Jul 5, 2010

as a break from politics, UFO's

The Internet works rather like the human mind as explored by Edgar Allen Poe in 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue'--one thing reminds you of a related thing, which reminds you of yet another related thing, which reminds you of the conversation you and some friends had about it in college, which reminds you that one of those friends just had a baby, which reminds you that you just saw a video of your cousin's baby, which reminds you of your uncle, which reminds you of your grandma, which reminds you of the time at grandma's house a few years ago when you stood out by the road taking long-exposure pictures of cars passing in the night, and you saw a UFO.

Nope, not kidding, really did.  And since I had my camera with me all tuned up for some funky night photography, I snapped a picture of it:

Not the best picture, but from a cheap digital camera of three years ago, not bad.  (f-stop 3.2, 8 second exposure @ 800 ISO, for those who care, squished to fit on the blog but otherwise unaltered).  See the dim  spike of light in the middle?  There's nothing there at the place where it seems to come from.  Zip, nada, zilch.  What is it?  I don't know.

As I was saying, the Internet works like the human mind, and it was by a similarly tortuous process (link to this, link to that, wiki it, link to something else, and finally to aliens) that I found myself reading several UFO stories on wikipedia.  There's an entire subculture devoted to UFO's.  It's the conspiracy-mentality: while everyone wants to be special and smarter, a certain type of mind takes that to an unhealthy extreme.  There are people who long to be persecuted members of a secretive group holding dangerous knowledge that they will do anything to stamp out and erase.  This notion of belonging to an embattled elect is devilishly appealing, and those who hold to it subconsciously invent elaborate stories, fervently believed, in which disparate and unrelated events are woven together into an elaborate tapestry of codes, fiendish deception, and an undeniable truth that the masses are too willingly blind to see.

The truth is that you have to drink eight packs of Kool-Aid to get to the decoder ring that lets you see the hidden message.  Then, with twelve more proofs of purchase they send you your very own tinfoil hat.  The vast majority of such stories boil down to one or two people claiming to have seen 'something', one person claiming an abduction (conveniently with no witnesses or physical evidence), or a grainy photograph of a pie-tin on a string.  Prevarication, groupthink, hallucination, optical illusions, Venus, LSD, and weather balloons, the lot of them.

But it often happens that people really are seeing something--I should know.  (What did I see?  I don't know.  The region is heavily mined, so it could be something caused by methane, but that's my best guess and it's not a very good one.)  And it occasionally happens that multiple witnesses--including law-enforcement officials called to the scene--independently corroborate the details of what they saw.  What then?

Well, I don't know.  Could aliens be responsible for UFO's?  Possibly, in the sense that it cannot be categorically ruled out.  But there are too many other explanations--weather balloons, human aircraft (if memory serves, B-2 sightings provided a number of UFO stories before they were officially unveiled), astronomical phenomena, optical illusions, methane, St. Elmo's fire, ball lightning and any number of other weird, little-understood atmospheric phenomena--and not anything like the extraordinary evidence that would be required to support the extraordinary claim that it was none of those things but rather visitation by alien spacecraft.*

That 'I don't know' is decidedly frustrating, but in life and science it's the path to knowledge.  Believe whatever you want, but claiming certainty when there is none leads slowly but surely to madness.  If aliens really are visiting earth, then of course the government would cover it up!  Thus the assurance that the light in the sky was merely a weather balloon becomes one more proof that Uncle Sam is keeping ET in a vat in Nevada.  If you hear hoof-beats, you think of a horse, not a zebra.  Assert that it's a unicorn, however, and you'll soon wind up on http://www.tinfoilhat.com/forums/ debating how the Illuminati-hatched 'horse conspiracy' ties in with CIA contrails and fluoridation.
*If aliens really were visiting earth, then they clearly don't want to announce themselves because they haven't done it.  But if they want to remain hidden, they're doing a right poor job of it, what with their ships buzzing small towns and crashing all the time.  For a race with the presumed technology to navigate the distance between the stars, that's an F for 'fail'.  Alternately, we may unwittingly be in the midst of a galactic civilization and that the less-cultured elements of that civilization sometimes go earthling-scaring much as rural teenagers go cow-tipping.  This hypothesis is currently untestable, but holds far more explanatory power than either the sinister legends of abductions and anal probes or the feel-good tales of benevolent ET's come to bring whirled peas with their godlike technology.

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