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Alien Abductions
Not to worry, all that's been abducted is your brain. And no, not by aliens, but by silly, evidence-free beliefs. Carl Sagan said in an interview with NOVA:

I'm frequently written to [to] say how could I search for extraterrestrial intelligence and disbelieve that we're being visited. I don't see any contradiction at all. It's a wonderful prospect, but requires the most severe and rigorous standards of evidence.

NOVA: Could you please comment on the part of the quality of the evidence that is put forward by these so-called "abduction proponents."

SAGAN: Well, it's almost entirely anecdote. Someone says something happened to them...And, people can say anything. The fact that someone says something doesn't mean it's true. Doesn't mean they're lying, but it doesn't mean it's true.

To be taken seriously, you need physical evidence that can be examined at leisure by skeptical scientists: a scraping of the whole ship, and the discovery that it contains isotopic ratios that aren't present on earth, chemical elements form the so-called island of stability, very heavy elements that don't exist on earth. Or material of absolutely bizarre properties of many sorts -- electrical conductivity or ductility. There are many things like that that would instantly give serious credence to an account.

But there's no scrapings, no interior photographs, no filched page from the captain's log book. All there are are stories. There are instances of disturbed soil, but I can disturb soil with a shovel. There are instances of people claiming to flash lights at UFOs and the UFOs flash back. But, pilots of airplanes can also flash back, especially if they think it would be a good joke to play on the UFO enthusiast. So, that does not constitute good evidence.

And, a very interesting example of this sort of thing is the so-called crop circles in England in which wheat and rye and other grains -- these beautiful immense circles appeared and then -- this was in the 70's and 80's -- and then over progressive years, more and more complex geometries. And there were lots of people who said that these were made by UFOs that were landing and that it was too complex or too highly mathematical to be a hoax.

And it turns out that two blokes in Southern England, at their regular bar one night, thought it would be a good idea to make a kind of hoax to see if they could lure in UFO enthusiasts. And they succeeded every time--every time an explanation was proferred: a peculiar kind of wind, they then made another one which contradicted that hypothesis. And they were very pleased when it was said that no human intelligence could do this. That gave them great satisfaction. And for 15 years, they succeeded in these nocturnal expeditions using rope and board -- all the technology they needed.

And in their 60's, they finally confessed to the press with a demonstration of how it was done. And, of course, the confession received very little play in the media. And the claims of alien influence had received prominent exposure.

Posted by aalkon at October 12, 2007 8:01 AM


Heh. I loved the X-Files, but that doesn't mean I think we're actually the victims of a giant alien conspiracy. Amazing how difficult people can find it to tell the difference between stories and reality.

I think the best description of how alien abduction stories come to be that I've heard comes from a speaker I heard ages ago - forgot where, probably at a sci-fi convention (yes, I am a hard-core geek, why do you ask?). He described a time in his life when he was riding in a long bike race, he was ill, he hadn't slept in a few days, and he was seriously dehydrated and underfed. If I remember the story correctly, at one point he fell and several loved ones came to help him, and he hallucinated that they were inhuman creatures that were trying to kidnap him. Voila - he was abducted by aliens!

To be fair, I think "abductees" have serious issues that are making them miserable, and that they're offloading those issues onto "aliens" subconsciously because the truth is too difficult to deal with. They do need help. As in, therapy. And maybe drugs - hey wait, maybe "Big Pharma" is an alien conspiracy! Hmmmm...

Posted by: marion at October 12, 2007 7:02 AM

(yes, I am a hard-core geek, why do you ask?)

Marion, every time I learn another fact about you, I like you even better.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at October 12, 2007 7:07 AM

I find the public appetite for alien-abduction, crop circles, faces on Mars and other speculations that are the antithesis of science quite depressing.

The latest example is "Dark Mission: The Secret History of NASA", a book by Richard Hoagland and Mike Bara. It was published just this week, and it's well on its way to best-seller-dom. I've read the Introduction and the ToC, and I can assert with confidence that it's poppycock from start to finish. Hoagland has no standing or training in any branch of science, he's just a bullshit-artist. Check his wikipedia page if you've never heard of him.

Posted by: Stu "El Inglés" Harris at October 12, 2007 7:14 AM

I've always wondered Who's Out There. If other sapient life exists or existed, why isn't the night sky like a parking lot? I hope it's not that interstellar travel is infeasible - what's the point in a universe if we're stuck here? If we're all there is, the universe is less interesting and more lonely, but we will be free to fill it up. I think the Universe deserves better than us.

Posted by: DaveG at October 12, 2007 8:17 AM

Aw, thanks, Amy! Likewise. :)

Stu, I think it goes back to what I've said before about the need that a lot of people have for magical thinking. Traditionally, that need was fulfilled through religion, which at least provides a framework for its magical thinking and typically admits up front that it's about faith, not science. These days, though, there are many people who aren't religious for one reason or another - bad associations with it, don't want to follow the rules, what have you - who still need some of the things that religion provides. So they turn to, say, environmentalism and make a religion out of that. Or to SCHIP and make a religion out of that. Or to alien abductions and the like. What irritates me is when they start warping science and the scientific method in order to "prove" their conclusions. However, as I said before, I think most of the alien abductees are desperately unhappy people who can deal with being abducted by aliens more effectively than they can deal with the idea that, say, their mothers didn't love them, or their uncles sexually abused them, or whatever. I just wish they'd get some therapy from a good shrink rather than going on and on about aliens.

