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John Prytz (John Prytz)
Carl Sagan’s Philosophy On UFOs: Some Discussion

Many a well-known scientist, because they are well known, often have to venture outside of their area of expertise when say interviewed or pontificating within a broader arena of which their speciality is just a tiny niche. As such, they are on far shakier ground and thus subject to rebuttal by others who are more knowledgeable in that other part of that broader arena than the famous scientist in question. One prime example is the late astronomer Carl Sagan waxing lyrical about but out of his depth on the subject of UFOs.

The following commentaries are on a trilogy of YouTube videos featuring the late astronomer and science populariser Carl Sagan on the subject of UFOs. While these clips doesn't limit his philosophy on the subject, anyone reading this can easily access the videos relative to finding his books or articles which would be more time intensive. His videos should reflect his points of view as expressed in other forms of media.


With respect to UFOs, in Dr. Sagan’s favour, he admits that advanced extraterrestrial technological civilizations could be vastly more advanced than our own and therefore he doesn't deny the possibility that extraterrestrials could have or could be visiting Earth. In fact, he’s on record, do to his interest in extraterrestrial life, that he would be delighted if UFOs = Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH), except that there is no actual evidence linking the two, or so he claims.

But against that grain that he believes that there are highly advanced technological alien civilizations out there, he frequently reinforces that lack of evidence claim that connects UFOs and those highly advanced technological alien civilizations. In that analysis he makes a cardinal scientific boo-boo (IMHO) by making one of his oft repeated and therefore trademark statements that “Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence”. UFOs that equate to alien spaceships is an extraordinary claim according to Dr. Sagan. So Dr. Sagan demands extraordinary evidence from those making such extraordinary claims.

That seems on the surface to be reasonable, but, if I claim my best friend from high school is sitting on the couch in my living room – that’s an ordinary claim. If I claim a little green ‘man’ from Mars is sitting on the couch in my living room – that, according to Dr. Sagan is an extraordinary claim. Yet, the exact same amount of evidence will confirm or refute either claim equally. That’s why it’s a really significant cardinal scientific boo-boo. The word ‘extraordinary’ is in the emotional mind of the beholder and isn't a hardcore scientifically valid concept, unlike the word “claim”. However, Dr. Sagan frequently also uses the phrase that’s there “no compelling evidence” (i.e. that UFOs = ETH). That suggests that Dr. Sagan feels there must be at least some evidence, just not compelling evidence, which he acknowledges. In any event, Dr. Sagan should have taken note of another profound saying that “absence of evidence does not of necessity translate into evidence of absence”.

CARL SAGAN 1966 INTERVIEWED ABOUT UFOs [Interview With Walter Cronkite]:

* Commuting Issues: Dr. Sagan doesn't apparently have any problem in accepting an alien spacecraft arriving in our local neck of the woods, say once every 10,000 years or so. That’s pretty much in keeping with the Fermi Paradox which notes that the time it takes an advanced technological civilization with interstellar space-faring capability to cross interstellar space and hence explore every nook and cranny of our galaxy is but a small fraction of the age of our galaxy. This is akin to saying that the time it takes the human species to explore every nook and cranny of Planet Earth is just a tiny fraction of the age of Planet Earth.

Okay, that’s fine. However Dr. Sagan has a decided problem with aliens from a distant star system visiting our local neck of the woods two or three times a day, which is the case according to “flying saucer cultists”. And admittedly, it’s a bit of a stretch to think a fleet of extraterrestrial UFOs would travel dozens of light years back-and-forth between say Sirius and Sol every day. Except that argument shows a high of illogical thinking in the extreme. Would an astronomer like Dr. Sagan commute back-and-forth every day between Cornell University (New York) to a telescopic site in say Chile, every day-in-and-day-out for weeks on end? - Of course not. He would undergo one long-distance hop-skip-and-jump (Cornell to Chile), set up camp at appropriate facilities cheek-by-jowl with the telescopic site and commute daily the relatively tiny distance between his camp site or hotel or other accommodation and the telescope; two or three times a day even as necessary. When finished, he would then return back to Cornell.

