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Magical Thinking

Why You Should Doubt the New "Evidence" About Aliens and UFOs

Using logic to evaluate the claims of landings and coverups.

Key points

  • Despite the hype, contact with aliens was not “confirmed” in Congress.
  • No actual evidence of alien contact has been produced; it’s just been professed to exist.
  • Applying logic and critical thinking to the situation produces a much more somber conclusion.
  • It’s much more likely that Grusch (and his contacts) have fooled themselves with bad inadequate evidence.

Since its inception 10 years ago, the stated purpose of this blog has been to examine, logically, “UFO sightings, pseudo cures, Facebook memes, and the like.” It thus seems not only appropriate, but imperative, to logically examine the recent allegations of retired Air Force officer David Grusch, who testified before Congress last week and said that he has evidence that the military is running a UAP (UFO) retrieval (and reverse-engineering) program—a program which (he says) not only has been operating for decades, but has both alien craft (one of which, like the TARDIS from Doctor Who, is supposedly bigger on the inside), and non-human (aka alien) “biologics.” To do this, I am going to apply Ted Schick’s “SEARCH” method, the critical thinking technique he teaches in his book How to Think About Weird Things, and which I have been teaching to logic and critical-thinking students for 15 years.

The first step is simple: State the hypothesis you wish to evaluate. In this case, that’s easy: “The military is running a UAP (UFO) retrieval (and reverse engineering) program which has captured both alien craft and lifeforms.”

The second step is more complicated: Evaluate the evidence for the first hypothesis. Why is it more complicated? In this case it's because, to date, Grusch has actually produced no publicly facing empirical or objective evidence for his claims. He’s just told us (and Congress) that he has evidence, including the testimony of people who work inside the program, that the hypothesis is true. So his testimony (primarily about their testimony) is basically the only thing we have which could be considered evidence for his claim. But not only is testimony not nearly as dependable as people often assume; as David Hume taught us long ago, testimony is an especially unreliable guide to the truth when it comes to the occurrence of extraordinary events. Hume was talking about miracles, but his point would stand for claims about aliens as well.

Hume said that, when it comes to miracles, testimony cannot justify belief. Why? Miracles are a violation of natural law, but that the laws always hold is something he has seen, repeatedly, every day, with his own eyes. The evidence he has for that is repeated and direct. Miracles, on the other hand, are rare and testimony does not produce as much justification as seeing something with your own eyes. So the unique unrepeated evidence of someone telling him the laws were once broken (even if they are a generally reliable witness) will never outweigh the direct repeated evidence he has that the laws always hold. It’s much more likely that the witness is either lying or simply mistaken.

Likewise, the evidence I have that aliens have not visited Earth is repeated and direct. Not only have I walked around my entire life and seen no good evidence of aliens visiting Earth, I have seen claimed evidence that they have (including evidence people have claimed is “absolute proof” and “the best evidence you will ever see of aliens”) debunked, over and over and over and over again. The unique indirect evidence of someone’s testimony that they have seen such evidence will not be able to outweigh the direct repeated evidence I already have. It is much more likely that they are lying or mistaken.

Which brings us to the third step of the SEARCH method: State and evaluate an alternative hypothesis. In this case, that hypothesis would be: “Grusch is either lying, or he is mistaken about what the evidence he has entails (e.g., he misunderstood what his inside sources said, or he is mistaken about what the evidence he or they have proven).”

Some will claim that Grusch can’t be lying because he testified under oath, before Congress. If he’s lying, he’s perjured himself, and could be found guilty of contempt. But punishment for contempt of Congress is pretty light: at most, a year in jail and a $100,000 fine; at the least, one month and $100. (Steve Bannon only had to pay $6500 and got four months for defying a subpoena in the January 6th investigation.) For Grusch, the subsequent notoriety and book deals could totally be worth the risk of a contempt charge.

What’s more, if the evidence he has simply doesn’t entail what he thinks it does, he can’t be found guilty of lying; he’d just be mistaken. And that’s what seems most likely. If there is one thing I have learned during the 10 years of authoring this blog, it’s that critical-thinking skills are sorely lacking in our society, across the board. Even in professions that would seem to require them—lawyers, lawmakers, military personnel, and even philosophy professors—there are large collections of people that simply lack the ability to think critically. That means there are a lot of people who are not nearly as good at evaluating evidence as they think they are. As a result, the likelihood that Grusch and his sources have convinced themselves that they have good evidence of aliens, when they don’t, is extremely high.

Take Grusch’s claim that non-human “biologics” have been retrieved from crash sites. Now, “biologics” are not bodies (and he was asked if the program has alien bodies); still, if the program has DNA confirmed to be of alien origin from a crash site—that’s a big deal. But (a) non-human doesn’t mean alien. (Birds are not humans.) And (b) someone (perhaps Grusch; perhaps one of his sources) might be convinced that some piece of biological material they were asked to evaluate is of alien origin simply because they couldn’t figure out what it was. (Indeed, given the possibility of mishandled, contaminated, incomplete, damaged, or otherwise faulty samples, I’d be surprised if this hasn’t happened multiple times.) But that’s not good logic; that’s the “mystery therefore magic fallacy” (which I have explained elsewhere). As I often tell my students, when you can’t find a natural explanation of something, “I’m not as smart as I think I am” will always be a better explanation than “It must be ghosts/aliens/Bigfoot/ESP, etc.” (It’s akin to recognizing that you might be suspectable to the Dunning-Kruger Effect.)

The last step is to compare the hypothesis according to the criteria of adequacy: testability, fruitfulness, scope, parsimony, and conservatism. I don’t have the room here to explain what each of these is (I have before), but the most relevant is conservatism: Does it conflict with things we already have good reason to believe are true? In this case, hypothesis 1 is the least conservative. If aliens have visited Earth, then all of modern science and physics is not just incomplete, but fundamentally wrong. Given what we know about the size of the universe and how the laws of physics put limits on propulsion speeds, the chance that an alien species even could visit Earth while our species exists is near zero. But the second hypothesis just assumes that some people are lying or mistaken; and we already know that can and does happen every day.

To be fair, Grusch doesn’t think these aliens came from another planet; he thinks they came from another dimension. I don’t think this actually makes the first hypothesis any more conservative; while some theories in physics hypothesize “extra-dimensions,” that’s not the same as thing as “other dimensions/universes” where other lifeforms might live. But I know it makes the first hypothesis less “parsimonious.” It requires us to assume the existence of unprovable inconceivable “dimension jumping” technology. The second hypothesis just calls on us to assume that people are easily mistaken—which, again, we already know. To put it simply, Occam’s razor favors hypothesis 2. Clearly, it is the more reasonable of the two.

I’d be glad to be proven wrong; if aliens have visited Earth, maybe they can help us with climate change (which, let’s be honest; given that we just lived through the hottest month (July) on record, that’s what we should be talking about). But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. To date, Grusch has provided none.

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