The Debunkers

Why are they all blurry?

In a recent article, Michael Shermer says about UFOs:

UFOlogists claim that extraordinary evidence exists in the form of tens of thousands of UFO sightings. But SETI scientist Seth Shostak points out in his book Confessions of an Alien Hunter: A Scientist’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence that this actually argues against UFOs being ETIs, because to date not one of these tens of thousands of sightings has materialized into concrete evidence that UFO sightings equal ETI contact. Lacking physical evidence or sharp and clear photographs and videos, more sightings equals less certainty because with so many unidentified objects purportedly zipping around our airspace we surely should have captured one by now, and we haven’t. And where are all the high-definition photographs and videos captured by passengers on commercial airliners? The aforementioned Navy pilot Ryan Graves told 60 Minutes’ correspondent Bill Whitaker that they had seen UAPs “every day for at least a couple of years.” If true, given that nearly every passenger has a smart phone with a high-definition camera, there should be thousands of unmistakable photographs and videos of these UAPs. To date there is not one. Here, the absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

So you say everything is always vague? There is never any clear evidence?

Richard Carrier accidentally gives the game away when making the same point:

Which leads to the next general principle: notice how real UFO videos (that is, ones that aren’t faked) are always out-of-focus or grainy, fuzzy, or in dim light or infrared or other conditions of extreme ambiguity (you can barely tell even what is being imaged). This is a huge red flag. Exactly as with the errors of human cognition, here we already know we should expect difficulty identifying an object, because we are looking at unclear footage. That “UFOs” always only ever show up in ambiguous footage like this is evidence they are not remarkable. Real alien ships endeavoring to be this visible would have been filmed in much clearer conditions by now. Whereas vehicles able to hide from such filming would never even show up under the conditions of these videos. When you make the conditions so bad you can barely discern obvious things, you have by definition made them so bad you won’t even see less-than-obvious things.

Notice what? “Ones that aren’t faked?” What I notice is that you aren’t actually saying that all UFO reports and videos and so on are vague and unclear. There are plenty of clear ones. You just believe that the clear reports are fake.

Which is fine. You are welcome to believe that. But don’t pretend that all the reports are vague. This drastically reduces the strength of the argument. Your real argument is more or less, “If UFOs were aliens, we would have expected, after all this time, there would be so much evidence that everyone would already have been convinced. But I am not convinced and many people are not convinced. Therefore UFOs must not be aliens.”

Even in its real form, this is not a weak argument. It is actually a pretty good one. It is nonetheless weaker in the case of UFOs than in many other cases where similar arguments are made, because the evidence could easily be reconciled with a situation where the vast majority of UFOs are not aliens, a few or many “clear” cases are hoaxes, and a few clear cases are aliens who typically are attempting to avoid human notice, but who fail or make an exception in a very small number of cases. And in general it is more likely to fail in situations where the phenomena might be very rare, or in situations where something is deliberately hidden (e.g. where there are actual conspiracies.)

The Courage of Robin Hanson

In a sequence of posts beginning around last December, Robin Hanson has been attempting to think carefully about the possibility of UFO’s as aliens. In a pair of posts at the end of March, he first presents a list of facts that would need to be explained under that hypothesis, and then in the next presents his proposal to explain those facts.

In the following post, he makes some comments on fact of having the discussion in the first place:

I’ve noticed that this topic of UFOs makes me feel especially uncomfortable. I look at the many details, and many seem to cry out “there really is something important here.” But I know full well that most people refuse to look at the details, and are quick to denigrate those who do, being confident in getting wide social support when they do.

So I’m forced to choose between my intellectual standards, which say to go where the evidence leads, and my desire for social approval, or at least not extra disapproval. I know which one I’m idealistically supposed to pick, but I also know that I don’t really care as much for picking the things you are supposed to pick as I pretend to myself or others.

We often fantasize about being confronted with a big moral dilemma, so we can prove our morality to ourselves and others. But we should mostly be glad we don’t get what we wish for, as we are often quite wrong about how we would actually act.

This is not merely theoretical. He in fact receives quite a bit of pushback in these posts, some of it rather insulting. For example, in this recent post, someone says in the comments:

When there’s a phenomenon like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster or Alien visitors, believers often point to “all the evidence”. But lots of bad evidence doesn’t equal good evidence! Navy pilots who say they see UFOs “everyday” actually are providing support for the idea that they are misidentifying something mundane. When talking to those who believe in a phenomenon with low plausibility, the best way to start is by saying, “Lets discuss the *single best piece of evidence you have* and then consider other pieces separately.”

