The emperor's new tour

Source: Travis Walton / WikiMedia

I used to really like UFO stories, pretty much ever since I watched E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but then especially after picking up a book called Alien Encyclopedia in a third-grade book sale. It was great because the author presented both "real-life" stories and fictional characters with pretty much equal weight, so I learned about paranormal stuff and lots of science fiction at the same time. For a kids' book, it affords a surprising level of literacy in close-encounter stories (that is, stories from either abductees or contactees)—everything from Grays to Project Blue Book to Reptilians.

At least, I thought it was surprising. Then I learned that pseudoscience is actually kinda boring. I'm still interested in those stories—for example, I listen to Coast to Coast AM—but more because I'm fascinated by the social phenomenon of telling close-encounter stories than the stories themselves.

For example, the last time I listened to Coast to Coast they had a guest talk about his childhood abduction experience:
- "Little creatures" would steal him away in the middle of the night
- The walls of their ship were transparent, so it was like he was flying over the land and sea
- They took him to visit many different cities on earth, which he "had never been to before" (etc. etc.)
- Then they returned him to his bedroom, where he went to sleep but had nightmares and a nosebleed.
- Somewhat unusually (but by no means unique), he described his experience as highly unpleasant. Many alleged contactees describe the experience in more wondrous or hopeful terms.
He went on to describe repeated encounters with these alien creatures. Sometimes they looked like the "classic Gray" (to use the host's words), other times the near-human "Nordic" type, other times giant lizard-men, and other times giant praying-mantises (perhaps a gelugon or maybe a thri-kreen?). None of these are unique to his story, however.

I can't help relating another one of his "revelations", even though it has nothing to do with abductions:
He also disclosed the secret purpose of the Large Hadron Collider and its sister collider just west of Chicago. "These things are designed to connect to alternate realities and even collapse parallel universes into this one where the Illuminati have gained power and have achieved their goals," he revealed.

The thing is, almost every close-encounter story is like this. It would be like if half your extended family on both sides went to Paris at different times and almost everyone visited the Louvre (for the Mona Lisa), the Eiffel Tower, Versailles, and the Arc de Triomphe in that order, with no more description than what one would get from a postcard. At that point you might get suspicious about the authenticity of their travel stories.

Moreover, the abductee and contactee stories bear a too-close-for-epistemic-comfort with dreams and sleep-paralysis stories. They take place at night, usually as the person is about to fall asleep (or at least feeling very sleepy). Or they wake up suddenly and find that they can't move—sleep paralysis. In both cases they're in a very liminal state of consciousness, not clearly asleep nor clearly awake, and therefore very clearly untrustworthy. That's not to say they're lying, only that they may very well be mistaken about their experience.

In this episode of The Atheist Experience, co-host Tracie Harris describes her own sleep-paralysis experience and why it's rational for her to not trust her initial conclusions about it:


Without recoverable evidence and only their testimony to go on, as proper scientific skeptics we can only shrug and say "well that sounds weird." Certainly we can't conclude that a multi-species consortium of intelligent beings from another galaxy are visiting Earth to terrorize humanity.

A different interpretation of dream-visions can be found in the Apocalypse of Paul, a text of the Christian apocrypha:
3. While I was in the body in which I was snatched up to the third heaven, the word of the Lord came to me saying: speak to the people: until when will ye transgress, and heap sin upon sin, and tempt the Lord who made you? [...]


11. And the angel answered and said unto me: Follow me, and I will show you the place of the just where they are led when they are deceased, and after these things taking thee into the abyss, I will show thee the souls of sinners and what sort of place they are led into when they have deceased. [...]
People nowadays sometimes take their experience to be a visitation from angels or demons from the Christian tradition: Coast to Coast sometimes dedicates whole episodes to call-in testimony about angelic messengers or demonic possession. I find this exceedingly strange, precisely because it happens on a show that on other nights fields discussions of extraterrestrials, black magic, and Eastern mysticism with the same degree of credulity! If I were a true believer in alien visitors, surely my belief that they were ambassadors from the Universal Federation of Peace, Love, and Free HDTV For Everyone contradicts the Christian who believes they're actually nefarious agents of the Devil. Why would I (respectively, the Christian) call in to a show that peddles the opposite view?

Another fatal sign for the contactees is that rarely do the visitors tell them anything particularly surprising. Even the cultiest UFO cults were boring in this regard, sloppily recycling Abrahamic or Theosophic concepts of "transcendance" or "salvation"—or else apocalyptic visions of doom. You know, the easy stuff.

How likely is it that hyper-intelligent alien beings from the other side of the galaxy would visit Earth and turn out to be actually quite approachable to a regular Joe from Middle America? That their message would be so easily distilled to "be good, don't use nukes" or "yep, the Illuminati are real and they answer to us"?

C'mon. Ultimate Reality isn't that easy.