Archives For scientific method

Say what you will about Chris Mooney, but where he excels is in consistency. He has the same solution to just about every problem between scientists and crackpots, and he’s not afraid to suggest it again and again with absolutely no details or regard for the nature of the conflict he wants to resolve. Previously, he’s done this with the evolution/creationism manufactroversy and scientific literacy. Now, after managing not to resolve either problem and missing the fact that blaming scientists for a culture which rejects science and expertise as a manifestation of elitist snobbery doesn’t actually accomplish anything, he’s off to make friends with the anti- vaxers and implore doctors and epidemiologists to build bridges with zealots who demonize their critics as baby-eating monsters. Really, it seems that Chris is firmly committed not to learn from his past mistakes…

After profiling the anti-vaccination movement that blames vaccines for every pediatric evil in the world and their long record of conspiracy mongering, one would think that Mooney, of all people, would know full well that a negotiation with the likes of J.B. Handley, Jenny McCarthy and Lyn Redwood would be futile. I could argue that it would be like trying to explain the validity of evolutionary theory to someone like Ray Comfort, but Mooney has already proposed doing just that to combat creationist influence in schools. And it’s in this obliviousness that he suggests an exercise in building communicational bridges to nowhere

I believe we need some real attempts at bridge-building between medical institutions, which, let’s admit it, can often seem remote and haughty, and the leaders of the anti-vaccination movement. We need to get people in a room and try to get them to agree about something — anything. We need to encourage moderation, and break down a polarized situation in which the anti-vaccine crowd essentially rejects modern medical research based on the equivalent of conspiracy theory thinking, even as mainstream doctors just shake their heads at [their] scientific cluelessness.

This is really classic Mooney. He proclaims that the scientific establishment seems distant and aloof and as soon as we get any kind of a consensus on anything going, there will be a huge cascade effect as those who throw temper tantrums the instant you tell them than we’re not vaccinating kids too soon or too much, or that autism may might have genetic causes, will suddenly see the light of science. It’s not going to happen. They are far too invested in their worldview and there are too many quacks and cranks making millions off selling a whole range of snake oil concoctions and remedies to “cure autism” by exploiting their fears. Autism quackery is a big business and it fuels anti-vax hysteria. Try and remove the likes of Joe Mercola or Andy Wakefield and his woo crew in Texas off their perch, and they’ll fight back with even more disinformation because they have a mortgage to pay and families to feed. Likewise, we have to admit that sometimes science is complicated and just because scientific institutions seem remote, it’s not always the scientists’ fault.

Yes, there’s always jargon, science-speak or academese standing in the way of easy explanations in almost any field of scientific research. However, not everything lends itself to an easy ten to fifteen minute explanation because some of the concepts require years of study. In my own experience, anything that has to do with AI or intelligent agents in computer science is awfully hard to condense in simple terms just because of the scope that has to be covered for a truly comprehensive discussion and each subset of AI theory has to branch out in several different directions, affecting a wide range of disciplines. That scope makes the topic exciting and very rewarding, but it can also lead to quite a bit of confusion. And topics in medicine and biology aren’t any easier to explain. Besides, if those of us either studying to be scientists or with fully fledged PhD’s could summarize everything we do and study in an afternoon or two, why would we spend so much time buried in books, tests and labs? Grad school would be over in a month instead of between two and seven years.

In any case of crankery, scientists and experts are dealing with people who formed very strong opinions on an impressive range of subject matter they know very little about. To explain to them that they have it wrong could only result in their rejection of the explanation. Instead of being used to endless critique and take it as a given that their conclusions will be debated, they take it as a deep personal insult that someone dares question a worldview they hold near and dear. Rather than listen to the experts, they’re going to be advancing their own agendas and rebelling against any skeptical thought or inquiry into their actions. To suggest otherwise, is the kind of typical Mooney argument we’ve seen in the Unscientific America debacle. His suggestions for all those involved in a big public dustup over science to sit around a campfire and sing Kumbaya, are born from a lack of consideration for the psychology of both sides and the environment from which they come, and if they really worked, he wouldn’t even have to write about militant anti-vaxers and creationists in the first place.

