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Location: UFOUpDatesList.Com > 1998 > Jun > Jun 9

Re: Occam's Razor and UFOs

From: Greg Sandow <gsandow@prodigy.net>
Date: Tue, 9 Jun 1998 18:07:59 -0400
Fwd Date: Tue, 09 Jun 1998 21:28:25 -0400
Subject: Re: Occam's Razor and UFOs

> Date: Mon, 8 Jun 1998 00:06:27 -0400
> From: Mendoza <101653.2205@compuserve.com> [Peter Brookesmith]
> Subject: Occam's Razor and UFOs
> To: UFO UpDates - Toronto <updates@globalserve.net>

Peters's reply to my Occam's Razor thoughts is, quite simply,
one of the best posts I've ever seen here on UpDates. I disagree
with much of it, but that's another story. If we're going to
have debate, we're going to have disagreement.

And what I liked about the post is that it really WAS a
contribution to debate. Rather than score points with irrelevant
chatter, as we so often see here, Peter engaged what I actually
wrote, and took it further, teaching me a lot about Occam's
Razor and about why he said the things that got me going in the
first place. I'd like to think we're all enlightened by that.
The issues become much clearer, and all of us can find better,
deeper reasoning to support our views. Some of us -- and how
often does THIS happen? -- might even change our minds!

On to specifics.

> 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.)

C'mon, Duke....you don't think ufology give us training in
compact thinking? <big horselaugh>

> 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
> last.

> 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.

Euclid, or what's left of him after distillation into geometry
textbooks, comes at us in the 10th grade over here, and for all
I know that alone accounts for the sometimes sorry shape of
American ufology. (Populist ufology, of course.)

But there are two problem with what Peter wrote. The first is
that UFO reports -- at the moment we set Occam to work on them
-- have nothing to do with ET visitors. As Mark Cashman so
eloquently put it in a recent post, we're dealing only with the
"Objectively Existent Hypothesis" -- whether there's some new
phenomenon, or more concretely, some new physical object
creating the reports, or whether the reports are due only to
conventional stimuli.

So then there's only one new hypothesis we need to form, if we
come to that conclusion -- that there's something new under the
sun (or moon, as the case may be). Taken no further, that's a
remarkably modest assertion. Its implications, of course, are
another story, as we see from all the fast and furious UFO

> 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.

But as I've said, this shouldn't be about the probabilities of
ET visits versus the certainty that planes appear where no one
expects them to. Once we understand that, the playing field is
leveled, and what stands out in sharp relief are the many new
hypotheses that may sometimes be required to explain a sighting

For the unconventional explanation, we form just one new
hypothesis -- that there's something out there we haven't
previously known about. Note that we're not required at this
point to say what, exactly, it might be. Is it an alien
spaceship, a secret military vehicle, an atmospheric animal, or
something even stranger still? That doesn't matter. Nor is it
kosher for those inclined toward a conventional explanation to
say "Well, if you can't tell me what it is, we can't accept that
it could be anything new." Science can't be advanced like that.
New experimental data doesn't have to wait for a theory that
explains it -- and above all can't be thrown out just because no
explanation for it yet exists. (The neutrino discovery
demonstrates precisely this, as I'll later show.)

And certainly those inclined to conventional explanations can
NOT say: "It's not likely to be an ET spaceship, because here's
why that's improbable...it's not likely to be an experimental
military craft, because here's why that's improbable...it's not
likely to be some new kind of air-borne animal, because that's
improbable...." And so on through every conceivable explanation.
That's simply circular reasoning. "It can't be, therefore it
isn't." Phil Klass actually tried to use that on me once, when
he defended a conventional explanation for the Chiles-Whitted
sighting in 1948 as follows: "Since there is no evidence for
anomolus structured craft in the atmosphere, I conclude that
what these pilots saw was a meteor." Clearly, you can throw
every purported UFO sighting out with "reasoning" like that,
disposing of them one by one until there aren't any left. How
many sightings -- how much evidence -- you need before you're
convinced of a new phenomenon is quite another story. But if we
reduce the matter to basic logic, good sense, and scientific
candor, you can't proceed in the way I've just described.

But I said that explaining UFO sightings conventionally would
require new -- and, conceivably, Occam-unfriendly -- hypotheses.
That's easy to demonstrate. Suppose I say I saw a light in the
sky at night, and that I first thought it was a plane. But it
couldn't have been a plane, I continue, because it zigzagged
freely, making right angle turns, and stopping dead, to hover.
Finally it descended straight toward the ground, ending up
behind some trees. I add, of course, that it made no noise.

