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Seth Shostak

Seth Shostak

Posted: January 6, 2011 05:43 PM

Alien Vaporware

What's Your Reaction:

The report, if true, was important.

According to a story posted at Examiner.com, and unhesitatingly picked up by Pravda and a slew of sketchy websites, scientists at SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) have found three objects the size of Delaware entering the solar system. This flotilla of bright blue craft is apparently making a beeline to Earth. The report says you should expect it to make landfall in 2012 -- a year already fraught with menace.

Now let's face it: The discovery of a fleet of alien craft (what else could they be?) seemingly intent on an unauthorized visit to terra firma sounds vaguely worthy of mention on the nightly news. But the mainstream media has decided you aren't interested: The story has been published only in parts of the world you need shots to visit.

This is clearly a hoax, an assessment I wearily give to the many e-mail correspondents who have written me on the matter. Is it true, they anxiously ask, that Earth will be hosting alien house guests of uncertain temperament?

No. What's more, this hoax is low grade, easily unmasked by anyone wielding modest technical talents, or just a bit of journalistic fortitude. For example, the incoming objects were observed in the direction of the south celestial pole (and "beyond Pluto," if that helps you). But they were discovered, according to alleged SETI astrophysicist Craig Kasnov, with an instrument called HAARP -- the U.S. government's High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program. The HAARP antenna array is real, but it's in Alaska, a place from which it's said you can see Russia, but never the south celestial pole. So that's like espying Antarctica from a ship near Greenland.

If that doesn't move you, there's also the small point that HAARP is both unsuited for, and has never been used by, any SETI experiment. Oh, and SETI astrophysicist Craig Kasnov doesn't exist.

This small fantasy is more than an amusing curiosity, however. It's not the first time that internet stories have appeared suggesting that some SETI experiment has tuned in the aliens. And of course it won't be the last. But these tantalizing tales are more than a nuisance.

Some of them are -- like the present story -- deliberate fictions, intended to amuse or confuse. Others are simple misunderstandings by reporters.

But either way, there's a certain amount of damage done by crying wolf. It serves to trivialize the SETI enterprise, and occasionally wastes telescope time as researchers try to follow up on a supposed detection. In addition, it might cause the gullible to dig bomb shelters, pile up their mashed potatoes at dinner, or simply spend a year living in fear.

In view of the fact that we will likely have many unwarranted claims of alien detection before the real deal arrives, there's been some effort to avoid misunderstandings. A small group of scientists, a subset of the International Academy of Astronautics' SETI Permanent Study Group (the only worldwide SETI organization), hope to establish a publicly accessible clearinghouse (read: "website") where experts can weigh in on the merits or otherwise of a report that aliens are on the air or in the neighborhood.

Sure, the conspiracy-minded might choose to dispute whatever the experts say, but after all, isn't expert opinion worth more than random sentiment? Frankly, a clearinghouse would be good to have and might save you the bother of working yourself into an unproductive lather the next time you hear that beings from another solar system are cruising ours -- or are making their presence known in some other way. It would be especially useful for the press, who must rapidly decide if a story has merit.

Meanwhile, you needn't worry about the blue meanies "beyond Pluto." These particular visitors are just another case in which the advertising was better than the product.