Following up on the slightly silly story about female alien cats of the other day, we should look at the UFO phenomenon, one that only really appeared in our culture in the early(ish) 20th century. The idea of life out there certainly instilled a life-time fascination with the night skies and a passion for science fiction in me. It has proven to be immensely popular, spawning books, lore, movies, cults, clubs and a plethora of devotee websites. Now that it is such an established part of western culture, the sheer volume of anecdotes and opinions available for our consumption can give people the impression that maybe there really is something to the rumours of crashed saucers, government cover-ups and galactic conspiracies.
The starting point when you are looking for the truth is to accept that there is a chance that the truth is going to turn out to be not what you hoped for, perhaps mundane and frustratingly ordinary.
We can’t start by assuming that there really are aliens visiting us and governments are conspiring to cover it up. That is an end point, a conclusion that you can only reach when you have enough evidence to prove that point.
We’re probably all agreed that there is no point in looking for evidence at websites such as this one (sunglasses and colour blindness advisable). That stuff is the dribbling of diseased minds and deserves our compassion but not any serious examination.
We need to look at what serious people offer up as evidence and examine whether that is plausible proof of aliens.
The first problem occurs when people decide what passes for believable evidence. The second problem occurs when trying to work out whether your gathered evidence actually supports the theory or whether it can be explained in another way.
So there are two potential problems: getting genuine evidence and finding sufficient incontrovertible evidence to show the theory to be plausible.
As I already said, we can’t start at an end point (aliens & government cover-ups) and then look only for things that seem to support this theory. If you really want to prove a theory true you have to look really hard for things that falsify the theory. This seem like an odd thing to do, but it is very important if you want your conclusion to be accurate in the end and not a huge mistake based on what you think looks likely.
Take for example the number of theories there used to be about why the sun moved across the sky every day. Amongst the theories put forward were that the sun-god Helios drove his chariot across the sky each day. Later on when people began to understand that there were celestial bodies in the skies that were not gods there was still another mistaken theory that the sun moved around the earth. Nowadays we know that both of these theories are wrong and the earth rotates around the sun. But we wouldn’t know this if we only looked at evidence that seemed to support the old theories. We had to find evidence that proved them wrong to improve our understanding of reality.
It’s very important to try to falsify the theory you are trying to prove, otherwise it is easy to be mistaken and fooled by evidence that might even seem to prove your theory. Think about it this way: Imagine you stand out in the woods somewhere and close your eyes. You hear hoof beats. How do you know what the hoof beats are?
Without opening your eyes you might think they are horses. Or zebras. If you are somewhat imaginative you might hope they were unicorns. If you were a bit sceptical you might think there is a chance that someone is simply making a sound that imitates hoof beats. You won’t really know what it is causing that noise until you open your eyes and check.
You couldn’t even come up with a good theory for what you heard without checking the facts. You might be able to come up with a plausible theory e.g. if you are in the wildlife reserve in Africa it might be zebras, if you are on a race-course it is almost certainly horses. It is almost 100% for sure not going to be unicorns. But you need to see the animals for yourself to get a more accurate assessment. The sound alone is not sufficient. It is incomplete evidence and it would be unwise to claim that your theory is true until you have proved it. If you never open your eyes to see what caused the noise it would be unwise to claim afterwards that you think there was a unicorn in the woods today with you.
This is the problem with conspiracy theories and anecdotes about sightings and abductions. The evidence on offer is usually extremely incomplete – no more than strange moving lights. It is also usually never falsified. People like the thrill of thinking they saw an alien space craft rather than admitting they saw Jupiter or reflected car lights and didn’t realise it.
Here are a couple of points that are common to a great many of the great conspiracy and abduction anecdotes:
- absence of evidence does not mean it is deliberate. Sometimes it means there is probably nothing there. There are no unicorn horns or fairy wings in museums either. That doesn’t mean we can deduce there is a Great Fairy Cover-up.
- Government documents with censored bits means there are bits that officials didn’t want others to see. That does not automatically mean that it was about aliens. It could have been about national security, test aircraft, enemy positions etc. There are tons of things regarded as sensitive secrets by governments. Each of these would have to be ruled out before you could even begin to start guessing what else it could be.
- A gap in knowledge or evidence is a gap. It needs to be filled with evidence, not whatever favourite theory we can dream up.
- Personal testimony of people is not evidence. People are notoriously bad at getting things wrong even if they are being honest and sincere. Even if hundreds of people claim the same thing this is still not proof. All we may conclude from multiple testimonies is that maybe the claim ought to be investigated more thoroughly.
- Not understanding or knowing what you saw does not mean that it might be what you think it is. Remember the hoof beats example. This is why so often the people claiming to see alien craft are not astronomers. Astronomers even though they spend every night they possibly can staring at the night sky almost never report anything “strange” up there. Reason: they know what that odd light really is. And sometimes it really is a weather balloon or a new top secret test stealth bomber.
- Anyone who says they have seen a UFO is correct. It means “unidentified” after all, and if they don’t know what they saw then it is certainly unidentified, at least by them. That does not mean it is an alien space craft though. UFO does not equal Alien.
- Cover-ups are not “proved” by the fact that everyone denies them. The sort of cover-ups that would be required to hide the presence of aliens on earth consorting with world governments would leave evidence all over the place in a way that would make it exceedingly hard to really obliterate. Not all materials can be eradicated, not everyone can be bought off, you can’t guarantee that not a single co-conspirator will ever have a change of heart, or that determined rivals and competitors wouldn’t do everything in their power to unmask the real story if it was there.
There could be life out there, and if there is, it would be one of the most exciting discoveries in the history of humankind. However, life out there might prove to be more like pond slime and not at all like ET or Mr Spock. Right now we have no plausible evidence to confirm either.
Neil DeGrasse Tyson: astronomer, astrophysicist, educator on how to handle alien abductions
Michael Shermer: scientist, editor of Skeptic Magazine, debunker of countless fake conspiracy theories) explains how to tell real from not real
Phil Plaitt: astronomer, ex NASA employee. Passionate about astronomy, science fiction and the possibility for life out there.
Archive version of the Bad Astronomy site valuable for debunking some popular conspiracy theories.
Bad UFOs: For explanations of what some presumed sightings have turned out to be
Neurologica Blogs archive on UFOs & aliens