And thus, so logical might suggest, would aliens from Sirius, having travelled light years to Earth, set up camp (say on the Moon) and do their now short distance exploration thing for whatever duration required and when finished, return home. You have your two or three UFO visits a day without the issue of an illogical light years daily commute.

* Contactees: For the bulk of the interview, Dr. Sagan expounded on the extreme fringe elements of the UFO phenomenon, the Contactees. Contactees are those quasi-religious cultists who claim to have been contacted and befriended by the ‘Space Brothers’, quasi-Nordic or quasi-angelic types of extraterrestrials who give forth cosmic wisdom and give rides in their Flying Saucers on tours of the solar system and their home planets like Venus to the fortunate few Contactees found to be in the good graces of said ‘Space Brothers’. It’s all very akin to New Age philosophy and spiritualism, and Dr. Sagan concludes therefore that the entire UFO field is just a quasi-religious one revolving around the myths spun by the Contactees with ultimately as much solid evidence as there is for anything mythological or religious, which is for all practical purposes, zero. It’s all psychology and theology, not physical science. Now I have little issue with Dr. Sagan giving the verbal middle finger to the extreme fringe elements within the UFO field, except that he by implication and association paints with as broad a brush as you can imagine possible the entire UFO field and UFO investigators as equally part of the lunatic fringe. There was absolutely zero mention of all the solid UFO cases that remained UFO cases after investigation by the United States Air Force and other equally hardcore no nonsense organisations and individuals. That, IMHO, is absolutely an exercise in intellectually dishonesty by focusing on the extremists and ignoring the middle of the road. It’s like bucketing the entire Republican Party via some association of theirs with the Tea Party even though many, even most Republicans aren't part of the Tea Party movement. It’s called guilt by association. But just because Michele Bachmann, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Ted Cruz, Bryan Fischer, Cindy Jacobs, Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum and Pat Robertson (to name just a few on the extreme religious right and/or extreme political right) are a few nickels and a dime short of a dollar doesn't mean your local congressman or local clergy, pastor, padre, priest or rabbi, etc. is.

* Terminology: As an interesting aside, I note that Dr. Sagan used exclusively the put-down or mocking or deriding phrase “flying saucers” or “saucers” in the interview. He did not use the more neutral term “UFOs” or the equally neutral phrase “unidentified flying objects” even though these were coined way more than a decade before 1966 and were in common usage. Dr. Sagan was clearly in ridicule mode, something rather unbecoming for a professional scientist IMHO.

Dr. Sagan, were he alive today, should be absolutely and totally ashamed of that interview.


* Close Encounters of the Third Kind: One YouTube video focuses on the “Cosmos” segment that featured the Betty and Barney Hill Close Encounter of the Third Kind (CE3K). There are a few bones to pick with Dr. Sagan’s overriding commentary while a re-enactment was shown, but at least this time around he does use the term “UFOs” and the phrase “unidentified flying object”.

Firstly, he makes much of the point, several times over, that we have only their word that they saw a UFO and alien beings all close up and personal – as if a mature-aged but interracial couple (this is 1961 remember) would invent such a horrific experience drawing unnecessary attention to themselves. In fact their story didn't become public until years later so there was no immediate cashing in on their story for financial gain (not that Dr. Sagan implied that – he didn't. I'm just noting or saying there was no financial incentive for the Hill’s story). Dr. Sagan later notes that “their word” was also recorded while Betty and Barney Hill were separate and apart put under hypnosis and under the direction of a professional psychiatrist. That IMHO, enhances the credibility of “their word”.

Further, this was the first American case of a CE3K (one earlier foreign case was unknown outside of specialist circles) making an invention out of whole cloth by Betty and Barney Hill rather unlikely since there was no general public perception at the time that there even was such a thing as a CE3K or abductions by little grey aliens.

