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Pseudoscience is exactly what the name implies: fake science. In other words, it is an “investigation” that is backed by unscientific evidence, has conclusions that were achieved not through the scientific method, or seeks to answer a question science cannot answer, such as a question of faith. Pseudoscience claims can usually be identified by their sheer outrageousness. Science is a slow process, and scientists do not usually make sweeping claims that are completely different from accepted theory. For example, in 2013, a scientist claimed to have found evidence of alien life from microbial fossils on a meteorite. While this news spread like wildfire among the public, the scientific community was completely shocked at such an outrageous claim, and quickly investigated through the lens of skepticism. They found that the conclusion drawn by the scientist claiming alien life was unbacked by evidence.
Pseudoscience actually has roots in human biology. In fact, it is really by a product of evolution that humans succumb to pseudoscientific claims. Most forms of life are evolutionarily predisposed to assume false positives in the environment, rather than to assume false negatives. For example, it is safer for a forest creature to always assume that the rustling in the bushes is a predator, rather than the wind — a possible false positive, than to assume that there is no predator, and that it is simply the wind creating the sound — a possible false negative. The animal will, more often than not, go on the defensive as a reaction to the rustling in the bush. This makes sense, as if there is actually a predator in the bush, the animal may have just avoided becoming lunch. However, if there is no predator, and the bush is simply rustling as a result of the wind, there is no real harm done in assuming otherwise. Similarly, humans will “reach” for the false positive claim pseudoscience provides, rather than risk being wrong with the false negative. After all, isn’t it just safer to assume that aliens are attacking us, and prepare the bunkers and war machines, than to risk it and assume that these claims might simply be wrong? (Fig 1) (Shermer)
The difference between pseudoscience and science is that pseudoscience seeks to make an unfalsifiable, or untestable, claim, while science seeks to create falsifiable, testable claims. The term falsifiable does not necessarily mean that the claim is false, rather that it can be disproven. Scientific theories can be disproven by further evidence, whereas pseudoscientific claims are painted to be absolute. Science’s predictions are useful to society, whereas pseudoscientific claims do not actually advance their fields. The biggest way to tell the difference between pseudoscientific claims and actual scientific claims is how they seek to prove themselves. A pseudoscientific claim typically works by disproval. For example, a pseudoscientist might claim “we have proven that the flying object in the sky is not a bird, a plane, a helicopter, or an optical illusion, therefore it must be a UFO.” Not only does this ignore several other cases that could explain the phenomenon, it also can only be true if the pseudoscientist assumes that UFOs exist, which is circular logic. A scientist would approach this problem differently, working to gather data about the incident, and attempting to identify what the object was without assuming that it was a UFO before starting.
According to a paper by a self-proclaimed UFOlogist, the term “flying saucer” was coined by a private pilot, who claimed to have seen “shiny, crescent shaped objects” travelling at over 1,000 mph. This launched the “flying saucer craze.” In 1949, a US Air Force report on the phenomenon coined the term “UFO”, standing for Unidentified Flying Object, to replace the term “flying saucer.” After that, UFO sightings would typically come in waves every few years. These sightings are correlated with news reports. Typically, one sighting would be reported locally, and as news spread, reports of UFOs would increase. In 1966, a book was published detailing the claimed abduction of the Hill couple by extraterrestrials. The Hills claimed to have been abducted on a desert road late at night while driving. While they claimed to have “lost time” during the incident, Betty Hill claimed to have nightmares of an abduction experience. When they approached a hypnotherapist for help, they were able to “recall” the event in a hypnotic state. This story began the transition from UFO sightings to extraterrestrial abduction reports, a craze which continued into the 1990s, and seems to have a correlation with both entertainment and news media. In the 1980s, a book published about the “Roswell Incident” — the supposed crash of an extraterrestrial spacecraft, and subsequent government cover up, in 1947 — embedded the issue into popular culture. In fact, almost no books on UFOs mention Roswell before this publication. Throughout these reports, the idea that the government was behind a cover up or conspiracy grew more popular. Some even claimed that the government might be behind the UFOs themselves, or might be communicating with extraterrestrials! The fear and mystery of the subject gouged it wide open for exploitation by pseudoscientists.