To explain this as a plane, don't you have to form a few
hypotheses? For instance, that I'm not describing what I really
saw. That the light really didn't zigzg; that was simply the
autokinesis generated by the movements of my eyes (even if I
said the light zigzagged over half the sky). That the light
didn't descend, but simply continued in a straight line toward
the horizon, thereby appearing to descend, if I wanted to
interpret it that way. That the light didn't land behind the
trees, but that a car's headlights shone from that direction,
but that by now I was so spooked by my conviction that I was
seeing a UFO that I'd believe almost anything.

Or you might add other hypotheses. That I'm lying. Or that I'm

Now, I'm not saying that explanations like these I've proposed
are never correct. I'm only pointing out that they, too, involve
hypotheses. Peter mentioned that Occam favors the elegant
explanation, the one that requires the fewest (and, of course,
least convoluted) new assumptions. I submit that in the case
I've invented above, the conventional explanation requires more
and more awkward new theories than the simple possibility that
something new was out there.

And if you think real skeptics don't behave this way, consider
Philip Klass's "explanation" of the Soccoro sighting. Here we
had a policeman, deemed trustworthy by everyone investigators
spoke to, who said he saw a landed craft, which took off with
flame belching behind it, and a roar. Signs of burning and other
marks were found on the site.

After lengthy inquiries by Hynek and others, the simplest -- and
surely most elegant -- explanation would have been that
something was really out there. Klass, though, reasoned
differently. He found someone who lived not too far away who
said he hadn't heard a roar. So he formed his first
Occam-twisting hypothesis: That this person, rather than the
witness, was believable, even though (as Hynek pointed out) the
man lived near a noisy highway.

Klass also talked to someone (unnamed) in the town, who said the
whole thing was a hoax. His second Occam-deforming hypothesis:
That THIS person, not even named, was more believable than the
witness, even though Klass gives no reason why, and doesn't tell
us anything at all about what kind of person this was. (I might
add that -- as Klass has to know from his normal journalistic
work -- it's not hard to find someone to take any conceivable
point of view, when you're dealing with anything controversial.
So the mere fact that someone asserts something doesn't mean a

Finally, Klass noted that the Mayor of Soccoro owned the land
which the sighting occured, and on that slim reed rested his
final Occam-astounding hypothesis: That the Mayor and his
employee, the policeman, had staged a hoax to give the town
publicity, and presumably make the land more valuable. This,
even though the alleged plot would have ended with the sighting,
and no further steps were ever taken! Almost needless to say,
Klass never asked either the policeman or the Mayor (or anyone
else in town, save his anonymous informant, who in any case was
only theorizing) whether this was true. Thus, in Lewis Carroll's
terms, he chose to believe three impossible things before
breakfast, instead of merely one, as the "Objectively Existent"
hypothesis would have required him to do. Occam lies confounded.
("Objectively Existent" is Mark Cashman's phrase for the theory
that some up to now unknown physical phenomenon lies behind
some UFO reports.)

> 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.

And now, Peter, we're playing word games. Really!

Peter is referring to the famous Drake Equation, propounded by
SETI astronomer Frank Drake, who thought he could estimate the
number of intelligent civilizations in the galaxy. He had to
factor in such variables as the number of stars that have
planets, the number of these planets that can support life, the
number of those planets in which technological civilizations
developed, and, if I remember correctly, the number of those
civilizations that didn't blow themselves up. There were other
variables as well.

Since none of these numbers are known, Drake's Equation is
necessarily approximate. Its true value lay in the fact that
Drake formulated it at all -- that he tried to put a number on a
concept that, up to then, science didn't want to deal with. In
that way, it was a brave attempt, even if the result is likely
to make most of us giggle. As I remember, Drake concluded that
there were between 10,000 and 10,000,000 civilizations in the
galaxy, which leaves a considerable margin for error!

But I digress. Peter counts each factor in the Drake Equation as
one new hypothesis. (We must assume that other stars do have
planets. We must assume that some of those planets support life.
We must assume that life actually evolved. We must assume that
it developed intelligence....and so on.) But some one else would
more simply say that there's one hypothesis overall, that
intelligence lift exists beyond the earth. And some third
person, just as Peter says, might find still more components to
the process, so there now were 10 or 25 or 76 hypotheses, not

Besides, Drake goes on to give reasons why interstellar travel
is unlikely. It consumes too much power, takes too long, and (my
favorite of the bunch, because now he's simply guessing) the
travellers would get fried by cosmic rays. Do we add yet another
hypothesis for each reason Drake gives, each reason why he says
we'll never have interstellar visitors? Do we add more
hypotheses when other scientists think of still more reasons?

