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Re: Occam's Razor and UFOs

From: The Duke of Mendoza <101653.2205@compuserve.com> [Peter Brookesmith]
Date: Wed, 17 Jun 1998 09:06:59 -0400
Fwd Date: Wed, 17 Jun 1998 10:05:25 -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: RE: UFO UpDate: Re: Occam's Razor and UFOs
>Date: Tue, 9 Jun 1998 18:07:59 -0400

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

Nicker, whinny, blow. In my department of Hell certain ufologists
(you know who you are) & I will discourse in Latin, and every few
aeons I shall report to higher headquarters on whether their
thinking has become more disciplined as a result. There are no
jacuzzis in Hell, no weather balloons, no pelicans, no
temperature inversions - least of all, temperature inversions! -
no misperceptions, no corn circles, no black triangles and no
hypotheses. It is a very miserable place for ufologists. I am not
a ufologist. I shall not stay overnight in Hell.

But to our sheep.

>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. [etc]

Entirely true. However, 'twas Greg that raised the question of ET
visitors ("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." --Message dated  Fri, 5 Jun 1998 10:24:55 -0400); and so
in the example I invented, I suggested a skeptical vs an ETHist
response, and assumed in the example that both "sides" had agreed
that an "objectively existent object" was in question. So forgive
me if I disclaim ownership of the "problem" here. What Greg has
to say in his following paragraphs on this point is
unexceptionable, but he is starting his argument over from a
different place than before.

However, he goes on to say:

>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."

"It can't be, therefore it isn't" is certainly circular
reasoning, but it isn't good Occamry and anyway doesn't follow
from (or describe) the process previously described. What this
says is: from everything we know about A, this phenomenon doesn't
seem to be A. And all the way up to Z. Marine biologists, notably
Andrew Shine, have done exactly this with the Loch Ness monster
and come to the conclusion that, if indeed there is a large
animal in the Loch, then it is either a very strange, a-typical
example of a known animal (mammal, reptile, fish &c) or it is
none of them.

Circular thinking - of a very different kind from circular
reasoning - begins only when then one goes back to square one and
asks: Well, is there really anything to these reports or not? The
honest answer is: Don't know. Then the needle gets in a groove:
If there is, it's not likely to be anything we know about - in
our present state of knowledge. For instance, we don't know of
any animal that would swim by making vertical humps of its body
in the water: fish, eels &c make lateral motions to propel
themselves efficiently... and so on. So, as a necessarily
provisional conclusion, one is *inclined* to think the "monster"
is a product of misperception of something (maybe several
different things) else... and we know for sure that some of the
pictures are hoaxes. That is an Occamist conclusion.

Here's another one for Greg's own invented sighting:

>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, [several new hypotheses follow]

Yer actual Occamist, I'd've thought, would rule out a plane quite
swiftly, not concoct bad reasons for squeezing a plane out of
this report on the (here) flaky grounds that the "plane
hypothesis" is more elegant than the "flying saucer hypothesis".
On the basis of this information, it don't sound like no plane.
It might be a lighted balloon, or some burning rubbish, being
batted about by the wind, though.

>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.

On the information provided, it doesn't. Because the obvious next
question is: "New what?" Species of fire-breathing winged reptile
(this was a young, skittish one)? There are loads of mundane
things that *could* explain the sighting, even if we don't know
which one it was, and while the cause may remain forever
unexplained, they remain more economic *possibilities* than
"Something New". "Something New" opens up an infinity of
possibilities and improbabilities. The "simple possibility that
something new was out there" is not, on close inspection, simple
at all. From the Occamist point of view the limits of human
knowledge are a virtue, even when a phenomenon remains
unexplained by human knowledge, because it allows you to label it
"unexplained", not waste precious resources on baseless &
unproductive speculation, and either get on with the next thing
or think very hard about how to investigate this phenomenon
further - if that's possible.

(None of which is to deny Brian Straight's point - in a message
dated Wed, 10 Jun 1998 09:34:18 -0500 - that what one considers
"simplicity" or elegance may itself be a many-splendored thing,
"simple" only by virtue of unspoken assumptions. Polanyi, no
deconstructionist he, refers to this as "implicit meaning". But
it does I hope put the kybosh on Stan Friedman's proposition (in
a message dated Wed, 10 Jun 1998 11:38:10 -0300) that I am asking
"the wrong question (What are UFOs.. as opposed to 'Are any UFOs
ET Spacecraft')". Assuming for a moment that unexplained UFO
reports are not just noise in the signal of IFOs, I don't think
genuine UFOs are necessarily any *one* thing - some *may* be "new
things" such as earthlights, some *may* be ET craft. But how do
you decide which are ET craft without eliminating the rest in any
given instance? Reports of engines, flames &c don't keep me awake
at night in light of the Zond IV sightings (analysed at length in
Condon). I speak as one who thinks my field investigations,
visits to archives and current & former security clearances
entirely without relevance to this discussion or any other.
"Theoretical claptrap", in this instance Occam's useful tool, is
what ought to inform, discipline & guide field investigations &
library research - and can even be quite handy in security
matters too - and a good grasp of said claptrap comes *before*
them. Read your Hendry again, Stan, and mark the pages in which
he disposes of BBSP#14's statistics, too, while you're at it.
When theory or a principle such as Occam's doesn't inform
investigation, ufologists, for example, find themselves
embarrassed by a Max Burns, who thinks an object traveling at
Mach 75 won't make a sonic boom. End of slight digression.)

