On Sept. 6, 1980 the Smithsonian Institution sponsored an all-day UFO Symposium in Washington, DC. It was held in the large lecture hall of the Museum of Natural History. Six leading UFOlogists, pro and con, were invited to participate. On the "pro" side were the late J. Allen Hynek, Allan Hendry (who at that time was CUFOS' chief investigator), and Bruce Maccabee. On the skeptical side were Philip J. Klass, James E. Oberg, and myself. We each gave our presentations, and took questions in writing from the audience. (One member of the audience who was furious at not having been selected as a panelist was Stanton T. Friedman, a professional UFO lecturer who bills himself as the "Flying Saucer Physicist." Throughout the presentations Friedman could be heard, muttering and loudly declaiming comments, whenever any speaker said something with which he disagreed.) Below is the prepared talk I gave on that Panel.
Keith Basterfield gives more information on "the little known 1980 Smithsonian Institution UAP symposium" .
UFO proponents have often suggested that the study of UFOs is an infant science, like physics or chemistry 300 years ago, and that the science of the future will take UFOs seriously, recognizing them as a great contribution to knowledge.
I don't accept this viewpoint, and I will try to explain why. Anyone who undertakes more than a superficial study of the history of science will observe that two very different types of would-be sciences have emerged: those that have succeeded, such as astronomy, chemistry, and so forth, and those that have not: astrology, palmistry, Odic forces, N-rays, Orgone energy, Spiritualist studies, Phrenology, and many others. Of the two groups of would-be sciences, the unsuccessful ones are far more numerous, although we tend not to realize this since the losers are so quickly forgotten.
Because there are so many failed would-be sciences that have been so nearly completely forgotten, I have had to go rummaging in the dustbins of history to help us put present-day UFOlogy in what I see as its proper perspective.
The Scientific Study of Witchcraft: In the late 17th Century, a number of leading English intellectuals undertook a painstaking case-by-case analysis of reliably-witnessed incidents of bewitchings, as reported by sober and respected persons who were then still living. Among those involved were Joseph Glanvill, Fellow of the Royal Society; Henry More of Cambridge University; and Robert Boyle, founder of modern chemistry. They concluded that while perhaps 95% of all reported instances of levitations, possessions, and broomstick riding were just "melancholy and imagination", there remained about one case in twenty of authentic contact with the demons of Hell. They noted a worldwide consistency to such accounts, which they claimed was further proof of the reality of the phenomenon. Glanvill was supremely confident that the science of the future (meaning us) would be able to understand those aspects of witchcraft that seemed totally incomprehensible to the science of his day. (UFOlogists of the present day express the same hopes concerning the science of centuries hence!)
Phrenology: Dr. Franz Joseph Gall of Vienna was one of the leading anatomists of the early 19th century. He was the leading authority of his day on the anatomy and physiology of the human nervous system. Dr. Gall quite sincerely believed that he had discovered a correlation between certain bumps on the head and particular character traits. His infant science was called Phrenology, and it achieved a wide following; he believed that a person's character could be determined by careful measures of the contours of the skull. Character traits such as firmness, veneration, memory, self-esteem, and conjugal love were each represented by a certain bump. He found that the skulls of women and monkeys both showed "love of offspring", and that Negroes' forehead shapes limited their potential mathematical skills. Phrenology developed into a highly-complex would-be science that found for many years a wide acceptance in both Europe and America.
Homeopathic Medicine was an early 19th century medical sect founded by Dr. Samuel Hahnemann upon the idea that like cures like: a drug will supposedly cure a disease if the same drug administered to a healthy person will produce symptoms similar to those of the disease. Drugs were said to be most potent when they were diluted to unimaginable degrees: solutions of one part medicine in 1060 part water were frequently used. Although Homeopathic Medicine was founded on nothing more than hysteria and self-deception, it attracted a wide scientific following for many decades, and was widely taught in medical colleges. A large statue of Dr. Hahnemann was erected in Scott Circle in Washington, D.C. where it still stands today, just a few miles north of this building. It is monument to the degree of scientific respectability which a crank can achieve.
Odic Forces: Baron Karl Von Reichenbach was a respected chemist and metallurgist, a member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences. In 1845 he announced the discovery of a new, totally unknown physical force called Od. Emanations of Od could be seen almost everywhere by Reichenbach's disciples, although not by skeptics. Lists were made of substances that were Odically positive, Odically negative, Odically neutral, Odically inert, and Odically active. For twenty years the conservative professors of Europe scoffed at the subjective "evidence" presented by Reichenbach and his disciples for Od. History has vindicated the scoffers.
N-Rays: Fifty years later, the Od episode was repeated in France by the distinguished physicist M. Blondlot, the recipient of many professional honors. His newly-discovered force was called N-rays. He found that N-rays could be reflected and polarized, and that they possessed well-defined wavelengths. N-rays suffered a severe setback when it was revealed that their wavelengths could still be measured after a skeptic had removed the prism from the spectroscope being used!
