Unidentified Random Thoughts

Matt Lowry

On the first day of the New Year an article was published in the Chicago Tribune about an event that took place at the Chicago O'Hare Airport late last year. According to observers, on the evening of Nov. 7 they saw what has been variously described as a "flying saucer-like object", like a "Frisbee", and that it "made no noise" as it seemingly hovered at roughly 1900 feet in altitude.

Further, witnesses claimed that the object was dark gray, anywhere from 6 to 24 feet in diameter, and hovered over the airport for several minutes before silently "bolting" up through the cloud deck.

So what was it? What was this mysterious object that so confused, frightened, and fascinated so many people?

One worker who saw the event stated, "I tend to be scientific by nature, and I don't understand why aliens would hover over a busy airport." Another stated that as a result they "experienced some religious issues". The media had a field day with the story during a slow news cycle in the opening days of 2007, and the general consensus was that the phenomenon was something otherworldly in origin. At least, that was the implication.

Meanwhile, other explanations include the possibility that it was some kind of freakish atmospheric phenomena, a secret military craft, or even a stray weather balloon. But for many people, the conclusion that it was none other than an alien spacecraft is just too tempting an idea to discount.

Why is it that so many people are all-too-willing to, on the basis of incomplete or scant evidence, draw the conclusion that such things are, by default, extra-terrestrial visitors from another planet?

To explore the flaws in such thinking, we must first revisit the definition of the term "UFO". A UFO is, by definition, an Unidentified Flying Object. This means that, quite simply, we do not know what it is - it doesn't mean that it's a bird, weather balloon, alien spacecraft, or even Santa Claus. It means that we lack enough information to state that we know what it is. Plain and simple.

But this area of uncertainty is where the alien spacecraft advocates insert their questionable logic. Usually, the argument goes something like this: "Well, it couldn't be anything else but an alien ship!" Right?

Wrong. Such an erroneous argument is sometimes called the "argument from ignorance" or the "god-of-the-gaps", and it is a very common mistake in reasoning. Times too innumerable to count have shown us the errors of this form of reasoning. For example, we often see it employed in court cases when the main argument for trying a suspect for murder is not the preponderance of evidence showing they did kill in cold blood, but the too oft-repeated refrain: "It couldn't have been anyone else!"

In the past, strange & unexplained phenomena were often explained in explicitly religious terms via the "god-of-the-gaps". In humanity's ignorance, lightning was attributed to the moods of powerful deities such as Thor or Zeus, and other seemingly "miraculous" events were said to be the work of angels, demons, or God.

In modern times, what seems to have changed is not so much our faulty reasoning, but the bogeymen we tap in an attempt to explain our ignorance. Rather than explain what we don't know by making appeals to the blatantly supernatural (deities, angels, or leprechauns), more of us are using a new pseudo-religion of "UFOology" to explain the unknown as aliens in their ships with advanced technology. Perhaps when discussing UFOs, we should speak not of the "god-of-the-gaps" argument but "alien-of-the-gaps" instead.

In exploring the universe around us, it is important that we employ a healthy balance of wonder & skepticism. Perhaps there are intelligent aliens out there (I'd like to think so), but wanting it to be true doesn't make it so. Better to wait until there is solid evidence.

So what's the best response when confronted with something that we don't understand, such as a funny object in the night sky? In the absence of any definitive evidence, the best answer is simply to state the most obvious truth: "We don't know."

For some reason, those three words are very unsettling to many, but the acknowledgement of what we do not know is often the first step to attaining new knowledge.

And sometimes that's how the greatest discoveries are made.

Ad Astra - Matt Lowry

Published in the April 2007 issue of the NightTimes