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Conflating possible with probable

From time to time, I encounter individuals making an argument when they don’t really understand how statistics work. This happens most frequently in discussions about visits by E.T. aliens or the inappropriate uses of quantum mechanics. When a chain of events is required to occur before something can be witnessed, the resultant probability is the multiplication of all the individual probabilities. As a concrete example, let us say we buy a lottery ticket where the odds of winning the jackpot are 1 in a million. What are the chances of winning 2 jackpots if only 2 tickets are purchased? Answer: one in a million-million (i.e. one in a trillion). The odds of buying only 4 tickets and winning the jackpot 4 times: one in a trillion-trillion. At what point is it appropriate to say that’s impossible? If someone won 4 jackpots off 4 tickets purchased, there would be a corruption investigation, seeking to find out how the person was cheating. Someone is likely to go to prison even if no crime had been committed. I feel justified in saying: it’s possible, but it will never happen.

Similarly, there are a number of highly improbable conditions that must occur prior to any extraterrestrial civilization can be observed visiting Earth. Multiplying highly improbable by other highly improbables leads me to conclude that it has not happened, especially since there is no credible evidence Earth has been visited. While each condition is technically possible, it would be a big mistake to conclude that anything that is possible must have already happened. Such an outcome (actually being visited) is so improbable that I’m more likely to win either the MegaMillions or Power Ball jackpots ten times. I’m not going to hold my breath.

By TheAstroChuck8
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I must be very peculiar. As @icolan has commented, your post is well written. However, I have taken all this stuff for granted ever since I learned about it at high school nearly 50 years ago. It is also why I never gamble.

On the other hand, perhaps I needed to be reminded that this is not common knowledge.

irascible Level 8 Dec 29, 2018

I am at wits end. Well maybe not that bad, but I think I need to find a different hobby. Here's the thing, I am 80 and live in a retirement facility, don't like the term home. Anyway I am so damned bored here. I think about so many things it makes my brain sweat. I watched a talk on Ted Talk about quantum mechanics and it got me thinking about black holes and dark matter and a lot of other shit.There is no one here with the faculties to understand what the hell l am talking about so I need someone to talk with about my hypothesis.

Check for contact information for a university physics department, they should be able to put you in touch with someone, if they are local to you they may even be willing to come to you.


Everytime I hear about people claiming they saw UFO's, It always reminds me about Star Trek's Prime Directive.
If some alien lifeforms from a distant planet are able make it all the way here to Earth, if they don't want to be seen, how could apes with car keys like us could ever have a chance to see them?!
The universe is so wide, in my humble opinion, it's highly unlikely that we're alone in it. I find it rather plausible that aliens came to or are presently on Earth. But I think it's nearly impossible for any of us to see them.


Astute observation


Conflating possible with plausible (which is not necessarily probable).


There is metaphysical “possible”, meaning that it could happen under certain conditions. There is statistical “probability.” But in the realm of knowledge, something isn’t possible without some evidence. And it isn’t probable without lots of evidence.

sfvpool Level 7 Dec 24, 2018

Who really cares? Wouldn't we rather discuss the complexity of great coffees, hot teas, and better yet, BOURBON ? You know, things that really matter !

tyodaman Level 3 Dec 24, 2018

This is the nonsense I get from people who never really did any research into UFOs. It's basically ignoring all the evidence accumulated by research groups like MUFON and other long time researchers. And yes physical evidence is collected.
So the way I treat people like TheAstroChuck and people who hold similar views are the way I treat climate deniers, flat earthers and Christian Conseratives. Nut jobs that will refuse evidence left and right and I've basically given up. It doesn't matter if you ever get abducted by aliens, you'll complete ignore that to as I read in one book called and I forget the full title "would you believe."

@TheAstroChuck Again, it's ignoring the evidence. I remember having an argument about the Younger Dryas impact study and I presented scientific papers to the other person like you, and he just simply ignored it. Didn't even try to counter me with similar papers pointing out his view saying it was nonsense.
So where do you want to start? Ignoring cattle mutilations, implant removals, soil samples from reported landing sites, radar evidence, Multiple witnesses? Again physical evidence has been collected and Stanton Friedman writes about how Seth Shostak refused such evidence of soil samples of a landing site.
Jacques Vallée is starting a movement in the UFO community to completely ignore the scientific community and do research on UFO physical evidence themselves.
So again, who's the one ignoring the evidence?

