Royston Paynter Responds

Brian Zeiler advances an argument with which it is hard to disagree - that one cannot test his version of the extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH) within the rules of scientific inquiry. However, IUFOS disagrees with the notion that there is consequently something wrong with the scientific method. It may not be perfect, but it is in our opinion the best method yet devised for learning about physical reality. If the Brian Zeiler ETH is incompatible with the scientific method of inquiry, one can only conclude that it is not scientific. That it not to say that it is worthless, but one can hardly expect scientists to give up on the scientific method, at least until whatever approach UFOlogy has been taking for the past 50 years produces concrete, meaningful and useful results.

It is true that scientists will not accept the reality of alien visitations until they must, that is to say until it has been proved. But the same is true for anything else, be it cold fusion (which has not been proved to the satisfaction of most scientists) or high-Tc superconductivity (which has).

The reason for this is a little more straightforward than scientists not wanting to look foolish. It is a question of wanting to believe only those things that are true. For a scientist, it is better to reserve judgement than to assert a false positive. The days of the Earth-centered universe are, hopefully, over.

That is not to say that no scientist has ventured to study the "UFO phenomenon". One can point to Persinger's work on temporal lobe stimulation, for example. What the believers appear to demand, however, is unconditional surrender to the extraterrestrial hypothesis - the notion that some UFOs are alien space ships.

Proof of the ETH would represent a major paradigm shift for science - a complete change in the way we look at the world. One should not be surprised that such paradigm shifts are not easily brought about, and that most scientists require probative physical evidence of the ETH.

Brian Zeiler draws a parallel between the UFO phenomenon and a SETI detection of a strong signal from deep space which contains no apparent information and which cannot therefore be conclusively proved to be an alien artifact. He asks, would not physical evidence be required to support any assertion that the signal comes from an alien civilization, if it contains no decipherable message? Are scientists operating on a double standard by demanding physical evidence for the alien origin of UFOs? The SETI Institute has this to say:

"Any individual, public or private research institution, or governmental agency that believes it has detected a signal from or other evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence (the discoverer) should seek to verify that the most plausible explanation for the evidence is the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence rather than some other natural phenomenon or anthropogenic phenomenon before making any public announcement. If the evidence cannot be confirmed as indicating the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, the discoverer may disseminate the information as appropriate to the discovery of any unknown phenomenon."

In other words, avoid at all costs a false positive. We can only suggest that UFOlogists adopt similar protocols with respect to UFO sightings.

Skeptics like to say that extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof. We would define "extraordinary" as lying outside the current scientific paradigms. It is not necessary for a claim to violate the laws of physics to be considered extraordinary. For example, a claim that tyrannosaurs currently inhabit Antarctica would not require the violation of any laws of physics, and yet, would reasonably be called "extraordinary".

It is true that it would not violate the laws of physics as we know them for aliens with sufficient resources to visit the Earth. But current scientific paradigms do not have them actually doing so, and so a claim that they are visiting must be considered to be extraordinary, because as yet there is no properly scientific evidence that intelligent alien life even exists.

It is not some kind of "logical trick" to require evidence of something before accepting it to be true, especially if acceptance would then precipitate a major paradigm shift. If a B-2 bomber crashes, one might reasonably expect to be able to obtain evidence of the existence of B-2 bombers. And in spite of the claims of flying saucer crashes, it has become part of UFOlogical dogma that demonstrably alien physical evidence is somehow unobtainable.

The notion that evidence of alien visitations is going to be hard to obtain is an a priori assumption that has not itself been proved by observation or experiment. One can argue in like fashion for the existence of fairies - being by definition magical, it is going to be impossible to detect them, therefore, the total absence of physical evidence for their existence does not weaken the claim that they are among us. It would be illogical, however, to insist that the reality of fairies be accepted on that basis, or to assert that a demand for physical evidence of the existence of fairies is a "logical trick". The logical trick was played in the definition of fairies as undetectable, and therefore non-falsifiable.

Scientists are trained to formulate hypotheses that account for all of the available evidence, and not to speculate about what evidence might be available if only the aliens hadn't hidden it, or if the government hadn't stolen it, or if somebody's dog hadn't eaten it. And, if the available evidence does not contain something demonstrably alien, it would be a violation of Occam's Razor to favor a hypothesis that includes aliens. (Occam's Razor is the principle of preferring the hypothesis that accounts for all of the available data with the least number of new variables or assumptions.)

In its pure form, the ETH is already difficult enough to falsify. If aliens are visiting the Earth, then we ought to expect to find evidence of their presence, and to falsify the pure ETH we would have to be absolutely certain that there is none. Even so, because no probative evidence - nothing alien - has been made available to date, UFOlogy has re-defined the ETH in such a way as to excuse the complete absence of alien artifacts. Aliens are here, it is said, but impossible to detect. Okay, maybe, but in that case, they are not a suitable subject for scientific inquiry.

The impossible-to-detect-aliens version of the ETH really is non-falsifiable. And the scientific method proceeds by the testing of falsifiable hypotheses. Such non-falsifiable hypotheses are not grist for the mill of science, but are the stuff of philosophy and religion. Perhaps instead of berating scientists for their disinterest in UFOlogy's non-falsifiable ETH, believers should be trying to enlist the expertise of philosophers or priests.

If one is to assert the truth of the impossible-to-detect-aliens version of the ETH, then it is evident that the scientific method cannot be applied to the study of the notion that some UFOs are alien space ships. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the proponents of this non-falsifiable hypothesis to allow scientists to get on with something more productive, like trying to cure cancer. In the meantime, the believers can study UFOs in their own way (by a "flexible inferential approach," or whatever), but they should not expect to impress scientists with their methods or conclusions. Scientists do science, not religion.

Skeptics have been challenged to apply Occam's Razor properly and to test the simplest hypothesis rather than adopt it by default. Well let's do that right now.

Hypothesis: aliens are visiting the Earth, but don't leave probative physical evidence behind.

Simpler (null) hypothesis: aliens are not visiting the Earth.

Now we have to test the simpler hypothesis. If we are to follow the scientific method, this means that we try to falsify it. What would falsify the theory that aliens are not visiting the Earth? Why, something that we can only explain in terms of extraterrestrial visitations - something alien.

So, we look for something demonstrably alien. We find lots of stories, lots of claims, some indications of government interest in UFO sightings, and plenty of hoaxes, but nothing probative of the ETH.

Therefore, we have no reason to reject the null hypothesis, and no reason to invoke the notion that aliens are visiting the Earth. Instead, we look at each sighting on its own merits and if there are not enough data to identify the cause (including as an alien space ship) then we simply label it "unidentified".

That is the way that science works. We need a reason to reject the null hypothesis, i.e. that the phenomenon was not caused by aliens. That means, we need to demonstrate something in the available data that compels us to include aliens in our thinking, such as a fragment of material with extraterrestrial isotope ratios. The ETH is not proved by default simply because no satisfactory prosaic explanation can be found - ignorance of what something was is not proof that it was built by aliens.

To a scientist the invocation of a wholly new and unproven phenomenon (such as alien visitations) that is not forced upon him by the available data is the worst explanation because it represents a flagrant violation of Occam's Razor. That is why science has rejected such notions as the involvement of tiny demons in gravitation - they are an unnecessary complication because there is nothing in the available data on gravity to compel the inclusion of demons.

One should be content to admit that a given observation cannot be explained if there are not enough data to permit a positive identification, and to look for better data, rather than jump to an unwarranted and unjustified conclusion.

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