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Between Believerism & Debunkerism - A Rational Excluded Middle

In recent correspondence with a more skeptically-inclined journalist, who's written for (among other publications) Scientific American, I had the occasion to articulate what I personally think is a reasonable middle ground regarding UAP as a valid object of serious scientific and scholarly study. I try to articulate a standpoint that does

not necessarily need to retreat to the standpoint of "bracketing" the reality question - as good scholars often do when studying objectively the question of how human beings have engaged with these puzzling phenomena and made meaning of their encounters. "Bracketing" is in a sense the default position adopted in historical, social, political, and other scholarly approaches in the humanities. It is a kind of conventional approach to phenomena that seem to challenge conventional thinking - or at least inspire unconventionality in some who would study it closely. I have adopted a position of critical challenge to even this conventionality in academic treatments of UAP, arguing that we must be prepared to engage not only with the 'meaning' question (from the safety of the "bracketing" move, which affords us a stance of ontological or even empirical neutrality regarding the nature of UAP), but also with the 'reality' question. But how can we do this and escape the dialectic of 'believer' v. 'skeptic' or 'debunker'? In my correspondence with this journalist, I have attempted to articulate programmatically my answer to this challenge.

What follows is the substance of my position articulated in a recent email exchange. It has been slightly edited, and enhanced for clarity of exposition.


Dear ...,

Thanks for sharing your analytical/opinion piece. I certainly don't take your view, although I certainly appreciate that there is a significant (perhaps prominent) dimension of quackery, delusion and incompetence surrounding UAP qua myth. However, there is myth, and then there are the phenomena around which the myths arise. The two are not the same: UAP become mythical because of our epistemic limitations, and our peculiar (all-too-human) psychological needs; but this doesn't entail that, therefore, UAP are nothing but myth -- which seems to be your thesis.

My question, which is perhaps the question, is: when factoring out the nonsense and peeling back the layers of myth(ology), what's left? As I've said (following many others who are careful here), there remains a core -- what I call the "recalcitrant residuum" -- of cases for which there are few rational options in terms of satisfying conventional explanations. Indeed, for this small subset, conventional accounts aren't compelling, on balance. In this connection we could mention Nimitz, the Coyne helicopter incident; the Chicago O'Hare sighting; the Trans-en-Provence landing case; and several more (Bullard 2010 provides a nice resume of such cases in his excellent introduction to the book). These cases are bizarre, and don't readily admit a conventional explanation; yet, the evidence such as it is doesn't supply us with what's needed for a decisive positive thesis regarding what these phenomena really were - we simply can't definitively say.

But this is what I like about the French tradition of UAP investigation coming out of CNES and the aerospace community here [I am currently visiting Toulouse and meeting with some members of GEIPAN]: they don't jump to conclusions for which the evidence is not strictly decisive -- they acknowledge the weaknesses of the evidence as it is (which is only forensic in nature) -- but they also aren't willing to posit just any explanation, simply because it's conventional, or consistent with our (normative) explanatory expectations. This, then, is a position of strategic agnosticism regarding a positive thesis explaining what these recalcitrant UAP are, while simultaneously acknowledging the insufficiency of the standard menu of conventional explanations (misperception, hoax, radar spoofing or instrument error, etc.) for a certain subset of all UAP incidents we have on record. This is exactly my position. And, as the Galileo Project has argued in print now, these recalcitrant cases motivate the strict, empirical investigation of these phenomena, with the "recalcitrant residuum" (those compelling cases resistant to conventional explanations) providing a detailed strategic indication of where, and more importantly of how (i.e., with what instrumentation, and according to what calibrations) to look for UAP. But are we allowed to look through the telescope, as it were (to gesture towards Galileo's own dilemma)? This is where ideology and social pressures, which are extrinsic to the inner goal of science (which is discovery of truth independent of all social, historical and ideological considerations), get in the way of finding real understanding...

I accept that there is more nonsense and quackery than good work being done -- but the good work needs to be done, or else we won't know how to resolve any given UAP incident, and we'll be stuck in the fruitless and uninteresting dialectic of "believer" or "proponent" v. "skeptic" or "debunker". And by the way we should note parenthetically that there will be no universal explanation for all UAP, of course. This demands that there be a sustained effort to study UAP, with separate academic and government institutional efforts established to address the issue rigorously, using established epistemic and evidentiary norms. Failing that, we must as concerned scholars show what acceptable rational but alternative norms are needed here if the subject requires something new which current empirical frameworks can't provide. (Case in point: the scientific study of human cognition or consciousness arguably requires a more expansive empirical framework, which scholars have been debating for a few decades now. And this more expansive but empirically rigorous framework might then connect with the stranger, more subjective or 'psychical' aspects of some UAP encounters.)