Several times in this segment Dr. Sagan goes back to variations on his “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” philosophy. He then details the ‘extraordinary evidence’ for the Hill’s CE3K, which he cites as the Betty Hill ‘Star Map’, a map the aliens showed her and her alone with lines connecting some of the stars representing alien ‘trade routes’, etc. Dr. Sagan then explains in way more detail than was necessary why the ‘Star Map’ was not extraordinary evidence.

That is one point I do agree with Dr. Sagan on and that’s with respect to the degree of evidence Betty Hill’s ‘Star Map’ provides. I’m not saying the ‘Star Map’ isn't evidence, or isn't a bona-fide ‘artefact’ of the CE3K, just that numerous dot points drawn at random can be made to match, given the vastness of space and the numbers of stars out there, with some specific number of them, and that lines connecting the dots can be drawn in vastly numerous ways. It’s interesting, but as evidence, far less proof, it’s meaningless.

Dr. Sagan says there is no collaborating evidence (apart from the ‘Star Map’) which is not quite true since the Hill’s vehicle had strange and unaccounted for markings and magnetic anomalies which Dr. Sagan fails to mention.

* Photographs: Dr. Sagan also comments on UFOs photographs noting how many look like hubcaps and how photos can be faked. There was no mention of UFO photographs (and motion pictures) that have passed muster when examined and analysed by experts in photographic techniques, optics, etc. He does correctly suggest that just because there is an unidentified light in the sky, photographed or otherwise, doesn't make it automatically an alien spaceship.


* Roswell: Dr. Sagan’s Mistake Number One was that the stuff that fell or crashed near Roswell in July 1947 wasn't collected by “Air Force” personnel. The Air Force hadn't yet been established as a separate branch of the US defence establishment. In July 1947 it was still the “Army Air Force”.

Dr. Sagan swallowed hook line and sinker the idea that photographs of the Roswell debris made publicly available a day or so after the fact but roughly at the time showed the actual bona-fide debris that was collected, a comment immediately following his acknowledgement that the debris was according to the military just a weather balloon (see next entry)! My comment here is that if an intelligence officer of the then Army Air Force couldn't tell the difference between a crashed metallic disc and the materials from a common weather balloon, well, translated into our times, such military incompetence suggests America might as well surrender to North Korea now and be done with it.

Dr. Sagan then parrots the most recent (of several) now USAF explanations for Roswell, a top secret balloon operation to detect clandestine Soviet nuclear testing. I have to note that even if that were the case, it was the purpose of the balloon that was top secret, not the materials it was constructed out of. There was no reason not to call a spade (a balloon) a spade (a balloon) from the get-go instead of a crashed disc. There is really no wriggle room here. It’s on the public record that the Roswell debris was first described as a crashed metallic disc and not as a balloon, secret or otherwise.

* Generalities: Following on from Roswell, Dr. Sagan does quite correctly note the “U” in “UFO” stands for “unidentified” and one shouldn’t therefore leap to a conclusion that unidentified equal’s alien spaceship. He notes, also quite correctly that the bulk of UFO reports end up having prosaic explanations. But then he screws up by saying that only if you can’t identify the UFO sighting in question can you then start thinking outside of the box as in aliens and the ETH. However, Dr. Sagan doesn't acknowledge that there are UFOs that remain UFOs after having been put under the investigative microscope, and that therefore, the extraterrestrial hypothesis is a valid one.

Of course Dr. Sagan’s love of the word “evidence” or phrase “extraordinary evidence” comes into play again and again in this YouTube segment.

As noted in the beginning, it’s interesting that another common thread in Dr. Sagan’s comments is that he sincerely believes that not only is there a strong probability of extraterrestrial life, but highly technologically advanced alien civilizations exist that are millions of years in advance of our own with technologies we can’t even begin to comprehend. Yet he just can’t seem to make that leap that therefore UFOs could be the very evidence that would validate his scientific judgement or opinion or expectation. He goes out of his way to downplay the possibility and accents the negative instead of embracing the possibility and advocating serious study of the issue.