Etiology of Alien Derangement Syndrome
With no evidence for their invisible friends, believers in space aliens are losing their minds. Are they setting themselves up for mass deception?
Another mystery signal from space has been solved, Phys.org announces. Bad news: It’s not aliens. This has become a common scenario: believers get excited about the possibility of a signal from their imaginary friends (6/15/17), only to find out there’s a natural explanation, and the alien-of-the-gaps explanation gets narrower. The case of the “Weird!” signal from dim star Ross 128 was admittedly a long shot, but hopes ran high:
“However, many people were more interested in the signals as potential proof of transmissions from an extraterrestrial intelligent civilization,” wrote Abel Mendez, director of the Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo in a blog post Friday, revealing the true nature of the signals.
The answer: it was just bleeps from intelligently-designed geostationary satellites.
Jesse Emspak at Live Science recalls five other times when “‘aliens’ fooled us.” This suggests another trait of Alien Derangement Syndrome: projection. Patients tend to project their own gullibility on everyone else.
Astrobiology, which concerns itself with any life beyond earth, and SETI, which concerns itself with intelligent life, have one thing in common: they have no evidence. Lack of evidence, though, was never a hindrance to the true believers. In the following news articles, we examine how the true believers accommodate themselves to the lack of evidence, avoiding depression by keeping hope alive.
Titanic Poison Blunder
Alien derangement syndrome ran full bore when AAAS Science Advances announced the discovery of vinyl cyanide at Saturn’s large moon Titan. Vinyl cyanide sounds nasty, and it is. Also known as acrylonitrile, it’s a highly toxic, flammable gas. The discovery would probably not have made a splash, except that the ALMA instrument team speculated that there’s enough of the poison to form ten million cell membranes per cubic centimeter in the goo of one of Titan’s oily seas. ‘Cell membranes? Really?’ Reporters sprang to their teletype machines:
- Saturn’s moon offers glimpse of Earth’s primordial past (Science Daily): “These pools of hydrocarbons, however, create a unique environment that may help molecules of vinyl cyanide (C2H3CN) link together to form membranes, features resembling the lipid-based cell membranes of living organisms on Earth.”
- Building blocks of alien cells found on Saturn’s largest moon (New Scientist). “Conditions on Titan are looking more and more promising for life,” Leah Crane promises the hopeful. “For the first time, the building blocks of cell membranes have been detected in the moon’s atmosphere.”
- Saturn Moon Titan Has Molecules That Could Help Make Cell Membranes (Space.com). “Saturn’s huge moon Titan harbors yet another possible key ingredient for life,” Mike Wall opines.
- Has Cassini found a universal driver for prebiotic chemistry at Titan? (Phys.org). “These linear molecules are understood to be building blocks towards more complex molecules, and may have acted as the basis for the earliest forms of life on Earth.” Interestingly, this article notes that the molecules are highly reactive and should not last long in Titan’s atmosphere.
- Saturn’s moon Titan may harbour simple life forms – and reveal how organisms first formed on Earth (The Conversation). Ravi Desai from University College London first admits that scientists don’t even know how the ingredients for life arrived at home sweet home. But then he jumps off the deep end, saying, “The discovery not only makes Titan a great contender for hosting some sort of primitive life, it also makes it the ideal place to study how life may have arisen from chemical reactions on our own planet.”
Winner of the most deranged story should probably be awarded to National Geographic. In “Building Block for ‘Vinyl Life’ Found on Saturn’s Moon Titan,” the author envisions a “Squid World” of alien creatures complete with mythical vinyl cyanide membranes.
When winter comes to Titan’s poles, it brings seasonal downpours of toxic molecules that could, under the right conditions, assemble themselves into structures like the biological membranes that encase living cells on Earth….
“there’s enough of it in one large alien lake to potentially create 36 billion giant squid.”
Reality check time: living cells do NOT use vinyl cyanide for cell membranes. If they did, they would die instantly. Vinyl cyanide is to life as iron in a statue is to human skin, or as soap bubbles are to living cells. Good thing this author is not named, or sensible folk might intervene to have him or her committed. During one brief paragraph, the anonymous reporter seems to have had a moment of clarity:
So far, no one has done the actual lab experiment needed to prove vinyl cyanide can form membranes. It’s difficult working with cryogenic methane and poisonous cyanide—and after all, there’s only so much you can do to replicate what’s happening on Titan when you live on Earth.
