Apr 02 2008

UFO’ and the Argument from Ignorance

I am away this week filming the pilot for The Skeptologists. For NeuroLogica this week I am updating and editing some previous essays that I have written. This one was originally published in my Weird Science column in February 2005.

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I once saw a UFO. That is, I saw an object in the sky I couldn’t identify. Chances are you have too, probably more than once. What I saw were lights in a large “V” shape, moving silently, too slow to be a plane, moving out of view after about 10 minutes. Was it a flying saucer, an alien spacecraft, a time-traveling psychic Bigfoot, or perhaps something more prosaic-something boring?

There are thousands of reported UFO sightings each year, and in this digital age you can easily find numerous pictures and video clips on the internet. Does this mean we are being visited by alien spacecraft? Probably not.

After more than half a century of fascination with flying saucers, there has yet to emerge a single piece of credible evidence that we are being visited by aliens. There isn’t one unambiguous photograph or video that holds up to scientific scrutiny, not one piece of physical evidence. No smoking saucer.

Any reasonable person should ask believers why that is. Believers will often counter that the aliens don’t want us to know they are here (in which case they are doing a pretty bad job of hiding their presence, what with all the crashed saucers and anal probing), but that is just special pleading. No evidence is still no evidence.

Skeptics also point out that the very concept of a “flying saucer” was born of nothing more than a reporter’s liberties. In 1947, pilot Kenneth Arnold started the modern flying saucer craze when he reported seeing several UFOs. He described them as boomerang-shaped, but also noted that they were hopping, like a saucer skipping on the water. A reporter then coined the phrase “flying saucer” and the image stuck. And the fact that most UFO witnesses report seeing saucer-shaped objects demonstrates how suggestible we are.

There are numerous known stimuli for unusual or unexplained sightings. Astronomical objects seem to be the most commonly mistaken for UFOs; Venus is often a bright and unexpected addition to the early evening or early morning sky, for example. On rare occasions Venus may also sport a halo, giving it an even more unusual appearance. (This is likely the source of President Jimmy Carter’s UFO sighting.) The crescent moon can seem eerie peeking through the clouds, and it can seem to follow a traveling observer. In addition to natural objects, countless man-made artifacts now clutter the sky: satellites, planes, rockets, weather balloons, experimental aircraft and more. Then, too, there are outright hoaxes.

Proponents of the “extra-terrestrial hypothesis” (ETH) often point out that there is a residue of unexplained sightings, occurrences that can only be due to real flying saucers. These partisans are committing, however, a suite of logical fallacies. First, “currently unexplained” does not equal “unexplainable”-a good explanation may be just around the bend. Second, “unexplained” does not mean alien spacecraft (a bit of illogic called the argument from ignorance)-unexplained just means unexplained. Third, the fact that there remain unexplained cases does not necessarily point to the ETH. Given the millions of such sightings, isn’t it reasonable to propose that there should by necessity be a small percentage of unexplained cases, even in a world without alien visitors? Sometimes we just can’t explain things. That doesn’t mean a specific improbable theory must be right.

That there are no flying saucers does, of course, mean we should try to explain how so many observers could be mistaken. Well, this is not as difficult as it may seem. First, most sightings are of points or shapeless blobs of light-those could be any number of mundane things. Other sightings are of shiny or metallic-seeming objects, but without clear detail to suggest a spacecraft.

Sometimes people do report details, like windows or fins. They also report objects moving at fantastic speeds or carrying out seemingly impossible maneuvers. However, when viewing an object against the sky, without a clear background for reference, it is impossible to estimate size, distance, and speed, and we are subject to optical illusions. Such details are therefore not reliable, and there are numerous cases when they are demonstrably wrong.

Also, human beings have an innate tendency to perceive details that are not present, often triggered by expectation or suggestion. And our memories are not reliable; they are malleable and subject to contamination. Even the so called “reliable” witness can be unreliable: Air Force pilots mistake common objects for UFOs all the time.

