19 November 2007

Sexing Up UFOs

By Rusty Rockets

Ever seen those car commercials where a young, scantily clad woman gets a shot of tactile ecstasy from merely stroking a sports car's luxurious lipstick-red exterior? You're supposed to think; "If I buy that car, then..." Then what? You'll be a chick-magnet? Not likely. It's also not likely that aliens have been visiting our planet, but you wouldn't know it from the way the science community remains mealy-mouthed or even silent on Joe Public's certainty that UFOs are visiting Earth. If pressed, both the car manufacturer and the government official will admit that the woman and the aliens are illusory. And while it's easy to understand how the woman may help boost car sales, what's in it for the science community to keep the illusion of orifice-probing aliens aloft?

Despite what were considered to be major investigations into Unidentified Flying Object (UFO) sightings in the 50s, 60s and 70s, neither NASA nor the USAF have been very forthcoming one way or the other when it comes to the idea of extraterrestrials (ETs) visiting Earth. Project Blue Book, a systematic study into UFOs, was initiated by the USAF in 1952, and eventually terminated in 1970, after no evidence one way or the other was found to support a breach of natural physical laws, or the existence of alien technologies. Naturally enough, conspiracy buffs claimed that the project was dubiously managed, that data was suppressed, and that military officials continued to gather UFO data long after the project ended (there's just no pleasing some people). But even today, official attitudes toward UFOs are curiously inconsistent.

So what is the official word? Well, recently a panel of scientists conducting an independent review concluded that UFOs are worthy of further study after all. "It may be valuable to carefully evaluate UFO reports to extract information about unusual phenomena currently unknown to science," claim the international review panel of nine physical scientists. Of course, it will all be done very tastefully, they assure us, so that "such evaluations must take place with a spirit of objectivity and a willingness to evaluate rival hypotheses."

However, the panel's latest conclusions are a stark contrast to those reached by Dr. Edward U. Condon, director of the Colorado Project, in his 1968 UFO report. Back then Condon argued: "further extensive study of UFOs probably cannot be justified in the expectation that science will be advanced thereby." But barely two years after Condon's conclusions, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics' Kuettner Report argued for: "a continuing, moderate-level [research] effort with emphasis on improved data collection by objective means and on high-quality scientific analysis" in regard to UFOs. With all of this official flip-flopping over the years, it looks as though they are messing with the public on the issue of UFOs - but more on that later.

You don't need to be a paid-up member on Mensa to work out how unlikely it is that aliens are visiting Earth, because making such a claim implies a number of truly remarkable things. First of all, any visiting aliens are most probably quite some distance away from Earth, at least outside of our own range of space travel or detection technologies. This may not be saying much, but it at least implies that their technology is likely a whole lot more advanced than our own. Another factor is time. Technologically advanced humans haven't been around for very long in the scheme of things; just a spec of time in the Earth's history, and our span of existence barely registers when compared to the age of the universe. So given these variables, what are the chances that (a) an alien civilization exists simultaneously within the same teensy-weensy timeframe as we humans, (b) is relatively close to Earth, and (c) intelligent enough to have the technology to reach us? Slim at best.

Another seemingly good reason why we shouldn't put much stock in UFO sightings is because UFOs seem to be invariably seen by ordinary, everyday folk, rather than astronomers and other relevantly qualified persons. But of course, this rule of thumb has since been dashed, as the international panel attempting to have UFO investigations reopened is also comprised of a band of former military pilots and high-ranking officials who have their own UFO sightings to add as evidence. "It's a question of who you're going to believe: your lying eyes or the Government?" said John Callahan, a former Federal Aviation Administration investigator. Callahan alleges that the CIA tried to silence reports about an enormous luminescent ball, roughly four times the size of a jumbo jet.

Either NASA, together with USAF's top brass, know something that we don't and they're keeping it hush-hush - like Area 51 and Roswell are real - or they're just playing with us. As I said earlier, the lack of commitment to UFO research one way or the other makes the latter far more likely - but to what end?

In some respects you could argue that the concept of Earth-visiting aliens is to science what Intelligent Design (ID) is to creationism. That is, both world-views exploit such unlikely and improbable speculations to forward scientific research and theological teaching - though obviously in very different ways. Why, for instance, do you rarely hear scientists come out and explain how unlikely it is that intelligent civilizations are visiting Earth? Are we to assume from this silence that UFO sightings are in fact quite likely? And let's face it; scientists aren't too big to take pot shots at something they find preposterous, as evidenced by the chorus of scientific opposition to ID.

Likewise, the same phenomenon that you see with scientists and UFO sightings seems to occur with respect to theologians whenever ID is raised in the public arena. Despite ID not telling the story of creation as set out in the Bible, it does allow the concept of a "creator" or "designer" to seep into the public consciousness. As a result, you can find fundamentalist Christians, creationists, and Bible literalists biting their tongues whenever ID is discussed, and even supporting moves to have ID taught in classrooms - adopting the "students should hear all arguments" position. In their eyes, ID is a gateway to theological concepts more in line with Christian thought, and therefore a valuable tool to forward their overall religious agenda.

So what message are we to take from these scientific and theological shenanigans? Ok, ID is bad because it has no grounding in science, is without foundation, and should therefore not be taught in science class. Fine. But if scientists are happy to continue letting the public believe that alien visitations are possible, then perhaps we should introduce such possibilities into the science classroom. At the very least students could put the possibility of alien visitations into some kind of perspective, instead of being left wondering about the veracity of every UFO sighting that they see, hear, or read about (UFO videos are some of the most popular items on YouTube). If the issues surrounding UFO sightings were addressed in science class, there may even be a reduction in the number of erroneous UFO sightings as people begin to have a better understanding of what it is they are seeing "Dang, Jed, that ain't no fly-in saucer, that there be a meteorite." But judging by the silence of the science community in regard to UFO sightings, educating the public about such matters is not on their agenda. But why the selectiveness?

NASA spends a lot of time and money (billions, in fact) on space projects that really don't amount to much in regard to improving the human condition - either now or in the future. In relative terms, it's like you or I irresponsibly dipping into the family budget so that we can go on a holiday to somewhere we've never visited before, because you've heard that it might be pretty or interesting, because it's there, because you can. So, much like the creationists, scientists bite their tongues when it comes to UFO sightings, because they know that as long as the public has a vested interest in our skies, then NASA will always have the public on side in regard to space project funding. Billions of dollars are nothing compared with the possibility of finding the perpetrators of all of those cattle mutilations, abductions and probings.

The pointy end of this argument is that UFO sightings - fueled by sensational media reports that go unchecked - are tolerated by the scientific community because such incidents help cast space exploration in a worthwhile light in the eyes of the public. But just as you won't be having dinner any time soon with the gorgeous woman writhing about on the expensive red sports car, don't expect that your tax dollar investment in the space race will lead to ET dropping by for a visit.

Related articles:
The Space Race's Softer Side
Take Me To Your Lame Duck President
Martian Dreaming
Pulsars: What Are We Missing?
We Come In Peace - NOT!
In Space, No One Can Hear You Say "Doh!"