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Science and the UFO phenomenon:

Science, UFOs, stupidities:

Here we go again: interest in UFOs and studies and UFOs are denounced as an example of "widespread beliefs in pseudo-science". Scientist Chris Rutkowski agreed that I publish his response:

Subject: Concern Over Widespread Belief In Pseudoscience
Date: 30.04.2002
From: Chris Rutkowski

In a news item on CNN today, the National Science Foundation released a report on Americans' poor understanding and knowledge about science. The report found that many Americans believe in "pseudoscience" and that this is considered harmful; pseudoscience is cited as contributing to scientific literacy and the lack of critical thinking skills. In other words, the fact that 45% of Americans think that lasers work by focusing sound waves (as one question revealed) may be due to belief in pseudoscientific topics, not just simply a failure of science educators to teach scientific process in schools. Furthermore, only 54% of Americans know that it takes one year for the Earth to orbit the Sun. Is this because 60% of the population believe that "some people possess psychic powers or ESP," as the study found?

The NSF study relied on CSICOP to provide its definition of pseudoscience, of course. This included: yogic flying, astrology, fire walking, voodoo, Uri Geller, alternative medicine, psychic hotlines and reincarnation, as well as UFOs. In the report, it is pointed out that:

"A sizable minority of the public believes in UFOs and that aliens have landed on Earth. (45% according to a 2000 poll in Popular Science.) In 2001, 30 percent of NSF survey respondents agreed that "some of the unidentified flying objects that have been reported are really space vehicles from other civilizations"..., and one-third of respondents to the Gallup poll reported that they believed that "extraterrestrial beings have visited earth at some time in the past."

(The link to this is: http://www.nsf.gov/sbe/srs/seind02/c7/c7s5.htm#c7s5l2)

What is most interesting, however, is the NSF's rather arbitrary definition of what is and what isn't pseudoscience:

"Pseudoscience is defined here as "claims presented so that they appear [to be] scientific even though they lack supporting evidence and plausibility" (Shermer 1997, p. 33). In contrast, science is "a set of methods designed to describe and interpret observed and inferred phenomena, past or present, and aimed at building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation."

(Shermer 1997, p. 17).

The reference is to:

Shermer, M. 1997. "Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time," New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.

It is interesting that, in complete concordance with what Stan Friedman has pointed out in a MUFON article refuting Shermer's definition (available online at: http://www.mufon.com/zperceptions_pseudoscience.html the NSF's use of the definitions is remarkably inappropriate. In a review of current serious research and investigation into the UFO phenomenon, advanced ufological research is easily categorized as: "a set of methods designed to describe and interpret observed and inferred phenomena, past or present, and aimed at building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation," defined as science by Shermer. The difficult word in the definition is "testable", and while ufologists can't test the ETH hypothesis as it applies to observed UFOs, they can test demographic data, witnesses' testimony and possible explanations for their viability, all acceptable as scientific endeavours.

Similarly, it is easy to see where debunkers' comments about UFOs can often be shown to be "claims presented so that they appear [to be] scientific even though they lack supporting evidence and plausibility," exactly as pseudoscience is defined. (Friedman cites comments by Sagan, Asimov, Menzel and Bova as examples.)

If we look at the survey's results themselves, however, we also get an idea of where the scientific community is having difficulty in categorizing UFOs. The actual question the survey asked about UFOs was whether UFOs are space vehicles from other civilizations. But in the text of the report, the question's wording is cited as: "*some* of the unidentified flying objects that have been reported are really space vehicles from other civilizations." Semantically, there's a big difference there, asking if all or just some UFOs are extraterrestrial.

But what wasn't asked was a question about alternative explanations. Are UFOs psychosocial phenomena, as suggested by many European ufologists? Are they secret military experiments, as suggested by many mainstream UFO investigators?

The NSF, in effect, has forced ufology into an indefensible position by showing that many Americans believe UFOs are alien spaceships, something which is lacking incontrovertible proof. (Circumstantial proof is another matter.) Therefore, belief in UFOs is neatly classified as a pseudoscience, as defined by Shermer and CSICOP. However, this in no way defines investigative and research-centered ufology, which is simply the study of a widespread phenomenon.

The NSF, representing the broad scientific community, has invalidated research into UFOs not by the scientific process, but by a definition which automatically excludes ufology from 'mainstream' science. Therefore, scientists are justified to ignore UFOs as a legitimate field of study and can express concern that the general public is foolish to believe in such nonsense, an attitude which can only further alienate the scientific community from the audience they claim to want to educate.

As further indication that the NSF study was out of focus, it cited articles by CSICOP members and associates expressing concern that the X-Files TV show misinforms people about science, feeds the uninformed UFO subculture and "systematically purveys an anti-rational view of the world which, by virtue of its recurrent persistence, is insidious." That a television program as fanciful as the X-Files could be viewed as insidious is outlandish at best, and sad at the least. Ufologists have been accused of engendering poor understanding of science among Americans, whereas it seems that the scientific community and its milquetoast approach to public education is somehow faultless.

Fortunately, the study noted that most Americans have their critical thinking skills intact. This will allow them to use their insight into the NSF's narrow view of UFOs, a phenomenon that deserves more objective study by true scientists.

Many thanks to Chris Rutkowski.

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This page was last updated on April 30, 2002