It is admirable to look up into the sky with awe and wonder. Astronomy is awesome, and true scientific mysteries invite our wonder. But curiosity must be coupled with intellectual discipline. We should be aware of the limitations of our own observations and memory, the human tendency toward suggestibility and wishful thinking, and the dictates of logic.

So what was that object I saw in the sky? Turns out it was five mischievous ultralight-airplane pilots, flying in formation. But if I had never discovered the truth, it wouldn’t mean we were being visited by alien spacecraft.

41 responses so far

41 Responses to “UFO’ and the Argument from Ignorance”

  1. Jim Shaveron 02 Apr 2008 at 10:45 am

    Ultralights, eh? I saw a UFO in the fall (in North America) about ten years ago, when I went to the high-school to pick my daughter up from an evening dance class. It was a dark lot; the overhead parking lot lights were not on for some reason. The sky was partly cloudy, but I could see some stars.

    While waiting alone next to my car, I looked up and saw a huge, dark shape silently and slowly moving southward across the night sky, directly over the school building just east of me. I was very excited, but I concentrated on observing as much detail as I could. The leading edges of the object were swept back as a wide V, similar to a B-2 stealth bomber.

    I could not make out the shape of the trailing part of the object. I thought that I could guess where the trailing edge was by observing how a star was eclipsed by the leading edge, and then waiting for the star to reappear behind the object. But unfortunately, there were at that moment no visible stars directly in front of the object. It slowly disappeared behind the thick trees immediately to my right (south).

    This encounter occupied my thoughts for the next hour or so. I even called the local police office to ask if anyone had reported seeing an unusual aircraft that night. No. It wasn’t until the next morning that I figured out what I had seen.

    A prize of one gugleplex virtual UFO credits goes to the first poster who guesses correctly.

  2. slartyon 02 Apr 2008 at 11:25 am

    A Cloud?

    You point out the weather and cloud would certainly move silently and slowly across the sky, blotting out stars. It’s leading edge could be defined by reflected city lights and any moon.

    Seems a likely scenario to me but then have you seen Independence Day? the Alien ship arrives out of a giant cloud, therefore it could still be classed as an encounter…

  3. DevilsAdvocateon 02 Apr 2008 at 12:09 pm

    Flying Spaghetti Monster?

    Since you reported no nav lights, I’m dropping ‘blimp’ and going with ‘cloud’.

  4. Michelle Bon 02 Apr 2008 at 12:09 pm

    A cloud?

  5. Jim Shaveron 02 Apr 2008 at 12:12 pm

    Keep trying.

  6. lo-rezon 02 Apr 2008 at 12:13 pm

    Was it swamp gas from a weather balloon that was trapped in a thermal pocket while reflecting the light from Venus?

  7. Roy Nileson 02 Apr 2008 at 12:19 pm

    Flock of birds.

  8. aliencasebookon 02 Apr 2008 at 12:49 pm

    Just like you know for a fact that water is wet, I know that I am an alien abductee and was abducted multiple times through my life.

    Consequently, when I read these Michael Shermer, somewhat closed minded skeptic reports I get a good giggle out of them.

    I understand that these things are theoretical for you and must remain so due to your lack of observance. However, for me they are fact and I do not have to sit on the theoretical sidelines. This does not mean that you should come off sounding like they do not exist and instead leave the subject alone to theorize.

    I say this because I already know that some day you’ll eat crow. On that day, please remember me.

  9. Jim Shaveron 02 Apr 2008 at 12:50 pm

    Roy wins!

    These were migrating birds, probably ducks or geese (although I don’t recall any honking), a very common sight that time of year in this part of the country. Sometimes they fly in nearly perfect, symmetrical V’s. Under the poor lighting conditions, my brain connected the dots to form the image of a solid object, much like Steve’s brain connected the dots of the ultralights.

