The UFO Phenomenon has polarised almost every person into a position of skeptic or believer. The skeptic mocks the irrational believer, while the believer disparages the blinkered skeptic. Can we take a look at the field with new eyes and learn something not so much about aliens as about how we think.
The UFO Phenomenon has polarised almost every person into a position of skeptic or believer. The skeptic mocks the irrational believer, while the believer disparages the blinkered skeptic.
Can we take a look at the field with new eyes and learn something not so much about aliens as about how we think.
In 1961 astrophysicist Frank Drake proposed the now well known Drake Equation. The calculation brings together multiple factors to make a best rational estimate of the number of technological civilisations in the galaxy.
At the time it was created almost all factors were uncertain. Many still are speculative but consensus has steadily grown since 1961. The equation goes like this - take the number of stars in the galaxy (100 billion) and ask what proportion of those have planets, then what proportion of those planets might conceivably support life? Then how likely is life to take hold on such a planet? How likely is intelligent life to evolve? How likely is intelligent life to become technological (dolphins, for example have not). Finally: on average how long do technological civilisations persist? In 1961 there was no evidence at all of any planet outside of our solar system. We easily could have been alone simply for living on the only inhabitable planet in the galaxy. Since 2016 the space based telescope Kepler has been used to detect over two thousand planets orbiting stars nearby. So many, in fact, that the best estimate now is that almost all stars have multiple planets, and that at least one in a hundred stars have earth like planets in the habitable zone (where liquid water can exist). In other words there are at least a billion earths in the galaxy. This figure really changes our expectations. Now not only is the galaxy rich with planetary homes, but expectation is increasing that life will arise anywhere in the universe that it can. The idea that life can naturally spread from one planet to another in the form of bacteria embedded in the rock of meteorites has gone from absurd to more or less fully accepted. On earth we have found bacteria living in and on rock almost a kilometre beneath the surface, we have found life in the most radioactive environments, the hottest, coldest, most hostile niches. There are even some species of bacteria that are so hardy that it is speculated that they evolved in the harsher environment of Mars, having no need for such resilience on earth. Those bacteria having arrived here in rocks knocked into space during meteorite impacts.
The expectation is high that life could be present on most of those billion earth like planets that can support it. The expectation is high that life can even be found far from the sun in our own solar system in the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn. The next question - how likely, given enough time, is life to develop beyond bacteria? How likely to become both intelligent and technological. This is perhaps the most speculative point but a good consensus is that this is really quite likely. There is little reason to think that the course of evolution on this planet is unique, even taking into account the black swan events such as ice ages and mass extinctions that helped shape the path. Finally we even more confidence now than we did in the 1980's that technological civilisations are not so warlike that they inevitably annihilate themselves. This is a good thing.
All of this means that over the course of a few years, our understanding of the universe and our place in it has changed. While speculation about alien civilisations is far from new it used to be exactly that: speculation, fiction. There is something quite fundamentally new now. Alien civilisations have moved from fantasy to expectation. Where previously all we could say was a vague 'life on other planets is possible' a sound and reasonable expectation now is that the universe is teeming with technological civilisations - many of which will be many thousands, hundreds of thousands or even millions of years ahead of us in their technology.
To say this again, the most sober rational consideration, backed by the considerable sum of the world's scientific endeavour is that technological civilisations should be common in the universe. Not as fantasy or fiction, not proven, but expected. This new position leads to another question: Where are they all? Why don't we see them? This question is known as the Fermi paradox. The question was originally proposed as an argument for low values of expectation for the Drake equation. It was said the probability of technological civilisations elsewhere must be low because if it were high we would have met the aliens by now. However the answer from the Drake equation instead appears to be significantly high. So where are all the aliens?
Might we have encountered them already? There is one powerful argument against the possibility of visits from extraterrestrial races - the universe is big and interstellar travel is slow and requires huge amounts of time and energy. The speed of light offers a cosmic speed limit and it could be that no amount of technological development can offer the hope of exceeding it. The question is how confident should we be in this argument? Do we have the all of the basics of physics tied up to the extent that we can say with certainty no solution for faster than light interstellar travel is possible? We can say our understanding of physics is never going to be found 'wrong', there will never be a possibility for accelerating mass to faster than lightspeed. From that perspective one could say with certainty that it was impossible. But to assert this seems somehow Victorian - full of the pride of the might of our scientific achievement. Really the assertion is simply that it is impossible using the ways we have considered, knowing the things we know. It is the more rational position to hold that this is uncertain. While we know what we know about space-time we also know that our best theory of gravity is incomplete; we can recognise that we have given as short a time as three hundred years to the study and yet we have already considered theoretical devices such as the Alcubierre drive that distort space-time to permit faster than light travel without violating speed of light constraints. I am not suggesting that aliens travel by Alcubierre drive but that grand statements of impossibility have a way of looking like egg on the face in the mirror of time.
So a good rational position is one which says "If interstellar travel is possible at reasonable cost for a sufficiently advanced civilisation then we should reasonably expect to have been visited by such civilisations. If it is not then we may not have been."
This brings the question again to "have we been visited?" If so what would that look like? We know what we want it to look like in order to satisfy our need for certainty. There would be aliens landing on the White House lawn; holding press conferences and performing tricks; collaborating with scientists and giving themselves over to universities to be examined by kind professors in white lab coats. While we have a pretty clear idea of what would be convincing, is that idea rational and realistic? How likely is it that we as a space faring species visiting an entirely new planet, would land on some president's lawn?
We have to ask what is a realistic expectation for the evidence we would be left with if extra terrestrial visitors were even slightly circumspect?
