Category Archives: Aliens

What’s the difference between a donkey and a UFO?

I recently came across another piece of inane blather from a self-styled paranormal “expert.” And it’s just too good to pass up.

This blog, Bad Thinking, is dedicated to exposing the logical fallacies and poor arguments used by the promoters of, and believers in, woo generally. I’ll not name the “expert” in question, but some people might take an educated guess – it’s more guff about UFOs, after all.

Like a lot of fallacies, this falls into an area of overlap, so to speak. And a lot of fallacies do. This could be called a category error, or it might be called a false analogy. It also comes under the heading of the appeal to popularity and, in the context of the original article, the appeal to authority. It’s one of those errors of reasoning that doesn’t fit neatly into one specific slot, but it’s an error of reasoning, nonetheless. But it’s also an exemplary example of how to fit so many fallacies into so few words.

First of all, I will give the relevant quote from the newspaper column I found it in. Here we go:

If 1,000 independent witnesses tell me they’ve seen a donkey running down the middle of King Street, odd though that may be, I’d be pretty tempted to believe them.

Why? Because the idea so many people would independently decide to tell such a fib without any apparent motivation is far more difficult to swallow than the idea of a donkey running down the street.

DonkeyThat’s from an article promoting the idea that UFOs and their alien pilots are here, but that it’s all being covered up by governments around the world, and we should all believe it because, well, you know, why demand evidence when other people say they’ve seen it – just believe what you’re told: lots and lots of people say so; what more do you need? And this author makes a living from writing about what other people say. Yeah, right…

Here’s a brief analysis of this published piece of certifiable bad thinking:

The fact is that

  • 1: There is no doubt that donkeys are real.
  • 2: There is plenty of justifiable doubt about the existence of aliens and their space ships visiting this planet.
  • 3: Unproven claims of UFOs are entirely different from claims about established facts (they are in different categories).

It wouldn’t take a thousand witnesses to convince me that they had seen a donkey running down the middle of my local High Street. Even if it seems unlikely, I would probably reserve judgement until I got some further confirmation (a report in the local newspaper, say) but I wouldn’t be too worried about it. After all, there are news reports from time to time about escaped animals causing havoc, so the idea of a donkey causing inconvenience to some local shoppers would be unusual, but not totally implausible, and certainly not impossible.

It wouldn’t even matter if just one person told me he had seen it himself, even if he just happened to be a pathological liar who had fabricated the whole story just to wind me up. That would not alter the fact that donkeys are real, and that no one disputes their existence.

UnicornWould the author of the article believe what he was told if a thousand people informed him that they had seen not a donkey, but a unicorn running down his local high street? Like UFOs, no one has presented compelling evidence – and especially not proof – of the existence of these mythical creatures, so believing an uncorroborated report of what is certainly an extraordinary claim would be irrational.

The same goes for UFOs. These alleged alien spacecraft are not proven to exist, however many former astronauts and military personnel claim to have had access to aliens and their technology. Many of these people are making a handsome living from their books, articles, public speaking engagements, television appearances and so on. But not one of them has provided testable and confirmable evidence of any of their claims.

Has NASA been exploiting alien technology since the so-called alien flying saucer crash in Roswell in 1947, as many conspiracy “theorists” assert? You might want to believe it, but I would point out that rockets are still using chemical propulsion to get into orbit, not anti-gravity devices. Has transportation been revolutionised by teleportation technology, or are we still using cars, trains and planes? Can anyone prove that the truly massive structures being designed and built nowadays are being put together using the same alien technology that some would have you believe was the only way that the ancient Egyptian pyramids could have been built? Is humanity so stupid that we can’t do anything ourselves on a big scale unless someone else from light years away just provides it for us?

To put it plainly:

  • The number of people who make a claim is irrelevant to the claim’s veracity (that’s the appeal to popularity).
  • The status of those people is also irrelevant, even if they are former military personnel or astronauts (that is the appeal to authority).
  • Claiming a link between things that have no connection is a category error, and also quite often an argument by false analogy.
  • Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence; hearsay just won’t do if you want to be taken seriously.

The author of the article obviously thinks that claims about donkeys (which exist) are equivalent to claims about aliens (for which there is no evidence to show). He is wrong. Maybe he believes in flying horses and talking ants. Who knows?


So the difference between a donkey and a UFO is simple: one of them really does exist; the other has as much evidence available for its existence as there is for unicorns, i.e., none at all.

Belief without evidence is called faith, and it is also bad thinking.

Darwin Day And Other Musings

I’m a bit late posting this, but better late than never, perhaps. Work and family commitments have kept me away from blogging for the last few weeks.

Charles DarwinCharles Darwin was born on 12th February, 1809, and yesterday we celebrated that event. Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection unifies all of the biological sciences, and has led to some of the greatest medical breakthroughs in history. It is arguably the most important theory in all of science, and is also perhaps the most tested and confirmed.

Unfortunately, religions in general do not accept it because to do so means that there is little room left for a creator god. Although evolutionary theory does not disprove the existence of any gods, it certainly disposes of the idea of the supernatural creation of all life in its present form within the last few thousand years. Consequently, some religions have been forced to modify their interpretation of their holy scriptures, and reluctantly reinterpret their creation myths as being allegorical rather than factual accounts of how life arose on this planet. Even the fact that we live on a planet orbiting the Sun was a discovery that some early astronomers paid for with their lives after contradicting church dogma.

That’s the problem with religion. Dogmatic beliefs will not be swayed by evidence or logic.

Although evolution has been accepted – at least in part – by many religions, there are the fundamentalists who deny it unconditionally. It’s particularly worrying in America, where some elected politicians make repeated attempts to either have evolution dropped from school lessons, or have bills introduced to “teach the controversy” (although there is no controversy within science about the fact of evolution).

I find it incredible that, even though the evidence for evolution is overwhelming, not to mention easily available and well promoted, there are those who claim, quite seriously, that “there is no evidence at all for evolution.” This is denialism on a breathtaking scale. Anyone interested in the subject can buy an introductory book in almost any bookstore; there are libraries full of information; there are many high quality TV documentaries that explain evolution (anything by David Attenborough is worth watching); there are websites and blogs that cover the subject in exquisite detail and there are even museums displaying physical artefacts that can be seen and sometimes even physically handled. Yet despite all that, there are plenty of people who simply say the evidence is not there, despite it being offered to them. Denying evidence when it is offered is just seriously bad thinking.

Maybe it’s just the other side of the woo coin. As a sceptic, I doubt that the Earth is being visited by alien beings, for example, but I would love the chance to examine the evidence that UFO promoters say is out there. There’s a snag, however. No one will offer any testable evidence whatsoever. There’s no shortage of people claiming to have been abducted by extraterrestrials (up to four million claimants in the USA alone), or former military people claiming they have seen or personally examined aliens and their alleged craft, but that is not evidence of anything. If you happen to believe extraordinary claims on nothing more than someone else’s say so, then you will believe anything.

That’s where religious and paranormal claims seem to meet – in a disjointed sort of way. Believing in gods on faith without evidence is similar to believing that ET is here, also without evidence. The difference, however, is that the religious will deny the existence of evidence for evolution despite it being there; the believers in aliens expect others to believe their claims but cannot provide believable evidence even though sceptics like me keep asking to see it. It would be particularly fascinating to have physical contact with an alien civilisation, to be able to study their own biological evolution in comparison with our own.

The laws of physics operate all over the universe, so it’s likely – perhaps inevitable – that the cosmos is teeming with evolving life. Even so, the same laws of physics put limits on what can happen within the universe. Can alien spaceships travel faster than light? Maybe not, but what about warping space for fast travel? Theoretically possible, maybe, but maybe just not practical, given the astronomical amounts of energy it would take. Wormholes? Another theoretical possibility that apparently disappears up its own mathematics.

The hurdles that would have to be overcome to make interstellar travel possible – at least in any practical timescale – are huge, and the idea itself might be nothing more than a forlorn hope. Then again, if there are technological civilisations out there, then they are most likely to be discovered by detection of their radio signals – even if face to face meetings aren’t possible.

In the meantime, evolution deniers will continue to ignore the evidence that is there in abundance, and the alien visitation advocates will continue to fail to provide the evidence they say is there, but can’t provide. The evidence for evolution is there for everyone to examine; the evidence for alien visitation is not. Such is the power of faith (a belief held without evidence): at the end of the day, it is no wonder that the major advances made by modern civilisation have come about by scientific exploration, not religion or woo.

As far as ET is concerned, there is still an absence of evidence for extraterrestrial visitation, but for anyone who wants to claim some kind of victory over sceptics by quoting Carl Sagan’s famous dictum, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” it does not follow from the fact that the evidence is absent that the evidence is there, or even might be. The burden of proof is always on the person making the claim, but after decades of claims of alien encounters there is absolutely nothing – nothing at all – that the ET buffs have proven, nor is there even any physical evidence that can be tested. And they wonder why some of us are sceptical.

At least with evolution, Charles Darwin presented his evidence (coinciding with another naturalist, Alfred Russell Wallace, coming to the same conclusion independently). And since then, the foundations laid by Darwin have been built upon and gone far beyond anything Darwin himself could possibly have imagined. Evolution – descent with modification by the process of natural selection – is a fact. Only an uneducated fool could deny the evidence for evolution. But there are plenty of those around.

Charles Darwin deserves to be – and should be – remembered. Many of us would not be here without him.

This Is Getting Tedious

untitledThis post is fairly important to me, because I am allowing Mike Hallowell, who has, in the past, had comments I have made elsewhere about his paranormal and supernatural claims on the internet removed under the threat of legal action, the space to speak his own mind, uncensored, on my own blog. I believe in free speech, and I think that the way to counter a bad argument is with a better argument, not legal thuggery or any kind of threat or intimidation.

My last post detailed an actual weird experience I had that many other people would have assumed to be an actual encounter with a UFO (Alien Spaceship From Another Galaxy, for the dyslexic). But it turned out to be something more mundane; not the sort of thing a UFO “expert” wants to hear, of course, because rational explanations for extraordinary events are taboo for the woo fraternity. For them, the comforting belief in their fantasy is preferable to the objective reality that is actually out there, and if some of them can make some money from writing cobblers they truly and honestly believe, then that is the way it just happens to be.