  10. Steven Novellaon 02 Apr 2008 at 12:57 pm

    aliencasebook,

    Thanks for leaving a comment. I understand that personal experience can be very compelling. But to be scientifically accurate what you are really saying is not that you “know” you were abducted but rather that you have memories of experiences that you interpret as being abducted. That is not the same thing as “knowing” in an objective or scientific sense.

    It is reasonable also for anyone evaluating your memories to also consider the absence of objective physical evidence to corroborate your interpretation of your memories, and the fact that it is well established that memories are not reliable sources of objective information.

    It is also well established that humans can have very real-seeming experiences that turn out to be internal brain phenomena – not external experiences. And there is often no way to tell the difference. For example, hypnagogic hallucinations are often interpreted as real experiences when it is now known they are brain phenomena.

    And again- read my entry on being open minded. Shermer, myself, and others are open. Just give us a reason or show us some evidence to support your interpretation over the vastly more likely probability that you are misinterpreting a more prosaic experience.

  11. aliencasebookon 02 Apr 2008 at 1:13 pm

    Him is a her and I forgot something.
    http://www.brumac.8k.com/prosaic1.html

  12. aliencasebookon 02 Apr 2008 at 1:24 pm

    Oh no, I’m not your every day run of the mill abductee who thinks they were abducted, are possibly fantasy prone, are experiencing sleep paralysis, have narcissistic tenancies, etc., etc., etc.

    My choice of drugs are an occasional Ibuprofen and I loath alcohol so no excuses there and yes I know that such hallucinations can be brought on by the mind without the use of drugs.

    I am of very sound mind actually. The only psychological ties you’ll find with me are that I possess a tremendous amount of knowledge in the field of psychology. Therefore, I am most certainly capable of knowing what is going on in my mind, hence brain.

    For more clarity, my point was that you are attempting to debunk something that you are not qualified to debunk therefore you should be theorizing and not debunking.

    Lastly, Shermer is as closed minded as they come when it comes to UFOs and aliens.

  13. Michelle Bon 02 Apr 2008 at 1:40 pm

    aliencasebook writes: “For more clarity, my point was that you are attempting to debunk something that you are not qualified to debunk therefore you should be theorizing and not debunking.”

    _________

    Dr. Novella is not qualified to debunk because he has not seen aliens himself? Therefore, the only people who would be qualified to debunk are the folks that have seen aliens, and therefore would have no need to debunk? Would James Randi also be unqualified to debunk paranormal events because he is just a mere professional magician and owns up to not having paranormal abilities?

    Are you saying that every case of recorded alien sighting is valid and real? That not a single case of alien sightings should be debunked? Your stance is similar to those of religious believers insisting their religion of all the many ones out there, past and present, is the only true one and why is that? Because of their personal conviction.

  14. Roy Nileson 02 Apr 2008 at 1:49 pm

    aliencasebook:
    “I possess a tremendous amount of knowledge in the field of psychology. Therefore, I am most certainly capable of knowing what is going on in my mind, hence brain.”

    This guy must be the first one yet that is able to see the actual workings of his emotional brain.

  15. aliencasebookon 02 Apr 2008 at 2:24 pm

    Michelle B said, “Dr. Novella is not qualified to debunk because he has not seen aliens himself?”

    We were talking about debunking UFOs, not aliens.

    Roy Niles said, “This guy must be the first one yet that is able to see the actual workings of his emotional brain.”

    The ‘guy’ is a 56 year old woman and you know what I meant without having to be a smart aleck.

    Similar to YouTube comments, why is it that people use blog comments to put other people down? Would you like to know the psychology in that?

  16. Roy Nileson 02 Apr 2008 at 2:38 pm

    Alien: I know what you meant, and if you are all that capable, you would know what I meant about the limits of those capabilities.

