Some thoughts on the new flurry of reports.
We’re starting to hear a lot about them lately, and from more-or-less respectable sources informed by what appear to be plausible leaks from within the government. Of course, leaks from within the government, as recent history demonstrates, aren’t always true. Sometimes they’re deliberately false or misleading. Sometimes the leakers are honest, but what they’re leaking is false. Sometimes it’s not false, but a piece of the story that is misleading in isolation. Sometimes they’re flat-out made up by dishonest journalists or other actors.
On the alien-story front, I think we can rule out pure journalistic invention. Over the past couple of years, enough of these stories have emerged in various ways and outlets to strongly indicate that they’re coming from somewhere else, probably somewhere within the government.
As a first-order probability, the likelihood is that it’s the government that’s lying. Lying governments are commonplace. Aliens, so far as we know, are not. So if you play the odds, it’s a phony story from the government, released for some obscure reason.
But playing the odds can turn out wrong, as Thomas Jefferson demonstrated in a somewhat similar circumstance. For centuries there had been stories – usually second-hand and uncorroborated – about stones falling from the sky. This seemed absurd. You can look up at the sky, and there are no visible rocks there. But when scientists investigated a few widely observed meteor falls and found evidence that they had, in fact, come from the sky, Thomas Jefferson observed: “It is easier to believe that two Yankee professors could lie than to admit that stones could fall from heaven.”
Sensible, but wrong. So it’s a mistake to dismiss reports that the United States has recovered “non-human craft” out of hand. The evidence available to us isn’t conclusive, but there’s now a fair amount of it, and while alien spacecraft seem unlikely, unlikely not the same as impossible.
That said, I have questions. First: Why are these spacecraft crashing all the time? If we really have “12 or more spacecraft” of non-human origin, er, what’s wrong with them? I mean, to lose one spacecraft could be an accident but to lose twelve seems like carelessness. I would assume that spacecraft of nonhuman origin came from another star; at the very least they would have to have come from the outer solar system. (I assume we’d notice an alien civilization on the Moon or Mars, or probably even Venus.) A spacecraft that could do that would have to be very advanced, and presumably aliens have much better and more reliable technology than we have. Yet I think we’d feel that losing a dozen spacecraft was an unacceptable loss rate, assuming reasonable numbers of sorties. (Alternatively, there could be millions of UFOs buzzing around Earth, which would make the loss rate quite small, but which seems implausible.) As Robin Hanson has noted, a hundred million-year-old super advanced civilization whose spaceships are constantly falling out of the sky is just not that impressive. He suggests that it’s decayed remnants of a greater civilization. Maybe, but that’s assuming a lot not in evidence. Alternatively, he suggests the reports are part of a disinformation campaign designed to throw other powers off balance in various ways.
Perhaps they’re deliberately crashing spaceships to transfer technology to us on the sly. (I have a story about that, which I’ll come back to later). Or perhaps they have some sort of odd philosophical or religious reason for building-in unreliability to their technology. Seems unlikely, but as the science fiction writers say, the thing about aliens is, they’re alien.
Second: Why now? Assume that this has been going on since the beginning of the Postwar era. Why is this stuff coming out now? There wasn’t a Daniel Ellsberg-style massive leak. It’s come out in dribs and drabs. Yes, there are whistleblowers appearing now, but they’re mostly expanding and reinforcing other stuff that has leaked out.
If it was Cold War tension that was keeping the lid on, well, that’s been over for 30 years. Perhaps it’s just that leaks (and maybe alien encounters) reached some sort of critical mass, encouraging more leaks.
Or perhaps having this story come out serves some sort of government agenda. Maybe they’re softening up people for a large-scale encounter, so that it will be less of a shock. Maybe they’re building it up to use as a distraction when, say, a financial crisis is threatening global economic collapse. (Forget your stupid bonds, we have aliens to deal with!)
I don’t know the answer, but I do wonder why now.
And finally, what’s the aliens’ game? Yeah, I know, they’re alien, which means they may have motivations we don’t understand. But I assume you don’t cross the trackless
miles lightyears of interstellar space without a pretty good reason. What do we have that they might want? Maybe Tau Ceti needs women? (Yeah, it used to be Mars that needed women, but Mars is now the only known planet inhabited solely by robots so we have to look farther). That motivation seems doubtful, as does pretty much any resource on Earth; everything we’ve got is almost certainly available closer to home. They may want to serve man (“It’s a cookbook!”) but that’s a long way to go for a meal, too.
