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SETI vs ufology: a call for an end to a false rivalry

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence has become somewhat of a trademarked phrase since the birth of scientific SETI in the late 1950s, which has evolved from rudimentary searches for single radio frequencies through to more complex ideas about how alien civilizations might be detected via ‘techno-signatures’. SETI has also, over that time, become rather vehemently oppositional to searches for alien intelligence here on Earth – most notably as ‘ufology’ – which in many ways seems quite strange, given the shared goal of finding evidence for alien intelligence/technology.

The supposed primary reason for this odd disconnect is explained in an article published by Aeon titled “Alien life is no joke“, written by professor of astrophysics Adam Frank, the principal investigator on NASA’s first grant to study technosignatures:

What are we to make of these twin movements, the scientific search for life on one hand, and the endlessly murky waters of UFO/UAP claims on the other? Looking at history shows that these two very different approaches to the question of extraterrestrial life are, in fact, linked, but not in a good way. For decades, scientists wanting to think seriously about life in the Universe faced what’s been called the ‘giggle factor’, which was directly related to UFOs and their culture. More than once, the giggle factor came close to killing off the field known as SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence). Now, with new discoveries and new technologies making astrobiology a mainstream frontier of astrophysics, understanding this history has become important for anyone trying to understand what comes next. But for me, as a researcher in the field of technosignatures (signs of advanced alien tech) – the new face of SETI – getting past the giggle factor poses an existential challenge.

To Frank, research into UFOs is far worse than a silly quest – it is a direct “existential” threat to the scientific search for alien civilizations.

Frank cites the article “A Political History of NASA’s SETI Program” by Stephen J. Garber as support for his view; more precisely one particular sentence: “the SETI program had always suffered from a “giggle factor” that derived from its association in the popular press with searches for “little green men” and unidentified flying objects (UFOs)”. But Frank strangely doesn’t note that the same article devotes much more space to discussing the role of scientific skeptics in attacking the credibility of SETI, such as the eminent biologist Ernst Mayr, who – on the basis of his own calculations of the odds of technological ET civilizations developing – labeled the search “hopeless” and “a waste of time,” noting that “we have to deal with realities—not pipe dreams.”

Frank suggests in his article that SETI was going along fine until “the politics and the UFOs showed up”, in the shape of William Proxmire, a Democrat senator from Wisconsin known as a fiscal hawk and with a special dislike of NASA’s budget. Proxmire bestowed his infamous ‘Golden Fleece’ award – given to public officials who he believed were wasting tax-payers’ money – on NASA’s SETI program in 1978, and brought its funding to a halt. While Carl Sagan was able to later convince Proxmire that SETI was a worthwhile scientific project, Frank notes that with Proxmire’s Golden Fleece award, “the public political flogging of SETI as wasteful kookiness, with an implicit link to UFO kookiness, had begun”.

This seems an odd assertion, as Proxmire’s concerns seemed much more aligned with scientific skeptics’ criticism of SETI and his own crusade against government spending than with any concern about an association with ufology. “First, while theoretically possible, there is now not a scintilla of evidence that life beyond our own solar system exists,” he announced at the time. “The overwhelming odds are that such civilizations, even if they once existed, are now dead and gone.”

Frank’s problem with UFO research seems more likely to be based on feelings of betrayal from his formative years growing up in the 1970s, when he drank deep from the well of “science fiction novels [and] UFO documentaries”.

For a time, I’d become enamoured of von Däniken’s book Chariots of the Gods (1968) and its claims that many archaeological mysteries could best be explained by ancient aliens who had once come to visit Earth. That time ended when, one evening, I chanced upon a PBS documentary called The Case of the Ancient Astronauts (1977). It presented interviews with scientists who had actually spent their lives studying the subjects of von Däniken’s ancient alien speculations. The simplicity with which hard-won archaeological evidence trumped von Däniken’s claims left me both angry (I felt duped by his book) and exhilarated.