  17. rochabillon 02 Apr 2008 at 3:04 pm

    alienheadcase or case book I mean should probably write a book. And no, a I don’t know the psychology behind that put down. It just felt appropriate. Truthfully though, who would be qualified to prove this account true? I ask this sincerely and only because verifying such a claim would change the world forever.

  18. badrabbion 02 Apr 2008 at 4:12 pm

    Aliencasebook;

    I am in no mood to eat crow, and I respect your experience. But given that never in the history of the Universe, as far as we know, have we been visited by another alien peoples, you can understand why we might be a bit skeptical.

    So please do us a favor and as best as you can, please convince us why we should believe that your experiences are real. Of course you do not have to convince us of anything, but you have opened the possibility of an alien abduction. Do your best!

  19. Roy Nileson 02 Apr 2008 at 4:18 pm

    Never in the history of the universe, as far as we know, have we not been visited by another alien people.

  20. Steve Pageon 02 Apr 2008 at 4:24 pm

    aliencasebook, the onus is on you to provide proof of your alleged experiences. That which can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed with evidence, I believe the saying goes.

  21. Jim Shaveron 02 Apr 2008 at 5:02 pm

    Roy:

    Are you cleverly stating that as far as we know, there are no aliens? I.e., as far as we know, we have neither been visited by nor ignored by any aliens.

    If I’m right, then I mean that I think you know that I know what you mean. 🙂

  22. NM Tonyon 02 Apr 2008 at 5:02 pm

    aliencasebook,

    I’m sure you came onto this forum with eyes wide open to the idea that there were going to be several skeptics questioning your claims. So, I hope you don’t feel persecuted as we call into question your affirmations.

    My question to you is, much like badrabbi, how are you so certain that what you’ve experienced is real, especially when brain phenomena that Dr. Novella has mentioned seem a reality to the experiencing brain? What evidence do you have to offer other than your word and sincerity?

    I have known and currently know many, many people who KNOW that there religious convictions are true and have received a personal witness which they KNOW comes from God. Yet, they have no physical evidence other than what they themselves have experienced in regards to their church/religion being the one true church/religion.

    So, can you see why we are skeptical of claims that have no evidence other than the verbal and/or written declarations of I KNOW?

    I went to your linked website, but it didn’t seem to have much to offer regarding your story. I would be interested to know more about it and you.

  23. Roy Nileson 02 Apr 2008 at 5:16 pm

    I know that you are either an alien that can run and hide at the same time, or I don’t know one when I can’t see one. http://www.theness.com/neurologicablog/wp-includes/images/smilies/icon_smile.gif

  24. Jim Shaveron 02 Apr 2008 at 5:46 pm

    A quick emoticon lesson for Roy:

    (And why isn’t there something about this on the site?) Just type “:” followed by “)”, and when you make your post, the GIF file will be substituted automatically. Also, “;” + “)” works for a wink. 😉 And there are others; experiment. However, this one stays as-is, which is why I use it sometimes: (^_^)

    Don’t use all the virtual UFO credits in one galaxy, save some for retirement.

  25. Roy Nileson 02 Apr 2008 at 5:54 pm

    That was an alien trying to hide.

  26. Roy Nileson 02 Apr 2008 at 6:11 pm

    Apt alien
    http://www.scottsmind.com/cartoons/scottsmind/alien.gif

  27. Roy Nileson 02 Apr 2008 at 6:18 pm

    Speaking of YouTube, last but not least, the alien theme song:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1rAsoLm1Ges

  28. DevilsAdvocateon 02 Apr 2008 at 10:49 pm

    As human as it is to want to extend kindness to abductees, the fact is that this abductee knows well she steps into a skeptical den from her first post. She seeks opposition and most likely has an emotional need for it, a sort of pathological desire to be a victim. I think we’re supposed to beat up on her, and I suspect she’d be disappointed if we did not.

    As for me, provide scientific evidence or move along is my view of alien abductees. Life is too short to bother with every unevidenced nonsense claim that walks in the door. If you’re being abducted, call your local police.