I admit I included an “in-joke,” not intended for the casual reader of this blog, but with meaning to only a very small audience of sceptics who are “in on it,” although Mike Hallowell, self-proclaimed expert in matters paranormal (who has never proven any of his paranormal claims to the standards required by science or ordinary rationality), noticed it. And it seems to have hit a nerve.

Mike is rather sensitive when his various claims are exposed to scrutiny. It’s not just me who criticises him, of course, it must be almost a full time occupation for him chasing his critics around the internet, but in the process failing to recall the old maxim, “When you’re in a hole, stop digging!” (This is a good place to start if you want a flavour of what I mean.)

And so it is here. Mike submitted a comment to that last post, but I did  not publish his comment on that particular thread because it was, first of all, completely off-topic and did not address the subject of the post at all. It’s standard practice on blogs for the host to reject comments that do not contribute anything to the subject at hand. I think that’s fair enough, but I think it’s also fair to let him have his say while I demonstrate to him where he is going wrong with his petty outburst. Hence this new post.

Also, the comment he submitted included some of the false allegations that he has made numerous times in the past and seems to be prepared to continue indefinitely into the future. I think the best thing to do here is to nail those allegations once and for all, and maybe, if necessary, create a new section on the Bad Thinking blog to do that. For me, it will be much easier to have a specific area where my refutations of Mike’s comments can be dealt with for readers by clicking on a ready-made link, rather than me composing a new reply to old tropes every time Mike decides to go ballistic.

Here is Mike’s comment in full, with my responses, with my answers in red Times New Roman.

Mike Hallowell commented on My Very Own UFO

One thing that frustrates me when the woo folks have a tale to tell, i.e., some claim of the paranormal that sounds rather …

“Should I send it off for “expert analysis” and see if there are any “startling results” to follow?”

It doesn’t really matter, for in my experience you’ll have fibbers claiming you did this anyway even if you didn’t. I had an experience like this once, where a local” sceptic” made a similar claim about me. In fact, the accusation was drawn from an article written by another journalist entirely! You couldn’t make it up. The chap concerned claimed that I’d made such claims “many times” in one of my own columns. I challenged him to show me just one example, but he couldn’t, of course, as his accusation was complete fiction. I still read through our lengthy correspondence on the matter with fondness every now and then when my faith in the ability of our species to think creatively starts to wane.

Obviously, I am the “local sceptic” Mike is referring to. But he is being disingenuous here, and did not include a link to the article he means, nor did he quote me accurately. I have said elsewhere that Mike claims to send evidence away for analysis, and which returns startling results. That was sarcasm with a bit of hyperbole that went over his head. I have not claimed that he has made that claim “in one of his columns,” but he certainly has claimed to have sent evidence “away for analysis” and he has claimed to have received “startling results.” But his claims are empty anyway because he consistently refuses to release any of these alleged results for public scrutiny.

The article by “another journalist entirely” can be found here: Is This The Face Of The Salon Ghost?. That article appeared on 6th March, 2009 – more than five years ago. It is clear that the reporter interviewed Mike, whom she describes as a “Gazette columnist and ghost buster,” and there are several quotes by him. She also says, “Mr Hallowell has sent the pictures off to be analysed, and an overnight vigil is to be organised to gather more evidence from the salon.” [Emphasis added] It appears to be a follow up article to this one about the same “haunted” salon published on 17th February 2009 (two prominent pieces of free publicity for a local business – not bad).

It is obvious that Mike must have said that to the reporter, even though it is not presented as a verbatim quote, and in any case it is standard journalistic practice to sometimes describe what someone has said without the need to put every single utterance into quotation marks. If Mike said to the reporter something like, “Oh, by the way, I’ve sent those snaps away to be analysed,” then reporting that he has said so is acceptable. At the end of the article, though, there is a direct quote from Mike: “Until they have been analysed further we can’t make any definite pronouncements…” Any reasonable interpretation of this article suggests that Mike Hallowell did indeed claim to have sent his snapshots away for analysis by some unnamed third party. (He did not say, “Until I have analysed…”)

Now here’s the problem: 1) Is Mike denying that he told the reporter that he has sent those pictures off for analysis? I have suggested to him in the past that if the reporter has misquoted him, or (even worse) just made it up (a serious ethical breach), then he should make a formal complaint to the Shields Gazette and demand a retraction and an apology. He could even threaten to sue them if they refuse to do so (he regularly threatens legal action against his critics, so this should be no different). If he is willing to let the article stand, then he is, by implication, accepting that it is a fair account of what he actually said. Assuming that The Shields Gazette and Mike Hallowell (freelance Gazette columnist paid money by that newspaper) are honest and dispassionate seekers and reporters of the truth, then there is no danger that The Gazette will refuse his request to retract or amend that article, nor will they drop his column if he wants to threaten them with such legal action to ensure that his personal integrity is maintained.

Then again, I’m a sceptic; I shouldn’t make assumptions, but you can if you want to.

Another problem: 2) I’m not aware of anyone – myself included – accusing Mike of writing that article. Where did that come from? There is no dispute that it was written by someone else. And so what? It is completely irrelevant. Also, I have not been able to find a follow-up article by the same reporter to tell us the results of the analysis of those photos that Mike told her he was sending away for that purpose, and I am also unable to find anything about them published by Mike himself. As I have also said in the past, when Mike says he has sent stuff away for analysis, no one, in my opinion, should be expecting to hear anything about them again. But you never know; after all this time the results of that analysis might be in now, so perhaps Mike will publicise it. (It is five years later, though, so personally I don’t really expect to hear anything about it again.)

And has Mike ever claimed to have had “startling results” returned from evidence that he has actually claimed to have sent away for analysis? Yes, indeed, although it’s not at all clear to me why this is such an important point to him – and it clearly is, because every time I refute it, he comes back with the same old trope as if it were the first time it had ever been brought up.

But here’s something sneaky: Mike challenged me some time ago on someone else’s blog to prove that he had ever made such a claim. I was happy to oblige, and I provided a link to his own website where it was stated that some audio recordings from one of his poltergeist investigations had been subject to analysis, and had returned, he claimed, startling results He says (above), “I challenged him to show me just one example, but he couldn’t, of course, as his accusation was complete fiction.” That is a false Mike. He challenged me to prove claims I made, even offering to pay £30.00 to charity if I did so. I did, but he decided that I did not and he therefore did not pay up. (The blog I am referring to is owned by my sceptical friend Brian, who has allowed me to identify him as the blogger who removed my comments under legal threat against him, rather than Mike Hallowell defeating me through logical argument. Although Brian focuses mostly on local political issues that might not be of much interest to people outside of South Shields, he is also a sceptic with an often  (Occam’s) razor-sharp insight into the world of woo. He and I discussed Mike Hallowell’s legal threat before he removed my comments, which he did with my agreement. But those comments of mine have been merely “unmodified.” They are still there in cyberspace and might be reinstated in light of the new Defamation Act introduced on 1st January this year. (The link I have given, if anyone is hardy enough to try to wade through it all, will not make an awful lot of sense in some places. With some of my comments removed at this time it seems a bit disjointed. When I contributed my comments, it was before I started my own blog, and I used to comment in various places under my old handle, “the skeptic.” After comments I made on the Shields Gazette website about the same article in the above link were removed, comments on Brian’s blog were removed under legal threat. That was the reason I started my own blog – my comments were taken down from Mike Hallowell’s newspaper column comments section for no good reason, and then other comments of mine were removed from someone else’s private domain through bogus legal threats. I decided to start my own blog where Mike Hallowell himself will not be censored (although he does that to others with threats of legal action in lieu of evidence to support his anti-scientific claims), and I will not be bullied into removing fair criticism of the unsubstantiated claims of uneducated people who claim expertise in subjects for which they have neither accredited training nor qualifications.) And before Mike Hallowell starts whining (again) that he had nothing to do with the removal of my comments from the Gazette website, I never did accuse him of doing so; it is just as likely that the Gazette removed them because they realised that my comments showed up their columnist as an ignoramus. Perhaps one might even consider the possibility that the technologically-savvy South Shields Poltergeist did it. Can anyone disprove a claim like that? No? It must be true, then, by Mike Hallowell’s own “logic” – the argument to ignorance – see below)

But did any of that resolve the issue? No, it didn’t, because after I posted the link, the words he complained about were changed on his website from “startling results” to “extremely interesting results.” Some people might think that that change is relatively minor and doesn’t make a great difference to the overall meaning, but it was obviously important to Mike, who has never let it drop. But the point is, when I rose to his challenge to show where he had ever said that evidence he had had analysed returned startling results, he changed the very words that would confirm what I had said.

Here are the before and after screenshots from his own website:



Even in his magnum opus (The widely panned The South Shields Poltergeist) he says clearly (and get this if you want a laugh) that he sent  a copy of the alleged poltergeist’s handwriting away to a graphologist for, yes, analysis. (There is no copy of the graphologist’s analysis published, either. Startling results? Extremely interesting results? Mike has said before that he doesn’t feel the need to prove anything to anyone, so don’t expect too much.) And it’s pretty much the same with two “well qualified nurses” in the book who supposedly confirmed that the alleged injuries caused to one of the central characters in the same book must have been paranormal in origin. You might not be surprised to learn that these unnamed nurses, who did not give written testimony in the book as other witnesses did, have now transformed into the more vague, but still anonymous, “medical personnel.”

Hallowell snip 02

“The footage was reviewed by medical personnel experienced in treating such wounds and they stated categorically that it would have been absolutely impossible for such wounds to disappear in such a short space of time.”

Anyone who has seen this footage will know that it is poorly lit and of very poor quality; whatever is happening is indistinct at best, but “experienced nurses” or “medical personnel” had no problem with it. The footage that was on the internet shows, maybe, with a bit of imagination, some slight marks on the person’s back, but the “medical personnel”  presumably must have been able to discern the victim’s back being “slashed to ribbons,” as Mike puts it in the book. There’s not much chance of ever viewing it again, though, if you want to form an opinion of your own. After much criticism and laughter, Mike had it removed from the internet to save his blushes to protect his copyright.