It seems to be a frequent refrain among scientists, from SETI researchers to archaeologists, who feel that the subject areas that originally inspired them were fictions that betrayed their trust, and as such hold a grudge against those areas. It is somewhat ironic then that Frank also discusses the Kenneth Arnold UFO sighting at some length in his article, because the Kenneth Arnold story is a litmus test for people’s belief (or unbelief system) due to the fictions that have grown out of that case: UFO believers simply take the story at face value as evidence for alien visitation, while committed skeptics pounce on one particular aspect which they feel undermines almost the entirety of ufology. As Frank tells it:

Laying out the timeline of what he saw, Arnold described both the craft and their motions. Exactly what happened next remains controversial, but when Arnold described the objects as moving like ‘a saucer if you skip it across the water’ he triggered a chain of events leading to one of the most outrageous misquotes in the history of journalism.

The story in the East Oregonian, a small paper, ran with the words ‘saucer-like aircraft’. But, when the Associated Press picked up the story, the description got even more garbled. What Arnold said he’d seen were flying craft shaped like a crescent with ‘wings’ that swept back in an arc. Somehow the AP wire story misinterpreted Arnold’s description, leading The Chicago Sun to run a story with a spectacular frontpage headline: ‘Supersonic Flying Saucers Sighted By Idaho Pilot.’

The Chicago Sun piece triggered an avalanche. Within six months, the flying saucer story ran in more than 140 newspapers across the US. Even more remarkable, an epidemic of flying-saucer sightings began to sweep the nation. By the end of summer in 1947, ‘flying saucers’ were officially a thing.

This oft-told story – at least by skeptics – about how the term ‘flying saucers’ itself originated in “one of the most outrageous misquotes in the history of journalism” is itself a fiction, a skeptical myth. A read of the Martin Shough’s excellent breakdown of the story, “Return of the Flying Saucers“, will leave the audience in no doubt that the account relayed by Frank above is not how it happened at all.

Frank states that one of the most important lessons he learned from the Arnold affair “is the power of a story.” He frames this in terms of the how Arnold’s sighting was a “critical thread in the public’s willingness to go along on evidence-free rides of thinking about aliens and UFOs”, and ultimately “a UFO culture that tilts towards the incredulous and the paranoid, marked by a willingness to take anything as evidence.” But in his account of the Arnold myth, we see that committed skeptics too have a “willingness to take anything as evidence” without digging into the original evidence themselves (he is not the first – fellow SETI celebrity Seth Shostak has also previously recounted the same tale).

I don’t bring up these criticisms in a spirit of ‘us vs them’, or to try and dismiss Frank’s work or SETI – I am a fan of all these research areas. In fact, that is exactly why I bring it up: when Frank says in his opening comments that SETI and ufology are “linked, but not in a good way”, I disagree. Both are linked by having people involved with similar fascinations – dreaming big, of alien civilizations, and of research that might lead to world-shaking discoveries. The real opposition for SETI is the same as it is for those interested in UFOs – the ‘realists’ such as Ernst Mayr and William Proxmire, who seek to reduce everything to dollars, to mundanity, to the here-and-now.

It’s why I’ve previously decried SETI’s close links with ‘fundamentalist’ skeptical organizations like CSICOP. In some misguided attempt to seem reputable, they regularly have jumped into bed with those who have put the dampeners on exploration of outre ideas, and antagonized those who could be not just friends, but probably supporters (both financially and ‘politically’)…and that includes the general public – the taxpayers who fund government programs – who consistently show a deep interest in the question of both SETI and UFOs.

Frank’s article opens with the line: “Suddenly, everyone is talking about aliens. After decades on the cultural margins, the question of life in the Universe beyond Earth is having its day in the sun.” Why is everyone talking about aliens? He notes himself a few sentences later: “breathless newspaper articles about unexplained navy pilot sightings to United States congressional testimony with wild claims of government programmes hiding crashed saucers, UFOs and UAPs.” It’s pretty much a rebuttal of everything that comes after it in the article: UFOs are a way in for SETI projects, to capture the public’s attention and inspire their imagination, from which scientists can take them on a journey beyond Earth and its tales of crashed saucers, to exoplanets and ways of finding technological civilizations beyond our own solar system.

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