… 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

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