Research groups’ useful social function is not “being scientific”

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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. (Read about a scientist’s experience in attending a MUFON conference here.

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 are going to 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.

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8 thoughts on “Research groups’ useful social function is not “being scientific”

  1. Oh, I’d say it’s worse than not getting any better. It’s getting worse. Scholarship and investigation are hard, and as you note, have to be routinely examined for bias (including even just entrenched interests if an idea has been around long enough or is important enough to one’s ego or status, never mind external biases). And it isn’t just external checking that is lacking and scorned, but often internal. Because the vast majority of evidence is actually accounts of events by living people, there is also a common notion that unless there is damning proof of dishonesty, it is rude to dishonest to doubt or question such accounts of the paranormal. As well as the second-hand handling of accounts and evidence by ARIs (any number of recent disappointments and clashes in cryptozoology or ufology, especially the abduction wing, comes to mind). By contrast, one of the first reactions amongst scholars and scientists is to replicate as best can be (literally replicate if in a lab, check what evidence can be checked and perhaps test with new evidence if talking about a field/historical science) some new finding. This doesn’t always work, and I can think of examples where alternative viewpoints were silenced through force of personality and political standing (though they usually came to the fore and were accepted with time, while others that did not fit the evidence did not get such reconsideration).

    I say this in general, but examination of these “fields,” points to many places where it is the case. In ufology, elaborate worldviews of disclosure, hybrids, multi-species abduction triangle geopolitics, underground bases, and so on are standard topics at conferences. Such topics have been with ufology before there were flying saucers (see the Shaver Mysteries as the most-saucer relevant tip of the pulp/occult iceberg, with Lovecraft and Theosophy down near the base of the floating block of frozen-alien-containing antarctic ice), and were routine at Contactee gatherings like those that organized at Giant Rock. But they weren’t part of ufology for decades, and were shunned as such. With each passing year, they become a bigger and bigger part of that world, though. I’ll leave it to you as to why: because such worldviews have evidence backing them, because they’re more entertaining/engrossing, because they tap into a more devoted audience for paying publishers and conferences, or fill in your own answer.

    Personally, I think this is going to cause these fields, in the mid-term, to decline and eventually vanish, as they chase down their own intracommunity rabbit holes, with no mooring to the outside world, and hostility to any attempt to attach said mooring. While such beliefs might not entirely disappear, they will stop being pseudosciences cleaving close to science, and become more and more occultism or esotericism, depending on how you wish to frame it. I particularly see traces of this in the increasing attempts to re-frame all paranormalia as demonology. As I argue here

    http://spookyparadigm.blogspot.com/2011/06/demons-great-old-ones-and-unified-field.html

    I think we’re seeing the emergence of a unified field theory of the paranormal. Nowhere near accepted universally yet, but this example is only one of many that seem to be becoming more and more popular.

    • idoubtit

      I’m reading Regal’s Searching for Sasquatch. So far, it overlaps a lot of what I examined with ARIGs but it goes into depth about the professionals. Curious. UFOs on the other hand is off the edge. Is there even one semi-credible scientist involved. The degree of crackpot fantasy there is too much. As you said, it will spin off into complete oblivion. I think it’s way more than halfway there.

      I wonder…is it best to ignore these folks, address their errors and faulty conclusions, or ridicule them? Not sure.

  2. Vallee was doing real work in computer science at some point, and early on he did apply his professional work in statistics to UFO reports. But he made his name in doing a version of folklore and then in general writing. There were others who were credentialed and practicing scientists back in the 1960s in fields at least somewhat credibly associated with the problem (Hynek the astronomer and MacDonald the atmospheric researcher come to mind). But this has largely come to an end. There are some degreed professionals in more technical fields, but they either end up working outside of their fields (Stanton Friedman has a master’s degree in physics, but all of his UFO research is largely interviews and document research), or end up doing work that reasonable lay people, never mind colleagues could have a problem with (I can make some reading suggestions via email).

