How Science Closes Minds — The Extraterrestrial Phenomenon
Our Adherence to the Scientific Method Limits Rational Discourse
I spent most of a week in 2013 watching the live webcast of the Citizen Hearing on Disclosure (Citizen Hearing), a five day event bringing together former congress members and forty international researchers in the area of UFO and extraterrestrial phenomena.
I paid particular interest to mainstream (e.g. Believe in UFOs? Highlights of the Citizen Hearing on Disclosure) and alternative press coverage of the event, and followed comments on the various social media sites.
Themes from the news coverage:
- Congress members were paid $20,000 each for their participation. (can’t we spend our money on something better?!)
- The UFO crazies are at it again.
- Conspiracy theory is a religion
- Maybe there is something to it? (but as a rational journalist, I will not say so and will make sure to include some derisive comments to make sure my stance of ridicule is well understood).
- I ‘know’ this is all just BS.
- There is no evidence.
I’m a social scientist. And while I am familiar with the precepts associated with [hard] scientific methodologies, my research never stops there. For one, I am always evaluating and re-evaluating available evidence. I challenge assumptions. I embrace subjective experience in addition to objective truth. I attempt to maintain an open mind, while being simultaneously skeptical and rational. I know that there is always much we don’t know, and not every phenomenon can be measured experimentally (as we must be able to control said phenomenon in order to predict and measure). I also know to dig deep into taboos and stigmas and the UFO/ET phenomenon is one of the fastest ways to get its supporters (really just interested parties) labelled crazy and stupid.
But why? Based on what we know about even just the observable universe — isn’t it unbelievably arrogant and short-sighted of us to assume that we are alone? So why can’t we talk about it? Why do so many people claim there is no evidence, when clearly there is?
Let’s think about the mandates associated with the scientific method for a minute. Phenomena must be:
- Repeatably observable
- Subject to experimental conditions
Graham Hancock shed some light on the subject in his (banned) TED talk:
Science’s infractions are subtler but equally damaging to the human spirit. During an enlightening lecture in 2000 by religion scholar Huston Smith, I began to appreciate how science infringes on religion’s domain. Smith thoughtfully distinguished science from scientism. The former is an investigative protocol; the latter is a religion, complete with dogma. Science is a formalized procedure for making sense of the world by studying its material properties, perceived through the awareness of the senses, albeit senses heightened by modern marvels such as the electron microscope, the Hubble Space Telescope or the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Scientism (or scientific materialism), on the other hand, adds to science a statement of faith: The universe is only material. Moreover, given the spectacular successes of science over the past three centuries, it is more than fair to acknowledge that science represents a powerful way to learn about the world. But scientism ups the ante: Science is the best (or only) way to make sense of the world. In short, scientism is to science what fundamentalism is to religion: cocksure and inflexible.
Rupert Sheldrake’s talk on the ‘Science Delusion’ was also banned from TED.
Why? It is because we are in vehement disagreement about what constitutes evidence.
So what constitutes evidence?
There is a strange phenomenon, even among some qualitatively minded individuals, to not take seriously anything that could be perceived as anecdotal or informal. I am a bit the opposite; quite often nuggets of truth emerge in these places, where there is smoke there is usually fire, and you just have to be willing to roll with ambiguity. Most people aren’t.
In anthropology we call it participant observation, and it is our core research method: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Par.... In it, we the researchers become the instrument of research and are therefore free to incorporate any artifacts that improve our view of the culture in question. The goal is inside-out understanding, rather than the outside-in approaches taken by many scientific methods (I personally think the best approach is a hybrid one).
In the participant observation model, any input is relevant if the researcher deems it so. Even if a piece of information ends up being untrue, that is also interesting. However it’s typically just one bit of a huge melange of data that needs to eventually agree with itself in order to be valid. This is still too messy for many scientists.
Precepts of the rational skeptic:
- Because there have been some hoaxes and mis-identification over the years, all reported UFOs must be hoaxes or other explainable terrestrial phenomena. One guy made a crop circle with a rope and board and therefore all crop circles are guys with ropes and boards.
- Because some ‘believers’ are open to a range of phenomena and explanations, all believers must be discredited for not taking a purely [hard] scientific view.
- Our five primary senses are all we acknowledge, and all scientific inquiry must rely on ‘objective’ evidence confirmed by our five senses.
- Because we don’t have indisputable evidence, and have not had widespread acceptance from bastions of power, the whole topic must be derided.
- Because a creator or creative force is not readily apparent through current scientific means (other than perhaps our very existence), we must reject ideas that suggest we live in a created or architected universe (indeed, cosmos).
- Anyone who is open to phenomena not scientifically validated through experimental conditions based on the five senses is automatically suspect.
- Anyone who suggests spiritual explanations for any phenomena is suspect.