@sirbikesalot06 I absolutely understand where you are coming from. I was right there saying the same things over and over 20+ years ago. I know all the big names, evidence, etc. But if you look at all of it even mildly skeptically, none of it is compelling. As Mulder's poster said, "I want to believe," and someone who wants to believe in the claim is in a profoundly biased position to judge the merits of the evidence of the claim. Witnesses are notoriously terrible. (I used to laugh about people saying a sighting was Venus, and was reminded by this a few weeks ago one morning when I literally saw Venus out my bedroom window and became genuinely concerned it might be an asteroid about to kill us all. I had never seen anything in the morning sky--besides the sun--that BRIGHT before. I watched it for 10 minutes before considering it COULD be Venus, then looking it up on the net to see where Venus was supposed to be that morning at that time in the sky...and sure enough, it WAS Venus, which is far less compelling a story than an asteroid about to kill us all.) The other evidence is uncontrolled, inconclusive, anomalous, or easily faked. In other words, unfalsifiable, a bit weird for unknown reasons, not understood, or easily faked. That's not a list of the kinds of evidence I want to find aliens guilty of abducting people. (And indeed, even if I had an "experience" myself, I would more conclude I was having mental health issues than that I was actually abducted in the absence of corroborating evidence. I understand all too well how easily the human brain malfunctions. I've had more than one family member see zombies, angels, babies, aliens, ufos, dancing girls, cowboys, vampires, government-controlled cameras in the tv, old women smoking cigarettes, children playing, dead bodies on the floor, a man attacking a woman, Jesus in the sun, ghosts, and several other things I don't remember.)
But I will bite. What is the VERY VERY best single piece of evidence you have for the existence of extra terrestrial visitors to earth that doesn't rely on a logical fallacy, evidence gathered in an uncontrolled way, inconclusive evidence, anomalous (unknown) evidence, testimonial evidence, easily faked evidence, or evidence that is otherwise unfalsifiable? Last I checked, there was none. Which was ultimately the reason I changed my mind on the question. It's not that we are ignoring anything. It is that what the claimants are presenting just isn't compelling unless you start with the conclusion and then look for things to confirm it, no matter what it is. But I'm open to changing my mind BACK. I'm still in love with the idea. We're just not married anymore, lol.

@TheAstroChuck You may find this documentary interesting. It ultimately was titled "A Journey to Planet Sanity", although it must have gone through some kind of production hell because it took several years and several titles before it was released. I finally bought it on blu ray a year or so ago. There are 2-3 trailers on youtube, and someone posted a big chunk of it...apparently by recording their tv with their phone or something. Just checked amazon and it is available with Prime. I highly recommend it.

@TheAstroChuck yeah they are and as you point to @greyeyed123 as a champion of intellectuals, in reality he goes on about the brightness of Venus in morning. He clearly doesn't bring up the lights doing 90° turns or going out, disappearing. Again my complaint was that people like you ignore evidence and @greyeyed123 and you are clearly ignoring evidence.
@greyeyed123 also brings up witness observations claiming it's unreliable. When 10 or more people see the same object from different point of views is unreliable yet isn't science base in observation data? And this is why I say about treating you like religious nut job, because people like you will throw out the phrase "log falacy" like a Bible thumper points to a Bible.
Remember when I said that long time UFO researchers like Jacques Vallée are basically bypassing scientist? Well he's testing material he has and the test results are coming back on how pure these materials are and when they were found, it would have costed over $4 tillion dollars to make such a pure piece of metal.
Again the job of organization like MUFON isn't to prove the that UFOs are real, their job is to collect evidence so when future generations are interested, they're not starting from scratch like John Keal. For people like me, we're beyond "wanting to believe." "We want to know."

