… But You Won’t Find it That Way (Duvall and Wendt respond on Sovereignty and the UFO)

by Henry Farrell on August 4, 2008 · 5 comments

in International Relations

(Below is the text of a response that Bud Duvall and Alex Wendt have written to my previous post critiquing their article on sovereignty and the UFO. Beyond turning Word formatting into Textile, and adding a hyperlink, I haven’t edited the text at all. One of the nice things about blogs is that it is possible to have these kinds of argument in realtime rather than journal-time; outside events permitting, I’ll be posting a repy to the reply soon).

We write in response to Henry Farrell’s post of August 1, “The Truth is Out There,” regarding our recently published article in Political Theory, “Sovereignty and the UFO.” We welcome his critical but respectful engagement with our paper, and in the spirit of lively intellectual exchange for which this blog is known, we welcome equally the opportunity to respond in kind.

The fundamental question at stake in our paper is whether human beings know that UFOs are not ETs. To know, in a scientific sense, is to have solid empirical and/or theoretical grounds for rejecting the ET hypothesis. We argued that the current grounds for doing so are not even close to being epistemically satisfactory. Empirically the sustained and systematic inquiry that would be necessary to disprove the ET hypothesis has never been done; and theoretically the arguments adduced against its possibility are far too easily contested. That’s not to say UFO skeptics are wrong that UFOs are not ETs, but that human beings simply do not know. If this claim to human ignorance about UFOs is correct – and we are pretty confident that it is – then the puzzle that drives the paper is unavoidable. Namely, given the profound political ramifications of the possibility of aliens in the solar system, why haven’t the authorities tried seriously to find out, through procedures more rigorous and systematic than simply compiling reported sightings (if that)?

Farrell is “highly skeptical” that UFOs are ETs. Indeed on most days so are we; after all, the idea is mind-boggling. However, the question here is, is his skepticism warranted by good science – is it something he knows – or is it a claim to knowledge that in fact has no scientific warrant, and thus which he only believes? Our view is that no one knows what UFOs are. We are all in the domain of belief here, and nothing that Farrell offers so far on this score changes our agnosticism. He points to the poor quality of the UFO evidence overall, which is a given – but says nothing about the anomalous cases that have resisted explanation, which are the only cases that really matter. Fermi’s Paradox doesn’t help either, since the whole paradox is based on the assumption that “They” are not “Here,” which begs the very question at issue. Farrell undoubtedly has good reasons for his skepticism, but we see no basis for treating it as scientific knowledge as opposed to a personal belief like God.

We have said that human ignorance about UFOs is the most fundamental question at stake in the paper, because only if we are right about that is there a puzzle then to be explained (the state’s inaction). Judging from the comments on the Monkey Cage and other blogs in response to Farrell’s post many readers will not concede their ignorance, and as such are unable to take the paper seriously. We remain to be convinced by those who dismiss the existence of the puzzle, and indeed are tempted to interpret the haste and surety of the dismissals as evidence of the very taboo our article sets out to explain. However, to his credit Farrell gives us the benefit of the doubt and moves on to engage our solution to the puzzle as well. Here he makes three basic criticisms of our claim that the failure of modern states to seriously investigate UFOs stems from a metaphysical threat to anthropocentric sovereignty.

First, Farrell argues that the empirical evidence presented in the paper is inadequate to justify our explanatory claims. We fully agree; as a matter of social science, a thorough process tracing of causal mechanisms, or at least a genealogy, would be necessary before one could accept our explanation with confidence. Earlier versions of the paper in fact contained the beginnings of such a genealogy, but word limits and reviewers’ concerns that this section was too “sociological” for Political Theory, conspired to leave it on the editing room floor. However, our intent in the paper is not in any case to test our theory: it is to demonstrate the existence of an unacknowledged puzzle, and then, in the spirit of systematic theorization, offer what we think is a plausible solution to it. We recognize that our theory might be empirically wrong. But in that case what is the correct solution to the puzzle? We welcome Farrell’s thoughts on the matter.

Second, Farrell thinks that we neglect evidence that directly undermines our theory, namely the SETI program, which was funded for a few years by the U.S. government. However, Farrell assumes that the discovery of intelligent alien life by SETI would be “equally problematic for the notion of anthropocentric sovereignty” as the UFO ET. In fact, as we argue in the paper, with any ETs safely far away, success in SETI would pose no physical or ontological threat to anthropocentric sovereignty on Earth, both of which are necessary for the metaphysical threat to have political import. In this regard SETI’s commitment to looking for alien life only at a great distance, and strident opposition to UFO research, seems if anything only to reinforce the puzzle.

