Are UFOs Aliens?

I’m a social scientist with a high estimate of the power of social science (especially economics and sociobiology) to trace the outlines of a wide variety of social behavior.  I even use social science to estimate our distant descendants’ future, and the astronomical signatures that aliens might leave.

Some complain that such efforts reflect an overconfidence in social science, that academic insights today have little power to generalize to such distant situations.  Some even say social science does not exist, i.e., that it fails to offer much insight even into human society today.  But most of these social science skeptics also want to say we are pretty sure UFOs are not aliens – that aliens are not regularly visiting Earth today.  And during a long drive from DC to Indianapolis and back with Bill and Chris Dickens (to attend GenCon), I realized this is contradictory: social science is our main theoretical basis for thinking no UFOs are aliens!

Humans have long reported various rare and odd phenomena, from angels to faeries to bigfoot to sea monsters to ghosts.  We are pretty sure most such "weird" reports are errors, i.e., mistakes, frauds, or misunderstandings.  We also reasonably believe most weird report categories are entirely errors  — for example, we reasonably believe all faery reports are errors. 

Nevertheless, we can’t be especially confident that a category of weird reports is all error, merely because it is weird.  After all, some weird categories have been vindicated, i.e., we now think many reports really were as weird as claimed.  Meteorite reports, for example, were once thought to be crazy – why the heck would rocks fall from the sky?  I’d love for someone to survey categories of weird reports made a few centuries ago, identifying the categories most clearly settled by now, and seeing what fraction of settled categories have been vindicated.  My guess would be roughly 5%.

Coming back to UFOs as aliens, if all we knew about this report category was that it is weird, we would have to assign roughly a 5% chance that some UFOs really are aliens.  And given such a dramatic conclusion, a lot of UFO research would then be justified.  So do we know something more about UFO reports, to let us adjust this 5% estimate?

Some are impressed by the wide range and sometimes high prestige of folks who make UFO reports.  And perhaps an analysis of historically vindicated weird reports would show these to be positive indicators. But it seems to me that the main correction we apply is theoretical: we think it quite theoretically implausible that any UFOs are aliens. 

But why exactly is that implausible?  Since the universe is thirteen billion years old while human civilization is only a few thousand years old, alien civilizations out there would most likely be millions and perhaps billions of years more advanced than us.  Given such a lead, it is quite plausible they could make devices able to display all of the phenomena reported for UFOs.  There is nothing in physics that suggests UFOs are not aliens.

No, the main argument against UFOs as aliens is that this is an implausible social scenario. People ask: why would aliens travel for light-years merely to squash some corn fields?  Why wouldn’t they introduce themselves to those in power?  Why haven’t they made more of a visible mark on our planet or solar system? 

These are fine questions, and I do agree that they tend to support a more skeptical conclusion.  (Though even I can’t see how the chance goes much below 1%, still justifying substantial UFO research.)  But my main point is that such skepticism is only reasonable if we actually know enough social science (broadly conceived) to be able to say something about alien behavior.  And if we know this much social science, we should also be able to make some progress using social science to estimate our distant descendants’ future, and the astronomical signatures of distant aliens.

You can’t have it both ways: you can’t say we know too little social science to project our distant future and distant alien astronomical signatures, but we do know enough social science to be confident UFOs are not aliens.

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  • http://profile.typekey.com/aroneus/ Aron

    What’s the name for the bias that leads one to extrapolate that a bizarre artifact in the sky implies aliens at all? Rather than, say, evil ex-soviets or bizarre undiscovered physics or time travelling humans with cool shoes?

    If we say perhaps, that there is a 5% chance that these smudges in the air have some common and interesting cause other than observer error. What is then the conditional probability that it is aliens rather than any of the other millions of hokey concepts it could be explained with?

  • Tim Tyler

    Regarding the Hardscrapple frontier folk: checking with the size of the galaxy, if descendants travelled at the speed of light, they would saturate the galaxy after about 85,000 years – assuming no alien interference.

    For there still to be frontier-based competition somewhere after a million years requires that the expansion rate be limited to below 0.085c. That seems a rather pessimistic estimate of our descendants’ expansion capabilities to me – my own estimate would be > 0.5c.

  • http://www.nancybuttons.com Nancy Lebovitz\

    I read an article in Whole Earth Review or CoEvolution Quarterly (in other words, sorry no cite) about which reports of strange stuff seemed to have something currently unexplained about them. There were several sorts of lights in the sky that looked promising.

    As for alien motivations….our interactions with ants would look very odd and arbitrary from the ant point of view.

  • Klaas Wassenaar

    Are UFOs Aliens?

    No, unless your definition of aliens includes humans.

    If there are physical and psychological explanations, why resort to aliens?

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Aron, any equally weird explanation would to me count as vindication.

    Klaas, but what odds do you give?

  • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    I distinguish again between:

    The precise predictions we can make when we precisely understand all the parts and can use the Inside View;

    The well-calibrated probabilistic predictions we generate when we use the Outside View over essentially i.i.d. problems;

    And the handful of merely qualitative predictions we can try to generate when we haven’t seen anything similar before, so the Outside View in its strong form is not available.

    The idea that UFOs should not cross millions of light-years, keep themselves secret and then do displays over military bases with their exterior lights on, is a qualitative prediction that seems more or less forced.

    Social sciences have a lot of implicit predictions that are more or less forced, like, “Russia will not launch a massive nuclear attack on itself”, which are little discussed because they are so obvious. The controversy over social science centers on the predictions that are not forced.

    (Well, that plus cases where people just don’t listen, like the recent gas tax proposal.)

  • Constant

    No, the main argument against UFOs as aliens is that this is an implausible social scenario. People ask: why would aliens travel for light-years merely to squash some corn fields?

