Monday, November 17, 2008

Science and Charlatans

There has been a disturbing story circulating on UFO UpDates and told by Billy Cox on his blog and who is a real friend of the UFO community. According to these stories, Stan Friedman was to lecture at a science museum and that invitation was challenged by a "real" scientist, Paul Cottle, (see http://www.flascience.org/wp/?p=768)) who suggested that the study of UFOs is a "pseudoscience" and thought of Friedman, according to these reports, as a "charlatan."

Now, as many of you know, Stan and I have had our differences over the years. Simply look at the arguments about MJ-12 and you’ll understand some of it. But this really is too much, no matter what you think of Friedman, his theories, and his research.

These "scientists", and all too often the members of CSI (which used to be CSICOP before they changed their name) have long thought they needed to protect us unwashed heathens from those attempting to sell us snake oil. They have decided that we are incapable of discerning the truth for ourselves and always there to force the truth down our throats even if that truth smacks of their own dogma.

I won’t bother with a long list of things that scientists knew before the evidence finally overwhelmed them forcing them to reevaluate their positions. The history of science if loaded with things that we all just knew to be real until the radical new ideas were forced on us. I’m thinking here of germ theory, genetic mutation and the demise of the dinosaurs, just to name a few.

In this case the "scientists" who know relatively nothing about UFOs decided that they weren’t worthy of study. After all, didn’t Dr. Edward U. Condon study the flying saucers in the late 1960s and conclude that they weren’t anything to be taken seriously by science. Aren’t they "often-debunked pseudoscience?" No further study required.

Isn’t it true that there is no evidence of these alien visitations, so we can ignore the testimony of airline pilots entrusted with the lives of hundreds, of police officers who clearly don’t understand what is in the sky around them, and all sorts of professionals who have reported UFOs in the past including such scientists as Clyde Tombaugh?

Can’t we ignore the solid movies and photographs taken in the past? Haven’t reputable scientists found the pictures to be faked? Aren’t the reports corroborated by radar merely the mistakes of the air traffic controllers and others who are supposed to know the difference? Can’t we ignore the evidence collected at more than 4000 landings around the world?

Didn’t the Air Force prove that the 1947 Roswell UFO crash was nothing more than a Project Mogul balloon array... even though there were no unaccounted for launches, the balloon array would have been recognized for what it was, a balloon array, by those who found it and there is no record of a Flight No. 4 which was identified as the culprit by the skeptics. Can’t we just ignore the testimonies of those hundreds who were involved in the clean up because it doesn’t fit into our "accepted" reality?

I have nothing against any scientist who expresses an opinion, but I do have something against those who express uninformed opinions. Just because someone can append letters after his or her name, doesn’t mean that his or her opinion about everything is valid, especially when they have made no attempt to check the current literature. (For those interested, when I was working on my Ph. D., and when I became bored with psychology after long hours, I would look up UFOs in the scientific literature and found more than 100 articles in the psychology library, not all of them dismissing the topic as debunked.)

Years ago I had the opportunity to interview James A. van Allen, a scientist I believe everyone can respect. The topic was the idea that the Tunguska explosion of 1908 was the result of a failure in the power plant of an alien spacecraft. Van Allen knew the topic and granted me a couple of hours of his time.

Several things struck me at that interview. One, he was gracious enough to talk to me about a subject that might have been considered pseudoscience. Two, he had studied the Tunguska case because it interested him. And three, rather than rejecting what I said about it, he would ask, "What’s your source on that?"

He was of the opinion that a comet had disintegrated about five miles high and the resulting explosion, which would have been massive, was the reason that impact site resembled ground zero where atomic bombs had been tested.

We also talked briefly about UFOs on another occasion and he seemed to be willing to listen to the evidence. He wasn’t about to make a pronouncement based on what he thought to be the evidence, but rather on what the evidence showed.

He did say that if you were in the middle of Wyoming and heard the thunder of hooves, you don’t expect zebra. Which means, of course, you must eliminate the mundane before you graduate to the unusual.

