Breaking Out of the Bubble

Breaking Out of the Bubble

 by Guest Blogger,
Tyler Kokjohn

41agyl5ktvl-_sx331_bo1204203200_A Review of
The UFO Phenomenon: Should I Believe?
by Dr. Robert Davis

Dr. Davis has taken on an extraordinarily challenging task; outlining the many and disparate elements linked to UFOs and providing a broad perspective on the issues surrounding them.  The literature of ufology is vast, but he manages to condense each area into cogent summaries.  His writing is clear and concise and he has carefully referenced his sources.  A thoughtfully crafted, thoroughly edited product, this book offers some of the background and controversies of each topic from a somewhat neutral and mostly scientific perspective.  Dr. Davis is explicit he remains agnostic as to whether currently inexplicable UFO events reveal the activities of a non-human intelligence.  Consistent with this stance, he examines the topic in a manner that will provide readers some appreciation for the controversies that plague the field.

One of the most interesting things Dr. Davis does is to combine his overviews with insightful assessments of the situations.  Convinced a fundamentally more scientific approach and formally organized governance of the new efforts are the way forward, he offers specific recommendations for future work to improve understanding.

Ufology has fallen far behind the times and bringing new-found information to the fore should be a priority effort.  Although farsighted, Dr. Davis failed to escape the bubble that has suffocated ufology.  Insular and hostile to criticism this field collapsed into scientific stasis a long time ago.  As long as investigators remain reluctant to accept the verdict of data, acknowledge the implications when it is conspicuously absent or even gauge its overall reliability, they will continue circling the same ground endlessly.  Unfortunately, Dr. Davis overlooked some critical developments such as the Innocence Project and offers readers  scant detail on revolutionary new DNA analysis technologies.  These interrelated topics pose a substantial challenge to ufology and failing to address them adequately is a major oversight.

The Innocence Project (1) has upended the justice system completely by using DNA evidence to exonerate persons convicted of serious crimes.  These efforts have forced a fundamental reconsideration of the accuracy and reliability of eyewitness testimony.  How far can such evidence be trusted?  In his book, How UFOs Conquered the World, David Clarke describes experiments which reveal eyewitnesses may produce accounts that differ from actual events (“Purple Lights and March Foolishness” chapter).  These findings – relatively new and not-so-new – pose a significant challenge to the field and have never been integrated into the canon of ufology.

A failure to exploit new scientific advances may have contributed to the persistence of hypotheses in an absence of corroborating evidence.  The prime example is alien abduction investigation which is now more akin to a literary genre than scientific research.  Several investigators have issued specific claims that are potentially verifiable through genetic testing.  Uncorroborated accounts of missing pregnancies, breeders, hybrids and more have been published and presented at meetings for years.  The means to validate the claims have existed for years and still no one can deliver the genetic evidence or simply provide samples for independent analyses to prove them.  Suggesting investigators document the validity of alien hybrid babies is a weak call-to-action that simply ignores the obvious failures and apparent refusals to conduct truly scientific investigations.  Alien abduction writers have no incentive to get off the amazing stories treadmill until their books stop selling.  Life in a bubble has been good for their business.

Scientific progress hinges on integrating new developments that open up new vistas and opportunities.  Scientists and physicians have leaped on new DNA analysis and sequencing technologies to employ them in new situations.  The pace of advancement is furious.  In contrast, ufology abduction writers have been clinging to the same clearly problematic investigation methods for decades.  This sad situation has not been appreciated within ufology although a number of investigators, authors and experiencers including Jack Brewer, Philip Klass, Kevin Randle, Carol Rainey, Jeff Ritzmann, Jim Schnabel, Jeremy Vaeni, Emma Woods and more have published devastating critiques of the methods and conclusions of abduction researchers.

Perhaps the UFO experience is like Plato’s Cave where we play the role of prisoners imputing motivations and deducing ‘facts’ from shadows cast on walls.  The ambiguous nature of the phenomena may have enabled the non-human intelligence narrative to endure in an otherwise unsympathetic environment.  Ignoring contradictory information and methodological challenges has kept unsubstantiated ideas alive far beyond their scientifically productive lifespans.  Dr. Davis has provided some background material and suggested approaches that may help some readers decide if UFOs have any deeper significance.  However, the scientific community abandoned UFO study half a century ago and nothing that has come forward since then has altered the consensus.  Unless new ideas penetrate and new ways of conducting research take hold, ufology will remain voluntarily imprisoned in a static void.

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Fake News In Perspective

Fake News In Perspective

By Guest Blogger,
Tyler Kokjohn, Ph.D.

image-1What is fake news?  A simple question that is not so easy to answer.  The extreme forms featuring outright fabrications can be identified quickly, but some stories are far more difficult to categorize.  Because true and false information can be blended together easily and harnessed to serve a variety of goals, fake news in one form or another has been around for quite a while.

