Contrasts: SETI & UFOlogy


UFO proponents who wish to claim an air of scientific legitimacy, or on the other hand perhaps as a sort of tu-quoque argument, will often compare UFOlogy with the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program. It seems to me that they are vastly different, hardly comparable. Any attempt to compare them is a false analogy.

First, the questions they ask are logically distinct, for where SETI basically asks “Is there intelligent life elsewhere in the universe?,” and answers this with “Perhaps,” UFO ‘experts’ ask “Are we being visited by intelligent life from elsewhere in the universe?,” and tend to answer this with an unequivocal “Yes!” The tentative thinking of the one, and the certitude of thought of the other alone is enough to set them apart.

SETI doesn’t presume the existence of aliens, it merely concedes that they are possible, and probable, unlike UFOlogists who presuppose the existence, and in a further logical leap, the visitation of Earth, of and by intelligent beings from other worlds as a given by definition.

SETI, unlike most UFO organizations, employs a rigorous approach to evidence, and upon the reception of any seemingly anomalous signals from space, first attempts to eliminate and isolate as many conventional sources of random noise and signal aberrations as are then conceivable, before accounting for all and even then, do not rush to declare to the media the announcement of alien contact, employing multiple independent confirmations and cross-checking before making a statement.

After all, if alien intelligence were a certainty, why look? A good example of the process, with some fictional liberties in the details of the technology, is described in Carl Sagan’s novel Contact, which describes it better than I can go into here.

This is in stark contrast with many UFOlogists, who not only express a certainty of the existence of ETIs, but unequivocally declare that they are already here, that impending evidence to reveal The Truth™ of the alien presence by the governments of the world is ‘just around the corner.’ They’ve been saying that for decades now, conspiratorial claims and all.

This, in spite of what we have good reason to think we know at present of the size and age of the universe, the evolution of life on Earth, and the limits on interstellar, much less intergalactic, travel imposed by distance and currently understood physical laws, the hazards of even near-light velocity travel.

SETI is science, using probabilistic thinking, scientific methodology, and logic, employing an extremely high bar for evidence, for the stakes of the discovery of alien intelligence would be high, and would have a monumental impact on human society. If they are to confirm such contact, they must make sure that no mistakes are made, because the world is watching.

UFO mythology, on the other hand, is pseudoscience, declaring as a given alien visitation and employing at times near-nonexistent standards of evidence, conspiracy theories, logical fallacies, and otherwise unscientific reasoning. It is also a pronounced failure of the human imagination. And this is supplemented by a naive, sometimes callous, disregard for the human fallibilities of even the most dependable eyewitnesses and the anecdotal testimony they relate, not realizing that a mountain of crappy evidence is still crap.

Mind you, I’m not anti-alien, and as a science-fiction fan I would be delighted if we made such contact. But if it comes down to either declaring alien visitation every time there’s an odd light in the sky, or using science and reason to confirm genuine extraterrestrial contact beyond a reasonable doubt, I’ll opt for the latter, thank you very much.

(Republished. Last Update: 2019/3/30)