Validity of Truth-Claims: Distinguishing Fact from Fiction

© Copyright 2002, by Timothy Conway, Ph.D.
[Note: I wrote the following on how to assess the validity of truth-claims as one of several handouts for a course I taught on UFOs, of all things, a topic which I approached not merely for its rather interesting content but more importantly as an exercise in critical thinking. I had long been asked to teach a course on ufology by certain students of my many other courses in deep spirituality, comparative religion, saints and sages, transpersonal psychology, etc., at the Santa Barbara City College's nationally renown Adult Education department. Whereas I consider the latter subjects far more important than ufology, it's interesting to note that the ufology course I taught at SBCC was one of the most heavily attended of all my courses.

The basic principles outlined in the following essay obviously can be applied to other areas of inquiry, such as parapsychology investigations of psi (ESP/PK), claims of wonder drugs/herbs purveyed by mainstream or alternative health advocates, questions as to what really happened on 9/11 or what really happened in the assassinations of JFK/RFK/MLK, etc.]

Validity of Truth-Claims: Distinguishing Fact from Fiction

It is crucial, when addressing the topic of anomalies or “unsolved mysteries” like UFOs, miracle-healing claims, ideas about whether “Jesus did/said----,” “What really happened on 9/11,” and so forth, to deal with matters of epistemology—e.g., “how do we know what we claim to know”? What is the validity of truth-claims being made?

Hence, we must learn to carefully distinguish among the following:

1) Fact.
2) Strong likelihood.
3) Plausible possibility.
4) Implausible conjecture or fantasy.

1) Fact: something empirically evident through reliable detection equipment or accepted sensory modes (sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell) that can be ruled out as a perceptual illusion and, ideally, also mutually verified by two or more perceivers. This last criterion, verifiability, distinguishes what we might call "subjective fact" and "objective fact."

To illustrate: if in broad daylight you were to see an unusual object maneuvering in the sky with strange lights and apparent metallic structure, the only fact of the situation is that you are seeing an unusual object. It could be a bonafide UFO, that is, an unidentified flying object—i.e., not a weather phenomenon, a balloon, a plane or rocket, military laser project, etc. But until these latter phenomena are ruled out, all you can say is that you saw an unusual object, not a genuine UFO--i.e., a flying object not identifiable as known human-engineered objects or natural phenomena (Venus, ball lightning, temperature inversions, earthlights), in other words, an alien spacecraft and/or interdimensional object.

If someone comes up to you and tells you that they saw an alien spacecraft hovering and zipping about in the sky, the UFO’s reality is not (yet) factual; what is factual is that someone is telling you that they saw a UFO. If another person unknown to your first interlocutor were to approach you a few minutes later and tell you that she saw a UFO, and it manifested identical characteristics as reported by the first person, then you have a second fact—namely, yet another person is reporting having seen a UFO. Put the two facts together, and there is a strong likelihood that the two independent persons saw the same object. If the two of them were highly expert witnesses, e.g., aviation or meteorology experts, and each of them described the object as having identical anomalous features, there is the further strong likelihood that they saw a genuine UFO.

If one of these witnesses shot a photo or a video of the anomalous UFO, the fact of the situation is that you have a photo or a video of a purported UFO—it is a plausible possibility, not a fact, that this is an image of an alien-guided spacecraft. The true fact of the situation may be that the person has hoaxed an image of a hubcap and passed it off as an alien spacecraft flying in the sky (as many dishonest persons have, in fact, done in the past).

If the object is shown in a video showing no signs of alteration by a computer graphics program (a matter which has, unfortunately, become impossible to prove in the last few years) behaving in a way that defies Newton’s laws of motion (e.g., moving at high speed from a fixed position or stopping on a dime or shape-shifting or instantly disappearing and reappearing), and such anomalous behavior has also been registered on nearby radar equipment by an adept operator, then there is the strong likelihood that this is neither a hoax nor a natural phenomenon but that these two reporters (and the radar operator) have either 1) witnessed breakthrough military technology unknown to aviation experts without sufficient “need to know” security clearance or 2) they have witnessed a genuine UFO guided by nonhuman agency. If the flying object clearly demonstrated paranormal, “interdimensional” behavior, or the object was associated with strange-looking four-foot-tall beings who defied Newton’s laws of gravity, there is far greater likelihood that one has seen an alien UFO, not human military equipment.

As for the idea of “proof”… In a court of law, one adjudicates a claim by trying to show “beyond reasonable doubt” the likelihood of something having happened. This is usually the best one can hope for, not “proof.” To say that something has been empirically “proved” means to have tested it by experiment to a degree of probability far beyond chance (best case: a controlled scientific experiment that disproves the null hypothesis), or to establish the truth of something by clearcut evidence or argument. In the case of UFOs, such proof is most difficult—nearly impossible—to come by. (Even something factual and amenable to scientific study—like a landing trace of bizarre electromagnetic radiation effects left on groundcover plants and soil, ostensibly from a temporarily landed spacecraft—could conceivably have been produced by above-top-secret military equipment, not by an alien craft.) Since photos and videos can now be easily doctored and faked, they “prove” nothing, unless the photographic film (or digital photo-file) or the videotape can be transferred directly and publicly to some kind of adjudicating person or group without the possibility of being altered in a photographic lab or computer lab.

2) Strong Likelihood or Probability: when all the empirical evidence and good theorizing points to a compelling conclusion, though complete certainty may still be lacking. This is usually “as good as it gets,” epistemologically speaking, when examining the assorted phenomena involved in ufology (and other fields like New Testament “historical Jesus” studies, investigation of witnessed miracles by holy persons, JFK/RFK/MLK assassination research, etc.). Nonetheless, one can sometimes draw conclusions that probably would hold up in a court of law before a jury of one’s peers.

3) Plausible Possibility: not straining belief, persuasive as something that could very well be true. For instance, fringe ufology circles promote tales of massive underground UFO bases in Nevada and Arizona, with aliens and humans interacting therein. Yet such a scenario is implausible because large subterranean bases would need massive logistical supplies of food and equipment, and supply vehicles (trucks, planes) would be visible above ground. Now, if there were a large (not small) military base above ground directly overhead or nearby, this would make the scenario more plausible, because vehicles could drop off supplies at the above-ground base, and these could then be transported by cargo elevators below.

4) Implausible Conjecture or Fantasy: speculation or tales that, upon careful reflection or examination are seen to be unpersuasive or baseless. When someone informs you: “God told me that the aliens are angels/demons/time travelers from our future”—there is no plausible empirical basis for this claim. (One would have to establish as fact that your source is validly in communication with the true Divine Being and that God actually did tell this person what they report God as having said.) The same lack of reliable basis holds when someone says: “I was abducted by aliens and they took me to their home planet at Zeta Reticuli.” One would need a) more evidence of actual abduction, b) evidence that abduction was done by aliens and not by covert USA military personnel, and c) evidence that this person was actually taken to a planet in Zeta Reticuli, not just subjected to some kind of hallucinatory experience by the aliens.

In all matters, try not to let your emotional needs or sympathy for a storyteller override your critical faculties for discernment, that is to say, your wits and good old common sense.