You probably remember one of my favorite wannabe scientists, Bill Dembski. His lack of understanding in the very things he claims to have real expertise, penchant for assertions that aren’t even wrong, and pomposity that just begs to be taken down a peg or two, are fodder that keeps on giving for popular science bloggers. But there’s one more thing about Bill that should probably be covered. He loves providing questions that he thinks expose the weaknesses of the evolutionary theory even though nearly all of them are little more than appeals to ignorance disguised as some profound insight into the basics of biology. Like political pundits who want to say something scandalous to boost their ratings and skirt the facts of the issues at hand, he’s just asking us some questions. And real science is done when people ask profound questions and try to answer them.

don quixote

Now, the big difference between what scientists do and what’s done by Dembski and cranks like him can be summarized in one simple sentence. Scientists do research, cranks chalk it up to whatever they want. But in the spirit of discovery and asking questions because we can, I thought I’d throw out a couple of questions to creationists, err… I mean intelligent design proponents, and see if they can provide a reasonable explanation to some issues that come up when they explain their so-called theory. As someone who actually knows how to design complex things, I’m probably not the least qualified person to be asking them.

Q1: Why are our individual body parts not interchangeable as they would be in cars or aircraft?

When we treat humans as a designed object, we have to come to the conclusion that we’re mass produced in a highly efficient, self-replicating process. However, all humans are a little different and if something happens to break down in our bodies, like a heart, a liver or a kidney, our body parts are not really interchangeable. Yes we’ve figured out how to transplant organs, but even then we have to match blood types as closely as we can and transplants require that we take immunosuppressant drugs because a new organ could be rejected. If humans are designed, any designer worth his or her salt knows that parts in mass produced products must be interchangeable for easy fixes when something breaks down. This is why when your car engine dies, you can just get a new one instead of matching it to a similar car type and hope it connects, or try to grow a brand new engine in a process so riddled with complex problems as to make it impractical for the near future. How could a designer allow a debilitating oversight that would surely result in a D from any design professor?

Q2. If we’re made by a designer, where’s his/her actual trademark, logo, watermark or identification?

One of the arguments creationists like to use is to point to our DNA and claim it has a blueprint of a designer in its informational content. Ok, where is it? When you get a new watch, the name or the logo of the company that made it is going to be prominently featured on the face. We could then find the company’s website, get an address and go see how the watches are being designed and built. What about us? Where’s our logo? How can we confirm that a design process is going on firsthand? I don’t want to listen about vague references to a genome’s complexity or other examples of pseudoscientific pareidolia. I mean show me the trademark genes and where they’re hiding. After all, even we know how to make them. An advanced designer should too.

Q3. Why are humans so vulnerable and lack natural weapons for self-defense, relying only on technology?

In case you haven’t noticed for some bizarre reason, human lack claws, fangs, venom, armored skin and just about every other defensive feature countless other species possess. If not for our technology, we would be a species of lion, leopard, hyena and cheetah snacks wandering around the savannas of Africa. Many of us still die in the wild after being mauled by animals against which we’re defenseless. What kind designer in his right mind possibly drop such an ill-equipped creature into the midst of predator infested territory without a potent natural defense? Even a little bit of venom would be an immense improvement, so it seems like a hell of an oversight to leave us there with only sharp rocks and the hope that we can climb a tree before getting eaten. By a predator who probably climbs trees much easier than we could…

Q4. Why do humans lack specialization in their designs? What job were we designed to do?

Before designing anything, I ask several important questions. What is it’s purpose? What is it designed to do, how, and why? Humans perform a very wide array of tasks. Some of us are artists and communicators, some are scientists and engineers, others are analysts and strategists, and often our roles are flexible. We seem to be a sort of all-purpose tool which has to decide what task to do. That seems totally irrational to a designer’s mind. Why aren’t we born with designations and tasks? Why do we have to stumble around until we find what we’re willing to do instead of being slated to do something? I wouldn’t want my screwdriver deciding it would rather be a hammer, so why would any designer just build a multi-purpose tool with no particular task?

