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Location: UFOUpDatesList.Com > 1998 > Jun > Jun 8

Re: Occam's Razor and UFOs

From: Mendoza <101653.2205@compuserve.com> [Peter Brookesmith]
Date: Mon, 8 Jun 1998 00:06:27 -0400
Fwd Date: Mon, 08 Jun 1998 09:06:22 -0400
Subject: Re: Occam's Razor and UFOs

With the compliments of the Duke of Mendoza:

>From: "Greg Sandow" <gsandow@prodigy.net>
>To: "'UFO UpDates - Toronto'" <updates@globalserve.net>
>Subject: Occam's Razor and UFOs
>Date: Fri, 5 Jun 1998 10:24:55 -0400

It's no great secret that I am deeply fond of the principle
enunciated by William of Occam that explanations (of
anything) should rely on as few presumptions as possible. He
put it slightly differently and more briefly: Entia non sunt
multiplicanda. Occam clearly relished the way Latin
encourages epigrams. Thinking in a language that can engage
in economy as pithy as "Bonus imperator, nisi imperasset"
may even have driven William toward his conclusion. Such
speculation about the cultural roots of ways of seeing is
not entirely without value. (He said ambiguously.)

Greg's post slightly misrepresented what I think Occam's
razor can do for - or to - ufology, although that may well
be my fault for not expressing my thinking more clearly on
previous occasions. Rather more to the purpose, I think he
caricatures the application of Occam's Razor to the case he
quotes - the discovery that neutrinos have mass. And this
caricature leads him into misunderstanding the significance
of the discovery, and after that there occurs a little bit
of a shambles. Let me first clarify what I think about
Occam's Razor & ufology, then go on to the wider issue -
that is, saving the best, as Mama always told me to, till

Greg wrote:

>Well, skeptics like to invoke Occam's Razor as one of
>their many reasons for concluding that all UFO sightings
>have -- or probably have -- conventional explanations.
Peter Brookesmith has made that argument here; my very
>smart composer friend Scott Johnson suggested it in a
>conversation we had not long ago. In effect, they're
>saying: "Here we have all these reports of strange lights,
>metallic disks, you name it. Which is more likely, that
>they're all misinterpretations of known phenomena (or of
>course lies), or that they're ET visitors? Occam's Razor
>forces us to assume the former."

Occam *forces* one to do no such thing (as Greg went on to
say). He simply reminds us that, in considering "all these
reports", we will present what mathematicians call a more
elegant solution to the problem as presented, by
*preferring* the solution that depends upon fewer "givens"
in the theorem. (I assume you did read your Euclid in the
upper third/first form/sixth grade at school.) There is no
question - you only have to count - that concluding UFO
reports are reports of ET visitors requires many more
"givens" than concluding they do not.

Let's assume for the sake of this argument that both the
ETHer and the non-ETHer agree in a particular case on the
following: the witnesses are truthful, accurate in their
reporting and judgements, and that what they saw was a real
"something". (I doubt many real cases get as far as that,
but so what.) That something seems to defy explanation.

The non-ETHers - in this case - say: Sorry, can't explain
it, but perhaps it was an aircraft on an illegal or unfiled
flight path. The ETHers say: Can't explain it, so it must
have been an alien spacecraft. The non-ETHers have no
particular reason for offering their suggestion - let's say
the sighting was near no national borders, military bases,
cities with high immigrant populations, etc. But they *do*
know (a) that aircraft exist (b) that aircraft do fly when
and where they should not and (c) that under certain
conditions aircraft can look very weird indeed. The
suggested solution is just that: a provisional notion.

The ETHers, however, have to assume that the Green Bank
so-Equation's probability can be shown to amount to 1 to
make their solution work. That alone adds the seven
hypotheses involved in the equation - and presumes they have
been proven or solved - to the list. There are further
factors that Frank Drake did not take into account, possibly
because neither he nor any of his colleagues was a literary
critic or a librarian or an historian or an anthropologist,
but that demand consideration, too. Never mind; we are short
of space; the point is already made. We don't know the
answers to Drake's questions, whereas we do know that items
(a), (b), and (c) above are true.

I do not conclude that UFOs are one thing or another as a
consequence of applying Occam's Razor. Whatever I conclude,
Occam does not force me there. I do however *prefer* any
suggested solution, to any problem (whatever it may be in a
particular case), that entails the fewest entities. All
solutions in science are provisional - I assume you read
your Popper in sixth form or freshman year - and they are
even more provisional in fields - such as literary criticism
- where experiment, repeatability, falsifiability &c &c &c
are either not possible or exceedingly difficult. (Consider

The non-ETH solution or suggested solution to a UFO sighting
will remain more elegant than the ETH-oriented one (or any
that involve time travel, inter- or ultra-dimensional
intrusions, or what have you) until it is known for sure
that ETI, or IDI, or UTI, or King Ubu, actually exist. This
doesn't mean the ETH is a load of codswallop or that every
LITS is the planet Venus. It simply means that the ETH is,
er, the weaker vessel, and until it gets some guts to its
assumptions and presumptions, I'll leave it to one side and
*prefer*, in this strictly intellectual sense - nothing to
do with "what I like" - the prosaic alternatives. Even
something as speculative as an "earthlight" - whatever that
may or may not turn out to be or mean - is preferable to the
ETH and its more nefarious relations, because it deals in
thing we know about and can test.

