We aren’t really trying to grasp the actuality of ETs…



From London Review of Books:

Aliens have nothing but contempt for us, or they love us. Oddly, they don’t seem to be indifferent to us (how could anyone be?), though this is surely the best explanation for the apparent absence of signals, given – so the calculations go – that there are at least ten billion planets in the universe capable of producing intelligent life. Even this bit of arithmetic may be based on our incapacity to think beyond ourselves. A recent paper I don’t pretend to understand uses ‘a Bayesian analysis of the probability of abiogenesis’ to show that life might, after all, be very rare; rather lax mathematical assumptions about the term ‘likelihood’ caused the error in the old equation. It’s all maths to me, but I think this relates to the fact that the terms used for the way life might come about are based on the sole example we know of universal life, which is us and our fellow creatures on this planet.

Try as we might to imagine ETs that are not like us, we remain the baseline. In The Myth and Mystery of UFOs, Thomas Bullard suggests that this may be more interesting than merely evidence of compulsive anthropocentrism and a limited imagination. Surely, we aren’t really trying to grasp the actuality of extra-terrestrials. Or at any rate, the narratives related by believers in and experiencers of UFOs, aliens among us and extra-terrestrial abductions tell us as much about human fears (and hopes) as about the real or fancied activities of visitors from outer space. Bullard is a board member of the Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS), a privately funded research group set up in 1973 to make UFO studies more academically respectable – ‘the flagship of scholarly excellence for the field’. CUFOS was headed until his death in 1986 by Josef Allen Hynek, a professor of astronomy at Northwestern University and longtime consultant to the US air force. He publicly switched from doubter to believer in the fact, at least, of unidentified flying objects, having decided that in spite of all the false sightings there was ‘a stubborn, unyielding residue of incredible reports from credible people’. Bullard echoes Hynek in holding that ‘the body of data points to an aspect of the natural world not yet explored by science’ and goes further, to say ‘that enough threads of coherent experience exist to reject cultural explanations as less than the whole story, though cultural influences contribute much to our interest in the phenomenon even as they do much to confuse our understanding of it. Both sides deserve the serious attention they have never received.’

He describes numerous classical UFO sightings and abduction claims, allowing that many of them were fake or misinterpretations of astronomical or covert military phenomena. Those that remain come from reliable sources, lack alternative explanations, or have a compelling cross-cultural and historical consistency. He says no more than that some stories can’t be accounted for by other explanations. This makes him a surprisingly restrained advocate of little green men. His background is in folklore – his PhD from Indiana University was on that subject – and it inclines him to give far greater cultural and anthropological weight to his understanding of sightings and experiences of the phenomenon of UFOs than you’d otherwise expect. In a subject where the lack of non-anecdotal evidence means it is only possible to believe in extra-terrestrial visits, not to prove them, a cultural description is probably the only alternative to evangelical sermonising. Evangelism works wackily both ways: in 1997, Pat Robertson called for people who believe in ‘space aliens’ to be stoned to death, since if ‘space aliens’ did exist they (and therefore believers in them) would be nothing more than agents of the devil trying to lead people away from Christ.

“What might they want?”, Jenny Diski, London Review of Books