Last week, former intelligence and Air Force official, David Grusch testified to the US House Subcommittee on National Security, the Border, and Foreign Affairs that the US government is in possession of unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) or UFO-related material, including “non-human” biological matter. It is important to critically assess such extraordinary claims when they arise, writes David Kyle Johnson, who applies both the “SEARCH” method of philosopher Ted Schick and the arguments of 18th century philosopher David Hume to evaluate Grusch’s claims.
I teach logic and critical thinking. When doing so, one of my go-to examples of where people need to apply critical thinking (and where it is sorely lacking) is around claims about aliens and UFOs (which have recently been dubbed by believers to be UAPs, “unidentified aerial phenomena,” because of the stigma attached to the term “UFO”). It thus seems not only appropriate, but imperative, to examine the recent allegations of former intelligence and Air Force officer David Grusch. (Indeed, former students of mine have already contacted me, wanting my take on all this.) Grusch testified before congress last week and said that he has evidence that the US military is running a UAP (UFO) retrieval (and reverse engineering) program—a program which (he says) not only has been operating for decades, but has both alien craft (one of which, like the TARDIS from Doctor Who, is supposedly bigger on the inside), and non-human (aka alien) “biologics.” To examine this, I am going to apply Muhlenberg College Professor of Philosophy, Ted Schick’s “SEARCH” method, the critical thinking technique he teaches in his book How To Think About Weird Things, and which I have been teaching to my logic and critical thinking students for 15 years. It involves four steps.
A public domain video released by the US Navy of the “Tic Tac” that retired Navy pilot David Fravor said he saw in 2004 while serving with the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group. (Fravor was another whistleblower at the hearing. He recounted his personal experience; the video was taken by another pilot after his visual encounter.) What believers say is remarkable about the video is the way the object suddenly moves at the end; but it’s apparent sudden movement is just an artifact of the camera’s tracking system losing its lock on the object. The object is moving the entire video, but the camera locks onto the object and rotates to keep the object in the center of frame. The two vertical lines “zeroing in” on the object indicate a lock. The lines “relax” when the lock is lost. At the end of the video, when the camera switches modes and loses its lock, the object simply continues to move as it was, and thus goes out of frame.
Hypothesis and evaluation
The first step is simple: state the hypothesis you wish to evaluate. In this case, that’s easy. “The military is running a UAP (UFO) retrieval (and reverse engineering) program which has captured both alien craft and alien lifeforms.”
The second step is more complicated: evaluate the evidence for the first hypothesis. Why is it more complicated? In this case because, to date, Grusch has actually produced no publicly facing empirical or objective evidence for his claims. He’s just told us (and Congress) that he has evidence, including the testimony of people who work inside the program, that the hypothesis is true. So that, his testimony (primarily about their testimony), is basically the only thing we have which could be considered evidence for his claim. But not only is testimony not nearly as dependable as people often assume; as the 18th century philosopher David Hume taught us long ago, testimony is an especially unreliable guide to the truth when it comes to the occurrence of extraordinary events. Hume was talking about miracles, but his point stands for claims about aliens as well.
Hume said that, when it comes to miracles, testimony cannot justify belief in them. Why? Miracles are a violation of the laws of nature; that the laws always hold is something we have seen, repeatedly, every day, with our own eyes. The evidence we have for that is repeated and direct. Miracles, on the other hand, are rare and testimony does not produce as much justification as seeing something with your own eyes. So, the unique unrepeated evidence of someone telling you the laws were once broken (even if they are a generally reliable witness) will never outweigh direct repeated evidence you have that the laws always hold. It’s much more likely that the witness is either lying or simply mistaken.
Likewise, the evidence I have that aliens have not visited Earth is repeated and direct. Not only have I seen no good evidence of aliens visiting Earth, I have seen claimed evidence that they have (including evidence people have claimed is “absolute proof” and “the best evidence you will ever see of aliens”) debunked, over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, again. The unique indirect evidence of someone’s testimony that they have seen such evidence will not be able to outweigh the direct repeated evidence I already have. It is much more likely that they are lying or mistaken.