Q5. Why do we have extra components and vestigial parts? Aren’t they just a waste of resources?

From a design standpoint, redundancies and parts that really don’t have any significant function to play in the mechanism should be removed or consolidated as much as possible. They take up energy and resources to produce and maintain while contributing little to nothing. Having five toes that do nothing but add a little help in balancing our bodies when we walk is not like having a spoiler on a car. The spoiler generates downdraft at a high speed and allows supercars to stay planted on the track during maneuvers. Five toes are used by a few martial art styles to maintain superb balance during attack. But wherein the spoiler is required by physics, the martial art styles adapted to use the toes. There’s no reason whey they couldn’t be consolidated. And to return to the spoiler for just a moment, there’s a reason why they’re not included on most cars. They’re not needed at highway speeds and normal roads used for everyday commuting.

And yes, for those who might be curious, a copy of these questions was sent to Bill Dembski himself. Here’s his chance to show how creative and rich the tapestry of his branch of creationism really is and offer original arguments. Whether or not he’ll do that remains to be seen…

[ illustration by CG artist Fabricio Moraes ]

the invader zim syndrome

November 20, 2009

Admit it, even if you’re an adult, you still watch cartoons and might remember Invader Zim, a bitter indie satire about humanity as seen through the eyes of an incompetent alien invader exiled to Earth under the pretense that he was going on a top secret mission. Even though Zim isn’t exactly what you’d call bright, the citizens of our planet are so jaded and careless that an alarming number of his half-baked schemes actually come very close to succeeding until the little alien’s mistakes spectacularly backfire. He’s actually had a little cameo on this blog before as a joke about my world domination plans leveraging this blog’s growing reach. In fact, allow me to resurrect the image with the little green guy and his, quite literally, junk for brains minion Gir…

invader zim

Hardcore, fundamentalist creationists who suffer from a full blown phobia of science in general and evolution in particular, are a lot like Zim. They want to take over the world of science lacking the skill and knowledge to tackle scientific theories and instead of learning from their mistakes, people like Ken Ham, Ray Comfort and Bill Dembski just charge into the breach with a battle cry, spouting the same old inanities debunked by almost anyone with a passing grade in high school science and five minutes to dedicate to the task. The only reason they get anywhere is thanks to the immense amount of unquestioning, blind respect we confer on their beliefs as dictated by societal custom. And much like Zim’s barely intelligible proclamations, they offer statements so utterly devoid of thought, or filled with such blatant wishful thinking, you don’t even know where to begin. Here’s a perfect example of this in a gem from a creationist “science writer”

Beneath the veneer of a controversial peer-review process is a substantial debate over the very basics of evolution. Some scientists have pointed out that neo-Darwinism is inadequate to explain why life forms appear fully-equipped, unique, and discrete.

One of these bravely offered hybridogenesis as an alternative evolutionary mechanism. Others cogently demonstrated some scientific deal-breakers for hybridogenesis. Perhaps both sides are correct in their assessments of the opposing evolutionary ideas—neither explanation is sufficient. And if life could not have evolved, it must have been created.

Holy carp folks, we’re going fishing for fallacies! We have the controversy gambit, an argument from complexity and a non-sequitur just at first glance. Of course we’re debating the mechanisms of evolution because that’s what scientists do. They debate ideas based on their empirical merit until they find the best possible theory to explain the natural world. I would say that someone who bills himself as a science writer should have at least some grip on the idea, but a creationist science writer is an oxymoron. Creationists have no idea what science is or what it does. Nada. They just know they hate it and that it’s always wrong. Hence their argument that evil evolutionists refuse to acknowledge that there are living things too complex to evolve on their own and that in some dark basement, there’s a panel of maverick scientists who has the proof. Despite the fact that Behe, the ignoramus behind irreducible complexity, has been proven wrong again and again.