What should we expect? We have no grounds to delve too deeply into alien psychology so the only real question we can ask is "Does what we find lie in line with our expectations?" This is the question with which to approach the many accounts of UFO's and alien encounters and may better replace the old adage 'extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.' Science, after all, is famously comfortable with uncertainty. Extraordinary proof of manmade climate change? No, but very good evidence. Extraordinary proof of gravity waves at LIGO? No, but good data that fits. The accounts we find are more 'visits' than unequivocal declarations of presence or intent. Is this what we would expect? Yes. It seems in every way reasonable that an alien visit would be motivated by their own agenda, and would not be conformant to 'proof of existence' criteria.
So can we find actual good evidence of extraterrestrial visits to this planet? When we ask the question with this perspective we lose the two themes that have plagued and polarised the UFO debate. The question no longer stands up as preposterous and fit for ridicule (until now a major stance of the 'skeptic'). Instead the question seems rather ordinary. There is nothing fanciful about asking the question or considering the answer. Equally the possibility that we have been visited ceases to be an issue of wonder, of wanting to believe, and of credulity. It is not enough to wonder at mysterious lights in the sky and say 'they must be aliens' just as it is not enough to say 'they must be weather balloons'. Rather it becomes an enquiry. Has earth been visited? Maybe it has, maybe not. 2019 could become the year that this becomes an ordinary and sober question, even one which we expect our governments and institutions to be unafraid of.
What do we know that can help us with the answer? Strange lights in the sky can be satellites, aeroplanes, weather balloons or planets; accounts of encounters can come from delusion, illusion, illness, mistake or an attempt to deceive. The question if fraught if we set out to resolve every account to its base truth. Certainty may be hard to come by but that does not limit our ability to weigh the evidence. This is the same situation in almost every court case in the country. The task is to look for verifiable, credible accounts. These are ones which are not motivated by personal gain and which do not seek to propose a moral or tell a story, rather simple consistent accounts of things that happened.
Are there any such accounts in the records? While there are all manner of accounts that we would not want to give credulity to, there are also a surprising number that in any ordinary context one would not hesitate to call true accounts. What is more every type of evidence that one would want is there. There are descriptions of 'alien' type craft up close, with multiple verifiable witnesses, encounters with non human beings of various shapes, sizes and apparent intent. There are government accounts and military accounts, physical evidence, photographs and video. In fact, sitting in easy reach is a body of evidence for alien visitation that would satisfy any rational skeptic. But this sentence itself seems untrue. If the evidence is there to satisfy the rational skeptic, why are the skeptic's not satisfied? Perhaps the rational skeptics are not so rational. Or to put it another way, evidence depends upon expectation. This has been true throughout the history of science and remains true today. In the 1980's there had been many accounts of people seeing strange and mysterious balls of light that hovered through the air, crackling with electricity and disappearing with a bang. In one account almost all the passengers in the cabin of an aircraft witnessed this mysterious phenomena. The official 'scientific' position was that this was phenomenon was impossible and therefore had not happened. Scientists explained how lightning was gone in a flash, charged electrons did not hang about. Because it was impossible the people who claimed to have seen it were clearly mistaken, deluded, attention seekers or pranksters. A few years later when it became a simple matter to generate ball lightning in the lab the official scientific position on such accounts changed to "Sure. So what." I don't imagine anyone ever apologised to all those witnesses.
We are, I believe in the same position with alien encounter. The mainstream position is that an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence and every account can better be explained as a lie or a mistake. Have you ever been by the sea and seen a dolphin or a seal in the water? Have you reached for your camera or phone and taken a picture? How did your evidence come out? Would it stand alone to convince a skeptic that dolphins exist? Probably not. Probably you got a picture of some water with nothing on it. Or a few pixels of grey and white that you have to explain are a dolphin, or the splash where a dolphin was. These photos are unlikely to be considered hard evidence in the face of a view that the phenomena was impossible.
The opposite of this is not credulity. It is not to see a clear picture of a saucer and say "Wow - we're being visited by aliens!" But rather to accept that it is rational, given all we now know about the expectation of intelligent life in the universe, to ask "could that be?" The answer to this question seems as often to be "yes" as it is "no".
If nothing else I encourage everyone to examine the UFO literature as an exercise in awareness of your own critical approach. At what point do you make a judgement and is it truly the most rational? Could it rather be a rationing of mental energy, a point at which you can abandon the effort of enquiry in favour of a conclusion which was drawn perhaps many years ago. If you hear laughing in the back of your mind you can be sure you have abandoned rationality. It is true that open minded enquiry does require an effort of the mind. It is tiring to maintain and navigate the epistemological network - to keep the weights of all assumptions and probabilities in mind with each new grain of information updating all options - is it a lie, a delusion, hypnotic suggestion, is this aspect consistent, too contrived? Does it carry the structure of a fiction or the incompleteness of a-thing-that-just-happened? Of course many inside the UFO community are as prone to shortcut the mental effort as those outside, simply opting for the other side of the fence of belief. But we have in the UFO phenomenon a wonderful opportunity to enrich our capacity for rational distinction beyond scientific reductionism. The problem of how to think about reproducible phenomenon is essentially solved- it is the process we call science. The problem of rational examination of complex non-reproducible phenomenon is in the dark ages. In fact when we rely on gut responses- either credulity or mockery we are more truly in the stone age. And yet this is the problem every court addresses on a daily basis - to arrive at a rational estimate of truth with incomplete, unreproducible and conflicting evidence. It is time to develop more effective tools, methods and models for navigating these extra dimensions of phenomenology. Where better to explore and develop these tools than in the rich ground of accounts of alien encounters.