With today’s keepers of the flame, those who profess to have the light while the rest of us wander in the dark unable to find our way, can we expect anything other than immediate dismissal? Without looking at a shred of evidence, they are able to tell us what is and what isn’t.
This debate, such as it was, next turned to Dr. Gregory Boebinger, the director of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee. He asked "Is the Brogan [the Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science in Tallahassee which hosted Friedman’s presentation] planning to host future exhibits on palm reading and astrology? Surely, when a science museum hosts often-debunked pseudoscience, it is not only using ‘a variety of entertaining experiences to attract audiences to science,’ as Ms. Barber [the Executive Director of the museum] contends, but it also insidiously endorsing pseudoscience and attracting our children and the public away from science."

Nothing like reducing UFO study to that of palm reading and astrology. Nothing like calling UFO research pseudoscience without knowing a thing about it.

Let’s talk about pseudoscience. Let’s talk about th epitome of pseudoscience which is known as the Condon Report, or officially as the Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects which was conducted at the University of Colorado and funded with more than half a million taxpayer dollars thanks to the Air Force. (For a little more detail, look at The Hippler Letter published on this blog in March 2007.)

In fact, in 1967, Condon delivered a lecture to scientists in Corning, New York telling them, "It is my inclination right now to recommend that the government get out of this business. My attitude right now is that there is nothing in it. But I am not supposed to reach a conclusion for another year." So much for science.

Condon did reach the conclusion that there was no threat to national security, which was one of his missions, but he also concluded that no further study was required, even after more than thirty percent of the reports in his study were not identified. Even after one sighting was identified as a phenomenon so rare it had never been seen before or since and certainly doesn’t tell us what it was. So much for science.

These other scientists, Cottle and Boebinger for example, are certainly familiar with the Air Force study of UFOs known as Project Blue Book (yes, that is sarcasm) and although the Air Force claimed they had identified all but three or four percent of the sightings, the true number is considerably higher. The Air Force often labeled a sighting as "Insufficient for Scientific Analysis," which, of course, doesn’t explain it, but kept it out of the "Unidentified" category.

The evidence, all the evidence that science could want, is out there. Instead of looking at it, we had scientists such as Donald Menzel who called the pictures taken by Carl Hart, Jr. over Lubbock, Texas a hoax without proof or evidence of a hoax. The problem for Menzel was that if those pictures hadn’t been faked by Hart, then there was no earthly explanation for them. So much for science.

And in keeping with that tradition, Cottle and Boebinger have not bothered to respond to these questions and points. Cottle just said that his letter to the editor was his message to the local community. Boebinger has yet to respond.

So much for science.

5 comments:

RRRGroup said...

Kevin:

A lot of time and web-space is being wasted on Cottle's commentary and the anti-science stance.

Ufologist -- you included -- have got to dismiss those who don't have an inkling about the UFO phenomenon.

Establish what UFOs are and the schizoid rhetoric of science will be hushed.

You and the UFO UpDate crowd spend too much time on UFO enemies, and forget to zero in on the phenomenon.

A few reminiscences about old UFO cases, and Roswell, take up a lot of your blog space.

It's time to get serious, again, about the phenomenon.

Move forward, not backward, or sideways, which is what the Cottle brouhaha is doing.

RR

cda said...

'Charlatan' is far too strong a word to describe a ufologist such as Friedman. The term only applies to those who have deliberately faked documents, photos, films and alleged hardware. A better term for Friedman (and some others) would be 'ETH zealot'. I agree that those scientists who have not studied the subject have no right to dismiss it out of hand. We must remember, though, that so many 'good' UFO cases do not bear examination when subjected to scientific scrutiny. The few that do stand up are regarded as 'oddities' or cases with 'insufficient information' as you have said.

Abduction cases also put real scientists off the whole subject, as do stories of crashed saucers. In the early days, contactee stories put scientists off the subject. Unfortunately it is difficult, if not impossible, to present a watertight case for the UFO as an ET craft. People like Stan Friedman let themselves down (and then let the whole subject down) by continually plugging hopeless, and laughable, causes like MJ-12. Others plug the autopsy film, the Manhattan abduction, the absurd USAF-UFO aerial dogfight at the time of the Flatwoods case, and so on. These 'deviations' do the subject no good whatever, and do it a lot of harm. But you can see why so many scientists reject UFOs out of hand. In general, scientists tend to take the safe option and be negative, even if open to being proved wrong. The conspiracy tales do the subject no good either, none whatever.

