As the Beatles said, “I read the news today oh boy!”
And then I groaned and said “Not this crap again!”
Don’t you all agree? Don’t you just get angry now when fake news about UFO conspiracies makes it as far as the New York Times? Without anybody stopping to say, “Wait, we’re the national newspaper of record, why are we printing this window-licking craziness?”
Because that actually just happened. Here’s an archive of the hastily changed NYT story. A paragraph in the story originally read:
> “Mr. Reid, the former Democratic senator from Nevada who pushed for funding the earlier U.F.O. program when he was the majority leader, said he believed that crashes of vehicles from other worlds had occurred and that retrieved materials had been studied secretly for decades, often by aerospace companies under government contracts.”
…and that went out to the world. Then after the July 24, 2020, correction it now reads:
> “Mr. Reid, the former Democratic senator from Nevada who pushed for funding the earlier U.F.O. program when he was the majority leader, said he believed that crashes of objects of unknown origin may have occurred and that retrieved materials should be studied.”
…with the correction taking responsibility for misquoted Reid, under the authorship of Ralph Blumenthal. You’ll recall a kalpa ago before CoronaVirus hit the US, Ralph Blumenthal also ran the story “On the Trail of a Secret Pentagon U.F.O. Program,” which stirred up a similar UFO madness. And back in May of last year, guess who penned the NYT piece claiming, “Navy Pilots Report Unexplained Flying Objects“?
There’s plenty more where that came from. “Project Blue Book Is Based on a True U.F.O. Story. Here It Is.” (January 2019). “On the Trail of a Secret Pentagon U.F.O. Program” (December 2017). “Glowing Auras and Black Money: The Pentagon’s Mysterious U.F.O. Program” (December 2017, just 2 days prior). Here’s another gem of his:
I have another unidentified flying object to report to Mr. Blumenthal. I put his brain in a bee and let it go. The bee started flying backwards.
Every time this crank opens his mouth, the rest of us have to spend DAYS cleaning up after him. We all have to go to the blogs and forums and social media and tell one person after another, no, there wasn’t a flying saucer, it was just him again. Scientific American has to debunk Blumenthal’s claims. Not to mention when a statement has to be retracted like this, conspiracy theories flare up in its wake.
Thanks to the psychic visions I get in my fourth eye as a result of an incident where I was bitten by a radioactive chihuahua during my expedition to the East Pole, I have actually received the only communication from extraterrestrial intelligence. It says “We filed a restraining order against humanity just in case. Stay the hell away from us!”
But never mind all that, I have a bigger question:
Why Are We So Excited About Meeting Aliens Anyway?
Verily, extraterrestrial life forms are a geek passion, hence fair game for the science fiction side of our site. Also verily, science fiction is a story-telling motif for creatively examining human problems. Always was and will be. The aliens are not the point. They’re only there to act as a foil to humans, while the story serves as a big thought experiment that explores an aspect of human nature. It stands to reason that if we’re going to explore human aspects, the first thing we reach for is a model of a similar being without some of these aspects.
So it’s not the sci-fi writers. It’s humanity in general. Sixteenth century French renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne observed: “Man is certainly stark mad; he cannot make a worm, and yet he will be making gods by dozens.” We really, really, really want a God. Urgently, overnight express delivery, like a tick wants blood. Humans can’t seem to deal with the prospect of being the highest local authority in the galaxy. Making up aliens is just one more way to make up Gods.
We literally make Gods of aliens all the time. We have our UFO cults thriving today:
And we have one infamous example:
The Heaven’s Gate website is still up to this day, by the way, kept going by Host Gator (hey that’s my host!) in memorial of the suicide of 39 members in 1997. They counted among their members the brother of actress Nichelle Nichols of Star Trek fame. UFO cults tend to have a funny grab on celebrities and the near-famous, if you count the most famous UFO cult of all:
Oops, wait, I mean the second-most famous UFO cult of all:
That’s all spot-on what Mormons believe, by the way. Even the part about black people, although they’ve done some back-peddling in recent years.
If you follow the History Channel’s take on Christianity, guess what else becomes a UFO cult?
This UFO obsession mixing with established religions goes way back before the History Channel. Back in the 1970s, we had books like The Spaceships of Ezekiel lurking in the paperback spinner racks. Your humble author was raised Baptist before I chewed off a leg to escape; I can attest that this stuff is taken seriously and mixed in with established doctrine more often than you’d want to think.
