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Space Oddity: How we decipher evidence of UFOs and alien life
UFOs and alien life been hitting the headlines recently - we suggest this offers important insights into the way we make sense of information about the world...and beyond
Aliens, it seems, are amongst us, or they were in the past at least according to Jaime Maussan, a well-known extraterrestrial investigator. At a meeting on the topic of unidentified aerial phenomena (aka UFOs) called in Mexico’s congress in September ’23, Maussan displayed two ‘corpse’s’ in wooden boxes and said that “these beings are not human and are not part of our terrestrial evolution.” Maussan claimed they were discovered in the Ica region of Peru in 2017 and whilst not explicitly saying they were extra-terrestrial creatures he claimed they were “intelligent and they lived with us. They should rewrite history.”
The Vice article reporting this points out that Maussan, who has a TV show about aliens, has been criticized previously for promoting extra-terrestrial news and UFO sightings without all that much evidence.
But Maussan is not alone in his beliefs about other life forms, with an Ipsos poll of the US population in 2021 finding that 42% believed in Unidentified Flying Objects and 10% claiming to have seen one. Of course, a UFO is not necessarily accounted for by alien life forms but in December ‘22, a global survey from Ipsos asked how likely aliens were to visit Earth in 2023. Almost one in five (18%) said they considered this was likely. The findings by country are shown below.
That so many people consider aliens may visit Earth may seem surprising for many: there is little solid evidence of alien existence so why might this number be so high? One possible reason for this is to do with the knowledge environment we live in – and the way some narratives can become popular with remarkably little evidence. We will explore one way this works: drawing on a recent book by author Sarah Kendzior whose book ‘They Knew’ offers some interesting takes on ‘conspiracy culture.’
Kendzior reflects on the epistemic environment we live in and how an understanding of the rhetorical devices that are used to construct this environment can subtly shape the way we understand the world.
This summer’s UFO conspiracy theory
In July this year, the US Congress held a public hearing on claims the government is covering up knowledge of UFOs. One of the key witnesses was David Grusch, a whistle-blower former intelligence official who led analysis of unexplained anomalous phenomena (UAP) within a US Department of Defence agency until 2023. He claimed the US has possession of “intact and partially intact” alien vehicles which the government had been trying to conceal. The Pentagon has denied this with a spokesperson saying investigators had not discovered “any verifiable information to substantiate claims that any programs regarding the possession or reverse-engineering of extra-terrestrial materials have existed in the past or exist currently”.
So what can we make of this? The line between delusion and reality can at times be a difficult one to draw – as we can see in the debate over what is a conspiracy theory. On the one hand, just how can we make sense of the notions that people seem to agree that the Earth is flat, the King Charles is a vampire, that Princess Diana faked her own death, and that world is run by a cabal of lizards that have taken human form? But on the other hand, sometimes conspiracy theories are true. From Watergate and Operation Yewtree to Volkswagen emissions and Weapons of the Mass Destruction of Iraq, there are many examples of conspiracy theories that have been validated. And indeed, in our everyday we conspire: as philosopher Matthew R. X. Dentith points out, if I suspect that my friend is organising a surprise birthday party for me, then that is, within the logic of the term, a conspiracy theory. People, governments, and businesses can conspire and do wrong.
The notion that people who hold conspiracy theories are necessarily cranks was famously initiated by American historian Richard Hofstadter who penned a 1964 essay entitled ‘The Paranoid Style’. This was, he suggested, a feeling of dispossession that comes from living in a complex interconnected world leading us to use the simpler, and easier to understand explanation that it is the result of a secretive conspiracy of the powerful. In other words, we have a ‘deficit model’ of people that suggestes conspiracy theories are due to what Cass Sunstein has called a ‘crippled epistemology’.
Meanwhile, Uscinski and Parent pointed out in 2014 that most people hold different degrees of conspiracy theory beliefs:
“Conspiracy theories permeate all parts of American society, and cut across gender, age, race, income, political affiliation, educational level, and occupational status.”
On this basis, we would be dismissing vast swathes of the population of any country as a conspiracy theorist: but it is simply not tenable that such a large proposition of the population suffers from these deficiencies. Perhaps therefore they are a natural and comprehensible result of change and spirited public discussion to make sense of it.
A state of inversion
On this basis, it is reasonable to have a sympathetic view of people that seek to identify the truth of a situation often only having scanty and frequently unreliable evidence to draw on. There are, after all, well-funded institutions such as SETI, staffed by scientists who consider that it is perfectly possible we will find signs of alien life. Indeed scientists at Nasa recently announced the existence of a possible rare water ocean on a giant exoplanet scores of light years away; named K2-18 b, scientists say it has “the potential to possess a hydrogen-rich atmosphere and a water ocean-covered surface”. And not only that but the agency hinted at the potential finding of a molecule called dimethyl sulfide (DMS), which on Earth is only produced by life.