Sarge said...

For some Science has become almost a religion. Only the High Priest, with the right letters after his name, can pronounce the truth to the masses.
"Uneducated" has become a catch word of those who refer to those who disagree with them. Whatever the subject, UFO's, animal rights, politics, or whatever it may be, if you don't agree you are just uneducated.
And if they do condescend to give you the truth and you reject it, you are ignorant, and worse, as well.
"Man is the ultimate creature in the universe and if man cannot do it nothing can" is the doctrineand mantra of the church of science.
May the heretics keep trying.

NeilJenkins said...

Thanks for posting your article, Kevin. I'd like to concur. [And it turned out to be a rather lengthy concurrence!]

There's a lot that Stanton Friedman says that I disagree with and I do tend to think that he focusses too much on things that don't help (as another poster said). However, he is trying to get the message across that there is something here that we should really think about more seriously than we are, and that should be applauded, not rejected out of hand.

I myself am a man of science. My background is in astrophysics and theoretical physics and I am now a satellite ground systems specialist. Like all scientists, I have been trained to apply knowledge and logic to problems. However, the important point (often only realised after some time) is the extent of the 'knowledge'. Science has answered many questions over the past few hundred years (some not so well, perhaps!), but we have only ever scratched the surface, as you say in your article. In the late 1800s, after Maxwell unified electricity and magnetism, physicists considered that this, coupled with Newtonian mechanics and the supplementation of Kepler's laws, was all there was to know about the Universe and that future physics would be essentially a tidying up exercise; mere mathematical and experimentation cosmetics. Then came Einstein's special, then general, theories of relativity and, of course, the quantum theory. Back to the drawing board. Then Big Bang theory, string theor(ies!)y, the Many Worlds hypothesis, etc. etc. That drawing board has been used many times in physics and experience suggests that it should be kept handy at all times!

And here's the problem. People, educated in the sciences or not, do have a natural tendency to use their existing knowledge and opinions to view the world. It's like the analogy of the person who drops their keys in the street at night and looks for them under a street light even though they dropped them in an unlit area (they look where the light is).

A clear example is the way people argue against the possibility of ET visitations. I'm still open-minded as to whether or not we're being visited by ETs. However, I do grow tired of people who say "ah yes, but even if life exists elsewhere in the Galaxy they won't be able to visit us because it'll take them too long to reach us, as Einstein has taught us". But these people view the possibilities according to the street light; in other words, according to current knowledge and theories. As Michio Kaku has pointed out, if an ET civilisation was even a few hundred years more advanced than us we would not be able to apply our current knowledge to understand their capabilities, let alone to predict and anticipate them. As the late Arthur C. Clarke once famously said, to us the capabilities of a suitably advanced civilisation would be indistinguishable from magic.

Another aspect of seemingly natural human thinking is an inability to look beyond what they believe or want to see. I have assisted in paranormal investigations in the past and was often confronted with evidence (especially photographic) which is clearly something easily explainable. No matter how convinced I am, how much I can prove it or how well I can explain it, people who want to believe (UFOs, ghosts, telepathy, ...) just will not accept it. I always used to preach "look for the earthly before considering the unearthly", but have learnt that, while true, it is a largely wasted message on most people. Conversely, I've seen evidence which I think is genuinely intriguing and which cannot be easily explained which "scientific" people dismiss without good reason. So there really is little prospect for winning such arguments, either way.

I've come to the opinion that the vast majority of people are difficult (if not impossible) to convince, both for AND against. In the middle, there are a small number of genuinely open-minded, logical, realistic and inquisitive individuals who are prepared to (i) accept that they might have dropped their keys in the dark, and (ii) venture into the dark to look for them!! Therefore, as another poster pointed out, those seeking to explore in the dark (i.e. the truth) should do so without worrying unduly about convincing the unconvinced!

Bonne courage รก tous!

Neil Jenkins

Daniel said...

Kevin and others: Skeptoids need to be reminded that science is a universal method of inquiry. No one has a right to say "science can apply here but not there." In other words, any field of inquiry is fair game for science.

So in and of itself a *field of inquiry* cannot logically be called a "pseudoscience." Only *poor methodology* can qualify anything as pseudoscience.