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CIA Finally Admits Existence of Area 51 — Let’s Talk Ad Hoc

Well, the United States’ most notorious non-secret secret has finally become just a boring non-secret non-secret.  The CIA (Central Intelligence Agency, for those who don’t live in the States) has released a report acknowledging the existence of Area 51, which for decades has been a favorite topic of conspiracy theorists who believe the site houses the Rolls Royces of alien spacecraft.  Unsurprisingly, the CIA report mentions nothing of alien spacecraft, but instead details the use of Area 51 as a testing site for an aerial surveillance program developed by the government during the Cold War.

I’m struggling to even call this a news item.  Everyone and their grandmother already knows about Area 51, and based on their propensity to believe in ufology, they already have their opinions on what it contained.  Skeptics could have told you years ago that the site was most likely used for the exact same purpose which is disclosed in this new CIA report, mainly because even that wasn’t really kept a secret–you can find information on the programs, known as U-2 and OXCART, all over the place.  And for those who truly believe in UFOs and their presence in Area 51, will they undergo a radical transformation of ideology in light of this report?

Doubtful.  Very doubtful.  But why not?  Because the UFO conspiracy theorists can simply maintain their beliefs as well as their false sense of rationality by utilizing a philosophical gambit proven to be a favorite amongst pseudoscientists: an ad hoc hypothesis.

For those who may not be familiar, an ad hoc hypothesis is a line of explanation simply tacked on to a theory for the transparent purpose of making that theory unfalsifiable.  If I claim to you that I have the power to shoot laser beams from my fingers, and you request that I prove this with an immediate demonstration, I could avoid the destruction of my claim by merely adding that my power only works if nobody is around to watch me. I would have successfully ad-hoc’d my way out of being revealed as a fraud.

Furthermore, these hypotheses often come in chains.  To continue with the above example, after hearing my first ad hoc hypothesis, you might then suggest that we set up a video camera in a room so that we can at least record me demonstrating my powers alone.  Ah, but I could then argue that a video camera would restrict my powers in the same way that direct human observation would, since I am aware that the ultimate purpose of the camera is to facilitate indirect human observation.  You might then suggest that I go into an empty room with no camera and use my powers on a dispensable item in the room so that you might see the results of the power; but I could then add that the laser beams don’t actually do damage to objects–they just look cool.

And so on.

In the case of Area 51, the most obvious ad hoc hypothesis for the ufologists to use is this: any information on Area 51 released by the government is unable to be trusted because the government would never freely admit to harboring alien spacecraft.  It’s that easy.  It’s not even new–conspiracy theorists are notorious for simply brushing away any government-provided evidence against their theories using this slippery hypothesis.  It’s why the Warren Commission Report, the 9/11 Commission Report, and any documents from the Apollo Program aren’t useful as tools for debunking conspiracy theories.  The conspiracy theorists will just continue to find some response to make their claims unfalsifiable.

This new report on Area 51 won’t play out any differently.  You won’t hear leaders of the ufology faction surrendering their causes on the basis of this evidence or any similar evidence in the future.  UFOs can always be invisible or undetectable by satellite or radar; they aliens can always have special powers to wipe your memory of any encounters or sightings; and the government can always have an agenda for making sure the citizens don’t know “the truth.”

There’s a Penn & Teller: Bullshit! episode on conspiracy theories in which a self-proclaimed conspiracy theorist begins one of his statements with “Nobody can convince me that…,” as he aims to exude intellectual skepticism on some generic governmental matter.  But Penn rightly labels this a “bullshit idea of skepticism,” asserting that “a real skeptic demands to be convinced with evidence.”  Yet that just simply won’t work for the conspiracy theorists, because the evidence for their ideas is just never there.  They will march on into their confirmation bias indefinitely, and the ad hoc hypothesis will always be one of their favorite tools.  Even if the hype on Area 51 eventually evaporates, they can always move on to Area 52.

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Hi, I'm an atheist named Christian. I'm a science-loving college student at the University of Rochester, currently focusing on Neuroscience. When I'm not engaged in academics, I'm almost certainly being lazy and watching shows/movies on my laptop or reading (on a good day). I have an undying admiration for Penn Jillette and Carl Sagan, which I indulge in by rewatching Bullshit! and Cosmos over and over again. My sibling interest to scientific skepticism is most definitely civil liberties, and I am constantly consolidating those interests in my head somehow. Talk to me!

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