A recent article featuring thoughts from a writer who reports on such matters suggests “the origins of ‘fake news’ go back to the 1950s when UFO newsletters from organizations like the Aerial Phenomenon Research Organization reported on alien abductions and government coverups.” Jumping from UFO groups to radio programs and beyond produces a simple straight line extrapolation leading to Breitbart News.

The UFO community has experienced quite directly the negative impacts of fake news.  Charlatans and hoaxers have prospered on fertile grounds while poisoning progress toward meaningful comprehension of the phenomena.  Misinformation and deliberate disinformation have agitated leaders and the rank-and-file alike.  Unable to establish much of anything in the way of reliable, agreed-on fact, the community has devolved into small profit center fiefdoms.

Ufology has been plagued by fake news from without and within, but that device certainly did not originate in UFO interest group newsletters.  To make such a claim is to ignore a great body of history that reveals forms of fake news have been with us for centuries.  ‘Yellow’ journalism helped drive the United States into war with Spain over a century ago as publishers William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer tried to out sensationalize each other’s news stories.  Edward Bernays wrote the book on the dark aspects of propaganda – ‘engineering public consent’- nearly 25 years before Coral and Jim Lorenzen founded APRO.  Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense, published in 1776, pushed the American colonies on the path to independence.

Fake news may be purpose built, but it can also come about through journalistic carelessness.  Experts consenting to interviews must take care to provide informed perspectives and interviewers/authors may wish to vet the assertions carefully.  It seems possible that Long John Nebel might have influenced Art Bell, but what evidence is there that chain extends forward through persons like Rush Limbaugh and beyond?  Maybe it is just as valid to postulate later day radio personalities were influenced by Harry Emerson Fosdick and the many evangelists of the airwaves who followed him.  Lacking corroboration these statements seem more akin to a conspiracy theory than an evidenced explanation of the history of fake news.

The take home lesson is clear; fake news is pervasive, some of it may not be intentional.  Manage it by honing your critical thinking skills.

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Do Lawyers Dream of Shocking Sensitivity?

Do Lawyers Dream of Shocking Sensitivity?

by Guest Blogger,
Tyler Kokjohn, Ph.D. 

labScientists are developing sensitive devices to reveal DNA or proteins from genetically engineered organisms in complex environmental samples (1).  This technology may give investigators an unprecedented ability to track engineered genes and their protein products through ecosystems.  Genetically modified (GM) Bt-corn plants express toxin genes originating from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis that kill certain insect pests.  Although widely adopted, assessing the environmental effects of Bt-corn agriculture has been challenging.  An ability to trail toxin genes and proteins flowing through the environment might help ecologists detect any consequential impacts linked with Bt-corn farming.  Because the new genetically engineered product detection devices will be adaptable to many situations, they might become a standard part of both risk assessment and compliance assurance processes.

chickensThe management of GM farming operations can be complicated undertakings demanding proactive actions to minimize the unintentional dispersal of modified plants or their products such as pollen (2).  Despite the efforts, GM farms and ‘organic’ food growers sometimes coexist under tense conditions.  Concerns over spreading GM materials have already induced neighboring organic food producers to launch lawsuits alleging economic losses due to contamination (2).  The deployment of new, highly sensitive detection tools could turn out to be a double-edged sword that renews concerns over product purity.  Let’s assume the new detection systems reach the scientist’s stated goal of revealing 3 copies of a specific target DNA molecule in a one milliliter liquid sample (1).  Would finding that level of GM DNA in or on a certified organic food item mean it is impure?  The problem may be that highly sensitive analysis methods might reveal GM materials are widely dispersed in our environment in places we never dreamed they would be and do not want them.

The emerging situation might be similar to what we face with radioactivity.  Consumers would reasonably reject food products they knew to be radioactive.  It might seem to be a simple matter to issue regulations forbidding the sale of all radioactive foods.  The problem is that if the appropriate detection tools are sensitive enough they will reveal that all food items are slightly radioactive due to the universal, low-level presence of carbon-14.  That forces regulators addressing such issues to craft rules with care and precision.

It will be scientifically important to use new, sensitive detection tools to confirm how far things like Bt toxins are now flowing quietly through our environment and establish valid thresholds to justify any future actions taken to protect ecosystems.  However, it will be interesting to see what happens if someone tests their free range chicken and finds Bt toxin DNA all over it.  Notwithstanding legal judgements regarding the safety of GM products, consumer concerns or outright refusal to purchase items they deem contaminated could create economic havoc for organic food producers.

GM foods have a contentious history and a sensitive new analytic technology is now advancing rapidly in a regulatory vacuum.  This might turn out to be a lawyer’s dream come true.

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(1)   http://news.rice.edu/2016/10/10/eco-detector-will-hunt-gmos-that-escape-to-environment/
(2)   https://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2015/11/23/myth-busting-contamination-gmo-farms-halo-effect-often-protects-organic-farms/