UFOlogy Defined


The definition of Ufology first requires an explanation of what a UFO is. According to one of the founding figures of the discipline, astronomer J. Allen Hynek, the most 'scientific' explanation of a UFO is:

"the reported perception of an object or light seen in the sky or upon the land the appearance, trajectory, and general dynamic and luminescent behavior of which do not suggest a logical, conventional explanation and which is not only mystifying to the original percipients but remains unidentified after close scrutiny of all available evidence by persons who are technically capable of making a common sense identification, if one is possible" (UFOevidence).

This makes UFOlogy the study of unidentified flying objects, most of which prove to be IFOs (identified flying objects); these can be anything from weather balloons to planes (UFOevidence). However, it is important (philosophically) to notice that while this is the standard, 'scientific' definition employed by both critics and proponents of the field, this definition is technically neutral towards the origin of the unidentified flying objects: it is consistent that they either be of extraterrestrial or terrestrial origin. However, in the discourses of UFOlogy, critics and proponents alike both acknowledge the premise in UFOlogy that at least some UFOs are considered ET in origin, and cannot be otherwise explained (UFOevidence).



The Nature of UFOlogy


Origin



The discipline of UFOlogy emerged fairly recently, at least formally. In between 1951 and 1953 the term 'UFO' was most likely coined by Capt. Edward J. Ruppelt, a member of the U.S. Air Force, who replaced the term "flying saucer" with UFO (MUFON). While the phenomena of observing these UFOs was initially an American phenomenon, within years to come, sightings were reported across the globe (MUFON). According to some polls, the sightings range across a plethora of countries in the millions (MUFON).


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A map of UFO sightings


Methodological Principles

The nature of any theoretical principles in UFOlogy are particular to the occurrence of UFO sightings and observations. As such, any general theoretical principles involved in UFOlogy are based on (usually direct) observational evidence, as well as patterns that emerge from these observations. One of the most useful sets of methodological principles has been enumerated by Sturrock, who lists five "distinct activities" involved in UFOlogy (Sturrock 163).
  1. There must be field investigations involving the gathering of physical evidence in UFOlogy (Sturrock 163).
  2. An analysis of the physical evidence gathered must be further conducted (in a laboratory) (Sturrock 163).
  3. There needs to be a systematic gathering of data (observations, physical pieces of evidence, sighting, etc) (Sturrock 163).
  4. An analysis should be conducted on the collection of data to discover important facts, patterns, etc (Sturrock 163).
  5. Theories should be developed at this point based on the collection of data, and these theories can be assessed given the facts collected. (I will discuss the nature of the evidence purportedly available in But is UFOlogy a science?) (Sturrock 163).

There is another set of methodological principles available in UFOlogy however, which consist in UFO "classification" (Hyneck 44). Although it is technically impossible to properly 'classify' an unidentified object, Hyneck proposed a system whereby one could label a UFO sighting by a particular category, based on the experience had (44). For instance, "Daylight Discs" (DD) are disc-shaped objects seen during the bright of day (Hyneck 44). In any case, such principles have been proposed for approaching UFOlogy in a 'genuinely' scientific manor. Even though no universal principles apply to the field, UFOlogy retains a few methodological principles (Hyneck 44).

Current Status

As far as academia is concerned, things fare poorly for UFOlogy (Priest 2-4). There are no accredited institutions in which UFOlogy is offered as a degree, neither are there textbooks regarding the matter (Priest 4). Scientists generally deny the validity of UFOlogy as a science, and institutions that act as the "validators of science" (e.g. National Academy of Sciences) simply dismiss the claims of UFOlogists (Priest 3-4). Thus, despite popular beliefs (Scripps poll below), scientists deem UFOlogy as pseudoscience, and we shall investigate below whether this is warranted or not.


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But is UFOlogy a Science?


If we accept roughly similar methodological principles to Sturrock's five "activities of UFOlogy" and Hyneck's system, we notice that physical evidence is still required in order to make the pursuit of UFOlogy even worthy of being considered a science. Having said this, UFOlogists have massive amounts of physical evidence for their study of UFOs, the quality of which we shall later assess scientifically.

