The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘Pentagon’

The Pentagon Acknowledges UFO Program

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 30, 2017

There was some interesting news a few weeks ago regarding a secret government program run by the Pentagon which was, apparently, researching UFOs. According to the New York Times…

… The Defense Department has never before acknowledged the existence of the program, which it says it shut down in 2012. But its backers say that, while the Pentagon ended funding for the effort at that time, the program remains in existence. For the past five years, they say, officials with the program have continued to investigate episodes brought to them by service members, while also carrying out their other Defense Department duties.

The shadowy program — parts of it remain classified — began in 2007, and initially it was largely funded at the request of Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who was the Senate majority leader at the time and who has long had an interest in space phenomena. Most of the money went to an aerospace research company run by a billionaire entrepreneur and longtime friend of Mr. Reid’s, Robert Bigelow, who is currently working with NASA to produce expandable craft for humans to use in space.

On CBS’s “60 Minutes” in May, Mr. Bigelow said he was “absolutely convinced” that aliens exist and that U.F.O.s have visited Earth. [emphasis added]…

I both agree and disagree with the last, bolded statement. I disagree that this is evidence of aliens existing; to me, the bar for accepting the existence of extra-terrestrial life is much higher than simply seeing things in the sky that are of unknown origin, which leads me to question leading into my second point.

Why is it that so many people are all-too-willing to, on the basis of incomplete or scant evidence, draw the conclusion that such things are, by default, extra-terrestrial visitors from another planet?

To explore the flaws in such thinking, we must first revisit the definition of the term “UFO”.  A UFO is, by definition, an unidentified flying object.  This means that, quite simply, we do not know what it is – it doesn’t mean that it’s a bird, weather balloon, alien spacecraft, or even Santa Claus (but I highly doubt it is Santa Claus, for reasons outlined here).  It means that we lack enough information to state that we know what it is.

But this area of uncertainty is where the alien spacecraft advocates insert their questionable logic.  Usually, the argument goes something like this: “Well, it couldn’t be anything else but an alien ship!”  Right? Wrong. To claim that a UFO is an alien spacecraft is to identify it, which is a direct contradiction; you cannot claim that something is both unidentified yet identified simultaneously.

Such an erroneous argument is sometimes called the argument from ignorance or the god-of-the-gaps, and it is a very common mistake in reasoning. In the past, strange and unexplained phenomena were often explained in explicitly religious terms via the god-of-the-gaps.  In humanity’s ignorance, lightning was attributed to the moods of powerful deities such as Thor or Zeus, and other seemingly “miraculous” events were said to be the work of angels, demons, or God. But now we know better… or do we?

In modern times, what seems to have changed is not so much our reasoning, but the boogeymen we tap in an attempt to explain our ignorance.  Rather than explain what we don’t know by making appeals to the blatantly supernatural (deities, angels, or leprechauns), more and more of us are using a new pseudo-religion of UFOology to explain the unknown as aliens in their ships with advanced technology.  Perhaps when discussing UFOs, we should speak not of the god-of-the-gaps argument but “alien-of-the-gaps” instead.

Therefore, in the end, all this Pentagon program illustrates is something that really shouldn’t be that surprising: sometimes fighter pilots see things in the sky that are of unknown origin. That’s it.

So what’s the best response when confronted with something that we don’t understand, such as a funny object in the night sky?  In the absence of any definitive evidence, the best answer is simply to state the most obvious truth: “We don’t know.”

For some reason, those three words are very unsettling to many, but the acknowledgement of what we do not know is often the first step to attaining new knowledge.


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9/11 and “How the World Changed”: My Thoughts Ten Years Later

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 11, 2011

Here I sit on the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, and I find myself reflecting on the last ten years since that day.  I wanted to write down some of my thoughts in this blog post, because when it comes to the issue of 9/11 specifically and the broader issue of terrorism in general, I think there is much need for skepticism and critical thinking.  This is most especially true because of the high level of emotion and passion the whole issue of 9/11 invokes, and when our emotions are stirred so strongly we must make sure to temper our passion with reason.  So, here goes…

After ten years, what has become glaringly apparent to me is that the events of 9/11 changed things, but in my opinion it was not really in the way that many people think.  First, I have to say that every time I hear someone say or read that “On Sept. 11th the world changed” or something similar, I just have to shake my head because I think this kind of statement shows an interesting bias.  I say this because, fundamentally, nothing about the world around us really changed on that day – both before and after 9/11, the Earth turns on its axis, the sun rises and sets, and the universe trundles merrily along.  What did change on that day is the perspective which many people, mostly those of us within the United States, view the world around us.  It is unfortunate, I think, that many of us conflate these two things in our minds: we equate how they view the world with how the world actually works.  And this is, I think, the cause of much irrationality and muddled thinking.

