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Alien Encounter

Aliens, Delusion, and How We Assess the Plausibility of Evidence


Last night I was listening to a late-night radio program that I've listened to off-and-on for many years. The host was interviewing a recurring guest about recent evidence that the guest believed supported the reality of the existence of aliens (extraterrestrial aliens). I'm not positive, but I'm pretty sure that I went to high school with the guest's son, who was in my German class and was really into junior ROTC. The son was ashamed of his father's beliefs, and felt his life was being negatively affected by them. Because of this, he was having a very hard time with his father. So, out of respect for the son, I will not mention the name of the man I think is his father.

The topic of the possibility of aliens visiting the earth is one that I have always been ... intrigued by. One of the reasons it interests me so much is that it raises the question of how we evaluate the value or the plausibility of evidence. People do this many ways, but the major method seems to be to look to people around them, see what they believe, and assume they actually know what they believe they know. In other words, we assume that whatever most people around us believe, must be true. The problem with this method is that many people are niave and many others are delusional, in the non-clinical sense. They believe things that simply aren't true. Carl Sagan wrote a book about this called, "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark". It's an interesting read, if you get the time. But, one of the things I noticed was that Carl frequently didn't provide evidence for things he said. He used logic and reasoning based on postulates, things he just assumed were true that were never proven. If a respected scientist who is criticizing others for basing their world views on unproven assumptions is doing the same thing, what hope do we have?

There is a whole discipline, called epistemology, that is the study of how we know what we know. I would say, why we believe what we think we know, because I an aware of Edmond Gettier's 1963 paper, "Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?". The way I interpret this paper is that no one really knows anything. We're all just weighing evidence and making educated guesses. In other words, thanks to our unconscious underlying assumptions and thoroughly flawed logic, it is not possible for us to really "know" anything. I'm not using the dictionary definition of the word "knowledge" here, because by the dictionary definition of "knowledge", if you believe something strongly enough not to doubt it, then you "know" it. Clearly, this is a fundamentally flawed definition. However, many agree that Gettier's paper shows that even the more precise definition that philosophers have used for thousand of years is flawed. By the way, the belief that we can never know anything brands me a philosophical skeptic.

So, if I am correct that we can never know anything, why even try to find the truth or struggle to understand the nature of reality? Why ask the questions in the first place? The reason we do is that, even as flawed human beings, there are certain things we need to act on (perhaps not the alien question, though). That need to act means that we are forced to act on our best guess (i.e. our perception) of what is true and what is real. If we didn't, we would never do anything, except perhaps starve and die.

Now finally, back to the question of the existence of aliens. If we can never know whether aliens are visiting the earth, how can some percentage of the population (now in the minority, by the way) be so sure that this is not the case? How can they be so certain, despite decades of eye-witness testimony, and more recently, strong evidence provided by the Disclosure Project that there are things flying around up there, and even occasionally crashing and being collected by the militaries of the world? I'm not taking a side, I haven't decided what I believe, yet. I'm asking the question, how can some people discount reasonable evidence by a wave of their hands?

This is the same problem that I've had in my career. Coworkers ignore what I say, even when I have much more experience than they have and am fairly certain that I know what I'm talking about. And, even after I'm proven right time after time after time, they still don't believe me. Why is it that people who know so little assume that they know so much?

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a phenomenon recognized by psychologists in which people think they are smarter than they are and know more than they do. In other words, many, if not all people, find it difficult to know what they don't know, or to adequately evaluate their intellectual abilities. My guess is that part of the reason this condition exists is that human beings are not skilled at kindly telling each other when they are deficient. Too much unkind criticism causes them to become defensive, instead of allowing them to be open minded. My guess is that, as a result, many people have become so closed minded when it comes to anything they don't know that they are nearly incapable of learning new things. Therefore, they are stuck in this state of not knowing what they don't know. So, until they get unstuck, if it's even possible, they cannot change their minds about questions like the existence of aliens, the existence of god, or whether Bill Clinton was a good president.



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