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  • Luis Cayetano

A response to Michael Cifone of the Entaus blog

Michael Cifone runs the fascinating Entaus blog, which contains many erudite and remarkable interventions on UFOs/UAP and the various interpretations of them, along with the attendant issues pertaining to epistemology, scientific evidence and hypothesis generation. I was initially made aware of the blog thanks to Bryan Sentes of the Skunkworks blog.

Recently, Michael wrote a response, titled "Brief notes on the perils of skepticism" to my article "Why UFOs are (almost certainly) not extraterrestrial, interdimensional, supernatural etc." I encourage everyone to read his piece as it is cogent, well written and does hit on a number of points that I am sensitive to. Here, I respond to Michael.

My intent was not, as I may have inadvertently implied, to dismiss a priori the possibility of UFOs as ET vehicles, but rather to elaborate somewhat on two things: that I see a posteriori reasons for rejecting the ET hypothesis (among the others I listed), and that there are other, more earthly explanations that I think are far more likely to account for UFO sightings. It's true that I did seek to locate the UFO phenomenon (or rather phenomena) in mundane explanations (see further below for my qualification on how I use the term "mundane") given the various reasons I cited (the rich history of precedents for human confabulation and embellishment, the incompleteness of data, and the scientific worth of seeking out prosaic causes before reaching for more exotic ones). But I did not see my exercise as one of dogmatic rejection of ET visitation (of course, that does not mean that I succeeded in that. Dogma can be all the more pervasive and insidious when it lies fallow and unexamined, and I welcome critiques of my positions in order that my own dogmatic suppositions can be rooted out). On the contrary, I listed a number of items that would convince me of its reality if they could be presented, but also noted that it seems, at least to me and other skeptics, highly problematic that they haven't been.

My inclusion of the supernatural hypothesis was precisely to counter the positions of various religious fundamentalists who see UFOs as vessels emanating from heaven (or hell, as some believers suppose). Michael's comment that even a spiritual realm would still be part of nature and hence not "super" natural is an interesting one that is worthy of debate, but I specifically had in mine something like the mind/body dualist worldview of Christian fundamentalists* who have tried to co-opt UFO narratives to the service of their faith. Whatever the ontological status of deities and God in terms of inclusion or exclusion within the framework of the "natural", I would still argue that there are far more "down to Earth" explanations and possibilities for UFO sightings than invocations of God/Satan/etc., and that was the point I was trying to convey by including the "supernatural" in my discussion.

Then we come to another point in Michael's article, which has to do with evidence. The problem is: what is the "best evidence"? It's true that I didn't focus on particular cases in my piece, as it was meant as a general treatment bestowing a flavor for the types of arguments that in my view militate against the aforementioned hypotheses. Admittedly, my article was rather misplaced on a website that is more concerned with what its title suggests - namely, corruption - and I don't, for the record, consider most believers or even proponents to be corrupt. My article was meant as a type of statement to the effect of: "for the record and so that you can judge where I'm coming from, and in case you were wondering, is my position on what I think UFOs aren't," and it sits there as an outlier. However, on his part, Michael did put his money where his mouth is, and alluded to the Aguadilla UFO case in Puerto Rico and the now-famous Nimitz encounters recorded by the US Navy. On the former, I have to say bluntly: I just don't think it's a very good case, based on my readings of it; presumably, Michael counts it as among the best evidence (otherwise, why mention it?), but far from being a case that "eludes conventional explanation" (as implied by his mentioning of the case right after writing, "The first issue is that of simply establishing that there is something profoundly anomalous, with certain (sometimes measurable) characteristics which eludes conventional explanations."). It is, most assuredly in my view, not that and is in fact entirely consistent with conventional explanations, almost boringly so. I had myself previously thought it of as a case that was hard to explain, and I raised it on the Metabunk site (administered by skeptic Mick West) as a pertinent subject of discussion. I am pleased that a thread was eventually set up to do just that (though not because of my intervention) and it does an admirable job of detailing the many shortcomings of the case and the SCU report that Michael cites. The issues entailed include the typical ones: the limitations of infrared footage, video artefacts, failure to take into account the human context (in this case, wedding balloons in the vicinity of the airport near which the UFO was recorded), and prevailing wind direction. Interestingly, a former member of the Argentine military took it upon himself to investigate the case and came to the conclusion that the object was almost certainly a pair of tied Chinese lantern balloons used in a wedding, and that the balloons had drifted over the airport. In short, no violations of the known laws of physics need have taken place to account for what is seen in the footage - and that is precisely my point. To paraphrase Michael, the skeptics in this case have most certainly "engages systematically with the data". To this, I want to add something else: the Aguadilla footage does now show an object performing anything like an extreme maneuver (say, a hundred-G loop-de-loop). That would be much more compelling than a video in which the conclusion of "other-worldly craft" can only be arrived by starting with a leading assumption that it actually traveled under water, for example.

Similarly, and based on my readings of them, I find the more famous Go Fast, Tic Tac and Gimbal footage similarly unimpressive. The fact that the video evidence does not stand on its own (that is, that it can be plausibly explained as human technology or even animals in the case of Go Fast) and has to be buttressed by eye-witness accounts is problematic. It is in essence an admission that the video evidence ultimately doesn't matter. But then we're back to the problems inherent to eye-witness accounts, confabulation and embellishment, psychosocial processes, and so on, all of which form the context and backdrop for such accounts and against which we have to judge the merits of any particular case. Whether a signal that deviates so significantly from the background is discernible is the acid test that any claim of ET tech must pass.

Michael also mentions technology that may have been acquired from crash retrievals. This would of course be decisive if it could be demonstrated to have been impossible to have formed on Earth and to be a viable piece of actual tech (instead of, say, a "mere" fragment of what might be an interesting meteorite). I can think of some criteria that might fit this bill, such as nanosized engravings showing clear evidence of language or computer code; emissions of electromagnetic signals from a power source; or something that could change shape or react to the environment in a seemingly intelligent way. Other examples abound, but they would be more definitive than something that is only ambiguously technology at best. We certainly require something more intriguing than the examples we've been treated to so far, which invariably end up being slag from human metallurgy or that Jacques Vallee cannot really vouch for any supposedly extraordinary properties.

Finally, let me touch on another important issue that Michael raises, which is that of what counts as unassailable evidence. Perhaps I was misusing the term, but the sense in which I meant it was to in the sense of evidence that would draw instant consensus among the scientific community as to its non-terrestrial and intelligent provenance because it is of such a quality that it cannot have been faked and cannot be accounted for by any natural terrestrial and human explanation. I have no doubt that items that are unassailably authentic and anomalous (i.e. not faked and that we can verify, test, etc. and they still defy explanation) have been presented, but that does not definitively point to ET. I think Michael would agree with me that there has yet to be presented any proof as such for ET. I would also qualify my use of another term so as not to confuse matters further: "mundane". When I use that word, I mean to convey Earthly, and would, perhaps problematically, include phenomena such as ball lightning and exotic forms of atmospheric plasma, which while nevertheless not yet well understand, do have some experimental and theoretical basis that is tangible and producible under controlled conditions (incidentally, this would be my response to Nick Pope and others, who have critiqued the invocation of ball lightning and plasma to explain UFOs as an example of explaining one unknown with another: that increasingly, we may be able to explain UFOs with something that is becoming less and less unknown).

*Some streams of Hindu and Islamic fundamentalism have also made recourse to UFOs within their mythologies.

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