ET is here? Prove it!

Several TV shows tantalise viewers saying they are finally going to get to the bottom of the "UFO debate." They never do.

Seth Shostak

THE GOOD news is that the latest polls confirm that roughly half of all Americans believe extraterrestrial life exists. The weird news is that a similar fraction think some of it is visiting earth.

Several recent TV shows have soberly addressed the possibility that alien craft are violating our airspace, occasionally touching down long enough to allow their crews to conduct bizarre experiments on hapless citizens. While these shows tantalise viewers by suggesting that they are finally going to get to the bottom of the "UFO debate," they never do. That is because the evidence is weak. During a recent show in which I participated, guest experts who have long studied UFOs argued for extraterrestrial presence by showing photographs of putative alien saucers at low altitudes. Some of these objects appeared as out-of-focus lights; others resembled hubcaps or frisbees.

Additional evidence is "expert testimony." Pilots, astronauts, and others have all claimed to see odd craft. It is safe to say that these witnesses have seen something. But just because you do not recognise an aerial phenomenon does not mean it is an extraterrestrial visitor. That requires additional evidence that, so far, seems to be unconvincing.

What about those folks who claim to have been abducted? On the TV programme, the UFO experts offered photos of scoop marks decorating the arms and legs of human subjects, and claimed that these minor disfigurements were due to alien malfeasance. But even aside from the puzzling question of why beings from distant worlds would come to earth to melon-ball the locals, this evidence was, once again, ambiguous. The scoops might be caused by aliens, but then again they might be cigarette burns.

When push came to shove, and when pressed as to whether there is compelling proof of extraterrestrial visitation, the experts on this show backed off by saying "well, we don't know where they come from. But something is definitely going on." The latter statement is hardly controversial. The former is goofy. If the saucers are not from outer space, where are they from? Belgium?

The burden of proof is on those making the claims, not those who find the data dubious.

If there are investigators who are convinced that craft from other worlds are buzzing ours, then they should present the best evidence they have, and not resort to explanations that appeal to conspiratorial cover-ups or the failure of others to be open to the idea.

The UFO advocates are asking us to believe something very important. After all, there could hardly be any discovery more dramatic than visitors from other worlds. If they could prove that the aliens are here, I would be as awestruck as anyone. But I still await a compelling Exhibit A.

- Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005

(Seth Shostak is senior astronomer at the Seti (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) institute, California.)

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