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An unprecedented statement by current NASA Director and former Senator Bill Nelson. It is the most honest and forthright commentary to date on the UAP issue from a NASA Director, and perhaps the most thoughtful UAP-related statement ever made by a serving senior U.S. official: https://t.co/2RL4gBuCUD
— Christopher K. Mellon (@ChrisKMellon) October 23, 2021
And more on YouTube, for instance at 55:30.
You can read it here. I don’t think it clarifies much, other than to stress the multiple sources of sensor data for the observations and the inexplicability of some number of the sightings, well into triple digits. So you can put aside Mick West, PewdiePie, and the like. It is “real stuff” being measured, no matter how you might account for the observations, not just shaky camera movements and flocks of birds.
The report also makes clear how poorly funded and chaotic the investigation has been to date. That is hardly a surprise, but isn’t it about time we did something properly right off the bat?
I’ll fall back on my “sincerity is the most underrated political motive” view. I think our own government is genuinely puzzled, as I am, and as you should be. I would stress my earlier points that we don’t have many reliable intuitions to fall back upon for thinking through this problem.
I believe the governmental message will be: “We are not sure, so for reasons of national security we have to move forward assuming some of these devices are from foreign powers.” That will rather rapidly meld into “foreign powers.” In any case that will keep the issue alive. Furthermore, if it is our earthbound adversaries, at some point we will know this for sure, for reasons of intelligence or eventual public use of the devices, or our ability to construct the same. By the way, if you are convinced by the “adversaries” take, you should update lots of your views on foreign policy! (Will you? Will anyone?) America would have a lot more to be afraid of.
It is important to resist jumping to conclusions here, if only because doing so will dull your critical faculties on this issue. In any case I will continue to follow developments in this area.
What if they turn out to be “a thing”? Here is one excerpt, to be clear this is not the only view or possibility he is putting forward:
One immediate effect, I suspect, would be a collapse in public trust. Decades of U.F.O. reports and conspiracies would take on a different cast. Governments would be seen as having withheld a profound truth from the public, whether or not they actually did. We already live in an age of conspiracy theories. Now the guardrails would truly shatter, because if U.F.O.s were real, despite decades of dismissals, who would remain trusted to say anything else was false? Certainly not the academics who’d laughed them off as nonsense, or the governments who would now be seen as liars.
One lesson of the pandemic is that humanity’s desire for normalcy is an underrated force, and there is no single mistake as common to political analysis as the constant belief that this or that event will finally change everything. If so many can deny or downplay a disease that’s killed millions, dismissing some unusual debris would be trivial. “An awful lot of people would basically shrug and it’d be in the news for three days,” Adrian Tchaikovsky, the science fiction writer, told me. “You can’t just say, ‘still no understanding of alien thing!’ every day. An awful lot of people would be very keen on continuing with their lives and routines no matter what.”
Excellent column, do read the whole thing (NYT).
Robin Hanson has a long and very interesting blog post on that question. The point is not to argue that the UFOS are alien beings of some kind, but rather if they were which kinds of theories might help us understand them? Here is just part of Robin’s much longer take:
If the main block to believing in UFOs as aliens is a lack of a plausible enough social theory of aliens, then it seems a shame that almost no one who studies UFOs is a social science theorist. So as such a person, why don’t I step in and try to help? If we can find a more plausible social theory, we could become more willing to believe that UFOs are aliens…
Stylized fact #2: Aliens are rare and self-limited, and yet are here now.
Indirection – We can think of a number of plausible motives for rare limited aliens to make an exception to visit us. First, they may fear us as rivals, and so want to track us and stand ready to defend against us. Second, if their limitation policies are intentional, then they’d anticipate our possibly violating them, and so want to stand ready nearby to enforce their limitation policies on us.
In either of these two cases, aliens might want to show us their power, and even make explicit threats, to deter us from causing problems. And there’s the question of why they don’t just destroy us, instead of waiting around. Third, independent alien origins could be a rare valuable datapoint about far-more-capable aliens who they may fear eventually meeting. In this case they’d probably want to stay hidden longer.
My best bet is this. The vehicles would be “unmanned” drone probes, if only because the stresses of long trips through space would keep the actual alien beings close to home. So the relevant social science question is what kind of highly generalized software instructions you would give such drones. “Seek out major power sources, including nuclear, and seek out rapid flying objects, and then send information back home” would be one such set of instructions roughly compatible with the stylized facts on the ground (or in the air). Of course the information sent back to alien worlds will not be arriving for a very, very long time, so long that the concrete motives of the aliens may not be the major consideration. Collecting the information about other planets across some very long time frame might simply seem worthwhile, relative to the cheap cost of the drone probes. It reminds me a bit of that “put the DNA of all the species on the moon” project we have started, or those seed banks up in the Arctic. Why exactly did we do it? Why not I say!? And yet most humans do not even know those projects are going on.