According to Kevin Randle, an 'authority' in the discipline, some of the physical evidence available regarding UFOs consists in photographic evidence, eyewitness testimony, and written reports (Bing, Zaleski, Gediman, et al., 73). We have catalogs of accounts and testimonies regarding UFO observations, a lot of which must still be critically analyzed (MUFON). In addition to the above, Sturrock's book, The UFO Enigma, propounds even more types of physical evidence provided by UFOlogists: radar evidence, luminosity estimates, analysis of debris, apparent gravitational effects, vehicle interference, and onwards (Sturrock 66, 70, 74, 81, 105). Hence, the question is not whether physical evidence exists in the case of UFOlogy, but whether it is reliable, correct, scientific, and cannot be explained by a theory that does not invoke the existence of ETs.


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Picture of a "Daylight Disc" (DD)


Furthermore, UFOlogy engages in what appears to be the scientific method (Moldwin 41-42). Mark Moldwin writes that UFOlogists do seek confirmable, observable evidence, systematic sources of error, and even share a similar premise with SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), namely that intelligent life could have evolved elsewhere in the universe and developed a capacity to send us a signal (41-42). The importance of this is that SETI is deemed scientific by the scientific community (Moldwin 41-42).

Given all of the types of copious physical evidence for the existence of UFOs, as well as a few methodological principles, why is it that UFOlogy is in such disrepute among the scientific community? Is UFOlogy not a science? Some of the reasons why it is not considered so are due to the frequent nature of UFO reporting: it is often the result of publicity campaigns (shows, films, books), and ulterior motives (Priest 3-4). A lot of reporting regarding UFOs is also due to uncritical media coverage, which benefits from the popularity of UFO coverage, even though it ought remain critical of UFOlogy (Priest 3-4).

Furthermore, unlike astrobiology, UFOlogy does not engage in consistent and reliable peer-reviewing processes, like those required by scientific journal articles (Moldwin 41-42). The difference between astrobiology and UFOlogy is very illuminating and valuable here. Astrobiology is in the hands of physicists, geologists, astronomers, and biologists, who are constantly under the pressure of comparing and testing ideas, and are under the purview of established institutions (Moldwin 41-42). In addition to this, astrobiology produces useful scientific results (understanding the possibility of life in the universe), while UFOlogy has been lacking in providing genuinely useful information (41-42).

SETI - Satellite
SETI - Satellite


There is also an important assumption that UFOlogists are making, which they have not provided evidence for, nor do any of the above forms of evidence help explain it: ET-UFOs require sufficient technology (if even possible) to traverse interstellar distances and make it to earth and survive the voyage, while allowing/desiring themselves to be detected in our skies. Hence, UFOlogists provide frequently uncritical, non-peer-reviewed physical evidence for their theory, which makes an unwarranted crucial assumption; this is an indication that UFOlogy is not scientific. In fact, below we will show that it is worse than that: it is a pseudoscience.

Why UFOlogy is a Pseudoscience


So far we have recognized that physical evidence for UFOlogy exists, as well as a few methodological principles. I will elucidate some demarcation criteria here that distinguish science from pseudoscience, and will reveal how UFOlogy fails those criteria.

Demarcation Criteria


Verifiability:
In Paul Thagard's important philosophy of science paper about astrology, he explains what is called "verifiability" (4). In essence, "a theory is said to be verifiable if it is possible to deduce observation statements from it" (Thagard 4). These observations are what is needed to "confirm of disconfirm" the theory (Thagard 4). This idea stems from the logical positivist school of thought, which claims that only verifiable theories can be scientific (Thagard 4). Thus, UFOlogy will have to be able to provide us with observational statements that follow from the 'science', which can be used to verify the discipline.

Falsifiability:
Karl Popper however goes further than verifiabilty and uses the criteria of falsibiability to demarcate genuine science (2-3). This notion involves the following important principles.

