Like a lot of ufologists, I have a problem with S.E.T.I., or the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. It's always seemed to me that if UFOs are real, then you don't need to listen for alien signals from space, you should start looking here on Earth. So the news that the Allen Telescope Array near Mount Shasta is being shut down over the budget crisis leaves me with mixed feelings. I'm in favor of science, but I'm not in favor of sham.
But it has me thinking about one of America's earliest and strongest advocates of S.E.T.I., Carl Sagan.
Sagan took America by storm during the 1970s and 1980s and became, practically speaking, America’s public Scientist-in-Chief. He first entered millions of living rooms as the affable scientist who appeared regularly on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. The Cornell University professor had a passion for astronomy and a gift of making complex ideas easy to understand.
Sagan’s celebrity increased with the release of the PBS Cosmos series in 1980, when he became famous for his phrase “billions and billions” (which he denied ever saying exactlly in those words) to describe galaxies, stars, and planets. He pioneered the science of exobiology and promoted SETI through the use of radio telescopes to listen for signals from space.
As an investigative reporter for PBS, specializing in space science, I met Carl Sagan several times in 1981. Cosmos was still airing on the network, and the unmanned Voyager spacecraft was approaching the planet Saturn.
Sagan gave a live, on-air interview as the pictures came in and were assembled by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. He was effusive about what a great moment it was for humanity. He talked passionately about how this first step beyond Earth would someday lead to manned adventures further and further into space. He was positive that the universe, because of the sheer numbers of habitable planets and what he saw as the “bias” toward life, would be teeming with intelligent beings.
After the show, I asked Sagan if – given his feelings about a universe filled with life and humankind’s imminent expansion beyond our own Earth – he felt that some of those life-forms could already had come here to check us out? Might this explain reports of UFOs? Sagan reacted strongly and negatively, citing his second most famous phrase, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."
In a half-hour parking lot debate, an annoyed Sagan made his case. He argued that the chances of extraterrestrial spacecraft visiting Earth were vanishingly small. His explanation for all the UFO sightings hit the basic points. Most were misidentifications of natural phenomena, he said. The rest were from lonely people who created hoaxes in order to feel important.
What about all the police officers and pilots? Sagan shrugged and said not one of them ever got a good photo of what they saw. No extraordinary proof meant it could not be taken seriously. Period.
Sagan did allow that the Cold War might have had a part to play in the UFO mystery. First, he said, the U.S. military was flying all kinds of aircraft that they do not discuss; confused witnesses might see these as a UFO. Second, he believed that the U.S. and Soviet governments might have been encouraging the entire flying saucer phenomenon as a smokescreen of secrecy for what they were really up to. Finally, he said that suppressed UFO data was most likely evidence of military aircraft that had not been publicly acknowledged.
His bottom line could not be moved. He stressed as strongly as he could that, in his view, there was no strong evidence that aliens were visiting the Earth either in the past or present. Then he got in his car and drove away.
Before this starts to sound like a bashing of Carl Sagan, I want to emphasize that I liked the man, he was brilliantly well-spoken, and smart as any human being I have ever met. This is why his career, to my way of thinking, seems to be either about the stubbornness of science or about an inexplicable secret that he kept. Here's why:
The Sagan Contradiction
Throughout his career, Carl Sagan continued to advocate for the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. He even wrote Contact, a novel on the subject that was adapted into a film. He clearly described his own feelings when, in the novel, the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) explained to a cabinet meeting, “There had been more than a million UFO sightings reported worldwide since the term ‘flying saucer’ had been invented in the late ‘40s, and not one of them seemed on good evidence to be connected with an extraterrestrial visitation.” In the same novel, Sagan had the U.S. President call UFO believers “UFO yo-yos.”
Fifteen years later, in his final non-fiction book, Demon-Haunted World, Sagan continued aggressively to attack belief in UFOs. “There are reliably reported cases that are unexotic,” he said, “and exotic cases that are unreliable.” He concluded again that there had been a million sightings since 1947, and not a single one passed the test proving that it was extraterrestrial.