A further generalized software instruction would be “if approached or confronted, run away fast.” Indeed that is what those flying vehicles seem to do.
The drone probes do not destroy us, because of Star Trek-like reasons: highly destructive species already have blown themselves up, leaving the relatively peaceful ones to send drones around. The drones probably are everywhere, in the galactic sense that is. Yet given the constraints imposed by the speed of light, it is difficult to do much with them that is very useful to the decision-makers that send (sent?) them out. So the relevant theory is one of how advanced civilizations allocate their surplus when there is a lot of discretion and not much in the way of within-lifetime costs and benefits to determine a very particular set of plans and goals. Not even for the grandkids.
In this hypothesis, of course, you have to be short immortality. And short usable wormholes.
By the way, don’t those photos of the drone probes make them look a bit like cheap crap? No tail fins, no “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” music signature, no 3-D holograms, just a superfast vehicle. Like something a second-rate alien non-profit picked up at the local Walmart and sent off into space en masse with solar-powered self-replication. Which is consistent with the view of them being a discretionary resource allocation stemming from projects with fairly fuzzy goals.
A problematic question for any theory is whether competing drone navies have come to visit us, and if so are they fighting over the spoils? Colluding? Hiding from each other? Or what? If aliens are afoot, why should it be only one group of them? That would seem strange, as in most things there are multitudes, at least speaking in Bayesian terms. Aren’t there at least both Klingon probes and Romulan probes, maybe Federation probes too.
Robin’s hypothesis, that they are elatively local panspermiacs, who feel some stake in us, appeals to me. Bayesian logic suggests in any case that the chance of us having resulted from panspermia is pretty high; there are lots of baby civilizations for each parent, so why deny you are probably a baby?
Perhaps our visitors are exercising some “mood affiliation” in wishing to visit and record us! They could be the parents, or perhaps another baby civilization.
Of course since the photos are of such poor quality, and since there is no corroborating evidence of any kind, these UFO sightings probably are not of alien creations, so all of this is pure fantasy anyway.
I thought I would give this segment its own post, again here is the audio, video, and transcript of my Conversation with John O. Brennan, head of the CIA for four years under President Obama:
BRENNAN: I’ve seen some of those videos from Navy pilots, and I must tell you that they are quite eyebrow-raising when you look at them. You try to ensure that you have as much data as possible in terms of visuals and also different types of maybe technical collection of sensors that you have at the time.
Also, I believe, it’s important to reach out into other environments and find out, were there any type of weather phenomena at that time that might have, in fact, created the appearance of the phenomenon that you’re looking at? Were there some things that were happening on the ground, or other types of phenomena that could help explain what seems to be quite a mystery as far as what is there?
I think an important thing for analysts to do is not to go into this type of challenge either discounting certain types of possibilities or believing in advance that it is likely X, Y, or Z. You really have to approach it with an open mind, but get as much data as possible and get as much expertise as possible brought to bear.
COWEN: At the end of all that sifting and interpreting, what do you think is the most likely hypothesis?
BRENNAN: [laughs] I don’t know. When people talk about it, is there other life besides what’s in the States, in the world, the globe? Life is defined in many different ways. I think it’s a bit presumptuous and arrogant for us to believe that there’s no other form of life anywhere in the entire universe. What that might be is subject to a lot of different views.
But I think some of the phenomena we’re going to be seeing continues to be unexplained and might, in fact, be some type of phenomenon that is the result of something that we don’t yet understand and that could involve some type of activity that some might say constitutes a different form of life.
The major reason I take UFO reports seriously is simply the “gradient” of other people who take them seriously — the people with the very highest security clearances! It is not just Brennan and Harry Reid, there are others too, namely people with the very highest level of security clearance who believe these issues deserve further investigation, and are not just weather phenomena, instrument mistakes, weather balloons, etc.
Let’s say the rest of the market was undervaluing the chance of UFOs being “something interesting.” What might be the proper trade? David S. emails me, and I will dispense with further indentation but what follows are his words not mine:
“Some potential food for thought:
– Going long volatility or long defense stocks seems like the most conventional answer.
– An even more conventional answer would be that it wouldn’t matter since any apocalypse means that even a correct bet is unlikely to have material redeemable value.
– Rather than framing the payout event as the binary of an actual UFO invasion, an alternative framing would be to bet on further government leaks causing the market to move it’s probability of invasion / apocalypse from 0.00% to 0.01%.
- Should you at least shorten the duration of your holdings on the margin? With interest rates near zero and record(-ish) high PE multiples, shouldn’t you be (marginally) less willing to pay for far-out cash flows? Could this finally fuel a resurgence of the value factor vs the growth factor?
- To take it a step further, should people consume more today and invest less given that the EV/NPV of these payouts will be somewhat lower?