    Then there is the whole morass of abduction, which did attract a couple of scholars who were advocates/therapists/researchers. One, John Mack the psychologist, has had his methods critiqued, particularly his vagueness on how he framed the entire thing in an imaginal but not imaginary ethereal realm that in writing or public addresses he just sort of took for granted as existing. He died in a traffic accident some years ago. The other, historian David Jacobs, well, I think you’re aware of the recent controversies swirling about him, accusations and counter accusations regarding his hypnotherapy research and his subjects, relating to his published concerns about an alien hybrid takeover of the planet.

    There has been cultural scholarship from the outside on the topic of course, but I don’t think that’s what you’re asking about. Though it is becoming clear even within significant sections of ufology that if culture is not addressed and understood, ufological research fails.

    I don’t feel as comfortable talking about the practice and people of cryptozoology as I do about ufology, for several reasons (though I think I have some handle on it), but do you really think it is all that different from the UFOs in terms of fringes? I mean, you have bigfoot contactees, ranging from those in habituation cases involving wood knocking, stick symbols, and gift exchange, all the way up to psychic conclaves, discussion of different global tribes of humanoids and so on. And this has time depth too, just like the pre-saucer pre-UFO roots, such as with the psychic abilities aspect of the famous Ape Canyon attack tale, which are not usually repeated with the dramatic siege of the cabin story. You’ve got the whole UFOs and portals and bigfoot connection that pops up in different places. There’s the “Bigfoot can radiate EMP or ultrasound” to either scare humans away or wreck their electronics. And so on. While the core claim of bigfoot (an unknown ape or hominid) is arguably more grounded (and to me, this actually makes it even less credible because it is more falsifiable), I’m not so sure there is that huge a difference, and it also seems that like the UFO, the farther we get from the 1960s, the more the esoteric elements are proliferating, in part due to that issue of falsifiability. Oh, and then there is the conspiracy angle which seems to be such a poor fit, but keeps popping up too, ranging from self-censorship by the scientific community to the idea that good footage of cryptids is indeed being with-held.

    As to what to do about all this, that’s a really good question. I’m actually considering co-authoring something on this topic, which I can discuss more not in public as it is in the planning stages right now. But I’d say that you’ll never satisfy those making theoretical claims (ie, ARIs, authors of this stuff, and so on). They’ll always be slippery and change the goal posts or do all the stuff that skeptics have been outlining for years. I think that we have to know these people, and know their ways, but also know that you aren’t going to change them.

    Their audience, on the other hand, is the target, and I think what is the right idea (and here I’ll cheer for Monster Talk again), is to not ignore the claims, but to explain the reality as best we can, and provide an answer that is both compelling, and withstands scrutiny. Some people who have interest in the paranormal are never going to listen either, especially where the beliefs and practices are more religious in nature (not necessarily tied to a specific religion, but in terms of style and concerns). But especially when it comes to the pseudosciences, where a lot of advocates and authors are taking on science-like stances and titles, there is a reason they’re doing it. Because the audience is interested in science, but has either wandered into the workings of a pseudoscientist, or feels their questions aren’t being answered properly by mainstream scientists. Rather than just mockingly debunk, I think the answer is instead to actually answer their questions.

    ARRGH, just got unexpected phone call, no time to properly finish thoughts.

    • idoubtit

      Those names you mention were the scientists I was thinking of in terms of ufology. They are gone and no one seems to want to venture in. I don’t consider Friedman a scientist. From what I understand, he hasn’t worked as one for a long while.

      Cryptozoology is a little different. There are real scientists (anthropologists, zoologists, for example) who have published or at least examined the evidence, sometimes in great detail. Meldrum is the new Krantz and is currently the most credentialled advocate Bigfoot has.

      The cryptozoology camp has a more distributed spectrum regarding natural-supernatural. MANY cryptid advocates subscribe to the belief that Bigfoot (or any other cryptid) is a real animal. No special powers except maybe above average ability to avoid detection. Then there are those who associate cryptids with tulpas (thoughtforms), alien life forms, interdimensional creatures, etc. Those on the “natural” side are unhappy about that – kills credibilty and makes the field look unscientific. Some, like Coleman, waiver through the years from one side to another because the evidence doesn’t really add up and tides of popularity shift. When you struggle to explain things by natural behaviors, some tend to resort to supernatural explanations to save your belief. I call this “supernatural creep”. It’s indictative of a fundamental problem with their subject – when it goes off the deep end. Like ufology.

