I treated the idea of finding intelligent life elsewhere in the Milky Way Galaxy in three parts earlier, starting here. But something that I kind of blew past is the idea that we have already been contacted – let’s face it, a lot of people can argue that this really is the case. So, I’m tackling that aspect now. And yes, it’s another long one. Nature photography will return at its regularly scheduled time.
As a small bit of background, I grew up on stories of UFOs and alien abductions, and was pretty convinced about their authenticity. But somewhere along the way, I became more interested in viewing them critically. This does not mean “dismissive” – it means, “judging the weight of the evidence.” More recently, I participated in several newsgroups for a few years, evaluating UFO and paranormal cases, and the debates thereof. I spent a fair amount of that time evaluating the photographs attached to the cases, because I have some experience in both photographic/optical properties, and in editing digital images. I could actually write a book about the subject of UFO reports and investigative practices, I think, but I’ll try and keep this shorter. And for the sake of clarity, I’ll use “UFO” in this context to indicate, at least, “potential extraterrestrial visitor,” and not simply “unexplained.”
First things first. There are countless reports of UFOs from around the world, and these frequently demonstrate behavior and traits that do not fit into aircraft that we know of. This is, at first glance, a fairly strong indication that there is some kind of advanced technology in our skies. But this relies on a very broad assumption: that what has been reported is accurate. No, it’s not fair to be dismissive of this, but it is fair, and in fact responsible investigating, to determine if this assumption is warranted.
There are numerous reasons for this. Perhaps the biggest is, the UFO genre is big bucks in today’s media, and has been since the beginning of the Cold War. Anything that can make a profit also stands to be exploited, and UFO media is not subject to the rigors of reporting to which other subjects are typically beholden. Even mainstream news media makes the effort to present controversy rather than accuracy, and they are most likely to suffer repercussions from inaccuracies. UFO media rarely has anything at stake. So proceeding with a wary eye towards misrepresented details is necessary.
The second biggest is, virtually all UFO reports are based on eyewitness testimony, with little corroborating evidence. When there’s any, it’s usually photographs and video low in detail and useful references. But there are numerous reasons for eyewitnesses to be inaccurate, as well: poor judgment of distances and speed, fleeting glimpses, poor estimations of altitude, angle, azimuth, failure to use reference points, just to name simple reasons. Then there’s suggestibility (from the proliferation of UFO stories,) exaggeration, hallucination, intoxication, dreaming (and sleep paralysis,) and even things like schizophrenia. This says nothing of outright hoaxes and attention-seeking. The intention isn’t to malign witnesses or dismiss them outright, but it would be fatuous to consider them uncritically as well. All too often, the testimony of witnesses is treated as an “all or nothing” standpoint – either it’s 100% factual, or it’s completely fabricated. And unfortunately, this approach is used most often by those who support the UFO accounts, to discredit the people asking any kind of questions at all – if you don’t believe the witnesses, you’re just calling them liars. But there are far too many ways for eyewitness accounts to be inaccurate for there to be only two choices in such matters.
Now, criminal investigations take all of this into account routinely – it’s been seen too many times before. And most criminal investigators make the effort to both find corroborating physical evidence, and to cross-check eyewitness accounts for inconsistencies, missing details, and the like. But UFO accounts are rarely subjected to this kind of effort. Most times, if any form of investigation is performed at all, a statement is taken and little else. Criminal investigators don’t usually become involved – there are no laws against mysterious objects in the sky. In fact, most times, the “statement” is made to reporters or, on occasion, interviewers for human-interest shows. An occasional freelance “investigator” becomes involved, and I use quotes there for a reason – they are frequently, in every way shape or form, no good at actually questioning a subject.
Physical evidence is one of the ways to ascertain that the eyewitness account is true, but too often, there’s not much physical to go on. Photographs and video are useful to a very limited extent – they often lack even more context than the personal accounts, and there’s only so much info that can be gleaned from a photo. Good investigators, ones with some serious knowledge of photography, optics, lighting conditions, and so on, can derive a certain amount of info from a photo, especially if they have access to the camera itself. But again, they’re not called in too often. First, they charge money for their services (and why not?) and second, they’re loathe to commit to a positive statement – at best, you get “the object pictured shows no evidence of digital tampering, no apparent wires or supports for the object, and falls into the ‘infinity’ range of the camera lens.” That’s really not saying much – it depends on the lens itself, but for most lenses this means 16 meters or further away. That’s not truly helpful – is it a hubcap 20 meters off, or a sizable object at 500 meters? There often is no way to determine this from a photo.