Many of us were shaken to our core at the horrors we witnessed as not one, but two, planes slammed into the World Trade Center buildings, and as we heard the news of the attack on the Pentagon.  The sight of the Twin Towers collapsing further sent a shudder down our collective spines, and we lamented the seemingly senseless loss of life in such magnitude.  In some ways, we were brutally and startlingly shaken out of our complacency, which for some consisted of a belief that we in the United States were somehow – magically – immune to such devastation.  And when evidence to the contrary was presented to us, in a most horrific fashion, the reaction of many was precisely what one would expect: fear and anger.

There have been a lot of things written about 9/11 and its aftermath, but one thing I want to note is the manner in which many different people have reacted to the fear and anger brought to the surface due to 9/11: by seeking out some kind of evil “Other” to use as a boogeyman.  Now, don’t misinterpret me here – it is obvious that the attacks of 9/11 were planned and carried out by Al Qaeda, and the concern about groups such as Al Qaeda and the terrorism they perpetuate is a legitimate subject of concern that should be addressed.  What I am talking about goes beyond pointing out the very real threat posed by groups such as Al Qaeda; I am instead speaking of a broader pattern which has become apparent to me over the years.

For example, there are some people who have chosen the “Other” to be all Muslims, equating them with terrorists.  They point to the religion of Islam and its followers and make erroneous statements that we are now in some kind of cultural (or, more disturbingly, “holy”) war between the Western world and the Islamic world.

There are also those who choose the nefarious “Other” to be atheists and godless liberals.  These people tend towards the view espoused by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson that the Sept. 11th attacks were somehow a punishment from God against the United States for our nation tolerating atheism and homosexuality in our population.  Many people who cater to this view of the “Other” also seem to view all Muslims as the enemy, as stated above.

Then some people take a look at 9/11 and see the “Other” as the United States government or some portion of it.  These tend to be the people who buy into various 9/11 conspiracy theories, and they are in complete denial about the mountain of facts and evidence that show the September 11th attacks were the result of terrorism at the hands of Al Qaeda.  Many of these people also have a talent for blatantly denying physics in an attempt to justify their worldview, and some even try to work in versions of anti-Semitism by implying that 9/11 was some kind of Jewish plot (thus making Jews the “Other” as well).

Last, but not least, there are those – many of whom are in the skeptical movement – who blame all religion as the evil “Other”.  This includes many of the so-called New Atheist writers (many of whose writings I have read and, in many ways, admire) who seem to think there is something inherently dangerous about any kind of religious belief.  I think it is worth noting that many who call themselves skeptics should be a bit skeptical of making such a sweeping generalization without a more rigorous analysis of the available data.  For reference on this particular point, I suggest the reader listen to a recent, excellent interview of Scott Atran on the Point of Inquiry podcast.

There are numerous variations on this theme of paranoia, fear, and the desire to find an “Other” to blame for the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent repercussions throughout society since that day, but one thing that unites them all is an irrational desire to categorize the situation into a simplistic, black and white, us versus them kind of worldview.  This is perfectly understandable once you know that humans are basically tribalistic in the manner in which they form societies and groups within those societies.  We are, in many ways, hard wired to engage in this kind of simplistic tribal thinking, and we carry it out in our everyday lives all the time.

Our tribal tendencies manifest themselves in myriad ways: in what religion/God/gods we worship, in what political beliefs/parties we adhere to, in our choice of sports team that we support, and even among those of us who call ourselves skeptics.  Sometimes these tribal tendencies are relatively harmless, but in other situations they can be downright dangerous.

Of course, the problem is that in reality the world isn’t always so simplistic.  And this goes back to my original point about our perspective of the world is not the same thing as how the world actually works, which forms the core of this particular blog post.  Most especially when we are frightened and our passions are inflamed by events such as Sept. 11th, it is critical that we not make the fundamental mistake of buying into this mode of thinking because it is the very root of how so much thinking can go terribly wrong.

In closing, allow me to finish with this thought: September 11th, 2001 was an awful enough day as it was… we shouldn’t add insult to injury by allowing our darker natures to overwhelm our ability to reason.

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