  • First, verifications are generally easy to acquire, so they are not sufficient to demarcate a science (Popper 2-3).
  • Second, the only worthwhile confirmations are ones that are a product of "risky predictions" (Popper 2-3). That is, when a theory is going through its Popperian "validity test", it must make some predictions or provide claims that are grounds for disconfirming the theory (Popper 2-3).
  • Third, prohibition or restriction is an essential feature of any scientific theory; better theories are capable of restricting many things from not being possible or occurring (Popper 2-3).
  • Fourth, similar to the second point, theories that are impossible to disconfirm are pseudoscientific (Popper 2-3). Popper argues that irrefutability is rather a vice instead of virtue (Popper 2-3)
  • Fifth, whenever we engage in honestly testing a theory, we are trying to disprove it (Popper 2-3). That is, testability is equated with refutability, although there are definitely degrees of testability (Popper 2-3).
  • Sixth, drawing on previous points, the only kind of acceptable confirmation is one that is a product of genuine testing of the theory (Popper 2-3).
  • Seventh, the theory is unscientific if it constantly requires ad hoc modification of auxiliary assumptions, or ad hoc reinterpretations that allow the theory to remain in-tact in the face of disconfirming evidence (Popper 2-3).

In summary, this notion of demarcation propounded by Popper allows us to test UFOlogy in terms of falsification. The question that will arise is whether UFOlogical claims are risky, capable of being wrong, and genuine tests of the theory.


Karl Popper
Karl Popper


Context-Dependent Factors in Demarcation
Falsification is however not the only way to demarcate a science. Thagard argues that falsification may not be sufficient to identify all pseudosciences (Bortolotti 16-17). Somewhat like Thomas Kuhn, Thagard argues from a historical, social perspective on what demarcates a science (Bortolotti 16-17). Whether a science is truly pseudoscientific may depend on the context in which that discipline exists, providing a sort of relativistic approach to labeling science.

One context-based factor for example is whether "[a] scientific discipline has a community of practitioners largely in agreement about the main principles and methods that characterize that discipline" (Bortolotti 16-17). Not only is some consensus in the community required, but UFOlogists would have to actively seek solutions to theoretical problems, incongruence between data and theory, and conduct rigorous testing (Bortolotti 16-17). Furthermore, Thagard argues that the theory's competition also factors into its status, as well as its stage of development (Bortolotti 16-17). To know whether UFOlogy is scientific, we would have to examine how and how long it has been dealing with any counter-evidence, and whether other more plausible theories are being offered in its place.

Simplicity - Ockham's Razor
Lastly, it is worth examining the criteria of scientific simplicity in our demarcation of science, as applied to UFOlogy. Ockham's razor is usually stated as "Don't multiply entities beyond necessity" (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP)). This notion however helps demarcate science from pseudoscience in an important way. Where two explanations are capable of attaining the same explanatory power, but one is more convoluted, requires more assumptions, more premises, etc., then we have no reason to select the latter (SEP). This can be applied in particular to UFOlogy by asking whether any other theories or simpler explanations that achieve a similar result (explaining the mystery of UFOs) are available. The presence of any possible, simpler alternative explanations for the phenomenon of UFOs (other than ETs) would make the premises of UFOlogy unnecessary and unscientific, just like the positing of excessive ontological entities in philosophy.

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Why UFOlogy fails to satisfy the demarcation criteria


Verifiability:
UFOlogy attempts to explain various unpredictable, random, unforeseeable events, which cannot be reproduced in any situation (UFOevidence). It is based heavily on the individual observations of people (e.g. seeing a flare in the sky), and none of this can amount to a prediction-power for UFOlogists, rather they can only try to categorize or hypothesize about the nature of past individual reports/photographs, as opposed to universal, testable principles. There are no genuine, specific, verification conditions that UFOlogists make, e.g. given the existence of UFO kind X, we should be able to observe effects of kind Y in area Z at times C-D. Obviously specificity is also out of the question when predictions themselves cannot be made to test against the theory. In sum, UFOlogists explain retroactively, and offer us no deductions from theoretical principles that can be confirmed or denied, nor are the results observed possible to reproduce or stimulate in order to confirm the theory.