@sirbikesalot06 As I already said, I know all the stories. Dozens of people at Salem all saw the same thing--witches controlling children. People at Fatima all saw the same thing--the sun dancing in the sky (come to find out decades and decades later that some people present DIDN'T see the sun dancing--it was just that confirmation bias was so strong, and the will to believe so overwhelming, that the reports of seeing nothing were not spread after the fact). Human perception is notoriously BAD. (I only mentioned Venus because AS I SAID, I used to laugh at people making that stupid suggestion. And even years after I became a skeptic on the subject, I fell victim to the misperception myself.) You probably don't believe me, but I've read Keal and Vallee, probably years and years before you did. I've also read Strieber and John Mack and Stanton Friedman and Jim Mars and dozens of others. (Do you find it odd that the alien stories people told in the '40s and '50s are so very different than the ones people tell today? Or the aliens in South America are so very different than the aliens in the US? Doesn't that parallel religious beliefs in different regions?)
"He clearly doesn't bring up the lights doing 90° turns or going out, disappearing."
If that was the perception of the witnesses, then
A) it is something that is unknown.
B) declaring it is known by virtue of being unknown is an argument from ignorance fallacy.
C) it is only mildly weird given humans have only been around 100-250 thousand years, the planet is almost 5 billion years old, and the universe almost 14 billion. We are bound to encounter natural phenomena once in a while that is initially inexplicable. Jumping to conclusions because they are the conclusions you want to jump to is not rational (and I jumped to the same conclusions you did FOR DECADES).

"yet isn't science base in observation data?"
Indeed. And those observations would be UNKNOWN. You then have to hypothesize what they are, test them under controlled conditions in an unfalsifiable manner. To declare that they are aliens abducting us because you saw lights in the sky doing things you can't explain is the definition of irrational because the claim is unfalsifiable, and the observation is UNKNOWN and UNIDENTIFIED. (It is the very same as saying they are witches on broomsticks, angry ghosts, or Thor. The only reason you think they are alien spacecraft is because that is the first association you make when seeing unknown things in the sky.)

"Well he's testing material he has and the test results are coming back on how pure these materials are and when they were found, it would have costed over $4 tillion dollars to make such a pure piece of metal."

I'll believe this claim when it is verified by a dozen independent chemists. The fact that a UFO researcher claimed it is just not compelling. The fact is, you WANT to believe it, so you throw it out there as if it is absolutely true and the rest of us are nut jobs for not believe it. Well, the easiest way to FAKE this evidence is to simply lie or exaggerate. This is an extraordinary claim (as far as I can tell--I maybe wrong). I am not an expert. But I suspect the claim "this is so pure it would have cost 4 trillion dollars to make" was made by Vallee himself, or one person associated with him. If it had been verified by a half dozen or two dozen independent chemists, it would be news. (And even if it was not news, I myself would look at it more closely. The problem is that it wasn't verified in such a way, was it? And yet you still accept it...because you want to accept it. I suspect you will ignore the nuance of what I just wrote, and come back and say it WAS one guy...who works with Vallee...who isn't really sure what it is...but somehow knows it would cost 4 trillion dollars to make. How did he calculate that number, anyway? I want to see math! lol I can still remember when such claims were completely compelling to me, and now I see them for what they are. Nonsense. I'd be happy to be proven wrong, though.)

@greyeyed123 hey, I can post trailers too. Free on Netflix. Trailer over dramatic though.

Oh BTW, lead does a better job in blocking those mind control waves. #scarcasm. ????

@sirbikesalot06 Well if that one guy is "telling me", it must be true. The stories are very compelling as stories, I agree. But they are just stories. They are not compelling as arguments. I do implore you to not project onto me a point of view as if I am someone who was always skeptical of UFO phenomena. I am willing to bet I spent far more time studying it and obsessing about it than you have. Indeed, in the '90s we had X-Files, alien autopsy, Art Bell, etc. I probably spent thousands of hours listening to Art Bell alone! If 10,000 hours makes one an expert, I'm probably an expert two or three times over, lol.
What so annoying about my journey is that skeptics assume I was always skeptical, and true believers assume I was never one of them...neither of which is remotely true. One way I know I am in a better position now on this issue is because I can fake my way as a true believer with my eyes closed, and no one knows I'm faking. But you can't fake the ability to think critically, skeptically, and rationally. Which is why these weird claims never make it off the ground with people who actually know how to evaluate and test claims to determine their truth value. They just don't pass the test, no matter what one dude on one netflix doc says "I'm telling you...". But I will watch the doc...with popcorn. I also just got my last two seasons of X-Files on blu ray. AWESOME!

