Jill Tarter

UFO’s!!!! I’ve spent my entire career trying to explain to people that SETI is scientific and credible, and UFO claims and studies are not. Now Slate has published the first of my “Diary” entries under a UFO headline! When my colleagues noticed this and woke me out of a sound sleep to tell me, I called Slate. I said a lot of rude things and told them I’d file no more Diary pieces. I had hoped that I would be leaving a big void on their page and making things awkward for them. After some e-pologies, I realize that I’m not nearly so important, nobody will notice. Nobody will feel awkward but me and my colleagues and unfortunately perhaps some of the many generous people who support us. They want their money to support legitimate science, not some UFO nonsense. Unless I fill the space with an explanation, any of the readers who saw that headline and thus assumed SETI and UFOs are the same thing will continue to think so. Life in a post-Sagan world is the pits. I’d guess that the folks who created the headline are too young to have seen Cosmos, and they sure as heck haven’t read The Demon-Haunted World. I hope the readers have better critical thinking skills than the staff.

UFO means unidentified flying object. The most frequently reported UFO is the planet Venus—people don’t expect it to be so bright! Our brains don’t deal with unidentified objects very well. We’ve had a long evolutionary history to hone our skills at interpreting visual input in terms of previously identified things. You’re more likely to survive and reproduce if you can smile when you see your mother’s face or run when you glimpse a predator. So, when we see things, we interpret what we see, we can’t help it. I suppose this is why there are far more reports of spaceships and flying saucers then there are reports of puzzling, unexpected lights (at least among the people who call me). I have no quarrel with unidentified objects (flying or otherwise); I am willing to believe that there are new things to discover, new physics to learn, phenomena not yet identified. It was only recently, and after many years of anecdotal evidence, that scientists were able to prove the existence of lightening sprites and jets above thunderclouds. What I do object to are the outrageous and incredible claims of alien spaceships hurtling through our atmosphere, or landing in a field and taking off again, without creating any disturbance or leaving any evidence. Sorry, there really isn’t any evidence, not anything that has withstood scientific scrutiny (remember that something doesn’t have to be true to be in print, it just has to be profitable). Next time someone tells you about someone who was abducted from his/her bedroom, subjected to humiliating medical examinations on board an alien spacecraft, and has only an implanted object in their nostril as proof of their ordeal (usually remembered only under the influence of hypnotic regression), ask them what happened to the implanted object. Is it in the Smithsonian Museum? Is it being examined by NASA, or the CIA, or even the science department at the local university? Has anyone actually seen it? Missouri is my kind of state, with their “Show me” motto.

I’ve actually seen a UFO, and my husband witnessed it as well. We were flying our Cessna back to its base in Concord, Calif., one night. Suddenly, we both became aware of a bright light at our 2 o’clock position. We both assumed it was the light from another aircraft, but were surprised that the air traffic control center managing our flight had not informed us of any other plane so apparently close. We called the center. They claimed to have nothing on their radar screen. We looked at each other, we looked out the window, it was still there—a UFO. I remember saying to my husband, “This can’t be happening to us.” We watched the “airplane,” that the center couldn’t see, for several more minutes, until the clouds (that we didn’t know were there in the dark) shifted enough to reveal the full moon shining through! Aside from making me feel a bit foolish about our conversation with the center, this event taught me an important lesson about perception and interpretation.

I claim that SETI is a legitimate scientific exploration because we demand that any claim of detection be accompanied by impeccable evidence, preferably repeatable and independently verified. Once a signal has been found, verification can probably be achieved with much simpler equipment than that required for the discovery. You, the consuming public, should demand that anybody announcing the detection of a SETI signal make available the discovery data for independent analysis. Our research community has worked diligently to establish a post-detection protocol of common sense, a series of actions that should be taken to confirm the reality of any suspected signal (or other evidence) of ETI origin. We take the possibility of success seriously and try to plan for it. However, as scientists, we also acknowledge the fact that the cosmos may have a different answer; we may indeed be alone. Scientific exploration is the best way to try to resolve this ancient question.

UFOs don’t qualify as scientific exploration. A few years ago, I attended a colloquium at a Silicon Valley think tank. Lots of smart (and depressingly young, from my perspective) people listened to the speaker present evidence for alien visitations to Earth (BTW, the speaker’s credentials were pretty impressive). The talk finished with the claim that there were indeed unexplained lights at night around a local reservoir near the 280 Freeway. This claim was intended to convince the audience that alien visitations were real and happening under their noses. Instead, this young, bright, and very enthusiastic audience said, in effect, “Show me.” They began asking the speaker all sorts of questions about what kind of equipment, over what time period, might be needed to monitor the reservoir and document these lights. The implication was that the now-intrigued audience would find the time and resources to implement whatever the speaker wished. The speaker demurred. Hopefully nobody in attendance that day now gives much weight to the other things the speaker had to say.

For the most part, those of us doing SETI have thick skins (we’ve heard and told countless LGM jokes). However, the Slate UFO headline pushed my buttons. I hope this short note will push some of your buttons and cause you to look at your world more critically. The universe is wonderful enough; we don’t have to embellish it with a lot of nonsense.

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Note: On Tuesday, Slate posted an erroneous headline on the Table of Contents that described SETI’s work as “searching for UFOs.” SETI does no such thing, and click here to find out why not. Slate sincerely regrets the error.