“UFOlogists,” the name given to those who “study” UFOs, use many arguments with varying ranges of solidity. The most common, and probably weakest, argument is that the number of people reporting UFOs is so large, that they must exist. In fact, there are entire organizations that have dedicated themselves to tracking these UFO sightings. Websites are now available to map out sightings near a location. Similarly along this vein, some people claim to have personal encounters with UFOs and extraterrestrials. Like the Hill couple, some describe experiences of abduction by extraterrestrials into these UFOs. Some of these individuals have taken psychiatric and polygraphic exams to attempt to prove the legitimacy of their claims. UFO supporters also claim to have physical evidence. It is hard to go online these days without seeing an image of a “REAL LIFE — NOT A HOAX” image of a UFO. While many images are admitted hoaxes, some groups are using their photos to claim the existence of UFOs.
With modern technology, UFOlogists have created crowdsourced “UFO sighting” maps online (Image: UFO Stalker) Likewise, with the advent of the personal camcorder, many groups claim to have captured video of these craft. Some are using video from NASA space shuttle missions to show the existence of these craft in space, and even claim that the government may be communicating or collaborating with these aliens from the space shuttle. This idea, that the government is aware of, and is even working with extraterrestrials, is a common theme in UFOlogy.
The term Area 51 refers to a base in New Mexico where it is claimed that the American government is capturing aliens, and is testing their technology. Testimonials from “government scientists” and anonymous sources claim that the government is holding aliens in this base, has clandestine negotiations with alien races (such as the claim that the government allows aliens to abduct humans as long as the aliens allow the government to study their technologies), and that the government is involved in a planet-wide cover up. Some UFOlogists claim that this is why it is so hard to obtain physical data, because the government has its hand in scientific endeavours, altering lab results to prevent the public from realizing the presence of UFOs.
There is a small amount of non-photographic physical evidence. One man claims to have found a fragment of a UFO, and claims that lab analysis shows that it is formed of an extraterrestrial isotope. Others claim that they have had “alien implants,” and many have surgeries to remove them. However, due to the unpredictable nature of UFOs, it is hard to gather physical evidence of them.
The scientific community, while not expressly against the existence of UFOs, is very staunchly opposed to the methods used by “UFOlogists” to prove their claims. UFOlogists rely heavily on the use of refutation to support their claim. In other words, UFOlogists spend their time attacking the claims of skeptics rather than supporting their own claims. Likewise, UFOlogists also ignore any evidence contrary to their argument, rather than acknowledging it. They also make heavy use of testimonial. While testimonials can be used as evidence, UFOlogists ignore the fact that the human memory can be deluded. To prove that a testimonial is “true,” it is common to have a psychologist evaluate the “witness” for mental instability or insanity. However, a person does not have to be insane to suffer from a delusion. Perfectly normal people are deluded every day. Likewise, polygraphic tests are not helpful in this endeavour, as they only test whether or not a person is knowingly lying. If they truly believe in a false memory, they will pass this test.
The biggest criticism of UFOlogists is their reliance on logical fallacy to prove their argument. They typically use a type of reasoning called argumentum ad ignorantiam. It relies on disproval to counter an argument. For example, a magician might say that “nobody can disprove that I used magic to pull a rabbit out of the hat. Therefore, I must have used magic.” Obviously, this reasoning is flawed. Just because the evidence to prove that magic was not involved in the hat trick is not readily available does not automatically mean that the magician used magic. What a UFOlogist using this reasoning might say to prove their argument is that “no scientist can think of a more reasonable explanation of the phenomenon, therefore UFOs must be responsible for the phenomenon.” Another area where this logical fallacy is employed is to say that “because no evidence has been found to disprove UFOs, UFOs must exist.” Just because a scientist has not found evidence to disprove something does not mean it is automatically true.