>And if you think real skeptics don't behave this way, consider
>Philip Klass's "explanation" of the Soccoro sighting.

So that we aren't distracted, let's establish that I think
Klass's *justifications* for saying the Soccoro incident was a
hoax are specious at best. (However, if Zamora could hear the
roar of the "craft" from inside his car while chasing a speeder,
then the non-witnesses should have been able to as well. And the
highway in question isn't that busy, even today. Nothing in
Soccoro is.) I don't have a pat solution to the case. But to
suggest it is a hoax is certainly more Occamist than saying
Zamora saw ETs and their craft, as some insist & others strongly
suggest. Klass's justifications may not work out, but they are no
means impossible. This bears directly on

>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 contortions 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.

Well, yes, it would (although the exercise might keep
Deconstructionists in work over the winter, which some would say
amounts to the same thing). I'm a bit surprised to be taken so
literally - well, by Greg, anyway - because so many hypotheses,
theories, and bits of knowledge & experience are implicit in the
way we think. Thus we get the colloquial notion of "common
sense". However, the existence of ETI does depend on satisfying
*at least* Drake's seven conditions, and I dragged them out
because ETHers so often don't think them through. Even if you
reduce them to Greg's one, they remain implicit, but more to the
point they remain problematic, and "unsolved". They are assumed
to be solved by the ETH enthusiast (e.g. Michael Swords),
sometimes at the expense of ignoring the findings of entire
academic disciplines. Now clearly, you can take Occamism too far:
by saying that because the extra-solar planets we've found so far
won't support life, we're alone in the Universe, for instance.
Even so keen a young blade as myself would say that's a
premature, not even a provisional, conclusion, from that one set
of evidence.

So, no, generally one doesn't waste time counting hypotheses:
whether explicitly or implicitly, though, one does consider
whether the "likelihoods" involved in one's exercise of "common
sense" are robust or not. And the point here is that every item
in the Drake equation is up for grabs. Drake admits he's
guessing, all the time. It's all one big wobbly blancmange, and I
would rather stick to what we know - even when the answers are
unsatisfying to one's human tendency (and I don't have all that
many of those) to like answers to questions.

>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!"

Okay, this is "purposely taking [my] thinking to extremes". To
extremes where they do not actually go, even, except insofar as
it's a daily chore for a scientist to ask exactly those kinds of
questions - as those involved in that work on neutrinos did,
until they were obliged to consider their findings real. (And
someone somewhere is no doubt trying to replicate those findings,
and confirm that neutrinos have mass. Which is the way it ought
to be.) But that doesn't make it impossible to gather evidence
for any new phenomenon. It simply makes the process subject to
extreme scrutiny: the "principled" process of ensuring an
experimental result is genuine, the practical process of
replicated experiment, and the intellectual one of fitting the
verified results into existing theory (or producing a new
theory). History shows that new theories are more elegant than
older ones in that they explain *more* than local events. So the
discovery of the electron & the neutron & the attendant theory
explain why oil and water don't mix, and also why your lamp
lights up when you flip the switch on, and what makes the Sun
work and pulsars pulse. (Yes, I simplify, but you get the gist.)

Applying that, and what I said before about the wobbly nature of
the solutions to Drake's equations, to where we started - is any
given UFO an ET craft? - I won't go into the *likelihood* of
aliens visiting, which is a whole other discussion, but stick to
the Occamist point: which is that we don't *even* know whether we
are dealing with a "new phenomenon" with UFOs, or
misapprehensions - reinterpretations, if you prefer a more
neutral term - of old ones. (Likewise with abductions: the
experience is there, but *of* what is it an experience? How far
is it culturally shaped? And so on. Please don't look any further
into this can of worms! I merely draw a parallel between similar
sets of problems.)

Greg then reveals that the new discovery about neutrinos has
opened its own can of theoretical worms - no need to recycle
that, but he then remarks:

>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?

Well, it still seems to be as elegant in the *way* I thought it
was, but I did have to chuckle at the thought of thousands of
scientists going cross-eyed at how to fit it all into "local"
neutrino theory. I can't dispute the rhetorical question. I could
very well have asked it myself.

My position hasn't changed much: Occam is a useful principle, and
it leads me to remain skeptical [doubtful; thoughtful about] of
larger claims for UFOs than mundane, if hidden, solutions. While
Mark Cashman at least had the guts so lacking in others to name
his cases, none by itself leads inevitably to an ET solution -
and single-witness cases I'd exclude as evidence of *any*thing on
principle - and it would be a curious scientific principle to
extract an hypothesis from a set of experiments none of which is
itself conclusive. Isn't that how people concluded that European
swallows buried themselves in the mud of ponds over the winter,
rather than migrating to Africa?

Because ufology is essentially the study of reports - or stories,
as Rob Irving rightly reminds us - and not hard data, we're left
having to measure what data there is by principles and "givens" &
QEDs in the scientific and technological and psychological and
social (and historical and cultural) theorems of which we wot.
That's why Occam is important in ufology, and it's also why, for
want of something better, I will tend to err - which could be a
pun - on the side of psychosocial interpretations (which are not,
and as far as I know have never pretended to be, scientific in
any practical sense) of UFOs & ufology. And if it turns out I was
wrong all along, well - that's just tough tittie on me, what?

best wishes
Pyromaniac D. Matchboxer
Lightweight Contender

PS: "Specious" means "superficially attractive", not "spurious".

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