Is it correct to call the beliefs of UFO enthusiasts false?

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Those of us who have dreamed of alien life from our sci-fi-steeped childhood are waiting for the next federal government report on UFOs. And yet, the report is unlikely to change one’s mind.

Which makes the Unidentified Flying Objects controversy a lot like everything else these days – and a good candidate to teach us a thing or two about the value of cognitive humility.

Let’s start with some data. Pollsters tell us that one in three Americans think we’ve had extraterrestrial visitors. And – for once! – there is no partisan division. According to Gallup, Democrats (32%) and Republicans (30%) are about equally likely to believe that at least some UFOs are alien spaceships. Belief is a bit higher among independents, at a solid 38%. (And possibly higher still in Roswell, New Mexico.)

Someone is right; someone is wrong.

Should we decide who based on official statements? According to multiple leaks, the Congress-mandated report of the director of national intelligence, expected overnight, will say the government has no evidence of extraterrestrial visitors. Does it follow that those who believe the opposite live – to use the current slang – in a realm without facts?

I’ll go with no – but it’s important to understand why.

For enthusiasts, the most difficult challenge has always been the Fermi Paradox: if the universe contains other civilizations more advanced than ours, why haven’t we found any signs? Our research has gone naught even in areas we carefully scanned.

Fortunately, if you are one of the believers, there are many responses to choose from.

Readers of Liu Cixin’s “Three-Body Problem” trilogy are familiar with the theory that aliens rationally hide their locations quite rationally, to avoid being destroyed by more powerful aliens. Another idea, put forward by economist Robin Hanson and coworkers, is that all “eye-catching” civilizations have developed so rapidly that we cannot detect any signs of it. Why not? Because their rapid expansions occurred after the signals we can observe left their distant galaxies billions of years ago: “If they were where we could see them, they would be here now in our place. (A thought which, for Hanson, helps explain why, if more advanced civilizations exist, we shouldn’t try so hard to contact them.) A third possibility is that more advanced aliens exist, and they aren’t in hiding. nor hang on, but rather have found a path of technological evolution that does not leave the kind of signals that we are capable of seeking.

Fair enough.

On the other hand, conspirators might conclude that the US government knows we have had visitors and is hiding the truth. (Cue “Independence Day.”) For those who share this view, claims by various government agencies having no evidence that UFOs are alien spaceships may only serve to deepen suspicion. After all, while a massive conspiracy has been hiding the truth for decades, the conspirators hardly disclose the details just because Congress says so!

In fact, according to the New York Times, there will be something for everyone in the story. A number of UFOs spotted by military planes over the years remain unidentified. (UAP, the government now calls them, for “unidentified aerial phenomena.”) The report is expected to conclude that they are not part of any known classified programs. When Scientific American is forced to admit that “the mind is mind-boggling” at the many possibilities, we can reasonably predict that few minds will be changed.

But that shouldn’t come as a surprise. We are not good at changing our minds. Our political divisions aggravate this trend. Engaged political supporters not only find it difficult to change their views on contested political issues; even in everyday life, they seem to suffer from a more general cognitive inflexibility.

This is one of the reasons why what we should cultivate is general cognitive humility – not just about UFOs but about so much more in the world around us. Like the Handarrata in “The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula LeGuin, we need to get a clear idea of ​​how little we know.

Cognitive humility involves recognizing our biases and flaws, in part by cultivating a realistic estimate of our own knowledge and powers of reason. It’s a skill that matters. On many contested issues, we tend to decide which expert to trust only after knowing which one shares the same point of view as we do. There is no reason to expect the UFO debate to be any different.

Consider the odd-behaving object that is currently emerging from the solar system. Dubbed ‘Oumuamua, a Hawaiian term for “visitor from afar first,” most researchers believe it to be the remnant of a comet, but Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb argues that it has characteristics which suggest a technological origin. You don’t have to stand in the middle of this fight to recognize that many observers have chosen sides based on their priorities.

Where does that leave me? In the situation where I think we should be more often. Rather than calling the beliefs of UFO enthusiasts false, I prefer to say that while I wish they were right, I am not yet convinced. Maybe the piece of evidence that will make the difference is just around the corner.

And if any extraterrestrial visitors ever arrive, I suspect they’ll already have a lot of cognitive humility. (No “Klaatu barada nikto.”) Otherwise, they would have been far too busy fighting to make their way through the stars.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk of the United States Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Her novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and her latest non-fiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Dark Lawyer Who Slaughtered America’s Mightiest Gangster”.

Stephen L. Carter: The UFO report won’t change people’s minds. But maybe he should

BC-CARTER-UFOS-COLUMN: BLO (993 words)

June 14/2021 04:00


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