@sirbikesalot06 Here's another trailer. You watch my movie, and I'll watch yours. Deal? It's on amazon prime.

@TheAstroChuck This reminds me of a couple of comments Tracie Harris once made on the atheist experience. She said that if you want to know the family structures of Big Foot, you have to first establish that Big Foot exists--THEN you determine the family structures, mating habits, sleep patterns, etc. She also said, "Don't do with god what you wouldn't do with Big Foot." I would tweak it to say, "Don't do with aliens what you wouldn't do with Big Foot."
I'm only 15 minutes into the Patient 17 doc. The "patient" is portrayed as completely oblivious to ufology. He tells us he has never heard of Dr. Leir, and has never seen a UFO. And then in the middle of having his leg cut open to remove the "implant", he describes how he was abducted by aliens as a child. (It is also weird that they spend a couple of minutes showing him frying eggs and bacon, and a couple of minutes of Dr. Leir playing an organ, when the hour documentary is supposedly illustrating the most important story in the history of mankind, lol. I don't mean to laugh. I remember what it felt like when people laughed at my cherished alien beliefs back in the day, but we do need to grow up a little bit, don't we? There is better evidence for Santa.)

@TheAstroChuck I was going to say the chemist/metal expert was not terribly believable because he was only one dude and worked for Dr. Leir. Then the results he gave were pretty tepid. He hedged and hawed. The documentary guy kept asking leading questions, and he provided half-hearted confirmations. Yeah, it probably was from off planet. You probably wouldn't be able to fake this, probably. You'd have to test some random metal samples, such as nails, and you would probably not get the same results they got from the metal fragment in the guy's leg. Probably. ...
AND THEN WHAT HAPPENS. The metal expert says he was actually PATIENT 15, and that he has gone through this process himself, his wife left him due to his obsession, and Dr. Leir didn't want anyone to know about this because he was Dr. Leir's "expert." Good grief. (No mention of 4 trillion dollars.)
The final metal expert, if correct, could easily have his results confirmed by others instead of begging us to believe him and answering every leading question the filmmaker asks him.
The filmmaker tries to confirm these results, according to him, with the lab. The lab claimed that mistakes can happen, contamination, etc. They perform multiple other independent tests. He says the results are 50/50, half saying it is common, everyday metal, and 50 saying it is originating off earth.
With evidence like that, who needs verification? Aliens are real! AHAHAHAH! Good grief.

@greyeyed123 the 4 trillion dollars is Jacques Vallée piece of metal. He hasn't featured that in any video that I'm aware of.

"With evidence like that, who needs verification? Aliens are real! AHAHAHAH! Good grief."

And this statement pretty much proves my point. It doesn't matter what evidence is presented, you'll just consider it nonsense. You know who else ignores evidence? Ken Ham. Sounds like you're more religious than an objective person.

I'll watch your video if it's on Netflix tonight, but will asking you right now, why is the federal government still harassing witnesses to the Roswell event to this very day. After all, it was just a weather balloon.