    I have no particular problem with social science. But I don’t think this is much of an argument for the profession of social science. We are not, as far as I know, relying on the output of the profession of social science to draw the conclusion that aliens would not do that – we are, rather, relying on “common sense”, i.e., on “folk” social science if you like. The criticism of professional (as distinct from folk) social science is frequently that it does not take us beyond what we already know – i.e., beyond “common sense”. I think you are aware of this, because you’ve addressed it before in your comments on hindsight bias – i.e., you argue that we hindsight bias causes us inaccurately to believe that social science does not take us beyond what we already know. While your comments on hindsight bias address this, our reliance on “common sense” in drawing conclusions about UFOs does not say very much about this – it merely confirms the power of “common sense” and thus, if anything, indirectly reduces the claims of professional social science.

    Furthermore, I don’t even think that’s the only strong argument against UFOs as aliens. In fact I think a better argument centers around the lack of compelling evidence. The lack of compelling evidence is so striking that even if one begins with a strong expectation of an alien presence, the lack of good evidence is so hard to reconcile with that scenario that it is a crushing blow.

    I think this point withstands scrutiny. E.g. what if the aliens are here but have totally masked their presence? In that case, our belief in their presence is entirely a priori, not actually based on evidence – which is a significant strike against it. Other objections can also be well addressed.

  • http://occludedsun.wordpress.com Caledonian

    Let me guess: the argument is going to be that even if we assign a ridiculously small probability to the idea that unidentified objects in the sky are alien ships, the payoff of their being real is sufficiently high that it’s worth trying to contact them.

    Given that there are an unlimited number of potential a priori hypotheses that the unknown objects *could* be, the probability of any one of them being true is negligible. Not technically zero, but treated as equivalent to it. Besides, the potential responses cancel – so we have as much reason to conclude that we should ignore them as to attempt contact, and the result is that we should do nothing.

    One of the key failures of the attempted applications of probability is to only look at some of the possibilities instead of all of them. Choose the right comparisons, and any course of action can be made to appear the correct one.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Eliezer, it is fine to say we know enough social science to make some predictions but not others. Secret aliens who sometimes flash themselves don’t seem anywhere nearly as absurd to me as a nation committing nuclear suicide. We only need a tiny tail of the distribution of alien behavior to produce UFOS – they could be the equivalent of extreme teen joyriders. I’m fine with saying even that is unlikely, but I think it requires more social science than is needed to say national suicide is rare.

    Constant, I agree we don’t necessarily need formal beyond folk social science to make the forecasts I discussed. My main point is that we can make such forecasts, not how exactly we can make them. Also, it is not clear to me just how compelling of evidence we should expect to see under the hypothesis considered.

    Calendonian, my suggestion was not a specific policy but research, which gives policy options.

    To all skeptics, I gave a probability number, what’s yours?

  • http://drchip.wordpress.com/ retired urologist

    Richard Dawkins: “The list of things about which we strictly have to be agnostic doesn’t stop at tooth fairies and celestial teapots. It is infinite. If you want to believe in a particular one of them — teapots, unicorns, or tooth fairies, Thor or Yahweh — the onus is on you to say why you believe in it. The onus is not on the rest of us to say why we do not. We who are atheists are also a-fairyists, a-teapotists, and a-unicornists, but we don’t’ have to bother saying so.”

    Is there any dissimilarity between accepting UFO’s as aliens and accepting the universe (universes?) as a creation of a god? Are the probabilities different?

  • http://occludedsun.wordpress.com Caledonian

    Calendonian, my suggestion was not a specific policy but research, which gives policy options.

    Research IS a policy option.

    I am not aware of any force preventing scientists from studying the topic if they choose. If it’s not being done, that would indicate that you need to actively encourage such research – and that’s a policy decision when taken by any organization, which is what would be needed to be effective on even a moderate scale.

    Considering how few resources are directed to pure research, and the number of specific topics already dominating the fields of science, mandating that one particular pie-in-the-sky topic be studied seems… counterproductive.

    As for your number request: I have no number. What I have is a category: “negligible probability: indistinguishable from zero”. And that’s precisely where the idea of aliens being responsible for UFOs is filed.

  • steve

    “Is there any dissimilarity between accepting UFO’s as aliens and accepting the universe (universes?) as a creation of a god?”

    The UFOs being aliens is a thing we can hope to develop a test for. The behavior of an entity that is by definition unknowable is not. It’s the difference between drawing unreasonable conclusions and using something other than reason to draw your conclusions.

    I just don’t see why we need social science to be good at refuting alien contact when the utter lack of evidence and vast array of alternative explanations for UFO do such a good job. I have trouble seeing from what a 1% probability might be derived.

  • poke

    Surely the problem with UFO reports is that the evidence is crappy rather than that aliens wouldn’t come here?

  • Julian Morrison

    The real problem with aliens piloting UFOs is not their behavior, nor even the inconsistency of their behavior, it’s the sheer number of ANDs you have to pile into the alien hypothesis, versus the much simpler dreaming/delusional/mistaken/hoax hypothesis. Super flight AND super concealment AND crazy behavior of many sorts AND never getting caught in a steady picture on a good camera AND never getting shot down or crashing AND never leaving identifiable physical evidence despite landing AND a disturbing similarity to spooky myths down the ages AND messy supernatural or dreamlike elements creeping into reports, etc etc.

    I would call 1% hopeless optimism, once you’ve multiplied out all those ANDs.

  • http://elder-gods.org/~larry/blog/ Larry D’Anna

    I thought you were going to say that the main reason to doubt UFO reports is that UFO enthusiasts are well known to be irrational nuts.

    I don’t see how we know enough about aliens to judge that they’re not going to come to earth and tweak us with UFOs. There’s no reason to judge it less likely than the Occum prior says it is, which is fortunately pretty low in this case.

    Ordinarily if someone makes a weird claim, we should raise it’s probability above the occum level because the report is evidence that they had a weird experience and the weird experience is evidence that the weird event actually happened. But if a lot of people make the same kind of weired claim, and display a lot of cult-like irrationality while they’re at it, then we should reset the probability to the occum level because it’s far more likely that there is something systematically wrong with the reporters.

  • steven

    We only need a tiny tail of the distribution of alien behavior to produce UFOS

    ***AND*** we need all the body of the distribution to keep fanatically quiet, e.g. by not eating the galaxy.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/bayesian/ Peter McCluskey

    I’m unconvinced that UFO atheists rely much on social science. Here’s an alternate hypothesis: they’re signaling their contempt for people who unscientifically believe too many of the UFO reports.
    One question which, if answered, would clarify what UFO atheists are doing: do they also underestimate the probability that UFO reports reflect undiscovered physics which if documented would bring as much fame to the documenters as with meteorites?

