Humanity’s Problem Child: The Internet

Before we dissect the recent craze over aliens in the news, it is important to understand there exist strange phenomena that have not been properly explained. Such events require scrutiny and the application of the scientific method to validate. Lee Billings recently published an article in Scientific American discussing sensational events in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) and serves to caution the reader about spurious conclusions with specious data. In the article, Billings has a few sentences that capture the sentiments of this blogger:

Far from being close-minded killjoys, most scientists in the “never aliens” camp desperately want to be convinced otherwise. Their default skeptical stance is a prophylactic against the wiles of wishful thinking, a dare to true believers to provide extraordinary evidence in support of extraordinary claims. What is really extraordinary, the skeptics say, is not so much the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence but rather the notion that its existence nearby or visitation of Earth could be something easily unnoticed or overlooked. If aliens are out there—or even right here—in abundance, particularly ones wildly advanced beyond our state, why would incontrovertible proof of that reality be so annoyingly elusive?

This is especially true in the age of social media where it is easy to scour the underbelly of the internet for a place to validate any claim. For proponents of SETI, who wish to see this field fully embraced by science, any publications and announcements must be well managed. The first topic Billings discusses is KIC 8462852, the star at the center of an “alien megastructure” theory the media latched onto (see Movie 1). The scientists involved began a successful Kickstarter project to raise funds for observations which ultimately revealed the dips most likely due to clouds of submicron-scale dust. This star was first published in 2015 and the possibility of alien megastructures, inadvertently attributed to Jason Wright, was allowed to gain much traction despite its low probability. Wright states that the unwanted sensationalism lured astronomers to study this object “precisely because all the ‘aliens’ talk annoyed them, and they wanted to find a natural explanation”. The second example was of ‘Oumuamua, which was speculated to be a spaceship but later confirmed to be the first detected interstellar asteroid. Billings uses these to show that the media coverage, while perhaps hysterical, was able to mitigate much damage to SETI due to careful guiding of the narrative by the astronomy community.

Movie 1. Alien Megastructures (KIC 8462852)
Nat Geo describes the various scenarios for alien megastructures that have been considered for Tabby’s star.
Movie 2. The Truth Twitch of Conspiracies
Roger is hosting Conspiracy Con for those individuals who want the “truth”. Unfortunately, in the real world conspiracy conventions exist and people believe the government is intentionally hiding information about alien life.

Billings then dives into the lion’s den – unidentified flying objects (UFOs). Conspiracy theories regarding UFOs are rampant and even make cameos on shows (see Movie 2). In fact, conspiracies themselves have long since gained traction on the internet because of the wealth of data on the web itself allows people to draw links between anything (see Movie 3). This particular story was recently published by the New York Times (the Times), a reputable newspaper, and infused ufology with unneeded attention. The Times discussed a formerly classified program run by the Department of Defense to study reports from the armed services about encounters with UFOs. The program was officially canceled in 2012 and included videos of separate UFO encounters (see Movie 4). This article generated over one thousand comments ranging from support to criticism (one scoffed at money going into looking at UFOs but little to no money going into climate change). Perhaps the most pernicious things are the following points a general reader may take from the article, as pointed out by Scientific American:

  1. many high-ranking people in the federal government believe aliens have visited planet Earth;
  2. military pilots have recorded videos of UFOs with capabilities that seem to outstrip all known human aircraft, changing direction and accelerating in ways no fighter jet or helicopter could ever accomplish; and
  3. in a group of buildings in Las Vegas, the government stockpiles alloys and other materials believed to be associated with UFOs.
Movie 3. The Double-Edge of the Internet
The Internet can fuel paranoid thinking. In this video, example include 9/11, lizard people, and aliens. It can be dangerous for science to let conspiracies gain and hold traction, such as in the Times article about UFOs.
Movie 4. The Pentagon and UFOs
Above is a video the Times released in its article showing the purported UFOs. These objects, while unexplained, should not readily be attributed to aliens. They, like all UFOs, must be analyzed from a scientific perspective. The videos from the Times have served to foment more conspiracy theories.

This is pouring lighter fluid on conspiracy theories. To a layperson, this may seem as concrete evidence UFOs exist. The government has spent millions to search this phenomenon and has been secretive in releasing information, only fomenting ideas that the government knows “the truth” but is hiding it. The release was so sensational it wormed its way to the OVNI section on Univision and other reputable news sources. The rate at which this spread caused immediate backlash with some trying to make sense of the information and to mitigate conspiracies. Billings himself argues one should be careful with these extraordinary claims showing a dearth of high-quality evidence. Aliens and UFOs should never be the first conclusion to unexplained phenomena until all other natural phenomena can be thoroughly excluded. A quote from Bruce Macintosh makes a great point on UFOs:

UFO detections have remained marginal for decades; they’ve just gone from being blurry shapes on film cameras to blurry shapes on the digital infrared sensors of fighter jet gun cameras. This, in spite of the fact that the world’s total imaging capacity has expanded by several orders of magnitude in the past 20 years.

Movie 5. Scientist Fending off Conspiracies
Above is a video from the Washington Post where David Morrison, from the NASA Ames Research Center, strives to debunk the conspiracy theory of Nibiru. Even this blogger was asked questions about this object last year while apartment hunting. The person asking was under the impression I was hiding information. It is important for scientists to publicly fight disinformation!

This blogger agrees that to assume aliens are the answer to UFOs and adamantly cling to that conclusion is not science and warrants intense scrutiny from scientists. Astronomy itself is no stranger to conspiracy theories about many things, such as Armageddon. It is incumbent on scientists, particularly proponents of SETI, to get their narratives out to the public and fend off conspiracies (see Movie 5). This may place a heavy burden on scientists, but it is necessary to fend of disinformation and ridicule that has plagued SETI. While we know UFOs exist, even as chicken coops (see Movie 6), it is important to be able to draw the line between science and fiction that can set back research endeavors.

Movie 6. The Real UFOs
Real UFOs have chickens! Above is a video showing modifications done to a chicken coop to add lights and sounds in the name of sensationalism.