@sirbikesalot06 Patient 17 said that if aliens were real, his Christianity would crumble--as if the two are remotely connected...except for the fact that they are both faith based.
There aren't many living witnesses to Roswell. Anyone 18 or older at the time would be 89 or older today...if my math is correct.
To make this easier, if you present to me a living, breathing alien, I will believe you. If you present to me a dead alien, confirmed to be an unknown biological entity with chemistry too different from any on earth to be earthly, I will make the inference that is extra-terrestrial (which is not entirely rational in itself, but that's what I would do). If you present to me a technology that two dozen of our best scientists confirm does something, but they have no idea how...I will make the inference that it is extra-terrestrial (also not completely rational of me, but that's what I would do).
What you need is confirmation by independent experts in controlled ways. All you have is the most flimsy of evidence imaginable. It is either uncontrolled, unfalsifiable, witness testimony, hearsay, anomalous, easily faked, inconclusive, deeply dependent on the argument from ignorance fallacy, or unidentified. That isn't evidence for an claim so extraordinary (your documentary calls it an "extraordinary belief" at least once).
Your problem is you accept every claim as evidence if it supports your foregone conclusion. That's not how evidence, reason, or argument works. And honestly, this pattern of flimsy evidence over decades is another main reason I am now so very skeptical of the overall claim of alien visitation (much less abduction, etc).
You say Ken Ham ignores evidence. Ken Ham has exactly the same kind of evidence you do. His overall claims are also based on witness testimony, hearsay, personal conviction, confirmation bias, a never ending list of unfalsifiable supporting claims, easily faked evidence, inconclusive evidence, pareidolia, etc. You think I am ignoring evidence, WHEN YOU ARE IGNORING THE FACT THAT I ALREADY TOLD YOU I SPENT THOUSANDS UPON THOUSANDS OF HOURS studying this for more than two decades. Do you just not believe me? I was an absolutely true believer. You keep talking to me as if I missed something over those thousands of hours and changed my mind on a whim. Are you not curious how or why my view changed? You seem more keen on accusing me of being overly rational and ignoring evidence that, I told you, I already knew all about AND ACCEPTED WHOLE HEARTEDLY for years. Until I learned how critical thinking and evidence actually works. I didn't just suddenly decide to reject conclusive evidence that had been rigorously tested using controlled, unfalsifiable methodology over decades. I discovered that none of the extraordinary claims made by ufologists had ever passed any such testing over years and years and years. If the phenomena were real, something would have turned up in the wash by now that would have passed rigorous testing and skepticism. Nothing has. That doesn't mean something isn't there. It means something is very, very likely not there. But again, I asked for your BEST possible evidence, and you've offered none that isn't tainted by completely biased sources. Again, you need evidence that passes the basic tests of being verifiable, reproducible, falsifiable, and predictive by INDEPENDENT testers, not people who are also secretly Dr. Leir's patient 15 whose wife left him because of his obsession with having been abducted by aliens. You can see how that is not acceptable evidence, right?

@sirbikesalot06 This is a much better documentary in terms of filmmaking and storytelling. Also on Netflix. (The logical fallacies and arguments from ignorance are smooth and appeal to our hysteria. Not clunky like in the other documentary.)


A lot of people also conflate coincidence with probability. An example i like to use that helps to illustrate how bad our brains comprehend big ideas is this:

Imagine you have 5 six-sided dice. You roll the 5 dice... is it more or less likely that the dice will all have an outcome of 6? The answer is that the likely hood is the same as if the dice had an outcome of 5-1-3-4-5. The point is to illustrate that every possible outcome is just as unique and extraordinary because the likelihood of rolling that particular set of "random" numbers is the same as rolling any other set of "random" numbers. Ultimately, the only reason rolling a 6 on all five dice is significant is because it's a pattern we can easily recognize.

This example is meant to help give context to how coincidence is just a significant "pattern" we can easily recognize. Basically, hooman hav dum monki brayn.

Drazezard Level 3 Dec 23, 2018

Well of course all this is depressingly and reality-checkingly true. But I ask how can we statistically determine the likelihood that alien species elsewhere, that have been around far longer than we, may have invented faster than light drives, mastered worm-hole travel, or discovered pathways in the universe, or similar, which permit them to do what seems impossible to us now? Saying that it is statistically highly unlikely or in effect impossible is, in the end, an opinion only, is it not? Taking your lottery analogy, every week millions of people buy a ticket in lotteries in which the odds for each individual to win are seemingly impossible. Yet, every week, some do.

David1955 Level 7 Dec 22, 2018

@TheAstroChuck noted, but haven't you moved from your original post subject, namely the probability of aliens visiting us, to another, specifically the probability of our species surviving much longer, of which I know you have great doubt? The fact that we're not smart enough to outgrow our primitive political and economic thinking doesn't prevent me from thinking that maybe other species elsewhere might have and have gone to explore the Galaxy.

Also, as an aside, I have long thought, though it's pure speculation, that aliens, if they exist, haven't contacted us because they are smart enough to know to keep the hell away, and just study us and our path to destruction. I figure if they are smart enough to travel the universe, they are smart enough to analyse and predict species types. Imagine, Intergalactic Data Base. Species - Human. Third Rock from the Sun. Conclusion: Just another loser species in the galaxy. Sad.