Mike will probably want to come back on these points about his alleged book, but I hope he gives his underling colleague and co-author, Darren Ritson, permission to join in.

On a different note, I’d like to raise a couple of points about the following comment you made:

“The evidence for UFOs – Alien Spaceships From Another Galaxy (ASFAGs as I think they should be called) – is actually non-existent over and above anecdotal accounts.”

You claim (in opposition to many astronauts, pilots, police officers, astronomers, military personnel, scientists and others) that, “The evidence for UFOs…is actually non-existent over and above anecdotal accounts.” All those people who claim to have seen the hard evidence must be lying, I suppose. [Mike can suppose that if he wants to, but that is not my position on the matter. In any case, calling upon the status of those alleged witnesses is a fallacy called the appeal to authority.]

People like Dr. Edgar Mitchell, Major Gordon Cooper and others have reached their conclusion that UFOs exist because they have seen the hard evidence. [No, those astronauts have claimed to have seen the hard evidence. They have not produced it.] You have reached your conclusion that they do not exist based on a perceived absence of evidence when you are in no position to know. [I know that hard evidence of UFOs is not in the public domain. It would be pretty big news if it was.] I’m pretty sure I’m on safe ground when I say that their position is far more logical than yours. [No, it is illogical for people to believe extraordinary claims on nothing more than hearsay – whoever it might be who makes those extraordinary claims.]

Are all the expert witnesses lying, deluded or insane? [Perhaps some of them are; others are enjoying a lucrative income from the lecture circuit, writing Aliensabsurd books and articles and taking part in stupid TV programmes about UFOs, “ancient aliens,” and other assorted nonsense, also without producing a shred of testable evidence. They have motivation to be less than critical about the claims they make, even if they are sincere about it. Mike could have offered another possibility – are they, like many other people, merely susceptible to misinterpreting what they have experienced?] Many have said that they are prepared to testify before Congress regarding what they know at great risk to their careers. [I’d like to see it happen. They would be required to produce evidence to support their claims, but I think it’s unlikely that the American Congress wants to appear to the world to be giving a platform to a bunch of cranks.] The world awaits your judgement on the matter, although I think we already have a good idea what it might be. You once argued that witnesses like Dr. Mitchell could have been fed some rather dodgy info supporting the existence of UFOs to cover up a secret government project. [No, I didn’t “argue” that the US government was feeding “dodgy info” to anyone, I suggested that the US government might just not discourage people from thinking they have seen UFOs if they have actually witnessed top secret testing of new military projects. The military might even encourage people to maintain their false beliefs, although I think it is going a bit too far to assume they are actively “feeding” anyone “dodgy” information.] Not impossible in essence, but certainly impossible when one takes the evidence provided by Dr. Mitchell in its entirety; something you signally failed to do, if you recall, when you last tried to pour cold water on his testimony. [Mitchell’s testimony “in its entirety” is anecdotal, and not proof of anything: all talk, no substance.]

When Major Cooper testified before the UN to the existence of UFOs and their extraterrestrial occupants, was he fibbing too? [I don’t know. Did they believe him and then issue any kind of document, judgement or directive to confirm what he was claiming? Are his claims now official UN policy adopted and implemented by member countries? I didn’t see it if they did, and it is certainly the kind of thing the UFO people would publicise. I haven’t seen that, either.] Just what do you say to a veteran astronaut who states, “For many years I have lived with a secret…a secrecy imposed on all specialists in astronautics. I can now reveal that every day, in the USA, our radar instruments capture objects of form and composition unknown to us. And there are thousands of witness reports and a quantity of documents to prove this, but nobody wants to make them public. Why? Because authority is afraid that people may think of God knows what kind of horrible invaders. So the password still is: We have to avoid panic by all means”? [I think I would say something like, “Wow! That’s incredible! Show me all that evidence! (that you haven’t shown to anyone else).” And I might also say something like, “You, like all other military personnel of your rank, are entrusted with state secrets that you now want to blab about? Where I come from, that would be called treason. You are prepared to betray your military and your country? OK, then, give me all the documentation and I will pass it on to The Guardian newspaper while you make your escape to Russia and join your fellow countryman Edward Snowden, who also gave the game away (with incontrovertible evidence of his claims about the American government’s surveillance of not only its own citizens, but the citizens of countries all over the world.). Become a fugitive in the name of openness and truth and I will support you on my own blog. Oh, and pick up a million dollars from James Randi before you leave – it might come in handy.”]

Was Major Cooper lying when he said that a condition of secrecy had been imposed upon specialists in the field of astronautics? [Hardly; the Americans (and every other government) usually don’t want foreign powers to know what they are up to, so secrets “in the field of” just about anything is pretty normal. Non-governmental organisations (businesses for example) also require secrecy from some of their staff.] And why would such secrecy be imposed if these thousands of sightings were simply misattributions? [It might be because if the US government exposed the stuff that is nonsense, then what is left is (dare I say it) the truth – the very thing they don’t want people to know about, things like new military technology that has nothing to do with alleged aliens.] Why would US Navy witnesses with extremely high security clearance levels claim that huge a UFO had emerged from the sea in front of USN vessels before flying off at incredible speed? [It depends what is in it for them. Decades in jail, maybe, for giving away state secrets, or making money on the UFO circuit talking nonsense to a gullible audience, knowing that they are not in danger of prosecution because they are not giving anything away at all.]  Are they lying too? [I didn’t suggest that anyone was lying; they might be shrewd. Mike Hallowell has, in the past, said that he thinks it is the interpretation of evidence that makes a difference. Those shrewd navy witnesses might have an interpretation that just happens to have a superficial plausibility, acceptable to the believers even if their interpretation of the alleged evidence contradicts common sense, science, logic and reality in general.]

The only argument you have to fall back on is the old canard that we can’t rely solely on eyewitness testimony without “hard evidence”. [Eye witness testimony is often wrong; that is why it needs to be backed up with “hard evidence.” Mike once used a courtroom analogy with regard to personal testimony, but if he were falsely accused of, say, committing a murder, would he think it fair if he were convicted on the say-so of a couple of high-ranking, but mistaken, military personnel? He wouldn’t be able to prove them wrong; in that case I think he might suddenly want to rethink his strongly held belief in capital punishment.] The problem is that hundreds of professional people are now openly claiming to have seen just such evidence, which forces you into the uncomfortable position of having to argue that although you may not have seen the evidence yourself, they are either all making it up or are mistaken. [Here are two logical fallacies in one sentence: the first is the fallacy called the appeal to popularity, and the other is called a false dichotomy.  The truth value of a claim is not determined by how many people believe it, and Mike offers only two possible alternatives regarding why the claims have been made, but there are other possibilities.] How can you “mistakenly” see a UFO in a USAF hangar? [If it is Unidentified, how can you know what it is? Could it actually be a new and very secret military project? What does an actual alien space ship look like? (Hint: it probably doesn’t look like a blurred smudge (BS) – the typical “evidence” produced on photographs and film/video that the UFO buffs seem to have orgasms over.) But go ahead and show the evidence.] How can you “mistakenly” be associated with secret governmental projects, as was Dr. Mitchell, in which the hard evidence is examined and evaluated? [He says he was; show the evidence.] How can you “mistakenly” film a UFO hovering over a military base and then have it confiscated by the security services the next day? [It’s easy to make a claim. Show the evidence.] Were they all dreaming? You can deny the eyewitness testimony all you want, but to pit yourself against such a large array of respected experts in so many different fields is bordering on the bizarre. [No, believing big claims with no evidence is what is bizarre (and in this case is still the fallacious appeal to popularity and the appeal to authority). In fact, it is irrational.] Your very own Dr. Carl Sagan once said, quite rightly, that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. Your stance flies in the face of this maxim, but with you it’s worse; you don’t even have any evidence that the evidence is absent! [Carl Sagan, one of the most influential scientists and sceptics of the 20th century, is described in this article by Mike Hallowell as being “not very rational.” So it’s interesting that Mike quotes him here to try to support his case. But the fact is the burden of proof is on the person making a claim. Absence of evidence is still absence of evidence. The only people who can provide the evidence are those who claim to have it. To paraphrase the late Christopher Hitchens, “Assert something without evidence, and I can dismiss it without evidence.”] Here are two hours of testimony from those who have indeed seen the evidence. Perhaps you’d like to tell us whether these are all lying or deluded too: [Yes, testimony. I’m not going to waste two hours watching talking heads unless they are presenting testable evidence. I’ve done that many times in the past; if this is just “personal testimony,” it is not of much value.]

Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that you don’t have to believe in the ET hypothesis. But what you really need to do is at least take a stance of detachment and withhold judgement considering the quality of the witness testimony arraigned against you. [There is no “quality” witness testimony arraigned against me. Just witness testimony for which there is no testable or confirmable evidence to support it. Testimony is not the same as proof. The woo brigade would like nothing better than for sceptics to “withhold judgement,” in other words, “shut up.”]

I really do find your stance quite intriguing, and would like to ask you on what evidence you make this assumption. I mean, unless you personally visit every building on the face of the planet large enough to house such an object you really wouldn’t know, would you? [The same argument applies to Mike, unless he has personally visited every possible location where an ASFAG (Alien Spaceship From Another Galaxy) might be hidden. I don’t, however, claim to “know,” I claim to doubt.] It doesn’t seem very scientific to me to deny the existence of something just because you haven’t personally seen the proof. [Mike Hallowell is a science denier anyway, but has Mike personally seen the proof? If so, then like his heroes, he has not presented it. To be fair, Mike does not claim to have had the same access to secret information as he thinks some astronauts have had, he just believes what they say, and that’s good enough for him. His readers should just believe him, in the same way he just believes what some astronauts say, and what other writers on the subject say they say. I do not believe that this planet is being visited by space aliens. However, I hold that opinion tentatively and if anyone can prove their claims then I will accept it. In the meantime, the probability that aliens are here is vanishingly small, given the fact that we still have only claims but no tangible evidence.] Wouldn’t a truly objective person withhold judgement on the matter rather than take a sceptical standpoint based on nothing more than a personal opinion? [What – as opposed to someone believing extraordinary claims based on nothing more than their own personal opinion formed from hearsay with no confirmable evidence to support it?]