      I agree that real scientists, expecially ones that can speak coherantly to the public, should be answering questions. However, I’d say most don’t have time. I would like to see more credible information out there in the form of books and media. The skeptical, reasonable view is missing in the mainstream. I’ll have more to say about that in a planned post.

      • Thefarmer Va La

        Besides NIDS, the Einstein Fellowship. But yes, these days not many scientists would be eager to have their names seriously attached to that subject.

  3. I agree that many crypto folks believe bigfoot etc. are a real animal, but even that belief community has a lot that go substantially beyond what is the standard view of it (ie, if UFOs are technological spaceships and ghosts spirits of the dead or some other remnant, than Bigfoot is something like Gigantopithecus).

    I’d point to the ideas of Bigfoot behavior like stick signs, wood knocking, never mind the habituation cases, that are in the “flesh and blood” camp, but are also entering into something contacteeish. These beliefs seem to occupy the space that abduction did in ufology in, say, the 1970s and some of the 1980s, before Hopkins/Jacobs/Strieber really got their game on in public. They are still kind of in the realms of the traditional belief, but provide all of these tantalizing details that lights in the sky or even traditional CE3K cases didn’t. Stuff like how the Betty and Barney Hill case, and then a few subsequent provided the image of the Gray, how they gave them a star system (Zeta Reticuli), details that then percolated into much of the rest of ufology until they became ubiquitous, but did not need to go to the ideological extremes of hybridization, multi-generational abduction, and so on that became what we might think of as the Hopkins synthesis. I see wood knocking, call blasting, stick signs, and some of the other concepts that have become more mainstream, falling into this category, just as orbs and EVP became their own sort of staples in ghost hunting.

    As for Krantz, Daegling’s book Bigfoot Exposed has a lot to say about Krantz’s technical side, particularly how his desire for bigfoot to be Gigantopithecus may have influenced his reconstruction of Gigantopithecus (and how his evidence for it being bipedal has largely not been accepted). While I am an anthropologist, that is not my area of speciality, so all I can say is take a gander at Daegling’s (who is a physical anthropologist) arguments.

  4. Scientific examination of UFO’s has been done. There have been very well funded, well organized, well overseen investigations of UFO reports which actually used a lot of professionals who knew their stuff.

    Optical physicists, radar technicians, test pilots, psychologists, photographers all came together and reviewed reports under the direction of good solid scientific oversight.

    This was done by the US government (although other governments did it too) through the Department of the Air Force. It was a very serious investigation.

    Now mind you, the UFO reports did concern the Air Force, but not because they believed them to be alien visitors. The bigger concern was that they could be some type of exotic Soviet aircraft invading US airspace. For that matter, just having a lot of UFO reports could provide FUD that would obscure an actual invasion of US airspace. There was also simply the concern that the reports of UFO’s could lead to some kind of panic.

    This was primarily a concern during the 1950’s to the 1960’s, which is when reportsof UFO’s were very much in vogue and had skyrocketed from almost zero before the late 1940’s. (although there was a fad of them in the late 1800’s)

    Project Blue Book was the single largest of these investigations. It was conducted from 1952 to 1970, but reviewed data and reports from years before that as well. Interviews were done, photographs were cataloged and examined.

    Most incidents could be identified as having a fairly obvious cause. Some were “unexplained” – not meaning anything was proven to be extraterrestrial but just that no evidence was found to prove what the reports were of or even if they were true.

    Project Blue Book and all the other smaller projects that proceeded it ended with basically the same conclusion: While some incidents could not be proven to be any particular phenomena, there was no evidence of anything going on beyond known aircraft, weather phenomena etc.

    The end result: the extensive data did not demonstrate that UFO’s were worth further investigation and that conclusion has not changed since.

    The Air Force of the US and other countries continue to investigate the occasional incident, whenever there is reasonable suspicion that there might indeed be some kind of rogue flying object. Nothing has ever been found to be out of the ordinary. Still, every once in a while, there’s the embarrassing incident where fighter jets are scrambled to intercept what turns out to be the plant Venus or something. As a matter of routine, a report is usually made on those kind of things.

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