Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Homework from Professor Shostak

Seth Shostak may be right about UFOs,or he could be wildly wrong, but it is difficult to ignore his critiques of the the notion that UFOs are spacecraft from other planets. The SETI astronomer and podcast host recently appeared on Martin Willis' Podcast UFO to explain his views, which are also laid out in Chapter 4 of his book, Confessions of an Alien Hunter.

Confessions is written for a general audience, so Shostak argues primarily by glib analogy, not rigorously, and some of that has to be forgiven for our purposes. He also wanders dangerously close to the idea that we can divine alien intentions. There is a a kind of common argument that goes something like this: why would “they” come all this way if not to invade us, rescue us from ourselves, land on the White House lawn, or otherwise rock our world? That sort of “why” question makes a lot of hidden assumptions that can’t be verified at all, or depend heavily upon our current understanding of things. Some of these are:
  • Our planet is a destination, set for a specific purpose (like Vallee’s putative “scientific survey”), and not just a waypoint, or perhaps accidental stopover.
  • “They” do things for reasons we could understand, or at least for some reason.
  • “They” are a single, well-organized, entity with a unified plan and purpose
  • “They” (or at least some of “them”) are concerned with humans in a way that makes sense to us - for example, that they are here To Serve Man.
  • What we are able to perceive of UFO activity is essentially what is taking place, and not just a dim reflection of an actual phenomenon that largely eludes our detection.
Shostak also conflates UFOs with all sorts of other, possibly related phenomena: crop circles, animal mutilations, ancient astronauts, the now debunked Face on Mars, etc. I don’t think that it’s at all clear that any of these have anything to do with UFOs, or are even anomalous at all. For example, I think the hoax hypothesis is holding up quite well for crop circles; although a core anomaly may remain, all the elaborate crop circles that make the news are created by humans, not so much as hoaxes but as a kind of performance art. In my view, anything a magician or hoaxer can pull off persuasively doesn’t count as evidence for a real anomaly.

However, sort through all that and you do find a valid point that we need to address: with all these thousands of UFO reports, why is there not more physical evidence of their reality? (Reality is at the present time the best we can hope for, since we don’t really have an Extraterrestrial Hypothesis).Shostak also questions why in this age of everyone carrying a camera in their pocket, we don’t have better photos or videos. I can’t dismiss this easily. There are more than 1 billion smartphones all around the planet, nearly all of them with some sort of camera. When a news story breaks, often the best, earliest video we will have is from someone’s phone camera. Let’s think about some of the real reasons we aren’t getting the evidence we think should be there, not just a massive, worldwide conspiratorial coverup.


The Null Hypothesis

The Null Hypothesis, as we will call it, is simply that the UFO phenomena don’t damage any current paradigms. The residual unexplained cases (about 5-20 % of previously filtered sighting reports), could be explained as ordinary events if we had more information. After all, there are many unsolved crimes, but we don’t assume that the perpetrators of these cases were aliens.

There are various reasons why I am not enthused about the null hypothesis (deserves a blog post of its own), but I don’t think we can entirely set it aside. After all, it explicitly purports to explain UFOs in terms of things we already know something about, which none of the other so-called hypotheses can do. I am also confident that it is at least partially true - if we pushed hard on many of the unexplained cases, and we had enough information, we would solve them .


Suppression of Evidence

I don’t find it credible that every government world wide jumps on and conceals every bit of smoking gun physical evidence as soon as it is found, although some suppression of physical evidence is credible.  After all, if some remnant of a highly advanced technology became available, many governments (including the US) would worry that it would “fall into the wrong hands.”  Although,as Shostak points out in his critique of the late Philip Corso’s claims, reverse engineering of a technology far in advance of our own seems improbable at best, the risks are too high to ignore.  For example, if an adversary could reverse engineer a material that would makes their planes, tanks and ships far lighter, stronger, and invisible to radar, this could give them an insurmountable advantage on the battlefield.  

So, government suppression may account for some, but not all, of the lack of physical evidence, and is probably mainly along the lines of evidence the government had under its control initially, such as radar tapes or gun camera footage.  The US Government, with bases and military operations worldwide, should have more of this than any other.

There is also the problem of disinformation.  UFO enthusiasts have been willing dupes in counter-intelligence operations that managed to bring down yet another bolt of laughter curtain on the whole subject.  The bait goes in the water, and the fish can be counted upon to bite.  Much of what we think is a UFO coverup conspiracy may itself be a tissue of lies.


It is a Tidy Phenomenon

Perhaps there just wouldn’t be much physical evidence, because the entities behind it, whoever they are, pick up after themselves like elderly hostel guests, and don’t leave their trash lying around - or at least, nothing that we would recognize as trash.

Also, the UFOs don’t crash into the desert at regular intervals, as some would purport. At old aircraft crash sites, there is usually some old detritus that can be found, and even identified as specific aircraft parts. Meteorite hunters can often find chunks of space rock in known strewn fields that had been thought to been picked over. Even if we buy that Project Moondust had cleaned up a given crash site (on the 6% of the Earth’s land surface covered by the United States), something would be left over, and zealous investigators would have found it. Instead, their metal detectors find bogus coat buttons.

