Last week I commented on conventions of pseudoscientists, from the creationists to Flat Earthers and neo-geocentrists, and, most recently, the contemporary “natural philosophers” who deny most of modern physics, from Einsteinian relativity to quantum mechanics to the rejection of ether. As that post was running, just an hour drive from my home there was a meeting of the “Mutual UFO Network” (MUFON), which held their annual convention at a the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Irvine, California. The theme of the meeting was “ET Contact: Implications for Science and Society”, and the program featured a keynote address by astronaut Story Musgrave. Ironically, Musgrave believes in intelligent aliens, but he is convinced that they have never visited the earth—a big disappointment for most of the crowd. There was a full Saturday program that included talks like, “Will ET Contact Put an End to our World’s Religions?” “Secrets of Antigravity Propulsion” and “Time Travel is a Fact”, along with the expected presentations on government cover-ups of UFO evidence, and how these people expect contact with aliens will change science and society. One or two presenters had Ph.D. or M.A. degrees (which they flaunted conspicuously, even though there is no information as to whether their Ph.D. has any relevance to the field), but the rest are pure amateurs. There was even a talk on “Mars, the Living Planet”, apparently ignoring all the recent evidence that Mars is now completely frozen, and that if it has (or had) life, it was only tiny microbes.
Under the title, “This event is not for skeptics”, Rick Rojas of the Los Angeles Times reported on the convention and its audience. As he describes it, many of the attendees reported having “alien abductions”, and some think they are alien-human hybrids. Many of them view aliens as godlike, benign omnipotent protectors who beckon to them in the night using bright lights. Typical of them is 61-year-old Cynthia Crawford, who
sold sculptures of aliens, said there was no reason to fear contact by extraterrestrials. She said she has a spiritual connection to her alien guides who have made medical ailments disappear and once manifested a crisp $20 bill. She told others they should experience the same. “Send the light and the unconditional love, and they will come to you,” she told one young man. “When you start seeing our star family—oh my God—you’ll love it”.Another topic discussed at the convention was human-extraterrestrial hybrids. Crawford, who lives near the Superstition Mountains in Arizona, said that she is one of them. The hybrids, she said, often have high foreheads and thin faces with long, skinny noses. Crawford, however, has a round face framed by thick blond hair. “I think I look human,” she said. She turned her head and widened her eyes. “Do you think I look human?”
As the article reports, the UFO fans were particularly intent on being taken seriously by scientists, aping scientific methods with their own “certified field investigator” program (including a genuine MUFON badge!) that required them to carry recording devices, Geiger counters, and a respirator. Thus, as the “certified investigator” David MacDonald is quoted as saying, “We all want to believe, we all want to believe bad [sic], but you’ve got to look at the evidence. You’ve got to come at this like a scientific researcher.” Just like the Bigfooters and other cryptozoologists that Daniel Loxton and I have been researching, they have a huge chip on their shoulder about scientists not taking them seriously—but have a distorted, superficial idea of how science is really done. According to psychotherapist Barbara Lamb who works with “experiencers” (people claiming alien contact), “We do have what we consider evidence, but the scientific community doesn’t want to consider that as evidence. There’s a kind of booga-booga about ETs and UFOs.” According to author and UFO “researcher” Richard Dolan, “Just below that level of snicker, snicker is fear.”
That may be a comforting thought to the UFO fanatics, blaming our skepticism on fear that they might be right. But the answer is much simpler: to be taken seriously by scientists, they can’t just imitate the scientific method, they must actually follow the scientific method. As Loxton and I point out in our upcoming book on cryptozoology, the prescription for being taken seriously as scientists includes:
1. Stick to testable evidence and scientific hypotheses. If the evidence is against what you want to believe, you must reject your hypothesis, not the evidence. As Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.”
2. Toss out nearly all the evidence from personal experience and “eyewitnesses“. As Michael Shermer has pointed out in his books, most of the accounts of “alien encounters” are clearly example of tricks of the mind, from normal dreams to waking dreams to hallucinations. And as Elizabeth Loftus has pointed out many times, “eyewitness testimony” is virtually useless in science since human brains are so easily fooled into believing something they didn’t actually see, or enhancing their memories of an event after it is over.
3. Focus on tangible physical evidence that might stand the test of scientific scrutiny. Of course, no such evidence exists, so they fall back on ad hoc rationalizations about why various conspiracies of governments or powerful individuals or scientists have suppressed and destroyed the evidence.
4. If you want to be taken seriously by scientists, subject your best evidence to peer review for publication in reputable journals. However, since they have no solid evidence, they fall back on the usual strategy of creationists, cryptozoologists, and other pseudoscientists: hide from the scientific community and preach to the converted, then blame their situation on scientific persecution—even though they never bother to submit their ideas in the first place.
Of course, I don’t expect them to follow any of this advice, since these belief systems are deeply ingrained and give them a quasi-religious sense of comfort and meaning in their lives. In such circumstances, no amount of evidence or rational explanations for their beliefs will make a difference.
But while we may laugh at the people who would spend big money to attend an entire weekend at a hotel in Irvine listening to other true believers, there is some disconcerting news about the population in general. As Bader et al. (2010) pointed out in their book Paranormal America, the Baylor Religion Survey found that 47% of Americans in the survey said that extraterrestrials absolutely exist (12%) or probably exist (35%). Similar statistics have been obtained by other surveys, showing that belief in UFOs is held by roughly half of the American population. Bader et al. (2010) showed that the paranormal is the norm, since more than half of the American population holds some sort of paranormal beliefs, whether they be ghosts, psychics, UFOs, Bigfoot, astrology, or whatever. This population has been fed a non-stop diet of UFO support from Spielberg movies to dozens of pseudo-documentaries on formerly scientific TV channels like Discovery Channel and TLC. Meanwhile, how much do they hear or read about the evidence against UFOs? Aside from a handful of books, there is almost no UFO debunking in the movies, TV or other pop culture. Criticizing UFOs is not sexy and doesn’t sell tickets or entice viewers but promoting UFOs has a guaranteed audience. Nor is there much effort to teach critical thinking, or to expose people to the fallacies of arguments, or to the ways in which human “experience” can be false or misleading. In light of the non-stop diet of “woo” fed to the American public and the lack of any counter-programming, it’s surprising that the number isn’t even more balanced toward the “woo” than it already is!
In light of this depressing state of affairs, I think I’ll go to a movie this afternoon as a distraction. Perhaps Cowboys and Aliens….