Please explain to the world just how you KNOW that there is no evidence for the existence of UFOs other than anecdotal accounts. [I don’t claim to KNOW there is no evidence for the existence of UFOs (if that means extraterrestrial vehicles) but I know that the only evidence I have ever come across is anecdotal, not testable or confirmable. The burden of proof is still on the person making the claim.] It’s no good arguing that no one has seen such evidence, for that would just be yet another wild assumption on your part too, wouldn’t it? [I’m not arguing that no one has seen it, but if they’ve seen it, they should show it. Making claims about evidence for UFOs is rather like making claims about evidence for poltergeists: those who make the claims but refuse to prove their claims come in for justifiable criticism. Refusal to show the evidence or just making excuses for not doing so makes the claimant look rather foolish – except to the believers, who keep them in business.] Again, how could you possibly know? You are essentially arguing that because you haven’t seen something then it can’t possibly exist. [This is a straw man fallacy. (I’ll do a new post on the subject.) I am not “essentially” arguing that something I have not seen cannot possibly exist. I’ve explained the straw man fallacy to Mike some time ago.] Is this how true sceptics condition themselves to think? [Sceptics try to think logically, not Mike’s distorted version of what he thinks they think.] I’d be delighted to see a step-by-step explanation in your blog as to how you reach a position of disbelief when you could not possibly have determined whether such evidence exists or not. [This logical fallacy is called the argument to ignorance. Mike’s implication is that if one can’t disprove a claim, then it should be accepted. In fact, if a claim cannot be disproved, that is no basis for assuming its veracity.] You chide bad thinking, so please enlighten us as to how you reached your conclusion by utilising good thinking. [What conclusion is Mike referring to? He posted his comment on a post where my “conclusion” was that an apparent UFO I saw turned out, after investigation, to be nothing more than an optical illusion. I explained it in detail in that post.]

Mike is a regular critic of sceptics, science and the scientific method, so he will no doubt be able to tell me where I went wrong when I perceived what initially seemed to be an alien spaceship taking off from out at sea but then investigated it further to find out what it actually was.

Maybe I should have sent my account to him for possible publication in his Wraithcrap column, and seen it published with this kind of analysis:

Long story short: a fellow wakes up at 3.30 am and looks out of the window to see a saucer-shaped object; he gets his friend, who comes into the room and also sees it; it then shoots away at high speed. The fellow contacts Mike Hallowell thirty-odd years later, while it is still fresh in his memory, to tell him about it. Mike’s conclusion is:

“It was a UFO, obviously mechanical in nature and under intelligent control.”

An “expert” like Mike doesn’t, apparently, need to wonder how accurate a person’s memory of an event is more than thirty years later, nor how reliable that memory is from a person woken up in the middle of the night and still partially asleep. As Mike says:

“The question I would pose to skeptics is: On what basis should we disbelieve him – or for that matter, any of the other thousands of experients who have had similar encounters?”

It turns out you don’t even have to be a former astronaut to come out with a story that Mike will swallow believe, support and verify – at least to his own satisfaction. I could pose a question to Mike: how does he know that some of the tales he gets from his readers aren’t just made-up stories sent in to see if he would fall for it? (I’m sure it wouldn’t make any difference to him anyway; he writes up the drivel his fans send him and then trousers the cash for regurgitating it in the Shields Gazette and presumably other publications. You can probably read a version of that bilge in the next issue of UFO Wankfest Quarterly, or whatever).

For me, however, when I had a “UFO experience,” I decided to investigate it and found an answer that was consistently repeatable. What I found was an optical illusion, and in the light of that, there is no rational reason to believe that what I experienced was a UFO taking off from its secret underwater base.

I spent several weeks replicating what I found, also spending many hours doing so. But that’s a bit too sciencey for some people. I guess I could have saved my time and sent my initial observation off to Mike, just to see if he would publish it in the Shields Gazette. At first glance it certainly did look like “a UFO, obviously mechanical in nature and under intelligent control,” but in reality it was nothing of the sort. I don’t think Mike, in this instance at least, is going to contradict me, even if he can quite willingly publish outlandish claims from anyone else who sends him an uncorroborated claim that he, himself, did not witness, but which he can confidently validate as “a UFO, obviously mechanical in nature and under intelligent control.

At the end of the day, I still think it’s better to try to confirm or disprove things rather than take someone’s word for it. You look silly otherwise.

I’m bored now.


My Very Own UFO

One thing that frustrates me when the woo folks have a tale to tell, i.e., some claim of the paranormal that sounds rather fantastical but might be reported to have many witnesses, is the triumphant shout of “How do you explain that?”

It’s an absurd thing to say anyway, of course, because the burden of proof is on those who actually make a claim. I’m not going to waste my time trying to disprove the notion that the US government, say, has alien spaceships hidden in a secret hangar. There might well be former astronauts who make such a claim, but if you are willing to believe their claims on the grounds of who they are, rather than solid evidence (that they always fail to produce), then you are guilty of bad thinking.

The evidence for UFOs – Alien Spaceships From Another Galaxy (ASFAGs as I think they should be called) – is actually non-existent over and above anecdotal accounts. And anecdotes are not evidence. I know that some of the woo promoters insist that anecdotes in the form of personal testimony are allowed as evidence in a court of law, but so what? Personal testimony in court is not accepted at face value; it is going to be challenged and witnesses are going to be subjected to often harsh cross examination and possibly have their credibility destroyed in the light of opposing evidence or even proof. If a witness gives an alibi for a defendant but the defendant’s DNA, fingerprints, and so on are produced to refute that personal testimony, then I think the hard evidence is going to be more compelling than the anecdotal evidence.

What if a defendant’s alibi is that he could not have committed a particular crime because he had been abducted by aliens and he had a dozen witnesses to say they had seen him “beamed” aboard the aliens’ mother ship at the time  the alleged crime was committed? I would suggest that any such testimony would be thrown out because such a claim is absurd – although it wouldn’t be classed as absurd if the existence of aliens had already been established. Which it hasn’t.

But here’s a conundrum (for me, at least). I saw my own UFO (ASFAG?) and I can offer only an anecdotal account of the encounter I had. But if you will bear with me, see if you can follow the logic of my narrative.

The striking aspect of my story is that I experienced or witnessed for myself an event that I had often wondered about – witness accounts of UFO sightings where an alleged UFO travels at amazing speed and then suddenly turns at a 90 degree angle and shoots away at equally high speed. OK, it’s easy to criticise the usual blurry photographs purported to be UFOs. It’s easy to criticise UFO claims that have subsequently been debunked. It’s easy to look with a jaundiced eye at former astronauts who rely on their status rather than testable evidence for their UFO claims. But one recurring claim that always troubled me was the alleged 90 degree turn at high speed that often crops up. That’s not so easy to dismiss as a light in the sky that could be almost anything.

Anyway, the scenario was this: I live on the North East coast of England, and I regularly drive along a road that runs approximately parallel with the coast. The road itself is about 1.5 miles long between two main junctions, and at night is very dark except for about four pedestrian crossing points that each have a couple of street lamps on either side of the road. Apart from that, the entire road is just complete darkness for night time driving, and the use of headlights is essential. Although the road edges can be seen in the glow of one’s headlights, anything further than the far kerb is just complete blackness. The only occasional sign of life might be the lights from a ship out at sea. But this night, there was not even that.

This is a photograph of what can be seen in normal daylight, but keep in mind the fact that after sunset there is just complete blackness beyond the kerb you can see in the picture.


The road itself is one I have driven along thousands of times in almost forty years of driving, at various times of the day and night. It is almost always an uneventful drive except for this particular night: from the corner of my eye I saw a vaguely orange light shoot straight up in the air, and as I turned to look at it, it turned at 90 degrees and shot away at high speed in the opposite direction from my own line of travel.

I saw this out in the blackness that would have had to be the sea, and although I wondered at first if it could have been a distress flare perhaps from a fishing boat in trouble, it was immediately obvious that a flare would not have done such a sharp turn and headed out of sight at such high speed. Even if there had been a heavy wind, I would have expected it to curve through the air, not turn and shoot off.

But just as I was pondering the improbability of me having discovered an underwater alien base, it happened again! Another light shot up in the air and again did a 90 degree turn, again shooting away into the distance. This was just getting too weird for a sceptic like me.

When I reached the end of the road, I turned the car around and headed back – obviously keeping a keen eye on the seaward side. But this time – nothing.

Never mind, once I had returned to the original junction, I set back off in the original direction I was headed (north). Again – nothing.

This was more than just a little bit irritating because (dare I say it?) I know what I saw. But to be honest, what I saw (twice) was a light shoot upwards, turn 90 degrees and then shoot away at apparently high speed. I’m not going to claim I saw an alien space ship. I still wanted to know what it was, however, and I was determined to at least try to solve this awkward riddle.

As I headed north for the third time, I realised that the time difference between my first and second sightings (maybe about eight seconds) was approximately the same time it took to travel between two of the pedestrian crossing areas with their attendant street lights.

I had noticed a correlation, but beware – any statistician can tell you that a correlation does not imply a causal link, although it’s true to say that if there is a causal link there will always be a correlation. So what next?

I did what any competent researcher does – I put together every salient fact I could think of and I tried to form a hypothesis that would explain what had happened.

The main facts were these:

  • It was a dark night.
  • The effect happened when I passed under street lights.
  • It was raining lightly.
  • My car window was partially open at the time of the sightings.
  • The local council had recently installed new lamp posts.

Given the fact that I have travelled the same route thousands of times over the best part of four decades, at all times of the day or night in all kinds of weather, one thing was different this time  – the new street lights. Could that have something to do with it?

