March 3, 2024

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Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Philosophy On UFOs: A Response

When it comes to the emotive subject of UFOs (as in alien spacecraft), scientists just don’t want to know or enter into the debate if it can be possibly be avoided, for the prime reason that those who make the UFO = alien spaceship equation fail to either put up or shut up. That’s ‘put up’ in terms of the sorts of evidence that scientists tend to have to ‘put up’ when they make claims. If they have to ‘put up’, they expect in turn that others will ‘put up’ evidence to them. The scientific consensus is that UFO = alien spaceship buffs haven’t done an adequate job in the ‘put up’ department. One such scientist with that point of view (POV) is the fairly well known astronomer, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. While overall reasonably correct in that POV, some of his arguments are flawed and lack credibility in my POV.

When it comes to evidence for this or that explanation for a UFO sighting, especially the UFO = alien spacecraft explanation, eyewitness testimony is suspect. Or so relates astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson via several YouTube clips relevant to his take on UFOs. But wait, there’s more!

Dr. Tyson quite correctly points out that the “U” in UFO stands for “unidentified” and that’s as far as anyone seeing, what to them is an Unidentified Flying Object, can expound upon. One should not jump to the conclusion that “U” equals alien spacecraft. No argument there. However, he also points out, an equally valid comment, is that we don’t like mysteries like things that are unidentified and so therefore we do tend to jump the gun and jump to unwarranted conclusions in order to identify the unidentified and maybe unidentifiable. No argument from me there either other than to point out that we leap to the conclusion of UFOs = alien spaceships in favour of some other explanation probably because there must be something suggestive of that possibility; there’s something in the observational date that points to alien ships and not to something else.

He notes that there exist natural phenomena and conditions which can befuddle someone not familiar with those phenomena. No argument on that observation either.

HUMAN PERCEPTION

But he goes slightly off the rails by suggesting the least likely form of bona-fide evidence is human perception or eyewitness testimony. Optical illusions are a case in point as he delights in pointing out. However, relative to manmade or designed optical illusions, there are not all that many natural ones, although there are some of course, like mirages or that ‘sinking’ ship as it passes beyond the visible horizon.

I get the impression from Dr. Tyson’s comments that eyewitness testimony has as much reliability as a $7 bill. Human perception is absolutely 100% fallible. Although eyewitness testimony is a cornerstone in legal proceedings, courtroom lawyers have a field day in discrediting eyewitness testimony. Experiments by psychologists prove overwhelmingly that any sudden and unexpected event witnessed by ten people will result in ten different versions of what happened, but not drastically so. I mean ten witnesses will differ on the height, weight and attire of the person in the unexpected happening, but they won’t differ on the fact that it was a human and not an elephant!

Humans are actually pretty good when it comes to the details, otherwise why would law enforcement officials ask you to point out the criminal in a police line-up or the news reporters question witnesses to some unusual news happening? To take just one of thousands of possible examples, you can easily tell your face from your parent’s faces and from the face of every other person you know (in person) or have frequently seen (like Dr. Tyson’s on YouTube). You know a new and different face when you see one. You can tell a human face from say a reconstructed one of Homo erectus. You can distinguish a primate face from a feline face from a canine face from a bovine face. You can tell apart the face of a penguin or an eagle from their ancient ancestor, the T-Rex. If you can’t tell apart a frog face from a crocodile face from a shark face from a spider’s face, there’s something seriously askew. Assuming there’s nothing askew; you can tell apart all these examples of faces despite the fact that they are all faces.

Therefore, in your day-to-day life, 99.9% of what other people tell you they saw (i.e. – Joe Blow drinking down at the pub) you’ll believe them. Human perception is flawed, but it’s all you got for all practical purposes – despite zillions of smart-phone cameras around snapping anything and everything. People don’t tend to tell you they saw Joe Blow at the pub AND show you their smart-phone camera picture of Joe Blow at the pub since you obviously wouldn’t believe them without the pictorial backup.

