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.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

UFOs, Bigfoot, and celestial teapots

At what point should you give up investigating something for which there are many unsubstantiated claims, but virtually no hard evidence?

It's a difficult question.  As astronomer Martin Rees put it, "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."  Just because we currently have no evidence for a particular claim doesn't mean we never will, or that such evidence doesn't exist.  In science, our information is necessarily always incomplete, and our explanations evolve as what we know about the world expands.

On the other hand, it's easy for this to slip into the Negative Proof Fallacy -- if you can't prove ghosts don't exist, that's evidence that they do.  As scientists, we need to keep our logical brains engaged, and weigh the likelihood of claims before we throw ourselves too enthusiastically into the latest oddball theory.  As Bertrand Russell famously put it, "If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes.  But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense."

This week we have two examples of the conflict between the desire to research the unknown, and the question of when to say "Enough is enough."  I'll leave it for you to decide if either, or both, of these constitutes looking for Russell's Celestial Teapot.

In the first, an article in The Telegraph entitled "UFO Enthusiasts Admit the Truth May Not Be Out There After All" describes the frustration some UFOlogists are experiencing from decades of devotion that have, like Monty Python's Camel Spotters, turned up hard evidence of nearly one UFO.  Dave Wood, chairman of the UK-based Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena, speculates that serious study of UFO sightings will be a thing of the past by 2022.  "It is certainly a possibility that in ten years time, it will be a dead subject,” he said.  "We look at these things on the balance of probabilities and this area of study has been ongoing for many decades.  The lack of compelling evidence beyond the pure anecdotal suggests that on the balance of probabilities that nothing is out there.  I think that any UFO researcher would tell you that 98% of sightings that happen are very easily explainable.  One of the conclusions to draw from that is that perhaps there isn’t anything there.  The days of compelling eyewitness sightings seem to be over."

Wood states that reports of UFO sightings have dropped by 96% since 1988 -- and that this is especially significant given the improvement in cameras, video equipment, and information technology.  If there really were anything there to study, Wood contends, we should be seeing more and better evidence, not less... and worse.  "When you go to UFO conferences it is mainly people going over these old cases, rather than bringing new ones to the fore,"  Wood said.

Of course, that doesn't mean that UFO enthusiasts are an extinct breed quite yet; to paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of their deaths were greatly exaggerated, to judge by my daily excursions to woo-woo websites like AboveTopSecret doing research for this blog.  But it is an interesting question to consider how long they can go on looking, and not finding, evidence of alien visitations without giving up and moving on to another hobby.

The same sort of problem is besetting the cryptozoologists, although they seem to still be going strong, to judge by the popularity of television shows like Bigfoot Hunters.  And just yesterday a second story came to my attention, that there has been a grant-funded project launched that will search for Sasquatch in the mountains of the western United States -- via blimp.

According to Reuters News Service,  "An Idaho scientist shrugging off skeptical fellow scholars in his quest for evidence of Bigfoot has turned his sights skyward, with plans to float a blimp over the U.S. mountain West in search of the mythic, ape-like creature.  Idaho State University has approved the unusual proposal of faculty member Jeffrey Meldrum...  Now Meldrum is seeking to raise $300,000-plus in private donations to build the remote-controlled dirigible, equip it with a thermal-imaging camera and send it aloft in hopes of catching an aerial glimpse of Bigfoot."

What is most remarkable about this is the cooperation of a state university in this research -- universities, and the grant funding agencies that pay for most of their projects, have tended to shy away from anything that smacks of woo-woo.  But the researcher, Jeffrey Meldrum, is a respected (and well-credentialed) professor of anatomy and anthropology, who presumably knows what he's looking for and would recognize credible evidence when he sees it.

"Though some may dismiss the idea of searching for Bigfoot as silly or ridiculous, there's no reason why the topic shouldn't be taken seriously and investigated scientifically," writes noted skeptic and science writer Benjamin Radford about the proposed Meldrum project.  "If Bigfoot exist, it is important to find out what they are, how they may be related to humans, and how exactly tens of thousands of them have managed to exist in North America without leaving any hard evidence.  If Bigfoot don't exist, the question becomes a psychological and social issue: why so many people report and believe in them...  Two things are certain: If Meldrum and the Falcon Project are successful, they could add immensely important information to our scientific knowledge of zoology and anthropology.  On the other hand if they fail to find evidence of Bigfoot, that will not settle the matter; believers will offer excuses and the search will continue, as they have for decades."

You have to wonder, though, whether the same thing will happen to the cryptozoologists that Dave Wood says is happening to the UFOlogists; if all of those folks, with thermal-sensing equipment and night-vision goggles and the latest high-tech video recorders, can't come up with any scientifically credible evidence for Bigfoot (or Nessie, or El Chupacabra, or Mokele-Mbembe, or the Bunyip...), then at what point do we just give it up as a bad job?  Hard to say, given that the claims are still coming in daily (here's one of the latest).  But at some point, unless someone like Jeffrey Meldrum is successful, I think we'll have to say that we've given it our best shot.

Sometimes, sadly, the teapot you're looking for just isn't there.


  1. The Celestial Teapot theory has been conclusively proven by Erich von Däniken in his well-researched book Tea Service of the Gods: One Lump or Two? (Element, 1997). Please search before posting, dude!

    1. This almost made me spit coffee all over my computer. Score one for you.

  2. I never thought I'd hear that UFOlogists might give up. People want to believe, which is why these theories persist. And I've yet to be convinced that Bigfoot doesn't exist. And what about the implication made in the article "UFO Enthusiasts Admit the Truth May Not Be Out There After All" that maybe aliens don't exist. Umm... even if you could prove that UFO's and anal probes don't exist, that doesn't mean life's not out there somewhere. Jumping to conclusions again, are we?