UC Irvine Strategic Ignorance and Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Response

Question Description

11 or 12 point Times New Roman or Calibri font only


One-inch margins on all sides

Numbered pages in upper right corner

Proper Citations Required (You may use footnotes, endnotes, and in-text citations)

Your name, course number, and date on a separate cover sheet.

Separate works cited page

(Response papers that do not meet these guidelines will be penalized)


This paper should not merely be a summary of the reading itself. Rather, the paper will be graded based on the following inclusions:

  1. An overview of the author’s main arguments (Approximately 3 or more pages)
  2. What overall argument is the author making? What specific examples does the author focus on in the reading?
  3. How is this argument being made? (e.g., What kind of data is being used by the author to support her argument?)
  4. How does this argument support or refute arguments made by other authors in the section?
  1. Your personal critical response to the reading (Approximately 2 pages)
  2. What, if anything, do you find convincing about the argument being made?
  3. What problems and/or oversights do you see in the reading?
  4. What, specifically, do you think this article contributes to broader discussions of the topic?

Your essay should include:

1) an introductory paragraph providing a general overview (preview) of the main body of your essay and your conclusions

2) main body (summary and critical response)

3) concluding paragraph

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Astropolitics The International Journal of Space Politics & Policy ISSN: 1477-7622 (Print) 1557-2943 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/fast20 Strategic Ignorance and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence: Critiquing the Discursive Segregation of UFOs from Scientific Inquiry Adam Dodd To cite this article: Adam Dodd (2018) Strategic Ignorance and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence: Critiquing the Discursive Segregation of UFOs from Scientific Inquiry, Astropolitics, 16:1, 75-95, DOI: 10.1080/14777622.2018.1433409 To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/14777622.2018.1433409 Published online: 08 Mar 2018. Submit your article to this journal Article views: 308 View related articles View Crossmark data Full Terms & Conditions of access and use can be found at https://www.tandfonline.com/action/journalInformation?journalCode=fast20 ASTROPOLITICS 2018, VOL. 16, NO. 1, 75–95 https://doi.org/10.1080/14777622.2018.1433409 RESEARCH VIEWPOINT Strategic Ignorance and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence: Critiquing the Discursive Segregation of UFOs from Scientific Inquiry Adam Dodd School of Communication and Arts, The University of Queensland, St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia ABSTRACT Since the late 1940s, a tenacious disconnect between popular interest and professional disinterest in unidentified flying objects (UFOs) has typified the controversy surrounding the subject. Numerous high-profile scientists have seen the topic of UFOs as an opportunity to denounce and rectify a popular, yet allegedly misguided, conviction—that some UFOs are physical anomalies indicating the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence—and thus to advance the explanatory authority of science. Rather than constituting rigorous, informed, and effective assessments, however, the ways in which many prominent scientists publicly address the UFO question often exemplify both the problematic “boundary-work” of scientific discourse in this area and, more specifically, the role that logical fallacies can play in the rhetorical construction of scientific authority in public domains. Through a critical discourse analysis, this article argues that ignorance of UFO phenomena is socially and discursively constructed in ways that are conducive to the public faces of individuals and institutions. More broadly, it suggests that the rudimentary standard of science communication attending to the extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) hypothesis for UFOs inhibits public understanding of science, dissuades academic inquiry within the physical and social sciences, and undermines progressive space policy initiatives. On 27 February 2008, Stephen Hawking, arguably the world’s most recognizable scientist, remotely delivered a talk titled “Questioning the Universe” to the TED2008 Conference in Monterey, California. The video-linked presentation was filmed and uploaded to the TED web site, where it has since received over 8,800,000 hits, and added to TED’s YouTube channel, where it has received over 5,800,000 hits. In line with TED2008’s theme of “The Big Questions,” Hawking’s lecture addresses some fundamental cosmological quandaries, largely for the benefit of a lay audience: Where did we come from? How did the universe come into being? Are we alone in the universe? Is there alien life out there? What is the future of the human race? In doing so, it takes place within a tradition of public engagement with such questions, CONTACT Adam Dodd Lucia QLD 4072, Australia © 2018 Taylor & Francis a.dodd@uq.edu.au Level 6, Michie Building (9), The University of Queensland, St 76 A. DODD perhaps most famously