Contact with Aliens? Think Before You Call.

By Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer

My e-mail is frequently larded with interesting nuggets, such as this revelation: 

"The aliens are in touch. Whenever I use my computer, they underline certain strange words on the screen ... It's a message." Possibly. Then again, perhaps the correspondent should turn off the spell-check on his word processor. 

It's as predictable as a low-grade sitcom, but every day I arrive at my office knowing that before quitting time, I will get at least one phone call or e-mail from someone who has news so startling, it should rock the world like Mick Jagger on tour. Generally, these folks are ringing or writing to report something strange in the sky or an oddity in a photo. Occasionally they inform me that smooth-skinned beings from another world, clearly overstepping the bounds of polite behavior, have abducted them for a few hours of malicious molestation.

These correspondents, all of whom are patently sincere, mostly wish to share incontrovertible proof of alien presence or influence. A few claim to have developed a breathtaking theory of physics that renders all graduate-level courses in the subject obsolete.

Either would be knowledge of a high order. Either would alter the future trajectory of humankind. I should feel flattered that someone wants me to be among the first to know.

Over the years, I've dealt with thousands of such communications, and I suppose it's inevitable that I've become slightly jaded by the stories - which are largely repetitive. It's hardly a secret that I'm skeptical of declarations that the aliens are out and about on our planet.

Still, I try to answer every one of these mails and phone calls because, after all, it's not a violation of physics to travel from one star system to another. Difficult as it is, I resist the temptation to become so hardened in my skepticism that I erect a shield against considering possible new evidence. 

Indeed, an inflexible mind-set is one of the two principal arguments made by the UFO community to explain why mainstream scientists are doubtful of their claims: They lament that pointy-headed scientists just won't look at the evidence. So I take that as a caution. 

Their other argument, that the best evidence is being hidden by the government, is silly. It implies a world-wide conspiracy of governments, as well as an uncanny alien ability to ensure that all proof of their presence is exclusively collectible by the military or secret federal agencies.

But I really do endeavor to keep an open mind. After all, anyone can make a scientific discovery. And if that someone is outside the cozy halls of academe, and unburnished by both professional credibility and a wall of framed sheepskins, how can they make their case? Unlike the research establishment, they neither know - nor would know - how to deal with the refereed journals that are the billboards of science.

So they plead their case to someone they may have heard of or can easily find, like me.

However, I would like to offer an FAQ service for those who would call or write with extraordinary claims. These are things to avoid, or at least be aware of, before you reach for the phone or open your laptop:

1. Don't assure me that you have unique proof of aliens on Earth. Everyone says that. It's a red flag. So just tell me what the evidence is.

2. Don't ask me to travel to see the evidence. Write it up, or photograph it. 

3. Don't expect me to "finish the analysis for you." Newton didn't ask someone else to work out the details of classical mechanics once he saw an apple fall.

4. If you've got mysterious objects in photos, check with a photographer friend first. Most of the supposed "otherworldly craft" I've seen on photos are either good candidates for airplanes or are well-known camera artifacts, such as internal reflections in the lens. If your evidence is no more than a bright blob in a photo, it's totally ambiguous and won't convince anyone.

5. Keep in mind that there are organizations that specialize in investigating UFO sightings and similar events. MUFON (the Mutual UFO Network) has a button on its home page where you can report a sighting. Most academic and research organizations are unlikely to help you much. They don't have the time, money or requisite background. 

6. Don't send e-mails to everyone you can think of, including the current occupant of the White House, the Pentagon, NASA and all the experts you've seen on TV - unless it gives you satisfaction to pad their spam folders.

7. If I sound skeptical, please don't tell me "I know what I saw!" Everything you see is filtered through your visual system (imperfect) and your brain (also imperfect, despite what your Mom told you). Witness testimony is the worst kind of evidence in science.

I don't promise to be convinced, but I do try to listen.