November 9, 2011
A 2010 poll found that one in four Americans (and one in five people worldwide) believe that aliens have visited our planet. And many of these people believe that the evidence of these visits has been covered up by the government. Area 51, Roswell, mutilated cows in Colorado—there’s got to be some truth in that, right? And so two petitions were created on the White House We The People site, one calling “for the President to disclose to the American people the long withheld knowledge of government interactions with extraterrestrial beings” and the other asking the President “to formally acknowledge an extraterrestrial presence engaging the human race.”
The petitions easily reached the threshold of 5,000 signatures needed to get a response from the White House. But the signers are likely to be disappointed. Phil Larson, who works on space policy and communications at the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy, wrote in the response:
The U.S. government has no evidence that any life exists outside our planet, or that an extraterrestrial presence has contacted or engaged any member of the human race. In addition, there is no credible information to suggest that any evidence is being hidden from the public’s eye.
He gives a few examples of ongoing and planned research—SETI, Kepler, the Mars Science Laboratory—that may lead to the discovery of alien life and then reminds us that the odds of finding alien life are probably pretty slim:
Many scientists and mathematicians have looked with a statistical mindset at the question of whether life likely exists beyond Earth and have come to the conclusion that the odds are pretty high that somewhere among the trillions and trillions of stars in the universe there is a planet other than ours that is home to life.
Many have also noted, however, that the odds of us making contact with any of them—especially any intelligent ones—are extremely small, given the distances involved.
While reading this, I was reminded of a conversation I had with Cassie Conley last year when I was reported a story about what will happen should we actually find alien life. Conley is NASA’s Planetary Protection Officer; she’s the one who makes certain that NASA missions don’t contaminate other planets and that any sample return missions don’t harm us here on Earth. She told me that after she took the NASA job, some people befriended her in the hopes of ferreting out NASA’s secrets about aliens. “I was dropped as an acquaintance immediately upon their realizing that, in fact, I didn’t have any secrets,” she said. “They were disappointed when they found out there weren’t any.” (But at least she had a good attitude about it all: “It was rather entertaining,” she said.)
I will admit that it is possible that some grand conspiracy exists, that a government or corporation could be hiding this information from us all. (I can’t disprove a negative.) But keep in mind what Conley says: “If you think the U.S. government is that good at keeping secrets, you’ve got a lot higher opinion of them than I do.”
In addition, such a conspiracy would necessitate excluding the scientists most interested and most qualified in this area, and all of them have committed to making a discovery of alien life public. “I think there’s a big misconception in the public that somehow this is all a cloak-and-dagger operation,” says Arizona State University astrobiologist Paul Davies. “It’s not. People are quite open about what they are doing.”
Even the White House.
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