Not on Fermi ground…
Just over two years ago Mike Hallowell vomited a confused mess of an article over a page in the Shields Gazette, generally having a go at an imagined army of ‘rabid’ sceptics who dared to cast doubt on the belief that extra-terrestrials are visiting our planet in UFOs. I found nothing convincing in his argument, nor in his lengthy responses to my blog post dissecting his nonsense.
Tonight he’s tilting at sceptics again, regurgitating the same arguments, albeit with a twist at the end where he offers a different opinion on the source of UFOs. I could offer a similar robust critique to tonight’s article, but my original response pretty much stands up to the same teetering Jenga tower of logical fallacies. Essentially he’s trying a play on the Fermi paradox but without any serious analysis of elephant in the room: where is the convincing incontrovertible evidence? As Fermi said “Where is everybody?” All of the ‘sceptics’ I know agree that there is a good probability that there is life elsewhere in our galaxy of 300 billion stars, and further into the universe. Indeed, the ‘irrational’ Carl Sagan was hugely optimistic that life was out there. It would be sad if there wasn’t.
But that doesn’t mean ETs have been here (yet at least), and there’s nothing that definitively proves that they have. The best challenge Hallowell could muster for the lack of evidence was this painfully desperate gambit
One sceptic argued with me that “not a single piece of evidence exists that UFOS ever visited earth” .
This is a staggering claim, and one which could only be verified by searching every square inch of our planet – overground, underground, land-based and oceanic.
That’s right. His argument is ‘you can’t say there’s no evidence if you haven’t found that there’s no evidence’. Not a single piece of evidence has been found that flying horses exist or have existed either, but there are many people who suffer the delusion that flying horses existed. Perhaps evidence for them is underground or underwater somewhere.
The headline to the article was “UFO sceptics’ claims are wearing thin”, but the burden of proof doesn’t lie at the feet of sceptics, it’s with those who are making claims of visitations by ETs. Perhaps we will be visited one day, or perhaps it will be us who visit life on other worlds.
Amusingly, Hallowell spent nearly the whole article telling us how sceptics are wrong to doubt that extra-terrestrials have visited Earth, but then finishes with an astonishing
Do UFOs hail from other planets, and are their occupants truly extraterrestrial? Or, could they instead be interdimensional and hail from an alternate dimension or parallel world?
Personally I plump for the latter idea…
That’s right, he lambasts sceptics for not believing in something he doesn’t believe in.
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.
As regular UFO features in local newspapers demonstrate, stories of little green men from other worlds are very popular. Mysterious tales of flying objects, crashing objects and people abducted by extra terrestrials determined to push the limits of anal probing can be found threaded through popular culture and media. It’s big business, a business that uses the tiniest grains of anecdotal evidence to fuel speculation and spectacular claims, and at the same time make a tidy income for those only too happy to cash in on the mythology.
Despite the famous ‘Roswell Incident‘ having been debunked for many years, writers are still drawn to repeat the myth that has grown around a concatenation of unrelated incidents in New Mexico, and suggest dark motives behind mysterious government forces allegedly working to conceal the ‘truth’ of Roswell’s past.
Today’s news, that the FBI had destroyed thousands of reports of alleged UFO incidents during the 1940s and 1950s, will no doubt feed into one of the core components of the alien visitation mythos: the theory that governments across the world are involved in a huge conspiracy to cover up visitation by beings from other worlds.
The breadth of such a conspiracy would be immense – tens or hundreds of thousands of people working in governments across the globe keeping a secret that would change our understanding of our place in the universe.
However, instead of a saucy conspiracy, the reality is much less glamorous. The FBI simply didn’t have the space to store the records, records which they admitted were of no interest.
Less X-Files, more crank files.
Nevertheless, we can look forward to the many UFO ‘believers’ out there implying that this is another example of a dirty tricks campaign orchestrated by shadowy government bodies to hide the ‘truth’ about UFOs.
For the FBI, the ‘truth’ isn’t out there. It’s in the trashcan, where it belongs.