Now, as a churchgoing magical thinker myself, I have much less leeway to judge "alien abductees" than you, Amy and other non-magical thinkers do. But I do think that, at least, the alien abductee/crop circle types are less dangerous than, say, the anti-vaccination magical thinker types. Oprah isn't having any celebrities on her show to discuss how their children were abducted by aliens and how they've worked out a breakthrough treatment to help those children despite being poo-pooed by NASA. That new book does sound utterly ridiculous...but there's a lot of tripe being peddled by 9/11 conspiracists, too. Human beings have a weakness for grandly fantastical epics. JFK being killed by a conspiracy of the mafia/CIA/Castroites is far more interesting than the idea of him being shot by a pathetic little whacked-out lunatic who used to wander around New Orleans' Cuban exile quarter to try to promote Communism. Martin Luther King, Jr. being killed by a giant conspiracy is far more interesting than him being killed by a warped penny-ante racist. NASA being run by evil but efficient lords is far more interesting than NASA fumbling the approach to space exploration. Etc. Not that that makes a book like that any easier to take, but I think science is always going to be fighting a battle against a widespread human need to believe that things are more interesting than they seem on the surface.

Posted by: marion at October 12, 2007 8:37 AM

And before anyone comments on the fact that I was overlooking a few things with the bit about religion typically admitting that it's about faith, not science...yes, yes, I did blot out the creationism thing there for a moment. Sorry. I like to try to forget all about that. Sigh. In my slight defense, I did grow up attending a church that never discusses it, so I honestly tend to forget about it sometimes. (And yes, I do remember Galileo, and think that the Church was several hundred years late in pardoning him, but I also met the Vatican's chief astronomer a few years ago, so I can attest that at least the Church has long since left behind that sun circling the Earth thing.)

We now return to your regularly scheduled bon mots.

Posted by: marion at October 12, 2007 8:43 AM

I like Carl - he never comes out and says its impossible just that there is no credible evidence to support the claims currently.

Personaly I think if there were some advanced alien culture watching us they certianly wouldnt show themselves. Can you imagine the chaos that would ensue as billions of people had there religious foundations demolished all at once?

And then just look at our own history, every time a technologically advanced society interacts with one lower on the ladder the lower society always desolves and dissapates entirely.

And then as Carl pointed out, why would a society capable of delveloping inter stellar travel be so interested in your asshole?

Posted by: lujlp at October 12, 2007 9:56 AM

Abductees are an interesting sub-culture. As anoither geek (hey Marion) I had the chance to interview Betty Hill, who is one of the most documented adbuction survivors. I spent over 2 hours with her and found her story to be both heart wrenching and far fetched, coming away from the interview confused.

Sagan annoys me, by his "show me the money' attitude. Prove the existance of things beyond us? How about search for what might be with open eyes to both the past and the future. Its a wonderous world we all live in. Enjoy every sandwich!

Posted by: Dome at October 12, 2007 10:06 AM

Can you imagine the chaos that would ensue as billions of people had there religious foundations demolished all at once?

Eh, if I can believe that there is some omnisicent, omnipotent being out there who likes it when people worship him/her/it, I don't see any reason why he/she/it couldn't have created other sentient races. People whose religious beliefs would really be shattered by the discovery of sentient aliens are just poseurs who just like the free food they get after services.

Posted by: marion at October 12, 2007 10:10 AM

> Sagan annoys me, by his "show me the money' attitude.

It's the only possible attitude for a scientist. I do realise that not everyone has much of a clue how science is conducted. I believe some people actually think science is too revealing, "like looking behind the scenery instead of just enjoying the show". I guess that's harmless -- publishing books like "Dark Mission", however, is not.

Posted by: Stu "El Inglés" Harris at October 12, 2007 10:24 AM

> I learn another fact about you,
> I like you even better.

Me too. But isn't this the same grad-student Marion who went to Harvard? Who'da thought you could find a such a morsel at Comicon?

Posted by: Crid at October 12, 2007 11:04 AM

> If we're all there is,
> the universe is less
> interesting and more
> lonely, but we will be
> free to fill it up.

I disagree with most of this. People always talk about how important it would be for humanity to learn that we're not the only ones in the universe. About fifteen years ago, some brilliant person --I'm ashamed to have forgotten who-- said, "Why?" No matter who sends us an intergalactic message, physics insists that they offered their greeting a very long time ago, and we won't be alive when they hear our response.

So we can communicate but never converse. Nor can we visit. These limitations are not elective, and you've got to be in a pretty desperate condition of fearful loneliness, much like a religious fanatic, before you find the strength to argue that they can be overcome.

I always liked that Star Trek where McCoy got blown by that shapely alien girl in the green dress. But the eagerness of some Sci-Fi types begins to seem like a troublesome fear of death. "Explore" if you want, but we'll be watching your budget. This is our planet, this is where the action is.

Posted by: Crid at October 12, 2007 11:18 AM

Who'da thought you could find a such a morsel at Comicon?

I only wish I had been at Comicon - can't believe I missed the "Heroes" panel with Kevin Smith! I'm more of a Worldcon chick, though it's been a few years since my last one.

On the subject of sentient life in the universe...if we're not alone, I'd like to know, just for the sake of knowing. But, as I said, I'm a geek. However, I'm one of the people who believes that the existence of sentient alien life is more plausible than the belief that Social Security will still be around when it's time for me to retire. Not sure if that says more about my geekhood, or my attitude toward government/the Baby Boomers.

Posted by: marion at October 12, 2007 11:56 AM

Now I am a much bigger student of history than physics, but E=MC2 right

A nuke is blown by creating a reaction where a small amount of mass releases a tremendous amount of energy. So we have the capability of moving matter a the speed of light squared, right - or did I miss something?

Now if we have that capability now, what will we have a century or two from now, and what could some hypothical advanced culture have?

Posted by: lujlp at October 12, 2007 12:06 PM

> So we have the capability of moving matter a the speed of light squared, right?

No, wrong. According to the equations of relativity, as a body approaches the speed of light, c, its mass increases. At the asymptote (the limiting condition), it's moving at velocity c but its mass is infinite. Therefore an infinite force would be required to accelerate it any more.

The schoolboy nerd's question is "What if I'm on a train speeding along at c, and I walk forward along the corridor?" The answer is you couldn't, son -- your feet would be heavier than lead, literally.

Posted by: Stu "El Inglés" Harris at October 12, 2007 12:44 PM

explain energy equaling mass by the speed of light squared

and the fact that light moving at the speed of light has no mass but is affected by gravity as though it did

Posted by: lujlp at October 12, 2007 12:46 PM

Guys, you're missing something again...

Take your imagination and step into a starship capable of 100 times the speed of light. Pick just the stars you like because they are similar to the Sun, if you want - you can find a map at .

Now, how many years will it take you to visit each one, if you stayed just long enough to lok at the whole surface?

Then, what makes you think that FTL travel is possible? Did you know that when you get up to about 1/3C in normal space, the radiation caused by your own ship's passage through space, populated with hydrogen gas at near vacuum, will kill you unless you also carry along some kind of shield?

Before you postulate a visit from somebody else, you probably ought to get the nose out of the sci-fi and into an astrophysics book.

Unless there is another breakthrough discovery on the level of radio, the laser or Leewenhouk's "little animals", we are not going anywhere in the kind of hurry people imagine. And unless they discover such a thing, nobody else is either. Hope for "hyperspace". This kind is OK to live in, but not for travel!

Posted by: Radwaste at October 12, 2007 9:24 PM

Sagan, Frank Drake, et al also make a mistake in assuming that intelligent life and technological civilizations exist in abundance "out there" (remember Drake's famous equation?). That mistake is based on the idea that evolution is like a ladder or pyramid, with conscious intelligence at the top. The fact is, we got here through a series of accidents. Had it not been for the asteroid that took out the dinorsaurs (and various other mass extinctions through earth's history) we would not be here now, and there is no evidence that dinosaurs would have developed intelligence and technology had they been around longer. Evolution is more like a tree, with branches going every which way. We are just one branch of many existing, exitinct, and possible pathways.

Posted by: Googootz at October 13, 2007 6:36 AM

If I may presume to speak up on behalf of Drake & Sagan (Philip Morrison too, by the way): I think their point was that the laws of physics must apply equally throughout the universe, and assuming many billions of life-forms, at least some of them are likely to discover electromagnetism. They never suggested that alien biology would be anything like terrestrial biology. The things at the controls of radio telescopes on beta-weirdii could take any imaginable form.

Personal footnote: I once made a TV documentary that touched on this idea. I recall instructing my P.A. one day "We need to shoot a sequence showing ants building a radio telescope. Get on it". And by golly she did.

Posted by: Stu "El Inglés" Harris at October 13, 2007 10:20 AM

Anthropocentrism runs deep. What I'm trying to say is, life is probably very abundant throughout the universe. Single-celled life forms will probably be found in nearly every planetary system. Multicellular life as well, but perhaps not as ubiquitous. What we recognize as consciousness is probably going to be a rarity. And the kind of conciousness we find in mammals (and more specifically, primates such as us) that gives rise to technology and civilization ... well that's not a given. We developed those attributes through a unique series of adaptations to unique environmental conditions. Those attributes conferred some survival advantage to our species, such that individuals that did not carry those alleles did not survive long enough to pass them on to the gene pool. Intelligence and civilization are just one possible adaptation and are not inevitable. Statements like "among billions and billions of planets, the probability must be that we are not the only technological civilization" assumes a kind of centrism about consciousness and intelligence that is not unlike anthropocentrism. Call it, if you will, a centrism of belief that the universe _must_ exist so sentient beings can exist. "Sentientcentrism." The universe has no discernable purpose, and our intense desire to find someone or something else "out there" may prove to be just as quaint as believeing in (a) god(s).

Posted by: Googootz at October 13, 2007 11:19 AM

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