Thursday, July 1, 2010

Better Know a Pseudoscience

Science enthusiasts and critical thinkers cannot escape the reality that human culture world-wide is absolutely chockablock with fake science. The word "scientific" has a cachet that I've seen co-opted for homeopathy, energy-harmonized aluminum plates, even Biblical "scientific discoveries" (always good for a laugh.) Science seems to be all about the results, the inventions, the breakthroughs. It's never about the process, the codified critical thinking that keeps those end products from being complete hokum. We humans have a tendency to see what we want to see, to see what agrees with our preconceptions, to see what benefits us and justifies our beliefs. The scientific method is what developed in order to boil out the biases, the fallacies, the unconscious assumptions which corrupt our cognition.

Pseudoscience has been a bugbear of mine for quite some time. So, let's talk about UFOs, and why the pseudoscience of UFOlogy fails on so many counts.

FALSIFIABILITY: UFOlogy prominently displays a hallmark of many pseudosciences—it begins with its conclusion, and then goes looking for whatever disparate facts might support it. One of the most common misconceptions about science is that you start with a hypothesis—a question that you're testing, which you then gather data or do experiments to support. However, one requirement of a good hypothesis is that it is willing and able to be proved wrong. If it is not, you are setting yourself upon a primrose path of Confirmation Bias.

Without falsifiability, your so-called “research” is nothing more than a grand exercise in a fallacy called Affirming the Consequent\. It's easily represented symbolically: [If A=true, then B=true]; [B=true, therefore A=true]. "If a movie is/was shooting a rain scene outdoors, then the sidewalk is wet." The fallacy is to say "if the sidewalk is wet, then a movie is/was being filmed." How many different ways can the sidewalk be wet that don't include such a rare and unlikely event as a movie shoot? How about rain? Automatic sprinklers? The high school cheerleaders doing a car wash down the block? It doesn't follow. Let's say that unexplained lights in the sky are seen nearby, and so you take your "scientific instruments" and you go out to whatever area you believe to be nearby the phenomenon. You believe that if an advanced vehicle were there, its exotic technology would produce…well, "something." You observe that there are some unexpected readings in the local magnetic fields. This is "something," therefore some kind of UFO caused it.

The real scientific method ultimately does most of its work primarily to falsify hypotheses through experiment and observation. It took Thomas Edison years to devise an incandescent filament, to the point where one waggish reporter asked him why he had failed so many times. He had not failed, he said, he had successfully found ten thousand compounds which did not work. If a cotton filament vaporizes under current, then it’s back to the drawing board. There is no such result which would invalidate the presence of a sufficiently futuristic craft, especially when empty-handed results can be explained away as due to the stealthy capabilities of such a ship. How do you generate a well-formed hypothesis, one which has definite criteria to tell you you’re barking up the wrong tree? That’s one more aspect of the scientific method where UFOlogy completely falls on its face.

THEORY: Creationists love to say Evolution is "only a theory," as though it meant something speculative and, if you will, hypothetical. It doesn't. A theory is an explanatory model, based on observations, which generates testable hypotheses and points the way to acquire new knowledge. UFOlogy has no such thing. Going back to the Theory of Movie Production, we can generate multiple testable hypotheses from a basic model of what goes on in such an event. Our hypothetical movie shoot would not only dampen the sidewalk, you’d also find classified ads calling for extras, permits on file with the police and fire departments, a spike in bulk catering revenues, or sightings of heavily laden trucks carrying sets and equipment. Even if you missed the event itself, you’d know what to look for to see if Oliver Stone was in town. You might never know for sure—affirming the consequent prevents absolute certainty, even with a good foundation—but you’d have a start, and you’d figure out you were wrong pretty quick if that were the truth of the matter.

UFOlogy has no theoretical model. What they have instead is a grab-bag of anecdotes, recollections and speculation, and like I said above, any unexplained physical traces. UFOs can be lights in the sky. They can be flying saucers. They can be silvery wreckage entirely consistent with weather balloons known to be in use in 1947, at the time of the Roswell so-called "incident." UFOs can leave circular depressions in leaf litter. UFOs can produce magnetic anomalies. Et cetera et cetera. There is no one phenomenon, no model to provide a framework to unify and explain the observations attributed to UFOs over the years--speculation runs from aircraft as small as three feet across to more than a hundred. There are hundreds of conflicting accounts, and the presence or absence of any given aspects are almost irrelevant.

If our skies are being patrolled by advanced, science-fiction vehicles, whether of human or non-human origin, they seem to come in a dizzying and unpredictable variety, very few of which ever make any repeat performances. You can never predict what a UFO will look like, sound like, or act like. It could leave no trace, or it could scorch the ground. It could seem to be at extreme altitudes, or nearly brush the treetops. UFOs can look like anything, it seems, and if you go looking for them, you can rest assured you’ll never be proved wrong, no matter how implausible the claim. Plausibility is also key, and it’s really both the most important and least intuitive reason that UFOlogy is a non-starter as any serious explanation of strange events.

