I have often heard UFO enthusiasts defend their position by arguing that it is likely we are not alone in the universe. If aliens exist, which is likely, they argue, then why can’t they be visiting us. We recently received an e-mail from a self-identified skeptic and SGU listener making this same point:
With this information in mind, why is the notion that we could possibly be visited by sentient beings from somewhere else seen as stupid and mocked by everyone ? Note, I’m not saying we ARE being visited here, but I’m saying that it’s surely not logical to dismiss that we might be? I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if we are and I am asking, like Leslie, why am I being laughed at for therefore considering that some of these stories may be explained by the extraterrestrial solution ? Is it because there’s no hard evidence ? But surely that’s like laughing at the notion of “dark matter”, or the singularity because you’ve never seen it yet mathematically it must exist ?
The “Leslie” he is referring to is Leslie Kean, author of UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go On the Record. And the information he is referring to is the fact that the universe is a very big place, with many stars and planets and therefore opportunity for life.
The position the e-mailer (and apparently Leslie) is arguing against is that UFOs are likely not alien spacecraft because alien life itself is unlikely. This is a strawman argument, however – we certainly never expressed that opinion on the SGU and I am not aware of any prominent skeptic who holds that opinion. In fact we have explicitly acknowledged that there is nothing impossible about the existence of an alien technological civilizations or the possibility that they may visit us. We are strong supporters, in fact, of SETI, which is premised on the existence of alien civilizations.
The big unknown remains – how difficult will it be, even with fantastical future technology, to travel the light years between stellar systems? The laws of physics may simply not allow for convenient travel between the stars. This still allows for the possibility of self-replicating machines or similar technology spending hundreds of thousands or millions of years to colonize or at least explore every system in our galaxy, however. So it’s still possible we can be visited by aliens, even without faster-than-light travel, subspace, wormholes, or some similar technology.
The skeptical position is not that alien visitation is impossible or even improbable (at best we can say that we simply don’t know what the odds are – there are too many unknown variables). Rather it is simply that there is no compelling evidence that we are actually being visited by aliens. What evidence does exist is more easily explained by the psychocultural hypothesis rather than the extraterrestrial hypothesis.
The e-mailer continues:
If you sift through the vast nonsense and get rid of it, what remains is some real interesting cases such as Rendlesham forest incident, the pilot sightings given in this books and the sightings of the Apollo astronauts which have never been explained. Leslie suggests the phenomenon could be real and it’s being mocked as no government wants to admit that they don’t understand, nor can they control, what’s happening in the skies above them – the mockery of the subject therefore allows evidence to be brushed aside. I’m inclined to agree, especially if you read about the Chicago O’Hare and Rendlesham forest incidents which have stacks of multiple visual and radar evidence. In short, something was certainly there.
This is where we disagree – the interpretation of specific cases. First, the e-mailer makes the “residue” argument – once you get rid of the vast majority of silly or explainable cases, what remains is compelling. But I would argue that for any complex psychocultural phenomenon it will not be possible to explain every single case presented as evidence. There are simply too many quirky events and possibilities to allow for a confident explanation of every anecdotal case. In other words – even if aliens were not visiting the earth, we would still expect there to be a residue of cases that cannot be explained simply because there is insufficient information available, or the events were truly unusual (just not alien). The law of large numbers guarantees that such unlikely events will occur by chance alone.
Since he mentions the Rendlesham case, lets take a closer look at it. This case is often hailed as the “British Roswell,” which is apt, as it falls apart just as quickly on close inspection. The essence of the case is that some security officers at the Rendlesham airforce base were chasing lights through the woods one night. The next day some rabbit holes were mistaken for landing marks, and burn marks placed on trees to mark them for cutting were interpreted as burn marks from spacecraft. That’s pretty much it – lights and mundane markings.Reports of radioactivity were actually mistaken. (There are many skeptical descriptions of the case, here is a reasonably short one.)
There is no physical evidence, no compelling photographs or video, no spacecraft remains – no smoking gun. It’s even possible it was triggered by a deliberate prank, but that cannot be confirmed.
There are numerous possible causes of mysterious lights. It has also been clearly established that human perception is highly flawed and subject to illusions and misperceptions, especially under unusual viewing conditions, like chasing distant lights through the forest at night. The fact that Rendlesham is put forward as one of the best cases of evidence for alien visitation is very telling.
Despite the protestations of UFO enthusiasts, skeptics are not being dismissive, nor are we arguing that aliens are inherently improbable. There is simply no credible evidence for alien visitation. Generally speaking, supporters of the extraterrestrial hypothesis grossly underestimate the effect of the fallibility of human perception and memory and are too quick to dismiss the possibility of quirky, but non-extraterrestrial, events.