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What Is The Harm in Believing UFOs?

We received this email yesterday from a listener in Florida:

Hi Skeptics,

I’ve been listening to the podcast for quite some time and I really appreciate all that you’ve done to educate me and teach me to think skeptically. You’ve really done a lot to change the way I think about the world around me and to appreciate how incredible the ACTUAL (as opposed to the supernatural/fake-o) world is. I love reading your blogs, and you’ve exposed me to a whole other world of people like you, who I now follow as well.

Anyway, on to my question. Although he doesn’t listen to the podcast, my boyfriend gets a lot of second-hand skeptical thinking from me. We enjoy watching all of the crap on the History Channel (Bible Code, Monster Quest, the list goes on…) and the other night, we sat down in front of the TV to watch a show on UFOs. When I started trying to debunk some of the things we were seeing, my boyfriend balked. He said that he believes that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. I explained the difference in what he was saying and what the people on the show were saying, agreeing that intelligent life elsewhere in the universe is possible (if not probable), but that there’s no good evidence for intelligent life visiting our planet.

We went around in circles for a while, and he finally came to the conclusion that belief in UFOs and aliens visiting earth didn’t actually hurt anything, so there was no use in exerting skeptical energy in debunking them.

So what’s the verdict on that? How do you make an argument against a statement like “Well, it isn’t hurting anyone…” I couldn’t come up with a good argument because, unlike homeopathy, belief in psychics, belief in ghosts, and all of the other supernatural woo crap out there, I couldn’t come up with any group of people that UFOs actually harm. That’s not to say that I agree with his view, though.

So what DOES a belief in UFOs hurt?

The notion that “belief in UFOs and aliens visiting earth didn’t actually hurt anything” is an unstated major premise – a logical fallacy. The fact that the listener’s boyfriend follows it up with “so there was no use in exerting skeptical energy in debunking them” is pretty evident that he’s made up his mind on the matter. From the listener’s description, it would seem that her boyfriend has drawn his conclusion based on his own set of beliefs, first and foremost.

I am best reminded about how to answer the listener’s questions from something that James Randi once said. About 10 years ago, Randi was here in Connecticut giving a lecture at Yale, and the opening segment of the lecture was a 10 minute montage of television clips and appearances featuring The Amazing One. In that montage is a clip from an interview, when Randi was asked “What is the harm” in belief of the paranormal. Randi answered (and I am paraphrasing) that belief in the supernatural is a very dangerous thing. First you accept that something unreal is real, and before you know it, you wind up believing in all sorts of things that are untrue. In some cases, people have lost their entire fortunes sinking them in to irrational beliefs. And in some cases, it has cost people their lives.

Perhaps the most famous UFO-death related cases is that of The Heaven’s Gate Cult back in 1997. Amongst the many insane notions that this cult embraced was the notion that there was an extra terrestrial craft in the tail of The Hale-Bopp Comet that was visible in our skies for several weeks. According to the cult’s beliefs, the alien ship was there to transport away the souls of the cult members upon their mass suicide.

Let’s not forget our friends The Raelians. They too have much of their beliefs based on the notions of extra terrestrial activity. And perhaps the best known of them all, The Church of Scientology and their entire view of the universe is heavily centralized on the belief of alien visitations to earth. Anyone who has been lured into these cults, becasue of the all-too attractive cultural UFO phenomena that our species is suffering through, is a victim of their beliefs in UFOs.

I am of the opinion that the majority of people who have a belief in a specific pseudoscientific topic do not limit themselves to that lone “sacred cow” of theirs. People tend to believe in a host of related pseudosciences. For instance, those that believe that UFO’s are alien spacecraft tend to also put stock, to varying degrees, in the notions that alien are abducting humans and experimenting on them, government conspiracies that are covering up “real” UFO phenomenon, other alien attacks (for example, in the form of cattle mutilation), crop circles that are being created by alien visitors, alien technological or mental powers such as telekenisis or anti-gravity, and so on. Believers tend not to compartmentalize these notions as individual phenomena by saying that “this one is true, but that one is not”. Rather, they tend to accept the notion that all of these possibilities are plausible to some degree.

Though mass suicide is the extreme end of the spectrum of possible harm in believing that UFO’s are aliens, there is other harm at work that is perhaps not as apparent, and that is the harm of deception. Whether it is self-deception, deception by another, or a combination of both (such as the case of cults), the damage brought about by deception can be extensive. Physically, people stand to lose money and resources, or even suffer physical harm to their person. Mentally, a mind that can be led to believe that UFO’s might be aliens can also be led to believe in many other fantastic ideas. The pain of the relatives or friends of their loved ones that have fallen viticm to cults or other groups of believers is very real.  

The power of deception should never be underestimated, and the best antidote for deception, in my opinion, is scientific rational skepticism. A mind that is more apt to question the notion that UFO’s are aliens is better able to defend itself against an ocean of pseudoscience that floods the real world.  

For more information on paranormal related damage, go take a look at the website What’s The Harm? Sift through their collection of stories and events that show us just how dangerous the belief in paranormal, even UFO’s, can potentially be.

10 comments to What Is The Harm in Believing UFOs?

