UFOs and Alien Abduction (April 09, 2007)

I have never experienced anything in my life that could be considered paranormal. I have never witnessed anything that could be referred to as a UFO nor have I ever been abducted by aliens. Likewise I have never met anyone who claims to have witnessed a UFO or who claims to have been abducted by aliens. There are those who would claim that my inability to believe in such things is symptomatic of an insular frame of mind on my part. However I did not witness the “Big Bang”, I have never seen a subatomic particle with my own eyes, and I have never actually seen a distant star as anything other than the speck of light that it appears to be from Earth. I do believe in these things, because, though I cannot claim to have seen them with my own eyes, they make sense when placed into a framework with other things that I do know to be true. I believe in more than that which I have seen and experienced, but there is a degree of common sense and logic that needs to be applied to these things that remain unseen.

UFO sightings can be traced back to biblical times if some interpretations of Ezekiel 1: 4-28 are to be believed, even though biblical scholars have thoroughly addressed the misinterpretations applied to this story by individuals such as Erich von Daniken[i] in Chariots of the Gods?, a UFO fanatic’s bible. According to von Daniken, what Ezekiel witnessed was some manner of amphibious helicopter or another advanced form of technology not available to human beings at the time the story was written.

More recently, in fall of 2006, according to a report posted to the Associated Press[ii], a UFO was sighed in the sky above Chicago’s O’Hare airport, “The workers, some of them pilots, said the object didn’t have lights and hovered over an airport terminal before shooting up through the clouds.” FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory is quoted as responding, “That night was a perfect atmospheric condition in terms of low (cloud) ceiling and a lot of airport lights. When the lights shine up into the clouds, sometimes you can see funny things.”

Though there appear to be few credible arguments in favor of the existence of extraterrestrial visitations to Earth, there are many legitimate scientific explanations as to why so many people claim to have experienced alien abductions or witnessed what they insist was some manner of alien craft, the most well-understood being a phenomenon known as sleep paralysis. In her article “Abduction by Aliens or Sleep Paralysis?” a response to a Roper Poll that claimed an estimated 3.7 million Americans had been abducted, Susan Blackmore[iii] explains the phenomena known as sleep paralysis,

In a typical sleep-paralysis episode, a person wakes up paralyzed, senses a presence in the room, feels fear or even terror, and may hear buzzing and humming noises or see strange lights. A visible or invisible entity may even sit on their chest, shaking, strangling, or prodding them.

Blackmore further draws a correlation between the amounts of television an adult watched and their interpretation of how aliens would look based upon the results of a study she performed in Britain. 350 subjects, of varying ages and levels of education, were asked to relax and listen to a story about an alien abduction that Blackmore recited. Following this story Blackmore asked a series of questions and further requested that a number of the individuals taking part in this study draw a picture of the alien that they had envisioned. Though the results are necessarily ambiguous as far as confirmation or repudiation of actual abduction experiences, Blackmore does state, “These findings do not and cannot prove that no real abductions are occurring on this planet. What they do show is that knowledge of the appearance and behavior of abducting aliens depends…on how much television a person watches.”

Blackmore is not the only person to have reached the conclusion that most (if not all) experiences relating to alien encounters can be explained in terms of sleep paralysis. In an editorial piece for Scientific American, Michael Shermer[iv] states,

The most likely explanation for alien abductions is sleep paralysis and hypnopompic (on awakening) hallucinations. Temporary paralysis is often accompanied by visual and auditory hallucinations and sexual fantasies, all of which are interpreted within the context of pop culture’s fascination with UFOs and aliens.

This statement by Shermer is directly related to an alien encounter that he personally experienced while bicycling across the United States in August of 1983 during which,

A large craft with bright lights overtook me and forced me to the side of the road. Alien beings exited the craft and abducted me for 90 minutes, after which time I found myself back on the road with no memory of what transpired inside the ship. I can prove that this happened because I recounted it to a film crew shortly afterward.

Instead of operating under the assumption that he had actually been abducted, Shermer used his critical thinking skills and investigated the actual events surrounding his experience and concluded, “My abduction experience was triggered by sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion.”

Anyone familiar with the show The X-Files would probably be familiar with the poster of the “flying saucer” with the words, “I Want to Believe” emblazoned above. I can sympathize with the sentiment behind the statement. I also want to believe. I would be happy to believe that we have been visited by extraterrestrial intelligences. I would be content just to have some evidence, less profound than actual visitations, to support my belief that they are indeed out there somewhere. But I am unable to let my wistful desires influence my realistic analysis of the evidence at hand. This very desire to believe can serve as a severe handicap where our capacity to rationally assess situations is concerned. According to James Alcock[v], in the article “The Belief Engine”,

Beliefs can become very resistant to contrary information and experience. If you really believe that alien abductions occur, then any evidence against that belief can be rationalized away — in terms of conspiracy theories, other people’s ignorance, or whatever.

And conspiracy theories certainly abound when believers in UFO phenomena and alien abduction are questioned regarding the lack of substantiating evidence to support these claims. But Carl Sagan[vi] probably responded best to these conspiracy theories in an interview for NOVA when he stated, “because of human fallibility, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” I agree with Sagan’s stance completely. It is my opinion that the burden of proof lies on the shoulders of those who are attempting to make claims of an outlandish variety without any substantiating evidence.

There is very little doubt in the vast majority of those who constitute the relevant scientific fields (astronomy and the growing field of astrobiology to name only a couple) that extraterrestrial life does exist and that it has led to the development of intelligent life elsewhere. According to Dr. Frank Drake’s calculations there would be a minimum of approximately 10,000 worlds supporting intelligent life within just our own galaxy, primarily orbiting stars similar to our own and most likely found in what has come to be referred to as the galactic habitable zone. This hypothetical zone can be visualized in terms of a belt encircling the center of our galaxy meeting the conditions of being both close enough to the galactic center to benefit from a sufficiently high level of heavy elements and far enough distant that the greater propensity for asteroid and comet collisions as well as increased outbursts of radiation from supernovae can be avoided. It seems to be a viable assumption that there is other life out there, considering the sheer number of stars, even if only a small proportion of those actually harbor planets, a small number of which being rocky worlds similar to Earth.

Since 1960, thanks in large part to the efforts of Dr. Drake, there has been a growing program in place with the sole purpose of scanning the sky above us for any sign of intelligent life beyond our world. SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) has been growing not simply with a greater number of radio telescopes and subsequently a greater section of the sky being scanned at any given time, but these methods have been reinforced by implementation of equipment with greater and greater levels of sophistication, and yet according to Erik Skindrud[vii] in the article “The Big Question” he claims, “to this day no definite extraterrestrial signals have been recorded by the more than 70 radio searches undertaken.”

Many factors weigh heavily against extraterrestrial intelligence having visited our planet and these same factors work against our drive to explore and colonize beyond Earth. Distance, time, and cost-effectiveness stand in the way of our most imaginative plans of colonizing the moon or more distant Mars. Just the thought of expanding beyond the boundaries of our own solar system is almost alien when it comes to practical application. In order for an alien civilization from Proxima Centauri (the nearest star to our own) to have visited Earth this morning, they would have had to have left their own home world a minimum of 4 years ago traveling at the speed of light. Traveling any more slowly and that travel time increases exponentially. At our current level of technological advancement the resources required to undertake such a venture ourselves would bankrupt every civilized nation on Earth. An interesting question to me is, how utterly alien would another species have to be in order to overcome these limiting elements for themselves, and to what purpose?

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