Being the inquisitive person I am, someone who loves puzzles but hates mysteries, I really had to get to the bottom of this, and I drove back and forth along that stretch of road until I found what was at least a tentative answer. Maybe nine or ten times up and down the same road. But – Eureka! Here’s what happened that night, and over several following weeks of testing and retesting:

My habit, as I drive around town, is to drive with my window slightly open – just a gap of a couple of inches for a flow of fresh air. Even during light rain, that’s OK unless the rain is heavy enough to come into the car, in which case I drive with the window closed.

On this particular night, there was light rain and my window was slightly open as usual. If my memory was correct, then each time I had seen this mysterious UFO was just as I passed by one of the sets of street lights.

I also realised that the local council had recently been undertaking a programme of street light renewal. These particular lights were new and, unlike the old lights, are taller and the lights themselves are set at the top each lamp post rather than on an arm that extended over the road itself.

I wondered if it was possible that the angle of the lights in relation to the car window might be something to do with this strange phenomenon. So I drove back and forth until the exact effect happened again. And it turned out that with my window at a particular height, the effect could be reproduced, There was no end of UFOs that night. It seemed that the UFO effect was caused by light from the streetlights reflecting from the edge of the car window: one point of light travelling up the sloping lead edge of the window giving the impression of a light travelling vertically, and then travelling over the rising top of the window giving the impression of the light suddenly travelling horizontally.

Problem solved? Not quite.

Reproducing an experiment once or twice is hardly conclusive, so I repeated the drive a couple of nights later. Alas, nothing happened, even though I did the same run – back and forth – several times, and trying the window at different heights. Nothing.

Maybe the rain had something to do with it? I had to wait a week or two for more rain and set out again. This time – success! More UFOs!

And during the following weeks I did the same thing. Clear nights, rainy nights. On the clear nights nothing, whatever height I set the window. On very rainy nights, nothing, whatever the height of the window. But on nights with a light rain, and with the window set to a particular height, the effect of a UFO taking off vertically and shooting away horizontally could be easily reproduced.

I think I solved the problem: the effect was produced because of light rain forming a bead of water on the leading edge of the window, and that was where the light from the street lamps focused and reflected into my peripheral vision, causing what was nothing more than an optical illusion. When it happened, it was momentary and fleeting – but absolutely startling. If I had already been a believer in UFOs, I’m sure I would have been convinced that I had had a close encounter, and might possibly have contacted the press to make such a claim.

The reality is rather mundane: it all came down to a particular set of conditions that had to come together by chance. Consider what was involved:

  • New street lights that were taller than the previous lights.
  • The lamps attached to them were close in to the lamp posts rather than extended over the road.
  • There was a light rain.
  • My car window happened to be at a particular height.
  • The rain had formed a bead of water on the edge of the glass.
  • The light from the streetlights had been refracted through that bead of water as I passed by them.
  • The effect as it happened lasted only a very small fraction of a second.

At that moment, I really thought I had witnessed a light out at sea shoot vertically upwards and then turn at 90 degrees and shoot away.

I think most people would not have gone much further than the original observation, and perhaps some of them would be making  a song and dance about it. It is, after all, a staple of the UFO community – something strange is observed and – wait for it – it can’t be explained! Ta-Daaaaa! And as any believer can tell you, if it can’t be explained, then it must be [insert preferred woo here].

Yes, indeed, how do you explain that? Actually, you go out and investigate it.

I spent time over several weeks investigating this strange event, but I think it was worth it – at least to satisfy my own curiosity. Admittedly, my investigation into what happened doesn’t satisfy the criteria needed for publication in a scientific journal, but at least I followed some basic rules of research and I was able to eliminate some possible explanations until I came to a conclusion that is reasonable and is consistent with the known laws of physics (and optics, especially).

If only the promoters of the paranormal would do something similar in their everyday lives. It’s just too easy, however, to observe an event that appears anomalous and then just assume it is paranormal because it happens to fit neatly with existing beliefs.

Is there a moral to this story? Maybe. Believers in paranormal phenomena tend to accept claims of the paranormal at face value. A paranormal claim becomes a paranormal fact for them, and sceptical objections are dismissed as “just so stories” from nay-saying curmudgeons. The believers seem to be so committed to their beliefs, however, that possible explanations offered by sceptical critics must be swept away. Quite honestly, though, I still chuckle inwardly when I recall one of my correspondents calling me “deluded” for “not being broad minded enough” to believe. Quite. Silly me for preferring quantifiable reality to  unsubstantiated claims that no one can demonstrate to be fact.

As I said earlier, the claim of UFOs shooting in one direction and then turning at 90 degrees in an instant and flying off at equally high speed was something that puzzled me for some time. It’s not so easy to explain as just pointing out that a blurred smudge on an out of focus photograph is not proof of alien visitation – and of course the believers still think that the onus is somehow on sceptics to disprove paranormal claims rather than they themselves having any obligation to prove  the anti-scientific claims they promote.

The bottom line is this: I actually experienced a phenomenon that seemed unlikely, even though there are numerous eyewitness reports of “UFOs” doing high speed manoeuvres that seem to defy the laws of physics. It isn’t something for which a possible explanation is easily available. Even if you want to postulate an optical illusion of some kind, that’s not much to work on unless you can offer a plausible scenario. Without knowing the exact circumstances of any particular claim, you can’t really say much about it.

In my particular case, however, I can say with some confidence that what I experienced was, indeed, an optical illusion. It was an illusion that was so startling and real at the time that I was momentarily stunned, and in that moment I thought of other accounts I had read about from UFO believers, and I think I can understand why some people would think they had had an extraterrestrial encounter.

But, the question is this: if you have an unusual experience, should you assume an answer that fits your beliefs, or do you try to find out what is really going on?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it would be cool if the existence of anything paranormal could be confirmed, and I would not object to it at all. But the confirmable evidence needs to be there. Prove that alien space ships are real, and even I will accept the possibility of alien abduction as a plausible alibi in a court of law.

Until then, I remain sceptical. In the case of UFOs claimed to be travelling at high speed and turning instantly at 90 degrees, I think the first question anyone should ask is, “Were there any reflective surfaces nearby?” Even reflections in a pair of spectacles might provide a possible answer to some alleged UFO sightings. It’s worth thinking about before assuming an answer for which there is no credible evidence.

Additional Note:

This is a genuine photograph I took when I was testing out my new smart phone thingy in January this year. This is the picture, with no “photoshopped” special effects added, no digital photo manipulation, just a cropped section of a picture that was recorded when I took the photo. I was looking at the moon, among other things, when this hove into view. If any UFO experts want to tell me what it is, I will be happy to publish all analyses.


I have my own hypothesis, but should I leave it up to the UFO “experts” to decide? Should I send it off for “expert analysis” and see if there are any “startling results” to follow? Are there any local “photo analysts” that can help me?

I will post my own ideas about it in the comments in a couple of days.

A New Star In The UFO Firmament

So TV’s History Channel has produced yet another addition to the UFO stable: Shaun Ryder On UFOs.

Summary of what it’s about: Celebrity lead singer of The Happy Mondays (a popular music band, apparently) travels around the world not proving the existence of alien visitation.

Erm… that’s it.

Typical crap evidence for UFOs(I’ll admit I watched the first episode just because it wouldn’t be fair to comment on it without doing so, even though it was predictably banal, cast from the same mould as every other mindless UFO programme ever made. If you’ve seen the others, rest assured there are no surprises or special insights here, either.)

There still doesn’t appear to be much evidence of intelligent life out there – but those are the viewers that the producers of this kind of programming have to rely on, I suppose. A five-star rating from them, no doubt.

UFO Cover-Ups. No, Not Really.

Thought, without the data on which to structure that thought, leads nowhere.
— Victor J Stenger.

It gets a bit tedious to hear self-professed UFO experts going on and on about military personnel claiming that this planet is a regular destination for aliens from outer space.

A real space craftOne name regularly trotted out is that of Edgar Mitchell, one of only twelve astronauts to have actually walked on the Moon. He is, as most people know, one of the most prominent promoters of the idea that the US government knows about alien visitation but that they are leading a cover-up to prevent the public from knowing about it. What he has not done, of course, is to prove any of his claims.

The believers, of course, tout him as being someone who must know “the truth.” That, in itself, is a logical fallacy – the appeal to authority: the fact that he is a famous astronaut is supposed to somehow increase his credibility. But that is a false assumption. An extraordinary claim like alien visitation has no special validity because of who makes the claim – however prominent he or she might be, or however highly experienced or qualified they are.

There is an interview with Edgar Mitchell here. He is saying that there is a cover-up, but he offers no evidence other than the fact that some people told him that they had alien encounters. Or, to be more specific, he says:

“After my space flight, I was contacted by descendants of the original Roswell observers, including the person who delivered the child-sized coffins to the Air Force to contain alien bodies. Another was one of the children of the deputy sheriff who was patrolling traffic around the site.”

Now hang on a minute. Mitchell’s information comes from the descendants of the alleged original witnesses? And the children of the deputy sheriff? How accurate are their memories decades later? And how can their stories be corroborated?

He also says:

There was also a military officer who was a friend of the families not involved in that particular operation, but who did share office space there. They all seemed credible with their stories that the bodies found were alien.

Oh, right. An unnamed military officer, a friend of the families not involved…” But he did share office space. And they seemed credible.

You might see a slight problem developing here if I link to this article about UFOs, written by amateur paranormal researcher Mike Hallowell. The problem is this: he quotes, among many names he presents in his article, Edgar Mitchell as an authority. What he does not make clear is the fact that Mitchell, in turn, quotes descendants of alleged original witnesses, who, in their turn were told the stories from the original witnesses, supposedly. Mitchell also relies on the say-so of someone he says “shared office space” with someone else (unidentified, of course, just like the unidentified military officer).

So do we have, at long last, proof of extraterrestrial visitation? Mike Hallowell thinks so, because Edgar Mitchell (among others) says so.

Edgar Mitchell thinks so, because descendants of the original alleged witnesses said so.

The descendants of the original alleged witnesses believed it because they were told it.