I have seen UFO’s twice and each time my brow was furrowed in a vain attempt to understand what I had just witnessed. If I hadn’t simply been lucky enough to see the illusion again from another perspective, each time I would have walked away convinced that I had seen a large, extremely fast craft far away and not a small, slow object quite close to me. And I’m not easy to fool, as I already understand how perspective can be deceiving.

I get the idea that your skeptic skills may be under-exercised compared to the rest of your intellect. I’d recommend reading the Shermer book, “Why People Believe Weird Things” or Sagan’s “The Demon Haunted World.” Both are fun reads.


Robin replies,

Your response style, lecturing me about basics, illustrates my status point. People feel free to treat anyone who isn’t on board with full-skeptical like children in need of a lecture.

The debunkers, who are very often the same few people (note that 5ive refers to a book by Michael Shermer), tend to batch together a wide variety of topics (e.g. “Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster or Alien visitors”) as “bunk.” You could describe what these things have in common in various ways, but one of the most evident ways is what makes them count as bunk: There is “lots of bad evidence.” That is, as we noted above about UFOs, there is enough evidence to convince some people, but not enough to convince everyone, and the debunkers suppose this situation is just not believable; if the thing were real, they say, everyone would already know.

As I said, this is a pretty good argument, and this generally holds for the sorts of things the debunkers oppose. But this argument can also easily fail, as it did in the case of the meteorites. While people might accept this as a general remark, it nonetheless takes a great deal of courage to suggest that some particular case might be such a case, since as Robin notes, it automatically counts as low status and causes one to be subject to immediate ridicule.

In any case, whether or not the debunkers are right about UFOs or any other particular case, there are at least two general things that they are definitely mistaken about. One is the idea that people who discuss such topics without complete agreement with them are automatically ridiculous. The second will be the topic of another post.

Remote From My Senses

Earlier we saw that opinions about things more remote from the senses are more likely to be influenced by motives apart from truth. However, even if in principle a thing would have many obvious empirical consequences, it is possible that those consequences are quite unclear to me, or perhaps those consequences could only be seen by others. In such a case the matter may be remote from the senses in a personal way; I do not personally see how it would make a difference to me either way, or it can make such a difference to others, but not to me.

For example, Fermat’s Last Theorem was proven by Andrew Wiles in 1994. If the theorem were false, in principle this would surely have empirical consequences. But the proof is complex enough that this is basically a theoretical rather than a practical statement. Someone who is not a mathematician, or anyone who was not verified the proof for himself, simply has to trust mathematicians as a body about the fact that the proof is valid. Even for those mathematicians who have verified the proof for themselves, most likely they are more confident that it is true based on their trust in the community of mathematicians than in their own effort to verify it. If I am a mathematician who has verified it, I could easily have made a mistake. But it would be less likely that the same or similar mistakes were made by every single mathematician who tried.

In a sense, then, Fermat’s Last Theorem is somewhat remote from the senses for every individual person, including mathematicians. So why do we not see widespread disagreement about it, disagreement of the kind we see in politics and religion?

If Fermat’s Last Theorem were false, this would require either a conspiracy theory, or a quasi-conspiracy theory.

The conspiracy theory, of course, would be that mathematicians as a body know that Fermat’s Last Theorem is false, but do not want everyone else to know this, so they claim that they have verified the proof and found it valid, while in reality there are flaws in it and they know about them.

The quasi-conspiracy theory would be that mathematicians as a body believe that Fermat’s Last Theorem is true, but that they consistently fail in their attempt to verify the proof. There is a mistake in it, but each time someone tries to verify it, they fail to notice the mistake.

The reason to call this a quasi-conspiracy theory is that the most reasonable way for this to happen is if mathematicians as a body have motivations similar to the mathematicians in the case of the actual conspiracy, motivations that cause them to behave in much the same ways in practice.

We can see this by considering a case where you would have an actual conspiracy. Suppose a seven year old child is told by his parents that Santa Claus is the one who brings presents on Christmas Eve. The child believes them. When he speaks with his playmates, they tell him the same thing. If he notices something odd, his parents explain it away. He asks other adults about it, and they say the same thing.

