Dreams of alien life will not die. Almost as if we need to believe that we are not alone in the universe, or even somehow know we are not alone, this idea is resurrected in every era in new forms reflecting the attitudes and convictions of the day. Today, beliefs about extraterrestrials are polarized in a way that mirrors our culture's divergent attitudes about
*Shades of the panspermia of Kelvin and Arrhenius.
science. We scientists view the question as part of our turf, as the proper subject of astrobiology. In recent decades, however, another train of belief has been gathering steam on a parallel track. Although science has been on a roll of confidence and power since the Enlightenment, antiscientific voices are increasingly audible on the cultural airwaves. Creationism, faith healing, astrology, postmodern relativism, and New Age spirituality are among those beliefs that mainstream science regards as dangerous superstitions threatening the rational basis of our society. Many adherents of these beliefs view science as equally dangerous, threatening our very survival with an amoral, materialistic, antispiritual attitude and an out-of-control pursuit of new technology. Nowhere is the gulf between expert scientific opinion and popular folk beliefs greater than on the subject of aliens.
Millions of rational adults currently believe that UFOs are alien spaceships that have come to Earth and occasionally abducted people, perhaps to study us, perhaps to help us out. Astrobiologists and SETI scientists are quick to dismiss such opinions, even while adhering to their own strong faith in our ability to establish radio contact with like-minded aliens. On both sides of this divide, many people nourish the fantasy that advanced extraterrestrials with superior wisdom will lead us beyond the threat of high-tech self-destruction to a safe and wondrous future.
Ironically, widespread belief in UFO aliens may be partly responsible for the strong public support enjoyed by NASA's astrobiology program. Certainly our regular stream of "Life on Mars" headlines has lent comfort to the UFO believers. People think there's life out there, and they want us to find it. Although the science/antiscience divide is wide, both sides believe in aliens. Perhaps, deep down, our reasons for believing are not so different.
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