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.

A Correction Regarding Laplace

A few years ago, I quoted Stanley Jaki on an episode supposedly involved Laplace:

Laplace shouted, “We have had enough such myths,” when his fellow academician Marc-Auguste Pictet urged, in the full hearing of the Académie des Sciences, that attention be given to the report about a huge meteor shower that fell at L’Aigle, near Paris, on April 26, 1803.

I referred to this recently on Twitter. When another user found it surprising that Laplace would have said this, I attempted to track it down, and came to the conclusion that this very account is a “myth” itself, in some sense. Jaki tells the same story in different words in the book Miracles and Physics:

The defense of miracles done with an eye on physics should include a passing reference to meteorites. Characteristic of the stubborn resistance of scientific academies to those strange bits of matter was Laplace’s shouting, “We’ve had enough of such myths,” when Pictet, a fellow academician, urged a reconsideration of the evidence provided by “lay-people” as plain eyewitnesses.

(p. 94)

Jaki provides no reference in God and the sun at Fatima. The text in Miracles and Physics has a footnote, but it provides generic related information that does not lead back to any such episode.

Did Jaki make it up? People do just make things up“, but in this case whatever benefit Jaki might get from it would seem to be outweighed by the potential reputational damage of being discovered in such a lie, so it seems unlikely. More likely he is telling a story from memory, with the belief that the details just don’t matter very much. And since he provides plenty of other sources, I am sure he knows full well that he is omitting any source here, presumably because he does not have one at hand. He may even be trying to cover up this omission, in a sense, by footnoting the passage with information that does not source it. It seems likely that the story is a lecture hall account that has been modified by the passage of time. One reason to suppose such a source is that Jaki is not alone in the claim that Laplace opposed the idea of meteorites as stones from the sky until 1803. E.T. Jaynes, in Probability Theory: The Logic of Science, makes a similar claim:

Note that we can recognize the clear truth of this psychological phenomenon without taking any stand about the truth of the miracle; it is possible that the educated people are wrong. For example, in Laplace’s youth educated persons did not believe in meteorites, but dismissed them as ignorant folklore because they are so rarely observed. For one familiar with the laws of mechanics the notion that “stones fall from the sky” seemed preposterous, while those without any conception of mechanical law saw no difficulty in the idea. But the fall at Laigle in 1803, which left fragments studied by Biot and other French scientists, changed the opinions of the educated — including Laplace himself. In this case the uneducated, avid for the marvelous, happened to be right: c’est la vie.

(p. 505)

Like Jaki, Jaynes provides no source. Still, is that good enough reason to doubt the account? Let us examine a text from the book The History of Meteoritics and Key Meteorite Collections. In the article, “Meteorites in history,” Ursula Marvin remarks:

Early in 1802 the French mathematician Pierre-Simon de Laplace (1749-1827) raised the question at the National Institute of a lunar volcanic origin of fallen stones, and quickly gained support for this idea from two physicist colleagues Jean Baptiste Biot (1774-1862) and Siméon-Denis Poisson (1781-1840). The following September, Laplace (1802, p. 277) discussed it in a letter to von Zach.

The idea won additional followers when Biot (1803a) referred to it as ‘Laplace’s hypothesis’, although Laplace, himself, never published an article on it.


This has a source for Laplace’s letter of 1802, although I was not able to find it online. It seems very unlikely that Laplace would have speculated on meteorites as coming from lunar volcanos in 1802, and then called them “myths” in 1803. So where does this story come from? In Cosmic Debris: Meteorites in History, John Burke gives this account:

There is also a problem with respect to the number of French scientists who, after Pictet published a résumé of Howard’s article in the May 1802 issue of the Bibliothèque Britannique, continued to oppose the idea that stones fell from the atmosphere. One can infer from a statement of Lamétherie that there was considerable opposition, for he reported that when Pictet read a memoir to the Institut on the results of Howard’s report “he met with such disfavor that it required a great deal of fortitude for him to finish his reading.” However, Biot’s description of the session varies a good deal. Pictet’s account, he wrote, was received with a “cautious eagerness,” though the “desire to explain everything” caused the phenomenon to be rejected for a long time. There were, in fact, only three scientists who publicly expressed their opposition: the brothers Jean-André and Guillaume-Antoine Deluc of Geneva, and Eugène Patrin, an associate member of the mineralogy section of the Institut and librarian at the École des mines.