Maybe they find us entertaining and just like to keep track of our shenanigans. (Notice the overlap here with simulation theory. Perhaps its egocentric to assume that we’re that amusing, but then again, look around. How many intelligent species are likely to be crazier than humans? How much crazier could they be and still survive?)
One explanation for alien visits and sightings, which I heard from (I think) Greg Benford at a party (it might have been Jerry Pournelle at a different party, it’s been a while), is the “graduate student hypothesis.” We’re being studied by alien scientists, but, like human scientists, all the grubby fieldwork tends to get left to grad students. Grad students are in their 20s (or whatever the alien equivalent is), get bored doing all the grubby work, and occasionally get drunk and set out to spook the locals just for fun. (The drunk part might explain all the crashes, too . . . )
But of course we can’t know. Even if we met and studied aliens it would probably take a lifetime or more to really understand them. Without any data there’s really not much we can say.
We maybe have some data, or at least inferences. Are they friendly? Unclear, but if they wanted us wiped out they probably could have just nudged an asteroid onto a path that that would have killed us all, or at least destroyed civilization, by now. Are they keeping us in an interstellar quarantine? If so, not very effectively given all those crashing spaceships.
I mentioned the crashed ships as a means of transferring technology. Perhaps they’re trying to protect our mental health. On Earth, at least, less advanced civilizations that encounter more-advanced ones tend to suffer a deeply destructive societal depression of sorts. So the idea is that we’re being allowed to retain our self-esteem by reverse-engineering their technology, making us feel proud of our achievements, rather than receiving handouts that would simply underscore our inferiority. Perhaps it’s also a way of making sure we only get technology that we more or less understand.
On a related note, a friend who was a senior space official in the Bush Administration was talking to me about dealing with the very top level of North Koreans, the ones who were educated in the West and don’t have to have minders, and he said they seem totally Western and rational, but then they’ll pop out with something crazy. His example was someone who said that, well, the United States’ technological lead came mostly from that crashed spaceship in Roswell. Maybe sounding not quite so crazy today, in light of these reports. For that matter, some of the stories I’ve been having fun with for years look a bit different, too.
Well, friendly, unfriendly, who knows? But I’ll leave you with this passage from an old article on extraterrestrial life by Gregg Easterbrook, in The Atlantic:
James Trefil, of George Mason University, has cautioned that if evolution functions approximately the same way on other worlds that it has functioned here -- conferring survival upon the fittest -- advanced extraterrestrials might still be aggressive, territorial, and quick to reach for the sword. In that case, counting on poor alien marksmanship might not be prudent. Even if a message arrived from a great distance, we might for defensive reasons be compelled to assume that the senders knew something about the speed-of-light barrier that we didn't, and withhold our reply.
The most disquieting aspect of natural selection as observed on Earth is that it channels intellect to predators. Most bright animals are carnivores: stalking requires tactics, pattern recognition, and, for social animals, coordinated action, all incubators of brainpower. Though the martial heritage of mankind has been exaggerated in popular fiction (there's no proof, for example, that our Cro Magnon ancestors waged war against the vanished Neanderthals), it's reasonably certain that the forebears of modern Homo sapiens were hunters, and it's definite that man has been savage during the historical era. This isn't much of a testimonial to "intelligence." [As a civilizing influence.]
Can we hope that on other worlds creatures other than predators have proved dominant? Yes. Not all selection pressures favor predation. The beaver has highly evolved dam-building talents designed to make habitats, not corner prey; the transcontinental migratory skills of some birds are unrelated to killing. An extraterrestrial intelligence descended from a herding beast, whose ancient instinctual imperative was to sacrifice for the common defense rather than to attack, might find a notion like mutually assured destruction as curious as military tacticians find the Amish.
In other ways, though, the thought that natural selection might function on other worlds as it has on ours is comforting, for this would imply that "human" nature was something deeper even than we know. Aliens, far from being alien in the original sense of the word, might exhibit many recognizable traits: curiosity, desire for companionship, love of laughter, pleasure in art and culture, and respect for the sanctity of life.
Well, hopefully. More on this subject later.