Falsifiability:
It is not necessary that a theory fails to satisfy all of the criteria from Popper's notion of falsification, in order for it to be pseudoscientific. However, it would be sufficiently pseudoscientific if it failed to conform to most these criteria. UFOlogy, does indeed fail to be falsifiable, making it non-scientific. There are several reasons for this.

We might say that UFOlogy does make risky explanations (e.g. claims that a certain type of figure in pictures must be an ET-UFO), because it is possible in some cases to later identify what seems like an alien-UFO as a common IFO (e.g. a plane) or a product of some photographic glitch, or as an underlying perceptual bias (Bowers, Eastwood 136). However, we certainly cannot say that UFOlogists make any predictions, as argued above. UFOlogists go back and explain a phenomenon as having been attributed to no other possible cause than an ET-entity, but they cannot make any precise, risky predictions about UFO-landings, dates of encounters, and so on. Hence, UFOlogy lacks falsifiability in this sense.

Furthermore, the only confirmations that are taken into account in UFOlogy are not ones that perform a genuine test of the theory. As mentioned above, much of the evidence is photographic, an eye-witness report, narrated testimony, etc. How does one, for instance, disconfirm the eye-witness testimony of seeing a disc-shaped object in the sky? Much of this evidence clearly does not act as a genuine test of the refutability of UFOlogy, nor does it seem possible for it to do so. In so far as the bulk of UFOlogy hinges on unreliable individual observations, these pieces of evidence cannot ever amount to a genuine test of the theory.

Lastly, it appears that no prohibition whatsoever is being issued by the theorizing and data collected about UFOs. Instead of providing some prohibition based on theoretical principles of UFOlogy (e.g. in physics humans cannot escape earth's gravity by jumping), UFOlogy merely makes anything possible in the natural world, and mystifies our principles of natural explanation. This is in effect the opposite of what scientific theory does, and hence, along with the reasons above, why UFOlogy is deemed pseudoscientific.

Context-Dependent Factors in Demarcation:
Thagard's context-dependent criteria for demarcation are also not satisfied by UFOlogy. As explained above, there is a lack of principles altogether (with the exception of Sturrock and Hyneck's) and no wide consensus about them. There simply is no known set of principles that unities the field of UFOlogy, but merely a few individual proposals on dealing with evidence.

What's more is that UFOlogists have been constantly bombarded by conflicting evidence ever since its origin, without any genuine attempts to resolve these conflicts, failing yet another of Thagard's demarcation criteria (Priest 3-4). For instance, many experiences or encounters with UFOs (abductions, visitations, etc.) have been explained to plausibly arise from certain psychological processes, such as suggestibility, and perceptual biases (Bowers, Eastwood 136).

Lastly, UFOlogy fails to be as progressive as any alternative theories. Astrobiology is a more modest, yet far more useful and progressive discipline, which as described above, is under constant peer-review and practices the scientific method closely. Furthermore, it even allows us to make verifiable predictions about universe-life (Bennett, Shostak 11). This discipline is currently working on a theory of life in the universe (Bennett, Shostak 11). Through it, we can then scientifically assess the plausibility of life visiting earth. Hence, the unprogressive discipline of UFOlogists fails a variety of Thagard's context-dependent criteria as well (Bennett, Shostak 11).

Simplicity - Ockham's Razor:
UFOlogy also fails the criteria of simplicity (Ockham's Razor) with alternative explanations available that are just as capable of explaining the mystery. UFOlogy makes use of the very complicated premise discussed above that UFOs could even in principle survive a voyage to earth, or ETs possess the technology to do so. This is a very heavy assumption to bare, as it might turn out to be impossible, given our astrobiological knowledge. Furthermore, the positing of ET-UFOs is unnecessarily complicated compared to the usual, simple, and intuitive explanations available to us: for example, that most UFOs turn out to be IFOs such as weather balloons, stealthy-jets, or are a result of perceptual tricks or biases. Given that we have simpler alternative explanations of the origin of UFOs through psychology, astrobiology, and so forth, with perhaps even greater explanatory power, UFOlogy fails the test of simplicity.

