From time to time, the possibility of contact with extraterrestrial intelligence creates a certain frisson here among us earthlings. The current frisson began in late April, when the Pentagon admitted that a number of videos that had been circulating on the internet for many years (some since 2004) were legitimate.
In May, the famous American program 60 Minutes on CBS pointed out that UFOs (Unidentified flying objects) are regularly detected in restricted airspace in the USA”. A few days ago, a report in The New York Times newspaper said: “The US does not find evidence of alien technology in flying objects, but neither can they discard it.”
And so, from time to time, skeptics like me also come out of their dens to reanalyze the evidence, but the conclusion is always the same: the chance that we have been visited by other technological civilizations is tiny.
Let me explain.
First, the Pentagon’s admission only means that the videos actually came from cameras on their aircraft. This means that they were not created on the computer of some hobbyist, the so-called ufologists, living in the basement of their parents’ house.
The videos in question invariably show blurs (each video has a different type of blur), moving unnaturally. By unnatural, I mean that, at first glance, if interpreted as being due to spacecraft, the movement doesn’t seem to be due to any technology we know.
But it’s easy to interpret the video if we expand the universe of its possible explanations. As ufologists themselves admit, the vast majority of official sightings can be ruled out. According to a renowned ufologist, 90 to 95% of these sightings are due to “weather balloons, planes flying in formation, secret military aircraft, birds reflecting the sun, planes reflecting the sun, airships, helicopters, the planets Venus or Mars, meteors or meteorites , space junk, satellites […], ice crystals, light reflected from clouds, lights on the ground or lights reflected from a cockpit window, temperature inversions, pierced clouds and the list goes on!”
In the case of these latest videos, a thorough analysis was carried out by Mick West, computer graphics expert, host of the Metabunk.org website and the “Tales from the Rabbit Hole” podcast and columnist for Skeptic magazine.
According to West, the most plausible causes of the images vary: in a video the blur appears to have come from the glare of the jet (most likely) of an F-18 fighter moving away from a camera, which is also in motion. By stabilizing the camera, and taking parallax into account, the image is more easily recognizable.
In another video, where one of the objects seems to disappear from a homogeneous background at an impossible speed, West notices in the corner of the image that the zoom indication simultaneously doubles. And so on: other explanations of the same content, plausible and natural once we consider them, are raised for each video.
But what if we hadn’t had someone like West willing to devote their time to a thorough and skeptical analysis of the images? Would it be believed that they were caused by alien technology? No, because that would be just one among countless other possible explanations, not yet conceived, perhaps, but more mundane.
By definition, ordinary explanations are more likely, and this is independent of whether we know them in detail, whether we know what the specific explanation is or not. In other words, the mere existence of a myriad of other possible and mundane explanations—but perhaps unimaginable, for lack of someone smart and diligent enough to discover them—should lead us to attribute a high chance that the phenomenon in front of us is due to one of them. That’s why legendary science popularizer Carl Sagan never tire of preaching: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
We should read the pronouncements of a particular government, military or NASA body with an appropriate dictionary, as saying that a possibility remains open can mean a lot or a little, depending on who says it. For a scientific view, like that of a NASA member, it means little.
If it is not possible to conclusively disprove the origin of any of these smudges, the cautious scientist still declares the possibility of that origin open, however improbable. Still, as I explained above, we must assign minuscule probability to extraordinary possibilities, changing our minds only with incontrovertible evidence, and not just yet unexplained.
In addition to the possibility of contact being extraordinary in the simple sense of the word (of being extraordinarily unusual), there are also good arguments to further diminish your chance. As I have already written, finding evidence of intelligent extraterrestrial life requires that our civilizations intersect in both space and time dimensions.
Both are enormous, and a finite life expectancy of a civilization would significantly decrease the chance of encounter, even more so given the limits imposed by physics on the speed of interstellar travel. As if that weren’t enough, the steps from the emergence of life to the emergence of technology are enormous and extremely unlikely.
But what about first-person accounts? Reports of space visitors have been around since the world is the world. In the 1890s, for example, there was a great wave of sightings, which were later recognized as coming not from alien aircraft but from blimps.
These and many other examples illustrate how our biological perception is flawed. In fact, “first-person accounts” are the worst kind of evidence possible. Our cognitive apparatus is subject to numerous types of illusions, as it continually imposes an interpretation on unusual images, an interpretation that is beyond our control and can be influenced by many factors (see pareidolia or apophenia).
Hence the slogan coined by cognitive vision neuroscientist Ramesh Jain: “Perception is a controlled hallucination.” Apart from these types of reports, there is very little evidence of quality. Like Elon Musk recently pointed out, despite the incredible evolution in camera resolution over the last century, the latest evidence of alien contact remains as blurry as the earlier ones.
With so many people traveling by plane and all armed with cellphones with powerful cameras, why don’t we have a single video that shows a single alien spacecraft in high definition? Why so many low definition blur videos?
The question is upside down. The “evidence” that emerges from alien technology is in that ideal gray zone: defined enough to be tempting, but never enough to positively identify what’s being seen. Why are all UFO videos blurred? Well, because of natural selection: those images that are in focus are identified and are mundane.
The conclusion is obvious: UFOs are unidentified not because they are aliens, but because they are blurry. Unidentified, yes, extraterrestrials, no.