And don’t forget the mystery military officer who supposedly shared an office with someone.

What more proof do we need?

Another interesting point: Mitchell was also asked in the above article:

Have you ever seen a UFO yourself?

His reply is illuminating, for someone who is convinced of the existence of UFOs:

I consider myself fairly well informed, although I have not seen one personally. I’m not out there looking — I’m pretty busy. [Emphasis added.]

So Mitchell has not seen a UFO, he relies on second and third hand information, he has no evidence to offer other than hearsay, and some commentators offer what he says as evidence?

I can see why I’m sceptical.

(Additional note: Although UFO stands for unidentified flying object, it is the term used by believers to mean Alien Spaceships From Another Galaxy. If they mean that, then they really should use the term ASFAG. At least it is unambiguous, and does not allow leeway for them to wriggle out of their big claim later when a “UFO” turns out to be just a Chinese lantern or something else just as banal.)

Alien Invasion Might Be More Horrific Than You Thought

I found an amusing takedown of another bit of credulous UFO apologetics. Yeah, UFOs must be real because you can’t prove they’re not. Sceptics are just awful.

I’m old enough to vaguely remember the beginning of mankind’s exploration of space, starting with Sputnik, and I’ve grown up with the fantastic advances in science and technology that we have all seen and gained the benefit of. In fact, for me, this is the most exciting time to be alive, and I hope that, before I snuff it, life elsewhere in the universe will be confirmed.

Right now, NASA is sending probes out into space to try to detect life; in particular, there are machines on Mars designed specifically to find out if that planet could have supported life in the past, or even if there might be the remnants of actual life there now. And the SETI Institute is constantly scanning the skies in the hope that we might detect signals from other civilisations.

All of this is being done very publicly, and there are some excellent documentaries being broadcast that deal with the latest ideas in science that discuss the likelihood of alien civilisations being out there, and the possible ways that other life might have evolved. It’s not settled yet, of course, but the laws of physics apply all over the universe: it’s likely that life is abundant. If life could arise on Earth, there is no reason to assume that the same couldn’t happen elsewhere.

(By the way – I mentioned “excellent documentaries”: I mean things like Wonders Of The Universe, not unmitigated cobblers like Ancient Aliens or UFO Files. )

“”Ufology” – a pseudoscience if ever there was one – is like any other aspect of paranormal investigation, and totally unlike any real science. The existence of the claimed phenomenon is inferred from the fact that the paranormal investigators just can’t think of (or accept) an ordinary explanation. A light in the sky? No idea what it is, therefore it’s an alien spaceship from another galaxy (ASFAG, as I call it – not UFO, which by definition is something that has not been identified).

I’m not claiming it’s impossible for aliens to be here, just that it’s highly unlikely. If it’s true, then we need confirmable evidence, not the say-so of a few cranks who write uninformed magazine or newspaper columns, have books to sell and/or a profitable career to pursue on the UFO lecture circuit.

Despite the various science fiction scenarios we are all familiar with –- flesh-eating aliens, creatures that want Earth’s natural resources, the assimilation of this planet into some galactic empire, and so on, there could be something worse in store for us if and when these aliens do arrive. What if (shudder) these “people” have got… RELIGION?

Just think of it for a moment. Instead of spaceships with alien scientists and anthropologists on board, there might be exotic craft heading our way full of Missionaries! (Aaaargh!)

It might seem incredible to think of an advanced civilisation worshiping any gods. After all, the one thing that stands in the way of scientific progress here is religion. Some of the more liberal religious people accept much of their religion as being largely allegorical and metaphorical, without taking away their belief in a creator, which allows science to progress without too much interference (some scientists are religious, but at least they do tend to be deists rather than theists). Fundamentalists, however, will not accept science if it contradicts their religious beliefs. In fact, there are many fundie organisations that say categorically that anything that contradicts their dogma (especially science, which happens to be testable with no faith required) must be rejected. Creationists are trying to get their beliefs taught in science classes as though there is anything remotely scientific about any of it. If they get their way, then real science will be destroyed, along with any hope we might have of ever reaching the stars ourselves.

Given the history of religious strife on Earth – an enterprise that has turned countries into graveyards, the possibility of aliens being evangelicals is a thought that is quite horrifying.

Then again, aliens, if they arrive here, will (I hope) have probably ditched religion eons ago, but they might just clear off as soon as the fundies start knocking on their spaceship doors to “spread the good word” – or worse – “destroy the infidels.” The aliens might conclude that their search for intelligent life has drawn a blank in this backwater of the Milky Way.

No one knows for sure what’s out there; we can only say that alien life probably does exist, but is probably not here.

For an illustration of the probability of human/alien interaction, this is a good analysis (with thanks to xkcd):

I’m going to be optimistic on this one. If aliens still have religion, then they will very likely have done the same as the fundies on this planet have historically done, i.e., tortured and killed their best thinkers. Maybe they have been successful in replacing science with religion in their science classes. If that is the case, then there is no chance that they will have been able to develop the science that would enable them to cross the immense void of space to get here just to do the same thing to us. But if they have been able to outgrow a concept that belongs in the infancy of any advanced civilisation, then perhaps there will, one day, be meaningful contact between them and us without the barbarity that has afflicted humankind throughout its history and is still with us “thanks” to religion.

On our little planet – this pale blue dot — history is quite clear: religion delivers intolerance, death and destruction; science delivers computers, the internet, medical wonders, the beginnings of space exploration – and the actual possibility of travel across interstellar space.

But if aliens really are on their way here,  we had better just pray hope that they don’t have religion.

Was Carl Sagan Not Rational?

The problem with the Sagan Standard is the reasoning behind it; that extraordinary evidence should be produced to support extraordinary claims.

With all respect to Carl Sagan, this is not a very rational approach, for the term “extraordinary” is a highly subjective one.

If a person claims to have witnessed something truly extraordinary, should they really be required to produce “extraordinary” evidence before we take their claims seriously? I don’t think so. – Mike Hallowell, author of “WRAITHSCAPE: the UK’s stupidest spookiest newspaper column.”

carl-sagan So that’s Carl Sagan put in his place (Yes, THE Carl Sagan, BA, BSc, MSc, PhD; author of more than 600 scientific papers; author, co-author or editor of more than twenty books including best-sellers The Demon Haunted World, Cosmos (which also became an acclaimed TV documentary series), the novel Contact (made into a film); writer and presenter of the prestigious Royal Institution Christmas Lectures; winner of numerous awards, including the highest award of the National Academy of Sciences – The Public Welfare Medal, the NASA Public Service Medal, and many others; plus there are awards named in his honour: the Carl Sagan Memorial Award, the Carl Sagan Medal for Excellence in Public Communication in Planetary Science, and the Carl Sagan Award for Public Understanding of Science; and the list goes on and on.

The above quote, by the way, is from last week’s Wraithscape column in the Shields Gazette.

Anyway, do extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence or not? For Mike Hallowell, “extraordinary” is just a subjective term. He poses a scenario where if he were accused of a crime, then a solid alibi that he was elsewhere at the  time can be used to prove his innocence. And he adds that he shouldn’t have to provide extraordinary evidence, but “…just enough to establish that I could not have committed the crime.”

That, actually, is absolutely correct, but he is missing a very important fact: crime is real; some people commit crimes; sometimes people are falsely accused of crimes; sometimes innocent people are convicted of crimes they have not committed. No sane person could deny any of that; crime and everything associated with it are established facts, and there is nothing extraordinary about any of it.

So what is extraordinary? The word can be defined in different ways depending on context, but in the way that Carl Sagan meant it, he was talking about claims that contradict what science knows about the world and the universe. Science is not a closed book, of course, and new things are being found out all the time; but if someone wants to make a claim that contradicts science then they are making an extraordinary claim that really does require extraordinary evidence.

Try Mike Hallowell’s scenario again, but this time imagine that his alibi is that he could not have committed the crime because he had been abducted by aliens and was being anally probed aboard the aliens’ mother ship when the crime was committed.

Now keep in mind the fact that Mike is a proponent of alien visitation, and has even featured people who claim to be abductees in his weekly column. See here, for example, where he actually says, “Whether their captors are alien or not, something truly extraordinary is happening to them.” (Emphasis added) He regularly quotes former astronauts and military personnel who claim to have had contact with aliens and their space ships, and overall he is convinced of the reality of UFOs as extraterrestrial interplanetary vehicles. For him, anecdotal accounts and personal testimony are sufficient.

But whichever way you look at it, claiming abduction by aliens would be the most extraordinary claim anyone could make in their defence against a criminal charge. In the real world, a person’s alibi would have to be tested: in other words, witnesses for an alibi would have to appear in court and confirm that alibi. Better still, maybe CCTV footage could be brought in to show the defendant somewhere else at the time of the crime. And there are other ways that an alibi can be tested. How could the claim of alien abduction be tested?

It seems to me that claiming abduction by aliens is an extraordinary claim that really does need extraordinary evidence. And in Mike’s example, that extraordinary evidence could be provided if the aliens were to park their shuttle craft in the court’s car park and the aliens themselves gave evidence in court (presumably through their universal translator gadget thingy).

In the case of an accusation of criminality, if a person had several witnesses that he was shopping in the local supermarket at the time of a crime, then that is entirely plausible because supermarkets are real. If the witnesses said they saw the defendant being beamed aboard a UFO, that is not plausible because there is no confirmable evidence whatsoever that UFOs, i.e., alien space ships, exist. It would need a lot more evidence than that – indeed, it would need extraordinary evidence.

I think it’s worth looking at the word “extraordinary.” Extraordinary means “outside of the ordinary,” in the same way that extraterrestrial means “outside of the Earth.” In that sense, or context, “extraordinary” is not a subjective term at all. Mike Hallowell’s argument, in his article, is: “What is extraordinary to one person, then, maybe quite mundane to another.” In other words, if you happen to believe in something, then for you it is ordinary, and therefore real. Nothing is extraordinary if you believe in it.