Scientific investigations have so far been unable to find evidence for UFOs. A US Air Force investigation dubbed “Project Blue Book” worked for 22 years to find evidence for the existence of UFOs that “threatened national security.” In a report released at the end of the program, the Air Force stated that, of the UFO sightings investigated, none posed a threat to national security, implying that conventional explanations were found. Likewise, a University of Colorado commission on UFOs found that in 21 years of investigation, there had been no addition to scientific knowledge. Many scientific groups have found conventional explanations for sightings and abduction experiences. For example, a reasonable explanation for an abduction experience might be sleep paralysis. Likewise, the descriptions of alien faces given by those “abducted” closely matches the default face used by newborns to recognize their parents.
Another problem is that UFOlogists typically disseminate their findings through mass media. While scientific researchers use peer-reviewed journals, UFOlogists prefer commercial outlets. This can lead to exploitation. For example, a UFOlogist backed NBC program actively falsified information in order to grow the viewing audience, and therefore, profit. Likewise, many UFO shows feature people without formal education in the fields they are discussing. For example, Dan Aykroyd may be a trusted celebrity and icon, but is he really an expert on aviation? Additionally, most UFO sightings are made by untrained skywatchers. Almost no astronomers, professional or amateur, report seeing UFOs, even though they spend a disproportionately large amount of time watching the sky. Unless UFOs select their audiences, aren’t these people more likely to see them than the random observer? Lastly, while most UFOs investigated are laid to rest as hoaxes, and a small minority remain inconclusive due to a lack of evidence, no UFO investigation has found clear evidence of extraterrestrial activity.
I personally do not believe in the existence of UFOs. I didn’t before my research, and I don’t know. However, my mistrust stems primarily from the disingenuous methods in which UFOlogists attempt to gain a following. For example, in one UFO documentary I have seen, an informant submitted a tape of an “interview of an alien at Area 51.” Not only did the informant submit the tape, but he also agreed to appear anonymously on the television show. Why would an informant, who is afraid of the government, risk identification in any way? Also, the speech during the “investigation” seemed forced, and the “interview” of the informant seemed extremely well rehearsed. It seemed like a fake documentary designed to make a quick buck off of fear. In another documentary, a UFOlogist goes on an almost ad hominem assault on a PhD holding astronaut who denied the claims of UFOs. While anyone, including a PhD, can be incorrect, to call them ignorant in a field they have devoted their life to studying is not only disrespectful, but weakens the argument of the UFOlogist. Likewise, the UFOlogists often misrepresent their expertise in the “field.” UFOlogy is not a recognized field of science, and there is no standard of education set for it. A so called“UFO expert” is most likely just a charismatic person with a pair of binoculars, a fancy suit and tie, and a few UFO photos.
I also do not trust the “evidence” that UFOlogists use to support their claims. Most people in this group rely heavily on photographic evidence. However, as every user of Photoshop knows, it is not hard to fake a photograph. In fact, developers are now designing apps to insert UFOs into pictures taken using a smartphone camera to create realistic looking “documented sightings.” Similarly, data that could be considered somewhat scientific. such as lab results, are often withheld, with only vague descriptions of the results released. Because there is no oversight, and there are really no peer-reviewed scientific journals on the subject, this speculation makes its way into the public eye through the profit-hungry methods of mass media.
My final objection to the presentation of UFOlogy as a science is its use of propagandistic techniques to gain “believers.” UFO websites often cite the claim that “by the time we know they exist it will be too late,” or that we need to find out what the government is doing with aliens, in order to protect society. While scientific issues may be pressing, science should not be a threat. The argument that “it is more dangerous to not believe in UFOs, therefore we should believe in them” is not scientific reasoning, and goes back to the biological roots of pseudoscience discussed earlier. If a claim is valid and backed by strong evidence, there is no need to use threats or logical fallacies — the theory will stand on its own. And, the fact is, UFOlogy does not stand.
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