So what a very large majority of the cases come out to be is poorly investigated, with little useful info, and able to be questioned, sometimes for every detail. In a court of law, that case would be thrown out (actually, no attorney would take it in the first place) – in UFO media, it becomes “another astounding encounter!” Credulity lends far more weight to most accounts than they warrant. I can tell you from going through case files for several years now, only a couple have provided evidence that made me curious – absolutely none provided something solid about extraterrestrial visitation. The accounts with the highest profiles and repeated the most have been so full of holes it’s embarrassing to keep seeing them.
Another crucial thing that I’ve noticed has been the wild disparity of details from different sources, for the same “encounters.” Confabulation is rampant, as is jumping to conclusions, and most especially, the ever-present “reputable witness” and “trained professional” (usually police officers or pilots.) No witness is so reputable that they cannot be mistaken, nor lying, and there’s no way to actually test this either. And the type of observation that police officers receive training for has nothing to do with airborne objects, velocities, and so on – those are useless for criminal investigations. Pilots receive none that I’ve ever encountered – they’re told to watch for other air traffic, but that’s it. Is that observation training? But you’ll see these used again and again in UFO reports, to lend weight to the case.
And when there are multiple accounts with different details, which one is accurate? Unless you can get directly to the source, which is usually impossible, you have to pick an arbitrary point – usually, this is the list of details that all accounts agree on. Sometimes that isn’t an impressive list, but what else can you reasonably choose?
Now, even though we’ve been seeing detailed UFO reports since Kenneth Arnold first saw something while flying in the mountains (described as two very significantly different shapes in accounts spaced a few years apart,) we’ve never, not once, obtained any evidence from them of something physical. No artifacts, no wreckage, no samples of skin, hair, food, fuel, residue, UFO wax, or Blagarta Tail that used to be hanging from the antenna. The few artifacts that have been subject to scrutiny have always been terrestrial in origin. The best evidence has been “depressions” in the ground. Isn’t that curious? Abductees display scars, but somehow never a fresh wound. And I have yet to see photos from different sources that show the same style of UFO. The trade-in values off of this planet must be fantastic!
Many UFO cases feature radar traces, evidence that a solid object was tracked on radar doing astounding things. But there’s a few issues with this. The first is, a significant number of these cases come from the fifties and sixties, when radar was relatively new technology, with less accuracy and, most importantly, less knowledge of all the ways it could be fooled. And those are many – radar is simply microwaves bounced from something, an echo that is measured for speed in return (deriving distance) and angle. But it doesn’t even take a solid surface – birds, bats, and even insects are often tracked, and weather conditions can bounce the signals, something called “anomalous propagation.” It’s happened so often we now know what kind of weather conditions are prone to it. Secondary bounces are possible, as is ground scatter, and there have even been cases where distant satellites have been tracked and reported as much closer, before the signals were encoded to know that the echo received is not the one just sent out, but one from several seconds ago that took a long time returning (and thus fudged the distance measurement.) Radar is a useful tool, but has to be kept in context with how much accuracy it is capable of – which is certainly less than commonly believed.
And then, there’s the really ugly factor: distance. Light takes 4.2 years to get here from the closest star, one that has no apparent planets. But light travels, well, light (sorry) – mass, on the other hand, does not move anywhere near that fast, and even getting an appreciable fraction of that speed takes ferocious energy. Mass also has inertia, the resistance to changes in velocity, and to make changes requires energy – the more change, the more energy. As the speed of light is approached, the required energy goes up to staggeringly huge levels (our physics tells us light speed requires infinite energy.) So we can only manage, even in theory, a fraction of the speed of light accelerated over a long period of time. We balk at the idea of being cooped up in a capsule for a two-year trip to Mars – imagine a multi-decade trip to another star system. And then, once they get here, they steal some cow tongues and probe a few asses? What the hell are we supposed to believe, that it’s only alien frat boys visiting?