Now we're getting truly ridiculous. The number -- the actual,
countable number -- of hypotheses involved on either side of any
Occam's Razor problem is subject to vast intepretation.
Eventually it comes down to a linguistic question -- how many
separate parts can any question be divided into? Sensible people
won't want to go down that road, and therefore won't want to
follow Peter down the road where we meet Frank Drake. Common
sense, I believe, will lead us to  a simpler, far more
comprehensible approach. If we want to think about alien visits,
we allow for only one hypothesis -- that such visits do or don't
occur, with all the subsidiary reasoning (the seven or 15 or 95
hypothesis that later come into play) assigned only to the
calculation of whether alien visits are likely. More generally,
when we face an Occam's Razor problem, we simply observe the
intellectual contotions required for various conclusions, and
note which ones our instinct tells us are simpler. We don't try
to count hypotheses, because that way lies madness.

> 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.

My good Lord....he actually said that! I'd forgotten, when I
started writing this reponse.

If we take Peter absolutely literally, then it's impossible --
or radically difficult -- to gather evidence for any new
phenomenon. And especially for any new phenomenon that defies
conventional understanding! Each new piece of evidence would be
subjected to Peter's test of elegance. "Hmm. Do neutrinos have
mass? My measurements say they do, but....can't be, because we
don't know that they do!"

I'm purposely taking Peter's reasoning to extremes, to show what
it's really made of. Essentially it's the same point Phil Klass
made to me. It works in one kind of situation, the kind when we
already know the probabilities on both sides. For instnace,
Klass at one point asked me which was more likely to cause my
computer not to work, a hard drive crash or evil spirits. There
the answer is easy, because we know about computers. Once we
deal with any new phenomenon, however, we can't make such easy
assumptions. Take ET visits. As I've insisted many times before,
we can't know their probability, because we don't know enough
about the universe. If aliens are plentiful, near us, and do
travel between stars, then these visits would be very probable;
under the opposite conditions, they'd presumably be much less
likely. Since we don't know which condition applies, we can't
weigh the probability at all. Which does NOT mean we then
believe in them, simply because we choose to. It does mean,
though, that we don't rule them less likely -- or more likely!
--  in advance of any concrete evidence. Any reading of Occam
that says we have to is either perverting the principle, or
revealing a weakness in it.

And now for neutrinos.

>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.

Neither Peter nor I is really qualified to discuss this matter.
At best, we're at the mercy of whatever news reports we read.

But today's New York Times confounds Peter's comfort, as

"Elusive Particles Continue to Puzzle Theorists of the Sun,"
reads the headline. As the story explains, neutrinos come, like
quarks, in more than one "flavor," and -- for reasons I won't
try to explain -- their various flavors are involved in
understanding mysteries in how they're emitted from the sun.

Having established this, the story goes on to say:

"The same team claiming the existence of neutrino mass may have
also cast doubt on the most elegant verion of the
changing-flavor hypothesis, in favor of an alternative that many
theorists find ugly and contrived."

Later, we also read:

"Adding another twist to the seemingly endless story, results
from [the recent experiments on neutrino mass] suggest the
jarring possibility that the three kinds of neutrinos now
believed to exist might have to be joined by a fourth, and even
a fifth and sixth." These new neutrinos would be "sterile," or
in other words "sealed off in their own phantom zone, apparent
only by their gravitational pull. 'I think sterile neutrinos are
a very ugly concept,' lamented Dr. John Bahcall, a theorist at
the Institute for Advanced Study in Pirnceton, NJ, who has
spesnt most of his career trying to solve the solar neutrino
mess. 'I hope they will not be needed when all of the
experiments now going on are complete. If they are present, they
will greatest complicate the efforts to get a unique solution."

Or, as the story itself says:

"While [Bahcall] and other theorists long for a mathematically
elegant explanation of the Sun's obstinacy, the experimenters
almost seem to delight in finding more loose ends to be tied

In other words, neutrino mass will have to be accepted even
though it isn't nearly as elegant as Peter thought. Sometimes,
new data blows up even elegant theories -- and if we're not
ready to accept that, then how open are our minds?

Greg Sandow

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