  29. DevilsAdvocateon 02 Apr 2008 at 10:51 pm

    PS: This may be a cause and effect error on my part, but I think the world has gone steadily downhill since the introduction to the internet of the emoticon. I think there should be a bounty on them, if not on those posters who employ them.

    Harrumph.

  30. DevilsAdvocateon 02 Apr 2008 at 10:53 pm

    I just had a mental image of a string of dead emoticons hanging around my neck like so many enemy ears, and it was strangely arousing.

  31. DevilsAdvocateon 02 Apr 2008 at 10:54 pm

    Dr. Novella, is it wise to mix alcohol and opiate based pain medications?

  32. Roy Nileson 02 Apr 2008 at 11:10 pm

    Golly Gee Wilikers, just when I was being taught how to smile.

  33. Roy Nileson 02 Apr 2008 at 11:48 pm

    This is where you find the emoticon that made those aliens smile, or they wouldn’t have kept coming back for more:

    http://www.ufoseek.com/forum/download/file.php?avatar=719_1200430658.jpg

  34. badrabbion 03 Apr 2008 at 1:00 am

    Devil;

    I agree with you!

    I

  35. badrabbion 03 Apr 2008 at 1:01 am

    I mean I agree with you “;” + “)”

  36. badrabbion 03 Apr 2008 at 1:02 am

    ; )

  37. Steven Novellaon 03 Apr 2008 at 9:49 am

    The bottom line is this – there is no piece of evidence that demands the ETH or that is incompatible with a psychocultural explanation for UFO’s.

    I you think you have one – link to it or give a reference. I am happy to believe we are being visited by aliens, I only need to see convincing evidence.

  38. […] Chicago Tribune Unidentified Object Flies Canterbury Skies The Press My UFO Experience Frank Warren UFO Argument From Ignorance NeuroLogica Blog Yeren Steals Beer Cryptomundo The Roswell UFO Festival UFO Mystic I Feel A […]

  39. Gimbelon 21 Mar 2009 at 5:36 am

    It’s difficult to take your article seriously when it is chock full of unoriginal and regurgitated errors.

    1. “There isn’t one unambiguous photograph or video that holds up to scientific scrutiny”.

    What is your source on this? There are many photographs and videos that show no sign of tampering or fraud. What sort of “scientific scrutiny” would you require for a photo to be genuine? If it wasn’t proven to be digitally altered, you would claim it was a model or an item thrown into the air. In short, there is no photo in the world that cannot be debunked, but your statement that no unambiguous photo or video holds up to scientific scrutiny is blatantly false (what you are really saying is “if it is a photo of a flying saucer, then by definition it is a fraud”).

    2. “not one piece of physical evidence. No smoking saucer.”

    Aliens do not hand out trinkets, that’s true, and neither do they sit in for book signings. Some phenomenon are not given to tangible “in my hands” evidence (although there is loads of trace evidence). Show me your physcial evidence for a supernova and I’ll show you mine for a flying saucer. I’ve got multiple and independent eyewitness testimony (in the millions) spanning several decades across the globe with trace evidence and excellent photos to boot. No evidence? I think not.

    3. “In 1947, pilot Kenneth Arnold started the modern flying saucer craze when he reported seeing several UFOs. He described them as boomerang-shaped, but also noted that they were hopping, like a saucer skipping on the water”

    Wrong. Kenneth Arnold described only ONE of the craft as crescent-shaped with a hole in the middle. Listen to his own words: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7zossm96Jb0

    But it’s immaterial to your (lifted) argument anyway. The sightings of “saucers” and “disks” after Arnold’s sightings came in a variety of forms, and even the popular “flying saucer” that comes to mind cannot adequately be described as a “plate” – it looks more like a tophat or a football. I’ve yet to read about a flying “plate”, which is what people would have reported if they took the term “saucer” literally as you claim and were simply lying about their reports.

