Humanoids, UFOs and Hype

05/16/2013 04:01 pm ET | Updated Jul 16, 2013

Now comes before the public claims that a six-inch "humanoid" was discovered a decade ago in the driest desert on Earth, Atacama, Chile. Story headlines indicate the authenticity was confirmed by well-credentialed scientists. Supported by mega-hype, the intense public interest in the topic is attested to by the millions of hits regarding the related stories on the Huffington Post website.

In fact, the researchers accomplished a very credible job of examining the body. Their reports state unequivocally, "The specimen was concluded by the medical specialist to be a human child with an apparently severe form of dwarfism." The key word is "human," not "humanoid." Nonetheless, those selling the Sirius movie repeatedly use "humanoid" in their advertising. While misleading at best, the statement might be true if one accepts that "all humans are humanoids but not all humanoids are human." That, however, is not the generally accepted definition and most readers consider "humanoid" to be something similar to, but different from, human. Beyond biological organisms, the term frequently refers to robots made to resemble human form.

Propagation of hype and hoaxes are not benign and often damage proposals for legitimate research in any field. That is especially true when the P.T. Barnum approach to an exposé is taken. Career scientists rightfully tend to be extremely skeptical to claims of anomalous phenomena of all kinds. Despite substantial quantifiable evidence supporting such diverse topics as remote viewing, psychokinesis, alternative healing methods, near-death experiences and UFOs, top scientists generally eschew any association with research into these controversial topics.

Caution is real-reasoned as those researchers who enter the factious fray inevitably have their reputations sullied via ad hominem aspersion. Scientists rely on their personal reputation for their livelihood as external funding is almost always required to support their research projects. Any experienced observer knows that no amount of previous accolades, even a Nobel Prize, will overcome the scorn that can be heaped upon a scientist who ventures too far afield from conventional wisdom. Arctowski Award winner and Stanford University professor emeritus Peter Sturrock details the problems exquisitely in his book, A Tale of Two Sciences. It is folly to believe that scientists will "follow the data" wherever that may take them. From a career standpoint, it is generally better to nudge the envelope than to announce a radical breakthrough. That is especially true if it requires reexamination of codified scientific "laws."

A classic example of an over-hyped proclamation was that of University of Utah scientists Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann when, in 1989, they publicly announced they had discovered "cold fusion." Since the heat generated in nuclear reactors drives cost up significantly, room temperature fusion represented a major technological breakthrough. The promise of cheap nuclear energy resulted in a media circus. Although Pons and Fleischmann appeared to have found unique chemical reactions, public disclosure without peer review, coupled with the emotive term "fusion," led to their personal discredit and overt rejection of their findings by most conventional scientists.

Despite the fact that Fleischmann was considered one of the world's leading electrochemists, and there was some evidence of a low temperature reaction, it was the hype associated with the unorthodox public pronouncement that caused "cold fusion" to become synonymous with "bad science." True, a few limited research projects in "cold fusion" continued, but the consequences for the field were disastrous. Lacking further information, even the general public considered "cold fusion" to be a joke and an example of scientific amphigory.

Despite the substantial advances that have been made in our standard of living, the reputation of science is in decline. While scientists were once revered by the American citizenry, confidence rightfully has diminished as more and more research projects become discredited. The cause for concern is often lack of transparency of funding sources with vested interests in reporting predesigned outcomes.

Special interest groups dominate many research areas such as energy and medicine, while food production giants press for support for genetically modified crops and their claims that they can patent life forms. Unfortunately political influences increasingly have come to the fore in science; none more glaringly than the issue of global climate change. Fearing the negative outcome and cowering to excessive influence of the NRA, Congress even banned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from researching causal relationships related to firearms. Such is the environment in which researchers must operate.

In all science, reasonable skepticism is healthy as it places the burden of proof on those making new claims. Especially true when exploring anomalous phenomena, many skeptics are debunkers bent on destroying the topics, regardless of facts. Their tactics include attacking any weak point, then extrapolating to the whole. That is, if point A is wrong, throw out the entire field.

Although the "Sirius" production team knew, or should have known, their own research did not support the notion that the specimen was anything but human, they continued to press the headlines inferring it might be of nonhuman origin. Mitochondrial DNA traces the female lineage of all species and this specimen from Atacama was identified as having a mother of Chilean descent. Noting that some material remained unidentified, the true believers suggested that possibly the father was an alien of the ET variety, even though that possibility was ruled out in the report. A frequent assumption by some people in this field about such aliens is that they arrive on UFOs for the purpose creating hybrid progeny.

Several reporters, including Huffington Post's Lee Speigel, have illuminated the incongruence between the promise and delivery of the production. However, the massive hype from this exposé will have negative consequences for legitimate researchers who wish to undertake responsible investigations in edge science. I, too, have an agenda. That is to herald the cause to make it permissible for serious scientists to study various aspects of anomalous phenomena without risking their reputation or livelihood. Similar to gender identification, there are many scientists who remain "in the closet" regarding their interests in these controversial areas. Some of them have had personal experiences that defy commonly accepted explanations.

The real problem of the humanoid hype is that it supports the skeptics' claims of pseudoscience. The skeptics paint with a broad brush and this incident will serve to inhibit further research in several sectors, some of which have teleological significance.