Uninformed Flying Off the handle
Last night’s Wraithscape column in the Shields Gazette was a classic. I enjoyed it immensely, but probably for the wrong reasons. A yawning checklist of logical fallacies and flawed reasoning, all in reply to one disgruntled reader but taking the opportunity to try and have a go at sceptics who dare to challenge the preconceptions and biases of the X Files crowd. It’s laughable and a great example of how not to air your anxieties in public. So much so that I’ve had to rewrite this to remove my instinctual response to pour on buckets of scorn.
Normally if I see something in the Gazette I disagree with, I’ll write a letter, but once I started shaking the tree of this article I realised that there was no way that I could answer Mike Hallowell’s extra terrestrial apologetics in the 250 word limit of the Have Your Say page.
Here’s a ‘brief’ dissection of the word spew that formed the article in last night’s Shields Gazette, broken down into the paragraphs, with my response following. But before you read on, please read the original first for context, just to make sure I’m not cherry-picking.
After telling his readers he was contacted by one angry individual:
“In an extremely aggressive manner, they suggested that anyone who was broad-minded enough to believe in the existence of UFOs was a crank.”
The reader’s reply does sound a bit nasty, but I call shenanigans on this straight away. I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t acknowledge the existence of unidentified flying objects. Hallowell should know that a UFO shouldn’t be confused with something that’s claimed to be extra terrestrial in origin. If that’s what Hallowell is really referring to, then any self respecting critical thinker wouldn’t use the term ‘broad-minded’ to describe someone who uncritically believed in an unproven and extraordinary proposition. I suspect this trope was of Mike Hallowell’s own creation to put his own position in a good light. In logical fallacy terms, this is what is called a ‘straw man’.
The following comment misrepresents/assumes UFOs as extra-terrestrial. To keep things simple, I’ll use his definition.
“Well, I’ve a few questions I’d to put to those who aren’t just content with denying the existence of UFOs, but also vilifying those who do.”
Does an editor actually read Hallowell’s submissions? Is this a grammatical blunder or does Hallowell want to put questions to those who deny the existence of UFOs AND vilify those who deny the existence of UFOs?
“The universe is a big place, and as far as I’m aware, we earthlings haven’t yet explored every nook and cranny of it.”
As far as I’m aware no-one is suggesting that the universe isn’t really really big, and most physicists agree that at our current understanding of the laws of physics, humans are unlikely to get to see more than a tiny portion of it.
“How the sceptics can then say that there isn’t life in outer space is beyond me. How could they know?”
Again, I’m not aware that this homogenous band of ‘the sceptics’ that Hallowell is conjuring say any such thing. I certainly don’t. Maybe one or two who fit Hallowell’s skewed definition of sceptic do, but by making any such claim it’s difficult to comprehend how they can be classified as sceptics. Scientists and probability suggest that extra-terrestrial life is out there. I’m calling this as a straw man. Or clumsy writing.
“Have we been visited by more advanced lifeforms from other worlds?”
Let’s see what the evidence says: No.
“The only cogent (but not necessarily correct) argument I’ve ever heard is that the vast distances between star systems would make travelling to them impossible.”
Agreed, it’s a reasonable position to take, based on our current understanding of the laws of physics. But that may change as new discoveries are made.
“Well, NASA and other bodies have been looking at several theoretical possibilities as to how this could be accomplished for some time.”
Yes, but you know what? Their work is based on mathematics, science and experiment. Also, calling NASA in on your side seems a little ironic, when it’s not clear if NASA’s boffins agree with Mike Hallowell’s assessments of visitations by little green men. I suspect the consensus of NASA doesn’t fall in his favour.
“The general consensus seems to be that it would be at best difficult, and at worst impossible.”
Didn’t he already say that?
“Of course, as our knowledge of the sciences advances, history tells us that what seems impossible today may simply be difficult tomorrow, and what is difficult today may prove to be as easy as falling off a log next week.”
And it’ll be through proper science, not from presumptions borne out of little more than cultural bias and wishful thinking.
“Any pronouncement that interstellar travel will never be possible is very presumptuous indeed.”
Yes it would be. That’s why very few physicists or sceptics actually make such a claim. We’re back into straw man territory.
“Whether we have actually been visited by extraterrestrial life is another matter, of course. Again, how do the sceptics know?”
They don’t. And neither does Hallowell.
“Were they personally present at every alleged UFO sighting or alien encounter?”
Nope, and neither was Hallowell. Now he’s just being absurd, as well as employing what looks like a warped relativist fallacy. However, that’s not to say that sceptics haven’t seen UFOs. I have, but my only safe conclusion was that it was unidentified, not that it came from another planet.
“No; therefore they simply have no way of establishing that the witnesses were either mistaken, hallucinating or lying.”
And neither does Hallowell, but those explanations he’s supplied seem very reasonable and rational, and much more probable.
“If interstellar travel is possible, then it is highly likely that a number of advanced civilisations have engaged in it and visited other worlds, including ours.”