Sagan’s twin insistence that the universe was full of intelligent life-forms,yet none could ever reach Earth, seemed wildly illogical for a man so open to the idea that intelligent life was thriving throughout the cosmos, most of which more advanced than ourselves. This seemed especially odd, given his contention that we were a young civilization and that most others were likely to be thousands, if not millions, of years advanced beyond us.
One of Sagan’s classmates at the University of Chicago, Stanton Friedman, a nuclear physicist-turned-UFO researcher (and the man who broke the Roswell case), called Sagan out publicly on his dismissive stance. “Every large scale scientific study of flying saucers has produced a significant number of cases which not only cannot be identified,” argued Friedman, “but which clearly indicate that some so-called flying saucers are manufactured objects behaving in ways that we Earthlings cannot yet duplicate with our manufac- tured objects.”
Why would a man of Sagan’s brilliance waste his professional life-energy within such a close-minded and contradictory belief system? Why shut your mind to the one thing you most want to discover? It made no sense during Sagan’s life, and it makes less today. What could explain such behavior from a man who fervently believed in alien life and seemed committed to finding it?
Truth in Fiction?
There is one answer – speculation only – found in fiction. In 1997, just four months after Carl Sagan’s death at the age of 62, the penultimate episode of the NBC UFO series Dark Skies gave Sagan his own fitting tribute. In that episode, the debunker hired by Majestic-12 to confound the public with radio telescopes searching for signals from space while simulta- neously discrediting all UFO reports was none other than Carl Sagan.
The cover-up authorities had given him a choice. He could learn the truth from them. Once he did so, however, he would never be able to speak about it publicly. Just as Harvard astronomer Donald Menzel had done before him in the 1950s and 1960s, he would have to deflect people from the truth. Or he could insist on his right to speak freely – but then the real truth would be withheld from him.
In the TV episode, the Carl Sagan character selected Door #1. Perhaps the real Carl Sagan made the same decision. In the topsy-turvy world of official denial, it is reasonable and possible that some day, in the not-so-distant future, a Freedom of Information Act request will uncover a document that shows Carl Sagan was in on the cover-up. For people who respect his vision and intellect, it would make a great deal more sense.
Whatever his motivation, however, the legacy of Carl Sagan will be tarnished. He will be seen as a tragic figure for understanding that the universe was teeming with life, but blindly refusing to believe it could actually be here now.
Sagan Was Not Alone
Carl Sagan was hardly the only scientist relentlessly hostile to the idea that alien life could be interacting with humanity here on our own turf. If anything, the more we have learned about the probability of intelligent life elsewhere, the more the stridently skeptical the scientific community has become regarding the chance that an ET civilization might reach us.
With a few exceptions, astronomers and astrophysicists today have accepted Sagan’s skewed view that the universe probably abounds with life, and none of it has ever reached us. Even when Stephen Hawking made waves by arguing that aliens might be hostile, he never entertained the possibility that UFOs might be real, and those beings flying them might be the very aliens he was worried about. Even U.K. Royal Astronomer Lord Rees, while firmly favoring the likelihood of extraterrestrial life in a landmark March 30, 2010 lecture, could not resist ending it with this:
There are some people who think they know the answer. I get letters from people who think they have been visited by aliens and I tend to get such people to write to each other. And if I write them I say if the aliens had made the tremendous technological effort to come here across inter-stellar space what a pity they only made a few corn circles and went away again and what a pity they only met a few well-known cranks.
Lord Rees smiled broadly, his audience laughed loudly. In one statement of ridicule, the top astronomer in all of the United Kingdom dismissed all abduction and contact cases, all sightings, all crop circles, all evidence.
His statement proved two things. First, the policy of “deny and ridicule” has worked so well that most of society’s established authorities now do the work of the secret-keepers without prodding. More importantly, it proved that when Disclosure actually does come, the scientific community will be filled with prominent members who not only did not get it, but never looked for it. What can one say of Lord Rees and his colleagues, learned men and women all, whose scientific curiosity missed the greatest story of our time, whose scientific method included ridicule of decent observers who actually were correct?