Contrasts: SETI & UFOlogy


UFO believers who wish to claim an air of scientific legitimacy, or on the other hand perhaps as a sort of tu-quoque argument, will often compare UFOlogy with the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program. It seems to me that they are vastly different, and hardly comparable. Any attempt to compare them is a false analogy.

First, the questions they ask are logically distinct, for where SETI basically asks “Is there intelligent life elsewhere in the universe?,” and answers this with “Perhaps,” UFO ‘experts’ ask “Are we being visited by intelligent life from elsewhere in the universe?,” and answer this with an unequivocal “Yes!” The tentative thinking of the one, and the certitude of thought of the other alone is enough to set them apart.

SETI doesn’t presume the existence of aliens, it merely concedes that they are possible, and probable, unlike UFOlogists who presuppose the existence, and in a further logical leap, the visitation of Earth, of and by intelligent beings from other worlds as a given by definition.

SETI, unlike most UFO organizations, employs a rigorous approach to evidence, and upon the reception of any seemingly anomalous signals from space, first attempt to eliminate and isolate as many conventional sources of random noise and signal aberrations as are then conceivable, before accounting for all and even then, do not rush to declare to the media the announcement of alien contact, employing multiple independent confirmations and cross-checking before making a statement.

After all, if alien intelligence were a certainty, why look? A good example of the process is described in Carl Sagan’s novel Contact, which describes it in more detail than I can go into here.

This is in stark contrast with many UFOlogists, who not only express a certainty of the existence of ETIs, but declare that they are already here, and that impending evidence to reveal the Truth™ of the alien presence by the governments of the world is ‘just around the corner.’ They’ve been saying that for decades now, conspiratorial claims and all.

This, in spite of what we have good reason to think we know at present of the size and age of the universe, the evolution of life on Earth, and the limits on interstellar, much less intergalactic, travel imposed by distance and currently understood physical laws, even near-light velocity travel.

SETI is science, using probabilistic thinking, scientific methodology, and logic, employing an extremely high bar for evidence, for the stakes of the discovery of alien intelligence would be high, and would have a monumental impact on human society. If they are to confirm such contact, they must make sure that no mistakes are made, because the world is watching.

UFO mythology, on the other hand, is pseudoscience, declaring as a proven fact alien visitation and employing at times near-nonexistent standards of evidence, conspiracy theories, logical fallacies, and otherwise unscientific reasoning. It is also a pronounced failure of the human imagination. And this is supplemented by a naive, sometimes callous, disregard for the human fallibilities of even the most dependable eyewitnesses and the anecdotal testimony they relate, not realizing that a mountain of crappy evidence is still crap.

Mind you, I’m not anti-alien, and as a science-fiction fan I would be delighted if we made such contact. But if it comes down to either declaring alien visitation every time there’s an odd light in the sky, or using science and reason to confirm genuine extraterrestrial contact beyond a reasonable doubt, I’ll opt for the latter, thank you very much.

About Troy Loy

I seek to learn through this site and others how to better my ability as a person and my skill at using my reason and understanding to best effect. I do fractal artwork as a hobby, and I'm working to develop it to professional levels, though I've a bit to go till I reach that degree of skill! This is a crazy world we're in, but maybe I can do a little, if only that, to make it a bit more sane than it otherwise would be.

Posted on Friday, 15:16, February 19, 2010, in Misunderstandings & Nonsense and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I like the article above. It’s to the point and succinct. I am also a skeptic about UFOs and will delcare as well that UFOlogy is a mere pseudoscience. The whole belief system of visiting ET’s is a mere myth, a product of the space. The technological advancements we have made reflect that. A myth has been invented fueled by speculation and a need to have alien contact. This is a quasi-religious pursuit on the UFologists part.

    I will present a book written by myself. You can get it on Amazon.com. The title is “How Modern Society Invented UFOs.” There I argue that major themes of UFOs reflect sociological phenonmenon. You may e-mail me for a discussion.

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  2. You can use all of the cop-out words you want like Mythology and UFO believers (Do you understand the meaning of that UFO, incidentally-how can anyone believe in an as yet unidentified flying object), but that’s not going to solve the myriad of UFO sightings by pilots and astronomers and armed forces personnel, police and the hundreds of thousands of witnesses-millions by now- who report these things. Cripes you used every cliche word i the debunker lexicon except ‘flying saucers’ (incidentally the USAF and other air forces used this word for 5 or 6 years before they coined the unidentified flying object to use in their pilot /crew reports). Too often in the skeptical community these are the only arguments put forward-in the guise of science but simply pronouncements not supported by fact. I am a pilot myself and I haven’t spent the last twenty years looking into these cases to be fopped off by the Sherme-ites with just pronouncements rather than hard fact. You claim that there are excellent studies done by those who subscribe to the Skeptical Inquirer. I’ve never seen this to be true, nor can any of the soft science on these sites be disputed because it’s closed list.
    Anyway, any unread debunker can make up a blog site. The contents of these blogs is usually personal and un-researched opinion. Throwing around Sagan’s name will not prove a damn thing-and to use the nutball/religious flakes Sagan used as his detractors in Contact is just plain silly.
    You really have to get off your pedestal and get down here in the research end and see what pops up. Google around and find out which scientists, engineers and physicists are looking seriously at a phenomenon that seems to have been a round for many hundreds of years. If nothing else air encounters are a menace and a hazard to flight and still NOT solved for the most part.

