In our discussions about UFOs and in browsing the web, IUFOS encounters, again and again, the same fallacious lines of reasoning being used to justify a belief that aliens are visiting the Earth.
In this column I will discuss the errors in these arguments.
"Aliens are too smart to leave evidence lying around"
Mainstream UFOlogy in North America holds to the ET hypothesis - that the small residual of UFO sightings that cannot be explained are of extra-terrestrial craft. And yet, even the most ardent of believers in the ET hypothesis will admit that there is no physical evidence available that proves that aliens are visiting the Earth. In spite of all the supposed crashes of alien space ships, all of the close encounters, all of the abductions, cattle mutilations and crop circles, all of the archaeological investigations of supposedly alien feats of ancient engineering, not one scrap of physical evidence - nothing ALIEN - has been presented to the scientific community for study. If such evidence were available, there would be no debate about the true nature of UFOs and no room for skepticism about the ET hypothesis.
There are basically two schools of thought within UFOlogy about the absence of physical evidence. One asserts that there is a global conspiracy that descends instantly upon any evidence anywhere in the world, concealing the evidence and silencing its discoverers, in order to prevent the panic that would supposedly result from the certain knowledge that aliens are visiting this Earth. Because this conspiracy requires the collusion of all the world's governments, the cold war, in fact all of recorded human history, must therefore be a sham, because no verifiably alien artifact has EVER been made public.
A somewhat less paranoid explanation for the absence of evidence is that the aliens are just too smart to get caught. The chain of reasoning goes as follows:
Aliens are visiting the Earth, aliens who are a lot smarter than humans, because they can travel between the stars.
Being smarter than us, we can expect them to be able to out-fox our attempts at detecting their presence, and to clean up behind themselves so that no alien artifacts will be left lying around.
But this chain of reasoning, which purports to explain the lack of physical evidence, is nothing more than smoke and mirrors.
Firstly, it says that if aliens are visiting the Earth, they cannot be detected. In other words, because this version of the ET hypothesis is true, no evidence can be found to support it. Furthermore, it cannot be shown to be false either, because the prediction it makes, that no evidence will be found, is indistinguishable from that of the null hypothesis, "aliens are not visiting the Earth".
Secondly, in order for the first part of this version of the ET hypothesis to be shown to be true, the second part has to be false. That is to say, if we do find evidence for alien visitations, then the aliens are not so smart after all. The basic premise of this chain of reasoning cannot be proved to be true without being shown to be false at the same time.
This "sneaky alien hypothesis" says essentially nothing. It is like one of those internal paradoxes that Captain Kirk would use to short-circuit a computer or robot (e.g. "everything I say is a lie"), because it boils down to the statement "I am true, therefore, I cannot be proved". It is of no use whatsoever to any scientist wishing to take a methodical approach to UFOlogy, as it can neither be proved nor disproved, and its only purpose can be to provide a pseudo-rationale for believing the ET hypothesis in the absence of evidence.
[Afterthought]: If UFOlogy wishes to abandon such smoke-and-mirrors reasoning that has led precisely nowhere in fifty years, what approach should it take? Are skeptics really being unreasonable in demanding physical evidence?
Well, the above analysis seems to be telling us that we may hope to find physical evidence of visitations by "dumb" aliens. Let us examine a short list of phenomena that North American UFOlogists attribute to alien visitations:
- Flying saucers crashing into the ground
- Americans being kidnapped and tortured
- Cows being mutilated
- Patterns being made in crops
Now, how are we to rate the apparent activities of our supposed alien visitors on a smartness scale?
"Skeptics must prove it wasn't alien"
This bizarre argument has even been put forward by Nick Pope, erstwhile spokesman for the British Ministry of Defence. The reader should first consult his essay, "THE SCEPTICS".
It is unreasonable to demand that skeptics prove that a given UFO was not an alien space ship, because it is the burden of the claimant to prove his claim. It is the UFOlogists who claim that some UFOs are alien space ships, therefore, this is what they must prove.
The burden of proof does fall upon the skeptic if he ventures to make a specific claim. If he claims that a given UFO was marsh gas, for example, this is what he must prove. However, most skeptics are content to accept that UFOs are unidentified, the only claim proved by default.
If we are to accept the validity of demanding that skeptics prove that UFOs are not alien space ships, one could also ask them to prove that they are not smurfs on a joy-ride, or evil robots from the future. Following Nick Pope's logic, it would then be reasonable to assert that smurfs or robots exist based upon a lack of proof to the contrary.
What Nick Pope should realize is that it is very difficult to prove a negative. For example, a believer in Santa Claus might challenge skeptics to prove that reindeer cannot fly. A determined skeptic might select 1000 reindeer at random, and throw them off a tall building, but even if they all crash to their deaths, has the skeptic proved that no reindeer can fly?
