Before we set out to answer the question, “Is there intelligent life in outer space?”, we should first try to determine if there's any legitimate supply here on earth. The vastness of space can overwhelm our human imagination with it's nearly infinite enormity, and yet, the dark reaches of outer space's staggering depth is nonetheless paralleled inch by inch with the nearly endless length of human gullibility.
Although there's no documented evidence that Lincoln actually said, “You can fool all of the people some of the time,” the truth of the aphorism shoots through the human experience like a particle beam. I used to work with another schoolteacher who liked to say, “No Lower Limit,” any time other teachers shared their stories of astonishingly stupid student behavior. By this expression my fellow teacher meant that while human genius must certainly have its upper limits, the well of human stupidity is bottomless; as soon as you think you've scratched the bottom after hearing the dumbest response ever fallen from the lips of a student, you can only establish a personal benchmark because tomorrow (or as soon as five minutes from now) some other student is going to say something even more inane.
Of course, you do not have to be a schoolteacher to know the truth of this axiom; anyone whose job requires them to deal with the general public witnesses the accuracy of “No Lower Limit” on a daily basis. I suspect if there is intelligent life in outer space, aliens with foreheads the size of dinner plates have designed advanced technology to harness the endless supply of human stupidity to power their spaceships. The energy from a single season of “The Jersey Shore” could propel an entire fleet of spacecraft more than twice the length of the Milky Way.
Have “Beings from Other Planets” ever really visited our planet? An astrophysicist could perhaps offer a quantitative estimate of the odds of alien visitation based upon calculating the number of likely inhabitable planets divided by current approximations of the likelihood of surpassing the physical barriers to traveling faster than light speed. As a rhetorical theorist, however, I would rather offer my qualitative opinion based on the likelihood of ever getting a straight answer from anyone who might actually know anything definitive one way or the other. Thus, my rhetorical assessment of the E.T. visitation question is that the truth, at this point, is unknowable.
In the more than six decades that have passed since July 8, 1947, – when Walter Haut, the public information officer for the 509th Atomic Bomb Group at Roswell Army Air Field, issued a press release claiming the army had recovered a crashed “flying saucer” from the desert – so much bad information has entered the public sphere that sorting out the ontological truth of alien visitation is no longer feasible. If we take the events of Roswell as a shining example of how much can go bad in building a historical record of a supposed paranormal event, then we can understand why both the adamant skeptic and die-hard true believer are both sinking in the mud of unreliable information.
Here's what we do know: In the summer of 1947, something made a mess on a ranch about 30 north of Roswell, New Mexico. The foreman at the ranch had no idea what made the mess, and he collected some of the debris to show his family. The debris was strange enough to make him wonder what it was. Later, after the ranch foreman confided in the local sherif and then shared his story with the local newspaper, the army grew interested in the odd debris, and they sent some folks out to investigate. On the morning of July 8, Colonel William Blanchard, after examining fragments of the debris, directed his public information officer, 1st Lt. Walter Haut, to issue a press release stating that the United States Army Air Force had recovered a crashed "flying disc." Later, the very same day, after both national and international news agencies began reporting the story, the US army hastily issued a retraction claiming the debris did not come from a flying saucer but rather from a weather balloon. In the following few days, some newspapers ridiculed Haut for his initial press release, and by the end of July, 1947, the incident had pretty much left the public consciousness.
For next 31 years, no one gave much thought about the story of “the flying saucer that turned out to be a weather balloon.” Then, in 1980, two writers by the name of Charles Berlitz and William L. Moore published a book about the wreckage found in the desert, and they claimed that one of the men sent to investigate the debris, Army Major Jesse Marcel, quckly recognized the material as extra-terrestrial and then conspired with his superior officers to construct an elaborate coverup of the incident. Berlitz and Moore, who claimed to having interviewed more than 90 witnesses in researching their book, alleged that more than mere spaceship rubble had been recovered, but actual alien corpses had been recovered as well.
Since the first publication of Berlitz and Moore's book, The Roswell Incident, several other authors (notably Kevin D. Randle, Donald R. Schmit, Stanton Friedman, and Don Berliner) have written books reporting “what actually happened” at Roswell after interviewing hundreds of supposed eyewitnesses. In the decades that have followed the publication of Bertliz and Moore's first book on the subject, the awareness of the mythos of the downed alien ship collided with the public imagination, and the city of Roswell learned to both live with and capitalize upon this awareness by becoming the Mecca for tourists interested in UFOlogy. Travelers today to Roswell can discover street lights shaped like alien heads and a wide variety of t-shirt shops, knick-knack stores, and diners that cater to people who seemly cannot get enough kitschy, plastic souvenirs.
Since the 1990's, the official account of the US government is that there actually was a cover-up of what happened at Roswell, but that the Army was not covering up the recovery of an alien spacecraft, but rather the wreckage of Project Mogul, a top-secret weather balloon device that was being developed to spy on Russian nuclear weapon development.
Regardless of whether you choose to believe the government's latest version of what actually happened in the desert outside of Roswell or some hybrid story of the more than half dozen authors who have produced contradictory book-length explanations for what happened, the point I would like to make is this: with so many inconsistent and conflicting stories, how can we believe anyone's account of what happened? The first book that researched the incident came from interviews conducted nearly three decades after it happened. Out of the hundreds of people who subsequently have made claims to having some first-hand experience with the crash debris, how many of those people are either flat out lying or have mentally relived other people's stories so often in their minds that it became their own stories as well? Even if some people are sincere in their beliefs that they experienced something “not of this earth” in handling the debris, how many of those people could actually distinguish alien material from mundane human produced rubble?
Before leaving Roswell behind this week, there are two additional points I would like to make. First, regardless of whatever credibility issues Walter Haut may have suffered later in life (years after Haut survived the national ridicule of his initial press release he went on to open a UFO museum for tourists in Roswell), Haut was a bona fide war hero who deserves our deepest respect for flying 35 missions as a bombardier during World War II.
And second, regardless of any evidence anyone might produce to show that the debris from the Roswell crash site was (or was not) extra-terrestrial, it seems extremely improbable to me that a sufficiently advanced alien race that has developed the technology capable of traversing the far regions of outer space would struggle with the concept of “brakes.” Imagine this, an alien spaceship is hurling in our direction at near light speed when a mechanical engineer announces to the ship's captain that somehow they have lost their ability to stop or slow down. “See that class-m planet over there?” the captain says to his navigator. “It's three fourths covered with water. Aim directly for one of its deserts.” Perhaps, on other planets, there is also “no lower limit.”
Keep thinking rhetorically, and I'll see you folks again next week.