I feel slightly guilty about appending an ‘astronomy’ tag to this, because it’s going to seem not just distantly-related, but wholly out of place to some reading. Yet, there really is a legitimate bearing, as I hope to demonstrate. So let’s take a brief look at the history of extra-terrestrial encounters, because sometimes it helps to know the perspectives of the time.
I am by no means a serious researcher into the field, and I no longer have most of the books I grew up with for reference, so don’t expect meticulous accuracy here – this is just an overview. Most people agree that the modern concept of alien visitation began with Kenneth Arnold’s sighting in 1947 – a misrepresentation of his account coined the term “flying saucer” (which does not describe what he claimed to see at all.) But we can go much further back, since the idea of life on other planets had been surmised ever since we realized there were other planets – Flash Gordon and War of the Worlds being two good examples. Percival Lowell proposed that Mars had channels created by an intelligent race back in the late 1800s, and this may represent a curious reflection of our attitudes, which will be a recurring theme in this post. Canal-building was a major advancement in transportation and trade throughout the 1800s, progressing to bigger and bigger projects – it’s not hard to imagine the people of the time seeing this as a trait of an advanced intelligence. Bear in mind, too, that at this point the flying machine was yet to be perfected, with at least a little doubt that it ever would. Jules Verne’s account of a trip to the moon took place not with a rocket, but with a giant gun (which would have turned any occupants into a fine paste in the rear of the chamber, but let’s not let physics get in our way.)
World War II brought the invention of the long-range rocket, and the first vestiges of a space age – it also brought the power of the atom into public view. Suddenly, not only was going into space a distinct possibility, so was an enormous amount of energy from tiny sources (at least in theory.) Bear in mind that we still didn’t know a lot about our neighboring planets, nor was genetics very far along. The idea that alien life could actually exist on Mars or Venus seemed not all that farfetched, with a lot of supposition (that continues to this day) that it would be similar in physiology to us – humanoid, at the very least. And projected trends in human evolutionary development, a fairly new line of research with the fossil finds of the 20th century, predicted that we would eventually become smaller, less hairy, with bigger heads and smaller limbs. Sound familiar?
Little wonder, then, that reports of alien encounters from the ’50s (as well as science fiction well before that time) often dealt with visitors from Mars or Venus, and occasionally Jupiter or Saturn, almost always humanoid in nature. It didn’t seem to be stretching the imagination too far to think that nuclear power could carry us throughout the solar system within the next century, or that a more advanced race would use this routinely. UFO reports featured numerous references to ionizing radiation, often testing supposed landing sites for radioactivity (as if any kind of intelligence would be unaware of adequate shielding against precisely this kind of contamination.)
In this same time period, radar was going through its golden age of implementation and development, with its own teething pains, such as how easy it was to get a false return. But in the eyes of the public it was a magic box revealing anything in the sky – helped, no doubt, by the proliferation of Cold War radar stations on the coasts, and air traffic control. The ubiquitous round screen with sweeping radial and the beeping bright dot of a positive return appeared in thousands of movies, generating an impression far from the reality of ground scatter, weather interference, anomalous propagation, and weak returns.
From 1952 to 1970, the US Air Force operated Project Blue Book, which helped cement the term “UFO” in the public consciousness. This was the era of the Cold War, the arms race, and imminent nuclear annihilation. While most people seem to think the military was somehow worried about alien visitations, there were more than enough terrestrial concerns for them to concentrate on – “UFO” does not equate with “extra-terrestrial.” It has even been speculated (to my knowledge, never confirmed as policy or goal) that the military was investigating the potential of a War of the Worlds scenario – the radio broadcast in 1938 that purportedly caused widespread panic (that now seems more myth than fact.) In the same vein as the Nazi blitzkrieg tactics, there was the possibility that military responses could be crippled by inducing mass confusion and fear in populated areas; how hard would it be to produce this with “aliens”? But even without this, there was still plenty of information to be gathered on how effectively radar was working, how many airspace incursions by the Soviets could be found by the general populace, and so on. A lot of what Blue Book discovered was how suggestible people could be, and how easily mistaken. Those that feel that the investigation was too dismissive of many of the cases don’t realize that goal was not to fully determine just what caused some sighting, but whether any sighting represented a serious threat or not – with the potential addition of comparing unpublicized Air Force flights against public notice and perception. Again, this was the military, not a research lab.
By this time we knew the moon was a dry, airless satellite, but it wasn’t until space probes made it to Venus and Mars, beginning in the late ’60s, that we determined they too were ridiculously inhospitable to any life, much less advanced species. Part of my family library growing up still presented speculative illustrations of the species that might inhabit the extremely humid swamps of Venus, before it was discovered that the cloaking featureless cloud cover wasn’t water vapor but carbon dioxide, producing a greenhouse effect that melted landers. Jupiter and Saturn boasted no real surface to walk upon, just the rapidly increasing pressure of gas giants. At this point, the aliens that had been visiting us from these planets halted, apparently miffed that we no longer believed in their plausibility.
By the mid ’70s, of course, the emphasis on extra-terrestrial intelligence had been firmly established in the public eye and would not easily be dismissed, even though the distance a species would have to travel to cut out a few cow tongues had expanded, by a factor of a million (the distance from Mars, at greatest separation, versus the distance to the closest neighboring star system.) Add in that publishers had recognized the public curiosity over ET life and created a whole new genre, with the result that UFO stories became part of the popular media and inescapable. To many, the stories were too numerous to believe that they did not represent alien intelligence, so the obvious explanation was that such life was coming from further away.
