The Case Of The Face

It's important to remember that conspiracy theories are not always wrong. Things that sound crazy sometimes aren't. A good friend of mine grew up in Argentina. When he was a teenager there during the 1970s, some swore that people were disappearing without a trace. For a while his family, and most everyone they knew, dismissed this as wacky paranoia. Now we know about Argentina's Dirty War when the fascist government "disappeared" thousands of liberals, intellectuals, and suspected or potential dissidents. This really happened, but some who first tried to call attention to it were dismissed as crazies. From this we should not conclude that every bizarre theory is true, but we should at least briefly consider the possible truth of things that sound crazy if a lot of people believe they are happening.*

Some of the alien conspiracy theories get pretty bizarre, and some of them are quite comical. There's a sort of Zippy the Pinhead appeal to

*It's also a good time for us to remind ourselves of what can happen when protecting security over freedom becomes your government's prime imperative.

the alien head symbol and the alien conspiracy story, a joke that is funny in part because some people don't get it. I assume you've all heard about the face on Mars. You know, this guy:

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You do have to admire this face. It's been braving the elements much longer than Mount Rushmore, the Easter Island heads, or even the Old Man of the Mountain in Franconia Notch, New Hampshire, which survived for 30,000 years before crumbling into rubble on May 2, 2002.

Of course, erosion is much slower on Mars than in New Hampshire. It's so dry that if you were a face on Mars, you could sit for billions of years, staring at the sky and thinking slow rock thoughts while your wrinkles were gradually scoured away by the thin, dusty gales. Your major enemy would be boredom. That and secret NASA plans to blow you up.

No scientist I know has ever regarded the face as anything but a ran dom rock formation that looks vaguely facelike in a distant photograph with a certain angle of light. But many don't see it this way. In books, magazine articles, Web forums, conferences, and television exposés, proponents of the face-on-Mars conspiracy present detailed analyses showing that the face and surrounding "monuments" in the Cydonia region of Mars—eroded pyramids and the like—are constructed in ways that show clear signs of intelligent design.*

The supreme test of the face on Mars, for believers and skeptics alike, became possible in April 1998 when Mars Global Surveyor, which had begun mapping the Red Planet, had an opportunity to take the first close-up images of the Cydonia region. Within NASA some debated whether we should shoot the face (with cameras, I mean!), because this might be seen as legitimizing the question of an artificial construction. Proponents of the face would portray the mere repho-tographing as a victory. Of course we should shoot the face. Better to show that Mars has nothing to hide, and neither do we. Besides, whatever we found there would either completely embarrass the face people and shut them up for good, or else we'd uncover the greatest mystery of all time. Either would be a positive result.

Here's what the MGS pictures showed:

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"'Ironically, the preeminent "researcher" and popularizer of the face is Richard Hoagland, the man credited by Carl Sagan with the idea of including an interstellar message on Pioneer 10 and also one of the first people to suggest there might be life in Europa's ocean. The borderline between science and pseudoscience can be porous.

There you have it. It's a jumbled, eroded mountain. Not a face. Case closed, and we can move on to other things, right?

Wrong.

The hard-core face community was ready to "save the phenomenon" at all costs. If these features were not in the pictures, then something had to be wrong with the pictures. The face people spun elaborate theories, implicating NASA in faking and altering the pictures, or even sending up a nuclear bomb to destroy the face before MGS got there.

Nothing is inherently absurd about the basic premise of finding some kind of monuments on Mars. As I've already discussed, there is no good logical reason why we shouldn't find alien artifacts anywhere in the solar system. On the contrary, there are good arguments for the possibility of such artifacts. Remember, all it takes is one rapidly spreading galactic civilization, or one successful launch of a fleet of self-copying interstellar Von Neumann machines, to have swept through our entire galaxy long ago turning asteroids into more probes. If they were ever here, they might have left something behind. So, yes, of course we should look for the unexpected, the seemingly engineered.

"But why a human face?" is a good skeptical question, but one that is not hard to answer with a pulp-fiction imagination. Maybe the monument builders were themselves humanoid or wished to communicate something to humans once we were ready to find it.

Yet the face on Mars is a classic example of pseudoscience: Proponents are so committed to a theory that they don't really care about new data or find a way to twist the data to support the answer they've already chosen. They are willing to seize on the slightest hint of monuments in an area of eroded rock formations, and to uncover "contradictions" in "official statements" that seem in some convoluted way to support their theories. At the same time, they have a remarkable ability to ignore a wealth of evidence that completely rules out their claims.

The presentation is also classic pseudoscience. Their tracts are full of equations and complex-sounding phrases that appear scientific, until you actually work your way through them and you find either complete nonsense (doesn't say anything) or complete bullshit (intended to deceive). I think that some of the purveyors know exactly what is going on. They are peddling theories they don't believe themselves, and that is the definition of hucksterism.

Conspiracy theorists are convinced that Dr. Ed Weiler, NASA Associate Administrator for Space Sciences, is personally hiding information about life on Mars. This actually came up at an SSES meeting* at NASA headquarters, when Weiler (whom the committee reports to) was briefing us on the status of the Mars Exploration Program. He mentioned that he was being besieged with messages and accusations about the face and NASA's cover-up of it.

Why should NASA want to hide a discovery of life on Mars? It would be the most astounding success NASA could ever hope for, the ultimate validation of its reason to be, and a sure solution to our funding problems. Even the notion that NASA could hide something that important is silly. I've worked at a NASA research center, and I can tell you exactly how long an order to maintain silence about something on Mars would last, if you tell me how long it takes to type it out and hit "send."

What these people don't understand is that, more than anything, I wish they were right. It is my secret fantasy that when, in the interest of fairness, I spend a few moments on their Web sites, I will find myself saying, "Now, wait a minute! There really is something there. Why haven't I seen this pyramid before?" I would be on the phone in seconds calling my friends on the Mars Orbiter Camera team. If I encountered any obstruction whatsoever, I would call the press immediately and report that government scientists were hiding important findings from the American people. Hundreds like me would do just the same.

Science has, in the past, missed important discoveries by dismissing ideas that seemed too far out there, or too good to be true (such as continental drift, for instance). Reading history encourages us to be open to thinking outside the box, to at least consider frameworks within which fringe ideas could be true. These face people and their ilk only encourage us to ignore the fringes and, with the little time we have before we become food for worms, focus on that which seems potentially fruitful. They say they want to force NASA to open up and face the truth. In reality they make us clamp down our filters more tightly, which could someday actually make us miss something important.

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