Analyzing UFO data and reasoning about it has been extremely controversial due to a number of factors, primarily disagreement about which data are mutually agreed upon as requiring explanation. In this article I attempt to provide a conceptual framework and guide for thinking about and theorizing about UFOs.
On a related issue, various labels and epithets often have been substituted for rational discussion in characterizing our philosophical opponents. No doubt this is due to the frustrations of trying to deal with a complex and unorthodox subject that has little recognition among scientists, the news media, or other important opinion-makers in society. What does it mean to be "pro-UFO" or a "believer"? How apt are the labels "debunker," "scoffer," or "skeptic" as applied to those who disbelieve in UFOs and/or profess strong criticism of the views (not to mention the motives and intelligence) of "believers?"
Interestingly, the ad hominem arguments tend to emanate far more from the "scoffers" than the "believers." Whereas many of us think that Phil Klass, other CSICOP people, and Donald Menzel before them are mistaken in their professed viewpoints, we do not usually attribute evil motives to them.
Before proposing a conceptual scheme as a guide to thinking about and studying UFO sightings, I will attempt to define some terms and also suggest ways to encourage more civil debate of the issues. People see things in the sky (and on the ground) that they cannot explain and term them "UFOs." Although UFO has long since become a synonym for ET spaceship in the popular mind, let us continue to think of it literally as meaning an unexplained flying (sometimes landing) object or phenomenon.
The large majority of such reports turn out to have mundane explanations, including aircraft seen under unusual lighting or weather conditions, rocket or missile launches, and fireball meteors. The percentages of explained versus unexplained are scientifically meaningless, but typically are something like 80% to 20%.The scientific question is: Do the sightings that remain unexplained after careful investigation represent one or more phenomena of potential scientific significance? Should time and money be spent in gathering and analyzing better data in a systematic way?
In past years the U.S. Air Force and most self-styled skeptics have extrapolated from the high percentage of
explained cases (sometimes artificially high due to ingrained negative attitudes) to the unexplained cases.
had more complete data, their argument went,
we could also explain the rest of the cases. Only insufficient
data prevents us from explaining 100% of the reports. Of course, this argument totally ignores the content of
the unexplained cases.
How do we determine whether the unexplained cases represent something new and important that deserves some level of priority investigation? By spending time and money to test that hypothesis along with its antithesis! However, those already convinced that there is nothing of scientific interest in UFO reports will see no point in investigating further. Their minds are made up. They see only "noise" and no "signal" in UFO reports. A good term to describe a person who takes this position is Scoffer.
On the other extreme are those who accept practically everything seen in the sky as evidence of extraterrestrial visitation. Scientifically oriented UFO investigators resent being labeled as "believers," which implies an uncritical acceptance of dubious data bordering on slack-jawed faith. A good name for the uncritical ones would be Believer.
Practically everyone else fits somewhere in between these extremes. Although a range of attitudes and approaches is involved, a good general term for people in this central category would be Skeptic. (It probably is a losing battle to suggest this terminology since the term "skeptic" has been pre-empted by the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), but it would be a more accurate use of the term in its historical sense. CSICOP members tend to be either Scoffers or Debunkers.) A neutral alternative might be Investigator, though that would exclude anyone who ventures an opinion on the subject without actually doing some investigation, or reading the serious literature, which also applies to many CSICOP members.
Within the center category of people who have some degree of interest in studying or investigating UFO reports, there are several levels of interest and/or attitude. Some of these I will define as:
The reader may use his or her imagination in considering real-life examples of each category. These labels should not be used in a pejorative manner. Members of each category can be entirely rational in discussing and debating the issues, and the sooner that is understood the better chance we will have of engaging in a civil give-and-take that will help all of us to gain an approximation of the truth. Facts, logic, and science should be the means of settling disagreements.
That being said, it would be helpful to confine discussions to one of the two following broad hypotheses which can then be further refined:
If everyone who considers himself part of the rational center (as opposed to the irrational extremes) were to adopt this approach, it would greatly improve communications and expedite scientific research into UFOs. Neither Scoffers nor Believers have very much positive to contribute to a resolution of the UFO controversy. The rest of us in the center, if we could work together and engage in civil discourse, might succeed in accomplishing something worthwhile. And regardless of the outcome, society would benefit substantially from either debunking "the UFO myth" or establishing it as something very important for once and for all.