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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