Responses to "The new UFO craze and the failures of our public intellectuals"
How chains of communication break down
Last week I published “The new UFO craze and the failures of our public intellectuals.” The failure I’m referring to is the lack of public intellectuals who are urging skepticism (real skepticism, not agnosticism) in regards to the supposed sightings of alien spacecraft by a few military pilots spaced out over decades.
Adages like Carl Sagan’s “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” are in short supply. Consider this recent video by Michio Kaku that someone pointed out to me, in which he claims that the videos of far-away dots on thermal cameras are good evidence of alien vehicles and that “physicists have analyzed these frame-by-frame.”
What Michio Kaku is saying here is embarrassingly untrue. Every single video has many alternative explanations, and if he had indeed “studied them” in any actual detail he would know that.1 If you’d like a quick rundown of how ridiculous this all is, check out this new piece by Mick West. So the failure of our public intellectuals to have the right priors here is very real.
Beyond Kaku himself, I think one issue is that our current crop of public intellectuals have become dominated by contrarian outsiders. E.g., Nassim Taleb is clearly a contrarian outsider for an intellectual. And there are a number far more “outside” than him (you can fill in the blank on who you personally consider to be in this group).
The same thing happened recently, outlined in a substack post of mine about supposed pictures of mushrooms on Mars. An academic paper presenting the “mushroom” photos, which are almost certainly just rocks, had been written by an academic outsider (someone with no university affiliation). Robin Hanson seemed almost more inclined to believe the paper because of the outsider status, rather than less (at minimum, he discounted the background as even relevant, which I maintained it was for such a grandiose claim).
Soon after the initial publication of my essay calling for public intellectuals to engage directly with the new UFO craze, Neil deGrasse Tyson went on the Joe Rogan show itself.2 I have to say this alleviates a lot of my complaints about Tyson himself in regards to this issue (and the podcast was likely filmed days before), so, you know, ego te absolvo, ego te absolvo. However, in the interview itself Tyson ends up expressing a rather tepid agnosticism that (to paraphrase) “there is something here to investigate but it’s probably not aliens.” His views are far better than I initially imagined, but it’s not near the level of hardline skepticism that’s called for. Again, the majority of the videos are easily explained by other effects, like camera movement, bokeh, and so on.
All to say that tepid agnosticism is still a squandering of the natural skepticism that Carl Sagan built up in the first UFO crazes. It’s worth pointing out that some ideas are like weeds in the garden of public discourse, and they will take over eventually if you don’t pull them up.3
As an example, here are a few sample responses to my original post (all by different authors):
Yeah sorry Erik, one recent debateable-in-the-first-place video doesn't undo 70+ years of sightings, technical data, injuries, deaths even. Fravor et al could say tomorrow that they made it all up but it still wouldn't matter. Too much has happened, simply!
You're saying they're all objects far away or planes. BOTH of those will be confirmed or disproven by the radar data. Until you have solid data backing up your claim, ALL you have is a theory, not even a scientific one. Keep crying though, it's adorable.4
It might be encapsulated best by this one:
The debunkers are looking increasingly like those who clung to the flat earth model.
If you can say that the skeptical position here is like clinging to a flat earth model, while specifically referring to a video of a “pyramidal alien spacecraft” that is just a small incredibly distant triangle of light, blinking at the same frequency of a Boeing 737, under a popular flight path for passenger aircraft, taken with a night-vision camera that has the triangular aperture partially closed (which you can tell because all the light sources in the video are triangles, including identified stars, not just the supposed UFO). . . then how do you make decisions about what to believe? We may as well be speaking a different language.
In science or disciplines like analytic philosophy, people will generally follow the socratic form of an argument, wherein you present A, then they respond to A with B, and you then respond to B with C, and so on. So each point addresses the previous one and the debate creates a “debate chain.” Such debate chains look a lot like a blockchain, wherein older points are “hashed” into new ones. One way to tell a conversation isn’t worth your time is if it’s not a chain. This is irrespective of the actual result of the argument—even if both parties leave unconvinced, chains are at least productive, and they mean communication is occurring.
The blockchain of communication can break down in several ways. The chain can become such a tangled loop such that there’s no progression, as older points are constantly revisited. Or it can break down when you cannot move someone from B to D via your presentation of C, since no evidence can change their mind.
Both breakdowns occur in the responses I got to the piece. Proposition A is that the alien tic tac is moves in all sorts of physically-impossible ways. But then that is countered by proposition B that notices the camera is also moving and shifting its frame and refocusing and changing its zoom, and that it is actually these events that correspond with the “miraculous” movement of the object. If your own reference point is moving, an object can indeed look strange.
But when presented with this people still refuse to move from B to C. In these cases a refusal to move can be frightening. It made me feel very Wittgensteinian, like language itself was breaking down. I don’t envy someone like Mick West who has to actually deal with UFO believers on a daily basis.
The response from outside my normal twitter reminded me I live mostly in a rarified bubble of extremely high-level communication. Everyone I talk to professionally, but also those who voluntarily follow me on social media, or the readers of my writing who I get emails from or meet in person, are self-selected in such a way I can easily communicate with them.
Wittgenstein wrote that “If a lion could speak, we wouldn’t understand what it had to say.”
Well, the same is true for people too. When the blockchain of communication breaks down we all just become lions, roaring at each other from great distances on the Savannah.
Or at least, that’s what we look like to the aliens.
Let’s not even get into the royal “we” habit of speaking for all physicists here.
Obviously not in response to my post, just a coincidence of timing.
Sad I have to say this, but I am not suggesting social media companies ban UFO discourse.
In case you were wondering, it is wrong to say we don’t have enough evidence to make judgements here; believers are always imagining some sort of extra special military data that hasn’t been released and will prove the whole thing, even though the currently-released evidence contradicts it.