Summary: 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. Interview with Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute regarding UFOs and SETI.
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.
On the other hand, the UFO community usually regards the SETI community as unbelievably thick-headed; 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 couple."
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 you?
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.