Now comes the argument: “But they’re obviously advanced alien species, so they’ve overcome limitations on inertia, energy, time, and boredom.” Well, no, they’re not obviously alien species, that has yet to be demonstrated in any reasonable, useful way. But there’s this standard rule of UFO accounts that remains also unsupported: that sufficiently advanced intelligence can overturn laws of physics. There’s no reason to believe this in any way – we certainly haven’t even come close. And there’s never been any solid evidence of anything even remotely similar from UFOs. The argument becomes circular – they have advanced technology, because aliens would have to have it to get here, and we know they’re aliens because they have this advanced technology. Logically, you cannot use both to support each other. Pick one, and establish it beyond reasonable doubt.
I also want to stress how complicated the idea of altering physics is. While there are still a few puzzling things to us, like uncertainty and entanglement down at the subatomic levels, we have a pretty good understanding of the behavior of mass. Enough to know that changing any one attribute of something has a ripple effect throughout the laws of physics. What this means is that changing, for instance, the limit of light speed will change the behavior of the atoms themselves, gravity, time, and even the energy that binds the atoms together. The word “law” in physics doesn’t denote a rule to be followed, it signifies something that is fixed firmly in the universe. Don’t get the idea that physicists are boring and never tried to break these laws, either – it’d be extremely lucrative and prestigious for anyone who accomplished it, even on a very small scale. They yet remain laws, and may forever still. We’re made of atoms, and atoms behave certain ways.
I’d be remiss if I left out the other key part of the lack of evidence, the idea that the evil government is keeping it under wraps, for umpteen different reasons: the public would panic (like they’re doing now with whole bookshelves devoted to UFO encounters,) the government/military is using alien technology (we see so much evidence of that,) they’re planning something when some catastrophe is about to happen, and so on. And the evidence for this viewpoint? Why, there’s two oh-so-compelling ones! The first is the whistle-blower, the government/military source sworn to secrecy that then writes books and appears on radio interviews to tell how his life is in danger from writing books and appearing on radio interviews – pardon me if the sarcasm is getting too deep, but seriously, what do you want me to do with this? And the second, super clincher: the government denies all knowledge! Woo hoo, that’s money in the bank, that is! Because, you know, if the government doesn’t have a damn thing to do with something, they certainly don’t admit to that, but they, I don’t know, feign interest? Shout, “Look over there!” and run away? Whatever, I’ve been assured, time and again, that this is a reasonable argument. Somehow, no one ever answers the questions I raise, especially about how every last government around the world agrees to keep this all a secret.
J. Allen Hynek, among others, made a living talking about how Project Blue Book, the US Air Force investigation into UFO reports, was hiding things and not investigating the compelling evidence. He lectured on it all the time (paid of course,) wrote books, and so on. But somehow, in all that, he never pointed out why he believed it – no evidence, no dropped investigations, no obvious coverups. We were supposed to take his word for it, I guess. But isn’t it funny that countless civilian investigations never turned up anything more compelling? In these days when everyone has a camera handy and surveillance systems are operating everywhere, when we can see exactly what police officers are doing all day and watch failed burglaries on YouTube, we still have no better photos than we had in the fifties? In sixty some-odd years of alien visitation, we’re still just as much in the dark about alien species? Is it a game to them?
There are a lot more things that can, and should, be questioned, such as the likelihood of such similar humanoids (two arms, two legs, two eyes, one mouth, fingers, etc.) developing independently on other planets, the likelihood of their being able to handle our atmosphere, the silliness of a saucer-shaped craft, the complete lack of interest from any scientific institution (even SETI, which looks for ET evidence!), the age of the most detailed accounts, the idea that they have gotten no more detailed despite the advances in our technology, and on and on. When you stop to question, you find the questions outnumber the answers by a huge margin. That’s not a good sign. And yes, many people never stop to question, because they like the idea of ET visitation too much. But that’s not a good enough reason – that’s actually not a reason at all.
Now, to forestall the argument that I haven’t proved we’re not being visited, I’ll openly admit it right now. Sure, maybe we are! But you know, it’s not up to me (or anyone else) to prove the notion that the weak, poorly investigated, inconsistent, physically unsupported, and ephemeral accounts are false. It’s up to those who trumpet them as evidence of extraterrestrial visitation to demonstrate why they believe this is the case. That’s how evidence works. And until we get something a whole lot more compelling than the typical blurry light in the sky, promoted by someone who hasn’t the faintest idea what real investigation is, I’m going to go with, “We’re not seeing aliens,” for the same reason I make the statement, “There are no such things as flying purple wombats.” Without evidence, there is no reason to believe in anything. Full stop. Think about it if you need to. And pardon me for being rational.