  • jamie

    One other problem not mentioned yet: the alien pilots are almost always humanoid. Not only is this implausible, but it would make for a dull universe if intelligence always occurs in human form.

  • MZ

    Caledonian: “I am not aware of any force preventing scientists from studying the topic if they choose.”

    Money. Although, if you want to go that route, I would LOVE to be a fly on the wall when the reviewers read your grant proposal.

  • Ben_Wraith

    MZ: But scientists need money for whatever they’re going to study.

  • http://www.econ.canterbury.ac.nz/eric Eric Crampton

    Re teenage joyriders:

    “…Teasers are usually rich kids with nothing to do. They cruise around looking for planets that haven’t made interstellar contact yet and buzz them.”
    “Buzz them?” Arthur began to feel that Ford was enjoying making life difficult for him.
    “Yeah,” said Ford, “they buzz them. They find some isolated spot with very few people around, then land right by some poor unsuspecting soul whom no one’s ever going to believe and then strut up and down in front of him wearing silly antennas on their head and making beep beep noises. Rather childish really.” Ford leaned back on the mattress with his hands behind his head and looked infuriatingly pleased with himself.

  • scted

    “People ask: why would aliens travel for light-years merely to squash some corn fields? Why wouldn’t they introduce themselves to those in power? Why haven’t they made more of a visible mark on our planet or solar system?”

    Since you were driving across Indiana, you must have noticed that 75% of the acreage was occupied by corn. Could it not be a reasonable conclusion to an alien that corn is the dominant species … the one in power. Corn has tamed humans in order to realize its quest to dominate the planet.

  • Ronald Pottol

    People see things. What they see seems to have rather a lot to do with their expectations. Blessed Virgin Marry (BVM) sightings are very much like some sorts of UFO sightings. A few centuries ago, they were seeing angels and such, now we see aliens, I suspect that we are not much better witnesses than they were.

    If you are honest with yourself, you see lots of UFOs (and UNFOs (Unidentified Non Flying Objects)), you see a few lights in the sky, and you think “that’s an airplane”, but you probably did not see a shape even, just a few lights.

  • Klaas Wassenaar

    Some of the replies are so funny.

    @scted Corn the dominant life form, hahaha. If our planet would be judged by aliens as a sphere where genes struggled for survival, which would be called the dominant species, corn?

    @ Robin Hanson,

    I give 0% odds to UFOs being aliens.

    But if I believed that there was a chance for example like 0.01% for UFO’s = aliens, I would encourage research and study.

    If the choice is between giving funding to UFO = aliens research or finding extraterrestrial life, which would you give your funds to? (which odds are greater ?)

  • mjgeddes

    I would have thought that the chances of a random ‘weird claim’ being correct was far less than 5% Robin. See how many ‘alternative science’ claims you can come up with: ESP, PK, Ghosts, Loch Ness, Witch Craft, Acupuncture etc etc etc.

    Interestingly, a google search puts ‘cryonics’ in the same category- based on a random google search I’d say I had to pass perhaps 200 alternative claims before hitting one which is likely true (cryonics).

    My Bayesian ‘UFOs are aliens’ odds: <0.005 (0.5%).

    About the same chance I give to E.Yudkowsky's claims about meta-ethics being correct.

  • josh

    If the specific claim is that aliens have visited the earth during the age of humans and that these aliens are the inspiration for UFO depictions or sightings, I’ll go as high as p= .00001

    Shouldn’t we be spending more resources looking for Yetis? The odds are better and it would be super cool and not at all scary.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    The weird thing about social sciences is how legitimate insights from the field remain weirdly unapplied to vast swaths of our society. For example, the criminal justice and legal system. Even fundamental concepts in criminal and tort law hinge on notions of mental state that don’t seem derived or determined rationally based on our best cognitive science.

    As for punctured myths and controversies thanks to social sciences, it’s hard to beat its demonstration of the value of markets for creating economic efficiency.

    It would great to see a from first principles reassessment of all our major institutions through the lense of current social science.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    I’m skeptical of the 1% number too. Unless it’s a way of saying error bars are about the size of 2 orders of magnitude smaller than the error bars on if I exist or not. It’s hard for me to say the error bars are less than that (for almost anything) but on raw, unmathematical tuition, I would say 1 in 10 billion odds that alien visits as described in popular narratives are real (I chose that number because it’s less than the number of people currently alive). It’s a raw number choice from the gut, so I’m aware it’s susceptible to easy debunking/ridicule.

  • https://self-evident.org/ Nemo

    Prof. Hanson —

    You say, “we reasonably believe all faery reports are errors”. Did that conclusion require the subtle reasoning of the social sciences, too?

    I do not think so… And by identical logic, neither does skepticism about UFOs.

  • Robert A. Book

    Since the universe is thirteen billion years old while human civilization is only a few thousand years old, alien civilizations out there would most likely be millions and perhaps billions of years more advanced than us.

    Robin: Implicit in that statement is an assumption about the speed of development. You assume that since human civilization is only a few thousand years old, it must develop quickly. Yet, it’s possible that the prerequisites to that development have to take billions of years. It’s even possible that our development was on the “fast” end of the distribution. If that’s the case, then most alien life out there would be more like bacteria than like us — in other words, a lot less advanced than us, perhaps behind by millions or billions of years.

    In fact, given the fact that all our searching has turned up no convincing evidence of alien life, let alone alien civilization, it is in fact quite likely that this is the case.

  • Yvain

    Social scientists are probably very bad people to go to for predictions of alien behaviour. Social scientists’ advantage is an excellent understanding of humans. And when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem starts looking like a nail…

    I’m much less confident than some other posters here that aliens won’t do seemingly inexplicable things.

