Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Aliens, abductions, and ashtrays

The subject of alien abductions has come up a lot lately.

I'm currently writing from a beautiful house in the Adirondacks, which would be apropos of nothing whatsoever except that it has an outdoor hot tub, and we were in it last night with the friends we're vacationing with, and one of them looked up at the brilliant stars scattered through the sky and asked, "Do you think there's intelligent life on other planets?"

I was tempted to respond, "I'm sometimes in serious doubt that there's intelligent life on Earth," but for once I chose the Road Less Sarcastic and said, "I'm sure there is.  I bet that one of those stars we're seeing has a planet around it that has intelligent life, and they may well be looking back at us and wondering the same thing."

Note that this is not, in any sense, a scientific conjecture.  We have no evidence whatsoever that life of any kind exists anywhere but right here.  We do, however, have two intriguing pieces of information -- the recent, and continuing, discovery of exoplanets (the current number of known exoplanets is 563, although the majority of them seem to be inhospitable to life as we know it), and the relative ease with which organic compounds can form, in the absence of life.  The combination of these two facts leads me to the belief (because here we cross the line from what I know to what I am speculating about) that life is probably very common in the universe.  And since a third fact -- the drive of organic evolution -- very likely works the same way on other planets as it does here, I see no reason to doubt that there could be a great many planets that harbor intelligence.

The next question my friend asked was, "Do you think that aliens have visited here?"  My answer there is a fairly resounding "no."  Again, this is not based on a theory in the scientific sense, but on two simple facts -- the absence of any credible evidence, and the seemingly insurmountable distances between the stars. Astronomer Neil de Grasse Tyson, who has spent a lot of time thinking about such matters, agrees.  About the absence of evidence, he wonders why there has never been a single tangible piece of evidence of alien visitation, despite the fact that the number of UFO reports make it seem like Earth is some kind of Grand Central Station for Little Green Men.  Tyson adjured an audience to take matters into their own hands, if they were ever abducted.  "You'll be lying there on the table, waiting to be probed," he said, "because you know how aliens love to do that.  Then, when the alien comes over to you, yell, 'Look at that!' and when the alien turns, grab the ashtray, and stick it in your pocket.  Then, when you come back, you'll have something tangible.  Because, you know, anything that's of alien manufacture is bound to be interesting."

The second part, the immensity of space, seems to me to be the real issue, though.  It would take tens of thousands of years for us to reach the nearest star, if we were travelling in the fastest man-made vehicle currently available.  Even if faster travel becomes possible, you run into the mind-bending relativistic effects on time; and unfortunately, there is no scientific support for the idea, popularized by science fiction shows such as Star Trek, of faster-than-light travel.  "Warp Six, captain!" looks like it will remain an interesting, but impossible, fiction.

So, what about all of the alien abduction stories?  I started this piece by mentioning abduction stories, and indeed the impetus for this post was the fact that the state of New Hampshire just put up a historical marker commemorating the abduction of Betty and Barney Hill, who were two of the first (and still two of the most famous) alleged abductees.  The marker says:
On the night of September 19-20, 1961, Portsmouth, NH couple Betty and Barney Hill experienced a close encounter with an unidentified flying object and two hours of “lost” time while driving south on Rte 3 near Lincoln. They filed an official Air Force Project Blue Book report of a brightly-lit cigar-shaped craft the next day, but were not public with their story until it was leaked in the Boston Traveler in 1965. This was the first widely-reported UFO abduction report in the United States.
The story has all of the hallmarks of the classic abduction story -- the brightly-lit craft that followed the car down a lonely road, the interference with their radio, the gaps in their sense of time (and also in their memories).  However, as much as I'd like to believe it, the complete lack of hard evidence leaves me skeptical.  My answer, with this as with everything, is: if you want me to believe something, show me the goods.  Otherwise all you have is a curious story, and I'm under no obligation to think you're telling the truth.

And the last reason I've been thinking a lot about alien abductions is that the novel I'm currently writing, Signal to Noise, is about a series of mysterious kidnappings in a small town in Oregon.  I'm not going to tell you any more about the plot -- you'll just have to read it when it's done.  But I'll end with a rather telling quote from my wife:  "For someone who doesn't believe in all of this stuff, you spend an awful lot of time thinking about it."

Guilty as charged.

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