Does that argument work? For some people in certain parts of Africa, for instance, witchcraft is a mundane reality. So mundane and real, for them, that some unfortunate people find themselves being burned alive because of an allegation of sorcery. It’s so ordinary, in fact, that extraordinary evidence to prove such an allegation is simply not necessary. The poor bastards are just thrown on a bonfire to satisfy others’ superstitious beliefs (and sometimes just to settle old scores).

Believing extraordinary claims without extraordinary evidence is dangerous – deadly, even.

Mike Hallowell also trots out the old chestnut about sceptics constantly “raising the bar” in terms of evidence they will accept for various claims. As he puts it: “However, if one makes a claim that the sceptics in their wisdom find absurd, they’ll raise the bar to new and giddy heights so that those making the claims are faced with a monumental task when it comes to satisfying those who choose not to believe.”

But “raising the bar” is how science works. People who make extraordinary claims are not being asked to provide levels of evidence any higher than science demands for itself. How far would a scientist get if he produced a hypothesis that he could not prove? (For the pedantic, I’ll be more specific: a scientist actually tries to prove the null hypothesis.) It might be hard for the believers to accept this simple fact, but scientists are more ruthless with their demands on each other than they are even with the woo brigade (who can’t prove their claims anyway, and no one really expects them to be able to). Science is a process that starts with research that might show promising results, but a successful experiment is not definitive, it is just the start of what can be a long and arduous task. As research progresses, the hurdles that have to be overcome become, as Mike puts it, “monumental.” Scientists have to do it, so too should the paranormal claimants.

Even when a scientific hypothesis reaches the highest pinnacle, that is, it attains the status of a theory, it is not immune from criticism. Even a scientific theory is held provisionally: despite the best evidence, it might turn out to be wrong (or more likely incomplete, in which case it might need to be modified). There are no sacred cows in science, but if an established theory does turn out to be wrong, that would be extraordinary in itself and would require commensurate evidence. If you can prove that E=MC2 is wrong, you are in for a Nobel Prize and worldwide adulation. But you’re not going to get it if you think, like Mike seems to think, that extraordinary evidence is not required to overturn one of the most extraordinary findings that ever came out of scientific research.

If the pro paranormal people continue to think that low level evidence is sufficient to prove high level claims, I don’t think they’ll ever understand why they are not taken seriously by mainstream science. And if they really think that requiring evidence commensurate with a claim is “not a very rational approach,” then that is just extraordinary, as well as being bad thinking.

Carl Sagan

UFO near-miss: Not Really

MH900057495 I came across this report of an alleged UFO sighting on the BBC website at the beginning of the month. It was noticeable to me only because the BBC isn’t given to sensationalist reporting, so I tend to take things more seriously when a UFO claim is reported on a serious news site.

According to the local newspaper, the Daily Record,

An airliner carrying 180 passengers over Scotland came within just 300ft of colliding with a UFO, an official probe has revealed.

And of course, this was observed by airline pilots – the “trained observers” so beloved of UFO mystery mongers. The aircraft was thirteen miles from Glasgow Airport on its final approach for landing.

According to the pilots, a blue and yellow silvery object passed beneath the plane at high speed; nothing was detected on ground radar or the plane’s onboard instruments; fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, weather balloons and gliders were ruled out as the cause of the sighting.

This is all great news for the UFO believers, who will no doubt be adding this story to their ever-burgeoning list of alleged alien encounters. And this is where sceptics come in for a lot of flak from the believers. Although people like me can make some reasonable suggestions as to possible explanations for UFO sightings, we’re usually accused of just making stuff up for the sake of getting rid of awkward “evidence” that upsets our “materialist world view.” But I think that some rational speculation without claiming certainties is better than the UFO buffs’  irrationality that goes along the lines of, “We don’t know what it is, therefore it’s an alien spaceship from another galaxy.” (An ASFAG, if you like.)

 Picture credit: The Daily Record I suspect that this story is going to be held up by the believers as an example of a UFO encounter, but (mostly) without reference to the later follow up story in the same newspaper. At the time of the aeroplane coming close to its “UFO” a little boy in the same area lost his 6ft helium filled shark toy, which, when he lost his grip on it, floated up into the sky and away from him. This toy, like the blue and yellow silvery UFO was also blue and yellow and, er,  silvery. And he lost it in about the same place on the ground as the pilots had their encounter 35,000 feet overhead.

So much for “trained observers.” Pilots have no special immunity from misperception or various cognitive biases; they said of the “UFO”:

“Couldn’t tell what direction it was going but it went right underneath us.”

That gives the impression that the toy shark was itself travelling, but in fact it was the plane that was flying at speed. The object did not go under the aircraft, the aircraft went over the object. Yes, it might have appeared that the object was moving, but what is perceived is not always what is.

It might be hard for the UFO believers to have their (helium filled) balloon burst, but if they want to claim the reality of UFOs, they really have to supply stronger evidence than anecdotes. As Carl Sagan put it:

For years I’ve been stressing with regard to UFOs that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Something testable and confirmable would do.

Skeptics, Logic and Probability

MP900390096Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.
— Douglas Adams, from Last Chance To See

Sceptics are those people who, like me, do not accept extraordinary claims without the extraordinary evidence such claims require to make them believable.

Sceptics are also open-minded, despite the wailing of self-professed experts and other believers in all things paranormal. Those “experts” in woo think that open-mindedness means having a willingness to believe in the possibility that their claims are true.

But there is another definition of open-mindedness. Open-mindedness  means simply the willingness to change one’s mind in the light of new evidence. Believers in the paranormal almost always  fail that test, because no matter how often they fail to prove their claims, and no matter what evidence they come across that contradicts their beliefs, they cling tenaciously to claims they cannot prove, and which are often disproven. The closed-minded people are the ones who cannot or will not alter their views when new evidence comes along.

Scepticism itself is not a profession as such, but anyone can doubt claims that are made without evidence – and that’s the way it should be. Anyone who believes in ghosts or psychics or any other unproven claim on weak to non-existent evidence is not being open-minded, they are being gullible. When someone makes assertions about the reality of the paranormal, it is only right that others should ask, “What’s your evidence?” Or just the outright challenge: “Go on, then – prove it.”

Unfortunately, very few of the believers in – and promoters of – the paranormal have any understanding of logic; they assume that because their own reasoning makes sense to them, then they know something about logic. But logic is not a matter of common sense. Like much of science, there are many aspects of logic that are counter-intuitive. It is a subject that has to be studied – preferably under the guidance of someone who is qualified to teach it, or at least has passed the relevant accredited examinations. Not many people do study logic in a formal way, and that probably explains why so many believers commit so many fallacies when they are trying to support their beliefs with what they think is a logical argument, but what is, in fact, wishful thinking, rhetoric and sometimes pure sophistry. They might be genuine in their beliefs, but their arguments are wrong and they usually don’t know it, and they certainly don’t know why their arguments don’t hold up.

One of the most naive arguments put forward by the “experts” is often along the lines of: “An alleged paranormal event witnessed by numerous people should be given more weight than a similar alleged event witnessed by just one person.” No, it depends on whether the alleged event has any “prior plausibility.” It also depends on whether the alleged event has any independent confirmation.

Logic, however, is a theme that underlies this blog anyway, so I’m not going to make this post just about logic; I want to bring in a related theme – probability.

I thought about it recently when I read this book review by Harriet Hall. The book is: Dicing With Death: Chance, Risk and Health by  Stephen Senn. I am certainly going to get a copy in the near future. Essentially, it is a book about statistics, and how probability relates to so many things in the everyday world. Woomeisters often throw out spurious statistics to try to support the nonsense they spout,  so it’s a good idea to be aware of what can and cannot be justified with numbers.

Harriet Hall gives an example of probability from the book, and although she gives the answer to the problem, she does not explain why it is the answer. I assume that was a teaser to encourage people to buy the book, but I thought I would give the explanation here anyway. What interested me most was the fact that it provoked some discussion in the comments.

Here’s the problem:

If a man has 2 children and at least one of them is a boy, how likely is it that the other is a girl? Most people reason that there are only 2 possibilities, boy or girl, both equally likely, so there is a probability of 1 in 2, or 50%, that the other child is a girl. That’s wrong. In fact, there is a probability of 2 in 3: the other child is twice as likely to be a girl as a boy. The 50% answer is only true if you change the question slightly from “one of them is a boy” to “the firstborn is a boy.” If this doesn’t make sense to you, you really need to read the book

In logic (and most of science), common sense is not a good guide to what you might think is going on, and that applies also in statistical analysis. And it’s also the case that the set of numbers arrived at when an analysis is done might well need some degree of interpretation. If a psychic, for example, scores higher than chance expectation in a series of tests for psi, does that mean that psi has been proven? So far, no. But interpretation of results doesn’t mean forcing them into any preconceived belief you might already have. Some logical analysis also has to be applied in order to justify one’s final conclusion. (If one third of road accidents involve drink-drivers, does that mean that sober drivers, who are in twice as many road accidents, are the ones who should be banned from driving? If not, why not? Discuss.)

Statistics, as a subject in its own right, can become very complicated, depending on how far you might want to get into it. But for the purposes of this post, it’s enough to just deal with some of the basics – in essence, statistics is about probability.

But back to the puzzle. You can take it that boys and girls are born with the same 50/50 probability. There’s no need to worry about other factors like the rare occurrence of hermaphrodites or children who later become transgender, unless the problem specifically includes that information. In these kind of puzzles the information necessary to solve them is provided without any other assumptions having to be made.

But why, out of two children in this particular  family, is there a probability of 2/3 of the other child being a girl?

Consider it this way: in a two child family, there are four possible combinations of births: boy/boy; boy/girl; girl/boy; girl/girl. You already know that at least one of the children is a boy, which rules out the girl/girl combination. Out of the three remaining possibilities, one possibility is that there are two boys, but there are two possibilities that include a girl. So the chances of the other child being a girl is 2/3. Counterintuitive, but true.

If the problem had stated specifically that, say, the first born had been a boy, then the probability that the other child was a girl would, indeed, be 50/50.

But there are some probability problems that are so counter-intuitive, that even mathematicians have been in vehement disagreement with each other. One of the most famous of these problems has become a classic of its kind: the so-called Monty Hall Problem.