- Other than high-dividend stocks and cash, what other trades are short-duration without going to zero if the apocalypse fails to arrive on time?
– My contrarian approach would be to go very long due to the underrated potential of technology transfer and overrated potential of apocalypse (especially in the near-term). For instance, if we found intelligent life on a planet like Mars (but less intelligent than humans), it would likely be decades between first contact and when humans would muster a military force to extinguish or fully dominate the other species (if ever). Also, based on the continued existence of thousands of species (many of which are flourishing) on earth in parallel with human existence, its not clear why we would assume that a more intelligent form of life that engages with humans would even try to extinguish. Per Steven Pinker, more intelligent species would likely also be more moral and therefore less likely to be focused on zero-sum extinction.”
TC again: Obviously many short positions would be in order. In terms of longs, my intuitions would be to buy a very diverse bundle of natural resources. Presumably the aliens have not brought many minerals with them, and they will need some minerals to do…whatever it is they plan on doing. Maybe lots of minerals. But you don’t know which ones.
He has more than just the usual hand-wringing, here is one excerpt:
…What’s the Occam’s razor explanation for these UFO sightings?
To me, the Occam’s razor explanation is ETs.
Here is another:
If some of these UFOs are the products of alien life, why haven’t they made their presence more explicit? If they wanted to remain undetected, they could, and yet they continually expose themselves in these semi-clandestine ways. Why?
That’s a very good question. Because you’re right, I think if they wanted to be completely secretive, they could. If they wanted to come out in the open, they could do that, too. My guess is that they have had a lot of experience with this in the past with civilizations at our stage. And they probably know that if they land on the White House lawn, there’ll be chaos and social breakdown. People will start shooting at them.
So I think what they’re doing is trying to get us used to the idea that they’re here with the hopes that we’ll figure it out ourselves, that we’ll go beyond the taboo and do the science. And then maybe we can absorb the knowledge that we’re not alone and our society won’t implode when we finally do have contact. That’s my theory, but who knows, right?
Here is the full piece, interesting and intelligent throughout.
That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:
Among my friends and acquaintances, the best predictor of how seriously they take the matter is whether they read science fiction in their youth. As you might expect, the science-fiction readers are willing to entertain the more outlandish possibilities. Even if these are not “little green men,” the idea that the Chinese or Russians have a craft that can track and outmaneuver the U.S. military is newsworthy in and of itself. So would be a secret U.S. craft, especially one unknown to military pilots.
The cynical view is that the science-fiction readers are a bit crazy and are trying to recapture the excitement of their youth by speculating about UFOs. Under this theory, they shouldn’t be taken any more seriously than Tolkien fans who wonder if orcs are hiding under the next stone.
The more positive view is that science-fiction readers are more willing to consider new ideas and practices. This kind of openness presumably is a good thing, at least in general, so why aren’t the opinions of more “open” observers accorded more respect? Science-fiction readers have long experience thinking about worlds that are very different from the current one, and perhaps that makes them more perceptive when something truly unusual does come along.
Some of the individuals who were early to see and point out Covid-19 risk, such as tech entrepreneur Balaji Srinivasan, also have taken the UFO reports seriously, perhaps due to the same flexibility of mind.
Do read the whole thing, the column does not excerpt easily.
Peter Leeson is posting over at Freakonomics on the econometrics of bigfoot and ufos, he finds that states with a lot of ufo sightings also have a lot of bigfoot sightings. Unfortunately, Leeson draws entirely wrong conclusions from his research. If he wants to explain his results, my young colleague needs to study the classics.
Discover Your Inner Economist has lots of great insights. But this one Tyler gets all wrong.
Small changes in incentives can make a big difference in our beliefs. For instance, UFO sightings are down dramatically in the last decade…I think [one factor is] cell phones and cell phone cameras.
"The spaceship was in a no-call dead zone. And you didn’t snap a picture?"
…The story is suddenly a little harder to swallow. Most of all, it is harder to fool oneself, not just one’s spouse and friends.
I mean really. Why jump to conclusions? OBVIOUSLY the aliens know we have cell phone cameras now.
Just as our technology for finding and understanding UFOs improved dramatically, the manifestations of UFOs dwindled away. Despite forty-plus years of alleged alien abductions, not one scrap of physical evidence supports the claim that mysterious visitors are conducting unholy experiments on hapless victims. The technology for sophisticated photograph analysis can be found in every PC in America, and yet, oddly, recent UFO pictures are rare. Cell phones and instant messaging could summon throngs of people to witness a paranormal event, and yet such paranormal events don’t seem to happen very often these days. For an allegedly real phenomenon, UFOs sure do a good job of acting like the imaginary friend of the true believers. How strange, that they should disappear just as we develop the ability to see them clearly. Or perhaps it isn’t so strange.
