A few days ago, a story teaser on the New York Times website said “space enthusiasts” were excited that Hillary Clinton has spoken openly about the possibility that extraterrestrials have visited our planet. Maybe they are, but I haven’t seen any scientists or science writers talking about the Times’s story. To put it politely, “space enthusiasts” is probably not the best term for those who are excited by this development.
But there’s a bigger glitch here. From one point of view, it may be reasonable to say, as Clinton more or less has, that people have seen things that are hard to explain on the basis of what we know, so we should keep other possibilities in mind. (The way Clinton put it in the Times article was “There’s enough stories out there that I don’t think everybody is just sitting in their kitchen making them up.”) But from another point of view, questions are hard to evade. Enrico Fermi raised the essential issue years ago, in a formulation that’s come to be known as the Fermi paradox: if spacefaring aliens do exist, where are they? (There’s a corollary about the fond fantasy of time travel: if time travel is possible, then someone in the future will invent it, so why haven’t we met any time travelers?) As I said in the first of a series of tweets about Clinton’s remarks, it’s funny that extraterrestrials can cross light-years of space but can’t manage to prove to us that they exist. All it would take is one spaceship hovering over a Super Bowl game, the Eiffel Tower, or the like, and we’d know they were here.
Perhaps the aliens fear the damage that could result if they contacted us, so they’re concealing themselves, except—oops!— they keep slipping up and giving us glimpses. In other words, maybe they’re technologically and anthropologically astute but accident-prone. No one can say that’s impossible, but the “glimpses” comprise such a fantastic array of phenomena and experiences—darting lights in the night sky, ships of many shapes and sizes, abductions and probings and memory wipes—that it’s hard to imagine a single spacefaring civilization could be responsible for them all. It’s far more probable that human perception is where the slip-ups have been occurring, that hoaxes have been perpetrated, and that some mysterious phenomena do exist (as a handful of current TV shows, such as NASA’s Unexplained Files and What on Earth?, play on) but don’t need to be explained by recourse to aliens.
What’s more, there’s a problem with Clinton’s suggestion that the U.S. government should “open the files” and “see what the information shows.” At the risk of upsetting delicate sensibilities, I have to point out that the U.S. is only one country on one landmass of this planet. If humans have been encountering alien visitors, it should’ve been happening around the globe. Why suppose that, alone among the nations of the world, only the U.S. government knows something, which, despite many past reports, it’s still hiding? If Clinton or any other presidential candidate believes that the ET question is important, he or she might call for a global effort to declassify, collect, and consider all the existing evidence. Simply to look once again into Area 51, as Clinton lately proposed, isn’t likely to get us anywhere.
But I’d much rather hear the candidates declare their stance on more serious-minded projects of research and exploration. What do Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Donald J. Trump, and the rest (remember that there are other parties and other candidates, among them the science-oriented Zoltan Istvan) think about Breakthrough Listen, or Breakthrough Starshot, or the problem of space junk, or the quest to find and track potentially threatening asteroids and comets, or the Kepler mission’s ongoing discovery of possibly habitable exoplanets?
The idea of aliens is old—as the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction entry points out, “The idea of life on other worlds dates back to antiquity”—and priceless. It serves as fodder for jokes, as a spur to exploration, as a source of wonder; if science and technology disenchant the world, as Max Weber argued, aliens may bring back some of the enchantment. In speaking of “unexplained aerial phenomena” (an alternative term for UFOs) and extraterrestrial visitors, Clinton has done the idea no harm, but I doubt she has helped it much either.