The International UFO Museum and Research Center is a fun place to visit. Placed in an old movie theatre in Roswell, NM the museum purports to catalogue everything regarding the “Roswell Incident” of 1947 along with a plethora of other UFO and Extra Terrestrial sightings in the U.S. and around the world. I snapped the picture above when I visited there is 2017 when we were visiting Carlsbad Cavern just south of Roswell. The entire town of Roswell has embraced its UFO history and they even stage a UFO festival every year. For most people this is tongue in cheek although I am sure there are a few true believers. However, even if tongue in cheek, I think thinking about UFOs and ETs is important, useful, and should be taken seriously.
For example, thinking about UFOs and ETs can help clarify our thinking about the importance of politics. I assign this article by Charles Krauthammer to my American Politics 1 students during the first week of class. Krauthammer brings up both the Drake equation and Fermi paradox. The former stating that given the conditions for life and the size of the universe extra terrestrial life must exit while the latter claims, basically, sure but why haven’t they visited us yet? Krauthammer also mentions Carl Sagan’s answer to the Fermi paradox which is that, sadly, maybe highly advanced civilizations end up destroying themselves. The obvious implication from this that Krauthammer spends the rest of the article articulating is that maybe this will be our fate on Earth?
In other words, this silent universe is conveying not a flattering lesson about our uniqueness but a tragic story about our destiny. It is telling us that intelligence may be the most cursed faculty in the entire universe — an endowment not just ultimately fatal but, on the scale of cosmic time, near instantly so.
However, not to leave the reader despairing the fate of human civilization, Krauthammer lets us know how we can hopefully avoid this fate.
Rather than despair, however, let’s put the most hopeful face on the cosmic silence and on humanity’s own short, already baleful history with its new Promethean powers: Intelligence is a capacity so godlike, so protean that it must be contained and disciplined. This is the work of politics — understood as the ordering of society and the regulation of power to permit human flourishing while simultaneously restraining the most Hobbesian human instincts.
There could be no greater irony: For all the sublimity of art, physics, music, mathematics and other manifestations of human genius, everything depends on the mundane, frustrating, often debased vocation known as politics (and its most exacting subspecialty — statecraft). Because if we don’t get politics right, everything else risks extinction.
We grow justly weary of our politics. But we must remember this: Politics — in all its grubby, grasping, corrupt, contemptible manifestations — is sovereign in human affairs. Everything ultimately rests upon it.
Fairly or not, politics is the driver of history. It will determine whether we will live long enough to be heard one day. Out there. By them, the few — the only — who got it right.
In other words, it’s politics that will save us from ourselves. I like to assign this the first week to let students know that politics is important, in fact so important that its the only thing stopping us from destroying ourselves as so many other extra terrestrial societies have done before us! (maybe anyway)
Right now UFOs and ETs are having a bit of a moment. Ever since the New York Times published a video showing U.S. Navy pilots tracking an unidentified object more and more people are taking the issue more seriously
Sometime this month the U.S. government will release a report investigating many instances of unidentified objects and the early word is that the government has found no evidence for extra terrestrial life but can’t rule it out either. This report and others like it from other governments give rise to the second reason to take UFOs seriously because they help us understand government actions and the boundaries of state sovereignty.
In a famous article (famous at least for political science) Alexander Wendt and Bud Duval claimed that UFOs are not taken seriously as an object of study by the state or scientists for political reasons rather than scientific ones (the title of this post is a quote from the article). Wendt and Duval claim that the state and scientists do not take UFOs seriously because they assume that they are not ET. This “UFO taboo” according to them is driven by three primary factors – physical, ontological, and metaphysical. Taking UFOs seriously would require the state to acknowledge the possible extra terrestrial nature of them and this is something the state cannot due since it would challenge its sovereignty. Wendt and Duval note:
On one level the UFO is a traditional spatio-temporal threat, because one of the possibilities that we must countenance if we accept that the UFO is truly unidentified is that its occupants are ETs – and that threatens both the physical and ontological security of modern rule. The physical threat, of course, is that ET presence in “our” solar system would indicate a vastly superior technology to human beings’, raising the possibility of conquest and even extermination. . .The ontological threat is that even if the ETs were benign, their confirmed presence would create tremendous pressure for a unified human response, or world government. (620-621)
Both the physical and ontological threat posted by UFOs to states attack the fundamental nature of sovereignty. The metaphysical challenge of the UFO to state sovereignty is a bit different. UFOs possibility of being extra terrestrial challenge the anthropocentric undermining of sovereignty that humans should rule. As Wendt and Duval state:
Because the contemporary capacity to command political loyalty and resources depends upon it, the assumption of anthropocentrism must be unquestioned if modern rule is to be sustained as a political project. As a condition of their own sovereignty, therefore, before modern states can deal with threat to their physical and ontological security, they must first secure this metaphysic. (621)
Because of the threats that acknowledging the possibility of UFOs being ETs poses too notions of sovereignty the state chooses to exist in a state of ignorance about UFOs, not investigating them but just ignoring them. This creates a taboo around UFO research that prevents scientists from studying the subject. This is why, according to Wendt and Duvall, the state ignores UFOs but it doesn’t tell us how the UFO taboo is (re)produced. Wendt and Duvall identify four techniques where the state tries to make the UFO known without actually trying to find out what they are (by actually investigating if they are extra terrestrial or not). Those techniques are: 1) authoritative representations – the U.S. Air Force claiming that UFOs are not a national security threat, or the dismissal of ufology as a pseudo-science. 2) Official inquiries that have the appearance of being scientific but are really “show trials” because they a priori reject the extra terrestrial hypothesis. 3) official secrecy, and 4) discipline such as formal attacks on the UFO believer as a threat to rationality and the everyday dismissal of those who express public interest in UFOs which can lead to self-censorship.
Taking UFOs seriously can be useful in studying important aspects of political science such as the importance of politics for human survival to examining the boundaries of state sovereignty among other issues. I hope the “UFO taboo” is broken soon and scientists begin to seriously study them. In the words of Wendt and Duvall, I am “militantly agnostic” on the existence of intelligent extra terrestrial life but for the study of UFOs to be seriously the possibility that they could be extra terrestrial has to be acknowledged. It will be interesting to see exactly how the forthcoming U.S. government report deals with the extra terrestrial hypothesis. The early media accounts say the report does not conclude that specific UFO sightings are ETs but it also doesn’t rule that out. Perhaps this represents a first step towards taking UFOs seriously