We do hear that physical evidence exists in terms of landing traces, but landing traces (usually soil or altered plant materials) can be ambiguous and explained in mundane terms. What we need are artifacts available for close examination that would be at least very difficult to produce by artificial or natural means.

So, if UFOs are real, physical phenomena not explainable as ordinary stuff, then they are piloted by  “leave no trace” Sierra Club types, and do not crash in to anything they can't bounce off of. This could be an important clue to the true nature of the phenomenon - or the assumptions are all wrong. I’d almost be willing to bet that there is something else we haven’t thought of.


The Phenomena are Brief and Rare

To explain the paucity of compelling videos and photographs we can’t just have green, pack it in/pack it out UFOs, we also have to have rare ones. Sure, YouTube is full of uncompelling, often suspicious UFO videos with no chain of custody. Many are hoaxes. Some may not be hoaxes, but fail to meet even minimal standards for useful evidence. The residual of good images and videos is tiny, and even after decades some of the supposedly classic UFO photos are still controversial.

The only solution to this that I can propose is that Close Encounters (CEs) of all types are rare, and tend to be very brief. The time it takes to observe something surprising, decide to video it, boot up the camera (about 2-3 seconds on the iPhone 4, but it used to take much longer), and point the camera at the object in question is typically about 10 seconds, possibly longer.; If lighting conditions are less than optimal, the resulting image is likely to be easy to confuse with manmade or natural phenomena. So, we may have many sub 10-second CEs (mostly CE 1s), but not many longer than that. We’ve all studied cases for which the witness either did not have a camera or was so astonished by what they saw that they didn’t think to use it, and other cases for which the images were simply unusable, but we’re reasoning statistically here - overall, there should be some video or photographic evidence.  Perhaps there is, although there always seems to be something missing.  After all, many meteors (not especially rare), which are also brief events, have resulted in good videos.  

As to the rarity of UFOs, Shostak makes the naive statistical argument that there is no particular reason that "they" would be visiting us now, but again, there we are again trying to divine alien motives, and showing that UFOs are aliens is not even the immediate goal.  Nevertheless, it may be that any visitation events would be very infrequent on the human time scale, perhaps spaced out by thousands of years or more.

We’re getting close to, but not quite arriving at, the null hypothesis here, where the null hypothesis is the limiting case of CE frequency equal to zero. There is one more possibility that could account for the lack of hard evidence, but I don’t know how to test it.


The Phenomena are Smarter than We Are

This has to occur to you at some point, but it’s a non-explanation since it could explain anything whatever.  You might as well claim that leprechauns ate your homework.  If the phenomena are able to mess with us in ways we can’t fathom, then our ability to gather hard evidence could be compromised, and what evidence we do have could be brought under suspicion, even ridicule. This seems an unavoidable issue, but how do we put it to the test?  I’m going to have to think about that one for awhile and get back to you.


The Ufologist’s Assignment

Ufologists should focus on showing that UFOs are real, not that they're from another planet.  I think the task before ufologists is clear, and it is three fold:
  1. Physical evidence.  No one is more fascinated with strange lights in the sky than I am, but we have 60+ years of those and no progress.  Eyewitness testimony is rife with problems and is never enough.  We need real physical evidence with a well-documented chain of custody and careful analysis.  Not scraps of dried dirt that were “sent out to a lab,” but real hardware.  I agree that  this is a tough assignment, and it appears that the old guard of ufology isn’t up to it. Maybe, as we have discussed above, it is impossible.  We presumably have data and landing traces sitting in basements somewhere, but these are not finding their way into the evidence stream.
  2. Good quality photographs and videos with a clear chain of custody.  None of this “look what I found on YouTube” rubbish.  We need the full, uncompressed video, including all the boring parts, and the full uncropped photos right out of the camera, preferably shot in RAW.  We need all the EXIF data and other metadata intact and consistent. We need a thorough, competent, systematic investigation with the witness who takes full responsibility for the photo or video. A hoax can never be completely ruled out, but additional evidence can corroborate and make a hoax unlikely. Careful documentation of all the above.
  3. Master the noise. Get on top of all the nonsense, hoaxes and cargo cult pseudoscience and the incompetent, sensationalist press coverage Don’t become an entertainer. This will take a concerted effort of many people. The laughter curtain isn’t going to go away all at once, but make sure you do nothing to make it heavier and much to shred it. In particular, master the sophisticated noise, which as Hynek pointed out years ago, maybe part of the signal.

If successful, ufologists will not have shown convincingly that some UFOs are extraterrestrial - I have argued before that this is a hard problem that isn’t going to be solved with case investigations alone. What could be accomplished is the slight raising of the laughter curtain, pushing the null hypothesis to the background, and a solid case that UFOs are scientifically interesting.

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