Thursday, November 01, 2018

Reflections on Alien Visitors

The November-December issue of SKEPTICAL INQUIRER contains three articles about UFOs and extraterrestrials.

"UFO Identification Process," by Joe Nickell and James McGaha, offers an overview of the many different phenomena that can be mistaken for alien spaceships. The authors provide a list of common "UFOs" with their most likely explanations, broken down into multiple categories with several items under each. For instance, they cite five different classifications, with examples, under "Daylight Objects/Lights" and five under "Nocturnal Lights/Objects." It's interesting to discover how many common objects and events can fool the untrained observer and even some trained observers such as pilots. This kind of material could enhance the realism of a story about a UFO sighting. If a character rules out all the typical sources of mistaken identification, his or her conclusion that an actual spaceship has appeared will seem more credible.

Eric Wojciechowski, in "UFOs: Humanoid Aliens? Why So Varied?", advances the position that the widely varied descriptions of alleged alien visitors, diverse in appearance yet strangely all anthropomorphic, make a "psychological explanation" for the reported contacts more likely than "an alien intelligence interacting with human beings." Where the previous article evaluates sightings of apparent flying objects, this one deals with "close encounters" reported by people who claim to have actually seen extraterrestrials. The author maintains that the odds are overwhelmingly against the probability that diverse intelligent species have visited Earth, that almost all of them happen to be humanoid, and that they've managed to remain hidden from mainstream attention yet have revealed themselves to random individuals. He places heavy emphasis on the "anthropomorphic yet varied" factor. Although I don't believe the alleged alien encounters actually happened (not that I've made a formal study of the topic, but those I've read about look like attempts at writing science fiction by people who know very little about SF), I don't find this author's arguments totally convincing. Diversity rather than uniformity could just as well be offered as an argument FOR the truth of the reports, suggesting that they're not merely imitations of other witnesses' accounts. Also, I can easily think of explanations for the phenomena he considers unlikely. An interstellar organization composed of multiple species from various planets might be observing us, for instance, and the reason we meet only humanoids is that humanoid species are assigned to observe worlds inhabited by races similar to themselves. The reason they're often glimpsed, yet no solid proof of their presence has turned up, might be that they want to observe us without interfering but don't mind being noticed, like Jane Goodall with the chimpanzees.

Biologist David Zeigler's ingenious article, "Those Supposed Aliens Might Be Worms," speculates on what life-forms might turn out to be most common on other planets and answers (you guessed it) "worms." He considers intelligent humanoids highly unlikely and the popular expectation of such to be a case of a "limited line of imagination." Whereas the humanoid body shape has evolved only once on our planet (all the examples we know of being closely related), wormlike creatures have developed independently multiple times and inhabit almost every available ecosystem. He lists eight different categories of worms, and this catalog isn't exhaustive.

If we found worms of some type on another planet, what are the chances of their being intelligent? It's hard to imagine them with any kind of material technology in the absence of hands, tentacles, or other manipulative organs. But are such organs essential to the evolution of intelligence as we know it? It's widely believed that dolphins have near-human intelligence, and they don't possess manipulative appendages.

Tangentially, speaking of imagination, a two-page essay in this issue titled "Why We're Susceptible to Fake News—and How to Defend Against It," by one of the magazine's editors, conflates confirmation bias and the tendency to rationalize away evidence that might disprove one's entrenched beliefs with the mind-set of childhood make-believe scenarios. According to two psychologists quoted in the essay, Mark Whitmore and Eve Whitmore (there's no mention of whether they're related to each other), childhood beliefs absorbed from one's parents are said to be reinforced "as rationalization piles on top of rationalization over the years." This unfortunate outcome is allegedly made worse by the supposed fact that "Children's learning about make-believe and mastery of it becomes the basis for more complex forms of self-deception and illusion into adulthood." Parents unwittingly teach children "that sometimes it's okay to make believe things are true, even though they know they are not." It's hard to read this egregious misconception about the nature and value of imagination without screaming in outrage. From a fairly early age, children know the difference between fantasy "pretend play" and lies. Furthermore, fans of fantasy and other kinds of speculative fiction are less vulnerable to "self-deception" in relation to their preferred reading material than fans of "realistic" fiction. Readers of novels about extravagant success or exotic romance may indulge in (usually harmless) daydreams about the prospects of such events happening in their own lives. Fans of stories about supernatural beings, alternate worlds, distant planets, or the remote future aren't likely to expect to encounter such things firsthand. In AN EXPERIMENT IN CRITICISM, C. S. Lewis labels this kind of reading "disinterested castle-building" as distinct from the normal "egoistic castle-building" of imagining one's real-life self in the position of the hero or heroine of a "realistic" novel and the pathological version of the latter, where the subject obsessively fantasizes about becoming a millionaire or winning the ideal romantic partner without making the slightest real-life effort to achieve those goals. The authorities quoted in that SKEPTICAL INQUIRER article seem to compare all fantasy play to the third category.

One more item of interest: The Romance Reviews website is holding a month-long promotional event throughout November. I'll be giving away a PDF of my story collection DAME ONYX TREASURES (fantasy and paranormal romance):

The Romance Reviews

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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