Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Myth of the ETH as ETFact

The last column I wrote for Alien Worlds before it folded.

Paul Kimball

Above and Beyond
The Myth of the ETH as ETFact

Of all the non-terrestrial theories that have been offered to explain the UFO phenomenon, the extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH) has always seemed the most plausible one to me. I don't think it's been proved, but I think it's a better bet than the others on offer when one looks at the evidence, and the science.

The evidence seems to indicate that at least some UFO cases represent a non-human intelligence at work. The science now tells us that there are almost certainly other intelligent beings in the galaxy, and if they are more advanced than us, there's a reasonably good chance that they could make their way here.

However, it’s critical to remember that the key letter in ETH is the "H" - it's still just a hypothesis, and anyone who tells you that they can prove that aliens have visited Earth beyond a reasonable doubt, or even on the balance of probabilities, is putting the cart well before the horse.

Beyond that, however, I think the biggest problem with the ETH supporters within ufology is that they're so... "limited" in their outlook. They are convinced that aliens have visited Earth, and in many cases they are convinced that they are still visiting Earth, and interacting with humans in all sorts of ways, some good and some bad. They are of the "nuts and bolts" school of thought, i.e. Joe Alien made his way to Earth in a flying saucer, in much the same way that Captain Kirk and all of our other science fiction icons make their way about the galaxy.

This is what I call "Keyhoe-ian" ufology, because it is based directly on the way of thinking that Major Donald Keyhoe first put forward in the 1950s. It is out-of-date, and badly out-of-touch with modern science. It presumes that aliens are only a few decades, or maybe one or two hundred years or so more advanced than us, which is highly unlikely. It presumes that the aliens are preoccupied with us, and that we are somehow important to them, which is also highly unlikely. In short, it is a point of view that is based on what people who grew up in the pioneering days of sci-fi and the space race expect of their aliens, and not the point-of-view that modern physicists and astrobiologists take.

The pro-ETH as ETFact stance of people like Keyhoe and his successors, the most prominent of which has been the flying saucer physicist, Stanton Friedman, is a relic of a different time and place, which is ironic when one considers that these people often criticize scientists for not being open-minded about the UFO phenomenon, and for being stuck in the past.

If aliens are here, it is probable that they are far more advanced than we are, by an order of thousands of years, not hundreds. We would be to them as ants are to us - beneath their notice. This might well explain the inherent weirdness of many UFO sightings - things that appear to us almost as magic, or something that in a different era would have been framed in religious terms. As physicist Michio Kaku has noted, there may well be a galactic conversation going on, but in a "language" that we are thousands of years from being able to truly comprehend.

Of course, ETFact ufologists would quickly point out that there are at least a few humans who do indeed study ants - entomologists, which is true enough. But for them I have the following question: How many entomologists spend 60 years - or longer, if you are a proponent of the notion that ET has been coming here for centuries - studying the exact same ant hill?

That idea strikes me as ridiculous. It's a desperate attempt to force fit our own way of thinking onto potential life forms that would be far more advanced than we are - and they would have to be much more advanced in order to get here from there (ignore someone like Friedman, who will try to tell you about how it's actually relatively easy to get to our local galactic neighbours, if only we would try harder, and spend more money).

Again, I'm not saying that the ETH isn't a good hypothesis... indeed, as I noted before, I think it's the most plausible one amongst the various paranormal hypotheses on offer. It's the claim by nuts-and-bolts ufologists like Friedman and Keyhoe - and hucksters like Billy Meier - that ET is making his way here aboard flying saucers and acting like we do that I take issue with, because that contention is far more science fiction than science fact.

ETFacters Friedman and Keyhoe who try to convince you that aliens are basically just like us are no different from religious fundamentalists who portray God as a kindly, white-haired anglo saxon. Such portrayals tell you a great deal about the people who put those images and beliefs forward, but absolutely nothing about the possible entity or entities under discussion. The ETFacters are flying saucer fundamentalists, and in their own way they have done as much damage to the serious scientific study of the UFO phenomenon as people like Dr. Edward Condon, Dr. Donald Menzel, or Philip J. Klass.

By focusing on the idea that little green / grey men have been coming here in nuts and bolts spaceships, ETFacters have done a grave disservice to the search for truth about the UFO phenomenon, and its possible alien origins, in the same way that thousands of years of religious leaders have undermined the search for the true nature of God by force-fitting it into a limited paradigm that simply served to reinforce their own worldview. They have not sought wisdom, nor understanding - they have simply proclaimed an "answer" which has been no answer at all.