    A person encounters a long black line of tar, stretching perfectly straight for several miles. stops, checks the color of a light, presses a small button on a pole, checks the color of the light again. If the color has changed to green, he walks across the black line; if it is red, he looks surreptitiously for black and white cars with flashing red and blue lights, and, if none are nearby, runs across the black line. An Aborigine would call this hopelessly baffling behaviour. I would call it crossing the street.

    Landing in a cornfield, probing a few cows, and then taking off again without ever informing the planet’s predominant species is a little weird from our point of view, but not nearly as weird as the whole black-tar-line-crossing-ritual is from the Aborigines’. And I see no reason to think aliens might not be as far beyond our tech level as we are beyond the Aborigines’.

    And one of the solutions to the Great Filter problem is that aliens are deliberately trying to conceal themselves from us. It’s really the only solution that doesn’t make abiogenesis and evolution much harder than most mid-20th century biologists thought they were. It at least deserves some probability. And if they’re aware of our existence but playing some weird game with us, part of that game might be disguising themselves in humanoid guise and appearing to us in unprovable ways.

    My probability estimate for an alien cause of UFOs is only a little less than Robin’s 5%. I think Peter McCluskey was absolutely right that it’s easy to sink the estimate too low just to signal “I’m not a crackpot!”

  • Jason Malloy

    To all skeptics, I gave a probability number, what’s yours?

    0%, Robin. I give it my minimum probability, along with Bigfoot, Loch Ness, Jesus, astrology, Scientology, Mormonism, ESP, satan, witchcraft, Intelligent Design, and all the other paranormal gobbledygook. They all get to be together at the bottom of the probability trashcan, underneath some balls of used kleenex.

    Though even I can’t see how the chance goes much below 1%, still justifying substantial UFO research.

    An exceedingly dubious number that you could use for every single religious and paranormal class of beliefs to justify “substantial” research. But there are only a limited number of research resources, and an infinite number of these beliefs. If we apply these kinds of crazy probabilities to an infinite set of topics, research would consist of nothing but paranormal pseudoscience. In reality there are a nearly unlimited number of real research topics too, so many important real topics will get far less attention than they should be getting. Concrete areas of study — e.g. cell function — should always take extreme Bayesian precedence over paranormal suspicions.

    At least as far as the public good and government spending is concerned. If independent scientists (individual or organized) decide to study something like Intelligent Design or secret alien invaders with their own money and time, the onus is on them to demonstrate enough red meat to put their paranormal subject matter on a footing with other kinds of real science.

    It won’t ever happen, but this is the horse that must come before the cart.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    By the way, I abscribe higher odds to intelligent alien existing in the universe than to the proposition that UFOs of the conventional UFO sighting narratives are intelligent aliens. The latter is what I specifically intuit to be much lower than 1% probability.

    Also, I intuit very high odds (maybe higher than 50%, it’s only error bars that get in the way here) to the possibility that groups of humans or humans in interaction with other things may be intelligences (even subjectively conscious ones) with agency distinct from our own as individual humans.

  • http://lightskyland.com Matthew C.

    It is quite fascinating from a sociological perspective to see so many of the usual suspects show up and pound the table insisting there is nothing interesting here, move along.

    I guess all belief systems have their dogmas and blind spots, several of the folks here have enumerated them quite nicely as lists of things that can’t possibly be legitimate because dammit we already know the truth. . .

  • Tim Tyler

    Re: 0%

    The usual response is: 0 And 1 Are Not Probabilities

  • http://occludedsun.wordpress.com Caledonian

    Tim Tyler:

    What is the probability of zero being a probability?

  • http://www.contrarianbusiness.com Greg

    Aren’t we considering UFO research backwards? The aliens are the hypothesis, which we should be pretty indifferent to at the outset. The research should be into the observable evidence – crop circles, flashing lights, and whatnot – with the UFO hypothesis being one (extremely poor) possible explanation. I would think someone somewhere could scrape together a few dollars to study crop circles and decide whether they’re just done by bored farmers. I think it’s infinitely more likely that we’re getting pranked by humans than by aliens (per Douglas Adams).

    Consider a rather strange analogy. What percentage of secrets posted on PostSecret do you think are true rather than fictional? People have a huge urge just to mess with the credulous public. Various hoaxes are by far my favorite hypothesis for UFO’s (not that I give them much thought), following by yet to be discovered physics effects.

  • Norman Noman

    Here’s a fun puzzle for the sociologists in the audience

    http://castlezzt.net/~norman/figure7b.gif

    In July 1952, Project Blue Book was inundated with a massive spike of UFO reports. What caused this spike?

  • Greg

    >>Secret aliens who sometimes flash themselves don’t seem anywhere nearly as absurd to me as a nation committing nuclear suicide. We only need a tiny tail of the distribution of alien behavior to produce UFOS – they could be the equivalent of extreme teen joyriders. I’m fine with saying even that is unlikely, but I think it requires more social science than is needed to say national suicide is rare.<< I think you understate what is required, Robin. Not only would you have to posit aliens who manifest themselves in a manner that is *just* visible enough to let individuals or groups of individuals notice them while failing to provide concrete evidence of their existence, you would also need an absence of other aliens both from the same civilization as well as unrelated alien civilizations who either don't care about disguising their activities or else actively _want_ to be observed. Given the technical challenges by interstellar travel (and, hence, the degree of technological mastery needed to accomplish it) combined with the inherent high visibility of most of the potential means of such travel ("my those gamma rays are exactly what we see from proton-antiproton reactions once we add in a significant blue shift"), the idea that someone would take the trouble to disguise the vast majority of this signature but not all of it strikes me as highly unlikely. Pair this argument with the extreme plausibility of the alternative hypothesis, that those reporting a UFO and interpreting it as alien visitors are people who saw something unexpected in the sky and let their imaginations run away with them and I believe there is good reason to say the chance that UFOs are really alien spaceships is << 1%

  • http://autodidacticdropout.wordpress.com/ Matthew Cronheim

    The Most recent column by Michael Shermer is really relevant to this discussion: https://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=why-our-brains-do-not-intuitively-grasp-probabilities&posted=1#comments:

    The existence of confirmation bias here is incredible, and the effects of social behavior acting on scientifically probable phenomena is astounding. The reactions / previous comments speak(s) directly to this, such vehement opposition but lacking, well, much of anything hold energy.