exemplified by the late Carl Sagan, and especially his PBS documentary series, Cosmos. Hawking’s TED address includes an account of the unidentified flying object (UFO) phenomenon, offered as part of a broader response to the question of whether human beings are “alone” in the universe. It is an interesting account not because of what it tells us about the UFO phenomenon per se, but for what it reveals about Hawking’s public position on the subject of UFOs. Rather than reflecting what could be called a strictly scientific engagement with the subject—one oriented by a critically informed perspective grounded in first-hand research and/or reference to the research of qualified peers—Hawking’s publicly presented views seem fundamentally shaped by “common sense,” as if drawn from widely distributed stereotypical, folkloric, and popular cultural portrayals. In this, Hawking’s position aligns with that of a number of his most eminent contemporaries, some of whom are also discussed below. Since it is generally acceptable for scientists to not address the subject of UFOs when speaking to the question of whether humans are alone in the universe, it is somewhat unusual that Hawking would choose to do so. What is less unusual, though no less interesting, is that this is a subject Hawking raises and dismisses in around 60 seconds, constituting little more than a brief, mildly humorous digression from his “serious” discussion of the big questions listed earlier. The subject of UFOs is effectively raised by Hawking to be dismissed. On the other hand, we don’t seem to have been visited by aliens. I am discounting the reports of UFOs. Why would they appear only to cranks and weirdoes? If there is a government conspiracy to suppress the reports and keep for itself the scientific knowledge the aliens bring, it seems to have been a singularly ineffective policy so far. Furthermore, despite an extensive search by the SETI [Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence] project, we haven’t heard any alien television quiz shows. This probably indicates that there are no alien civilizations at our stage of development within a radius of a few hundred light years. Issuing an insurance policy against abduction by aliens seems a pretty safe bet.1 In this passage, which provides the framework for the following analysis, Hawking subjects the relationship of science and the UFO to what Hilgartner has termed an “appropriate simplification,” understood as “a necessary [albeit low status] educational activity of simplifying science for nonspecialists.”2 Structurally, Hawking’s treatment is a complex and effective rhetorical dismissal because of, not despite, its brevity. Overall, it seeks to assure the audience of an extended non sequitur: since UFO reports cannot be taken as indications of extraterrestrial intelligence, UFOs do not represent anything anomalous, and therefore, the subject of UFOs does not fall within the field of scientific interest. ASTROPOLITICS 77 Although polling has shown that, at least in the United States, about half of the population believes that extraterrestrials have visited the Earth,3 the dominant view within the scientific community is that such beliefs are fundamentally erroneous, and tantamount to belief in the supernatural. The disparity between the popular belief that UFOs exist and the scientific knowledge that they do not would at least partly account for Hawking’s decision to speak on the subject, and the ongoing rift between “scientists” and UFO “believers” has been recently examined by Eghigian.4 Although no individual or institution can claim an explanatory monopoly on the subject of UFOs, Hawking’s version arguably represents something of a special case; it is a version received by approximately 14,000,000 viewers from one of the world’s most authoritative, accomplished, and admired contemporary scientists. Delivered from the quasi-academic and comparatively well-respected TED platform, its influence upon public opinion—as an example of how to regard UFOs scientifically—has presumably been extensive, despite the apparent persistence of the belief that some UFOs are alien spacecraft. Given that the figure of the UFO evidently continues to constitute something of an epistemological and ontological controversy for science, closely examining how scientists publicly articulate their position on this subject can reveal how the controversy is itself continually arbitrated through acts of communication and, specifically, through contemporary scientific discourse intended for a lay audience. Poaching the subtitle of Steven Shapin’s anthology, Never Pure, it makes sense to consider scientists’ public statements about UFOs “as if they were produced by people with bodies, situated in time, space, culture, and society, and struggling for credibility and authority.”5 When it comes to the discursive aspects of this struggle, as Hilgartner has observed, “scientific experts enjoy great flexibility in public discourse… when it suits their purposes, they can issue simplified representations for broader audiences…. On the other hand, scientists at all times can draw on the notion of “distortion” to discredit publicly-available representations.”6 Along with Hilgartner’s “appropriate simplification,” Thomas Gieryn’s concept of “boundary-work”7 has been extensively adopted in