Info Cuts Confidence

An interesting tendency:

By the time Project Blue Book folded in 1969, it had evaluated 12,618 reports of sightings. … Special Report Number 14 [is] a vast statistical analysis of 3,201 UFO cases, with hundreds of graphs, tables, charts, and maps. … According to the report, about 22 percent of sightings were declared “unknown.” That means their origin couldn’t be determined even after all the evidence was in—these were objects that didn’t look like airplanes or balloons or any other discernible vessel. They maneuvered in strange ways, hovering or changing speed and direction suddenly. Sometimes witnesses, many of them Air Force pilots, described seeing actual saucer- or cigar-shaped objects. Unknowns tended to be cases with better information: 35 percent of “excellent” sightings—those with more reliable witnesses and, sometimes, corresponding physical evidence—defied explanation; only 19 percent of poor ones did. And the longer a sighting lasted, Friedman says, the more likely it was to remain unexplained: 36 percent of unknowns were seen for more than five minutes. (more)

Since things with fewer details are seen more in far mode, and since in far mode we are more confident in our theories, we should expect people to be more confident in their classifications of things that have fewer details, and so have a smaller fraction of things left as hard to explain. I’d like to see this tested elsewhere, such as planes seen near or far, or crimes known in little or much detail.


In 1997 a CNN poll found that 80 percent of Americans think the government is hiding information about UFOs, and 64 percent believe that extraterrestrials have contacted humans. In a 2007 Associated Press poll, 14 percent said they’d seen a UFO. … At the end of his lectures, [Friedman] often asks the audience how many of them have seen a flying saucer. … Usually ten percent of the audience have their hands raised. … “But then I ask, ‘How many of you reported what you saw?'” Nearly every hand drops.

Thats a whole lot of skeptics of the usual official UFO story. (I’m not a skeptic.)

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  • If we consider this set of Bayesian terms:

    P(unknown entity | apparent conflict with all current categories)
    P(apparent conflict with all current categories | unknown entity)
    P(apparent conflict with all current cetegories | a known entity)
    P(unknown entity)

    It seems that the second term does depend on the number and diversity of observations made about the observed entity. I don’t know whether this expectation is based on the near/far stuff, though, or if the near/far scheme is seen to be useful because it accounts for things like this.

  • alien

    living in a different country I sometimes think that the UFO observing fenomenon in the USA is some kind of sociological measure of rationality of your population. People in my country don’t feel the need to talk about UFO.

  • What this means is that there should be a strong correlation between ignorance and confidence. A dangerous combination in a politician.

  • Michael Wengler

    At this point, there is no real controversy that area 51 exists. This NPR report discusses a book about what is known about area 51. The author of this book had only one source (and makes that clear) about a crashed UFO with aliens brought to area 51. In this version, the “aliens” were humans surgically modified to look like aliens, the UFO was a flying disk developed by Nazi Germany and the purpose was for the USSR, Stalin, to screw with the US in an odd form of Psy Ops that could be helpful before or during a military confrontation.

    It ain’t no proof, but if you read the history of what the secret services of different countries have done to each other, it is completely within the bounds of reality. Unless the author of this book is a complete liar, that there is some truth in the story may be the most likely explanation for the events she recounts.

  • Science fiction is Near, policy analysis & forecasting is Far; Karl Schroeder, :

    > For about ten years now I’ve been periodically hired to write fictionalized versions of foresight findings. It works like this: mysterious government group A approaches me and tells me they’ve just spent six months researching the future of X (where X is something like “farm equipment” or “Alternatives To The Syringe”). What they’ve got is one or more scenarios, which are basically alternative plotlines for future events. They’d like me to turn these into actual stories, which I’m happy to do. (The most extreme example of this is the book Crisis in Zefra, which I wrote for the Canadian army back in 2005). … Curiously, when I write scenario fictions I’m not trying to generate new ideas of my own, but rather to represent the ideas that some set of futurists, subject experts, or public panels has already developed. This makes scenario fictions different than SF prototypes. …. Science fiction is more than just a genre of fiction. Hell, it’s more than just fiction. It’s a mode of thought; because our brains are hardwired and optimized to think in narratives, SF can be seen as a primary means by which we make sense of and plan for the future. By understanding how this process works, we have an opportunity to grow a new branch of SF parallel to but not replacing or displacing the traditional arm–a branch that’s rigorous and methodical and deliberately used to help solve real-world problems. In fact, that’s been happening for a while now (see Johnson’s book); I’m delighted to have found myself in a position to be able to help make it formally recognized.

    I understand David Brin has been hired frequently for much the same thing.

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