To top it all off, we have the classic creationist leap from a lack of comprehension about science to proof of the supernatural by a combination of a non sequtur and an argument by assertion. So if we boil down his entire argument from a scientific standpoint; “I don’t know, I don’t understand the scientists’ work, therefore God.” To think that creationists have been at this for 150 years, one would think that over a century and a half of practice in rhetorical obfuscation, they’d be getting better at it. Unfortunately, that’s not the case and this is why many of their comments on science blogs look an awful lot like this

Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The 5 stages of grief. You guys are past the first stage and onto the second; next comes the bargaining. Good Luck!!

This was of course an addendum to a well thought out refutation of a post debunking a ridiculous article that tries to use the matter/antimatter asymmetry in the primordial universe as an argument against the Big Bang by an Answers in Genesis lackey. Oh wait… Hold on. It wasn’t. That was the whole comment word for word. At the risk of stating the obvious, I’m going to point out that leaving condescending comments on posts that you clearly can’t debate and touting the supremacy of your beliefs without bothering to provide even a semblance of an argument, makes your position look even worse since not only does it become obvious that you have no substantial argument on the matter, you’re absolutely oblivious to the world around you. And this reminds me of the famous quote from Ben Franklin: “Better to stay silent and let people think you’re a fool rather than open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

In ancient times, generals used to solicit magicians and soothsayers who would try their best to predict how a major battle will go and used fresh sheep livers or astrological manuals as a form of military intelligence. But today, with satellites, a global computer system filled with all sorts of strategic information for those who know where to look, and unmanned drones that scour remote terrain in impressive detail, modern warfare has little use for people who think they have otherworldly powers. That’s a good thing since today’s militaries have lots of really scary weapons which should really be aimed based on something more than a psychic’s hunch.

nuclear button

And yet, oddly enough, that’s exactly what the U.S. military thought of doing when it launched a remote viewing study codenamed Project Stargate. Obviously, the generator that comes up with names for secret projects hit one of the really cool names in the system and if you were superstitious, you might just think it was a sign of great things to come. Unfortunately for the psychics involved in the series of studies that spanned longer than two decades, it ended up as one of the many anecdotes about runaway government spending and fueled the countless gags about how military intelligence was an oxymoron. I mean really, are we going to trust people who make a living pretending to talk to the dead, make up stories about being visited by angels and playing a set of elaborate guessing games in front of friendly and naive audiences, with guiding where the apocalyptic hail of missiles armed with multi-megaton warheards with hit in case of nuclear war?

Still, we have to be fair and note that out of the trillions of dollars the military used during all that time, only $20 million were actually used to investigate whether you could get psychics to do something useful. Well, if your definition of useful is getting the drop on an enemy base half a world away. And it does seem like a good idea if we think about it. After all, if psychics have a real supernatural abilities and give you the information you need to cripple an enemy nation with a single, well choreographed attack, isn’t it worth to confirm the concept? This is precisely what Project Stargate was supposed to do. It provided protocols for verifying whether there’s really such a thing as remote viewing or supernatural intelligence gathering, and sought to put the psychics through their paces in an objective, empirical way. The result? Two decades worth of studies proving that psychics are utterly unable to provide any kind of useful, actionable information.

Yes, it’s true that the best performing subjects could make predictions that were judged to be better than they would be expected if they randomly guessed. However, when they were asked for specifics of what they saw and how they saw it, even the best remote viewers were so generic and vague in their descriptions, it quickly became very obvious that they did so well because they avoided all the details. And details is what the military needs to carry out a strike. For example, saying that Osama bin Laden is hiding in a string of remote villages along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border doesn’t do any good. Pointing to an exact house where he will be when the armed forces can get there because the supernatural spirits of fortune told you so and you’ve been shown to make extremely detailed, accurate predictions? That would prove that psychics could actually do something more useful than playing guessing games and perfecting that constipated look they pass off as talking to the various spirits from the great beyond.

