Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Cloaked Romulan spacecraft and the strength of Ockham's Razor

It is an inevitable danger of being a self-styled rationalist skeptic that I may not recognize credible evidence for something bizarre when I see it, because I'd already be looking for ways to dismiss it before the dust even settled.

It's a charge that's been levied at me with some regularity.  You don't believe in ghosts, eh?  All of the photographs, videos, and eyewitness accounts are just natural anomalies and human senses being fooled?  You wouldn't accept a ghost as real if one bit you on the ass.  How about Bigfoot?  All of the accounts of Bigfoot are fakes?  Seriously?  And the psychics... just because some psychics have turned out to be frauds, you have decided that all of them are?

"Skeptic?  Pfft.  You're just as stuck in your own worldview as the rest of us."

I have to admit that these comments do give me some pause, every time I receive one.  I lean pretty hard on the ECREE principle -- Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence.  But what, then, constitutes "extraordinary" evidence?  Suppose something really, truly paranormal was going on -- would I even recognize it as such?

Take, for example, the claim that's been all over the news -- that NASA released a photo of the planet Mercury that contained the faint image of a giant cloaked spaceship.  (You can read an article about this, and see images, here.)  The individual who found the image, a YouTube poster with the handle "siniXster," states that NASA's STEREO imaging satellite took a photograph of a coronal mass ejection, and that the particles emitted by the CME washed over Mercury -- catching in its wake an object of equal size that was hovering, invisible, nearby.  This disrupted the CME and rendered the object temporarily visible.

"It's cylindrical on either side and has a shape in the middle. It definitely looks like a ship to me, and very obviously, it's cloaked," siniXster said in his YouTube video about the image.

Okay.  All Star Trek references aside, my first reaction was, "An invisible spaceship as big as a planet?  Really?"  But then I thought, "Well, I've always said that it was entirely possible that there was life out there in the universe... what if there was a superpowerful alien species, with a giant ship, out near Mercury watching us, and they'd rendered their ship invisible to us using some advanced technology.  Might I just be overdoing the rationalist skeptic thing, and missing something amazing?"

Well, that possibility does exist, and I'd be a pretty poor skeptic if I didn't realize that my perceptual apparatus and brain are just as flawed as the next guy's, and my capacity for such inherent problems with inference as dart-thrower's bias is just as great.  How, then, do I decide for sure if they've stumbled upon something earthshattering?

Besides ECREE, a rule of thumb I tend to trust more often than not is Ockham's Razor; that all other things being equal, the explanation that requires you to make the least ad hoc assumptions is probably the correct one.  In this case, is there a simpler explanation that addresses all of the evidence?

Unfortunately for siniXster and others who think that we're being monitored by the Romulans, the answer is yes.  Russ Howard, head researcher in solar physics at the Naval Research Laboratory provided a nice little explanation of the photograph.  The Mercury-sized object hovering in Mercury's orbit isn't a cloaked spacecraft, Howard says.  Actually... it's Mercury:
To make the relatively faint glow of a coronal mass ejection stand out against the bright glare of space—caused by interplanetary dust and the stellar/galactic background—the NRL scientists must remove as much background light as possible.  They explained that they determine what light is background light, and thus can be subtracted out, by calculating the average amount of light that entered each camera pixel on the day of the CME event and on the previous day.  Light appearing in the pixels on both days is considered to be background light and is removed from the footage of the CME.  The remaining light is then enhanced.  When [this averaging process] is done between the previous day and the current day and there is a feature like a planet, this introduces dark (negative) artifacts in the background where the planet was on the previous day, which then show up as bright areas in the enhanced image.
But... how do I know that this is right?  Am I just trying to be superskeptic here, and leaping at the Official Explanation because it means I don't have to revise my worldview?

Answering that question as honestly as I know how, I think I still have to say "no."  Being a skeptic doesn't mean that you reject paranormal explanations out of hand just because they're paranormal; but it does mean that you have to evaluate the evidence as best you can, and accept the best explanation that's out there on the market.  My frequent critics notwithstanding, I do think I'm open-minded enough that I wouldn't be blind to evidence of something weird should it eventually happen along.  I just don't think that this is it.  Ockham's Razor is a statement about how the universe behaves, and how we can come to understand it; and in my experience, it works pretty damn well, even if it does preclude a huge cloaked Romulan spaceship, which honestly would be kind of cool if it were true.

Ockham's Razor is not a law, however; convoluted and wildly improbable events do occur, and it may well be that there are phenomena out there that lie outside the purview of our conventional scientific explanations.  If this is true, I would love to experience some of them first hand, and I hope that I would be accepting of their veracity despite my preconceived conviction that they don't exist.  Perhaps Mark Twain was right when he said, "The difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to be believable."


  1. Hi Gordon

    With respect to your declaration that you:

    “lean pretty hard on the ECREE principle -- Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence. But what, then, constitutes "extraordinary" evidence? Suppose something really, truly paranormal was going on -- would I even recognize it as such?”

    I would suggest that in your honest efforts to remain truly balanced in your analysis of claims of the paranormal, and the woo woo stuff, that you also consider doing an equal personal evaluation of the first part of this principle.

    I run into the ECREE principle constantly and have yet to be impressed by anyone labeling any claim as “Extraordinary”. Who determines what is Extraordinary and how is that determination made?

    While working on my degree in EE I was also enrolled in an undergraduate Nuclear Engineering program. I can tell you that for me personally, every single class I had in quantum mechanics presented me daily with claims that went way beyond Extraordinary! : )

    Anyway, just some food for thought.

    John R. DeLorez

  2. There was probably a 10 year span where I enjoyed the concept of alien interaction (X-files, ad nauseam discovery channel shows, etc). At this point, I just don't give a crap anymore. Whether or not Aliens are cloaked in my living room watching me type this, the concept is a tired regurgitation at this point.
    How about humanity as a whole moves on to other pursuits and when Aliens actually make their presence unequivocal to us, we can deal with it then.

    To quote William Shatner from an SNL skit of a Star Trek Convention:
    "You know, before I answer any more questions there's something I wanted to say. Having received all your letters over the years, and I've spoken to many of you, and some of you have traveled... y'know... hundreds of miles to be here, I'd just like to say... GET A LIFE, will you people? I mean, for crying out loud, it's just a TV show! I mean, look at you, look at the way you're dressed! You've turned an enjoyable little job, that I did as a lark for a few years, into a COLOSSAL WASTE OF TIME!"

  3. Gordon, with this exquisitely-worded disclaimer you have nicely spot-painted the trees on the paper-trail you'll be so glad is in place when you reveal your bombshell: the 'Being' you've kept in a warm cage behind the house for, can it really be six weeks already?
    reporters from the 'Finger Lakes Tattler' have been snooping around, just so you know..
    And won't the pooh-pooh crowd fall off their high horses when they discover that you have enough documented skepto-street-cred to mutilate an entire cavalry of equines?
    At least I can brag to my buddies: "I know that guy; if he says it's an alien, it's a goddamn alien. End of discussion."

  4. Sure was *fun* to have to type that whole comment three(3) times from scratch(!) while the idiot Blogger-Bugs blithely ate the first two versions without even saying thanks. One more reason to stick with Xanga