Argument from ignorance

27 04 2010

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an excellent lecturer and public speaker. He is also a great advocate for science and rational thought.

At a PBS/NOVA-sponsored event, he answered a question regarding his belief in the existence of UFOs and extraterrestrial visitors. He began his response by reminding the audience what the “U” in “UFO” stands for and how humans, in a desperate need for answers, will fill in the blanks of our perceptions.

He was quite right in saying that humans are flawed information gatherers. We are forced to rely on precision instruments, repeated observations, the Scientific Method, and comparing observations with others to get a reliable picture of reality.

Perhaps we are not given to naturally processing information reliably, in favor of forming quick conclusions and quick reactions. An animal in the wild is not usually benefited by calm, slow, patient reasoning and analysis. In a life-and-death situations, an animal must react quickly to escape or fight and survive.

I do not blame people for seeing a mysterious light in the sky and instantly filling in all the banks with whatever happens to be on their minds. That is just the way the primal human mind works. However, it is within our power to stop that thought from reaching our lips and sit down and think about what we just saw. I do not know the exact numbers, if they exist, but the odds of seeing a genuine alien spacecraft or their occupants is far less likely than catching a glimpse of Venus or a meteor hitting the atmosphere.

While not an irrefutable piece of logic in scientific circles, Occam’s razor would seem to apply here. “The simplest solution is usually the correct one.”

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