The adults as a body are deceiving the child about the fact that Santa Claus does not exist, and they are doing this by means of an actual conspiracy. They know there is no Santa Claus, but they are working together to ensure that the child believes that there is one.

What is necessary for this to happen? It is necessary that the adults have a motive quite remote from truth for wishing the child to believe that there is a Santa Claus, and it is on account of this motive that they engage in the conspiracy.

In a similar way, suppose that mathematicians as a body were deluded about Fermat’s Last Theorem. Since they are actually deluded, there is no actual conspiracy. But how did this happen? Why do they all make mistakes when they try to verify the theorem? In principle it might simply be that the question is very hard, and there is a mistake that is extremely difficult to notice. And in reality, this may be the only likely way for this to happen in the case of mathematics. But in other cases, there may be a more plausible mechanism to generate consistent mistakes, and this is wishful thinking of one kind or another. If mathematicians as a body want Fermat’s Last Theorem to be true and to be a settled question, they may carelessly overlook mistakes in the proof, in order to say that it is true. Technically they are not making a deliberate mistake. But in practice it is the lack of care about truth, and the interest in something opposed to truth, which makes them act as a body to deceive others, just as an actual conspiracy does.

Scientists as a body believe that the theory of evolution is true, and that it is very certain. Wikipedia illustrates this:

The Discovery Institute announced that over 700 scientists had expressed support for intelligent design as of February 8, 2007. This prompted the National Center for Science Education to produce a “light-hearted” petition called “Project Steve” in support of evolution. Only scientists named “Steve” or some variation (such as Stephen, Stephanie, and Stefan) are eligible to sign the petition. It is intended to be a “tongue-in-cheek parody” of the lists of alleged “scientists” supposedly supporting creationist principles that creationist organizations produce. The petition demonstrates that there are more scientists who accept evolution with a name like “Steve” alone (over 1370) than there are in total who support intelligent design.

But there are many, like Fr. Brian Harrison, who think that the scientists are wrong about this. The considerations of this post make clear why it is possible for someone to believe this. If Fr. Harrison is right, scientists as a body would be engaging in a quasi-conspiracy. Many scientists are atheists, and perhaps they would like evolution to be true because they think it makes atheism more plausible. Perhaps such motivations, together with the motive of sticking together with other scientists, sufficiently explain why scientists are misinterpreting the evidence to support evolution, even though it does not actually support it.

If I have not studied the evidence for evolution myself, this argument is much more plausible than the same claim about Fermat’s Last Theorem, simply because there is no actually plausible motive in the mathematical case. But if there were a plausible motive, one would be likely to see such quasi-conspiracy theories about mathematical claims as well.

Conspiracy Theories

Two conspiracy theories that I accept:

1. Vincent Foster was murdered.

2. The Church did not reveal the entirety of the third secret of Fatima. See also the book by Antonio Socci.

Elliot Sober begins his article Coincidences and How to Think about Them:

The naïve see causal connections everywhere. Consider the fact that Evelyn Marie Adams won the New Jersey lottery twice. The naïve find it irresistible to think that this cannot be a coincidence. Maybe the lottery was rigged or some uncanny higher power placed its hand upon her brow. Sophisticates respond with an indulgent smile and ask the naïve to view Adams’ double win within a larger perspective. Given all the lotteries there have been, it isn’t at all surprising that someone would win one of them twice. No need to invent conspiracy theories or invoke the paranormal – the double win was a mere coincidence.

Throughout the article, he recognizes that the “sophisticate” has a problem justifying his account by probability theory, at least in the sense that by any reasonable analysis, the naive account remains fairly probable. Nonetheless he betrays a strong desire to find a way to justify the position of the sophisticates, as for example when he says:

As noted before, it may be possible to provide an objective Bayesian treatment of Adams’ double win. Even though the FIX hypothesis has a higher likelihood than the FAIR hypothesis, perhaps there is a way to justify an assignment of prior probabilities that has the consequence that the FAIR hypothesis has the higher posterior probability.

This of course implies that a treatment that suggests that the lotteries were likely fixed is automatically not objective.

It may be easy to argue that many conspiracy theories are more a result of flawed mental tendencies than of rational thinking. But insofar as virtue consists in a mean, it is necessary to avoid the opposite error as well.