Orgone Energy: Forty years after N-rays,a similar delusion was popularized by Dr. Wilhelm Reich, a leading disciple of Sigmund Freud. Orgone energy, said to be the energy of the sexual orgasm, was discovered. It was said to be the cause of the sky being blue, and of the stars twinkling.
I could go on to name a dozen more infant sciences that did not survive into adulthood - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's study of Fairy Sightings also revealed a worldwide consistency - but this has to be a short talk. What did all these failed sciences have in common? One thing is that all of them - UFOlogy included - utterly failed to develop a single, repeatable fact, a single demonstration that works as well in the presence of skeptics as it does for already committed believers. There is simply nothing that a failed science can show the scoffers. Plenty of people scoffed at Galileo, but he had a telescope that could show them the moons of Jupiter. The tangible evidence attributed to UFOs is as ambiguous and inconclusive as that claimed for N-rays and Odic forces.
Another common trait of these unsuccessful would-be sciences is that while they began appearing to be offshoots of the tree of science, all have failed to take root and draw nourishment from the mother tree. Instead, they have gone off in some separate, quite incompatible direction, having developed a body of observations that is largely incompatible with those of the mainstream of science. They have unwittingly forced us to choose between their world-view, and that of science, and yet they are outraged when we make the obvious decision.
As an example of this, consider UFOlogy. UFOs are often reported to possess "anti-gravity" properties, their occupants allegedly floating above the ground. UFOnauts are reported to use telepathy in some of their communications. UFOs have been reported to cause paranormal healing of injuries previously suffered by UFO witnesses, and have also been reported to shine down beams of light that stop before they reach the ground; it is as if the beam was designed to shine this far, and no farther, All of these things are utterly incompatible with physics as we understand it. Do not think I am arguing that today's physics must represent the ultimate and final version forever. Not at all. But today's physics does represent the consensus of at least three centuries' systematic observation of the universe, using the most sophisticated instrumentation that man's ingenuity allows. Furthermore it is a fully consistent body of knowledge; no branch of science holds any tenets that contradict those of any other branch. When conflicts arise, one body of knowledge or the other must go.
So which should we jettison: Newton's law of gravitation, or the unsubstantiated UFO report of a person we believe is probably reliable? Do we throw out reams of instrumented readings, and conclude that UFOs have proven Newton wrong? Do we accept claims of paranormal healing, and throw out centuries of medical observation that such things do not happen? Do we accept reports of a beam of light ending in mid-air, and throw out absolutely everything we have learned about electromagnetic energy? These are questions that many UFO proponents will go to almost any lengths to avoid, but it is a decision we must make. We cannot have our cake and eat it, too. If UFOlogy is to call itself a science, it must be judged by the standards of scientific evidence and experiment. Which do we throw out: UFOs, or physics? We cannot suspend judgement, or avoid the question. We must make a choice. And the choice is clear: until the would-be "science" of UFOlogy can provide us with solid theoretical and mathematical foundations for integrating its bizarre claims into the knowledge gained by the other branches of science, UFOs will have to remain where they are.
To get around these obvious difficulties, some UFO proponents have been promoting the idea that UFOs represent an "alternate reality", a "parallel universe", "another dimension", or some other such science fiction gimmick. J. Allen Hynek is one of them, as is Jacques Vallee, John Keel, Jerome Clark, Brad Steiger, and many others. According to this view, UFOs may represent something that pops over into "our universe" from some other alleged universe, dimension, or whatever. In a 1976 interview, Hynek explained that "there are other planes of existence- the astral plane, the etheric plane, and so forth... I believe the world is in a psychic revolution that most of us are not aware of. And least of all are the establishment scientists, The evidence that is being brought to light by work going on in parapsychology, the evidence for ESP, precognition and psychokinesis, does not fit into the present belief structure of science... I have come to believe UFOs are part of the larger paranormal picture." Various other UFOlogists have expressed similar thoughts.