PLAUSIBILITY: Clarke’s Law, where any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, is all around us. If you showed a man from 1910 an iPhone, he’d have only the most rudimentary idea of its function and no idea at all of how it works. Heck, I don’t really know how it works. In our lives and most especially in our TV shows and movies, the fantastical is commonplace. It is becoming very counterintuitive to learn that certain areas have very real engineering challenges—where words like “inefficient” and “diminishing returns” take on inflexible, technical definitions quite apart from their everyday usage. In terms of thermodynamics, internal combustion is not very efficient, and so 100 MPG cars are not easy to build without major design sacrifices. Fuel is very heavy and gravity relatively strong, and so it takes massive rockets to lift small amounts of cargo into space. Jet packs are ludicrously inefficient, and all the fuel they can carry is used up in two minutes’ flight. Because the design envelope for a lifting body doesn’t overlap much with the design envelope for a car, any shape which can do both is basically going to stink on ice in whichever role it’s operating. Flying cars will not be filling our skies.

No matter, you say. UFOs obviously must run on technologies yet undiscovered. That doesn’t solve the problems, though. The laws of motion and thermodynamics still hold. A hovering ship must accelerate upwards at 9.8 meters per second, every second, or it will, shall we say, accelerate downwards. That takes power, reaction mass, either to use a jet or aerodynamic forces to stay aloft. No account I’m aware of ever sees a UFO slow too quickly or climb too steeply, stall, and fall to earth due to lack of lift. Nor could any kind of electromagnetic repulsion account for UFOs’ reported aerial antics. Perhaps they use something even more exotic, like antimatter. Sadly, no. The annihilation reaction of antimatter is not free energy. Energy, by definition, is the ability to do work, and flying a UFO through the sky does take a lot of both. So, whatever your energy source, you still have to power an engine—loosely enough defined as “a machine which does the work” in order to get around. That’s leaving aside that antimatter is so stupidly inefficient to obtain and store in the first place, with only a few vast facilities on the planet available to manufacture even trace amounts.

I’ve bent over backwards to avoid the word “alien” or “spaceship” thus far, but don’t really think I need to be coy. UFOlogists who hold out that UFOs may be of human, perhaps secret military origin sound like “cDesign proponentsists” who say the Intelligent Designer might not be God. Who are they kidding? But in reality, alien visitation is hardly any less improbable than the hand of God tickling our DNA. Science fiction has made us ignorant of the real limits of the universe, with hyperdrive-equipped X-Wings and antimatter-fueled starships in every adventure show ever to sew sequins onto black velvet and hang it outside the set’s window.

Space is unimaginably vast—no, I'm saying that literally, your visual cortex can’t accurately model it but I appreciate the effort. Plus, the universe doesn’t just have a speed limit, it actually cheats. To accelerate a midsized car to two-thirds the speed of light would take all the energy in all the power plants in the entire country for one year, assuming you could translate that to kinetic energy with magical 100% efficiency. Two years’ worth doesn’t get you to one-and-a-third lightspeed, because when you go very fast, you start gaining mass, so that it takes much more energy just to get you going faster in progressively smaller increments. It’s not fair! Then, when you get where you’re going, you’ve got to burn exactly as much energy again just to slow down. Your best option is to accelerate constantly to halfway, then turn around and blast your engine in reverse, so that you zero out just as you arrive. It doesn't matter what your engine runs on or what breakthrough your hive-brother Snrxlvbrrr made to build it.

Ships in science fiction don’t seem to lug around gas, either. It took a skyscraper of rocket fuel just to send three humans to our own moon, and almost all of that fuel was used just to move fuel. The more you carry, the more you need just to get what you’re already carrying in motion, for which you need more fuel, for which you need more fuel, etc. Needless to say, we have not seen any decelerating fusion torches pointed directly at our planet from deep in the sky, as city-sized ships, mostly empty fuel storage, decelerate from turnover, coasting to a stop where they detach comparatively tiny habitation modules to flit mysteriously around small rural towns. Interstellar travel is unsexy.

To sum up, we never know whether UFOs are really there or not, we wouldn’t know in advance what to look for if they were, there’s no good reason to think that there are in the first place, and no plausible technology for them to use to get here because General Relativity and the Laws of Motion just aren't amenable to large-scale space travel. I have heard one UFO enthusiast opine that perhaps the laws of relativity are wrong, and faster-than-light travel isn’t known to be impossible, and that about sums up for me that it’s a completely faith-based belief. If they’re so wedded to their preconceived desire that they’re willing to play fast and loose with the fabric of the universe, then their cognitive process is well and truly off the rails.