So there is plenty of legitimate activity in this area which ordinary people should be allowed to discuss and debate. The challenge is the weaponization of conspiracy theories – the term is highly value laden, implying that anyone who engages in this activity must be cookie and therefore their claims baseless. But as Anne Merlan sets out in her book, Republic of Lies, conspiracy theories are often brandished by the powerful for their own ends: she cites Hillary Clinton blaming a “vast right-wing conspiracy” for women making sexual abuse claims against her husband, then President Bill Clinton. The Bush administration infamously claimed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction to justify its invasion of the country. US Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz enthusiastically promoted the idea that Saddam Hussein, not Osama Bin Laden, was the hidden hand responsible for 9/11
Sarah Kendzior suggests that information dismissed as a conspiracy theory often in fact includes seeds of truth, and that the framing of it in this way effectively shuts down meaningful discourse about abuses of power. And this brings us to one of her central ideas, a rhetorical device she calls ‘pre-emptive narrative inversion’. By this she means attempts to engineer a narrative before it becomes widespread, aiming to shape public perception in a particular way – and therefore acting as a very effective smokescreen.
One example of this Kendzior cites is Pizzagate —in 2016 a story emerged about an “elite paedophile trafficking network” operating in 2016, that suggested Democratic elites were running a child sex ring in the basement of a D.C. pizza parlour called Comet Ping Pong.
Kendzior tells how this rumour was “emerging in the midst of a lot of suspicions about rich and powerful people being implicated in paedophile-trafficking operations…so [Pizzagate] was put out there to make everyone not want to report on it. Because you don’t want to elevate it. You may accidentally be spreading that rumour by reporting on it. So, there’s some understandable hesitancy there. But they also didn’t want to report on the real stories underneath.” And the real stories she is referring to are to do with the operations of Jeffrey Epstein that were emerging at that time.
As she says, “There’s this element of ridiculousness to it,” noting that anyone who debated Pizzagate at that point was considered crazy. But making the idea of the world’s most powerful people engaging in paedophilia seem so outlandish, Kendzior believes, was always the intention “It makes it very hard because the first association that somebody's hearing about Epstein, for example, would be Pizzagate. ‘Oh, this sounds like an Alex Jones kind of thing,’” she said. “And if you're trying to seem respectable, you won't even want to get involved in that conversation.”
Back to UFOs
Could there be some form of narrative inversion relating to UFO’s? Some commentators such as journalist John Ruehl suggest this may be the case asking if:
“the decades-long pursuit of unravelling the UFO mystery [could] potentially function as a cover for advanced government research and testing programs for innovative forms of propulsion and craft design?”
Ruehl suggests there is a long history of evidence for the linkage between UFOs and weapons development. During the Cold War, UFO reports were common, coinciding with missile and rocket tests (something which continues today). In 1997, the CIA revealed that the military had misled to the public throughout the Cold War about many UFO sightings to obscure its black projects and keep their technological advancements hidden from hostile foreign actors.
Secret military aircraft have also been being mistaken for UFOs, such as the U-2 reconnaissance plane, introduced in the 1950s, which had a grey frame that often reflected the sun. The B-2 Spirit, introduced in the late 1980s, also had a unique aerodynamic design and its ability to control lift, thrust, and drag at low speeds often gave the appearance that it was hovering.
Ruehl cites a 2021 report by the DoDs intelligence agency that proposes many UFOs/UAPs were technologies deployed by China, Russia, another nation, or a non-governmental entity, as was reported by the NY Times. There are suggests that in the US a large number of hostile drones are mistaken for UFOs/UAPs and it is only recently that the government confronted them.
Developments in technology may lead to sightings that we attribute to UFOs: China has been drastically increasing its development of plasma technology in recent years, and European countries have also recently made breakthroughs in plasma propulsion technology, which may boost UFO reports.
There are clearly few, if any, incentives for governments to go public with their weapons testing, the development of new technologies or indeed evidence that foreign actors are spying on their own soil. On that basis, it does no harm to fail to discredit or even perhaps encourage speculation about UFOs – and the more outlandish the better given, as Kendzior points out, we are then likely to dismiss these notions.
While conspiracy theories may appear far-fetched, it does not mean they are illegitimate. This is consistent with the perspective of Lawrence Goodwyn, historian of mass uprisings, who warned against under-estimating people as “sophisticated modern observers are inclined to regard as one of ‘inadequate consciousness’”. In other words under-estimate the population at your peril.
It is tempting to look at the percentage of people that consider aliens are likely to visit Earth in 2023 and shake our heads in despair at the gullibility of such a large proportion of the population. And yet, who is the dupe here? Perhaps it is the much larger number who are busy shaking their heads not quite realising that they are going along with an easy narrative that UFO sightings and associated notions of alien life are crazy, failing to see that they are not looking more closely at a possible kernel of truth to be untangled here.
Much of what we do as humans is trying to make sense of the world where we do not have the benefits of clear evidence. Maybe we are starting to better understand the way in which knowledge environments become ‘polluted’, encouraging people to focus on some explanations rather than others. Kendzior has documented an interesting point about ‘pre-emptive narrative inversion’ that helps us to unpick the way we approach the evidence we have to hand. Perhaps documenting more of these rhetorical devices not only offers us a pathway to better understand and navigate our knowledge environments, but ensures we have greater respect for people attempting to unravel the truth behind the evidence they come across.
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