    What is interesting is, when you really think about it, often UFO’s / aliens are the best explanation for the professed phenomena. But rather than trusting otherwise trustworthy witnesses, we attribute constructed probability findings to discount and discredit any such idea.

    Interesting post in this here: http://autodidacticdropout.wordpress.com/

  • http://chainedtothecinematheque.blogspot.com Dave

    Based on the planetary evidence, I could find many reasons why humans might not be considered the dominant species. But more importantly, why would aliens necessarily be interested in us? Is their interest primarily zoological?

    On our own planet, humans haven’t even discovered millions of species that likely exist; even among the discovered, humans haven’t studied the vast majority in any depth. Why would a life form from another galaxy be overwhelmingly concerned with us, beyond a few explorational visits and the occasional probing of a subject? We’re getting borderline anthropic with this assumption, which also assumes that we qualify as ‘intelligent’ life to the aliens in question. If alien life uses more collective forms of intelligence, might they be more concerned with the ant? It’s only in rational individual intelligence that humans possibly measure up – if then. To twist Copernicus a bit, humans are not privileged objects of observation in the universe even in the search for intelligent life.

  • Jason Malloy

    The idea that Shermer’s column somehow supports Ufology pseudoscience is hilarious. Shermer is no different from me on this issue, he identically lumps flying saucers with God, bigfoot, Loch Ness (his comparisons) at the Bottom of the Bayesian Barrel.

    http://www.positiveatheism.org/mail/eml9818.htm
    http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/08/09/sunday/main3151629.shtml

    The sociology of alien sighting/abduction folklore is indeed science, as are methodologically sober experiments like SETI. Flying saucer crytozoology, on the other hand, is a colossal mess and identical to other bottom of the pile pseudosciences. There is absolutely no evidence here, or profitable study methodology. This is really equivalent to the Intelligent Design stuff.

    Even if Robin’s 5% probability was true, or if it was 25, or, indeed, 100%, Robin would still need to say how alien visitor crytozoology can BE a science. He needs to propose serious study methods, that can elevate the alien visitor paradigm to the level of scientific research. Asserting that it doesn’t get enough research attention in proportion to its alleged high probability is misguided; you need to tell us HOW it can be researched competently, convincingly, and falsifiably. But it’s virtually certain there aren’t good ways to do this, primarily because the phenomena is entirely sociological/psychological, just like religion. Which is why it hasn’t been studied seriously yet, despite decades of massive interest, and lives eternally in the same tabloid ghetto as the Bigfoot, ghost, and chupacabra “research”.

    And this was the opinion of scientists in the few unwise attempts to look at this garbage seriously:

    “Our general conclusion is that nothing has come from the study of UFOs in the past 21 years that has added to scientific knowledge. Careful consideration of the record as it is available to us leads us to conclude that further extensive study of UFOs probably cannot be justified in the expectation that science will be advanced thereby.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Condon_Report

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Poke, the evidence for meteorites was crappy too once.

    Larry, most meteorite enthusiasts were probably irrational too.

    Steven and Greg, yes, that is where social science comes more substantially in.

    Peter, a very plausible hypothesis. How could we test it?

    mjgeddes, I specifically talked about weird reports that have been clearly settled now.

    josh and hopefully, thanks for giving a concrete non-zero number. Care to bet at those odds? And will anyone who said 0% be willing to bet at those odds? 🙂

    Jason, I made no claim about anything being “a science.” I’m sure I could find ways to profitably study this topic, given that UFOs actually were aliens.

  • Norman Noman

    >The sociology of alien sighting/abduction folklore is indeed
    >science, as are methodologically sober experiments like SETI.
    >Flying saucer crytozoology, on the other hand, is a colossal
    >mess and identical to other bottom of the pile pseudosciences.
    >There is absolutely no evidence here, or profitable study
    >methodology. This is really equivalent to the Intelligent
    >Design stuff.

    It is precisely because science is the process through which unsolvable emotional arguments can be transformed into organized sets of sub-problems amenable to rational analysis that the UFO phenomenon is interesting. Therefore, to say that UFO’s are not a scientific problem, or even to pose the question, is to utter an absurdity. There is no such thing as a scientific problem: It is the man who looks at the problem who is scientific in his approach or who is not.

    Science is an object in the mind of man, not a characteristic we are at liberty either to bestow upon or to withdraw from every funny-looking contraption that happens to cross our skies.

    – Jacques Vallee

    >And this was the opinion of scientists in the few unwise
    >attempts to look at this garbage seriously:
    >
    >”Our general conclusion is that nothing has come from the
    >study of UFOs in the past 21 years that has added to
    >scientific knowledge. Careful consideration of the record
    >as it is available to us leads us to conclude that further
    >extensive study of UFOs probably cannot be justified in
    >the expectation that science will be advanced thereby.”
    >
    >http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Condon_Report

    The Condon Report, preceded by Project Sign (which concluded that the extraterrestrial hypothesis was the best explanation), and followed by Project Blue Book (and presumably other, less public, air force studies), is certainly an interesting little slice of history. The Wikipedia article is well worth reading. Here’s an excerpt:

    On August 9, 1966, Low wrote a memorandum intended to persuade the more reluctant faculty to accept the UFO project. This so-called “Trick Memo” explained how the University could perform the project without risking their reputation, and how the University UFO research project could arrive at a predetermined conclusion while appearing objective. In part, Low wrote:

    “Our study would be conducted almost entirely by non-believers who, though they couldn’t possibly prove a negative result, could and probably would add an impressive body of thick evidence that there is no reality to the observations. The trick would be, I think, to describe the project so that, to the public, it would appear a totally objective study but, to the scientific community, would present the image of a group of non-believers trying their best to be objective but having an almost zero expectation of finding a saucer.” Low also suggested that if the study focused less on “the physical reality of the saucer”, and more on the “psychology and sociology of person and groups who report seeing UFOs”, then “the scientific community would get the message”. (Clark, 594)

    Ah yes, the old scientific practice of picking the conclusions before you gather the evidence.