Given the fact that not much really good (i.e., rigorously and conventionally empirical) work has been done on UAP because of the stigma attached to it, as I've said before this sets up the following circular reasoning, which is rampant in the believer/skeptic (pseudo) debate: UAP aren't studied seriously by the scientific community because UAP aren't taken seriously (they're all seen as either hoax, misperception, etc. - more 'myth' than 'reality'); but UAP aren't taken seriously because they aren't being studied seriously by the scientific community! Matt Szydagis (of UAPx) has recently made this point quite clearly and pointedly (he's not the only one of course); I therefore call it the "Szydagis Paradox". But what does one expect when the very fact that a serious scientist -- like Matt or Kevin Knuth, etc. -- would tackle the UAP question without immediately being skeptical, is itself taken as being suspicious, or as grounds for thinking that that scientist has gone off the rails? Again, if no one can study these phenomena because no one is allowed to, due to stigma, then we have the Paradox, and we're stuck in the tautologous logic of dismissal, proponent-ism, debunkerism, ... and so on. (Indeed, you've entered the realm not of science but of dogma.) Rinse and repeat, and you have no progress for nine decades now. We should note in passing that Aristotelianism, married to Roman Catholic theological orthodoxy, lasted for almost a millennium and a half before the New Scientists of the 16th and 17th centuries challenged its science decisively, and could therefore make progress in new domains of the study of nature (so perhaps nine decades is, I suppose, pretty mild, historically speaking.)

In any case, I hope that these reflections, as prolix as they might be, are useful for you and are in any case consistent with what I've been trying to articulate in dialogue with you over the last several months. I really do appreciate the tenacity with which you attempt to unmask the chicanery and charlatanism (and sloppy reasoning) that haunts the discourse and study of UAP, but I also hope that I've been able to show you that there is a kind of third option between the proponent/skeptic impasse, which is "strategic agnosticism" -- a position that actually makes room for a rigorously empirical but non-conventional set of alternative explanatory possibilities that are nonetheless still "scientific".

Key here for "strategic agnosticism" is the ability to recognize when (and sometimes that) conventional explanations fail (or are otherwise uncompelling on balance), but for which no alternative (positive account) is evidently decisive. If convention fails, but no alternative can be offered that is decisive vis-a-vie the evidence, this should lead to an open agnosticism that admits as rational and not implausible the possibility (rather than the actuality) of nonhuman technology as being what some UAP are. The agnosticism becomes strategic because once non-conventional possibilities are countenanced, a strategy must be suggested whereby these non-conventional hypotheses could be tested. Testing of hypotheses, and working in a hypothetical space of empirical considerations, is precisely what the sciences are expert in doing. The humanities become relevant precisely because of the character of at least one non-conventional explanation for what some UAP are: nonhuman technology (of some unknown kind). First, we have to ask: what's required to establish this as the best explanation (again for at least some UAP)? Second, we have to ask the following hypothetical question: supposing that some UAP are nonhuman tech, then what is the best way to study them? It is this latter question that implicates the humanities directly into the (hypothetical) study of UAP, since there are a number of disciplines devoted to the question of how best to study objects that are potential subjects in their own right (and a technology is indirectly subjective, since you'd be studying not a strictly "natural" phenomenon, but a phenomenon that represents an intelligent grasp of some - perhaps unknown - principles of nature sufficient to produce the technology under study). Such a study would not strictly be the purview of physics, or chemistry, (or any of the purely "physical" sciences) for example, but could be construed in terms of a social science, or even in anthropological terms (which is a discipline that studies human cultures and cultural artefacts: objects that are really collections of subjects, or the things produced by them).

If only from a purely intellectual freedom standpoint, academics should have (and be afforded) the liberty to explore these hypothetical questions, as a propaedeutic to a potential resolution of some UAP in favor of the nonhuman tech possibility. But not all UAP are going to be so resolvable. UAP constitute a complex class of phenomena, not a singular phenomenon amenable to one universal explanation (but this is ultimately an empirical question). Perhaps some UAP constitute a class of truly new phenomena of nature, or (more speculatively) suggest a critical reconsideration of the natural/artificial divide altogether. Given the puzzling nature of UAP, as scholars we should be prepared to rigorously consider a range of non-conventional possibilities, being sensitive to the need for empirical discipline even as we enter a speculative realm (and here I have advocated for the critical philosophy of a thinker like Immanuel Kant, as a guiding light in the darkness).

As intellectuals, I think it's our duty to see that we seek indeed to distinguish quackery from serious scholarly study (or empirical research), and make sure that we establish a safe space for the free exploration of ideas which evidently challenge convention -- without that intellectual exploration slipping into the realm of undisciplined speculative abandon, or deluded believerism. It's a fine line sometimes, but I think there is a line to be drawn...

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