IMO: UFOs and Alien Visitation
by Mike Weaver
April 16, 2013
In this installment of IMO (in my opinion), let's talk a bit about UFOs and alien visitation. UFOs, in this context, doesn't exactly mean "Unidentified Flying Objects" but rather "Alien Spacecraft" (or possibly government experimental craft, time travelers, inter-dimensional travelers, I'm going to stick with aliens for now). Alien visitation, of course, refers to aliens visiting our planet either recently or in the far past.
Of all the "woo" we look at, analyze, and deconstruct as a part of skeptical work, I like aliens and UFOs the best. When we look at psychics, ghosts, mediums, remote viewing, homeopathy, reiki, crystal healing, and all the other items like that, we have good, scientific and evidence-based material to draw from when reviewing the claims. There are good tests for a lot of them which can be done in a rigorous and repeatable fashion, with adequate controls for bias.
With UFOs or alien visitation, the case is not so clear. There is nothing in physics or science in general which forbids the visiting of our humble world by interplanetary explorers. That light you see moving through the sky COULD, in fact, be an alien spacecraft looking for whatever aliens look for. I love the possibilities, but not the likelihoods, of course. The Nazca Lines could have been made by ancient humans as signals to the alien visitors of the day (the gods, perhaps?). They probably aren't, highly likely aren't, but it is possible.
Unhappily, the vast majority of evidence offered for UFOs and alien visitation is poor, at best. Low quality photos and videos which are ambiguous or frauds, anecdotes which amount to little more than fire-side ghost stories, tales of government conspiracy and cover ups, and other evidence of similar nature. Given how common UFO reports are, one would expect some decent evidence to arise at some point. If there is a real phenomenon and it happens often enough, evidence will be found. I'd love some compelling evidence. If y'all have some, let me know and we'll get rich together.
Exoplanets are being discovered all the time. Many of those more and more Earth-like in size, distance from their stars, etc. The galaxy is teeming with planets and it does appear that there is a decent chance of more than a few of them being potential hosts for life, even life as we know it. Given the vast size of the galaxy, the astonishingly large number of stars, the potentially huge number of planets, it is, to my thinking, very likely that at least a few of them have the potential for life. We haven't seen any of it yet, of course, but I expect that we will have evidence at some point, perhaps in my lifetime. I expect such evidence will take the form of an oxygen-rich atmosphere (transit surveys looking at spectra of atmospheric gasses) or even polluted atmospheres, a sure sign of industry and technology. Astronomy Cast episode 143 offers some good information, give it a listen.
My feeling is that the galaxy is likely teeming with life. I am bothered by a question that troubled many others, most smarter than I am, where are they? Where is the life? Why haven't we seen or heard them yet? This is known as Fermi's paradox, which is a complement to the Drake equation. There are a number of hypotheses put forth as possible explanations to the Fermi paradox. Perhaps we are one of the early races in our part of the galaxy, the others haven't been around long enough for their radio emissions to reach us yet. Perhaps we are really young and all of the nearby civilizations have quit using communication technology we can detect (radio, etc). Perhaps every civilization destroys itself after it reaches a certain level of technology (not a happy thought). Maybe they are just really far away and not enough time has passed for their signals to reach us. I don't know. For all I know, we're in a region of protected space, intentionally isolated from the rest of the galaxy until we venture to the stars on our own.
Are aliens visiting Earth now? Maybe, but I doubt it. Given what we know of the way things seem to work, it would likely take a huge investment in time, money, and energy to get to Earth from even the closest potentially habitable planets. With such a large investment on the line, would YOU travel all the way to another planet and not say "Hi!" in an unambiguous way? Or would you, instead, visit people in the middle of nowhere and mess with them in ways that seem like mental illness and leave no good evidence? They're aliens, who knows what they'd do. I would think, though, that any species having enough rationality to build interstellar spacecraft and travel here would behave in some ways understandable to us.
I don't think it's likely that aliens have or are now visiting the Earth. Maybe they are, but I'd peg the odds as being pretty low. I'm still keeping an eye on the sky and hoping to meet some visitors from another star.
by Mike Weaver
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