the sociology of science; it is concerned with the methodological construction of “a social boundary that distinguishes some intellectual activities as “‘non-science.’”8 However, neither of these concepts has been considered in the specific case of public scientific discourse about the UFO controversy—despite global public interest in the topic spanning seven decades—and scholarship on the social construction of knowledge, and ignorance, of UFOs remains scarce. In order to address this deficit, I consider how the construction of UFOs as a “non-phenomenon” results from cumulative, discursive acts of marginalization, the kind of boundary-work identified by Gieryn as expulsion or purification. We may think of non-knowledge of UFOs in this sense as a result of coordinated, “strategic ignorance.”9 The article sequentially attends 78 A. DODD to each of the six sentences that together comprise Hawking’s TED statement about UFOs, discusses how they function rhetorically, identifies their logical fallacies, and examines the extent to which they can be understood in relation to wider, culturally contingent debates about the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence and its interaction, or lack thereof, with the Earth. In doing so, the article brings together a sample of public statements made over a 30-year period by various high-profile scientists, considering them as performative utterances conducive to the maintenance of what Goffman termed “face:” “an image of self delineated in terms of approved social attributes—albeit an image others may share, as when a person makes a good showing for his profession or religion by making a good showing for himself.” 10 For Goffman, the maintenance of face was typical of everyday social interaction, and by no means exclusive to high-profile public figures. However, it follows that those with very public “faces,” such as career professionals in elevated positions of trust and authority, generally have more at stake in the doing of “facework” than others. Following Hilgartner’s11 analysis of expert advice as public drama, an approach oriented by Goffman’s dramaturgical perspective, I interpret scientists’ public statements about UFOs as performative; that is, as statements assisting stage-bound and self-conscious demonstrations of how to regard UFOs scientifically, delivered before an audience. When publicly addressing the subject of UFOs—a subject qualifying as a potential face threat, should one be seen to endorse it—scientists often shift their footing in a departure from the principles of sagacity, objectivity, and curiosity that are usually seen as characterizing their profession. Although these principles may be regarded as part of the so-called “mystique of science,” it remains the case that this shift in footing, evident in published orations and print, rarely results in a “loss of face,” nor in a “poor showing” for the scientific profession. Rather, it seems typically to maintain the face, and hence, the reputation, of the scientist and their profession by reaffirming the boundary of science. Drawing also from recent work on the social construction of ignorance, or “agnotology,”12 the article suggests that in cases where scientists’ public statements about UFOs derive from logical fallacies and historical inaccuracies, both public and professional knowledge of the UFO subject is consequently hindered—that ignorance of the topic of UFOs is actively produced, rather than natural or inevitable. Before beginning the analysis, a few words on positionality are warranted. The topic of UFOs seems to exert a kind of magnetic tidal pull into “the world of the paranormal” at large, inviting superficial associations with a wide variety of other strange phenomena and outlandish claims, and making discrete focus unusually difficult. Indeed, Gallup polling routinely groups belief in UFOs together with belief in witches, haunted houses, telepathy, and astrology. A related difficulty is that those who are openly critical of the ASTROPOLITICS 79 overall scientific verdict on UFOs are often perceived prima facie to be irrationally promoting the reality of alien spacecraft, and perhaps by extension, the entire gamut of “the paranormal.” This being the case, it is crucial to emphasize here that this article does not argue for a particular interpretation of UFO phenomena, which remain, by definition, unidentified. Rather than dealing with the ultimate ontological status of apparent anomalies, the article critically examines how and why astronomers, cosmologists, and physicists rhetorically dismiss the subject of UFOs from the field of scientific inquiry, including their dismissal of the extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) hypothesis —the hypothesis that some UFOs may signify the existence of extraterrestrial, nonhuman intelligence. “We don’t seem to have been visited by aliens” Hawking begins his dismissal of UFOs with a logical fallacy—specifically, an “argument from ignorance.” The apparent absence of evidence for alien visitation is offered as being practically synonymous with its actual absence —that is, in this special case, an absence of evidence does constitute evidence of absence. Crucially, to support his claim that we do not seem to have been visited by aliens, Hawking exclusively evokes a particular kind of alien