I have a confession to make. Despite writing hundreds of blog posts that tear into creationist arguments and show the hypocrisy of many verbal attacks on atheists, I’ve never read any of the awareness-raising books by Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens or even Richard Dawkins’ blockbuster The God Delusion. Sure, I did pick up copies at the local bookstore and leafed through them to see if anything jumped out at me and caught my eye and what I noticed were either primarily philosophical arguments or conclusions to which I came to as a teenager. This is not to say that the books in question don’t have their merits, but for me, they were preaching to the choir. It’s nice to know you’re not alone in your ideas but that assurance doesn’t need to be constant.


Another problem with a number of popular atheist books is their constant ventures into philosophy, the tired, old stomping ground of anyone who thinks he has a profound idea and wants to discuss it without having to base the case on real world evidence and observations. But why should the people who understand that we’re not as knowledgeable as any human could be after reading a book or two and look for tangible evidence as a means to understand the world around them have to plunge into this rhetorical morass? Why not just stick to science and the facts? Why not just let the Chris Mooneys, the Terry Eagletons, the Nicholas Wades and the Karen Armstrongs of the world waft in the clouds while staying planted on terra firma to deal with the tangibles and observables? It’s fun to dream and ask what if, but you also need evidence to go with your big ideas.

And it’s at this point when post-modernists perk up and bring forth their epistemological noise. How could you know anything for sure? Don’t you know that everyone’s opinions are valid? Science is just a belief too and all the conclusions you get from your evidence are just your dogmas. It’s as if with each quote they’re trying to be as obtuse and metaphysical as possible, crafting shallow arguments and infusing them with enough rhetoric and high brow terminology to make them sound profound and insightful. I wonder how they could function in the real world if they really thought this way all the time. Did they wake up or do they believe they just woke up? Did they drink a cup of coffee or do they simply believe they drank something and it’s their belief that courses through their bloodstream to make them more alert? Did they go to work or do they just do something which may look like work to an outside observer? It’s this level of ridiculous, over the top doubt in everything that led Descrates to come up with his infamous brain in a jar conjecture best summarized in the Matrix trilogy.

When we step down from their mental ivory towers and really think about it, the assertion that science is just a belief or another way of creating dogmas is monstrously stupid. Simply put, if you believe in science, you have no idea what science is. You don’t believe that that there’s a couch in a coffee shop. You see it there. You can touch it, move it, smell it and it won’t suddenly vanish into thin air when you look away. You don’t believe in the sky being blue on a sunny day, you just look up and see it. And when was the last time that you believed in the existence of cars and planes? Looking at what’s out there, taking note of it, studying its properties based on what you can see, touch and smell is science. I never say that I believe in evolution because it’s a ridiculous thing to say. Instead, I looked at the available evidence on the subject and agreed that yes, this is the best way to explain how life came to be the way it is on this planet based on the available data.

The post-modernists can complain about the limitations of our senses and our technology but what seems to be lost on them is the cardinal rule of the scientific thought process. If you have no proof for it, you can’t insist that it’s real or objective. Because we don’t know something, we can’t randomly jam anything we want in there and pretend it’s a good idea. And this is exactly what we do when we involve deities for which we don’t have a shred of proof into processes we otherwise understand and want to explore in farther depth. To equate a way to describe the natural world through objective means with simply inserting one’s own opinion in the gaps of our knowledge and chalk both up to belief is an absurd assertion that can only be made by people who don’t understand the nature of science and can’t wrap their minds around the fact that it’s simply a methodology by which people accumulate and connect facts, not a set of answers to questions or ready made opinions.