Monty Hall hosted a US TV game show called Let’s Make A Deal. The highlight of the show came when the leading contestant had the chance to win a big prize – maybe a car – or a pretty worthless booby prize. It worked like this:

Monty Hall presented the contestant with three doors, one of which had the star prize behind it, but the other two had booby prizes behind them. The contestant was then invited to choose the door he guessed might hide his new car. At this stage, only Monty Hall knew which door hid the prize; it could be the contestant’s original choice, or it could be one of the other two doors. In any case, Monty Hall would then open one of the other doors, showing that it was not the star prize. The contestant was then offered the option of changing his original choice, and select the other closed door instead.

Here’s the problem: should the contestant stick with his first choice, or does he have a better chance of winning if he switches? Or doesn’t it make any difference? There are only two choices now so is it just a 50/50 chance of winning, or does he increase his chances of winning if he switches?

Strangely enough, the contestant will double the probability of winning the star prize if he switches. If he does so, his probability of winning goes from 1/3 to 2/3.

I’ve had some interesting conversations with people who will not accept that answer, because they see the problem as changing a 1/3 probability into a 50/50 probability and as far as they see it, 2/3 just doesn’t ring true when there are now just two choices.

Here’s why the contestant will double his chance of winning if he switches:

Suppose he chooses door A. If that was his only choice, then his chances of being right are 1/3.  Each of the other doors, B and C, also have a probability of 1/3, so together, the probability that the prize is behind one of the other two doors is 2/3. If there was no option to switch, then the contestant’s probability of winning is just 1/3. But by sticking with his original choice, it is still 1/3.

Given the fact that there is a 2/3 probability that the prize is behind one of the other two doors, it makes sense to switch. If that doesn’t seem obvious, think of it another way: imagine you had the choice of picking the prize from a million doors. You therefore have a one in a million chance of picking the prize, and 999,999 chances of being wrong. So Monty says, “OK, I’ll open 999,998 doors that do not have the star prize behind them.” What would you do then? Your original choice is still one in a million, but the probability of the prize being behind any of the other doors, including the one still unopened door is nearly (but not quite) certain. There are no guarantees, of course, but in that scenario, it would be foolish to stick with your original choice.

One other way of looking at it is if Monty Hall didn’t open any of the other doors but simply said that you can have whatever is behind all of the other doors if you give up your first choice. In the game show you get two other doors, or in the hypothetical million door choice you get 999,999.

These kind of puzzles are fun to do, but they are the basis of statistical analysis, which is so important in so many aspects of our daily lives. Medical research in particular depends on statistical analysis to work out whether new drugs are not just effective, but also safe. And those new drugs need to have a very high probability of working as expected, but also a very low probability of causing any harm because of any side effects they might have. Statistical analysis of properly controlled tests is one of the things that leads to treatments that give us longer and healthier lives than our ancestors could ever have dreamed of.

Most people, of course, are not statisticians, and we have to rely on the professionals to work out the fine details of things – like drugs – with regard to whether they work and are safe. In the everyday world, however, I think it is worthwhile for people to get to grips with some basic probability theory. It’s the misunderstanding of how likely something is that leads to the belief in many aspects of the paranormal.

A couple of years ago, for example, I followed a thread on a pro paranormal blog in which it was stated that a very small number of people had won two or more lottery jackpots. The basic idea was that because such a scenario was so unlikely, then there must be some underlying psychic activity going on that caused those winners to attract the wins they achieved.

The reasoning went like this: the probability of winning the jackpot in a 6 out of 49 draw is approximately one in 14 million. To win two such draws – even three or even four jackpots brings the odds against to astronomical levels. The odds are so unlikely, that there must be something else (psychic powers) at work. (Try working out on your pocket calculator 14 million x 14 million x 14 million, etc.)

The thing is, though, if someone is lucky enough to win multiple jackpots, probability predicts that such a scenario is inevitable. What probability theory does not predict is who the winner will be. If a lottery draw is truly random, then you cannot expect numbers to be drawn with any kind of predictable outcome, which is why there is no such thing as a “winning system” that anyone could devise.

The bad thinking going on by paranormal proponents is to focus on an unusual occurrence after the event. Basically it is a version of the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy – taking a few pot shots at the side of a barn and then drawing bullseyes around the hits. Psychics do not routinely win the lottery, after all, and no one has ever taken a Nostradamus verse and predicted an important event before it happens.

If someone does have two or three lottery wins, so what? Unless it is predicted before it happens, there is no need to assume anything paranormal is going on. (If it did happen, though, I think the first thing the lottery people would do would be to check their system for malfunction or tampering.)

Not everything can be reduced to numbers, though. Inductive logic is also about probability, but quantifying the probability of some things is not straightforward. Are UFOs, i.e., alien space ships, real? Without knowing all the parameters, a numerical figure can’t be worked out, but the probability of alien visitation to this planet is almost zero. But am I justified in making that assertion – or are the UFO “experts” right with their claims that UFOs are here and are abducting humans on a daily basis?

Given the fact that the laws of physics apply all over the universe, I think it likely that life exists elsewhere. It’s not certain, just likely. Perhaps there are planets that even have intelligent life with science and  technology. It’s happened here, so why not elsewhere? I don’t argue that life doesn’t exist somewhere else, just that they are almost certainly not here. The laws of physics give good reasons to believe that alien visitation is unlikely in the extreme. But the UFO buffs don’t do their case any good by speculating about wormholes, other dimensions or anything else they can come up with. Physicists themselves speculate about such possibilities, but they also offer good reasons why such speculative ideas are likely to remain nothing more than that – speculation.

Given the choice between unsupported assertions by UFO believers and what science has to say, I think the best bet is to go with the science. The burden of proof is still on the people who make the claims about extraterrestrial visitation. Believers see UFOs; astronomers see meteors, space debris and other explainable phenomena. The sceptics among us just see things we can’t explain, without feeling the need to make up something to fill in the gaps. If you don’t know what it is you are seeing, there’s no shame in just saying, “I don’t know.”

When the believers make extraordinary claims without tangible evidence to support those claims, you are faced with the possibility that the claims are true, or that they are false. If the evidence isn’t there, then the claims are probably false. The possibility of aliens being here is not that they are, or they are not, and therefore it’s 50/50; the probability of aliens breaching the laws of physics is extremely unlikely, so the probability of it being true is so remote you can forget it. It’s still up to the UFO (or any other) believers to prove their case.

Most of us don’t have to do mathematical calculations in our everyday lives, but there are many instances where we do make “intuitive” calculations about what is going on. And many people go terribly wrong when they do so. Do psychics, dowsers, faith healers and all the rest of them really do the things they claim to do? Not under controlled conditions, they don’t. So they probably aren’t real.

I chuckle inwardly when some self-professed expert in the paranormal/supernatural/UFOs and all the rest of it claims that aliens, for example, are here because people say they have seen them or their space ships. It gets no better when certain astronauts claim that they have perhaps seen aliens and their ships in some secret hangar somewhere. And it becomes ludicrous when it is realised that not just a handful, but millions of Americans claim to have been abducted by the “Greys” and undergone experiments aboard strange craft, and even been subjected to sexual intrusion with the purpose of producing alien/human hybrids.

What’s the probability of that? Given the complete absence of any confirming evidence, the probability is (approximately) zero. Humans can’t successfully mate even with other animal species that evolved on this planet, so why would it be possible to mate with an alien species that would probably not have anything similar to the DNA that does at least link all life on Earth?

One thing the woomeisters have going for them is that they can spout any drivel they can think up, safe in the knowledge that nothing they invent can be disproved. I can tell you that I have fairies at the bottom of my garden and you can’t prove me wrong. I can think up an excuse to counter any objection you can think of. Want to see them? No, they’re invisible. Want to set some kind of trap to catch them? No, they’re immaterial. And so it goes on. If I make such a claim, then do  all my excuses for not providing evidence to support that claim make it any more likely that the claim is true? Only the most gullible would go along with it.

But in the face of a claim that has nothing to back it up, one can work out a rough probability calculation, even if it can’t be quantified numerically: “You make a claim with nothing to verify it? OK, I will accept its validity in proportion to the amount of testable evidence you supply. No testable evidence, no belief from me.”

That’s the problem, of course. A lot of people make money by writing nonsense they might even believe themselves and claiming that there is no onus on them to prove the claims they make; rather, that their critics have the responsibility to prove them wrong. Which is wrong.

There are other problems, of course: if something allegedly paranormal is presented on TV as a “documentary,” does that make it more likely to be true? For some people it does; a lady I know is convinced that psychics solve crimes. After all, there are TV documentaries about crime-busting psychics and they “couldn’t put it on TV if it wasn’t true,” could they? For this lady, the probability that psychics solve crimes becomes a certainty in her own mind just because it is on TV.

These “documentaries,” of course, are nothing more than dramatised re-enactments of claims made without any proof. It’s sad that people put so much faith in what they see on TV without stopping to think about it. There’s a huge difference between a real documentary (anything by David Attenborough, for instance) dealing with matters of fact, and the mindless drivel churned out for the credulous who will not question what they see.

It comes down to this: if a claim of the paranormal is presented without credible evidence, it might be true, but it probably isn’t. When a TV station presents paranormal programming, it is probably chasing ratings, and advertisers are probably pleased with the results – at least until the ratings start to fall.

If it were true that TV companies are only allowed to produce documentaries that they can prove are true, then there would probably be no more paranormal programmes to watch.

Few things can be claimed with certainty, but for everything else we have to work out some kind of probability rating. Whether it’s the lottery or any paranormal claim, many people would benefit from spending time learning some probability theory, or at least finding out what is plausible or not when it comes to deciding whether there is anything in the (actually) implausible claims made by paranormalists. Unfortunately, that isn’t going to happen any time soon.

(Additional note for those who want to know how the lottery odds are worked out – the probability of winning the jackp0t in a six out of forty nine number draw is:

1/(49 x 48 x 47 x 46 x 45 x 44 / 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1)


“It could be you!”

But it probably won’t be.