Sam (121) said:
The phrase itself [Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence] is inherently vague and unhelpful. What exactly is an “extraordinary claim”? And what exactly is “extraordinary proof”?
I think the key facets of this are:
(1) A claim is extraordinary if it is not either a reasonable projection from well-founded knowledge or a logical extension of a well-founded theory.
(2) Extraordinary evidence would be something that is utterly unambiguous.
So, for instance, while we believe that extraterrestrial (ET) life is highly likely, the barriers to interstellar travel are so large that a claim of ET visitation is indeed extraordinary. This may look like an argument from personal incredulity, and there may indeed be an element of that to it, but I think an objective consideration of the likelihood of casual and frequent interstellar travel yields the answer that it is, as far as we understand, implausible. Therefore, it is irrational to consider it to be anything other than extraordinary.
Extraordinary evidence would, for such a claim, be actual pieces of unambiguously alien hardware or biological specimens (for example, life that evolved anywhere other than Earth has no reason to share our genetic code, so a biological sample that uses a non-terrestrial genetic code would constitute extraordinary evidence).
I find it ironic that a sentence that is virtually incapable of precise, consistent interpretation or application is so beloved by scientists, who profess disdain for such subjective ambiguity in other contexts. I think it’s a cheat — a convenient escape hatch that allows a scientist to avoid this inscrutable subject without feeling like he’s running away from it.
You’re entitled to your opinion, of course, but your accusation could also be seen as running away from the need to provide such evidence.
Why do you consider the existing anecdotes to be sufficient evidence for ET visitations, given the inherent improbability of such things?
And this isn’t just a rhetorical critique; it has very real implications. The ambiguity in the term “extraordinary claim” goes right to the heart of this debate. We can all agree that the concept of non-human intelligence(s) appearing on Earth certainly SEEMS “extraordinary.” But is that the measure? Does that mean it actually IS “extraordinary”?
Given the huge costs and intrinsic difficulty for interstellar travel, yes.
Given that the claims are based on such an absence of evidence, yes.
Given that we have yet to detect
any ET life, never mind ET intelligence (ETI), yes.
I would say the answer is No — IFF one can reasonably posit a series of hypothetical facts — all of which themselves are not necessarily extraordinary — that could reasonably lead to this scenario. (If you’re not comfortable thinking in terms of “hypotheticals,” think of this as a “thought experiment,” which was really just Einstein’s term for hypotheticals).
The trouble with this idea is that you need to build suppositions upon suppositions. While the initial supposition – that ET life exists – is not extraordinary, you need to build several more on top of it, each of which is increasingly unlikely.
IF ETI exists, AND IF it has mastered routine interstellar travel, AND IF it lives close enough to Earth to be aware of us AND IF it has mastered technology to evade our radar systems, telescopes, radio telescopes and satellites AND IF they choose to attempt to conceal their visits from us AND IF they aren’t quite competent enough to do so . . .
Yes, it becomes an extraordinary claim.
So, I would say the series of reasonably plausible hypothetical facts goes like this: Is it extraordinary to believe there are other intelligences in the universe? No (you don’t require extraordinary proof to believe this is possible, do you?).
Extraordinary to believe there may be countless such intelligences? No.
Actually, this is a bit of a stretch. Also, how many there are in the universe as a whole is pretty much irrelevant. There could be only one intelligence per galaxy and there’d still be a countless number in the universe as a whole. Where interstellar travel is extraordinarily difficult (or extraordinarily inconvenient, take your pick), intergalactic travel requires magic. We know of no means of transporting organic beings in such a way as to cover these distances in – say – 100 human lifetimes without demanding an unfeasible quantity of energy (even our best theories for such things require the lifetime output of a sun-like star for one journey).
So, you need to estimate a numvber of intelligences per galaxy. For the sake of argument, let’s say it’s between 1 and 10.
Or to believe that some — perhaps many — of these are far more technologically advanced than us, perhaps by thousands or even millions of years? No.
Just because they have better iPods doesn’t mean they have mastered interstellar travel. Look at human transport technology. It has had several enormous breakthroughs over the last 150 years. Trains, cars, planes, space travel. However, in terms of how each technology has developed once the initial breakthrough occurred – trains have become cheaper and more efficient, but have not achieved significant advances in the last 50 years or so; cars likewise; planes – supersonic passenger travel has largely been deemed uneconomic (although there is the possibility that it may return with more efficient engine designs, but this is an advance of degree not of kind); and human space travel beyond low-Earth orbit has largely been deemed not worth the cost. We have hopes that we will travel to Mars this century, and we know that such a trip is possible with our existing technology, but even our wildest theories have no realistic means for us to travel to a nearby star.