The reductionist approach that has been adopted by the ETFacters, which seeks to make potential alien life over unto our own image, lacks vision. It is more concerned with what they see as the destination, and their need to get there now, when what we should really be focusing on is the journey, and the wonders we may discover along the way. That's the real signal in all of this. Everything else is just noise.

The worst thing about all of this, however, is the hypocrisy that you find with many of the supposedly more serious members of the “ETFact group”. They are convinced that aliens are here, and interacting with humanity, but they are vocal critics of “exopolitics”, which simply takes the ETFact position to its logical conclusion.
Exopolitics, according to Dr. Michael Salla, one of its best known proponents, is:
“is the study of the key individuals, political institutions and processes associated with extraterrestrial life... exopolitics focus[es] on the political implications of an extraterrestrial presence known to clandestine quasi-governmental entities that keep knowledge of this presence secret from the general public, elected political officials & even senior military officials. The supporting evidence is overwhelming in scope and shows that decision making is restricted on a strict 'need to know' basis.”

Take the word "exopolitics" out of the equation, and that sounds like something Friedman would say. Indeed, if you've heard Friedman speak as many times as I have, you'll note the similarity in the main themes - aliens are here, government is covering up the knowledge of that fact, and we the people have a right to know the truth. At Salla's website for his "exopols courses", he even uses the motto "preparing for our cosmic graduation", which directly echoes Friedman's decades-old mantra that perhaps someday we will be ready to qualify for the cosmic kindergarten.

Friedman's biggest issue with exopolitics, at least in public, seems to be the fact that they are not terribly fussy about vetting their so-called witnesses and whistleblowers. In that respect, he's quite right. However, as more than one exopol has pointed out to me, Friedman has a history of touting his own very flawed witnesses (Gerald Anderson pops to mind right off the bat, followed closely by Glenn Dennis), and cases (Aztec, Flatwoods, flying saucer air wars in the 1950s, perhaps even Roswell).

Frankly, while I disagree with the very premise that underlies the exopolitical belief system (that at least some UFOs have been proved to be alien spacecraft), the more I think about it, the more I find the exopols to be more intellectually honest than people like Friedman, who agree with them on the big picture, but have done little or nothing to try and effect actual political change. The exopols have it right - if you believe aliens are here, and the government is covering it up, then that is a political issue of the highest order, and no longer a scientific one.

Friedman is the de facto Godfathers of Exopolitics - in large part, he created the "family" that is modern ETFact, "Cosmic Watergate" ufology, but like Vito Corleone, he is incapable of taking what he has created and moving it into its next logical phase. Indeed, like the Don, it is a phase that he wants nothing to do with, even as others around him, whom he has inspired, recognize the logical and inevitable implications of what he has been saying all of these years, and are prepared to act on it, no matter how much he protests.

The real scandal, however, is that Friedman, like other serious ETFacters, employs a double standard with absolutely no sense of irony when they run into people who question their position. Anyone they favour who is subjected to critical examination is a victim of “character assassination”, while people the ETFacters don't like, or whom they don't support, like Bob Lazar, or Philip Corso, or even Dr. J. Allen Hynek, are fair game (in Friedman’s universe, Hynek is "an apologist ufologist"). When you mention Dr. Jacques Vallee to them, they become even more desperate in their attacks. Anything that threatens to undermine the belief system they have constructed results in the ufological equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition.

People looking for the real scientific approach to the UFO phenomenon, the kind that was championed over the years by Hynek, Vallee, and Dr. James McDonald, should look elsewhere. Why? Because Hynek, McDonald and Vallee left us with myriad case investigations, new theories and ways of looking at the UFO phenomenon, sighting classification systems, and other important legacies. Even people like Friedman’s old classmate, Dr. Carl Sagan, left us with a sense of wonder about the prospect of ET life, even though he was no proponent of the ETH. On the other side, the ETFacters have left us with Roswell, MJ-12, Aztec, tales of massive flying saucer wars between the USAF and UFOs, and other stories that belong in a science fiction anthology, not a serious discussion of what the UFO phenomenon might or might not represent.

The shame is that someone like Friedman could have done so much more – if only he, like his ETFact fellow travelers, had not let their will to believe overwhelm their critical faculties. Those people who want the old time flying saucer / conspiracy gospel will feel right at home with them, because what they offer is comfortable, and provides a sense of continuity and familiarity, and even fraternity. What it does not offer, however, is an honest search for the truth about the UFO phenomenon.

It never did.