The Templeton Foundation just published a new book which it’s been aggressively pushing on science sites and blog networks. Knowing the history and the goals of the organization, one can reasonably surmise that whatever the question the work tries to answer, religion will be worked in as an integral and mandatory part of the answer either by declaring that religious ideas helped give rise to some field of science or by exploiting a gap in our knowledge and insisting that there must be something of metaphysical importance in that gap. The task of doing both while describing the lives and motivations of scientific and theological figures fell to Marco Bersanelli, an astrophysicist, and Mario Gargantini, an electrical engineer to give Templeton Press the much needed veneer of science behind which to tuck the vaguely implied and typically irrelevant apologetics.

the alchemist

But of course all books need a review of some sort and the California Literary Review was given an advance copy which failed to make a good impression on reviewer John Guthrie who found that the book is not well organized and quite transparent in its intentions, lacking the sort of subtlety one would expect.

The authors’ stated intent is, “to catch the experience of those who have lived and still live the adventure of research in the first person.” More realistically, the book might be titled, “How Religion Inspired Science.” And there is the point, sidled up to again and again as a sort of stealth agenda: Religion, in particular Christianity, provided the inspiration for great science and great scientists. As the authors state, “Science, as we have noted, had its historical roots in Christian soil.” […]

The long lists of writings from scientists’ works address, more or less, the awe-inspiring qualities found in their study of the natural world as well as, occasionally, the unity of science and theology. This is achieved in part by including such notables as the Dominican Albertus Magnus and the Jesuit theologian-paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

Theological considerations are also emphasized in many cases by the authors adding religious commentary after the quote from the scientist who may in fact be, like Albert Einstein, (”For me, God is nature.” he once said.) a thorough going humanist.

So in other words, everybody has to be motivated by religion and if the authors have to reduce the complex or profoundly deep quotes of great minds to do it, then this is what they’ll have to do. Also note how scientists are paired with theologists and priests, given the same goal and treated by the same standard. In the world which Bersanelli and Gargantini try to craft, the vague, abstract theologian shares the same lab with an inventor who uses experiments and brutal peer review as a gauge for the validity of his ideas. That may be how the world is built in the mindset of Templeton’s directors and authors but it’s simply not how things work in reality.

Look, there are a lot of very moderate religious people who use their ideas of the supernatural to find purpose in a chaotic world. To them, faith is an important but ultimately, not an overriding part of life. They love science, they respect the scientific method as an important tool for investigating the world and they’ll never push any of their beliefs on you. And because I know so many people like this, it’s precisely why I object so much to all the efforts by Templeton and groups like it to force feed us their religious beliefs, no matter how high brow or how veiled they might be. Rather than let us come to our own conclusions about spiritual matters, they insist on a formal recognition of religion wherever we go and regardless of whether invoking it is appropriate.

[ alchemist illustration by Alexandar Jovanovic ]

a little song about science

September 9, 2009

Popular culture today portrays science as an incomprehensible, almost dogmatic concept used by those with countless degrees and a complete inability to engage in any meaningful way with the world outside their ivory towers. Of course this is rarely the case which is why the band They Might Be Giants decided to make a tune about what science really is and why it maters when it comes to everything around us.

This is the important thing we need to communicate to kids in a science class. Science is a methodology for learning and making sure that what you learn can be backed up with evidence. Just taking beliefs as facts at face value is simply an exercise for your imagination rather than something that lets you better understand the world around you. And at a time when random, often half-baked opinions from agitated pundits are given way too much weight and anti-intellectualism is embraced as a value by politicians and party fringes, there’s an urgent need to show the next generation how to think things through and ask for sound logic and evidence by using the scientific method in everyday life.

creation museum cartoonSay, do you want to inspire a budding scientist who might go on to make the kind of paradigm shifting discoveries that unlock the deepest mysteries of our universe? If you said yes, you should consider avoiding the science fair at the Creation Museum. While Ken Ham, the Australian charlatan behind the very rich and very ignorant Answers in Genesis organization which runs the so-called museum, claims that this fair is a chance to learn about the scientific method, nothing could be further from the truth.

