Hey, it’s Fall Break for me, which means no classes or labs, but instead, I have to buckle down and get all caught up in my grading, so that’s what I’ll be doing the next few days. I thought I’d give a quick summary of my talk at the Paradigm Symposium, though. It was an odd experience. It had been a weekend full of woo and pseudoscience; that morning, L.A. Marzulli put on the most ghastly spectacle of ignorance and nonsense I’ve ever seen, raving about how evolution was false and aliens built piezoelectric teleporters in Peru and people with funny-shaped heads were signs that the End Times were here. I had been tempted at that point to drop my entire planned talk and simply get up there and tear every single one of his lies down…but I had a few hours to cool down, and I took into account that this was probably going to be the most hostile audience I’d ever had anyway, and went back to my original plan, a talk about biology. The talk was titled “An examination of the evidence for alien intervention in the history of life on earth”. It was a bit of bait and switch, because once I was up there I told them I couldn’t say much about that.
The first thing, I put the most antagonistic comment front and center: I told them that if I was here to talk about the scientific perspective on the evidence for aliens mucking about on planet Earth, there was one big problem: there isn’t any. They may have photos of lights in the sky, or the testimony of abductees, or the amazing mythology of ancient peoples that names the alien’s home star, and sure, that’s data of a crude sort…but there are many alternative explanations for the observations, and you simply can’t pick one alternative because it’s the one you like best. Blurry photos of ambiguous phenomena, numerology, interpretations of myth or religiously motivated pictograms in rocks, are very, very bad evidence, poorly assessed and clumsily shoe-horned into pet mythologies. They are not going to get published in peer-reviewed science journals.
I know what some of them would think about that: it’s a conspiracy theory. The grand poobahs of science are acting as dogmatic gatekeepers who will not allow the bold new ideas of an open-minded generation of serious investigators to enter the temple of science!
But that’s not it at all. I know a lot of scientists; I am one. We grew up on science fiction and weird ideas — I read Fate magazine as an adolescent — we love the idea of extraterrestrial intelligences. We have the same desire they do to see strange ideas come true, and experience exotic and mysterious phenomena.
But we also have standards. Extraordinary phenomena require extraordinary evidence. You don’t become a scientist unless you can couple imagination and curiosity to rigor and discipline.
And the current “evidence” doesn’t rise to the level it ought to — the enormous hypothesis that we have been visited by aliens is supported by the thinnest, feeblest, most bizarrely subjective nonsense.
I suggested that they imagine that I proposed that there was an elephant roaming the hall of the Union Depot, which is where the meeting was being held. That would be really cool — I love elephants. It would make me ridiculously happy to find a domesticated elephant sharing this room with us. And they might think that would be awesome, too — but looking around, there was no elephant is in sight. It was a fairly open space, and aside from a curtained area, there wasn’t anywhere where an elephant could possibly be hiding.
Just on the obvious evidence of your eyes, you would say there is no elephant there. But maybe, as an open-minded person, you might assume that I’ve got some additional information — I’d just come from behind the curtain, so maybe it was lurking back there. So you ask me to support my claim…and in reply, I say, “I found a peanut in my pocket. How else could it have gotten there other than that it was put there by a friendly elephant?”
Would the quality of my evidence and my logic reduce or strengthen my claim of an elephant? I think everyone would agree that that is extraordinarily poor reason and exceptionally weak evidence, and it would greatly reduce my credibility, and you’d be even less likely to accept the possibility of elephants lurking in train stations.
That’s how the scientific community feels about these stories of aliens. An enormous, earth-shaking reality is proposed, and the best evidence anyone can trot out is trivially dismissed blurry photos backed up by unsupportable logic. No, I’m sorry, until the alien proponents can provide better evidence, they’re not going to be taken seriously, and floundering about and flinging even more blurry photos and bizarre claims and elaborate fairy tales about ancient hieroglyphics is going to weaken your case.
Then the bulk of the talk was a discussion of why the idea that aliens hybridized with humans, or that humans are aliens who emigrated to Earth, is completely ridiculous. I tried to keep it as basic as possible. The first bits were a primer on what a gene and an allele are, a quick explanation about how we have roughly 20,000 genes, and that basically all mammals, to a first approximation, have the same suite of genes, and that differences in the forms of those genes in a mouse or a human allow us to estimate how closely related we are. I showed them a cladogram and explained how it was generated and what it meant.
I addressed some of the most common misconceptions: I explained that chromosome number isn’t that big a deal, and showed them a synteny map to illustrate that it just meant the genes were juggled about in a different arrangement…but they were still the same genes. I knew some of the more knowledgeable people might have heard that the human genome project had found some genes that were unique to humans and not shared with other mammals, so I explained what ORFans were, and how they aren’t the key to finding signs of alien tinkering. I probably spent the most time discussing an actual, known case of “alien” genes in the human genome, the analysis of human and Neandertal genomes.
That’s the kind of evidence we expect to see if their stories are true, I told them.
I had to mention one thing that had been bugging me all weekend, even if it wasn’t strictly about biology. Could aliens have offered cultural guidance, rather than tinkering with genes? And I told them flat out that the question was a bit insulting and also often a bit racist. So I showed them a photo of the pyramids (man, there had been a lot of talk about Egypt this weekend) and said that it was peculiar that alien astronaut proponents are always talking about aliens helping to build these monuments, but…and then I showed a photo of Notre Dame cathedral and asked, why don’t you think the French needed alien assistance to build that? It helped that John Ward had given a talk earlier in the conference where he described the quarries where the stones of the pyramid had come from and how they’d been built by human labor.
Finally, I touched on the peculiarity of little grey men — why are so many of the aliens described so human-like? I told them that evolution would not predict any such convergence to a remarkable degree, and that was evidence that these creatures were actually projections of human fears and desires, rather than physical visitors.
My summary slide:
We are children of this Earth
We know our kinship to other children of Earth
We know the history of our genes
We know the history of our populations
Humans have accomplished greatness on our own
Humanity: Alien-Free for 6 million years, and proud of it!
I suppose I could have said “Earth: Alien-Free for 4.5 billion years”, as well. I was defining humanity pretty broadly, too, to stretch it to 6 million years.
The Q&A wasn’t as bad as I feared. A couple of people were aggressive about challenging me — one wanted me to enumerate all of the alien abductees I’d talked to, and I’ve only met a few, and most of what I know comes from reading. But that’s hardly relevant: as I said at the beginning, trotting out more anecdotes from people who claim their butts were probed is only going to weaken their credibility. Most of the people wanted clarification, and there were some questions about junk DNA, nothing unmanageable.
I think I reached a few people, anyway. I have no illusions that scales fell from eyes and anyone decided that aliens are bunk on the basis of what I said, but maybe they’ll think a little harder about what constitutes good scientific evidence. I invited the conference organizer, Scotty Roberts, to join us on FtBCon in January, and maybe we could argue some more.