So, to suppose that a more advanced civilisation than ours will inevitably have interstellar travel is – by itself – extraordinary. It needs some justification.
Or to believe that, if such highly advanced beings exist, they may have an interest in finding (and perhaps monitoring, or even planting & cultivating) other intelligent life forms in the universe? No.
You are assuming that it is possible to make interstellar travel both cheap and routinely easy. However, if one accepts this assumption, this is not an extraordinary claim. OTOH, if one demands some justification for the assumption, then the claim is extraordinary, because our current understanding of the universe (which we know to be at least a good approximation of the truth) indicates that interstellar travel is either extraordinarily difficult or extraordinarily inconvenient.
Or that, with their enormous head-start on us, they may have the tech capability to do these things even though they seem impossible to us (remember: we still have some major gaps in our knowledge base, like dark matter, dark energy, the weakness of gravity, etc)? No.
Actually, wehile there are indeed many things we don’t know, you are brushing aside the many things that we do know.
Interstellar travel does not seem impossible to us. What seems impossible to us is making interstellar travel fast enough and cheap enough for routine and casual use. And it seems impossible for some very sound and fundamental reasons.
Is it extraordinary to believe, then, that if they do exist and do have an interest in us and are here because of that interest, that their presence would be detectable in exactly the ways we seem to be detecting them, and no other ways? I don’t think it’s extraordinary to believe that. (Note: One may argue that they would either fully reveal themselves or perfectly hide themselves, and that this in-between approach makes no sense — but I would say that trying to guess the precise agenda and capabilities of these hypothetical and truly alien visitors would be an exercise in futility, and besides, one can imagine a reasonable explanation: e.g., a gradual revelation deemed to be less traumatic to society than a sudden overturning of our entire paradigm.)
If one assumes that interstellar travel is cheap and easy, then your postulate is reasonable enough.
Although, to be fair, your guess as to why the “gradual revelation” is not a satisfying explanation. Logic is the same no matter where you were born. If there are ET visitors, they must have a reason for avoiding most people and evading any detection or recording instrument, while at the same time keeping themselves imperfectly hidden from a very few witnesses (and don’t give me that crap about professional pilots being trained observers – they are human and therefore just as fallible as everyone else; moreover, they are less familiar with the night sky than most amateur astronomers). It should be possible to draw up a credible shortlist of possible reasons.
So, is the ET visitation hypothesis ACTUALLY “extraordinary” when one can conceive of a series of plausible facts that might bring this scenario about?
Actually, yes, it is still extraordinary, because you would force us to assume that it is possible to make interstellar travel both cheap enough and easy enough for routine use. There is no basis for this assumption.
The truth is, we have no reliable way to assess the plausibility or implausibility of the ET visitation hypothesis because it would require knowledge of so many other facts about our universe that we simply do not have.
Maybe so, if one wanted to make one’s assessment perfect. However, we can make an assessment based on what we do know at this time, and that assessment tells us that your hypothetical scenario is implausible.
So it may seem “extraordinary” but may in fact be perfectly plausible, or even probable.
No. Based on our existing knowledge, it is implausible.
Now consider the viability of this hypothesis in light of the fact that we have many events (those detailed in Kean’s book, for example) for which ALL OTHER explanations have been methodically and conclusively ruled out.
Kean may think he has methodically ruled out all iother explanations, but the data will not support ruling out someone simply believing they saw something that was other than what they perceived (for example, if you see three lights moving in formation against a dark sky, your mind is quite capable of filling in a non-existent shape between those lights).
Kean ignores the fallability of human perception and assumes that all eyewitness accounts are equally plausible.
So, no I do not accept that all other explanations have been ruled out. And you are foolish to do so. The data do not support a firm conclusion one way or the other. Therefore, we must rely on reason. Is it more reasonable to assume that people are often mistaken about what they saw or that aliens are visiting our planet but choose not to reveal themselves?
I know which seems more reasonable to me. It is also the parsimonious option.
It seems silly to rule out the ET hypothesis based on little more than our own current limited knowledge of the universe (or, more to the point, what we’ve grown accustomed to believing) when it’s actually the only plausible hypothesis left.
(A) Technically, your hypothesis is not ruled out, since all knowledge is, in principle, provisional. It is, however, the last on the list of options.
(B) Our current knowledge of the universe is at least a good approximation of the truth. If it were not, we would already know.
(C) No, it is not plausible, unless you assume that improved tech will make Einstein’s absolute speed limit go away, or that it will some day be possible to command more power at the touch of a button than the sun will emit in its lifetime.
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