But the author quickly returned to the Squid World fantasy. This suggests that Alien Derangement Syndrome is episodic, with long periods of fantasy interrupted by brief moments of sense. The Phys.org piece ends with appeals for more spacecraft investigations, suggesting a possible motivation for titillating the public.
SETI and Wait
Moving on to SETI, the search for intelligent life, true believers have found additional ways to sit and wait for evidence. Elizabeth Howell at Space.com cautions that “Detecting Alien Life Will Likely Be a Protracted Process, Not a Eureka Moment.” Hopeful signals often take months or years to confirm or debunk, Howell points out, claiming that’s normal for science. But SETI believers have already had over 50 years to search, and every lead so far has been false. How long do they get? Too much longer, and the proponents will all be dead, with no accountability for misleading the public.
Ian Crawford is taking out a kind of falsification insurance policy. On The Conversation, he explains “Why looking for aliens is good for society (even if there aren’t any).” Crawford argues that the search brings scientists from different disciplines together. It helps reunify the sciences that have tended to get fragmented. The open-ended search, he continues, helps philosophers and theologians reconsider their assumptions. It might even help world politics, he ends. This sounds like a ruse to help snipe hunters not feel so bad for having wasted their time. The leader can always say, ‘But we sure had fun out there in the woods, didn’t we? And we learned how to cooperate and think about the existence of mythical creatures, even though they might not exist.’ Crawford never considers the possibility of more productive ways to achieve those ends.
Geraint Lewis at New Scientist doesn’t take too kindly to a new proposal to answer Fermi’s Where-are-they?-they-should-have-come-by-now paradox. The aliens, the speculation goes, have found it thermodynamically less costly to just sit back and ponder the big questions of life than to try to communicate. “There is nothing wrong with a bit of speculation,” Lewis says; “it can inspire new thinking and new solutions, but it should be taken with an appropriately sized pinch of salt.”
Terror at Fallen Aliens, or, We Have Met the Enemy and It Is Us
Alien Derangement Syndrome can also produce convulsions of apoplexy. Stephen Hawking, Fox New Science relays, is “deathly afraid of aliens.” In his dreams, he sees imaginary enemies, not imaginary friends: “rapacious marauders roaming the cosmos in search of resources to plunder, and planets to conquer and colonise.” The author of this article found a way to insert another secular terror into the story: climate change. That’s not likely to calm down Dr Hawking.
A flip side of delusions about evil aliens is the thought that we could become them. Science fiction writers sometimes imagine what would happen if humans robotify themselves and launch themselves into space, seeding the galaxy with ‘transhuman’ aliens—perhaps the very rapacious marauders Hawking is worried about. Alexander Thomas, another UK PhD dude, speculates at length about that on The Conversation, proving that he has learned more about science fiction than science fact at the university. Note the references to evolution and fantasy:
“Transhumanism” is the idea that humans should transcend their current natural state and limitations through the use of technology – that we should embrace self-directed human evolution. If the history of technological progress can be seen as humankind’s attempt to tame nature to better serve its needs, transhumanism is the logical continuation: the revision of humankind’s nature to better serve its fantasies.
What is it that makes Thomas suspect such a future would be dystopian? Is it his awareness of human moral fallibility? Is it his own conscience? Is it his understanding of the amoral nature of natural selection that makes him see Hunger Games in the transhumanist future? Taking evolution into our own hands will not fix morality, he realizes in conclusion. It will reflect it. A terrifying prospect, indeed.
You can decide to believe God doesn’t exist, but something in human nature yearns for contact with minds greater than our own. We saw it in the unexpected popularity of the 1977 hit movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, being re-released this September. Clay Routledge at the New York Times shared something else unexpected: atheists are more likely than religious people to believe in UFOs. In “Don’t Believe in God? Maybe You’ll Try U.F.O.s,” he relays statistics that show that as religious involvement declines, there has been a corresponding rise in belief in paranormal phenomena, including ghosts, contact with the dead and UFOs. Fully two-thirds of Americans “hold supernatural or paranormal beliefs of some kind, including beliefs in reincarnation, spiritual energy and psychic powers.” Routledge attributes the trend to the need for meaning in life:
These numbers are much higher than they were in previous decades, when more people reported being highly religious. People who do not frequently attend church are twice as likely to believe in ghosts as those who are regular churchgoers. The less religious people are, the more likely they are to endorse empirically unsupported ideas about U.F.O.s, intelligent aliens monitoring the lives of humans and related conspiracies about a government cover-up of these phenomena.