Here is more. I doubt if people have fewer delusions, so presumably they have moved into stories which cannot so easily be refuted. This would include delusions about the future (e.g., extreme forms of transhumanism?), delusions about politics, and delusions about religion. The demand for verification need not outrace the ever-powerful self-deception; "stamp the weasel" is never an easy game to win. And sometimes too much stamping is counterproductive. For all of the associated craziness, UFO delusions have been of a relatively harmless ilk. They made people skeptical about government, drew viewers to science fiction movies, and the policy implications of belief in aliens (appoint another ambassador?) were consistent with fiscal responsibility.
I was two days ago at Hereticon, and wondering which views actually should be considered heretical. It seems there are some distinct categories, for instance here are a few categories of the “partially heretical”:
1. Used to be heretical, or on the verge of switching.
Favoring gay marriage, or more on the border thinking that UFOs are of alien origin. The latter view is now presented with a straight face by former presidents and CIA heads, so it is not heretical any more. In polls, it is not even so unusual amongst the American public, though some elites will mock it and it remains outside of the mainstream.
2. It’s heretical to say but the actual idea is not heretical.
Presenting “eugenics” ideas is heretical, but talking about “dating” and “matchmaking” is not. Embryo selection is on the verge of not being heretical, if it ever was. Or talking about “the feminization of society” is modestly heretical, but believing women have a much greater cultural influence is not heretical at all. You just have to talk about it the right way.
3. The idea is not heretical globally.
But it might be heretical domestically, such as saying “the CCP is great.” Or “women should have their kids really young.” Those are a special category of heretical ideas, extremely common around the world, for better or worse, but still a no-no in some locales.
4. Popular views, but heretical with many elites.
Try “Darwin is wrong,” or “Facebook is fine.” How about “autocracy is good”? NB: In all of these discussions, I am not considering whether the belief is right or wrong.
Which would be a truly heretical belief that does not fall into these “partially heretical” categories? But it can’t be absurd either, for instance it is not “heretical” for me to believe I can jump one hundred feet in the air, rather it is simply stupid. I am also not looking for beliefs that offend or insult groups per se, as that is too easy. “Group X is crummy” is not interesting for my purposes.
Maybe here are a few outright heretical views, again noting that I am not endorsing them:
5. ESP works.
6. Whales are smarter than people and deeper thinkers too.
7. In fact you can trust Congress to do the right thing.
8. Ten percent inflation a year is just fine.
9. Fortunately America has so many guns that we couldn’t do very strict lockdowns for Covid.
10. It would be better if humans never had existed, as they have destroyed more welfare than they created. Most of all because of their effects on non-human animals.
11. Non-human animals suffer more than they enjoy, and it would be better if they did not exist.
12. American TV was much better in the 1960s and 1970s.
As measured by page views here are the most popular MR posts of 2021. Coming in at number 10 was Tyler’s post:
Lots of good material there and well worth revisiting. Number 9 was by myself:
TDS infected many people but as the Biden administration quickly discovered the problems were much deeper than the president, leading to revisionism especially on the failures of the CDC and the FDA. Much more could be written here but this was a good start.
Number 8 was Tyler’s post:
which asked some good questions about a bad plan.
Sadly this post, written by me in January of 2021, had everything exactly right–we bottomed out at the end of June/early July as predicted. But then Delta hit and things went to hell. Sooner or later the virus makes fools of us all.
One of my earlier pieces (written in Feb. 21) on fractional dosing. See also my later post A Half Dose of Moderna is More Effective Than a Full Dose of AstraZeneca. We have been slow, slow, slow. I hope for new results in 2022.
Listener’s took umbrage, perhaps even on Tyler’s behalf, at Srinivasan but Tyler comes away from every conversation having learned something and that makes him happy.
Still true. Still jaw-dropping.
I let loose on the Biden administration’s silly attacks on vaccine patents. Also still true. Note also that as my view predicts, Pfizer has made many licensing deals on Paxalovid which has a much simpler and easier to duplicate production process (albeit raw materials are still a problem.)
A very good post, if I don’t say so myself, on this year’s Nobel prize recipients, Card, Angrist and Imbens.
Who else but Tyler?
To round out the top ten I’d point to Tyler’s post John O. Brennan on UFOs which still seems underrated in importance even if p is very low.
Erza Klein’s profile of me still makes me laugh, “He’s become a thorn in the side of public health experts…more than one groaned when I mentioned his name.” Yet, even though published in April many of these same experts are now openly criticizing the FDA and the CDC in unprecedented ways.
UFOs going mainstream or Tabarrok’s view of the FDA going mainstream. I’m not sure which of these scenarios was more unlikely ex ante. Strange world.
Let us know your favorite MR posts in the comments.
3. Those newer (older?) service sector jobs: “Finding healthcare ‘soul-destroying,’ some turn to online sex work.”