Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Pers: the myth of UFOs, and Occam’s Razor

Last night I applied Occam’s Razor, and found I did not believe UFO sightings were of extraterrestrials. [Thanks to Mark for reminding me that what I was trying to express at one point was indeed Occam.]

Of course I could be wrong, but that’s the beauty of scientific analysis: it’s fun to be proven wrong. Unless you have invested too much in the stance. Being proven wrong represents an opportunity to explore a whole new world, from a fresh perspective.

According to my Macquarie, Occam’s Razor is “the principle that entities must not be unnecessarily multiplied, which as the principle of economy of hypothesis, is applicable to scientific research”; “William of Occam, d1349?, scholastic philosopher.” [As you can imagine, being a logician in that era, he was excommunicated.] The key phrase here is “economy of hypothesis”. In effect, go for the simplest explanation that covers the evidence.

Of course, often enough commonly accepted scientific hypothesis doesn’t cover all available evidence. Sometimes it’s accepted that some evidence falls outside the hypothesis, and needs to be tidied up by later refinement of theory.

By my application of Occam’s Razor, UFO sightings haven’t been extraterrestrial. The simplest explanation relates to technology at the height of the fad – 1950s, odd – being rudimentary by today’s standards, and so giving less precise recordings. Further, that the cold war fostered a type of paranoia which was propitious for “other” interpretations of unusual phenomena (although sometimes UFOs were attributed to Soviet technology, extraterrestriality was possibly less world-threatening, having no direct implications of nuclear destruction - not to say more realistic, especially with what we know now about Soviet technology). In fact, it could be said that "alien" now frequently substitutes for "supernatural" or "divine", reflecting the respective zeitgeists. A bit like St Elmo’s fire, which was seen by sailors as supernatural.

In support of this idea, I note that Wikipedia’s list of major sightings has them concentrated in the cold war era.

My problem with the ET explanation is fourfold:
1) Wormholes aside, it would take years for a life form to travel from home base to our solar system. We’re three to four light years from the nearest star, and much much more distant from the nearest star with plausibly inhabited systems. Further, if life forms had the technology to make it here, they wouldn’t be playing hide and seek. There’s precious little to be gained from travelling huge distances for brief observations then travelling back again.
2) With today’s technology available to amateurs everywhere being much more sophisticated than was available at top levels in the 1950s, any presence would bring multiple, documented reports. Even if the sighting was in an isolated location, the object would necessarily be tracked in travelling to that location.
3) Some of the descriptions included the physically impossible, for example high speed right-angle turns in the sky.
4) We know from SETI projects that there are no ETs nearby. At least, none that are using any communications systems, yet it would be near inconceiveable not to communicate.

My reservations about this are:
a) Some difficulty explaining all UFO phenomena; Wiki has a comment that about 35% of the best [strongest] cases are unexplained.
b) a miniscule possibility that technological extraterrestrials could develop in environments too hostile for us to consider inhabitable;
c) Wormholes.
However, I’m happy to be proven wrong.

More on the wormholes… someday.

14-May-06 Update: It's plasma
The percentage unexplained just took a dip, due to Project Condign. This study, by the UK Department of Defence, examined 10,000 witness reports, and attributed most sightings to plasmas, electric atmospheric phenomena caused by a range of circumstances, including meteors; air flows shaped them into UFO-like phenomena. (My source, the Sydney Sun-Herald via UK's Guardian newspaper, seems to imply all sightings were attributed to plasma, which doesn't sound right to me.)

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