Wednesday, September 12, 2012

What's not wrong with the ETH

Gort is not pleased with us
OK, I just got through slamming the ETH to the deck, and I have it in a sleeper hold, waiting for it to go limp.  Why would I defend it?

Recall that my main problem with the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH) is the "Hypothesis" part.  It's not so much the answers it offers, but that it fails to ask useful questions that we can answer with real data.  However, I feel that I must also address some the attacks the ETH has unjustly suffered, as well as some of the false distinctions it is included in.

They're Pretty Much All the ETH

There are basically three positions on UFOs, and none can reasonably call itself a hypothesis:
  1. All UFOs reports are caused by classes of things science already knows about.
  2. (1) is false
  3. We don't know enough to decide between (1) and (2).
This first position is what most people would regard as the null hypothesis - nothing to see here folks, move along (the null hypothesis depends on your expectations).  This isn't an entirely irrational position given the quality of the evidence that has been collected to date, but in my view doesn't justify walking away from the topic entirely (subject of a future post).

The second position includes the ETH, and all the more exotic or alternative ideas, none of which involves phenomena for which there is a good theory or substantial empirical evidence.  All the "not us/not from here" conjectures are essentially the same if you push on them, and they all require a great void of ignorance (would that the ignorance were accompanied by more doubt).  They differ in details of their conjectures, but not in positing the existence of one or more non-human intelligences of some sophisticated capability interacting with humans in some way that could be any way whatever.   Any set of postulates or assertions that can result in almost any evidence being exhibited fails as a theory.  The ETH and its many cousins are anti-concepts - they block further inquiry instead of providing a foundation for it.

The critics of the ETH tend to ignore this unsettling reality as much as the believers.  They claim the ETH doesn't fit the data but without any real idea what the data should be.  What isn't fitting are strawmen.

The ETH critics implicitly assume that we can straightforwardly divine at least some of the hows and whys of non-human intelligences.  This is followed by thinly veiled variations on the fallacious argument from incredulity: "I can't see how", or "I can't see why."

Incredulity doesn't cut it.  To really make this kind of argument, you need a real hypothesis, so you can make a reasonably good estimate of the likelihood ratio: the ratio of the probability of the evidence given the truth of the hypothesis to the probability of the evidence given the falsehood of the hypothesis.  If the ratio is much less than unity, then our acceptance of the hypothesis is damaged, and if it much higher, we take the hypothesis more seriously.

Vallee's Critiques of the ETH

Jacques Vallee
I have respect for Jacques Vallee.  he has done a great deal of assiduous work gathering witness information, and has tried harder than anyone to make sense of it.  I also applaud his critique of much of the alien abduction research field as unethical, and I sense that people are starting to heed him on this.  I am not aware that Vallee has ever stated outright that the ETH is false, and I don't believe that this is his position.

In his 1990 paper, Five Arguments Against the Extraterrestrial Origin of Unidentified Flying Objects (JSE Vol 4 , No.1), Jacques Vallee argues against a narrowed version of the ETH that assumes we know the purpose of these extraterrestrial visitations was a scientific survey, which began after World War II.  That gives him at least two flimsy strawmen to knock down.  Here are his points in summary:
  1. There are too many close encounters reported for a scientific survey of Earth.
  2. The alien physiology described by close encounter witnesses is too humanoid.
  3. The memories abductees have of medical procedures make no sense in terms of medical and scientific purposes.
  4. Similar beings and flying craft have been observed throughout history, and so a post World War II hypothesis fails if we believe these are the same phenomenon.
  5. The witness reports of spacecraft doing things that seem to be physically impossible are not something we can even imagine how to build.
In more recent audio interviews, Vallee has cited other reasons why he is uncomfortable with the ETH, but we'll stick with these five for now.

Let's  - for now - set aside all the problems with the evidence with CE3s and CE4s that Vallee cites, and let us assume that is all carefully investigated and authentic, and there are no systematic means by which witness memories can be corrupted or contaminated (small random errors are ok). We'll also assume Vallee's estimates of the number of valid cases are about right.   Let's categorize each of Vallee's points according to how it first an argument from incredulity.
  1. I can't see why (assuming a scientific survey of Earth by a single, unified alien agency, which is a strawman) there are so many CE 3 reports.
  2. I can't see how (assuming we know how life on other planets would evolve and that the reported UFO occupants are biological) aliens would tend share a human body plan + I can't see why, if genetically engineered for space travel, they would have a humanoid form.
  3. I can't see why the procedures that abduction witnesses remember are performed with the frequency that some researchers estimate.
  4. This point is based on at least some factual information, and is easy to concede, but it only argues against the strawman ETH described above, and is largely based upon folklore that does not cry out to be taken literally.  
  5. I can't see how the capabilities of aliens and their craft perceived by eyewitnesses could work.
So, in sum, the supporting data quality notwithstanding, four of the five points are the argument from incredulity, and two of them attack a strawman ETH.  Vallee is ultimately arguing for replacing on category (2) conjecture with some others, but at least with the ETH we are dealing with a class of entity that even many (most?) mainstream scientists now regard as highly likely to exist.

Where to from Here?

But it seems so tantalizing.  If space aliens are visiting our planet, even though we have no idea what to expect, we do expect it would be very, very strange.  And a meaningful subset of the well-investigated and unexplained UFO cases are high strangeness.  So, can't we please, please have a hypothesis like that?  

Maybe.  But we're going to have to be willing to be wrong alot, and we're going to have to shed our very simplistic and anthropocentric notions of alien intelligence, of technological progress, and our own abilities to make sense of things.  True Belief must be permanently exchanged for doubt, and it's likely to be a multi-generational project.  I'd deeply distrust anyone who claims to have it all figured out.

To make testable predictions, we are going to have to postulate ideas that are almost certainly far off the mark.  However, looking for evidence that falsifies these hypotheses could well lead us to ask much better questions, and that is where we are most hurting now.

On to Shostak

SETI Institute astronomer Seth Shostak falls into Category (1) above.  He denies that Earth is being visited by intelligent beings from other planets, even though he thinks their existence is highly likely and has devoted much of his career to looking for them.  In a future post, I'll address some of the better points he makes in Chapter 4 of his book Confessions of an Alien Hunter.  

Ok, enough from me.  What do you think?

Creative Commons License
The Dream of an Open Channel by Paul Carr is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.