You knew it was bound to happen. Ancient Aliens has officially entered into the halls of power. On Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives Science, Space and Technology Committee held a hearing on astrobiology and to discuss questions related to extraterrestrial life. The Committee heard testimony from Dr. Seth Shostak, the senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, and Dr. Dan Werthimer, the director of SETI research at the University of California Berkeley. The two men discussed the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and fielded questions from the assembled representatives that ranged from thoughtful to ignorant.
The big news out of the hearing—and the part that made headlines—was Shostak’s and Werthimer’s assertion that there is a 99.99% chance that life exists elsewhere in the universe. This might have been news to the media, but it has been a well-supported scientific view for decades.
Before we begin, I should disclose that I met Dr. Shostak a couple of years ago when we were both in Washington to shoot a National Geographic Channel UFO documentary. Shostak, frankly, was terse, rather aloof, and not at all interested in speaking with me.
During the hearing, Rep. Bill Johnson (R-OH) asked one of the more ridiculous questions, speculating that if intelligent life exists perhaps the aliens have been monitoring us for decades “and just don’t like what we have to say… Maybe they got their caller ID block on or something.” Werthimer suggested in response that aliens may well know the earth exists, and Shostak declined to speculate about whether aliens enjoy our television shows.
Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) asked the two their thoughts on Project Bluebook, which as a high U.S. government official Posey would presumably be in a better position to know about than two scientists from California. Shostak told Posey that he is skeptical about alien contact but noted that a large and steady percentage, about one third, of Americans have believed in alien visitation since the 1960s. Nevertheless, he pointed to the fact that nearly seven decades after the so-called Roswell incident there remains not a single shred of proof aliens came to earth.
But Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY) had the question of the day. Since it touches on many of the themes I cover here, I am transcribing the conversation in full:
COLLINS: Have you watched Ancient Aliens, and what’s your comment about that series? We’ll start with you Dr. Shostak.
SHOSTAK: Yes, I think I’ve been on it, actually.
SHOSTAK: More than once! Look, the public is fascinated with the idea that we may be being visited now or may have been visited in the past—the so-called UFO phenomenon. I personally don’t share the conviction that we are being visited. I don’t think that would be something that all the governments of the world had managed to hide and keep secret. I don’t believe that. But the idea that maybe we were visited during the time of the ancient Egyptians and so forth—keep in mind that the four and a half billion year history of the earth, the time of the ancient Egyptians was yesterday, right? So, again, why were they there then? What was it that brought them to Earth? I have no idea, and I don’t find very good evidence. I don’t think… I think the pyramids, for example, were probably built by Egyptians. I know that’s a radical idea for some people, but they were very clever and they could certainly do that, so I don’t think there’s any good evidence that convinces me that we were visited in historic times.
COLLINS: How ’bout you, Mr. Werthimer?
WERTHIMER: Um, UFOs have nothing to do with extraterrestrials.
WERTHIMER: So, even though I’m optimistic about life, there’s no evidence that any of these sightings… I think that some of these sightings are real phenomena. We get a lot of calls when the space station goes over, although some people embellish and say it has windows and things. And some of it is people’s imagination. We know that because it ties very closely to popular culture. When Jules Verne wrote about flying saucers everybody starting seeing flying saucers. Before that people saw angels. When people watch movies, then we get a lot of reports that are tied to what’s in the movies. And some of it is actually deliberate hoaxes from people making money.
COLLINS: Thank you. I think that was my only question, Mr. Chairman. I yield back.
Yes, that was his only question. Thank you, Chris Collins. As a result of your efforts, we’ve now had the first ever Congressional testimony about Ancient Aliens.
As a small point: It’s obvious that Werthimer misspoke in his comments. Jules Verne did not write about flying saucers. On the other hand, it was probably audacious of Shostak to tell politicians that the Egyptians built the pyramids since at least a few members (and more of their constituents) likely believe that Hebrew slaves built them. As recently as 2010 the Egyptian government was still trying to convince the non-Arab public that Egyptians built the pyramids, which Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin had claimed were built by Jews in a 1977 comment at the National Museum in Cairo.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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