentric metaphysics.

My understanding of the paper was that it was less about inquiring in general into whether people’s beliefs about UFOs are knowledge or mere dogmatism, and more about setting out a _specific causal claim_ – i.e. that states’ inability to ‘think’ about UFOs is a result of the anthropocentric foundations of the modern concept of state sovereignty. Perhaps I was wrong in this interpretation – if so, they should let me know! And whether it is a causal argument matters; such arguments, at least according to my book, live or die by their social-scientific merit. I’m not a barefooted positivist – far from it – but to be convinced, I would like to see some substantial evidence to bolster this claim. Perhaps they might make their initial genealogy public in some way as a first step towards doing this (at a pinch, I’d be happy to host it here, although they may prefer to have it on their own websites). Even more importantly, I would like to see some reason to believe that their explanation is better than plausible counter-explanations.

And there is one obvious counter-explanation that springs to mind (part of which is suggested by Patrick Jackson in comments). I don’t think that either Wendt or Duvall would deny that there has historically been a high proportion of cranks, liars and con-artists among the visible public proponents of the UFO-as-extraterrestrial visitors hypothesis. This has sociological implications. First – it makes it less likely that states will want to sponsor research on UFOs, because the field of UFO research is perceived as being illegitimate, a waste of tax payers money etc, by virtue of its association with these people. Second, it makes it much less likely that scientists will engage in research, both because the federal money isn’t there, and because they have their own sociological legitimacy to maintain. Hence, the observed outcome. This isn’t more than a plausible suggestion (to be properly developed, it would require significant sociological research, just as the UFO-blindness-as-a-result-of-state-sovereignty theory would). But it seems fully compatible with the facts as best as I am aware of them, and on the surface seems to provide a better explanation of the underlying politics of related issues such as SETI than does the Wendt/Duvall hypothesis.

In short – if they want to really establish their case, I think that they need to move away from grand arguments about state sovereignty, to more tightly defined arguments about the mechanisms through which notions of state sovereignty affect beliefs about UFOs and other things, claims about the observable consequences that would be associated with those mechanisms and with mechanisms that other explanations might invoke, and finally assessment of how well the available evidence seems to concord with the one or the other explanation. This would involve a lot more empirical research to establish the plausibility of different explanations – but that is how, in my view, social science advances.