As you may or may not have been made aware, apparently there is a thing called World UFO Day, celebrated on July 2nd. In light of this, I attempted to publish something on the 2nd, but since Tumblr doesn’t (yet?) have an auto-save function, my 8 year old Macbook crashed and I lost everything. This is an inconvenience, Tumblr. FYI.
The above screen grab is from one of my favorite films, Steven Spielberg’s ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind' (and one of the best UFO films ever created, IMO), accompanied with a stellar and unforgettable music score (watch composer John Williams conduct excerpts from the film, it’s quite magical).
If you don’t own ‘Close Encounters’ or haven’t even seen the film, I highly recommend purchasing the 30th Anniversary Blu-Ray Ultimate Edition….
…head’s up! Here’s why.
When I was younger, I was fascinated with UFO’s, due in part to shows like ‘Sightings’, ‘Unsolved Mysteries’, and of course, ‘The X-Files.’ In fact, one of my favorite box sets in my film collection is the 'X-Files Mythology' (see Volume 1 for example) which stripped away all of the supernatural/monster episodes so that you could properly indulge in the core story arch. Pretty damn cool and again, highly recommended.
Learn about the mythology from Director Chris Carter, HERE.
However grounded in conspiracy and mysticism, The X-Files became a major influence on the fine-tuning of my skepticism. Later on in my life, the re-discovery of Carl Sagan and his literature (such as: The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God; Contact; and The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark
So. What did Carl Sagan have to say about UFO’s and alien abduction?
As a prominent member of The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), formerly known as the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), quite a lot. Carl loved the discussion of aliens - properly, extraterrestrial intelligence - however, he persistently squashed pseudoscientific claims of flying saucers and close encounter stories from alleged alien abductees.
Watch this 1966 interview with Carl Sagan, where he discusses extraterrestrial life with Walter Cronkite.
David Morrison - former NASA senior scientist and Committee for Skeptical Inquiry fellow, who currently divides his time between the SETI Institute and NASA’s Lunar Science Institute (along with hosting the “Ask an Astrobiologist" column at NASA’s website) - was also a planetary scientist, colleague, and student of Sagan.
You can browse David’s archive of articles here.
Morrison published a wonderful article via Skeptical Inquirer, “Carl Sagan’s Life and Legacy as Scientist, Teacher, and Skeptic”, where he provides insight into Carl’s dealings with UFO claims:
UFO proponents argued that even though there was no individual sighting in which one could make a compelling case for extraterrestrial spacecraft, the sheer volume of reports justified continuing examination and study. In contrast, Sagan emphasized the unreliability of witnesses, the absence of physical evidence of UFOs, and alternative explanations including hallucination and self-delusion. He noted that “there are no cases that are simultaneously very reliable (reported independently by a large number of witnesses) and very exotic (not explicable in terms of reasonably postulated phenomena),” and he applied a skeptical standard that is often associated with his name: that extraordinary claims require extraordinary levels of evidence or proof.
I encourage everyone to read Morrison’s article in its entirety via CSICOP.
Hmm. Not quite.
From NOVA’s 1996 interview with Carl Sagan on Alien Abduction:
“…a kind of skepticism is routinely applied to the radio search for extraterrestrial intelligence by its most fervent proponents. I do not see [in] the alien abduction situation a similar rigorous application of scientific skepticism by its proponents. Instead, I see enormous acceptance at face value, and leading the witness, and all sorts of suggestions. Plus, the contamination by the general culture of this idea. It seems to me there is a big difference between the two approaches to extraterrestrial intelligence, although I’m frequently written to [to] say how could I search for extraterrestrial intelligence and disbelieve that we’re being visited. I don’t see any contradiction at all. It’s a wonderful prospect, but requires the most severe and rigorous standards of evidence.
“There is a claim that a brontosaurus is tramping through the jungles today in the republic of Congo. Should a massive expedition be mounted with government funds to find it, or it is so implausible as not to be worth serious sustained systematic attention? My second point is that to the extent that extraordinary claims require extraordinary investigations, those investigations must be true to the spirit of science. And that means highly skeptical, demanding, rigorous standards of evidence. There’s not a hint of that from alien abduction enthusiasts. I think that the alien abduction enthusiasts understand the need for physical evidence. It’s the pathway to some degree of respectability. And for 40 years, they’ve been telling us that real evidence is just around the corner, it’s about to be released, it’s being studied at this moment. And nothing ever comes of it.”
(NOVA) Could you please comment on the part of the quality of the evidence that is put forward by these so-called “abduction proponents.
“To be taken seriously, you need physical evidence that can be examined at leisure by skeptical scientists: a scraping of the whole ship, and the discovery that it contains isotopic ratios that aren’t present on Earth, chemical elements from the so-called island of stability, very heavy elements that don’t exist on Earth. Or material of absolutely bizarre properties of many sorts—electrical conductivity or ductility. There are many things like that that would instantly give serious credence to an account. But there’s no scrapings, no interior photographs, no filched page from the captain’s log book. All there are are stories. There are instances of disturbed soil, but I can disturb soil with a shovel. There are instances of people claiming to flash lights at UFOs and the UFOs flash back. But, pilots of airplanes can also flash back, especially if they think it would be a good joke to play on the UFO enthusiast. So, that does not constitute good evidence.”
(NOVA) According to Hopkins and others, the main evidence for these stories—in the absence of other evidence—is the similarity of details. In your opinion, what other explanations might account for the similarity and the details of the stories or hallucinations of these abductees?
“The culture contaminates. Movies, television programs, books, haunting pages of aliens, and television interviews with passionate abductees—all communicate to the widest possible community the alien abduction paradigm. So, it’s not as if each abductee has been hermetically sealed from the outside world and has no input about what others are saying. It’s all cross contaminated, and it has been for decades. I think that’s the clearest evidence for it not being good evidence—that many people tell the same story.”
“…children, universally, have terrible nightmares, especially around [the ages of] 7 to 11, and wake up from sleep absolutely terrified about a monster, a witch, a goblin, a demon, and why shouldn’t some of us retain that? I mean, there’s no question that those monsters don’t exist, and they’re [not] hiding in the closet or under the bed. That’s something generated in the mind. Why should it all go away when we grow up? We should retain some of that. And could not something like that be an explanation? I would try to simply ask them to adopt the scientific method of multiple working hypothesis. Right now, they have only one hypothesis and their minds are, in many cases, closed to the alternative. I would ask them to do a serious consideration of the alternative, see if it makes sense.”
Carl Sagan’s 1994 Keynote Speech for the Seattle CSICOP, “Wonder and Skepticism” is also not to be missed, along with the Q&A that followed.
We’re now living in a time where SETI Researcher Seth Shostak has bet everyone a cup of coffee that we will detect intelligent life within 25 years. My, what a wonderfully exciting time in human history where those closest and dedicated to the cosmic hunt for E.T. are able to make such bold predictions. Carl would be quite proud. Watch Seth Shostak’s TED Talk, “ET is (probably) out there — get ready.”
The truth is out there. Stay curious!