No, it’s not ‘highly likely’. Its idle speculation with a healthy dash of begging the question.
“Seen in this light, it actually makes more sense to believe in UFOs than not to.”
No it doesn’t, it’s utterly flawed logic and still idle speculation; a false conclusion based on an unproven premise.
“Sceptics (well, the rabidly cynical ones, anyway) are the first to shout, “Where’s the evidence?” when confronted with an alleged paranormal encounter.”
And rightly so. What’s ‘rabidly cynical’ about that? Oh, and here’s another debating tool, the ad-hominem, whilst deftly switching between cynic and sceptic. Ooh you nasty rabid sceptics!
“They’re missing the point. How many sceptics out there have evidence that they ate breakfast yesterday? None, more than likely, but we’d have no reason to disbelieve them.”
No, they’re not missing the point, they’re still waiting for evidence while Hallowell uses the fallacy from absurdity. No one would challenge the mundane claim of eating breakfast unless there was evidence showing otherwise.
“They might even have the eyewitness testimony of their spouse who shared breakfast with them.”
Yes, they would have some physical evidence too: their poo.
“Sceptics would argue that eating breakfast is a mundane event which is perfectly believable, while claiming you’ve seen an extraterrestrial craft and its occupants is not.”
Wow, Hallowell gets it right. But does he understand? Clearly not:
“Actually, what this demonstrates is not that UFO sightings are false, but that the sceptics just don’t possess the vision to accept they might be true.”
‘Possess the vision’? What on earth does that mean? It’s utter nonsense. And a bit new-agey.
“The witnesses were there at the time, the sceptics were not, so whose testimony would it be more logical to believe?”
The ones with evidence. Oh, and as the sceptics weren’t there, they would have no testimony to produce.
“I can sympathise with moderate sceptics who do not accept the existence of UFOs, but who at least reached their conclusions after a period of sober reflection and research.”
What’s a moderate sceptic? Someone who only partially thinks critically? Or is it a sceptic who thinks ‘idiot’ but is too nice to say it? What about someone who believes the testimony of an extraordinary event at face value and without evidence? Does that count as sober reflection?
“Unfortunately, the rabid sceptics out there aren’t satisfied with this, and for some reason feel the need to decry those who claim to have seen UFOs as cranks and those who believe them as idiots.”
Uh-oh, there’s those pesky rabid sceptics again. Agreed, it would be less than charitable to say that those who’ve seen a UFO are cranks or idiots, but the issue is a lot more complex than Hallowell’s black and white approach. And sometimes, people are cranks and idiots.
“Why? Let me tell you; Deep, deep down they’re scared. They’re scared that we really have been visited by alien lifeforms, and so enter a state of denial which they reinforce by launching vicious, personal attacks on anyone who thinks differently.”
Now Hallowell is demonstrating psychic powers and seeing into the minds of people who don’t exist. Now that is worrying. Or is he just projecting his own anxieties? Given the tone of this whole article this doesn’t look all that unlikely.
“That way, they can kid themselves that there are no UFOs and therefore there’s nothing at all to worry about.”
‘They’ don’t have to kid themselves about anything for which there’s no evidence. Therefore, nothing to worry about. Well, apart from the poor souls taken in by the ‘I want to believe’ culture, parted from their money or encouraged to believe they’ve been abducted and raped by aliens. Now that is sick.
“If the only way they can maintain their shaky stance is by heaping abuse on those who think differently, then I pity them.”
I’m sure they’ll be heartbroken.
Okay, so I’ve possibly been a bit harsh. Or rabid even.
I’ve actually seen an unidentified flying object before. However, my first thought wasn’t to jump to the conclusion that the object was from another world or dimension, but to try and work out what the UFO was. I don’t think that it’s unreasonable for me to expect that others would apply the same level of critical thinking. Even though I couldn’t work out what it was, I still couldn’t make the extraordinary leap that it was an extra-terrestrial vehicle. Without evidence, I could just as easily speculate it was time-travellers from the future, angels, or fairies on their evening commute from their fairying work.
That way lies the void of ignorance, where all propositions are equally valid in the melting pot of bizarre beliefs and paranoid conspiracies.
To this day, I don’t know what that UFO was, but to presume it as extra-terrestrial is intellectual laziness.
From the argument presented by Mike Hallowell though, such critical thinking makes me a ‘rabid sceptic’, a bogeyman character so loosely defined it can mean what ever he wants it to mean. It’s reminiscent of the Christian apologists’ mythical nemesis, the ‘militant atheist’, a lazy all-purpose ad-hominem which can be called upon when they are reasoned into a corner and they want to weasel an easy way out.
I read Mike Hallowell’s column every week. Mostly it’s enjoyably harmless, but this week it had a nasty bitter taste of someone trying to make a point against a group of people who are possibly a significant chunk of his readership. Because sceptics like puzzles and weird stuff too.
Let’s hope that Michael Hallowell gets his mojo back for next week and returns to his usual affable self.