- The terrestrial phenomena explanation must be privileged over any other.
- Photos/videos are possibly Photoshopped or created using CG methods, therefore none should be considered.
- Anecdotes and witness testimonies are subject to human flaws and biases and therefore must be discounted.
- Any extraterrestrial hypotheses are flawed hyperbole.
This despite various scientific and observable possibilities that present themselves:
- Drake equation
- Extraterrestrial hypothesis
- Billions of Earth-Like Exoplanets Exist in Our Milky Way Galaxy, Say Scientists
- UFO/crop circle phenomena — physical evidence including radar, soil/plant anomalies, etc.
- Channeled messages from extraterrestrial sources
- Verification of parallel universes
- Subjective experiences and extraterrestrial encounters
- Telepathy/Psi and other paranormal phenomena
In a follow-up discussion on Quora, I asked a simple question:
And I received the following response:
“I’m curious what, if anything, could sway someone” Those are words of someone who is interested in manipulating the truth to fit their own ends. A properly scientific approach would not be about trying to “sway someone” it would involve critically examining the evidence, and seeing where that evidence leads.
“We see things that are inexplicable and try to explain them?” In science we don’t ever say that anything is inexplicable. You’re trying to replace scientific ideas with religious ones. One of the most annoying things about talking to creationists is that any time science doesn’t yet explain something, the creationists will insert their personal god. This is called the “god of the gaps” argument, and it’s exactly the same as concluding that anything which is unexplained must be aliens.
I think you misunderstand me. When I say ‘sway’, I mean opening a closed mind. Otherwise it’s impossible to have a conversation. I stand by my statement about science explaining the (previously) inexplicable. I never said anything about religion. I’m not religious, in fact. But I am extremely curious about the universe and how/why we are here.
I’m bewildered by the responses of people who don’t really know the information re: available evidence re: UFOs, etc.. There’s a lot of rhetoric thrown around to muddy the waters and make seekers seem not credible. Pat responses are given (often perpetuating misinformation) and real conversations and rational discourse are stymied or ridiculed.
Sure, a couple of scientists have suggested that we consent to collective delusions, or all angels and aliens are figments of imagination easily explained away by a theory that refuses to consider other realities. Or all near death experiences are just an oxygen-deprived brain. We have a god particle. I read all of that stuff and find it interesting.
There is certainly a lot of confusing information and a huge variety of hoaxes, so I never rely on just one piece of information in making my assessment. And the whole story is constantly unfolding, so incorporating new evidence and points of view is important.
My current perspective: extraterrestrials are a possible explanation for some things in our experience. Lots of scientists and scholars think/thought so (including Frank Drake, Carl Sagan, Frances Crick, Michio Kaku). There is a hypothesis that proposes ETs as a possible explanation for some things:
I want to know more, and I want to stop having to fight with people every time I want to have a simple conversation about it. That’s why I am wondering how to open people’s minds. Not with fabricated or manipulated truth, but with actual truths that might make sense to them, or that provide a useful lens for them.
Honestly, I don’t care what you believe. I just find it sad when people close their minds to possibilities because it has become fashionable to do so. Even more sad is accusing truth seekers of manipulating truth when we are just interested in shedding light on truth.
It is clear to me that many skeptics’ minds are already made up. It doesn’t matter what evidence is presented, it will be discredited or marginalized one way or another.
So again, my question is… what evidence would be compelling? Whose opinions matter? What authority needs to say, ‘yes, let’s consider this’?
I think we are doing science and humanity a disservice by closing the door on any possibility that doesn’t tidily fit the modern scientific frame: the rational world-view. Didn’t we know without a doubt at one point that the Earth was flat, and that we were the center of the cosmos? How rational is it to close the door on a phenomenon, just because we can’t currently adequately observe or understand it?
In short, what would it take to satisfy science? I think that’s a very appropriate question. In the meantime, we need some cultural change to help science balance its own dogmas. We may live in a purely material universe, but we might not. The former view is a limiting one, the latter replete with possibilities.
Despite the demise of most of its once-sacred cows, science remains alive and well, implying that the assumptions abandoned were never essential. Unwarranted assumptions — blinders, really — may have been necessary to the methodical progress of science, but ultimately they squelch open inquiry. Indeed, all of science may rest upon a single inviolate assumption: The same physical laws apply throughout the cosmos. Why not leave it there (at least for now)? Science’s Sacred Cows (Part 1)
NASA has recently acknowledged that extraterrestrial life in the cosmos is highly probable and are finding new Earth-like planets all the time. First (or open) contact could be just around the corner. Doesn’t it make sense for us to prepare ourselves for the enormity of the changes that could be on our way?
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I explained my position on all of this more here, in response to one of the comments: