Science fiction movies have made us all desperate to be that half-asleep guy who knocks over absolutely everything when he intercepts the first alien communication. That's probably why headline writers will throw their journalist ethics into a Sarlacc pit at the first sniff of a signal from above. In the last year, we've seen more screaming about aliens than in Sigourney Weaver's entire career, but what we're ignoring is that it's actually a multi-pronged attack on human progress.
"Ten more years of FOX News and they'll welcome our takeover."
We know why news services wedge aliens into more unlikely places than Agent Sexlly in The XXX-Files: clicks. More clicks than a Geiger counter recalibrated to detect galactic stupidity. And just like that scientific instrument, it's being badly misused (as is poor Agent Sexlly).
Stock image provided to remind you what aliens don't look like.
The first strike against science is in the headline. "Is this proof of Aliens?" NO! If there's a question mark in the headline, the answer is always NO, or it wouldn't be a question. The only exception is when you read between the lines and find the question "Are people really still falling for this?" In that case, the answer is yes. If we had actually found proof of aliens, the writer would be using more emphatic punctuation and 500-point font to scream "HOLY s**t ALIENS!"
It's a common technique to cover a weak story with an exciting headline. It's also basically editorial alchemy. These inquisitive headlines try to transform known facts into fanciful suppositions, because our brains want to believe in exciting stuff that reminds us of Star Trek instead of accepting the boring evidence that reminds us of AP Biology. But that's what science was invented to avoid.
The second stage of the alien attack on science is reminiscent of a Scooby-Doo plot. Because behind the masks, it's really a bunch of humans, and they're just doing it to make money by discrediting something worthwhile. In other words, "IS IT ALIENS?" headlines earn advertising views, but at the same time, they diminish some of the most amazing advances of our species.
Almost the entire article is then "No, of course not".
For example, when a satellite detects an exploding star from 50 billion light years away, that's already news. Signals from distant galaxies are by definition newly received and noteworthy information. They're sure as s**t more important than failed American Idol contestants exchanging genetic information, but those guys manage to get headlines without any implications of creating alien life. If news services need to add aliens to make the entire universe interesting, surely they should have to suggest Illuminati involvement in every sports score and include illegal human cloning accusations in every article about The Great British Bake Off.
Plutonians collect contestants for the new series on Channel Zorqlax.
If you ever find an "Is it aliens?" article that doesn't include at least one fictional reference, please check that you're not a unicorn, because popular science thinks people care a lot more about the "popular" than the "science." So if the text doesn't describe major scientific advances as if they're a Star Trek spinoff, the art will be of alien monsters or a flying saucer. Remember, a picture is worth a thousand words, and this is "We think you are an idiot who will not read anything above a fourth-grade level without colorful imaginary bullshit" times 50. If two black holes collide and we're smart enough to sense the space fireworks, we don't need the inclusion of E.T. to know that's awesome.
The problem is the mismatch between the news cycle and scientific progress, because those are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Science requires ideas, theories, experiment, rigorous analysis and peer review, and the accumulation of confirmation. That takes lots of time. Journalists require "I heard that someone heard it, maybe, and also I have a deadline to meet."
This one by ... New Scientist? Really? Is the concept of "scientist" new to them?
The story above ramps up the ridiculous level by adding that this find has "baffled scientists." They're not baffled! They just discovered it, are reporting it, and are still working out what it is. A plumber isn't "baffled" when they've just found the blockage in your toilet; they're still working on it, and eventually they will figure it out. Unless you've been passing crap even worse than these articles.
But it sounds so much more exciting as an insoluble conundrum. Ha, it totally baffled those stupid scientists who are ... er ... the ones who detected it, and the only reason we're able to talk about it at all. But blaming baffled scientists only empowers the increasing army of UFOlogists, armchair commenters, and other assholes who think decades of qualifications are just someone else's opinion.
This feeds the most insidious anti-science strategy of "balance": insisting that lifelong expertise in astrophysics is equal in relevance to a blog by XxX_MuldersDildo_xXx (who's only typing while the plumber is baffled by their toilet).
Note the NO-eist question mark you've ever seen.