Evaluating an alternative hypothesis
Which brings us to the third step of the SEARCH method: State and evaluate an alternative hypothesis. In this case, that hypothesis would be: “Grusch is either lying, or he is mistaken about what the evidence he has entails (e.g., he misunderstood what his inside sources said, or he is mistaken about what the evidence he or they have proves).”
Some will claim that Grusch can’t be lying, because he testified under oath, before Congress. If he’s lying, he’s perjured himself, and could be found guilty of contempt. But punishment for contempt of Congress can be relatively light. At most a year in jail and $100,000; at the least, one month and a hundred bucks. (For defying a subpoena in the January 6th investigation, former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon only had to pay $6500 and spend four months in jail.) For Grusch, the subsequent notoriety and books deals could totally be worth the risk of a contempt charge.
Timelapse footage of a drone. Drones are one of many kinds of objects that are mistaken for alien craft. Airplanes, flares, birds, air balloons, optical illusions, meteors, clouds, military craft, lens flares, pie tins, satellites, the International Space Station, sky lanterns, space debris, rocket misfires, search lights, contrails, and the planet Venus have all, at one point or another, been mistaken for alien crafts. Photo by Ben Collins on Unsplash.
What’s more, if the evidence he has simply doesn’t entail what he thinks it does, he can’t be found guilty of lying; he’d just be mistaken. And that’s what seems most likely. If there is one thing I have learned in 15 years of teaching critical thinking, it’s that critical thinking skills are sorely lacking in our society, across the board. Every profession (even those that require critical thinking)—lawyers, law makers, military personnel, and even philosophy professors—contains a large collection of people that simply lack the ability to think critically. That means there are many who are not nearly as good at evaluating evidence as they think they are. The likelihood that Grusch and his sources have convinced themselves that they have good evidence of aliens, when they don’t, is extremely high.
Take Grusch’s claim that non-human “biologics” have been retrieved from crash sites. Now, “biologics” are not bodies (and he was asked if the program has alien bodies); but still, if the program has DNA confirmed to be of alien origin from a crash site—that would be a big deal. But (a) non-human doesn’t mean alien. (Birds are not humans.) And (b) someone (perhaps Grusch, perhaps one of his sources) might be convinced that some piece of biological material they were asked to evaluate is of alien origin simply because they couldn’t figure out what it was. (Indeed, given the possibility of mishandled, contaminated, incomplete, damaged, or otherwise faulty samples, I’d be surprised if this hasn’t happened multiple times.) But that’s not good logic; that’s the “mystery therefore magic fallacy”. As I often tell my students, when you can’t find a natural explanation of something, “I’m not as smart as I think I am” will always be a better explanation than “it must be ghosts/aliens/bigfoot/ESP/etc.”
Assessing the hypothesis
The last step is to compare the hypothesis according to the criteria of adequacy: testability, fruitfulness, scope, parsimony, and conservatism. I don’t have the space to explain what each of these is, but the most relevant is conservatism: does it conflict with things we already have good reason to believe are true? In this case, hypothesis 1 is the least conservative. If aliens have visited Earth, then all modern science and physics is not just incomplete, but fundamentally wrong. Given what we know about the size of the universe and how the laws of physics put limits on propulsion speeds, the chance that an alien species even could visit Earth while our species exists is near zero. The second hypothesis just assumes that people are lying or mistaken; and we already know that can and does happen; it happens every day.
To be fair, Grusch doesn’t think these aliens came from another planet; he thinks they came from another dimension. I don’t think this actually makes the first hypothesis any more conservative (while some theories in physics hypothesize “extra-dimensions,” that’s not the same as thing as “other dimensions/universes” where “aliens” might live). But I know it makes the first hypothesis less “parsimonious.” It requires us to assume the existence of unprovable inconceivable “dimension jumping” technology. The second hypothesis just calls us to assume that people are easily mistaken—which, again, we already know is the case. To put it simply, Occam’s razor favors hypothesis 2. Clearly, it is the more reasonable of the two.
I’d be glad to be proven wrong; if aliens have visited Earth, maybe they can help us with climate change (which, let’s be honest, given that we just lived through the hottest month (July) on record (and in 120,000 years), that’s what we should be talking about.) But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. To date, David Grusch has provided none.
- A version of this article also appeared at Psychology Today. Dr. Johnson also maintains a blog on Medium.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor the London School of Economics.
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