UFOs and SETI Are Not the Same
A secular astronomer distinguishes belief that space aliens exist and the notion that they have visited Earth.
UFOs are back in public consciousness, now that the US government is opening up some files and releasing reliable accounts of military pilots who have seen them. On Fox News, popular night host Tucker Carlson has discussed news about UFOs several times, seemingly eager to have people take them seriously.
At The Conversation, Chris Impey says, “I’m an astronomer and I think aliens may be out there – but UFO sightings aren’t persuasive.” He makes a distinction between astrobiologists (who believe life probably has evolved throughout the universe) and UFOlogists (who think alien spacecraft are visiting Earth).
Surveys show that nearly half of Americans believe that aliens have visited the Earth, either in the ancient past or recently. That percentage has been increasing. Belief in alien visitation is greater than belief that Bigfoot is a real creature, but less than belief that places can be haunted by spirits.
Scientists dismiss these beliefs as not representing real physical phenomena. They don’t deny the existence of intelligent aliens. But they set a high bar for proof that we’ve been visited by creatures from another star system. As Carl Sagan said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
There was perhaps no more passionate astronomer who promoted the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI) than Sagan. Yet he, like Impey, dismissed UFOs. It’s not that they dismissed the possibility that alien craft have come here; in fact, the well-known Fermi Paradox (named after Enrico Fermi, physicist, who thought about this) asks “Where are they?” If space aliens have been evolving for millions of years longer than humans have (in evolutionary thinking), they should have developed such advanced technology that they could have crossed the cosmic oceans to reach Earth by now. Fermi did not accept UFO evidence either. Impey adds,
I’m a professor of astronomy who has written extensively on the search for life in the universe. I also teach a free online class on astrobiology. Full disclosure: I have not personally seen a UFO.
It’s a critical distinction to make: the UFO question is not the same as the SETI question. There may be some SETI advocates who believe UFOs are real, but the vast majority do not. Sure there are unidentified objects that fly, and they should be figured out, but that does not mean that non-human creatures have crossed light-years of space to come here.
UFOs are part of the landscape of conspiracy theories, including accounts of abduction by aliens and crop circles created by aliens. I remain skeptical that intelligent beings with vastly superior technology would travel trillion of miles just to press down our wheat.
Impey even says that UFO following has become “a kind of new American religion.”
The very best treatment of the UFO phenomenon is Alien Intrusion: Unmasking a Deception produced by Gary Bates of CMI. This is a must-see documentary if you are at all interested in UFOs or want to counsel people who are. Well-produced, with highly qualified individuals to speak on the subject, a great deal of historical footage, and actual interviews of people who have seen UFOs or have vivid memories of being abducted by aliens, this is an authoritative resource that is both captivating and convincing.