Today I came across this tweet courtesy of Counter Apologist:
Okay there are far too many people here in the 21st century giving nontrivial credence to the idea that there are alien spacecraft flying around in our skies.
— Sean Carroll (@seanmcarroll) December 23, 2017
I assume by “giving nontrivial credence to x” Carroll is meaning to say that there are far too many people taking the idea of x seriously.
The thing that bothers me about this tweet is that Carroll is suggesting folks who take the idea of alien visitation seriously are being irrational (i.e. overly gullible). And yet, underlying this analysis is a very contentious assumption:
Carroll’s Assumption: All people who take the idea of alien terrestrial visitation seriously are overly gullible.
Unfortunately, Carroll provides no evidence in support of Carroll’s Assumption. He just asserts it. However, it is easy to see that belief in alien visitation varies widely in the degree of gullibility. And that wide variation immediately calls Carroll’s Assumption into serious question.
In scenario 1, Jones picks up a worn copy of Whitley Strieber’s Communion (a fanciful alleged account of alien visitation) in a used bookstore and reads it later on that day. Based on Strieber’s testimony, Jones takes alien visitation seriously.
I would agree with Carroll that Jones would be irrational (i.e. overly credulous/gullible) to take alien visitation seriously based on this account. But not all cases are cut from the same cloth as that of Jones.
I take it that Carroll’s tweet was prompted by the flurry of attention given by media this last week to the reporting on the US government’s now-defunct “Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program.” The former head of the program, Luis Elizondo, worked for the program in the Pentagon as a U.S. military intelligence official. Elizondo most definitely takes alien visitation seriously based on his extensive knowledge of current military and civilian aviation capabilities on planet earth coupled with the capabilities of various UFOs that have been observed by US military intelligence. In other words, based on his extensive aviation knowledge, Elizondo can draw inferences to the best explanation of the observed craft, and they aren’t necessarily terrestrial in origin.
Here’s a short CNN story from this past week:
Carroll’s a smart guy, no doubt. But does he know everything that Elizondo knows about (1) current military and civilian aviation capabilities on planet earth and (2) the capabilities of various UFOs that have been observed by US military intelligence?
I’m guessing the answer is no.
Consequently, it is quite improper to lump Elizondo in with Jones whose only evidence is a worn copy of Whitley Striber’s Communion. And that’s the problem with Carroll’s Assumption: it renders a very contentious general opinion about rationality of belief which far outruns any evidence. If there is a spike in people considering alien visitation based on Strieber’s testimony, we have reason to worry. But the situation is quite different if there is a spike in people considering alien visitation based on Elizondo’s far more credible and informed testimony. A spike in that case may be good evidence of rational belief based on credible testimony.
Now you might be thinking: “Okay, but Elizondo doesn’t have all the evidence Carroll has about the enormous technical challenges with visitations across interstellar space.” To that, I would say two things:
First, I happily recognize that Carroll may have access to evidence which is sufficient that he will not take the possibility of alien visitation seriously. My only claim is that Carroll does not have access to evidence which is sufficient to sustain Carroll’s Assumption that no other persons have access to evidence sufficient to take alien visitation seriously.
Second, there is an important difference between Elizondo’s evidence and Carroll’s evidence. Elizondo’s evidence is based on the current aviation technological capabilities of human beings whereas Carroll’s evidence is (presumably) based on the projected technological capabilities and psychological motivations of any possible alien civilization in the universe. From that point of view, I’m siding with Elizondo. In other words, if my choices are to take the possibility of alien visitation seriously based on the witness of military pilots and investigators from the Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program, or to refuse to take this possibility seriously based on Carroll’s testimony, I’m siding with the former.
(Read my article “On Fermi’s Paradox and the Earth as a Wildlife Preserve,” for one fanciful possibility.)
Keep in mind that I am only saying I take the possibility of alien visitation seriously: I don’t currently believe that aliens have visited earth (though Elizondo apparently does).
So what’s the lesson in all this? To my mind, the point is less about aliens per se, than it is about public intellectuals like Carroll making grand judgments about the rationality of others. Just because you’re a scientist who knows a whole lot about some particular field of inquiry doesn’t ensure that you will provide a nuanced and helpful analysis of evidence and rational belief.