    >Flying saucer crytozoology, on the other hand, is a
    >colossal mess and identical to other bottom of the pile
    >pseudosciences. There is absolutely no evidence here, or
    >profitable study methodology. This is really equivalent
    >to the Intelligent Design stuff.

    Ding ding ding! Irony detector going off!

  • constant

    Care to bet at those odds?

    Can you outline the bet exactly? If there are no aliens among us, this is unlikely to be easy to prove to the satisfaction of those who believe there are. Maybe if you say, “by 2012, there will be proof of intelligent alien visitation accepted by >50% of the AAAS”, and you give specific amounts to bet on – say, $10 against $200 or $50 against $1000, that might serve to clarify.

  • Jason Malloy

    Jason, I made no claim about anything being “a science.” I’m sure I could find ways to profitably study this topic, given that UFOs actually were aliens.

    Lol, well congrats Robin, you would surely be the first. I’m not going to hold my breath here though. And yes it is good to know that by “justifying substantial UFO research” you did not mean it justified scientific research, but rather pseudoscientific research to support your pre-existing belief system in paranormal characters from American folklore.

    Though, admittedly, I was not aware that junk science “research” was ever actually “justified” by anything. What level of probability, in your opinion, starts to justify actual scientific research?

    Norman Norman,

    Yes, actually there are such things as scientific and unscientific paradigms. Checking my closet every 30 minutes for a hobbit is not science. Hypotheses can be logically faulty or empirically untrue (e.g. young earth creationism), or can be methodologically unsound (e.g. you can’t practice astronomy with a kaleidoscope).

    Ufology (the study of alien spaceship visitors) is not a scientific paradigm and it never has been; there is no peer review or attempt to organize and qualify observation, there have been no improvements in theory or methodology in 60 years. It lacks boundary conditions, parsimony, falsifiability, controls, and experimentation. The exceedingly amateurish “investigatory” practice is not self-correcting and rife with selection bias, and leans heavily on misinformation, fraud, lies, myths, anecdotes, hear-say, testimony, misinformation, and whopping doses of conspiracy theory.

    I mean we’re talking about one of the most archetypal pseudosciences here. This stuff is crazy bogus on its face. Tyler Cowen has called Dr. Hanson a “scientist” previously, but anyone that can look at Ufology and see any sort of legitimate research method or red meat here that can justify an assertion like “UFOs actually were aliens”, just can’t be trusted as a critical thinker or logical evaluator.

    Sociological and other more rigorous (but still frivolous) and secular attempts to investigate and/or debunk UFO folklore provide some good, but unnecessary response to some Ufology “evidences”, but in reality there is no need to “compete” with or respond to the claims of ufology (As critics seem to believe) anymore than scientists need to disprove or meet the elaborate Mormon claims of Joseph Smith. In both cases you are the one with no evidence and curious religious claims. Science has no need or ability to debunk religious claims. And religious claims, like Ufology, are likewise, not science.

  • Jason Malloy

    er, how about:

    “Hypotheses can be logically faulty or empirically untrue (e.g. young earth creationism), or can rely only on unsound methods of falsification…”

  • Jason Malloy

    …just can’t be trusted as a critical thinker or logical evaluator..

    On second thought I regret this statement as overly harsh. It is wrong to dismiss others for their religious beliefs.

    I seriously can’t empathize with the drive toward paranormal beliefs (including religion), but apparently most humans can’t help it for deeply cognitive reasons. Yet people are nonetheless generally good at compartmentalization between these beliefs and general reasoning applied to unrelated subjects, and this includes Robin.

  • Norman Noman

    I’m just saying, making blanket statements about unscientific research and then appealing to the authority of Edward Condon is downright comical. Another excerpt from the article you linked to, which you rather obviously failed to read at all:

    In late January, 1967, Keyhoe and Hall gave Saunders a clipping of The Elmira Star-Gazette, dated January 26. Condon was quoted as saying that he thought the government should not study UFO’s because the subject was nonsense, adding, “but I’m not supposed to reach that conclusion for another year.” (Clark, 597) Saunders was stunned. He asked if Condon could have been misquoted, but Keyhoe reported that several NICAP members had been present when Condon delivered his lecture; one of them had resigned from NICAP in protest, arguing that the Condon Committee was nothing more than pretense.

    The next day Saunders confronted Condon about the press clipping. Saunders feared that NICAP would end their association with the Committee (thus eliminating a valuable source of case files), and furthermore that the negative publicity following a split from NICAP could harm public perception of the Committee.

    In the meantime, Condon had taken no part in the field investigations; he would ultimately investigate at most four or five cases–mostly contactees–of several hundred cases which the Committee examined. Furthermore, the Committee’s members found it difficult to speak with Condon: they usually had to speak to coordinator Low with questions or problems, but were often unsatisfied with Low’s efforts. On at least one occasion, Condon fell asleep while a consultant was offering a presentation. Consultant James E. McDonald had initially been hopeful for the Committee, but after making a few presentations and feeling as though Condon completely ignored his contributions, McDonald grew increasingly vocal in his criticism. He would soon begin to detail his view of the Committee’s problems in letters to Frederick Seitz, president of the National Academy of Science.

  • Carl Shulman

    Jason,

    You are grossly misreading Robin. He does not think that it is likely that any UFOs are aliens (although I agree that a 1% probability is way too high, even if you’re emphasizing uncertainty there are too many more plausible hypotheses about alien existence and behavior that would pre-empt this one, given the Fermi Paradox and the apparent age of the universe), and is not a religious enthusiast of UFOlogy.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    Robin, what exactly do you propose as the structure of the bet, in terms of how do we determine the winner? I am tempted to bet you, because I think it would be easy money for me if the terms were fairly constructed based on our apparent beliefs about the likelihood UFOs of the conventional sighting narratives are intelligent aliens.

  • Jason Malloy

    Carl,

    You are grossly misreading Robin. He does not think that it is likely that any UFOs are aliens…

    I quote: “Jason, I made no claim about anything being “a science.” I’m sure I could find ways to profitably study this topic, given that UFOs actually were aliens.”