Which reminds me. As it's not pertinent to Occam's Razor I
won't address the other essential difficulty with the ETH,
its unfalsfiability, here, but it's a hare that's difficult
to resist starting.

So that's What I Think. Greg continues:

>If it did [i.e if Occam's Razor forced us to think in a
>certain way], today's New York Times headline would be
>impossible. It would have to read: "Japanese-American
>Scientific Team Says Neutrino Has Mass; Scientific
>Community Rejects Findings, Saying Occam's Razor Makes
>Them Unlikely."

This is a red herring and a straw man. It reminds me of the
Grand Fromage des OVNIs (not as far as I know a subscriber
to this list) who remarked to me not long ago that left to
the Razorites astronomy would have rejected Copernicus (or
words to that effect).

But first, let me say, neutrinos had not previously been
cast in mass-free concrete. Their mass was an open question,
though it was regarded as certainly exceedingly titchy and
*possibly* non-existent. (Scientists can tolerate
ambiguity.) Greg's was the first news I'd had of this
discovery. My first thought was not of ufology's
righteousness, but: "There goes 'dark matter'." Obviously,
if neutrinos have mass, the problem of "missing mass" (aka
dark matter) in the Universe at large becomes rather less
difficult. It was gratifying to read a day or so later when
I had time to scan the public prints that cosmologists had
reached the same conclusion. Self-congratulation is a
forgivable vice occasionally but a deeply irritating one
always, and my point here really is that Occam's Razor is a
double-edged tool, unlike the flashy things some people
carry one to a side in their weskit pockets.

Greg's mythical Occamist scientists would not reject the
finding that neutrinos have mass - provided the alternatives
had been thoroughly tested, and provided the work was
repeatable and testable - on Occamist grounds, because massy
neutrinos simplify the explanations (provide fewer entities
to account for) for *other* things they know exist and occur
but find problematic.

As it happens, Copernicus provides a very fine example of
this process, and it's easier to understand than the
twilight world of neutrinos, which hover between
relativistic and quantum interpretations of physics, and
cause all kinds of eyes to cross.

By proposing that the Earth was a planet circling a star,
and not the center of the Universe, Copernicus provided an
elegant explanation for why Venus & Mercury seemed to wander
only a little across the sky (they were nearer the Sun), and
why other planets seemed to behave rather strangely (they
were further away) and in ways that the Ptolemaic system
required many complications to explain. Copernicus also
explained the precession of the equinoxes by proposing that
the Earth's axis was tilted in relation to the plane of its
orbit around the Sun. Taken together, these two ideas also
accounted for the apparent motion of fixed stars across the
sky. He didn't get everything right: he assumed the planets
were in circular, not elliptical, orbits around the Sun,
which called for all kinds of non-Occamist assumptions, but
it was a damn' fine crack of the whip and the monk William
would have been proud of him.

The real resistance to Copernicus came not from scientists
who didn't understand Occam, but from the Roman Catholic
Church, which had its own species of the ETH to promote, and
kept Copernicus' work on its index of forbidden books from
1616 until 1835.

Greg comments on the injustice, as it seems, of the
conservatism of science, by way of research on brain cells.
Michael Polanyi has some interesting things to say about
this (he suffered in a like manner, but didn't resent it) in
"Knowing and Being". Scientists are necessarily cautious.
[E-mail me off-list & I'll send you this stuff if you cannot
get it, Greg.] It's a separate discussion really, one not
involving Occam in my opinion (let alone "taking Occam's
Razor too far"), but the nature of what Polanyi calls the
"republic of science". There is no room in that world for a
Pierre Boulez or an old fraud like Stravinsky (the Picasso
of sound).

Finally (really!) just in case anyone thinks I think all
problems of a vaguely scientific nature can be guided by the
good William, here's a case in which he's no help. Anyone
who's been around horses a bit has seen how foals and
younger horses "mouth" at their elders as a sign of...
respect (if you want to be anthropomorphic) or submission,
or at least of inoffensiveness. One interpretation is that
the young equine is mimicking eating grass, saying in sign
language: "My mouth's full, I'm a herbivore, no way would I
or could I attack you." Another interpretation says this
gesture is an offer to groom the older horse (engage in
mutual and pleasurable nipping and nibbling - horses do this
to people they trust, too, and if you don't understand it,
it can be slightly unnerving). Both explanations seem to me
to be equally simple and equally elegant, and equally
plausible. For all I know both are true, tho' that would not
be consistent with the strictest neo-Darwinism. But Occam
doesn't help me, anyway, to make a choice of interpretation.

I hope this post approaches the spirit of enquiry that I
think I detect in Greg's original. That isn't to say I
disagree with Rob Irving (I rarely do, and I don't share
Greg's apparent bemusement at Rob's comments). It's just an
expression of optimism that Greg & I are disagreeing, here
and there, but within the same language, or idiom. There has
been a lot of waffle on this thread.

best wishes
Palestrina D. Moussorgsky
Modish Exhibition

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