Before submitting a proposal for a project, all entrants have to agree to a statement of faith which demands that all ideas adhere to strict Young Earth Creationism, bypassing over 400 years of profound scientific progress and obeying the literal interpretation of a large tome of religious legends and theological punditry woven together at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD by a vote of influential priests and bishops. And obviously unaware of the irony of their own statements, Section 4 of the statement of faith proclaims that…

By definition, no apparent, perceived, or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record. Of primary importance is the fact that evidence is always subject to interpretation by fallible people who do not possess all information.

So the Creation Museum wants to teach kids about the scientific method but rather than following the required process of collecting evidence and seeing where it leads you, they’re demanding that any evidence that contradicts their conclusion be thrown out as invalid. And while they say that it’s a fact that evidence is being interpreted by fallible people who don’t possess all the information, somehow that doesn’t apply to them, the people who are cherry picking reality to confirm their personal biases.

You don’t think that the fact that evidence is always subject to interpretation by fallible humans means that Ham and his staff of hacks and crackpots might be wrong, do you? Nah, can’t be. Admitting that you might be completely wrong in the face of compelling evidence is something that one of those evil, secular, atheistic scientists might do…

[ story via PZ Myers ]

For years, it has been believed that electric bulbs emit light, but recent information has proved otherwise.  Electric bulbs don’t emit light; they suck dark. Thus, we call these bulbs Dark Suckers. The Dark Sucker Theory and the existence of dark suckers prove that dark has mass and is heavier than light.

A candle is a primitive Dark Sucker.  A new candle has a white wick. You can see that after the first use, the wick turns black, representing all the dark that has been sucked into it.  If you put a pencil next to the wick of an operating candle, it will turn black.  This is because it got in the way of the dark flowing into the candle…

[ via Dave Pearson, from a satirical bit by Roger Wilcox ]

And there we have something very similar to the thought that flows behind the Electric Universe concept. Everything we know is wrong, there’s some mysterious bit of information that proves it, therefore, we can discard all we currently know and replace it with whatever we feel like.

Over at Bad Astronomy, Phil Plait tries to explain why astronomers don’t seem to notice any of the countless alien spacecraft supposedly buzzing overhead. According to Phil, most UFO reports are misidentified planets, stars, weather balloons or satellites buzzing overhead, everyday things that both amateur and professional astronomers know how to distinguish from say, a mother ship piloted by an advanced extraterrestrial civilization all the way from Tau Seti or Zeta Riticuli. It makes perfect sense that UFOs would be extremely rare. If even half of all the reported sightings were honest to goodness alien craft, any military on the planet would be in a state of sheer panic right now.

ufo in a hangar

But wait a second. Why do ufologists like to mention the sheer volume of flying saucer reports when all we really need is just one, concrete case with solid evidence? When it comes to science, an argumentum ad populum is pretty much meaningless. Thinking that something happened in the absence of falsifiable proof makes your position a belief. People agreeing with your interpretation of a puzzling event and reporting similar ones, makes that position a popular belief. And yet none of them prove that your stance is backed by anything other than your opinion. It’s just like the pareidolia responsible for constant sightings of saints on cheese sandwiches or in knots of tree bark. Lots of people see it, but it’s hardly definitive proof of the supernatural.

So why focus on quantity rather than quality? Because humans are social creatures and we’re very prone to jumping on bandwagons, often accepting the flawed premise that because many people believe something, there must be at least some truth to it. This is why we have bestsellers and “most popular” sections on news sites and blogs. Ufologists who invoke the sheer amount of sightings people can’t immediately explain, are appealing to our social nature, using it to bolster a point in the absence of solid proof.

The fact of the matter is that alien craft designed to cross interstellar space would have to be huge in order to generate the energy required to make the trip. We’d be able to detect the bursts of radiation coming from their engines. And if they show up multiple times, they’d need to be more or less uniform rather than come in the wildly different shapes, colors and arrangements we hear about today since making every spaceship in a huge fleet unique is not what a species that can manufacture spacecraft on an industrial scale is likely to do. Real alien encounters would leave consistent, falsifiable proof and all we’d really need is one good case to say that there’s just might be something to this whole UFO thing.