In the spring of 1999, a UFO flew over downtown Ithaca, New York. I was standing on the roof of a house near the Cornell University campus and managed to snap a few characteristically crappy pictures of the alien object, which vaguely resembled a flying saucer wearing a top hat.
It hovered above the Ithaca Commons for a minute before turning east and soaring over the Cornell University clock tower. As it flew, the craft made a sound that resembled bacon sizzling in a frying pan. Then, just as quickly as it had appeared on that sunny Saturday afternoon, the UFO vanished. The whole encounter lasted maybe a few minutes.
I would later learn that it wasn’t the first time Ithaca had been visited by a UFO. In fact, sightings were pretty common in the area during the latter half of the 20th century—just as they are in some UFO hotspots around the world, like Area 51 in Nevada, the Welsh Triangle, and Wycliffe Well, Australia. Witnesses tend to use similar language when describing spacecraft shapes, sounds, and the aliens themselves, which ostensibly lends credibility to their testimony. After all, how could so many people be wrong?
Even Hillary Clinton appears reluctant to doubt the sightings.
“There’s enough stories out there that I don’t think everybody is just sitting in their kitchen making them up,” Clinton said during a recent interview.
Clinton, it seems, has at least one foot inside the UFO spacewagon, and in recent weeks has promised to get to the bottom of what’s really going on at Area 51. She says that if she’s elected in November, she’ll open up as many of those documents as she can (some are already available) and reveal the truth about possible extraterrestrial visits to Earth. Meanwhile, John Podesta, her campaign chair, appears to be piloting that spacewagon. A rabid X-Files fan (as am I, no shame), Podesta tweeted, “Finally, my biggest failure of 2014: Once again not securing the #disclosure of the U.F.O. files. #thetruthisstilloutthere,” when he left the Obama White House last year.
It’s disappointing that influential people are helping fan the flames of conspiracy theories that refuse to wilt beneath the weight of truth. One hopes it’s just a campaign stunt, meant to increase Clinton’s popularity among a group of people who might be inclined to vote somewhat more conservatively. Yet given Podesta’s and Clinton’s track records on the topic, it seems more likely the pair really believes there might be something to expose.
Perhaps those documents are tucked into a cardboard box stashed in an old railway car, waiting for Clinton and Podesta to arrive with their flashlights. But I’d wager much more than my house that there’s exactly zero credible evidence supporting alien encounters with this planet—and I’d love for warp drives and battlestars to exist as much as anyone would.
Wait. Didn’t I see a UFO over Ithaca?
Yes, I did see a UFO over Ithaca. I can even tell you exactly what it was made of: an upside-down frying pan with a saucepan lid on top, some fishing line, and a big stick. A classmate and I had manufactured the photos for a course we were taking on the search for life in the universe. Our goal was to win a classroom debate about whether aliens had visited Earth, and step one was proving just how easy it is to fabricate evidence.
Sorry to disappoint. (Not really.)
Step two involved addressing the volumes of eyewitness claims, and explaining why such testimony can be unreliable. If you’re skeptical, check out the decades of research that have been done on the reliability of witnesses testifying in court. In these situations, our brains often fill in or edit details based on preconceived biases or post-encounter information—and then we subconsciously convince ourselves that our memories are accurate when in fact, they’re not.
This is where Clinton’s reasoning about people sitting in their kitchens making stuff up falls apart. Beliefs are potent. The brain is a powerful tool, and it can lead us to some incredibly wrong recollections and conclusions. And in these situations, assuming there’s safety in numbers is foolish (for more on that topic, start with the Salem witch trials).
During high school, I spent a few summers working alongside my father at the SETI Institute. One of my jobs was to answer letters. This was back in the day when people stuffed paper into envelopes, so I’d start by sorting the letters into two piles. One pile was for correspondence that requested scientific information; the other was for claims of UFO sightings. I’d read these with interest, wondering what it was people thought they saw. Many were convinced that my family had aliens buried in our basement (I’m not saying we do, I’m not saying we don’t**). Often, the reports were incredibly detailed, with one particularly colorful account unfolding over 10 handwritten pages describing how beeping robotic space balls followed a family around.
There’s a familiar saying that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and that evidence—or any proof, really—was never there.
It never is.
So I’d respond with a standard letter explaining what SETI actually does, and include a brochure about the scientific search for extraterrestrial life, which I think is as interesting as the fantasy.
That search began in 1960, when my dad pointed a telescope in Green Bank, West Virginia at a pair of sunlike stars. He was listening for telltale signs of technology broadcasting itself across the cosmos. All he heard was silence. And all we’ve heard since then is silence. But in the intervening half-century, the search for life beyond Earth has moved beyond straining to hear distant cosmic murmurs to looking for evidence of microbial life much closer to home, in our own solar system. Eventually, we’ll take a close look at the atmospheres of faraway planets and keep an eye out for the signatures of living, breathing, biological ecosystems.
And that’s science, which is step three in evaluating alien encounters. It’s true that we don’t know everything there is to know about propulsive technologies, or how the universe works. But we do know that the distances between the stars are so vast, and the energetic requirements for space travel so monumental, that visiting an alien world is far from trivial. It’s not nearly enough to say that alien civilizations might be using technologies we’re completely unaware of. Science demands verifiable proof.
And “proof” of flying saucers and crashed alien spacecrafts amounts to little more than unverified anecdotes.
This is why it’s unhelpful and irresponsible for Clinton and Podesta to be teasing the public as they are. Go ahead and open up the Area 51 files (or at least the ones that don’t compromise national security), but do it in the name of true government transparency rather than uncovering aliens.
* Not really. Please don’t reuse this image without that important caveat.
** We don’t have aliens buried in our basement.