  • jdclews

    I agree entirely that pseudoscience beliefs are harmful – if nothing else they are an incredible waste of resources. I am not so sure that I agree with your point that if you believe in one form of woo you are automatically more open to others. Religious fundamentalists being the obvious example. Whilst whole heartedly embracing the most absurd concepts of their religion(s) they tend to eshew any other forms of woo that do not fit their narrow view of the world – either dismissing them as rubbish or the works of the devil etc. Of course they also tend to biff out any science that doesn’t fit with their beliefs.

  • wastrel

    I am of the opinion that the majority of people who have a belief in a specific pseudoscientific topic do not limit themselves to that lone “sacred cow” of theirs. People tend to believe in a host of related pseudosciences. For instance, those that believe that UFO’s are alien spacecraft tend to also put stock, to varying degrees, in the notions that alien are abducting humans and experimenting on them, government conspiracies that are covering up “real” UFO phenomenon, other alien attacks (for example, in the form of cattle mutilation), crop circles that are being created by alien visitors, alien technological or mental powers such as telekenisis or anti-gravity, and so on. Believers tend not to compartmentalize these notions as individual phenomena by saying that “this one is true, but that one is not”. Rather, they tend to accept the notion that all of these possibilities are plausible to some degree.

    Here’s to hoping my attempt at quoting is successful.

    I seem to recall some sort of study mention on the podcast maybe about people that believe in certain type of unfounded beliefs being more likely to believe in other things.

    Sound familiar at all?

  • I guess it is an unspoken point but I rather prefer the term extraterrestrial craft (E.C.) in these instances. U.F.O.’s, Unidentified “Flying” Object are quite real. The premise that anyone knows at a glance what a U.F.O. is fundamentally goes against what the term describes: an object of unknown identity in the sky (supposedly flying). If a probable match can be given to the object, it is no longer unidentified. Sure, there are many things that cannot be labeled due to a lack of visual evidence at the time that are mundane, others are quite odd; few if any even begin to qualify as E.C.s.

    My stance is more a general critique of the common (mis)use of the term. Just needed to get that off my back… stupid monkey.

  • Jim Shaver

    jdclews:

    I think religious fundamentalism holds a special place of its own among the irrational beliefs, in that religions tend to be exclusionary towards other religions and non-believers. Therefore, as you stated, religious fundamentalists do not discriminate when it comes to attacking other beliefs and science that contradict their own deeply-rooted beliefs. Sometimes that puts them on the right side of an argument, but for the wrong reasons.

    I also agree with Evan that, if you exclude religious fundamentalism, believers in one form of woo-woo often are more accepting towards other forms of the same. That’s been my experience, and it makes sense (given the irrational basis). If aliens are visiting Earth, the government must be trying to cover it up; and if the government covers up aliens, it probably covers up other things, like 9-11; and if the aliens have super technology that we don’t understand, crystals could have seemingly magical powers; and if our science doesn’t understand the power of crystals, it’s no wonder it can’t explain ghosts either; etc.

  • jdclews

    Jim Shaver – I’ll go along with that. However I suspect (too lazy to research actual data) that religious fundamentalists make up an enormous (if not majority) proportion of those people who hold irrational beliefs regardless of scientific evidence. I also feel that they are among the most dangerous as their beliefs are often supported by governments and other authorities. Also most of us are not as courageous about challenging the beliefs of an irrational religious believer as we would be about challenging those of a looney alien/crop circle/conspiracy theorist.

  • springer.adam

    obviously its probable that there are intelegent beings out there… for those of you that have seen the drake equasion… but i cannot find any thing that uses that equation to calculate the probability of one of those beings actually discovering earth, surviving the probably hundreds of years it would take to get here, then just decide to secretly move in and out from time to time with no attempts at contact! im sorry but if we are being visited by an “intellegent” being they are either invisible and make no sound and have no smell and are completely in tangible, OR no such “visitor” exists to this day… whats the harm in beleaving the first choice? hmm… thats a toughy… EVERYTHING!!! whats wrong with beleaving in the existance in life else where? nothing!

  • jdclews

    springer.adam : Ever thought of running your comments through spell check? If you don’t have one on your tool bar you could always write in Word then cut and paste. Just a suggestion.

  • springer.adam

    sorry that spelling isn’t my top priority but I’ll take that into account next time

  • LittleGreenMan

    To the poster of the original email:
    There may be a lot of harm in believing in things that don’t exist, but you shouldn’t let this one quirk get in the way of your relationship. Accept this as one of those minor inconveniences that we all put up with in relationships, like liking ABBA, leaving the toilet seat up, or squeezing the toothpaste tube from the wrong end. I have seen many relationships and families ripped apart by religion, and I would hate to see skeptics fall into this same kind of divisive thinking.

  • I guess the direct link from UFOs to other woo is that the UFO believers tell us the various governments are in conspiracy to hide UFOs from the general public.
    This would directly lead to the notion that governments can and do conspire to keep stuff secret from J. Public.
    Thus 9/11 conspiracies etc are too easily believed.
    And on it goes from there.

    Critical thinking needs to apply across the board. No exceptions. No free passes.

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