Jun 20 2022

NASA Joins Study of UAPs

NASA announced earlier this month that it will be joining the investigation of so-called “Unidentified aerial phenomena” or UAPs (replacing the older term, UFOs). This has rekindled the debate over what UAP are and what our attitude toward them should be. The topic delights the press, who can’t resist the notion that official are investigating something apparently fantastic, and they are generally doing a poor job of putting the phenomenon into context. Meanwhile, some people who should know better are sensationalizing UAPs and misrepresenting the state of the evidence.

Most notable among them is Michio Kaku, who has said in interviews that the evidence is so compelling the burden of proof has now shifted to those saying UAPs are not alien spacecraft. This is horribly wrong for multiple reasons.  Neil deGrasse Tyson, on the other hand, pretty much nails it in this brief interview. His main points are – the quality of the evidence is extremely poor, despite the fact that there are millions of high resolution photos and video including rare phenomenon uploaded to the internet daily, so we have to rule out mundane phenomena first.

If nothing else UAPs present an excellent opportunity for skeptical analysis and showing why critical thinking is so important. As you may have guessed, I am not impressed with the notion that UAPs are evidence of anything extraterrestrial. Let me first, however, dispense with a common strawman in the reporting – the idea that investigating UAPs is itself unscientific or shameful. I don’t know of anyone making this argument. Even hardened skeptics are all for doing the investigations. We want the investigations – how else will we have data to analyze. We want to understand the phenomenon as well as possible. In fact, attaching any stigma to merely investigating unusual phenomena is really harmful. It pretty much ensures that serious scientists will stay away, and cede the ground to cranks and amateurs.  So let’s please dispense with this silly notion, and the mainstream media can stop wringing their hands over it in every article.

Skeptics are not against doing the investigations, we just want them to be done professionally, and we want the analysis and reporting to be logical and scientific. There are also accepted legitimate reasons for this – we need to know if they represent a risk to aviation, and if they represent the work of foreign adversaries. So far I think the Pentagon, and now NASA, and doing a decent job of doing just that. If you actually read the Pentagon’s report, for example, they are appropriate in their conclusions. They conclude:

The limited amount of high-quality reporting on unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) hampers our ability to draw firm conclusions about the nature or intent of UAP.

In a limited number of incidents, UAP reportedly appeared to exhibit unusual flight characteristics. These observations could be the result of sensor errors, spoofing, or observer misperception and require additional rigorous analysis. There are probably multiple types of UAP requiring different explanations based on the range of appearances and behaviors described in the available reporting.

They also state unequivocally that there is no evidence that UAPs represent extraterrestrial phenomena. The press and enthusiasts have largely treated this as pro-forma hedging or just couching their statements in scientific language, but that’s not how I see it. They are being very clear – there are a large number of reports, a small portion of them lack sufficient information to conclude what they are, therefore we simply don’t know and should study them in more detail. But also there is no evidence that would specifically point to alien spacecraft, or even advanced technology developed by other nations.

What I think the Pentagon leaves out is that another major goal of such investigations is to understand the nature of perception, how even pilots can be fooled, and how this will inform the study of UAPs. They also could use some skeptical consultation in their analysis.

Why am I not impressed with UAPs as evidence for anything unusual? This is primarily for the “Blobsquatch” reason. Why are all photos and videos allegedly of Bigfoot (Sasquatch) blurry, obscure, and on the edge of detectability (with the exception of a few demonstrable fakes)? Because the blurriness is the phenomenon. Photos and videos that are close-up and in focus are identifiable as mundane things, like bears or other people. The phenomenon is blurry photos, not Bigfoot. Bigfoot is just the cultural belief that we insert into the void of knowledge created by the blurry photos.

The same is true of UAPs – they are UAPs not because they are unusual phenomena, but because they are blurry, indistinct, on the edge of detection, and lack sufficient details to identify. When aerial phenomenon are identified, they are birds, planes at a distance, drones, balloons, weather phenomena, or something similar. We are filling the skies with stuff, and the more of our own stuff is zipping about the more UAPs we find. However, as Tyson points out, in the last 50 years of the UFO phenomenon, the quality and number of photos and videos has increased exponentially. There are trap-cams that take photos of even rare animals – but no Bigfoot. No one so far has managed to whip out their cell phone and take a picture or video of an actual alien spacecraft.

As a skeptics, the problem I have with how people interpret UAPs is the logical fallacies that follow the unidentified part. First, they confuse “unidentified” with “unidentifiable”. The Pentagon, however, makes it clear that these sightings are not unidentified because they are clearly alien or foreign, but because we lack sufficient information. If we had better information, they could be identified. They are not inherently unidentifiable. The second logical fallacy is the argument from ignorance – we don’t know what they are, and I’m not saying they’re aliens, but they’re aliens. The third, and more subtle, logical fallacy is special pleading – arguing that the phenomenon itself creates the low quality evidence (rather than resulting from the low quality of the evidence). For example, some Bigfoot enthusiasts have argued that Bigfeet are psychic, and/or they can teleport, so they know exactly how to avoid human detection. Likewise some UFO believers have argued that the aliens have the technology to avoid unambiguous detection.

To this last point skeptics have argued that if this is the case, why are they detected at all? Clearly they would need to have advanced technology, why not just render their craft invisible to our primitive sensors? Why are they zipping about anyway, can’t they just observe us from a comfortable distance in orbit? The astonishing response is often that the aliens want us to know they are there, but ambiguously so that their presence can also be denied, as a way of warming us up to the notion of their existing. Of course, this argument, which was never slightly compelling, losing weight when eight decades pass. How long are they going to keep up this game until they think we are ready? This is special pleading – that the phenomenon just happens to have the characteristics that prevent definitive evidence. But again the arrow of causation is backwards – the low quality of the evidence is the phenomenon.

The point of this blog post is not to examine the evidence itself, but rather the poor logic often used in thinking about and report on UAPs. Mick West, I think, has done a generally excellent job of analysing UFO videos and showing why they are very likely misinterpreted mundane phenomena. I have absolutely no hesitation in putting my nickel down – the more UAPs are investigated the more we will see that they are just the heat flared from distant jets, or birds flying close the water, or insects that got close to the camera lens, etc. This is the same stuff we have been seeing for decades. The only difference is the exact nature of the evidence depends on the technology being used, and every technology has its strengths and weaknesses. That is very useful information that will come out of ongoing UAP research – how is our technology fooled by glitches, illusions, and unusual situations?

I predict UAPs will never get beyond the “Blobsquatch” stage, because the blurriness is the phenomenon. I would be happy to be wrong, but logic and evidence says otherwise.

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