    Don Ledger

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  3. OKay, hang on.. I’m not a skeptic in fact I have my own beliefs on aliens and my own thoughts stem from my own belief system. While everyone is entitled to there own opinions I find the fact that you are abusing that right. You mention Cop-Out words when Troythulu expressed that these are his views and not scientific rather his own journey and thoughts. Its hard not to know the definition of UFO but no matter how you look at it until there is actual solid proof any views on such things is a hypothesis. Anything in air space that isn’t yet identified can be classified as a UFO. You quote hundred of thousands of people as witness’s and no matter how many of them see something That’s not good enough, because of the constructive nature of human perception and memory. Anyone can think they see something but actually evidence is harder, since its oh so easy to photo-shop things these days.

    As for using words in the de-bunkers lexicon each person has there own views and use there own terminologies for everything. You yourself seem to miss the ETH views.Siting information from the 1940′s-1960′s which is also the time that “flying saucers” were actually noted to be so. Given the large silver discs that were said to be seen.A Gallup poll from August 1947 found that 90% had heard about the mysterious flying saucers or flying discs, note had heard of them. You also mention the United States Air Force but are in Canada yourself, educating yourself I would assume, than you would know that the government itself debunked these. Here you can see and of course the BBC in England as well here CLick ME I personally do not disbelieve they are in existence but I also feel that I need more proof. Feel free to give links to support your view. As for the Skeptical Inquirer that was never mentioned in this post.

    Also it would be nice if you respected the blog of people and not down talk to them over things. Telling others to get off there pedestal is both arrogant and presumptuous the use of bad language is just rude. No one’s cursing at you. Were all adults here I would like to think, and this is a discussion not a argument. More than one view being supported.

    –L. Salyers (Pumpkin)

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  4. Against the main article: It could be said that SETI guys provide ABSOLUTELY NO evidence for their claim that aliens could exist. UFOlogists, on the other hand, base their conclusion on at least some sightings and reports of strange flying objects that outperform known technologies and sometimes, reports of strange beings. Of course, these reports are dubious sometimes, but nevertheless they constitute observation. SETI does not even have such dubious reports. SETI has nothing. Ufology is definitely more scientific, it has observation of a phenomenon, it proposes hypotheses (extraterrestrial hypothesis is one of many others), and try to demonstrate them (it). It clearly reminds me about the scientific method. Where is SETI’s scientific method? It is based only in belief. Belief that aliens exist, belief that they will be sending signals, belief they will be willing to be detected, etc, etc, etc. Clearly, SETI guys are pseudoscientists.

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    • @Mauricio:

      First off, how do you propose to find evidence that something ‘could exist’ which by definition is not a claim of fact, but a statement of possibility, and needs no further evidence? All that need be shown is that it can happen, and we know it can because we exist. It happened here, why not somewhere else? It would be needlessly conceited for us to claim that we are the only life in the universe and that it is not possible for it to arise elsewhere. I think on that point, SETI astronomers and UFOlogists are in agreement.

      Second, the vast majority of UFO reports are of undocumented sightings by untrained observers. Yes, untrained — to recognize common and not-so-common objects in the sky under sometimes difficult viewing conditions, such as stars, planets, even oddly enough, the Moon. It’s curious to me that so few astronomers give UFO reports, and they are trained to recognize celestial objects as part of their profession. Yes, pilots are trained — as pilots, of course, but not astronomical observers — expertise is not global.

      Dubious reports may superficially seem like ‘something’ compared with the ‘nothing’ of SETI, but a mountain of worthless evidence is still worthless. No matter how many zeroes you multiply together, the product is still zero. That, and unlike UfOlogists, SETI makes no claims of certainty.

      Thirdly, It seems that you have not even bothered to actually read the post, as I clearly indicated that SETI astronomers do not claim that aliens do exist, only that it is possible. Are you suggesting that merely considering something possible is tantamount to saying that it’s true? That’s just what UFOlogists do, a logical fallacy — the argument from ignorance — a positive inference from a lack of knowledge, in this case the claim that we are definitely being visited.

      Finally, you claim that UFOlogy is ‘definitely more scientific.’ Could you perhaps provide some verifiable examples of their rock-solid reasoning and rigorous standards of evidence that I could take a look at? Citations, please…

      I think it would benefit you in the future to actually read the posts you comment on, and familiarize yourself with genuine scientific methodology and reasoning before embarrassing yourself further. Do have a terrific day, and thanks for your comment.