Finally, Farrell points out that there are lots of left-field claims that states do not study, and in most cases it is probably not because of anthropocentric sovereignty. Again we agree, but so what? Sure, it would be great to find “a single mechanism to explain this seeming regularity,” but what if there isn’t one – how does that bear on our hypothesis about the specific mechanism in the UFO case? Moreover, we would take strong issue with Farrell’s claim that the scientific evidence for other phenomena neglected by the state – he lists prayer, astrology, and Scientology – is “at least as good” as that about UFOs. To our knowledge none of these leaves radar tracks in F-16 gun sights.

A compelling critique of our theory would identify significant empirical, theoretical, and/or logical problems with our argument about the anthropocentric structure of modern rule. Farrell provides a useful reminder that, in the absence of systematic empirical work the argument should be taken as unproven – a point we readily concede. However, his criticisms offer no grounds for thinking that it is wrong, while we offer an extensive theoretical rationale for why it just might be right.

In sum, we know from Farrell’s other work that he, too, is a “very smart guy.” Think harder Henry! After 5 drafts and 50 sets of written comments from other scholars, if our argument could be so easily dismissed we would have figured that out long ago, and certainly wouldn’t be putting this out in the public sphere now. You’ve written a critique of our paper as social science, which is fine; but in the process failed utterly to confront the larger political question – whether human beings really know that UFOs are not ETs, or just dogmatically believe it because of a commitment to anthropocentric metaphysics. And come on other, even more negative commentators – step up to the intellectual plate! By actually engaging (hell, try even reading!) the paper, rather than resorting to name calling based on just the abstract. In the end our theory may prove to be wrong, but the puzzle is far too consequential to be dismissed out of hand.

Raymond Duvall and Alexander Wendt


Walker August 4, 2008 at 5:34 pm

This is a GREAT debate. I’m still a bit uncertain (possibly on account of your prose, but also because I may simply be unfamiliar with the common currency of political-scientific debate) as to your arguments, but let me see if I can offer a few thoughts.

It seems to me that the two greatest arguments against UFO skepticism (as you outline above) are the empirical evidence that has accumulated over the years, as well as the mathematical probability of extraterrestrial life (Fermi paradox). As your reasoning goes, The combination of a universe this large and the sheer frequency of these unexplainable phenomena ought to undermine any strident skeptical argument against the possibility of extra terrestrial life.

Your tact against Henry is that you cannot see how extraterrestrial presences would undermine ‘anthropocentric’ sovereignty. At this point, we are entering the realm of science fiction, and it would do everyone involved a world of good to see that the two reasons above for disbelief in the skeptical argument do not add up to anything even close to a case for us to make arguments about what ‘anthropocentric sovereignty’ consists in, nevermind how it may be threatened.

That all aside, however, I think that a philosophical standpoint may be valuable. The Copernican revolution destroyed all theoretical notions that humans were the absolute center of the universe. I think that if we confront the reality of human phenomenological experience, however, the Ptolemaic view of the earth-as-center persists to a remarkable degree. A parallel might be seen in the lingering effect that Cartesian dualism continues to exert on human consciousness.

While I think that it is well and good to start with a definition of what it means to know something (having a ‘justified true belief’, say) and then from there to attempt an account of arguments for or against the existence of extraterrestrial life forms, I’m not so certain that our definition of ‘knowledge’ will pass muster, especially when confronted with the fact that the ‘nation state’ is not a faceless entity: it is composed of human beings, with irrational fears and cognitive dissonance forever blocking its ability to behave in a systematical manner that is in accord with our theories and conjecture.

But I digress into something resembling an altogether skeptical argument, so I’ll stop. Please continue on this string though, It’s by far one of the most interesting posts I’ve read on this blog.

ProfPTJ August 4, 2008 at 6:08 pm

The more I think about the Wendt/Duvall argument the more it seems to me that a) they’re probably right about anthropocentrism but b) they’re probably wrong about the mechanisms through which it operates. That modern sovereignty is anthropocentric is, I think, pretty unquestionable; indeed, modern culture as a whole is pretty dismissive of inhuman agencies of all sorts, be they God or Nature or what have you. Anthropocentrism looks like liberalism writ large, or perhaps better, the social product of a liberal set of practices for organizing social life and for producing particular kinds of individuals — individuals that have a heck of a time acknowledging the power of anything except other individuals.