An emerging body of research supports the thesis that these interests in nontraditional supernatural and paranormal phenomena are driven by the same cognitive processes and motives that inspire religion. For instance, my colleagues and I recently published a series of studies in the journal Motivation and Emotion demonstrating that the link between low religiosity and belief in advanced alien visitors is at least partly explained by the pursuit of meaning. The less religious participants were, we found, the less they perceived their lives as meaningful. This lack of meaning was associated with a desire to find meaning, which in turn was associated with belief in U.F.O.s and alien visitors.
We can see the headlines on the National Exciter already: “Darwin arrives in UFO with the ultimate sermon.” But why would evolution create a need for which there is no fulfillment? Why would natural selection not leave humans disinterested in meaning, or simply satisfied with the meaningless of a material world? Would this poll suggest that people with spiritual meaning have greater fitness than secularists? Theists will find confirmation for their view in these statistics, (1) that faith is not irrational, and (2) we are created in God’s image with an innate hunger to know God. G. K. Chesterton would certainly feel vindicated at this illustration of Alien Derangement Syndrome. He said, “When Man ceases to worship God he does not worship nothing but worships everything.”
According to Movieweb.com, a NASA scientist thinks we are living in a hologram. This is the ultimate derangement stage, it’s easy to see, because it is self-refuting (hear Nancy Pearson discuss self-refutation at ID the Future). If Rich Terrile at JPL really thinks “our reality is an elaborate hologram created by an alien race,” then his theory cannot be true, because his statements are a reflection of the Matrix-like program, not an analysis based on his own independent reason. Reporter Kevin Burwick never quite catches on to the fallacy. He rather enjoys the delusion:
Just because some professional scientists and people at NASA are entertaining the thought that we may be living in an advanced alien created hologram doesn’t make it true, but it sure is interesting to think about. Are aliens controlling what you read and what you eat for breakfast? Are some rogue aliens making the Matrix movies as a way to enlighten the “human” race? Or are we just a giant Sims game for the Aliens? We may never know, but technology certainly is catching up and our cultures are moving at new speeds trying to figure out human existence, which may in fact just lead us into out [sic] own realities.
Actually, we can know, because any self-refuting proposition is necessarily false. Which leads back to our opening suggestion: if the true believers show themselves to be this deranged—this blind to logical incoherence—this open to suggestion—would they fall for a sufficiently advanced signal pretending to be from an evolved alien intelligence, but really coming from an evil, immaterial source? The Bible predicts that possibility as a virtual certainty (see II Thessalonians 2). It should not be surprising, therefore, that Terrile considers his self-refuting view to stand in opposition to theism: “Dr. Rich Terrile, the director of the Center for Evolutionary Computation and Automated Design at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has said that we can all be the creation of a cosmic computer programmer as opposed to a God.”
I knew who Rich Terrile was during my years at JPL. He was well thought of by his peers. As a secularist/evolutionist member of the Darwin Party in good standing, he can say any crazy thing he wants, even illogical things. But not me. When I simply tried to share scientific evidence for intelligent design with a few co-workers, I was disciplined, demoted, and eventually dismissed, cast out on the curb without job after 14 years of honorable work. Ken Ham, bless his heart, recalled the unfairness of this situation after having read about Rich Terrile’s crazy idea. On his AiG blog for July 23, he said,
According to reports, Dr. Terrile has been sharing these views—which are not grounded in any kind of scientific observations—since at least 2010. Now this is interesting because, as we reported in 2010 in Answers magazine, in 2009 David Coppedge, a computer systems specialist who also worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, was demoted for sharing science-based Intelligent Design DVDs with his colleagues. Apparently he was being disruptive for supposedly promoting religion. He was later fired from NASA.
So NASA tolerates a top-level scientist espousing the very unscientific idea that aliens (for which there is not a scrap of observational evidence) have created an elaborate hologram, of which we are part. But they have no use for someone who believes the incredible—and observable!—design we see throughout creation points toward a Designer?
When the deranged run the show, the rest of us must cling to our common sense lest we be swept along in the delusion. Like Rudyard Kipling said, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you,” it might be a necessary part of becoming a true man or woman. And that’s no just-so story.