@David1955 Any rationalization of why there is no evidence of something immediately makes it suspect to me. (And I actually made the same argument you are making very often years ago.) It may be possible that an alien species advanced enough to visit us would not choose to visit us any more than we would choose visit pond scum at the bottom of a pond at midnight. The problem is, as I said elsewhere in this page, we have no way to know if the requirements for such travel also makes the possibility of visiting us moot or not. In other words, we A) don't know if it is possible or not for beings roughly like ourselves to physically learn to travel the distances needed to visit us, and B) don't know if it is possible or not for such beings if capable to simultaneously be interested or motivated or in any way inclined to visit us. Thus, having no idea if such things are possible or not, and having no evidence of them at all, should leave us with no belief at all until such time as such things are proven possible, and if possible, in what ways likely in the future. What WOULD be impressive to me is not an explanation of why we don't have any evidence at all, but under what conditions we have not yet explored that COULD be explored in the future to show if certain creatures are likely to exist or not. The problem is that under every condition we can imagine so far of discovering evidence of intelligent life that would demonstrate the claim of the existence of such life...we find nothing. Maybe we're looking under the lamppost because that is where the light is, or maybe under the lamppost is the only place there is to look. We have no way to know at this point, but having no evidence isn't impressive, and having no falsifiable way to test any aspect of the claim is not impressive either.

"faster than light drives" ?. not possible. There may be alien civilisations out there but they will be millions of light years away so a visit is highly improbable.

@greyeyed123 yes, interesting points. Reading it a couple of times I couldn't disagree. I admire the Professor's posts a great deal, however I can't find it in me to think that because something seems highly improbable that we should consider it as virtually impossible. We can't even be sure what evidence of aliens might be, your point I think, our science fiction fantasies notwithstanding, so I refuse to be optimistic or pessimistic but open to any real evidence.


i don't understand statistics so well myself but i flatter myself that i have a little common sense, and that makes up for a bit of that lack of statistical facility. thus i tend not to turn blue waiting for the improbable.


genessa Level 8 Dec 22, 2018

People also seem to give themselves omniscient powers in determining what is POSSIBLE. People sometimes say, "Anything's possible", when we in fact have no idea if certain things are possible or not. Just because something has not been demonstrated to be impossible does not mean it is possible. "It's possible god exists." "It's possible god created the universe." "It's possible god gave us free will." It may in fact be impossible that a god exists, that universes can be created, that free will is something to be mandated with magic.


Good observation, Sir. We run into them all the time. So much that one is tempted to throw one's hands up and say, "I quit. The world is full of morons." See something in the sky and you don't know what it is, immediately it is being driven by Lizard men from Altair. Something bad happens and several hundred people are killed, immediately there has to be a conspiracy of the Illuminati and the Mossad at work, or it was an inside job for some nefarious purpose. The hand of providence. Bad luck. Karma.

Not understanding how statistics work is one element for sure, but I don't think it's the prime reason for the unreason. I think what is at work is the same thing that gave us the foundations for religions and superstitions. Fear and uncertainty. Neither are acceptable to the majority and they need pat answers, even to the unanswerable, no matter how unreasonable or foundationless, hence little green men must be driving those lights in the sky, dark men in invisibility suits secretly planting explosive charges in the structural elements of buildings, and unscrupulous wealthy men exchanging secret handshakes and wearing Mason's rings are manipulating the economies of the world just so I can't buy a new car this year.

I used to believe in much of the UFO mythology...more so than I ever believed in a god. I probably read thousands of pages of aliens/ufo books in the '90s in between weekly episodes of The X-Files. Somewhere between the late '90s and mid-2000s, I did a lot of reading on atheism...skepticism...etc, and then ended up applying skepticism to all my weird beliefs. (I still wonder what I was thinking when I thought "Communion" was compelling evidence of alien abduction...when written by a horror/sci-fi writer. It is still a fascinating exercise in understanding myth, in that the author claimed it was nonfiction and yet it was filled with fantastical elements with flimsy to no corroboration...yet told so compellingly that the reader is desperate for it to be true if for no other reason than the story would be far less interesting if it wasn't.)


I'll always refer people to the scene in Casino where Ace is chewing out ol' Don after three slot machines hit jackpot in short order:

Shout out to Don Rickles and his mean mug.


Very well written explanation, thank you.

icolan Level 7 Dec 22, 2018
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