When Pictet early in 1801 published a favorable review of Chladni’s treatise, it drew immediate fire from the Deluc brothers. Jean, a strict Calvinist, employed the same explanation of a fall that the Fougeroux committee had used thirty years before: stones did not fall; the event was imagined when lightning struck close to the observer. Just as no fragment of our globe separate and become lost in space, he wrote, fragments could not be detached from another planet. It was also very unlikely that solid masses had been wandering in space since the creation, because they would have long since fallen into the sphere of attraction of some planet. And even if they did fall, they would penetrate the earth to a great depth and shatter into a thousand pieces.


It seems quite possible that Pictet’s “reading a memoir” here and “meeting with disfavor” (regardless of details, since Burke notes it had different descriptions at the time) is the same incident that Jaki describes as having been met with “We’ve had enough of such myths!” when Pictet “urged a reconsideration of the evidence.” If these words were ever said, then, they were presumably said by one of these brothers or someone else, and not by Laplace.

How does this sort of thing happen, if we charitably assume that Jaki was not being fundamentally dishonest? As stated above, it seems likely that he knew he did not have a source. He may even have been consciously aware that it might not have been Laplace who made this statement, if anyone did. But he was sure there was a dispute about the matter, and presumably thought that it just wasn’t too important who it was or the details of the situation, since the main point was that scientists are frequently reluctant to accept facts when those facts occur rarely and are not deliberately reproducible. And if we reduce Jaki’s position to these two things, namely, (1) that scientists at one point disputed the reality and meteorites, and (2) this sort of thing frequently happens with rare and hard to reproduce phenomena, then the position is accurate.

But this behavior, the description of situations with the implication that the details just don’t matter much, is very bad, and directly contributes to the reluctance of many scientists to accept the reality of “extraordinary” phenomena, even in situations where they are, in fact, real.

Miracles and Meteorites

Stanley Jaki, in his book God and the Sun at Fatima, comments on the scientific history of meteorites:

Once the Académie des Sciences in Paris decided that eyewitness accounts about fiery streaks dashing toward the earth should not be trusted, meteorites were discarded from the collection of other scientific academies as well. No less a scientist than Lavoisier changed the written statement of an eyewitness because it countered his disbelief in meteors. Laplace shouted, “We have had enough such myths,” when his fellow academician Marc-Auguste Pictet urged, in the full hearing of the Académie des Sciences, that attention be given to the report about a huge meteor shower that fell at L’Aigle, near Paris, on April 26, 1803.

This is not untypical. Historically, the scientific community showed a similar reluctance to accept the reality of earthquake lights, rogue waves, and other phenomena.

Laplace’s concern, of course, was probably not that the idea of stones coming from the sky seemed to him absurd in itself, but that it did not seem possible to explain it by natural principles known to him. The idea of continental drift was long rejected for this reason, namely the apparent lack of a mechanism that might bring it about.

This concern is not entirely unreasonable. If scientists were to accept all eyewitness accounts as they stand, they might be forced to constantly add new principles in order to explain the most recent stories. On the other hand, it would be reasonable for them to give somewhat more attention to accounts which come up repeatedly, as happened with the accounts of the above phenomena.

Accounts of miracles can in fact be treated much like such accounts. A miracle does not mean something which has never been seen in any age or country, as Hume defines it, but something which does not have natural principles. Thus, for example, if a man rises from the dead we do not (generally speaking) believe that this could have resulted from natural principles. This does not prove that it cannot happen at all, as Hume supposes, but only that if it does happen, it results from some additional principle, above and beyond the principles of nature.