Look, I mean… I want aliens to exist. As of Summer of 2013, statistically half of the United States believes there are aliens. Roughly a third of Americans believe there are intelligent aliens. While it isn’t the largest sampling size, the veracity of this stat is pretty unchallenged. (The HuffPost/YouGov poll was conducted June 11-12 among 1,000 adults using a sample selected from YouGov’s opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population. Factors considered include age, race, gender, education, employment, income, marital status, number of children, voter registration, time and location of Internet access, interest in politics, religion and church attendance.) I’d love to update this post with better data but I think a fifty-fifty split as to whether aliens exist or not makes it a particularly interesting debate.
While I believe it is better for humanity to be prepared and I understand the spirit of searching for alien life forms, I am having trouble squaring belief in alien life as scientifically accurate.
On the one hand, several prominent, respected, high-profile scientists claim to believe in aliens(or at least a high probability of aliens) yet there is currently no scientific data supporting the existence of extra terrestrial life. Skeptical attempts to try to answer this frame the question, from Fermi to Degrasse Tyson, have stood largely unchallenged and withstood criticism when finally challenged. Until science can truly answer all questions about the conditions needed to reproduce life as it is found on Earth it’s difficult to know the statistical probability of finding life as we know it on similar planets. Good science requires skepticism and a strict definition of truth; believing in aliens without empirical data is bad science.
It’s actually harder to get data on this subject than it should be but National Geographic did a pretty solid attempt about 2 years ago, though. The gist of the statistical info is this: maybe not the majority but possibly half and even by the low-end estimates a huge percentage of Americans believe in aliens. Those people might be really great dreamers and thinkers in their own way but they are coming to the conclusion that extraterrestrial life exists using bad science.
Back in the early 60’s, Dr. Frank Drake made the first noteworthy attempt to quantify the aspects needed for Earthlings to detect intelligent life on other planets with what became known as the Drake Equation. Most of the scientists who believe in aliens argue that extraterrestrials are a mathematical probability. For example, Stephen Hawking said, “To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational,” in his Discovery Channel series called Stephen Hawking’s Universe. The problem is, without knowing exactly how life on Earth began there is no way to know the mathematical probability of it happening anywhere else.
Dr. Frank Drake was responding to one of the most famous cases against extraterrestrials, though, an earlier, 1950’s argument usually called The Fermi Paradox. Last Thursday (Jan. 28th, 2015) Neil Degrasse Tyson explained his interpretation of the Enrico Fermi’s classic – and still indestructible- argument:
“[Enrico Fermi] said that the universe has been around a really long time, and technological evolution, when it happens, happens fast. If there are [advanced] aliens in the galaxy, they should have been here by now. Because if they live approximately as long as we do, they can send colonies out to other star systems, set up base camps, and then [those base camps] send out other colonies. So one grows to ten, grows to a hundred, grows to a thousand,” Tyson explained. “And you can grow the number of colonies exponentially in the world very quickly, so where are they?”
You can watch last weeks Degrass Tyson lecture in Denver, CO in its entirety, here:
So, until new data arrives or a deeper understanding of life on Earth can be had, belief in Aliens is unsupported by any credible data. Contemporary Americans are pretty great at disregarding science in the name of what simply sounds cool or interesting, though, so most people will continue to believe in aliens.
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY