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.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Searching the fringes

I have a guilty pleasure, and that is that I am absolutely fascinated with the possibility of alien intelligence.

Other fringe science, even if it were proven true, wouldn't excite me nearly so much.  But I live in hope that in my lifetime, there will be a moment like the one in the movie Contact (not coincidentally, one of my favorite movies ever) -- incontrovertible evidence of intelligent life in another star system.  I have posters of UFOs and bug-eyed gray guys on my classroom wall.  My screensaver is SETI@home, which devotes a little bit of my computer's CPU time to searching radio telescope data for meaningful signals when I'm not using it for more important things, like looking at funny pictures of cats.  (And all of you should download the screensaver immediately -- it's way cool.)

And this is why it pisses me off so much when people muck up the whole endeavor by making crazy claims regarding alien life.

Of course, it happens all the time; the number of bogus claims on sites like Supernatural UFO, UFO Digest, UFO Casebook, and The UFO Bureau run to dozens a day, 365 days a year.  Most have as "proof" eyewitness testimony ("and I'm not lying, I swear!") or blurry photographs that could mean anything.  Worse, the majority of the writers for these sites seem to resent skeptics like myself who are genuinely interested in the topic but want some minimal piece of hard evidence before saying, "Okay, this is it, ETI exists."

But it doesn't end there, unfortunately.  Because UFOlogy and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence still fall somewhere on the boundaries of science, they attract more than their fair share of kooks and wackos.  And I ran into two excellent examples of this just yesterday.

In the first, we have a guy on UFO Sightings Daily who is claiming that there's a NASA photograph of the Sun's surface, that when you look at it just right, has the picture of an alien saying hello.

Of course, it's always easier to see something when someone points it out, and tells you what it is, isn't it?  Here's the original photo -- which even has the relevant place circled:

A little trickier here, no?  And yet the author of the post says that this is clear evidence of the existence of Michio Kaku's "Type 3 Civilization," that is able to harness the power of an entire star, and that they used this awesome technological power to send us a blurry, warped image of one of their species. "Why display an image if you control the sun?" he writes.  "To commemorate an important person in your species...showing their pride about who they are."

But even this is minor-league crazy with respect to a post by Sean Casteel over on UFO Digest.  Casteel has made appearances on Skeptophilia before, usually for nutty stuff about aliens and time travel and government coverups, but this time he has a doozy, because he's added some wacko Christian mythology to the mix.  UFOs, Casteel tells us, are (1) proof that the bible is literally true, and (2) signs of the Second Coming.  In the article, he interviews one Reverend Barry Downing, who (not to put too fine a point on it) seems to have a screw loose.  Lest you think I'm being too harsh, here is an excerpt:
"One of the possibilities,” (Downing) continued, "is that one of the tasks of UFOs, or the angels, is to collect the souls of people when they die and take them off to another world where they begin the next life that they have. This is not the Second Coming as we usually think of it. But Jesus says in John 14, ‘I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place, I will come again and take you to be where I am.’ For this to be true, I think it has to be true when someone dies. That’s probably how it works.  I think one of the roles of UFOs would be to move us to the point where the Biblical faith is more scientifically plausible. You’ve got a huge split in American culture right now between fundamentalists who believe the Bible just because God inspired the Bible, and therefore it must be true. Then you have university types who don’t see the Bible as different from any other book and pretty much don’t believe that God is any part of the universe. They believe the universe was in some sense ‘self-created’ by ways we don’t yet understand therefore there’s no divine force behind anything that we see.

"So the question is," Downing went on, "how do you get faith back in play? Not based on the Bible alone, but based on modern evidence that says, ‘Hey, the angels may still be here.’ To me, that’s where the UFOs come into the scene. Fundamentalist Christians, of course, tend to see UFOs as demonic. The assumption of fundamentalists is that if UFOs were really the angels of God, they’d show themselves openly. Yet, obviously, the angels of God do not show themselves openly to us. Otherwise, we’d all see them. There’s some part of God that holds God’s self back, that doesn’t reveal God directly to us.

"It’s a choice you can make," he said. "I think that God is more likely to use the UFO force to get faith back in business in what you’d call the intellectual side of our culture now, which is very atheistic. In any case, if it should be true that UFOs carry the angels of God as we understand them Biblically, then that would certainly seem to be the way in which the Second Coming would happen. If Jesus was taken up into the sky at his Ascension in a UFO, which is what seems to be said in the Book of Acts, Chapter One, then the other thing that’s said in that same chapter is this: ‘This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’"
Well, I think the Christian orthodoxy might have a thing or two to say about that, especially the part about Jesus at the Ascension riding up into the sky in a spaceship. 

All of this might seem like harmless noodling around, but my whole problem about this kind of thing is that it muddies the water.  Just like Ellie Arroway, the astronomer in Contact, I fret over the fact that legitimate scientific research into alien life on other planets (like SETI) won't get funded because the public has become so convinced by wingnuts like Casteel that it's all nonsense that they can't see any value in any of it.  I'd like to say to the UFO website people, who feel obliged to post every single poorly-Photoshopped hoax pic showing a flying saucer, "You are not doing this field of study any favors by approaching the topic this way."

But it's not going to happen any time soon, I'm afraid.  Fringy areas of science attract nuts, and nuts are not well-known for their judicious application of Ockham's Razor.

I just hope that by the time we do get good evidence, we haven't all just given it up as a bad job.

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