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Seth Shostak Headshot

UFOs: Nice Houseguests

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Each year, thousands of UFOs are sighted and reported, which is an impressive tally of unidentified aerial phenomena. Surveys show that roughly one-third of the populace believes that at least some of this sky show is due to extraterrestrial spacecraft, here to probe our airspace and, when that proves boring, our bodies.

In other words, alien presence on our planet is not a fringe idea. And every day, I get e-mails and phone calls from people eager to describe their experience with this unbidden invasion. Most correspondents tell me they have evidence that will cinch the case for extraterrestrials and silence the non-believers. The nature of their proof varies: most common is testimony by witnesses -- including such credible types as pilots and astronauts -- who see strange objects they deem to be spacecraft on the basis of their movement or appearance. A few individuals report being abducted by smooth-skinned beings, usually for excessively personal interactions. And then there are countless claims by people insisting that these creatures from afar are communicating with them one-on-one, usually to convey important messages to humankind.

There's a small group who tell me they are aliens.

It's hardly likely to amaze you, but I'm skeptical. I don't think the evidence laid on the table as proof of extraterrestrial visitation is compelling, and I certainly don't buy the argument that better evidence (in fact, all the really good evidence) has somehow been collected by the governments of the world and stacked up in secret storage lockers.

But I'm not here to argue with you. I'd like to make a different point -- one that somehow seems to have escaped notice in the seemingly endless debate about UFOs. Namely, if the aliens are here, you have to admit something remarkable: They're about as harmless as kittens on Xanax.

Consider: The premise is that Earth is being visited. But are these invaders a mortal threat? You can read occasional claims that aliens are mutilating our cattle (a decidedly unwelcome pastime, if true), but homicide seems to be off limits for ET. They don't kill people. Your chances of being snuffed by a moose are higher.

Well, what about all those creepy abductions? Some pundits have proposed that the aliens have come here to breed with us. Apparently, too much bike riding or something similar has rendered them incapable of reproducing within their own species. But do extraterrestrial infants toddle through your neighborhood? A dozen years ago, tens of thousands of people bought Lloyds of London's alien impregnation insurance. None ever collected.

OK, what about technology transfer? Hasn't the U.S. military reverse-engineered captured alien spacecraft, and occasionally farmed out sophisticated inventions (e.g., fiber optics) to favored defense contractors? Aside from being an insult to the science and engineering community (who clearly developed these things, usually with centuries of effort), this suggestion would imply that -- for example -- American military equipment should be orders of magnitude better than that of our Cold War adversaries. Indeed, it should be incredibly better than our own earlier hardware. But the curve of technological progress has no such startling discontinuities.

If the aliens haven't seen fit to bless us with better technology, have they at least provided some advanced knowledge, helping us to deal with such sticky problems as climate change or nuclear war? Negative, Captain.

All right. But surely their presence in our airspace must have consequences? All those sighted craft must be driving air traffic controllers crazy, right? Well, ask yourself how often your flight to Des Moines has been delayed because alien spacecraft are flying around without filing an FAA flight plan.

Commercial aviation doesn't seem to be greatly affected, but there's a recent suggestion that the extraterrestrials have greater interest in the military. The claim is that they're hovering around our nuclear missile silos. Whether you believe this or not, you have to admit that the idea is nuttier than a praline. Any beings advanced enough to traverse interstellar distances are at least a thousand years beyond our technical level. Spending gobs of time examining our missiles is equivalent to sending the Air Force back to the Middle Ages, and insisting they examine the chain mail factories.

It comes down to this: In the 16th century, the Americas were invaded by Europeans. If, at the time, you had asked the natives to list the consequences of this incursion, they would surely mention such noteworthy items as enslavement, decimation of the population by disease, being driven off their lands, and the appearance of novel technologies such as the horse, the gun, and the wheel.

As far as I can tell, the only unambiguous consequence of the claimed invasion of Earth by beings from another star system has been a nonstop torrent of TV specials.

So if you're one of the many who believe the aliens are here, you really do have to admit this: They're the best houseguests ever.

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