- UFO believers and SETI proponents mix about as well as
cats and dogs. Though the aim of the two groups is alien contact, their
means could not be more different.
- SETI people tend to wrap themselves in the mantle of
science, turning their backs on their fellow alien seekers in the UFO community,
whom they regard as not only unscientific but often as unsavory. Besides,
the UFO community is seen as a rival for funding dollars.
- I have to say that we have gotten far more attention
from the press in the past couple of years than we did beforehand.... I
think it has more to do with Independence Day and Contact and The X-Files.
Science fiction is motivating a lot of interest, too.
- On the other hand, the UFO community usually regards
the SETI community as unbelievably thick-skinned; why are they wasting
time and money looking out there, when the aliens already down here? And
while SETI projects have nothing to show for their efforts after decades
of searching, the UFO community argues that at least it is able to cite
countless reports by the military, airlines pilots, and scientists of all
stripes, as well as your more run-of-the mill observers, that attest to
the claim that the quarry is indeed here.
- One astronomer who has to confront this often highly
sensitive UFO/SETI relationship on a regular basis is Seth Shostak, the
witty and eloquent spokesperson of the SETI Institute. When he spoke in
London, Ontario last week at the 19th annual meeting of the Society for
Scientific Exploration -- a group of scientists interested in probing UFOs,
psychic phenomena and other unorthodox topics -- I took the opportunity
to ask him a few questions about the behavior of this decidedly "odd
- Patrick Huyghe, SPACE.com: There seems to be some conflict
between the UFO community and the SETI community though the only apparent
difference is that the UFO believers say the aliens are here, and the SETI
people say they're out there.
- Seth Shostak, SETI Institute: Exactly. But I don't see
it as a conflict. There is certainly a conflation of the two. We are regularly
assumed to be investigating UFO reports. I get a phone call a week from
somebody who makes that assumption, who wants me to come out and investigate
some UFO phenomenon. So there's that. But I don't think there is anything
particularly detrimental to our activities because of people being interested
in UFOs. I think its unfortunate that many of them believe conspiracy theories
and so forth, that that information is somehow being withheld by the scientific
community, because I don't see that.
- PH: So maybe the problem is not so much a conflict, as
a perception, or confusion, on the part of the public that the SETI projects
and the UFO search are one and the same.
- SS: That's right, there is a lot of confusion. I know
that there are people in the SETI community who find it dismaying, not
so much because of the UFO story per se, but they worry about credibility
amongst their colleagues and amongst whoever is funding them, of course.
To keep our funding we need to keep ourselves at arms' distance from the
UFO community. But I'm not sure how strong an argument that really is.
In fact, I think you can make just as strong an argument that you would
get more funding if you were looking at UFOs.
- PH: So there is a common scramble for funding?
- SS: Most of the money for UFO research is private, of
course, but the money in SETI is private also. But I see people more willing
to investigate UFO sightings and so forth than SETI. The total SETI budget
in the US is on the order of 4-to-5 million dollars. We have talked to
people who have offered large sums of money who are primarily motivated
by their interest in UFOs. But we actually don't get too much of that money
because we say this is not that.
- PH: Despite the common goal of the UFO and SETI communities,
you see the differences between the two groups as being very real, don't
- SS: Yes, because I personally don't think they are here.
So there really is a difference. If aliens have been visiting the Earth
for 50 years, you would think that it would not be so hard to convince
a lot of people that that was true. It's convinced 50 percent of the American
public, but it's convinced very few academics. As an astronomer friend
said to me, if I thought there was a one percent chance any of that was
true, I'd spend 100 percent of my time on it. In other words, if the evidence
were the least bit compelling, you'd have lots of academics working on
it because it's very interesting. To me that says that the evidence is
weak from the scientist's perspective. Whereas if we pick up a signal-it's
not anecdotal-you may or may not believe it, but immediately what will
happen is that anybody with a big antenna will try and prove us wrong.
And either they will prove us wrong, or they will prove us right. But there
will be very little doubt about it.
- PH: But while the SETI people are telling the UFO people,
"you don't have any evidence," the UFO people are telling the
SETI people, "you have even less evidence than we do."
- SS: Yes, that's quite right, but we don't claim that
we've found them. That's a big difference. They do claim that they're here.
- PH: Don't you think that the tremendous ridicule that
surrounds the UFO subject really prevents academics from looking into it?
- SS: There may be something to that. It may apply to 90
percent of scientists. But scientists are well aware of many instances
in which something that was very radical turned out to be true. It happens
over and over again in science; that's the way science makes the big steps.
So I don't think they would all be scared off by the fact that it's considered
radical or non-mainstream. Continental drift was not very popular at the
beginning, but it gained adherents rather quickly. As soon as you have
a trickle of evidence, that trickle turns into a torrent, and then what
was radical yesterday is today mainstream. Now I don't see that happening
with the UFO phenomenon.
- PH: But overall do you think that the belief in UFOs
has had a positive impact on SETI projects?
- SS: People are interested in UFOs, perhaps for the wrong
reason, but they are interested. I have to say that we have gotten far
more attention from the press in the past couple of years than we did beforehand,
and although I'd like to think that it may have to do with something we're
doing, I suspect it's not. I think it has more to do with Independence
Day and Contact and The X-Files. Science fiction is motivating a lot of
interest, too. And I don't think there is anything wrong with that, as
long as people can think critically.
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