    Norman,

    I’m just saying, making blanket statements about unscientific research and then appealing to the authority of Edward Condon is downright comical. Another excerpt from the article you linked to, which you rather obviously failed to read at all:

    Oh, I read it all right, I just don’t have the same bias as the Ufologists, so even the rambling, slanted Wikipedia article is just funny to me. I completely sympathized with Codon throughout, who was given an impossible task with a good purpose: a pro forma investigation to shut down a pointless and banal air force program poisoned by its own unnecessary sensationalism. There simply isn’t a way to evaluate an alien visitor paradigm scientifically, because it is not science, so I don’t fault the researchers for not really trying or caring to investigate it that way (and this underlies all the listed criticisms). But their conclusion that no useful science resulted from the program was obviously correct, and though I’m sure not going to dig through it, would have certainly followed from their 1000+ page report in a manner that was foregone, given the subject matter. So the NAS was in the right.

    That’s just the way it rolls, Norman, garbage in, garbage out. What is important though, is that all the sky monitoring programs which swiftly morphed into a magnet for public fantasy and paranoia did not identify aerial threats from a foreign country. That was the extent of their purpose and usefulness. Providing “scientific” evidence for Martian visitors? Not so much.

  • Carl Shulman

    Jason,

    The highlighted text looks like a counterfactual to me. If, counterfactually, Bigfoot existed, then I could use ordinary zoological techniques and find a specimen, bring it in for DNA analysis and study by independent biologists, etc. In a world (like ours) with no Bigfoot, the hunt will be fruitless and we won’t find such evidence. If UFOs were aliens abducting people and the like, then analysis of forensic evidence, radar searches, etc, would find such evidence. In our reality such evidence has not been forthcoming, and the folk beliefs are well explained by sleep paralysis, hypnosis, etc, so we should go with the prior and be quite confident that no UFOs are aliens. But things could have been different.

  • Norman Noman

    > There simply isn’t a way to evaluate an alien visitor paradigm
    > scientifically, because it is not science

    What are you saying here, that if there were actually aliens visiting our planet, science would simply fall apart in the face of it? How can a HYPOTHESIS “not be science”?

    I would argue to the contrary that there are many ways the ET hypothesis can be evaluated scientifically. Vallee’s study of landing reports, in which he charts the size of the objects reported by witnesses, is an excellent example:

    But the strongest law will be found in another characteristic of the craft: the diameter of the machine itself. Here we should have a reliable estimate if the object is material, because it was seen on the ground, or very close to the ground, and against a familiar background of buildings and trees. It is much easier to estimate measurements in such circumstances than when the object is a celestial one. Here, we have observations of a motion­less object on the ground. Let us consider all the reports which give both an estimate of the diameter and also the distance from the witnesses: do we obtain a coherent picture?

    Indeed we do, and a most remarkable one! On figure 3 we have plotted these reports along with the average of each class. The result is extremely interesting. We find that the estimated diameter of the craft is a constant for all witnesses whose closest approach was between 5 and 200 metres. Witnesses who came very close give a slightly smaller figure, and witnesses very far give a much higher estimate. The latter phenomenon is well-known to psychologists and to astronomers: it is called the ‘Moon Illusion’. If the witnesses were liars, or the victims of a delusion, no such effect would appear.

  • Nameless
  • Jason Malloy

    Carl,

    I interpret it as a statement like ‘You should slow down on this turn, given that your car is an SUV’. His preceding statement challenging other posters to bet him on it, certainly does a lot to reinforce this interpretation. How in the world would we settle a bet on the existence of saucer invaders unless Robin believed that evidence for them was forthcoming?

    Norman,

    How can a HYPOTHESIS “not be science”?

    I already discussed this.

    Vallee’s study of landing reports, in which he charts the size of the objects reported by witnesses, is an excellent example

    If he is just randomly making measurements from witness reports without a hypothesis, it is not science. And if he is making measurements in order to test an alien visitor hypothesis, then this is simply not science.

    Either way, this is not science.

    I’m certainly not anymore willing to accept crowd reports of fantastical objects as evidence for aliens than I am to accept the previous centuries worth of crowd reports of Christian apparitions as “scientific” evidence for Catholicism.

    In an age of ubiquitous cell phone video, let’s reconvene here when one of these allegedly ubiquitous saucer landings gets captured clearly and many times independently in a way that leaves material proof. Perhaps then we would have the beginning of a phenomena scientists can actually try and study.

    Of course, this is never going to happen Norman, because alien saucer people narrative originates in folklore. I’m also equally and completely certain that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles won’t ever pop out of the sewer and throw a bodacious pizza party. The probability of this bodacious pizza party is 0%. (or 5%-100% if you ask Robin. Place your bets.)

  • Carl Shulman

    “How in the world would we settle a bet on the existence of saucer invaders unless Robin believed that evidence for them was forthcoming?”
    I’m eager to hear Robin’s response to Hopefully, and the terms, clearing period, etc.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Alas my parenthetical comment, “I can’t see how the chance goes much below 1%”, seems to have overshadowed rest of the post. But since there is so much interest, I guess 0.1% would count as “much below 1%”, for the chance that at least one UFO report really was an alien.

    To choose odds for a bet on whether this is true and will become clear within say twenty years, I need to estimate the chance it would become clear (e.g., declared as such by three New York Times articles) in that period, given it was true. Unfortunately, I can’t see how I could assign a chance over 1% to this, as the most likely scenario given the assumption is that they are trying to hide, with rare failures. So this makes me willing to bet up to $1000 at 100,000 to one odds that 3 NYT articles will accept UFOs as aliens by 2029 (with someone who can show an ability to pay if I won).

  • josh

    Robin,

    I believe I said, 1 in 100,000, even though I feel like that is reasonable, I don’t think it is a betable ratio at any amount. I don’t know if this means my p does not reflect my true belief, or if this just reflects that I am not purely an expected wealth maximizer. Getting true betting market odds on something like this might require robust bet insurance markets. Otherwise people could never make a bet that it would be worthwhile to win.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    Robin, How would you adjust the odds if we move the date much closer, to 1 year from now (September 1st, 2009)? 20 years from now seems like an unecessary long bet to me, since your hypothesis seems to me to be that the New York Times hasn’t gotten lucky enough yet to acquire threshhold evidence that conventional UFO narratives are describing real intelligent aliens.

