Unidentified Science 4 – Smarter than we are?

As I promised at the end of Unidentified Science 3, this time I’m going to take a little break this time from talking about virtuous scientific work. Such work is hard, slow and often reaches a Great Divide where no progress seems possible, but we have gone too far to quit.

So, it’s good to have a little fun once and awhile and indulge in speculation. As long as you clearly label speculation as just that, there is no harm in it, and these little imaginative expeditions can often stimulate really useful new ideas.  After all, that’s one thing science fiction is good for. Like good science fiction, we want our speculations to be informed by the best science we have, admitting that there are leaps across the gap of our ignorance that are simply made up for the amusement of thinking about it.

That said, the implications of our ignorance can be completely serious. For example, how long on average do technological civilizations in our galaxy live? No one knows how long, but this is the answer to the seventh term in the Drake Equation (I cover that in depth on my blog, Dream of the Open Channel), and the implications are important.

Right now, I am going to speculate that there is some aspect of the UFO phenomenon that is intelligent – highly intelligent. In fact, far smarter than the smartest humans. I can’t yet make a persuasive case for this (I’m not sure I can even define “smart”), although many informed people think it’s likely if not certain. As we discussed in Episode 2, the biggest problem is forming an actual scientific hypothesis from this speculation. So, I’m going to have use a couple of heuristics that have somehow gotten themselves labeled as “laws”. I don’t know if these heuristics are really valid in this case, but I want to follow where they lead my imagination.

Derren Brown

Derren Brown can make you believe he has supernatural powers.

The first heuristic I mentioned in Episode 2, and it is called Clarke’s Third law. It states that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. To achieve “magic” – something that is perceived as real but also appears to be impossible or at least deeply puzzling – takes only a slightly more advanced technology, and some people make a good living doing just that. Stage magic is really a technology for gaming human perception, memory, expectations, suggestibility and attention. Imagine a technology many generations ahead of what a Las Vegas illusionist has available.

What you would perceive and remember after such a technology is directed toward you might make no sense, could seem absurd and dreamlike, and would likely not be an accurate representation of what was actually there.

The second heuristic is called “Haldane’s Law;” again not a real law, but it comports with experience.  The biologist J.B.S. Haldane originally stated it as: “the universe is not only queerer than we imagine, it is queerer than we can imagine.” We know of no reason that this would not apply to intelligent life and alien cultures and technologies as well as natural phenomena. This tells us, that whatever we expect of an ET civilization is probably wrong, and not insufficiently imaginative. Our best conjectures of why they would travel the vast distances between stars, what their purpose would be upon arrival, and how they would propose to relate to the ape descendants they find here are likely all hopelessly, laughably off target.

Haldane – The universe is queerer that we can imagine

So, taking for the sake of argument the premise that some UFOs are the products of ET civilizations, then the only thing we can reasonably expect is to be dazed and confused, which many of us are anyway without any help from the skies. What hope is there then, for science?

Well, if ET is playing an epistemological game with us, then there is little hope. We don’t know the rules of the game, or anything about the other player – except that he is allowed to use magic. If he is far smarter than we are, paying close attention, and determined to keep the picture hopelessly clouded, then it will remain so, and scientific research is a fool’s errand. In that case, we just have to wait for the rules of the game to be revealed to us.

But if that is not really what is happening, then there may be hope.

For one thing, the part of the noise that most resists scientific inquiry may be a signal, and perhaps this is a puzzle we can solve. Let’s think about that some more later.

Second, access to a highly advanced technology is not equivalent to deep understanding. The confusion and puzzlement might exist on both sides and we have been unaware for a long time that our task is find a way through the fog. We may understand what is going on before ET does. Science is clearly a key partner in that search, but there is something else I don’t even have a good word for yet that we will need to find. Epistemic humility requires us to admit that we may not have at hand all the concepts we need, but our history teaches us that we usually find those concepts in the long run – or they find us.

Last, I think we have the technology to test the hypothesis that the UFO phenomenon- after the residual of explainable case is removed – is indifferent to human observation. We need good surveillance of multiple areas. These areas should comprise varying terrain and population densities (urban, suburban and rural) and experience a variety of weather conditions. We take one or more of these areas and quietly place them under the tightest skywatch we can muster. Other areas would have no skywatch. If indifferent to human observation, the number of sightings over time reported by persons in the watched area, controlling for other variables, would be about the same as in the unwatched areas. What is more, the watch itself – conducted with a degree of scientific rigor to exclude known classes of false positives –  should also turn up some anomalies over time.

What this would require is a little funding, lots of tight-lipped and well-trained volunteers, and a lot of patience. Perhaps all three of these are in short supply these days, but that’s what real science takes. Any clear variation in sighting reports from random chance would be a signal, and would lead us toward asking a better question. Better questions asked with greater understanding are what we’re about. If you need firm and final answers, best look elsewhere.


About Paul Carr

Space systems engineer, podcaster, API investigator, and Dad.
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