So I don’t disagree at all that it’s an anthropocentric world; nor do I disagree that anthropocentrism is probably implicated, a little bit, in the absence of large-scale UFO research. Although I think the proximate commonplace involved in the UFO question is not anthropocentrism, but “science” — what prevents funding for UFO research, and astrological research, and parapsychological research, is the fact that these phenomena are not at the present time defined as being susceptible to scientific investigation. This is just speculation, but I’d suspect that this demarcation has more to do with the strenuous efforts of astrophysicists and exobiologists and planetary scientists to define what they do as “legitimate science”; these other things are convenient targets for the kind of scorn and ridicule that might help the more marginal scientific communities establish the legitimacy of their researches. Carl Sagan’s work deriding psuedoscience is full of just this kind of rhetorical move — and this from a scientist who was one of the most vocal proponents of SETI and other projects designed to make contact with alien life-forms. The two moments (celebration of the “science” of he and his colleagues, and derision of the “psuedoscience” of others) go hand-in-hand.

To the extent that anthropocentrism was directly implicated in the non-study of UFOs, I suspect we’d see references to “human interests” in debates about whether or not to fund UFO research. We certainly see such references in, say, debate about whether to fund expensive experiments in elementary particle physics, or manned space missions to the Moon or Mars, of basically any scientific research without immediate practical payoff. And “practical” in this sense means: of more or less immediate use to ordinary human beings. Not a lot of research funding for abstract mathematics until someone noticed that (e.g.) the theory of primes could be used to produce better codes; it’s the tie to contemporary run-of-the-mill humans that enables the grant money to flow.

And here we get to my methodological quibble: I am very skeptical about arguments that invoke deep-structural unobservable “functions” or “tendencies” or “contradictions” or whatever as ways of explaining manifest, observed phenomena. UFO research isn’t funded or taken seriously by most governments or most mainstream scientists: fact. But to conclude from that fact that there’s a deep inhibition against funding or appreciating such research strikes me as too far too fast. I’d be a lot more convinced by a specific history about the definition of the UFO phenomenon as lurking outside of the realm of legitimate scientific practice or investigation, one that might well involve the deployment of anthropocentric notions at key junctures (although my initial hunch is that it doesn’t — but I haven’t done the work, so I don’t know for sure). Along these lines, the suggestion that Wendt and Duvall make in footnote 11 — we should look more closely at the French and Soviet cases, because both regimes appear to have funded UFO research — makes eminent sense to me, since here we have examples in which we might actually see some discussion of the question of whether UFO research is legitimate or not, and hence we’d have an opportunity to actually see which commonplaces or cultural resources were being invoked. The frustrating thing about a lack of debate is that one never knows what is going on, because there’s no data!

In the absence of data, I think we’re in a necessarily speculative place that I am very cautious about entering, especially to make bold claims about the character of modern sovereignty. Kudos to Wendt and Duvall for entering where I fear to tread, since it provokes a debate that my methodological caution might inhibit.

Dubi Kanengisser August 4, 2008 at 10:34 pm

It’s all really quite simple. Governments don’t spend their money on research into UFOs because, frankly, they have better things to spend it on than little green men who traveled across galaxies to stick anal probes into hillbillies.
Why would ETs not reveal themselves to us? What possible use could they have to these fly-bys (barring Douglas Adams’ answer)?

Frankly, I don’t see why should we say governments are anthropocentric – their sapient-centric. If chimps develop language and are able to communicate, I doubt they’ll be denied rights for very long. I honestly can’t understand how the existence of ETs among us would harm anything about modern societies, or why anyone would be worried of the implications for our sovereignty.

(no, I haven’t read the paper. Like govt’s, I also have better things to do).

alex August 5, 2008 at 2:46 am

…there are lots of left-field claims that states do not study, and in most cases it is probably not because of anthropocentric sovereignty. Again we agree, but so what? Sure, it would be great to find “a single mechanism to explain this seeming regularity,” but what if there isn’t one

Here is a mechanism – when governments spend money investigating out-of-left-fields claims, they get criticized for wasting money. Indeed, SETI was almost cut because of such criticisms, and it took some heavy lifting from some big names to keep it going (click on link for more information).

Matt August 5, 2008 at 4:23 pm

Is there any way that one could read the Wendt-Duvall paper prior to the cutting of the geneological section?

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