    4. “Venus may also sport a halo, giving it an even more unusual appearance. (This is likely the source of President Jimmy Carter’s UFO sighting.)”

    Wrong. Venus was the bogus debunking nonsense of Robert Sheaffer from Humanist magazine, but Carter described the UFO as at times being as “big as the moon” in his official report. (When is Venus ever as large as the moon?)http://www.ufoevidence.org/Cases/CaseSubarticle.asp?ID=297

    5. “Proponents of the “extra-terrestrial hypothesis” (ETH) often point out that there is a residue of unexplained sightings, occurrences that can only be due to real flying saucers.”

    They CAN only be flying saucers when that is what is observed ha. And they have been seen up-close many many times. Check out this National Press Club transcript for credible sightings from an ex-governor, pilots, military officers, a division chief for the FAA, and other highly credible witnesses of close encounters of the second kind: http://www.ufo-blog.com/pdf/npc_witness_testimony.pdf

    6. “Sometimes people do report details, like windows or fins. They also report objects moving at fantastic speeds or carrying out seemingly impossible maneuvers. However, when viewing an object against the sky, without a clear background for reference, it is impossible to estimate size, distance, and speed, and we are subject to optical illusions. Such details are therefore not reliable, and there are numerous cases when they are demonstrably wrong.”

    This makes no sense. If a person says “I saw a metallic object fly away at impossible speeds”, then that is what they saw. If they say, “I’m not sure what it was, but it flashed and bobbed in the air and seemed to move oddly”, then THAT is what they saw. The former is a definite sighting of a UFO, the latter is just an “unknown”. People report sighting UFOs all the time in unequivocal terms and they are not “unknowns” as if ambiguous or uncertain as to observation just because they are listed under the category of “unknown” on paper. People see flying saucers, not optical illusions.

    7. “Air Force pilots mistake common objects for UFOs all the time.”

    Bologna. What is your source on this? Pilots may from time to time wonder if some distant object is a UFO, but they are not certain of it unless they are close enough to observe it (and often they are and do).

    8. “But curiosity must be coupled with intellectual discipline.”

    You are under the false impression that most witnesses jump to the conclusion that an unknown object in the sky is a flying saucer. This is not true. J. Allen Hynek coined a term for how witnesses behave when they see a UFO – “escalation of hypotheses”. The first thing they do is try to rationalize their experience – “maybe it’s a bird? no can’t be that… maybe a plane? a meteorite?” and so on. Despite the claims of snobbery debunkers, most people do not in fact “try” to see UFOs – they do the opposite! and only reach that conclusion when other explanations have failed.

    9. “We should be aware of the limitations of our own observations and memory, the human tendency toward suggestibility and wishful thinking, and the dictates of logic.”

    Then why are you not doing so? Wishful thinking is putting your fingers in your ears and saying “the world must make sense to me; there cannot be flying saucers; aliens must behave the way I think they should; the world must make sense to me”. By discounting the volumes of evidence over 6 decades, debunkers do indeed show a high proclivity for suggestibility – namely that they will pull arguments from a common pool of tossed-about non-facts instead of actually doing some independent reading on their own. For REAL skeptics, I suggest reading one of these books from researchers who have actually talked to witnesses, rather than some doofus who has no idea what he’s talking about:

    Jacobs, The UFO Controversy in America;
    Ruppelt, The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects;
    Hynek, The UFO Experience;
    NICAP, The UFO Evidence.
    Friedman, Flying Saucers and Science

  40. […] “Gimble” left a comment on an old post of mine that was full of typical anti-skeptical logical fallacies so I thought I would have some fun […]

  41. llewellyon 25 Mar 2009 at 8:28 am

    aliencasebook :

    I say this because I already know that some day you’ll eat crow. On that day, please remember me.

    I imagine, just before disembarking the flying saucer, an abductee is asked to fill out an exit questionnaire. One item being:
    ‘Please provide location information for any other individuals you think we should investigate.’

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