We spent a day with the family at the 2007 edition of Fête de la science (a sort of national science day). We went to the Valrose campus in Nice, where many experiments and shows presented science in a way that was accessible to children and distracting to adults.

Among other things, there were:

  • Remains of various hominids on display, showing the progressive evolution
  • Robotics experiments
  • Mechanics experiments, like gyroscopes, balances
  • Optics experiments, with lasers going through various materials
  • A replica of Sputnik
  • Chemistry experiments, which attracted a number of people, notably with liquid nitrogen ice-cream (yum!)
  • Experimental psychology
  • Marine biology
  • Genetics and genetic engineering

I had a long discussion with members of the zetetics observatory. I don’t know how to define zetetics precisely, but let’s say that it’s a form of scientific skepticism, in the good sense of the term. A lot of what they do is debunk pseudo-science or low-quality science.

So naturally I started asking questions about UFOs and how one could address, in a scientific way, something which is by construction difficult to catch and relies entirely on witness reports (with all the associated sociological effects). This was a very interesting discussion, and he pointed me to a book, available on-line (but in French) which apparently demolishes the work of the GEIPAN. I did not find the studies of the GEIPAN too convincing, so I’m glad to hear that there is a more scientific and systematic verification of what they did, and apparently, it is not pretty (I did not read the book yet, it’s only hear-say at that point).

Unfortunately, zetetics will also tend to dismiss witness reports, for a simple reason. Between various explanations, they will always prefer an explanation that matches known laws. It turns out that this algorithm tends to select the option: “witness (or someone along the reporting line) is lying or at least distorting the observation”. This option is always valid, it obeys a known law. But I think this introduces a kind of methodological bias. I don’t know how to eliminate that bias. Do you?

Update: I started reading the book in question, and I got a very bad overall feeling about it. It is exactly what I talked about: the primary argument is casting doubt about the validity of the testimonies. This has some value, of course, but pointing that the work of someone studying a phenomenon is sloppy is easier than figuring out a non-sloppy way to do it.


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