By Richard H.
Analyzing UFO data and reasoning about it has been
extremely controversial due to a number of factors, primarily disagreement
about which data are mutually agreed upon as requiring explanation. In
this article I attempt to provide a conceptual framework and guide for
thinking about and theorizing about UFOs.
On a related issue,
various labels and epithets often have been substituted for rational
discussion in characterizing our philosophical opponents. No doubt this is
due to the frustrations of trying to deal with a complex and unorthodox
subject that has little recognition among scientists, the news media, or
other important opinion-makers in society. What does it mean to be
"pro-UFO" or a "believer"? How apt are the labels "debunker," "scoffer,"
or "skeptic" as applied to those who disbelieve in UFOs and/or profess
strong criticism of the views (not to mention the motives and
intelligence) of "believers?"
Interestingly, the ad hominem
arguments tend to emanate far more from the "scoffers" than the
"believers." Whereas many of us think that Phil Klass, other CSICOP
people, and Donald Menzel before them are mistaken in their professed
viewpoints, we do not usually attribute evil motives to them.
Before proposing a conceptual scheme as a guide to thinking about
and studying UFO sightings, I will attempt to define some terms and also
suggest ways to encourage more civil debate of the issues. People see
things in the sky (and on the ground) that they cannot explain and term
them "UFOs." Although UFO has long since become a synonym for ET spaceship
in the popular mind, let us continue to think of it literally as meaning
an unexplained flying (sometimes landing) object or phenomenon.
The large majority of such reports turn out to have mundane
explanations, including aircraft seen under unusual lighting or weather
conditions, rocket or missile launches, and fireball meteors. The
percentages of explained versus unexplained are scientifically
meaningless, but typically are something like 80% to 20%.The scientific
question is: Do the sightings that remain unexplained after careful
investigation represent one or more phenomena of potential scientific
significance? Should time and money be spent in gathering and analyzing
better data in a systematic way?
In past years the U.S. Air Force
and most self-styled skeptics have extrapolated from the high percentage
of explained cases (sometimes artificially high due to ingrained negative
attitudes) to the unexplained cases. "If we had more complete data," their
argument went, "we could also explain the rest of the cases. Only
insufficient data prevents us from explaining 100% of the reports." Of
course, this argument totally ignores the content of the unexplained
How do we determine whether the unexplained cases represent
something new and important that deserves some level of priority
investigation? By spending time and money to test that hypothesis along
with its antithesis! However, those already convinced that there is
nothing of scientific interest in UFO reports will see no point in
investigating further. Their minds are made up. They see only "noise" and
no "signal" in UFO reports. A good term to describe a person who takes
this position is Scoffer.
On the other extreme are those who
accept practically everything seen in the sky as evidence of
extraterrestrial visitation. Scientifically oriented UFO investigators
resent being labeled as "believers," which implies an uncritical
acceptance of dubious data bordering on slack-jawed faith. A good name for
the uncritical ones would be Believer.
Practically everyone else
fits somewhere in between these extremes. Although a range of attitudes
and approaches is involved, a good general term for people in this central
category would be Skeptic. (It probably is a losing battle to suggest this
terminology since the term "skeptic" has been pre-empted by the Committee
for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), but it
would be a more accurate use of the term in its historical sense. CSICOP
members tend to be either Scoffers or Debunkers.) A neutral alternative
might be Investigator, though that would exclude anyone who ventures an
opinion on the subject without actually doing some investigation, or
reading the serious literature, which also applies to many CSICOP members.
Within the center category of people who have some degree of
interest in studying or investigating UFO reports, there are several
levels of interest and/or attitude. Some of these I will define as:
Doubter: Tends to think that UFO reports probably have mundane
explanations for the most part, but finds the reports interesting and
Debunker: Tends to focus on criticizing the
foibles of UFO believers and tries to find flaws in hardcore UFO reports.
Advocate: Sees UFO reports as potentially very important and
argues for careful scientific study and investigation.
Is strongly convinced that UFO reports represent probable other-worldly
visitors and focuses on presenting the data in support of that view.
The reader may use his or her imagination in considering real-life
examples of each category. These labels should not be used in a pejorative
manner. Members of each category can be entirely rational in discussing
and debating the issues, and the sooner that is understood the better
chance we will have of engaging in a civil give-and-take that will help
all of us to gain an approximation of the truth. Facts, logic, and science
should be the means of settling disagreements.
That being said, it
would be helpful to confine discussions to one of the two following broad
hypotheses which can then be further refined:
UFOs are a collection of mistaken observations based on sociological,
psychological, and other human error factors. If true, this should be of
great interest to sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists given
the worldwide nature of the UFO phenomenon.
(2) Existence. UFOs
represent a real unexplained phenomenon. The scientific question then
would become: What is the nature of the phenomenon? Is it (a) literally a
natural phenomenon, (b) evidence of a secret military weapon system, or
(c) evidence of some kind of visitors from elsewhere?
who considers himself part of the rational center (as opposed to the
irrational extremes) were to adopt this approach, it would greatly improve
communications and expedite scientific research into UFOs. Neither
Scoffers nor Believers have very much positive to contribute to a
resolution of the UFO controversy. The rest of us in the center, if we
could work together and engage in civil discourse, might succeed in
accomplishing something worthwhile. And regardless of the outcome, society
would benefit substantially from either debunking "the UFO myth" or
establishing it as something very important for once and for all.