This first appeared on API Case Files in audio form in 2014. It has been edited a bit to make it more suitable for a text post.
In the first installment of Unidentified Science, I said I was going to emphasize four important virtues: humility, patience, integrity, and skepticism. Of these, I think the first – humility – has been the most neglected in the UFO field. The kind of humility I am talking about here is “epistemic” humility: being honest with ourselves and each other about how little we reliably know, and how much what we know is overwhelmed by what we don’t know, understand, or have even imagined.
An example of one type of failure of humility – epistemic arrogance, let us call it – is the wide range of conjectures about non-human intelligence, and our eagerness to assign anomalous experiences to their activity.
I want to state plainly that it is not a stupid question to ask whether there are other intelligences than humans in the universe -beings like us in some ways – and whether we have ever been in direct contact with them. The arrogance comes in with connecting this naive but reasonable question with any claimed evidence or absence of evidence of alien visitation. It is overreaching to think we should somehow know what an alien visitation would look like, how they and their technology would behave, what the purposes of their visits would be, and what sort of phenomena we would detect should they be present.
Not only are we safe in saying that we simply don’t know these things, but just as likely in my view, ET intelligence – if it exists – is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine – to paraphrase the famous pronouncement know as “Haldane’s Law”. We just have no idea what to look for, except that it’s unlikely to be what we expect.
I will call the notion that an ET intelligence is responsible for some UFO events the “Extraterrestrial Conjecture” , and I’d like to explain why I don’t call it the “Extraterrestrial Hypothesis.”
The problem with addressing this conjecture scientifically is that we have a primarily negative definition of ET: ET is not from here and is not human. ET controls some kind of technology that is not like ours. ET is the name we give to whatever is behind the data for which there is no known explanation.
Also, there is problem on the other end – the data we want to explain with the ET conjecture. We might reasonably expect that any ET presence would represent a technology far more advanced than our own. Arthur C. Clarke once wrote that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I don’t think it’s straining that metaphor too much to note that magic is perplexing and misleading, and by its nature not completely understood.
So, how do we form a hypothesis we can test from the ET conjecture with solid data we have or can obtain? Unless we can reason from guess to test without a lot of ambiguity, we really don’t have a proper hypothesis. Put simply, we need to be able to ask the question: what if I’m wrong? and then be able to explain clearly how the data would differ. By what tests do we distinguish alien from earthly? That is an interesting problem. An unsolved problem.
There is no ET Hypothesis, so current arguments presumably directed for or against it are moot. If you take nothing else away from this segment, please remember this: the ET hypothesis that is so much maligned by some and so fervently embraced by others is a strawman. It doesn’t exist as such.
Does that mean we just give up? After all, aren’t most of us studying UFOs because we feel in our gut that there may be an ET signal in all the noise? How can we ever know the truth?
I don’t think we do give up, but we have to be willing to be completely wrong about our putative alien visitors, trusting the process that leads not to final answers, but to better and better questions. I can’t promise we’ll know the truth, but we will gradually eliminate more and more false notions. We must start with informed questions we can ask and answer by application of the scientific method.
We could start, for example, with asking questions about human witnesses and the patterns of reports. Here are some questions that can be asked scientifically: what factors help to motivate someone to report an apparently anomalous event vs. not doing so? How do the people who report UFOs differ from those who don’t? Are professional people really reluctant to report UFOs because of possible career repercussions? There are many more such questions, and if we can figure out how to collect the data, we can gain insight into what the UFO data primarily consists of: reports based on human memory. At present, we don’t know how to separate patterns in the reporting of the phenomena from patterns in the phenomena themselves.
Since UFO studies are at best a protoscience with no established paradigm, our best friend is mainstream science, equipped with hard-won paradigms, meaningful instruments, and even some funding. The more we learn about the universe, and exoplanets, about the evolution of life and mind, and the possibilities of the human future, the more we can refine our ideas about ET. We can’t see it clearly now, but there may be some real ET Hypotheses further down the road. This process has already begun.
In the meantime, we need to keep up high quality Field Investigations and careful sifting through the data, separating the real from the misperceived or simply imagined. We need to share data so we can look for patterns, and perhaps we will find them. I think it’s worth a shot
Please contact API if you want to participate in that enterprise.
In the next Unidentified Science, I will talk about a major problem in UFO studies – our reliance on eyewitness testimony, and why we have to push hard in the direction of the tiny fraction of cases with physical evidence and multiple witnesses.