The LA Times reports on the MUFON conference with the headline “convention emphasizes scientific methods”. The reporter then skewers this idea by showing how at least some of the attendees have thoroughly embraced the idea of alien visitation and human-alien hybridization. Oh my.
The reporter doesn’t have to go to the fringe to point out the sham of science here. It’s more basic than that – rooted in popular misunderstanding about what science is and what scientists do.
UFO researchers, including MUFON, were included in my study of ARIGs (amateur research and investigation groups). I looked at how they use the concept of science and being scientific in their activities. In this article, we see some common devices come up: they emphasize the “precision of a scientist” and the use of devices; they document reports, they are “professional”. All that is fine but certain critical components of being scientific are missing.
First, scientific training is absent. Almost no ARIG participants have academic training as scientists. Among many science concepts they are not familiar with, they have not been schooled in how personal bias scuttles the reliability of scientific results. Scientific procedure is about careful collection of data but also strongly emphasizes the elimination of bias. The majority of UFO investigators (along with ghost and cryptid researchers) are pro-paranormal. They readily embrace a paranormal explanation, often as a default. “I can’t explain this, ergo, it must be paranormal,” be that alien technology, spirits or something else that is not accepted by science. This is not logical and it’s wrong. It’s unscientific. Your average working scientist is not allowed to go this route. Thus, we can see why a path to scientific acceptance is blocked at the first gate.
The UFO researchers are upset that that the scientific community does not accept their evidence as compelling. Their standards for evidence are very different from mine. Paranormal research is sustained by subjective experiences and reported stories. If you, Mr. Researcher, are going to ask me to accept that eyewitness A’s story defies currently accepted science, concluding that aliens are buzzing earth, you have to have WAY better evidence than subjective, non-verifiable stories. You will need to give me corroborating lines of evidence that can be checked and tested. You need to give me an explanation that fits with the physics and science knowledge we already confirmed. It has to make sense. UFO research fails to do this. Instead, they propose speculative theories supported by weak anecdotal evidence. Scientists who examined the evidence for UFO sightings decades ago determined that this subject and its evidence was about as strong as wet paper. They left, leaving the field to the few deviant scientists and devoted amateurs.
But, I do not mean to say that this isn’t a field worthy of research.
People have experiences that they can’t explain. Currently some genuine research is going on regarding our perceptions, our faulty memories and our need to interpret things in certain ways. That’s extremely valuable study. Yet, that’s not what UFO researchers are doing. They are attempting to show there is a residuum of data that ought to be taken as evidence that something paranormal is going on. One is always going to have some data that doesn’t fit. Maybe it’s an error. Maybe there are details or other parts missing so we can’t make a clear decision about what happened. Leaping to the paranormal conclusion is a fundamental mistake. The more accurate statement is, “We just don’t know for sure what happened”. I wish ARIGs would conclude that more often. The primary reason they do not is that it fails to feed into their presupposed idea about their subject area.
ARIGs perform a useful social function, as the continued existence of groups such as MUFON show. Not only do they keep the popular paranormal meme alive, they are a way for witnesses to share their disturbing experience with someone who is sympathetic. Frankly, the scientists don’t pay attention anymore (for reasons stated above) but the public thinks they SHOULD. Something unexplainable in the sky is an interesting mystery – why shouldn’t a scientist be interested? ARIGs undertake the role scientists abandoned long ago in this area. In addition, ARIGs have co-opted the trappings of science to go with it. I think it’s a good thing that MUFON trains their investigators in a standard way. A community standard of evidence collection is important, however, it’s not enough to count as scientific.
Another crucial component missing in ARIG communities is critique. There is no peer review, publication and skeptical critique. These communities are CLOSED to outsiders who take a different view (such as scientific skeptics). We are not wanted. Thus, the amateur research into UFOs, ghosts or cryptids never gets better. It gets more superficially sophisticated and “scientifical” which does nothing to improve upon it except to add false credibility in the public’s eyes. I worry about this. The public thinks what they do is science. It falls FAR short of that.