Mar 25 2009

Some UFO Logical Fallacies

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Comments: 34

Reader “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 taking it apart. The entry is on UFOs and the Argument from Ignorance. He begins:

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”).

No, that is not what I am saying at all. Gimble here is trying to shift the burden of proof – make it my job to prove a negative, the absence of compelling evidence. Rather, if Gimble wishes to claim that there is an unambiguous photograph or other piece of evidence that has survived careful scrutiny – name it.  He didn’t, he just vaguely claims that they exist.

He is also trying the circular reasoning gambit – claiming that I and skeptics declare a-priori that any photo of a flying saucer must by definition be fake, therefore there are no legitimate photos. This is a straw man, we do no such thing.

I will happily expand upon my criteria for an unambiguous and genuine photo. Regarding the genuine criterion, Gimble only mentions ruling out digital manipulation.  This is necessary, but insufficient. The raw files if digital, or the original negatives if traditional photography was used, are also necessary. A second hand photo is not sufficient. Further, to be compelling a series of photos is helpful, since it is more difficult to fake a series than one photo. For video, the original film in its entirely is needed. Selected clips can cherry pick and eliminate any “gotchas” or obvious signs of fakery.

For either photos or video, I also want to know the history – who took the pictures, where, and when. Anonymous material immediately loses credibility.

But also the photos must be unambiguous as to their content.  This means that a blob of light or a fuzzy disc or metal glint is not compelling. I want to see a spaceship – a picture of something that can be nothing else. If the picture can be explained by a model that someone tossed into the air, then there is no reason to reject that as a possible explanation. A piece of something demonstrably alien would also be compelling.

To clarify what I meant by the claim that there are no such pieces of evidence – I have never seen any, despite being interested in UFOs for my entire life and looking deeply at the claims. Also for the last 13 years I have been an activist skeptic and I have challenged many many UFO believers to show me their best evidence, or point me in the direction of the compelling piece of evidence – and no one ever has. These days with the internet and Youtube, if there were truly compelling evidence I would think that I would have seen it hundreds of times online.

I think it is self evident that there is no piece of verified and unambiguous evidence for visiting alien spacecraft known to the public. There tons of poor quality or ambiguous evidence, but nothing compelling. If anyone thinks there is – show me and I will happily revise my opinion.

He continues:

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.

How ironic that Gimble accuses me of being unoriginal. Here he is using the “ten foot stack” gambit. He thinks that if he piles up cowdung high enough it will turn into gold – but large amounts of poor quality evidence do not equal high quality evidence.

Notice here also that he is employing a bit of the kettle defense – simultaneously using mutually incompatible arguments. Above he says that there is high quality evidence. Now he is saying that even if there isn’t, there is tons of low quality evidence. If he is being honest in point number 2, he should have conceded point number 1.

He combines this, as usual, with the “aliens don’t hand out trinkets” gambit. In other words – “it is the nature of my mysterious phenomenon that it defies traditional scientific evidence, therefore I am relieved of the responsibility for supplying traditional scientific evidence – but here is a ton of low quality unscientific evidence.” File this under special pleading (the logical fallacies are piling up).

It may be true that a real phenomenon defies scientific evidence – but then we cannot conclude that it is true, only unknown. Of course, we can invent an infinite number of special cases of things that can be real but unverifiable.

Oh – and evidence for supernova? Please. There are multiple independent lines of verifiable and reproducible evidence for supernova. Just type “supernova” and “evidence” into Google and see what you get.  We can see the light and the gamma rays from supernova. Our models of supernova make predictions we can test with further observations. The light from supernova reflect off of distant gas clouds, and we can see those reflections. There’s no comparison.

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:

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.

This is the strategy of raising trivial and unimportant objections that do not address the actual point. Whether or not Arnold described one or all the object as boomerang shaped is not important. It is important that his sightings did not comport with the later traditional image of a “flying saucer” and that the term “flying saucer” was coined by a reporter who keyed in on one word Arnold used – to describe how the objects moved, not their shape.

Gimble’s next point is just silly – if people took the “flying saucer” description literally they would have described plate – shaped ships? What? These are ships, so apparently they have to have an interior. There is also a bias toward aerodynamic shapes when thinking of ships. Further, I never argued that the shape was taken literally from the description.

My point, actually, is that the notion of a flying saucer and the accompanying shape that the term evokes is a cultural construct.  It was certainly inspired by the term “flying saucer” but also had other cultural influences. It is also not surprising that at the beginning the modern UFO craze there were many types of reports, but that eventually they settled upon the standard type. The same exact thing is true of aliens themselves. Initially there were dozens of varying descriptions, but the little gray aliens emerged as the standard type, then that became what everyone was reporting. That is culture at work – which was my point.

