Tag Archives: UFO

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?

Pegasus 

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.

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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 claim.by 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:

1_Before

1_After

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.]

http://www.youtube.com/watchfeature=player_detailpage&v=7vyVe-6YdUk#t=549

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:

http://www.shieldsgazette.com/opinion/columnists/wraithscape/a-close-encounter-of-the-ufo-kind-1-6338120

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.

 

Wrapping Up 2013 And Looking Forward To 2014

Well, it’s the end of another year and the beginning of the next, so I thought I’d do a roundup of the successes of psychics and other proponents of the paranormal, and the breakthroughs made by parapsychlogists. The list of notable positive achievements by the exponents of psi, UFOs, remote viewing, astrology, spiritualism, remote viewing, spoon bending, psychokinesis, exorcism, telepathy, ghost hunting, poltergeists, etc., is as follows (in no particular order):

1) Erm…

2) Yeah, right.

3) Umm…

4) That’s about it, actually.

seance

And the list of achievements for the practitioners of the various and assorted forms of medical quackery out there is:

1) Oh, give me a break…

2) What about a list of dangerous quacks who should be jailed…?

3) Really – don’t get me started.

vacuum_cap_thumb

Actually, when I thought of doing a year-end round up, I thought of doing a comprehensive list of links to the failures of various psychics, deaths by exorcisms, people being duped out of their life savings by “money cleansers,” false or wrong predictions by clairvoyants, the failure of any pseudoscientific paranormal research to be published in any accredited scientific journals, the astoundingly stupid publications of self-professed but qualification-free “experts” in the paranormal, stage and TV psychics who aren’t really psychic otherwise they wouldn’t advertise their shows as being “for entertainment only” if they really were psychic (and if they were they would be able to prove it), dead people who eschewed medical science in favour of any form of quackery you can think of, and the list goes on and on and on. But a list of links like that could go on indefinitely, and I would guess that no one would have the inclination – or the stamina – to go through it all.

The bottom line is straightforward: there is still no confirmable evidence that the paranormal is real or that anyone is being cured of anything by supposed complementary and alternative medicine. The believers go on deluding themselves, and the promoters of woo are never short of eager suckers willing to part with their cash and even put their lives in danger to pursue a chimera.

I think the only uncontroversial thing to be stated is that the controversy will go on.

But what will 2014 bring? Like everyone else, I’m not psychic, so I will have to rely on my sceptical powers (which I have vowed to use only for good) to make some predictions:

  • Millions of people around the word will waste billions of pounds making thousands of psychics a little bit richer.
  • Millions of people will waste their money on unnecessary health supplements, unnecessary and often dangerous colonic irrigations, various quack remedies that are useful only to hypochondriacs; quacks will get a little bit richer and some of their patients will die because they should have seen a doctor before they went for “healing” rather than evidence-based treatment.
  • Exorcisms will continue to cause injuries and claim lives around the world because pre-Enlightenment religious superstition still pervades the lives of billions of people, reinforced by a lifetime’s indoctrination, and of course it will be promoted by people who can make money peddling it in their writings.
  • No one will be abducted by aliens from outer space or be anally probed by them, but the reports will continue to come in. Writers of this kind of nonsense will continue to believe that anecdotes trump testable evidence, and will wonder why they are being criticised for it.
  • Books and articles promoting the paranormal will be written by people with Ph.Ds who have moved away from science into pseudoscience; and books and articles promoting the paranormal will be written by people who have neither accredited qualifications  nor any knowledge of science but claim themselves to be “experts,” while the rest of us are not. In both cases, the existence of the alleged paranormal will not be proven to the exacting standards required by science.
  • Anything you can think of relating to any branch of woo will, in short, carry on pretty much as usual, and not a single thing within the paranormal or supernatural arena will gain support from science or become in any way a regular part of  life in the same way as we accept electricity, smartphones, (real) medicine and so on.
  • There will be no Nobel Prizes awarded to any promoter of woo who claims that the paranormal is explainable in terms of quantum physics – and let’s be honest, quantum physicists tend to think the idea of the paranormal is a load of old tosh anyway, without self-promotional oafs bastardising a scientific concept that real scientists have spent decades investigating – without discovering any links between unproven psi claims and hard science.

It looks like the battle for rationality will have to continue in the face of relentless pressure from those who believe in, but cannot prove, the paranormal claims they make.

It still all comes down to a simple concept: the burden of proof is on the person who makes a claim. It’s not up to me or any other sceptic to disprove anything that a psychic or woo promoter says, it is up to them to demonstrate clearly and unequivocally that what they claim is true. They’re going to be challenged. Someone asked me once, “Are you still trying to prove that psychics aren’t real?” My answer now is the same as it was then: “No, I don’t try to prove that psychics aren’t real; I try to get them to prove that they are real.”

And the same applies to those who claim that UFOs are alien spaceships from another galaxy (ASFAGs), but who can do no better than rely on unconfirmed anecdotes from alleged witnesses. Produce a piece of alien hardware or something; that might do it.

The fact is that there are many people out there who are determined to undo the Enlightenment. The tragedy is that so many of them truly believe they have “knowledge” that is unavailable to the rest of us and that methodological research, i.e., science, should be way down the list of priorities when it comes to finding out what is going on in the real world.

The biggest problem being faced by rational people – and the very foundation of science – is not so much the ignorance of those who promote woo in all its forms, but their illusion of knowledge. The fight has to go on.

So, although I’m not usually one to make New Year resolutions, I think I’ll try to make an effort to post more often than I have done recently. There’s no shortage of nonsense out there to blog about, after all.

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.