Asking the right questions

Believe me, I’m well aware that I’m not posting much and then I come in with something like this. You’re right to feel offended. Not that I care at all, but I won’t deny you your affrontage.

So I was thinking earlier of the varying attitudes held when the subject of UFOs (or UAPs if you prefer, for Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon) and extra-terrestrials and so on comes up. Unlike many subjects, there is very often a clean divide in the stances taken, which I’ll crassly categorize as ‘believer’ and ‘skeptic.’ There may, in fact, be a lot of people falling into the large grey area between those two, and only the extremes tend to get into discussions, but for now we’ll stick with the most visible stances.

Very often, such discussions may boil down to the believer saying of/to the skeptic, “So you just don’t believe in extra-terrestrial life, then.” I personally can’t count the number of times I’ve seen this or some minor variation of it, even though I have yet to find anyone who’s actually expressed such disbelief – in other words, it’s countering a comment that no one’s made. But this says a little about assumptions, and filling in the blanks rather than addressing what really has been said, and so I’m going to list out a string of much more specific questions, not to answer them, but to illustrate what is usually being skipped. This bears more than a passing resemblance to Drake’s Equation, at least initially, but goes a little further.

So we’ll start with:

  • Do you think life can develop on other planets?
  • Do you think life has developed on other planets?
  • Do you think intelligent (i.e. spacefaring) life has developed on other planets?
  • Do you think intelligent life presently exists on other planets?
  • Do you think intelligent life exists on other planets within a reasonable contact distance from Earth (say, within 20 light years)?
  • Do you think intelligent life is interested in contact/observation? [This is one that is assumed by the majority of people on either side, but it’s rather a distinct factor.]
  • Do you think intelligent life is able/willing to expend vast amounts of energy on this contact?
  • Do you think intelligent life would initiate contact/observation in person (i.e. within our own solar system) rather than through distant communication?
  • Do you think intelligent life would initiate contact/observation within easily detectable ranges (i.e. within range of radar or astronomical observation)?
  • Do you think intelligent life would initiate contact/observation within lower atmosphere (less than 20,000 feet)?
  • Do you think intelligent life would initiate contact/observation in random areas with highly visible craft?
  • Do you think intelligent life would initiate contact/observation within craft that carried or emitted bright lights to completely eradicate the value of dark skies?
  • Each one of these, of course, is less likely than the previous, perhaps by a minor amount, perhaps exponentially or better. Some of them simply beg the question of why such advanced intelligence would do something so hazardous and/or pointless. I mean, we know the value of shutting off the running lights when we don’t want to be seen, and we can’t even take a jaunt out to Mars and back.

    Most believers operate on the stance that all of these have actually happened, or are at least fairly likely. Most skeptics consider the numbers falling so abysmally low that what is currently considered ‘evidence’ to the believer is most likely misinterpretations, and the active skeptics are often capable of showing how and where. Personally, I find the last five questions to fall below a 1% chance each of happening, and to prove otherwise, someone would need a hell of a lot more than shitty photographs and random eyewitness accounts without a shred of corroboration. Naturally, it would help if a) the field didn’t have a horrendous history of failure, b) the believers showed more than a trace of investigative ability, and c) the ‘evidence’ actually led someplace.

    But I suspect that this divide is mostly due to the difference in emotional attachment to the idea: those that want to believe in extra-terrestrial visitation concentrate on the factors that support the idea and ignore those that counter it, or handwave them away with phrases like, “A sufficiently advanced technology would overcome these restraints,” (as if the mere existence within a useful distance is something that an alien race could develop.) Meanwhile, the extremely minimal information provided by an odd shape on film, or the incredible ease in which someone could be mistaken (much less simply make a story up for giggles,) never even enters into consideration. I’ve made the comparison before to religion – the belief systems really are remarkably similar, but at least the visitation believers have photos…

    I used to be a believer myself, in my youth, and I wish I could point you to the factor that caused me to completely reverse my stance, but I honestly don’t know what (if anything) was key, or when this occurred. I cannot credit it, to my memory, to any particular person or article or anything, and what I recall most is the gradual realization that a) so many of the accounts were overblown and badly misrepresented by sensational media, and b) so many of the believers couldn’t see any flaws, and in fact actively fought against them when confronted with them. I knew, at least, that I did not want to be that blind.

    [I can at least credit some of it to an article in a long-defunct magazine, based on research done on perception and suggestibility – most likely done or influenced by the work of Dr Elizabeth Loftus, who’s a leading figure in the field. I highly recommend looking into this; knowing how easily we can be influenced towards something that we never saw, or never experienced, is eye-opening, and crucial to understanding ‘eyewitness’ testimony at least.]

    Anyway, that’s my introspective, semi-philosophical sidetrack for the season, or the week or whatever. It’s still winter – you can expect more.

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