Yesterday, the Google Doodle marked the anniversary of the “Roswell UFO incident” with a cute little game. Personally I think the game is harmless fun, but some objected to it for the very valid reason that the UFO conspiracy theorists are active, vocal, and a continuing embarrassment for those of us in science communication and education. The Roswell incident still stands as one of the defining moments in UFOlogy, but more than 60 years later, the only way you can believe aliens are visiting Earth is by believing in vast conspiracies involving…well, nearly everyone.
As usual, the webcomic xkcd has it right: with the ubiquity of small digital cameras, especially those in cell phones and handheld computers, people can document nearly every aspect of life (whether it’s a good idea or not). Yet, there’s no better photographic evidence for alien spacecraft, large fuzzy cryptozoa like Bigfoot or yeti, living African dinosaurs, or a variety of ghoulies, ghosties, and long-leggity beasties. (I have things that go bump in the night in my apartment, but they’re cats, not poltergeists.)
Phil Plait has said on many occasions that, if alien spacecraft were as common as UFOlogists would have us believe, amateur astronomers would see them all the time. After all, amateur astronomers are people who look at the night sky regularly, with admirable dedication — and often with very good telescopes and cameras. Similarly, a proliferation of amateur wildlife photographers and even high-resolution satellite photography has cut down on the possible places big unknown creatures could hide. New brain studies and experiments can explain certain haunting phenomena physiologically — including the famous “Bloody Mary” mirror trick, which has frightened many of us. Even if no obvious neurological explanation is available, the human propensity to scare ourselves for no reason could fill in a lot of the gaps. Something under the bed is drooling, indeed.
Even scientific studies purporting to prove the existence of Bigfoot or other cryptozoa have fallen down under scrutiny. John Timmer examined a recent paper that claimed to have sequenced the genome of a Bigfoot. The published paper (which is the first and only paper printed in a journal apparently founded for that purpose) claimed Bigfoot is a hybrid between humans and some currently unknown hominid. However, John found all the results were completely consistent with contamination by other species’ DNA, while the authors explained away any interpretations at odds with their thesis.
This isn’t to say there aren’t wonderful things out there still to be discovered! Lake Vostok, a freshwater body deep 3.7 kilometers under the ice of Antarctica, harbors thousands of species isolated from the rest of the world for about 15 million years — long enough for evolution to produce unique forms. That in turn could tell us about life on icy worlds like Enceladus or Europa. In other words, there could be real aliens out there, though odds are they’re microbes instead of weirdos from another planet.
Though even I forget it most of the time, this blog started as a skeptic site called “Science Vs. Pseudoscience” (which was the name of a class I was teaching then). I wrote a number of posts focused on debunking — a valuable pastime — but I decided it was much more interesting to write about science. Sure, I could write takedowns of UFOlogy, but I’d much rather write about exoplanets. The truth is out there about aliens, but to find it, we need telescopes and space probes and experiments, not conspiracy theories.