Also, Gimble makes the very common strawman argument that I am claiming all eyewitnesses are lying about their reports. I was very specific in saying that it was suggestibility that led to the commonality of reports. Deliberate hoaxing is probably a small component of the UFO phenomenon. Most of it is wishful thinking, perceptual illusion, and sloppy thinking.

His next claim is priceless.

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?)

When is Venus ever as large as the moon? When it is sporting a halo. Gimble obviously did not read the very sentence he quotes.  Nor does he have the patience or Google chops, apparently, to punch “Venus halo” into the search window. The third hit is this: a picture of Venus with a halo and the moon in the same shot. Gee – venus with a halo is just about the same size as the moon. Go figure.

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:

The first sentence is a tautology – he is assuming his conclusion. The whole point is that we do not know what eyewitnesses saw, and neither do they. Eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable – there are numerous visual illusions at play. Separate objects may be perceived as one large object. Objects in the sky, without clear reference, can appear to be far away and large when they are in fact close up and small. People are suggestible, and will also happily fill in missing details according to their assumptions. And – people lie.

I know there are witnesses who claim to have seen flying saucers. My point is that such reports are compatible with the “psychocultural hypothesis” – we would have them even if UFOs were purely a cultural and psychological phenomenon. Without corroborating evidence, there is no more reason to believe in aliens than ghosts, bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, fairies, or any of the other myriad things people seen.

Gimble also makes an argument from authority – saying that pilots and politicians have also been eyewitnesses. But pilots are subject to the same illusions and biases as everyone else. Noone is immune to the foibles of human neurology.

And, I might point out, that Gimble did not address my actual point – unexplained is unexplained, not alien spacecraft.

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.

Here’s a free tip – if you want to have a shred of credibility, you should acknowledge legitimate points on the other side. Gimble and other UFO apologists should just admit that eyewitnesses are unreliable. Afterall, there is a mountain of psychology research to support this conclusion. It is profoundly naive to claim that if someone says they saw a spaceship, we can confidently conclude that they saw a spaceship.

People are suggestible. Memory is malleable. Perception is highly flawed. And people are emotional, not rational, creatures.

If someone claims they saw a metallic object fly away at incredible speeds – they may have been looking at a shiny (not metallic) small object moving away at slow speeds, but their brain contructed the ambiguous visual simuli incorrectly – that is the definition of an optical illusion. This is a known and common phenomenon. Alien spacecraft are not. See – Occam’s Razor.

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).

Project Blue Book was able to identify 95% of reported UFO sightings as mundane objects or events.  Many of those reports came from pilots. There are also many case reports of pilots reporting UFOs that were later identified as definitely or probably an astronomical phenomenon. Here is a good report of many such cases.

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.

I don’t think we can easily generalize to what “most people” do. It’s likely that there is a range of reactions to an unusual sighting. But even if I grant that most people will consider likely explanations first, that is not in contradiction to what I am saying. I never claimed that they fail to consider any alternatives – but rather they they settle prematurely onto flying saucers as a likely explanation. In most cases the only logically justified conclusion is unknown, not flying saucer. That was, in fact, the central theme of my original post.

I have personally had many encounters with eyewitnesses who, excited by the possibility of something cool or mysterious, will reject a few token mundane explanations, and then (very prematurely) conclude that the object must have either been alien or something equally fantastical.

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:

That is the typical UFO believer (even generalizable to paranormal believer) straw man about skeptics – that we are deniers who do not want to confront evidence that will shake our fragile world view. Strawman argument are worthless – if you want to understand and confront the position of skeptics you have to read what they actually write and address their actual points.

I never said that aliens are impossible. Nor have I ever said that aliens must be completely comprehensible. Ironically, it is the skeptics who are arguing, as I was in my original piece, that sometimes we just don’t have enough evidence to know what a sighting was.

I think it is likely that there is life elsewhere in the universe and that some of that life is intelligent and even technological. I have no idea how common or uncommon technological civilizations are – no one does.  I also don’t know if advanced technology will ever render interstellar travel practical, or if there are fundamental limitations in the laws of physics that will make it forever impractical.

If a benign advanced alien race visited the earth that would be incredibly awesome. It would answer many burning questions. I would love just to see what an alien intelligence might be like.

My position, as I have made clear, is that taken as a whole the evidence is far more compatible with the psychocultural hypothesis than the extraterrestrial hypothesis, and there is no single piece of evidence that demands the ETH. But I am happy to be proven wrong – just show me the evidence.

Gimble, although I am picking on him because he decided to leave a comment on my blog, presents views that are typical of the core UFO community. I have heard them all many times before. UFO believers attack straw men, completely mischaracterize the position of UFO skeptics, fail to address the skeptical position, and find many ways to argue that their low quality evidence should be taken more seriously.

What they never ever do, however, is refute my claims that compelling evidence does not exist by simply providing such evidence.

I am still waiting.

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