This "face on Mars" horseshit gave hundreds of words to an entire Arkham of conspiracy theorists, and only a sentence to the actual scientific organization running the rover. Which is presented as "NASA has no plans to explore the 'face' any further." Instead of "NASA, the experts, know this is obviously bullshit because it is, and we pulled this exact stupid s**t back in 1976".
"Are people really still falling for this?"
This attack on expertise is killing people. People are dying from preventable diseases because anti-vaxxers receive any reaction other than mockery. I have an idea to fix this: All articles should scale the font size according to the source's expertise. So in scientific stories, the researching professors are in the headline font, while the text by the lead blogger of "Orion Green Women for Mens' Rights" appears so small that you'd need an electron microscope to read it, which the scientist then refuses to loan you.
Eventually, you have entire articles that start spawning from stupid sources without any science at all. We can't even blame the internet, since this alien s**t happened in 1907:
The New York Times
BREAKING: "Postal staff are lizard people!" says some dude shouting outside our building.
Note the deliberate construction: "MARS INHABITED, says this guy." They didn't run "TITANIC SINKS, according to some dude" or "NIXON RESIGNS, or at least, that's what a reporter told us." They've always known what was news and what was bullshit, and how to phrase the difference on a slow day. Lowell was extremely excited about alien life, pretty much the entire astronomical community thought he was wrong, and guess who gets the front page.
The worst mismatch between science and sensationalism is "We can't rule it out." But refusing to 100-percent eliminate a possibility is not the same as ignoring mountains of evidence in favor of Mass Effect fan fiction. But this simple openness to new evidence lets headline-mongers take a single quote out of context and go nuts.
News services can't rule out alien life, but can ignore the s**t out of climate-change-driven extinction.
Scientists can't rule things out without proof, so after hours of talking about all the things the signal probably is, all the reporter has to do is ask, "Is it aliens?" and they get a quote about how that can't be ruled out, and that's the only part they print.
When the signal is inevitably explained as something else, it unleashes a second wave of "HAHA IT WASN'T ALIENS YOU STUPID IDIOTS" from all the sources which were masturbating to E.T. in the first place. Because this gives them another set of screaming headlines for free, and the only risk is people reacting to being treated like idiots. Which hasn't happened.
This is hugely damaging to science. What's really happened is, "We detected something from outer space, worked on it, and now we've learned what it is." That's a success story! That's almost everything admirable about our abilities as a species. But the barrage of question mark headlines turns it into a sequence of multiple failures, presenting it as credulous bullshit to begin with, a "baffling" mystery for weeks, then a stupid false alarm when it's worked out. When you're expecting green-skinned nymphomaniacs from another world, even the most amazing astrophysical result looks boring.
"Meh, it's not the 'alien world ball-smashing' I was expecting."
All these headlines are the boy who cried aliens. Except there's no chance of aliens karmically descending to abduct and probe the people from whence all this bullshit comes. If anything, these assholes are preventing aliens from ever arriving by broadcasting this idiocy to the Universe as hard as they can. There's an expanding light sphere of electromagnetic transmission radiating from the Earth, and all it demonstrates that we're too dumb to risk talking to. If we ever are visited by beings from another world, they'll be the interplanetary equivalent of people poking the worst corners of Reddit just to see how stupid people can get.
If we ever detect aliens, it'll be the biggest news story in existence, and scientists will only announce that after more analysis than anything else, ever. Meaning "is it aliens?" headlines are the most awful contrast between hoping for intelligent communications from other worlds and only getting the most dumbass ones from our own.
Enjoy real scientific progress with 5 Scientific Ideas That Will Melt Your Brain and 5 Amazing Science Facts That Sound Like Hack Fantasy Writing.
See how Hollywood has aided in the death of science in 5 Things Movies Always Get Wrong About Space and find out why we're closer to the truth than ever before in 6 Reasons We're Closer To Discovering Aliens Than You Think.
Subscribe to our YouTube channel to find out why you'll never know what THEY know in Why Alien News Has To Remain A Secret - We're Not Alone:Episode 4, and watch other videos you won't see on the site!
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