visitation: overt contact. While overt contact, the kind of messianic “big event” most frequently presented in Hollywood feature films about alien visitation, would certainly provide the so-called “extraordinary evidence” often demanded from proponents of the ETI hypothesis, its false equivalence with alien visitation permits a range of anthropocentric and unworkable evidentiary requirements, perhaps the most hackneyed of which is: “If the aliens are here, why don’t they land on the White House lawn?” Facing the question of alien visitation from a perspective that privileges overt contact at the exclusion of other, subtler, more elusive, or even more likely forms of visitation essentially places its adherents in the awkward, interminable position of waiting for a Hollywood version of the UFO phenomenon to manifest before the UFO phenomenon can itself be accepted as indicative of extraterrestrial intelligence. Although it is not evident from Hawking’s “appropriately simplified” address, the seemingly uncontroversial claim that we don’t seem to have been visited by aliens has been the subject of some debate among scientists. This debate gained considerable traction in the 1970s, in the wake of the U.S. Air-Force-funded Final Report on the Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects,13 though has since lost momentum and remains unresolved. Sturrock, for example, has observed that UFO reports provide an extensive base of empirical data, and that any discussion of ETI must acknowledge the existence of this data.14 Kuiper and Morris have suggested that alien visitation and interaction with the Earth, and its various inhabitants, could be 80 A. DODD effected “with no more attention from us than a UFO article or a missing person’s report,” and that “the possibilities that we are being ignored, avoided, or discreetly watched are logically possible.”15 This is a logical possibility also discussed by Sagan, who argued that “even with slow rates of technological advance, extraterrestrial civilizations substantially in our future will have technologies and laws of nature currently inaccessible to us, and will probably have minimal interest in communicating with us.”16 Ball posited that “extraterrestrial life may be almost ubiquitous” and that “the apparent failure of such life to interact with us may be understood in terms of the hypothesis that they have set us aside as part of a wilderness area or zoo.”17 Schwartzman contended that the apparent absence of extraterrestrials on Earth, despite the probable existence of what Bracewell termed a “Galactic Club”18 of advanced civilizations, “supports the view that we are under surveillance by extraterrestrial intelligence.”19 Hence, as numerous scientists have previously observed, although it may seem as if we have not been visited by aliens because no overt contact has been made, the mere absence of this particular kind of interaction is insufficient grounds for rejecting the possibility that visitation has in fact occurred. Hawking’s position here also appeals implicitly to the Fermi paradox: the apparent disparity between the number of extraterrestrial civilizations which statistically should exist, and the absence of evidence we have for those civilizations.20 Physicist Enrico Fermi had remarked, around 1950, that we should have ample evidence for such civilizations if they did in fact exist, perhaps even manifesting as our overt subjugation by technologically advanced interplanetary colonists.21 In other words, if they are indeed “out there,” then at least some of them should be coming here, and if that was happening, we would certainly know about it—it would seem as if we had been visited by aliens. The Fermi paradox remains a frequently deployed rebuttal to the claim that extraterrestrial civilizations are abundant throughout the galaxy, as also suggested by the Drake Equation, and thus serves as an argument against the ETI hypothesis for UFOs. Although it draws on the relatively benign assumption that alien civilizations would be very likely to engage in some kind of cosmic exploration if they were able to do so, it extends, more problematically, the anthropocentric assumption that the incessant urge to expand, intrude, and conquer, perhaps most saliently expressed by a small group of European nations, is both a natural, cosmic imperative and inevitably conducive to the development and interstellar activities of civilizations throughout the galaxy. Kuiper and Morris provide a clear example of this culturally contingent assumption: By referring to historical trends in human civilizations, we make the implicit but quite plausible assumption that all civilizations have, in principle, similar origins in the natural selection processes and that the behavior of organisms is thus determined in large part by natural forces which are similar everywhere.22 ASTROPOLITICS 81 This assumption is then developed further, along strictly anthropocentric lines: “given man’s historically proved urge to explore, expand, and colonize, we make the minimal assumption that this trend will not be halted or reversed at our present stage of development…. This tendency is extrapolated to be the same for all technological civilizations.”23 Human colonization, as a model for what is likely to occur thro …
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