I’m not here to knock anybody’s religious beliefs, even though I’m prone to do that. But from the strictly scientific viewpoint, from sociological and philosophical points of view as well, I’m guessing that I’m on firm ground when I say all our ideas about UFOs are made of delusions with delusion dressing.
I guess most of us walk around with this idea that if humanity did, once and for all, discover advanced extraterrestrial life forms, that this would lead to a landmark renaissance in human consciousness where we shaped up and started behaving ourselves. But we have ample evidence to the contrary. COVID-19 could have come from outer space and the rest of the story would be no different. Look only to the sad tales of indigenous peoples encountering explorers and settlers throughout history, if you want an idea of what happens when we meet comparably intelligent but foreign life forms.
We suck at meeting aliens
I think the true prophecy of humans encountering definitive proof of extraterrestrial life has never been written, animated, or filmed. Our first contact with aliens is bound to be a disaster, for them or us, more probably both. Either we’ll blow them up, eat them, enslave them, exploit them, or we’ll get infected by them, or we’ll start a war with them we can’t win. Except for the part of us who refuses to accept that they exist only after we’ve found evidence, of course. That’s actually the best way to expunge UFO cults from humanity forever, is to find actual UFOs.
This is also why I call Alien (1979) both one of my favorite horror movies and one of my favorite sci-fi movies. I can believe every second of that movie. If you consider the scheme of interstellar life forms as its own kind of jungle, a xenomorph would immediately rise to the top of the universal food chain and be the dominant space-faring species. Whatever alien species may be currently flying around the cosmos exploring new worlds, it could make use of the survival skills of a xenomorph at the least.
If we have first contact and they turn out to be xenomorphs, we’re up poop creek. If they aren’t, it’s because we’re the xenomorphs and then they’re up poop creek. That’s the only two reasonable scenarios.
Before you call me “pessimist” or “misanthrope” (qui moi???), here’s Neil DeGrasse Tyson, one of the best people around right now to ask about the subject, sharing his take of how human-alien first contact will go down:
The idea that aliens will be close enough to us in intellect to not consider us animals is just one of millions of stupid misconceptions we have about aliens. Here are some others:
That aliens would be interested in talking to anybody at all. What if we’re the only insecure species desperately begging for a higher power?
That exploring aliens would be motivated to seek us out. The late Stephen Hawking countered that if they’re anything like us, but more advanced, they might be more likely to fumigate the planet and build a mall here.
That there would be any aliens at all inside their craft. We send unmanned space probes out there. Why should aliens not also see the convenience of this tactic?
That the result would be peaceful. Pretty much everything alive that has ever met a human is damned sorry seconds later, except the few prized species we domesticate for companions.
That they would be advanced. Plain old bacteria can stick to an asteroid and float around in space you know, we’ve proven that.
That last idea is the perfect illustration of what’s wrong with people when we try to imagine aliens.
Just one example of a bad assumption we make about aliens
We imagine that a spacecraft traveling to Earth would have to have faster-then-light travel.
Well, what of it? Go ahead, point and laugh. Silly man, of course they would need faster-than-light travel! Space is bazillions and bazillions big, you can’t fly it in one… wait, are you talking about suspended animation?
No, I’m not talking about that either.
Think about it: Why do WE need faster-than-light travel to get through space?
Because even to reach the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, would take 6.3K years with present technology. We’d die of old age before we completed the trip!
Right, that’s it. We would die of old age before we completed the trip.
But wait, doesn’t that actually point to a flaw in the human lifespan? We live a fiddlin’ threescore and ten, maybe up to sixscore if we eat our lentils. It’s possible to live much longer. We have plenty of life forms right here on Earth that outlive humans. There’s tortoises that live to 150, clams that live to 500, and jellyfish that are effectively immortal. That’s pine trees that live past 5K!
Our puny human brains pop at the idea, but what if there’s an alien out there with a lifespan, say, bazillions of our years long? Then an interstellar trip would just be a short vacation to them. Heck, maybe they don’t even need rockets. Maybe they can just sit on a milkcrate, launch it with a slingshot, and then patiently drift through space for 250 octillion years to their destination.
Given an epic iPod shuffle list, of course.
Did you just get cosmic vertigo digesting this thought experiment? That’s just a taste of how crappy humans are at imagining anything extraterrestrial.
We have our hands full sorting out plenty of trouble right here on Earth. We don’t need to go looking in space for more.