Most people will have seen the spooky shows on TV, Ghost Hunters, Most Haunted and so on to know that there’s a standard format. People go into a spooky building, in the dark with eerie night vision cameras, jumping at every noise, temperature drop or imagined touches on the shoulder, then run out screaming. If they’re lucky, they’ve got a psychic with them to commune with the spirits, if not they resort to spiritual automatic writing or dabble with an ouija board.
Accounts of alleged paranormal incidents can feature shovelfulls of excited hyperbole and excruciating cliché.
Dare to criticise such practices, or have the temerity to ask for evidence, and you risk being labelled a rabid skeptic who doesn’t know anything, after all you weren’t there. To self styled paranormal investigators, those with a skeptical approach are an enemy to their wisdom, a wisdom borne of front line paranormal investigation experience and the occasional spirit guide.
It’s refreshing then to read this article in the Salon which shows that skeptics aren’t alone in being the object of disdain of paranormal folk, they’re quite bitchy about each other too:
Nichols pointed out a laundry list of what he calls bad science in the series: Investigations always take place at night (Why would ghosts come out only then? How can you be a good observer in the dark?); investigators use unproven, “scientific seeming” instruments like magnetometers, which have ultimately failed to produce replicable results; they suggest that every odd sound, every “cold spot” and every “orb” (which have been explained away as side effects of digital cameras) are signs of ghosts. More generally, as Nichols put it, “they just run around like little girls.”
That about sums it up. Yet people still watch the shows and read the books and newspapers full of unscientific unevidenced drivel. Here in South Shields, our own local newspaper the Shields Gazette regularly features spooky articles with little more than anecdote and speculation fed on a diet of confirmation bias.
It shows that for the meantime at least, the public desire to believe in the supernatural and the extraordinary makes money, which makes the weird a lot more lucrative than scientific and rational explanations.
I’ve been catching up with back episodes of QI on BBC and the other night I came across the episode with the QI crop circle. The QI crop circle has become skeptic gold after it was covered by a Norwegian TV show (in the YouTube video below) with a woman who believes crop circles hold special powers. You might laugh (I did at first), but it’s a depressing insight into the mindset of someone so deeply into what they consider as extra-natural phenomena that their grip on reality has been severely compromised. The Norwegian crop circle enthusiast in the video displays what could be described as a religious experience with her first “fresh” crop circle. As the video will subsequently show, she is deluding herself. It’s what can happen when an innocent interest turns into blind faith.
Before I go further I should clarify my position on aliens. I’m not saying that there isn’t life on other planets in other star systems; according to some estimates it’s pretty likely that there are. However, the distances involved and our current understanding of physics suggests that it’s highly unlikely we’ve been visited, particularly given the lack of evidence of alien footsteps on our planet.
Crop circles as evidence of extra-terrestrial contact is not impossible, but incredibly implausible. If extra-terrestrials did manage to find a shortcut around the laws of physics, and did want to contact us, then why bother with cryptic corn communiques? If they have found a way to travel the countless light years of the cosmos, such an alien race would have no problem getting to grips with our puny telecommunications technology. Why not communicate by radio, laser or Facebook?
Alien involvement in crop circles has long been debunked, not least by crop circle maker Matthew Williams, the only person in the UK so far to be charged and convicted for property damage in relation to his mischievous activities.
Despite the evidence to the contrary, many still believe crop circles to be the work of extra-terrestrial visitors or supernatural powers, which have left the sites with mysterious energies and unexplained auras. Any ‘evidence’ that is collected remains in a permanent secret limbo of investigation by unnamed experts, with no release for independent analysis.
I can understand our interest with the skies and things we don’t understand. As I write Jupiter is rising is the east of South Shields’ skies, a bright orangey glow. Over our heads satellites and space debris zip around in orbit, showing as speeding white lights, or a strobe light reflecting light as they tumble along in their journey, occasionally catching sunlight. I know this because someone else has gone to all the hard work of mapping these objects out. To me the knowledge is more exciting than the mystery, but to so many others the mist of ignorance holds a magic, so much so that mundane sky objects like aircraft, fireworks and Chinese lanterns immediately become visitors from another planet.
So what’s the harm in mixing a bit of X-Files style titillation with New-Age nonsense?
Watch the video and make your own mind up.