  • Jason Malloy

    Sounds like what I’d really be betting on is my faith in the press. The media in large part helped create this ufology mess.

    There was a New York Times article just several weeks ago that accepted alien visitors as true. Apparently, Al Qaeda and the Martian men are in cahoots to spy on American military bases. A new Axis of Evil, if you will, that we should obviously all Take Very Seriously.

    This article reveals the same high standards the New York Times requires in all its op-eds, and that they boasted about days earlier when refusing to publish an op-ed by presidential candidate John McCain.

  • Norman Noman

    > If he is just randomly making measurements from witness
    > reports without a hypothesis, it is not science. And if
    > he is making measurements in order to test an alien
    > visitor hypothesis, then this is simply not science.

    Interesting. And when we talk to witnesses and people who know them to ascertain their credibility, this is not science? And when we plot the reliability of witnesses vs. the inexplicability of their reports, this is not science? And when we hypothesize that perhaps a sighting is due to sleep paralysis and disprove our hypothesis by finding 12 other people who saw the same thing at the same time, that’s not science either?

    I know I’m not explaining this very well, but to do science, you have to look at the EVIDENCE, then come to a conclusion BASED on that evidence. Despite what you may have learned from Condon, smugly putting your hands over your ears and going LALALA is not part of the scientific method.

  • Jason Malloy

    Norman, no it is not science. Your hypothesis is pseudoscience.

    Just because I am looking in my closet every 30 minutes to test my “hypothesis” that a hobbit has materialized there, that does not make it science. If I devise new experiments such as looking into the closet with sunglasses on (I hypothesize hobbits are scared of eye contact), that still does not make it science. If I quantify things such as how many dogs are sleeping in the neighborhood at any given time (I hypothesize hobbits are afraid of dogs), that still does not make it science.

    In short, paradigms matter. The ufo cryptozoology paradigm is not science, and I discussed reasons why yesterday. No current methodology meets any reasonable criteria of demonstrating alien visitation. These varied witness methodologies trying to demonstrate such are pseudoscience.

    There are plenty of peer-reviewed papers gauging witness reliability and the like, that are perfectly normal science. Examining the sociology and psychological of UFO belief/sighting/abduction is science as well.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    But my main point is that such skepticism is only reasonable if we actually know enough social science (broadly conceived) to be able to say something about alien behavior. And if we know this much social science, we should also be able to make some progress using social science to estimate our distant descendants’ future.

    That social science can assign a probability to aliens’ existing is one thing; but can we determine how likely it is that that estimate is correct? It seems to me that using the alien-prediction scenario to gauge the reliability of social science’s predictions about the human future rests on the second condition’s being met, not the first.

  • http://www.FrankFields.com Franklin D. Fields, Jr.

    Thank you for your thoughtful article. Your are correct the UFO issue is one that should be examined more. Way to many people are biased and will not look at the facts. Astronaut Dr. Edgar Mitchell has recently come forward with information. Other remarkable people have come forward as well. Please see:

    http://www.disclosureproject.com (Stream the whole “Smoking Gun” news conference)

    http://www.freedomofinfo.org

    Solid testimony from over 500 corporate and military witnesses has been accumulated by two disclosure initiatives. These disclosure witnesses have openly stated they are willing to testify, under oath and before Congress about their direct encounters with UFO crash site investigations, secret UFO documents, UFO photographic evidence, UFO radar reports and recovered crashed ET vehicles.

    As an Attorney, I can attest that the jurisprudential evidence of this quality does not get any better, especially when witnesses possess the ranks of Brigadier Generals, Commander of ICBM Launch facilities, Senior FAA Crash Site Investigators, astronauts, pilots and officers with above top secret clearance.

    Men have been executed in the U.S. with far less evidence. The evidence is really remarkable and the two sites I have listed are only the tip of the iceberg. I am not asking people to believe just examine the information before making a judgement.

  • Ricke Rose

    I just wonder if any of you have done any research on the so called “UFO” phenomenon? To decide whether or not Aliens have visited earth should not be based on “WHY” they would be here, but more “if they were here, what would they look like?” I think most can agree that they should hold to the following:
    1: A) A craft looking object. (Objects that appear to be holding something or someone)
    B) An “organic-type” of Alien with anatomy unkown to Humans that may be able to survive the vacumn of space.
    2: Moving at speeds or accelerating at speeds that are beyond the technology of current day humans. Or “appearing and disappearing” (which could be cause by high speeds)
    3: Making aerial “tricks” at speeds that would flatten Humans if using conventional aircraft following our conception of modern day physics.

    Using these broad but important guidelines while viewing some of the best “UFO” footage ( I would recommend “A history of UFO sightings”) You will see alot of footage in which, yes very reasonable explanations can be used to dismiss many sightings but you will get a “golden” few caught on film that really fits the desciption for an intelligently controlled Alien areial craft. Further, besides the cases in which film or photos were involved, there are hundreds of cases in which these objects are viewed both visually and by radar near military installments. There are also quite a few uncontested military personell who have had top secret clearance in the military and claim to have been involved in projects that had relations to crashed “UFOs”. ( see “The Disclosure Project”)
    The grand question still remains: Are “UFOs” ALiens? I can confidently say that most of the cases of reported “UFOs” are indeed balloons or unidentified Human aircraft or other unknown natural occurance. Though should be considered that it only takes ONE case that fits the description of intelligently controlled craft to be Alien because the description LEAVES NO OTHER EXPLAINATION.
    So,I feel the true social problem is actually not the “crazies” seeing spacecrafts but why people reject the idea of “UFOs” being Aliens so much and ridicule (*ahem* Jason) those who take the subject not only seriously but also see it as the most important question of our time. It may be possible that ALL 100% of “UFO” cases are misunderstandings or hoaxes but I personally think that the topic is definetely worth the study as contact could take us further technologically than we ever imagined and perhaps assist us to develop our consciousness and understanding of the universe.