Theoretical physics played a part in all this as well. There were questions raised over the speed limit of the universe, and the limitations of nuclear forces – could extra-dimensional rifts or ‘wormholes’ permit faster-than-light travel? Could antimatter or the release of zero-point energy provide the enormous energy needed to traverse space in less than a few hundred years? Such ideas remained theoretical in science, not even remotely supported by experiments, but were happily seized upon by science fiction writers and UFO proponents as ways to rescue the dismal prospects of ever visiting another star system. There arose an underlying attitude that physics did not actually have any limitations; intelligent life, given enough time, could always find a way to violate any such restrictions.
Thus the popular idea of alien visitation managed to get established in a time when it seemed none too difficult for such a race to get here, and received significant support through media attention. As our knowledge increased and the plausibility became a microscopic fraction of what had been believed, the volume of stories served to counteract the solid science involved – “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” No longer grounded in demonstrable physics, UFO stories now rely on the simple trait that we cannot prove them impossible; like the religious ‘god of the gaps’ argument, extra-terrestrial visitation hinges on the ‘future discoveries’ angle to subvert all of the problems we know to exist. Science, no longer the producer of wondrous new worlds, now stands grumpily in the way of mankind’s Buck Rogers fantasies.
A recent xkcd comic illustrated something pointed out for years by those in the field who had a little perspective: with the proliferation of cameras (and even the increasing populations in remote areas,) we should have jumped exponentially in our knowledge of visiting extra-terrestrials, rather than seeing, arguably, even worse examples of ‘evidence.’ Most of the favorite cases claimed to support alien life are between thirty and fifty years old; the days of the scrambled military interceptors are long gone; the patterns of physiology, behavior, and even vehicles that we should be seeing are nonexistent. The most vocal proponents repeatedly flog the same stories from generations past, occasionally with a new interpretation to fill in for the lack of new actual cases. Videos of insects and accounts from “reputable” people in distant countries comprise almost all of the new reports, when they’re not just inexpert photos of kites. Yet, there remains a dogged insistence that the field is as solid as it ever was.
Naturally, popular media plays a significant part. Never at the best of times very concerned with critical examination of a story, when it comes to the topic of UFOs, anything goes. More than a few authors have included accounts from their ‘investigations’ that have no supporting evidence whatsoever (including a source,) while broad interpretations, suppositions, and unfounded correlations lie so thick on the ground even hip-waders are inadequate. Such stories fall into a peculiar hole, where there’s no victim and no legal recourse, even for outright fraud – any book, any story can easily be a work of pure fiction without infringing on any laws whatsoever, and the few people named are usually those who promoted the story in the first place. Think about it: even if someone were inclined to sue a book publisher for fraud, they’d have to establish a distinct adverse effect on a broad population to get a greater settlement than the cost of the book.
Even outside of sources dedicated to promoting UFOs, news stations and publications know that the idea of “mysterious” garners more viewers and sales than, “a few rubes got excited when they misinterpreted the landing lights of a Cessna.” It’s not in their interest in the slightest to produce objective, experienced investigations. In fact, many ‘journalistic’ sources go out of their way to produce false conflicts, and even just the sound bite from the person with the most extreme viewpoint. Skewed perspectives and ‘false equivalence’ comes into play, when people fail to consider that the quoted source might represent a tiny minority, or is forwarding information long since debunked.
And the final aspect (that I’m going to cover, anyway) is the peculiar psychology of humans. For almost as long as we have written records, we have stories of amazing encounters, fascinating lands, and remarkable creatures – Atlantis and dragons and giants and subterranean societies. Who knows how far back this goes? But it’s so common that it’s probably safe to say it’s a human trait, and not recent or cultural or any jazz like that. Our sense of wonder and discovery seizes onto such accounts, introducing an emotional angle into the topic (and many more besides.) This fascination allows confirmation bias to take a firm hold, and this is easily seen in any UFO forum when skepticism rears its ugly head; should any particular account get torn asunder, those that champion ET visitations will simply move on to the next case, leaving behind the Martians and propeller-driven vehicles and all other former ‘evidence’ destroyed by implausibility, in the hopes that ignoring the numerous fumbles will make the topic more substantial.
A certain percentage of people can see the long history of grave mistakes and cultural influences and realize that UFO accounts have more noise than signal – too much of the evidence in the field is vague and anecdotal; others, however, seek only the fragments that haven’t been debunked, and place great emphasis on what we don’t know, a peculiar trait in itself. The possibility of any intelligence discovering a way to subvert mass-energy constraints to permit interstellar travel is no more likely than the possibility that it can never be done; it is very easy to make a case that the latter is far more probable, in fact. Yet more emphasis is placed on such discoveries being inevitable, and it’s hard to see this as anything other than emotional attachment to the idea.
And so, the topic lives on, hearty and active within its own narrow subculture, appearing sporadically and ineffectually in mainstream media, and completely ignored by the sciences since it has yet to offer anything more substantial than hearsay. While it presents great opportunities to demonstrate how critical thinking works, such efforts primarily reach those who desire the perspective the least. Does this translate to “deaf ears”? Perhaps – but the results from not making the effort are pretty obvious.