Sep 19, 2023 - Science

Hyped up alien claims risk undermining future ET discoveries

Illustration of a magnifying glass with the glass portion in the shape of an alien face with large eyes

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A run of alien-related news last week didn't present proof that extraterrestrial life exists. But it did reveal how distorted, misrepresented and hyped the search for life beyond Earth can become.

Why it matters: Unscientific claims of alien life and far-from-confirmed findings illustrate alien illiteracy that risks undermining the possible moment when life somewhere in the universe is discovered.

  • "There should be a lot of value assigned to that finding," says Eddie Schwieterman, an astrobiologist at the University of California, Riverside.
  • "The consequences are going to be very far-reaching for our civilization, both for science and culture."

Driving the news: A self-proclaimed "ufologist" presented what he claimed were "alien corpses" to Mexico's Congress last week.

  • Experts dismissed the claims and the researcher presented no hard evidence for his assertion. But it still spread far and wide on social media and in mainstream media in Mexico, the U.S. and beyond.
  • On Friday, NASA announced the first report from its UAP (unidentified anomalous phenomena) study team, saying the team hadn't found evidence that UAPs are extraterrestrial in origin but that the space agency would use their data to try to help illuminate more about what UFOs could be.
  • Earlier in the week, NASA scientists announced the James Webb Space Telescope had detected carbon dioxide and methane — and possibly a molecule closely associated with life on Earth — in the atmosphere of a planet 120 light years from Earth. The detection of dimethyl sulfide (DMS) was very weak but many latched on to the finding.

Details: Some of the news coverage and hype around these developments elicited eye rolls and sighs among scientists.

  • The gravity of finding life beyond Earth requires scientists "to put a lot of value on doing it right and having the correct procedures for reporting claims and being honest about the uncertainty," Schwieterman says.
  • He's part of a community-wide effort among researchers to create a framework and standards for detecting life.

What's happening: Alien conspiracy theories aren't new. But the internet, social media and now the arrival of generative AI are turbocharging dangerous narratives about extraterrestrial life, says Wasim Khaled, CEO and co-founder of Blackbird.AI, which helps organizations trace narratives that may cause reputational or financial harm and respond to them.

  • "Discussions around aliens are fueling a new era of disinformation in a world where it has become popular to erode trust in governments," he tells Axios. Claiming coverups is one way to reduce trust in government and "it is very easy because there is no irrefutable proof" that there isn't evidence of alien life, Khaled adds.
  • When an announcement happens (the Department of Defense releasing a report on UAPs, for example), conspiracy theories and narratives about government coverups are surfaced, "making that scientific finding nonscientific," he says. "The actual story that takes hold in the public can be really different."
  • The problem has two prongs, he says: People can "cherry pick findings and then people can run with it." And then there are paper mills that turn out fake scientific papers and flood the information space.
  • "Generative AI is making it worse" because the papers look more real than in the past. The technology is being used to create photos, images and "entire personas pushing a scientific finding that never happened," he says.

The intrigue: Schwieterman says he strongly believes the "first solid detection of life elsewhere will only be apparent in retrospect because of all of the uncertainties in detection and we're limited in the types of information we can collect remotely."

  • The enormity and excitement of the findings — which could be a gas in an atmosphere across the galaxy or an extinct microbe on Mars — could get lost in the noise and expectations set by previous claims and announcements.
  • "The saddest thought for me about my career is that if life is detected elsewhere, it will register as a whimper," says Sarah Rugheimer, a professor of astronomy at York University.

The bottom line: "There is a need for a greater sense of awareness of where we are in space and time," Schwieterman said.

  • "I think if we had that there would be more critical thinking applied to UAP and these other extraordinary claims without dismissing the possibility of finding life elsewhere."

Editor's note: The spelling of Eddie Schwieterman's surname was corrected.

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