No, all he has proved is that these particular reindeer could not fly, or chose not to for some reason. Negatives are prohibitively difficult to prove. It would be much easier to prove the positive assertion, that reindeer can fly (if they can), by simply demonstrating one in flight.
And so, it is the burden of the claimant to prove his claim. In the case of UFOs the skeptic would assert that the object was unidentified. This claim is proved by default, because nobody knows what it was. It is for those that wish to claim that it was an alien space ship to prove that it was (1) a space ship and (2) alien.
The claim of alien visitations is not proved by default. Ignorance of what something was is not proof that it was built by aliens.
Of course it is easier to believe in alien visitations if one turns the rules of logic and science on their heads, simply assumes that anything that cannot be explained was caused by aliens, and defies the skeptics to prove otherwise. But in the real world it does not work that way.
The burden of proof falls upon the claimant, not those skeptical of the claim. If UFOlogists wish to claim that aliens are visiting the Earth, then they must prove it. It is not proved by default simply because nobody can prove that aliens are not visiting the Earth, or explain every UFO story in prosaic terms.
One final thought: if there really was abnormal radiation in Rendlesham Forest, the Ministry of Defence should probably be asking tougher questions of the American Air Force, and not skeptics, if it really wants to know how it got there.
"Scientists think they know everything and are afraid of new ideas"
This is like saying "archaeologists think all the world's ruins have already been uncovered and are afraid of digging", because
- Science is a method for discovering new stuff
- Scientists do science for a living
- Scientists are therefore attempting to discover new stuff, a process that requires them to have (and test) new ideas
- Therefore they do not think that they know everything and are not afraid of new ideas.
"Skeptics debunk UFOs without even looking at the data"
UFOlogy has developed its own vocabulary and re-defines the meaning of words to suit its own agenda. So let us be clear about the true meaning of the words we are using.
Believer - somebody who accepts an unproven assertion as an act of faith.
Skeptic - somebody who requires an assertion to be proved before accepting it.
Naysayer - somebody who rejects an assertion without regard to the evidence.
Debunker - somebody who exposes an assertion as bunk.
The terms "skeptic" and "debunker" are not synonymous, and should not be used interchangeably. To be a skeptic is simply to doubt, to question, to ask for evidence probative of the assertion being made. To debunk is to show that a specific claim is not true, to expose a hoax, for example.
Debunkers perform a great service to serious UFOlogy by exposing hoaxes (such as MJ-12), misidentifications, lies and honest mistakes. Skeptics perform a similar service, obliging UFOlogy to prove its claims.
IUFOS advocates the application of the scientific method to UFOlogy and so I shall outline the scientific point of view with respect to the making and proving of claims.
The scientific method allows for two positions concerning claims: the advocate and the skeptic. The advocate advances or supports the claim, the skeptic evaluates the claim. A typical scientist plays both roles at different times.
In the scientific method, the burden of proof lies with the advocate, not the skeptic. The advocate says "people are being abducted by aliens", and lays out his arguments. The skeptic considers the arguments and decides: is the available evidence probative of the claim being made?
Another advocate may make a different claim, for example: "alien abduction memories are an artifact of hypnosis". He, too, must lay out his evidence for the scrutiny of the skeptics.
In UFOlogy, an advocate who claims that a given UFOlogical phenomenon may be explained in prosaic terms (i.e. not in terms of the ET hypothesis), is called a "debunker". But let us note that a skeptic never lays out a claim of his own - if he did, he would be an advocate, and would have to prove his claim like any other advocate.
Now, what do we mean by "proof"? According to the scientific method, it means falsifying the appropriate null hypothesis. To take a concrete example, if an advocate proposes that John Doe was abducted by aliens, providing proof means proving that the null hypothesis (that aliens did not abduct John Doe) is wrong. The skeptic will demand that the advocate prove that (1) John Doe was abducted and that (2) aliens were involved. The advocate must therefore disprove the null hypotheses that (1) John Doe was not abducted and (2) aliens were not involved.
The claim central to the position of advocates of the ET hypothesis is that aliens are visiting the Earth. To prove this, they must disprove the null hypothesis that aliens are not visiting the Earth. That is to say, they must produce something that can only be explained in terms of alien visitations, like an alien, or an artifact with extraterrestrial isotope ratios.
The burden of proof lies with the advocate (whatever position he takes) and not the skeptic. The skeptic merely decides whether or not the evidence offered by the advocate disproves the appropriate null hypothesis.
As a skeptic I don't care how many people remember having been abducted by aliens. Neither do I care whether or not these claims can be explained in prosaic terms. I require the null hypothesis, that aliens are not involved, to be falsified, before I will consider the ET hypothesis to have been proved. I require physical evidence of the presence of intelligent aliens on Earth.