However, this "parallel universe" talk cannot be taken seriously, because it is not even a theory. It cannot be evaluated in any way. At least the extraterrestrial hypothesis for UFOs is a well-defined hypothesis, and it is concrete enough to argue about, pro or con. But what is this "alternate reality' talk? Who will tell me what an "alternate reality" is supposed to be, what observable properties it has, how do we distinguish an "alternate" reality from the current one, and, most importantly, how could such a statement ever be proven wrong? Until such questions are answered, "alternate reality" talk is not even a meaningful hypothesis, let alone a viable one. We cannot evaluate an empty word. In fact, the statement "UFOs come from an alternate reality" is precisely synonymous with the statement "UFOs are magic". Both merely say that UFOs can do anything at all they please, that we cannot hope to understand them, and that we might as well consider the matter solved. After all, who can say what might or might not be possible in an alternate reality? Perhaps UFOs can dematerialize into nothingness? Perhaps gravity can be negated? Perhaps fairy godmothers can turn pumpkins into coaches, and young girls can fall through the looking glass (after all, one famous UFO abductee claims she did go through the looking glass). The problem is, once we lose all touch with dress it up and reality and begin invoking magic, even if we dress it up and call it "alternate reality", there is literally nothing that we can rule out. Suppose that someone gives us a report of a fat man in a red suit coming down a chimney on Christmas Eve. Perhaps Santa Claus really does exist, in some alternate reality? Perhaps there really is a giant rabbit who delivers Easter eggs. On what grounds could an "alternate reality" proponent reject a reported sighting of the Easter Bunny'? When you try to resolve very real difficulties by invoking magic, under any name, you create far more difficulties than you solve. "Alternate reality" talk is not a promising new hypothesis. It is total intellectual abdication.
Occam's razor is the cutting edge of scientific decision making. It is the principle which says that when choosing between two competing hypotheses, we must choose the one that contains the fewest speculative elements. For example, we can explain volcanic eruptions in terms of high temperature and pressure inside the earth, or we can explain it in terms of the god Vulcan and his subterranean activities. But we all can agree that a Roman deity is a highly speculative element, and that the alternative mundane hypothesis is definitely to be preferred.
What happens when we apply Occam's Razor to UFOs? We can choose to believe that UFOnauts really do exist, and have anti-gravity abilities, or else that the person reporting it is either fantasizing, or lying. Which assumption contains more speculative elements? The answer is even more obvious in light of the truly excellent research by Allan Hendry, showing that the incidence of gross misperception and misreporting by UFO witnesses is far higher than many people have believed. As for the talk about "alternate realities", this is about the most speculative thing one can imagine. It is an insult to science to even consider it seriously.
If UFOs were indeed a real phenomenon, it is extremely difficult to imagine how they could have thus far infallibly avoided unambiguous detection. People report seeing UFOs for many minutes or even hours, and UFOs are often reportedly photographed by a single photographer (although never by two or more). UFOs are allegedly seen on radar, but are never followed from place to place as are aircraft or other real flying objects, and when two or more radars allegedly show anomalous objects, they are virtually never consistent in position, direction, and size. If UFOs were real objects, as is claimed, and if they were sometimes seen on radar, the radar sightings would be far more consistent that what we have today. Any real object that did all these things would have been "caught in the act" many times. It would have been snapped by many independent photographers at the same time. It would have been sighted by dozens or even hundreds of independent groups of witnesses at the same time, and in the same direction; and it would have been seen by a half-dozen radars simultaneously in the same position, After all, this is what happens to airplanes, balloons, meteors, and all real flying objects. But it never happens to UFOs. Hynek expresses the problem well when he says that UFOs seem to be 'localized' in time and space.
Now one can, of course, come up with all kinds of bizarre reasons why UFOs could be "localized" in space: and time. Perhaps this is the characteristic of an alternate reality, along with Santa Claus encounters and Easter Bunny eggs. Perhaps spacecraft built by a super-advanced alien civilization can dematerialize whenever they wish, or plant holographic images in certain peoples' brains. Perhaps anything at all. But let us not get carried away. Let us recall Occam's Razor: we must select the hypothesis containing the fewest speculative elements, not the wildest one our imagination can concoct. And the simplest way to account for this alleged selective visibility is that UFOs are misperceptions and hallucinations, and in reality nothing out of the ordinary is up there in the sky. That explains why all photographs of structured UFOs are invariably the work of a single person or a small group; all such unambiguous UFO photos are hoaxes. Why is it that after 2,000 reported UFO landings we still have nothing that cannot be accounted for by prosaic causes? It is because prosaic causes are the only ones operating here. Why is it that consistent multi-radar UFO sightings and consistent radar-visual sightings do not occur? It is because radar UFOs are the result of unusual errors in observation and/or radar operation, of anomalous radar propagation, and of failures in the equipment.
UFO buffs do not welcome these conclusions, But the entire realm of UFO reports is so bizarre that we are forced to choose between the null hypothesis - there's nothing to it - or else the realm of the multidimensional Easter Bunny. I know that all of us, myself included, would prefer to believe in some warm, benevolent, cuddly little Venusian humanoids. But nobody ever promised that science would give us everything we wish for. If we claim to be scientists, then we must adhere strictly to the scientific method. The scientific method dictates that if we do not adhere to Occam's Razor, all is lost. And Occam's Razor says that all pro-UFO hypotheses yet set forth are filled with the wildest speculative elements. On the other hand, the hypothesis that UFOs are misperceptions and hoaxes fits the facts quite well, and contains no speculative or unknown elements whatsoever.
The jury of science has had thirty-three years to debate the verdict on UFOs. Their decision is long overdue. The verdict must be: not proven.
The UFO Skeptic's Page