Harm by pseudoscientific belief


Since we have made a case against UFOlogy by labeling it a pseudoscience, we can explain why this belief is harmful. W.K. Clifford provides an eloquent demonstration in his paper, the Ethics of Belief, as to why and how beliefs can be ethically harmful or lacking in virtue (Zagzebski, Miller 544-545). He argues that we have a certain duty of inquiry, and should not be right by chance, or for the wrong reasons (Zagzebski, Miller 544-545). Not only does improper inquiry (pseudoscience) lead to nasty, damaging, epistemic habits, but if we do not properly inquire, by Clifford's logic, and utilize pseudoscientific claims to arrive at truth, we are undeserving of that truth; the theory might have stumbled upon truth, while we were not epistemically and morally entitled to it (Zagzebski, Miller 544-545). Nowhere did we deny the possibility that UFOs are visiting us, but we argued that we have no entitlement to that claim given the evidence and methodology of UFOlogists. In essence, such a belief is harmful in so far as it weakens virtuous epistemic beliefs, acquired by reliable processes.

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Summary


In summary, UFOlogy not only fails to be a science, it is pseudoscientific, despite its abundance of physical evidence and few methodological principles. This result was obtained by testing the theory against a variety of demarcation criteria: verifiability, falsifiability, context-dependent factors, and Ockham's Razor. UFOlogy however has failed to satisfy nearly all criteria presented by this wide range of demarcation criteria, making our conclusion that UFOlogy is pseudoscientific certain. Worst of all for UFOlogy, scientific fields like astrobiology are working on providing answers to the questions that UFOlogy has still failed to answer.

References


  1. Bennett, Jeffrey O., and G. Seth. Shostak. Life in the Universe. San Francisco: Pearson Addison-Wesley, 2012. Print.

  2. Bing, Jonathan, Jeff Zaleski, Paul Gediman, and Charlotte Abbott. "Scientific Ufology: How the Application of Scientific Methodology Can Analyze, Illuminate, and Prove the Reality of UFOs." Publishers Weekly (1999): 76. Web.

  3. Bortolotti, Lisa. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. Cambridge: Polity, 2008. Print.

  4. Bowers, Kenneth S., and John D. Eastwood. "On the Edge of Science: Coping With UFOlogy Scientifically." Psychological Inquiry 7.2 (1996): 136-40. Print.

  5. Hyneck, Allen J. The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry. London: Corgi, 1974. Print.

  6. MUFON: The Mutual UFO Network. MUFON.com, n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2013. <http://www.mufon.com/>.

  7. Ockham, William Of. "William of Ockham." (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Stanford University, n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2013.

  8. Priest, Susanna Hornig. "UFOlogy." Encyclopedia of Science and Technology Communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2010. 918-20. Print.

  9. Stacy, Dennis. "A Short Introduction to Ufology." UFOevidence. UFOevidence.org, n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2013. <http://www.ufoevidence.org/documents/doc365.htm>.

  10. Sturrock, Peter A. The UFO Enigma: A New Review of the Physical Evidence. New York: Warner, 2000. Print.

  11. Thagard, Paul R. "Why Astrology Is a Pseudoscience." JSTOR. University of Chicago Press, n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2013.

  12. Zagzebski, Linda Trinkaus, and Timothy Miller. Readings in Philosophy of Religion: Ancient to Contemporary. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Print.
Lastly, it is worth examining the criteria of scientific simplicity in our demarcation of science, as applied to UFOlogy. Ockham's razor is usually stated as "Don't multiply entities beyond necessity". This notion however helps demarcate science from pseudoscience in an important way. Where two explanations are capable of attaining the same explanatory power, but one is more convoluted, requires more assumptions, more premises, etc., then we have no reason to select the latter. This can be applied in particular to UFOlogy by asking whether any other theories or simpler explanations that achieve a similar result (explaining the mystery of UFOs) are available. The presence of any possible, simpler alternative explanations for the phenomenon of UFOs (other than ETs) would make the premises of UFOlogy unnecessary and unscientific, just like the positing of excessive ontological entities in philosophy