In any event, perception in humans usually tends to be more than adequate, say when driving a car or playing a game of baseball. Humans have an excellent innate ability to judge height, depth, colour, direction of sound, types of sounds, motion, velocity (speed plus direction), etc. We’d better have those skills if we are to survive day-to-day; week-to-week; month-to-month; etc. from birth through death.

THE GAME OF TELEPHONE

Dr. Tyson makes much of the child’s game of ‘telephone’ and how that relates to evidence of how unreliable eyewitness (or ear-witness) testimony is. It’s that version of someone who told someone, who told someone, who told someone, who told someone, who told someone, etc. etc. That story that goes in ear number one ends up usually bearing little relation to what the last person in the chain relates what they were told. Cases where someone who told someone repeated many times over on down the line are indeed suspect, but that’s not usually the case with UFO sightings. ‘Telephone’ is actually pretty irrelevant to UFO reports since the chain is usually just a chain of one link between two individuals – the UFO witness relates firsthand their story to the UFO investigator. There’s no twenty-something someone who told someone links here. Direct first-person testimony is written down or otherwise recorded for posterity.

THE INEXPERIENCED LAYPERSON

Dr. Tyson makes the point that average Joe Blow citizen isn’t usually all that familiar with astronomical and meteorological and optical phenomena and thus sightings of lights in the sky are frequently misinterpreted – Venus becomes an alien spaceship. However, not all UFOs sighted are reports of dot points of lights in the sky. UFOs have been seen close up on the ground and often exhibit a substantial disc when seen in the sky. That’s why the late Dr. J. Allen Hynek (who was a pioneer in the scientific study of UFOs while also an astrophysicist like Dr. Tyson) came up with that category of UFO sightings called “close encounters” where misidentification of say a star for an alien spacecraft is unlikely since a star never exhibits a substantial 2-D or 3-D geometric shape.

ABDUCTIONS

Dr. Tyson also suggests (tongue-in-cheek?) that if you are abducted, you grab (steal) something off the alien’s shelf in order to back up your claim with something that can be put on the slab in a lab for independent testing. That’s flawed for several reasons. Assuming you’ve been abducted by aliens, you’ve got to think of it at the time under rather trying circumstances. That’s if you’re not naked on the slab being poked and prodded – you have no pockets available in which to squirrel something away, assuming there is anything in arm’s reach to squirrel away in any event. That’s also assuming you are not being watched. Even if you do nick off with something, elements and compounds tend to be uniform across the cosmos so an alien ashtray or knife could be made of the same stuff as a terrestrial ashtray or knife. Any alleged alien artefact would clearly have to be of such a nature as to rule out any terrestrial origin or a hoax. It’s a sensible suggestion but a way more likely bet is that any alleged UFO abductee would pick up alien micro-organisms which might be detectable and cultured as evidence.

ALIEN PSYCHOLOGY

One obvious flaw in Dr. Tyson’s reasoning is that, according to Dr. Tyson, if UFOs are alien spacecraft, why should said aliens land in a farmer’s field as opposed to something more visible like touching down in Times Square (New York City). Well, aliens, by definition, are alien and will have alien motives; an alien psychology. We cannot determine before the fact how aliens should behave since we have no studies to hand on alien wetware, alien neurochemistry and alien motivations.

INEPT ALIENS: SHIT HAPPENS

Dr. Tyson also ridicules UFOs as alien spacecraft by noting the [Roswell] crash. How can advanced high-tech aliens navigate and travel across the galaxy then end up crash-landing? They must be pretty stupid inept aliens. Actually, it is in this case, an unusually inept example of reasoning by Dr. Tyson. Dr Tyson – shit happens! How many UFOs (if alien spacecraft) haven’t crashed? Nearly all would be an appropriate answer. Sometimes, albeit rarely, we have aircraft crashes. Most times aircraft don’t crash. If terrestrial shit happens, extraterrestrial shit happens. These are fallible aliens, not infallible deities.

In conclusion, Dr. Tyson’s various YouTube presentations are clearly his standard answer to the UFO question and his well rehearsed monolog on the subject. They were pure showmanship – witty, highly entertaining, but, alas scientifically barren. His presentations contributed nothing to furthering the coming to terms with the bona-fide UFO phenomena. As the saying goes, “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem”.