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  5. Troythulu said: “First off, how do you propose to find evidence that something ‘could exist’ which by definition is not a claim of fact, but a statement of possibility, and needs no further evidence? “

    What if I say that there _could_ be pink unicorns in my backyard? Do not I need some evidence backing up such a possibility? Some pink traces in the grass may help, but probably would not be enough. Even if life happened here on earth, we do not really know if life can happen again in other place. SETI does not yield evidence of it.
    Regarding Second: Not all ufologists make claims of certainty. Moreover, not all ufologists agree in the extraterrestrial hypothesis. I don’t really know where did you got that “so few” astronomers report UFO’s. Have you made a poll on that? I know of some UFO studies and ufologists that had indeed made such polls to astronomers. Results are interesting. On the other hand, we have to remember that astronomers do not hold the holy knowledge regarding UFOs, due to the fact that many UFO’s occur in the atmosphere and not in the starred sky (some UFOs may burn trees, for example). Most of the time, astronomers focus on tiny portions of the sky and may overlook objects that pass at sides. I would guess that a truck driver or a plane pilot would have many more hours of really good watching at the atmosphere, than an astronomer.

    Troythulu said: “Thirdly, It seems that you have not even bothered to actually read the post, as I clearly indicated that SETI astronomers do not claim that aliens do exist, only that it is possible.“

    Well, seeing the way that the SETI boys spend money and resources, I would dare to say that they are pretty sure that aliens exist, that aliens don’t like to travel to other solar systems, that aliens love to send signals, that we are pretty able to decipher such signals.
    On the other hand, many ufologists also say that some UFO’s _could_ be extraterrestrial crafts. More, many Ufologists explain cases with prosaic explanations. Many ufologists disagree (sometimes strongly) with their partners, etc. ¿Know of any SETI guy seriously disagreeing with a colleague? I think the existence of disagreement between peers, is a major an indicator of scientific activity.

    Troythulu said: “Finally, you claim that UFOlogy is ‘definitely more scientific.’ Could you perhaps provide some verifiable examples of their rock-solid reasoning and rigorous standards of evidence that I could take a look at? Citations, please…”

    Sorry , but “more scientific” does not mean necessarily “rock solid scientific”. Serious ufology is a little more scientific than SETI reasoning. That’s my point. Of course many UFO reports are indeed dubious. Some not. Many humanoid reports are indeed dubious. Some not. This study field is a hard bone to bite. Sorry, but we like challenges.

    Troythulu said: “I think it would benefit you in the future to actually read the posts you comment on, and familiarize yourself with genuine scientific methodology and reasoning.”

    I have read the post. The main conclusion is: you are WRONG when saying that all ufologists are sure of their answer.

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    • Firstly, nice dodge of my request for some kind of cited references from you, but no cigar. This really doesn’t help your credibility with me. Anything that can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence, and it is YOU who are the claimant on this blog.

      Secondly, I’ll have to call you on straw men in this comment, as I never used the qualifiers ‘all’ or ‘every’ in any reference to either UFOlogists or SETI researchers in the original post. This demonstrates pretty well that you didn’t read it — and understand what I said. Please do so. Who knows, maybe you just don’t ‘want’ to get it, though I’ll refrain from speculating why. None of my business.

      The bit about pink unicorns, while cute, just doesn’t follow, since acknowledging the mere possibility that a unicorn might be in your backyard is not a statement of fact, and thus logically distinct from the actual claim of fact that there IS a pink unicorn in your yard. It’s the latter that requires evidence, not the former. Alluding to possibility is distinct from claiming actuality. ‘Might be’ does not equal ‘Is.’ I concede to the possibility of many things for which there is no evidence, I just don’t believe that they are true or false until the evidence is in. Not to be rude, but you seem to fail to make that distinction.

      Finally, I’m keenly aware that there’s dissent in almost any field, including SETI and UFOlogy. Example: among others, David Brin, the science fiction writer and former SETI researcher has had and continues to have very dissident views on alien life, and these were used in his Uplift novels to good effect. I know — fiction — but it shows his views nicely, views that he and likely others still with the program share and express. Don’t blame me that you haven’t even bothered to look.

      Am I wrong? I could very well be. But until you fulfill my request for evidence that shows you correct, then I’m sorry to say that I cannot take your statements seriously. But it’s getting late, so thank you and goodnight. I appreciate your feedback.

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  6. Hi:
    Very short answer regarding the evidence; it is not here the appropriate place to discuss it or to discuss its weakness or strength.
    In the worst case, the evidence is close to zero, and ergo the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis for some UFOs has yet to be fully demonstrated. And that is not so bad. As you claim to know about science and its methods, you should know that by very definition, all hypotheses need to be demonstrated, but that they are not born demonstrated.
    Mauricio

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