The Skeptical Teacher

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

Posts Tagged ‘Robert Bigelow’

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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