This post has been updated to reflect new information from NASA.
An apparent lack of reading comprehension by sensationalist media outlets led to shocking claims that NASA endorsed the ancient astronaut theory in a new book. Media outlets, including the British edition of the Huffington Post, the Daily Mail, and Glenn Beck’s The Blaze covered the story yesterday, all rewriting material that first appeared on Gizmodo hours earlier. As The Blaze wrongly put it, the book “details the hunt for such evidence [of alien contact] by the space agency and other organizations and even suggests that unusual patterns cut into rock actually ‘might have been made by aliens.’”
Just hours after the story broke online, NASA removed Archaeology, Anthropology and Interstellar Communication from its website along with the accompanying press release, claiming that the eBook was mistakenly published a month too early. I obtained a copy of the book from Archive.org in order to examine the claims.
I’ve uploaded a copy to this blog post for readers to download for themselves. It is attached at the end of this post.
The space agency’s 300-page eBook does not do what media sources claim. The eBook was designed to explain how NASA plans to communicate with interstellar civilizations should the Earth ever make contact with beings from another world. One section of the book discussed the possibility that petroglyphs on earth could have extraterrestrial origins—at least that’s what media sources like The Blaze wrongly say.
The relevant section appears in a chapter by William Edmondson, who is a cognitive scientist and not a NASA employee, devoted to constraints on the construction of messages meant for communication with extraterrestrials. Edmondson makes quite plain that he is not suggesting petroglyphs were made by aliens, only that at such a remove in time, modern humans can no longer directly understand the original message. He describes the problems human face in communicating:
Consider again, therefore, the desirability of establishing symbolic/linguistic communication with ETI [extraterrestrial intelligence]. It is helpful to review some parallels from human existence that pose problems for us today. One of these is “rock art,” which consists of patterns or shapes cut into rock many thousands of years ago. Such ancient stone carvings can be found in many countries, and the example in Figure 15.1 is from Doddington Moor, Northumbria, England. We can say little, if anything, about what these patterns signify, why they were cut into rocks, or who created them. For all intents and purposes, they might have been made by aliens. Unless we find a readable exegesis of them produced at the time they were made, we will never be able to say with certainty what the patterns mean.
The line about “parallels from human existence” make quite obvious that Edmondson intends for the rock art to serve as an analogy for alien communication, not an example, though he never actually proposed using rock art in this manner. In fact, a footnote to this passage reads in its entirety: “One need only think of books by Immanuel Velikovsky or Erich von Däniken to see where this line of thinking can end up.”
Just past midnight last night, Jesus Diaz of Gizmodo’s Sploid blog excerpted selectively from the above passage in which he accidentally mangled Edmondson’s meaning and apparently also failed to realize that the chapter was by a single author:
Of course, the scientists […] are not saying these carvings were definitely made by aliens. They're saying that, since we don't really know the origin and meaning of these markings—which were made thousands of years ago all cross Europe, America and India—we can assume that they are made by aliens as a test to what we may encounter when we actually make contact with a civilization from another planet.
Diaz’s summary has accidentally given the false impression that using the carving as a model for handling alien communications (which is still a stretch against the original text) is the same as claiming them as alien art. His unfortunate phrasing made the text seem to say what it does not. He should have clarified that that the assumption is a fictitious exercise. The ambiguous phrase “we can assume” has two meanings, “we can pretend” or “we can conclude.” Although the latter meaning would seem to be closed off by the second half of the sentence, less critical readers won’t catch that and mistake the meaning. That, of course, is what quickly happened.
The Huffington Post cited Diaz and ran the story with the same excerpts, almost certainly without consulting the original. According to the Huffington Post:
The section relating to the markings, however, isn't quite as dramatic as you might think - which is why the pronouncement has not made international headlines around the world. Nasa isn't saying the markings were made by aliens, but that it might be useful to assume they are in order to reframe the way we go about looking for signals from other worlds, and how we attempt to make contact.
No one advocated assuming that aliens carved petroglyphs. In fact, Edmondson’s next paragraph discusses the Voynich Manuscript as another example of the difficulties of ascertaining the meaning of a message even when written in what appears to be a language-based code. The obvious conclusion is that Edmondson was trying to use known examples to prompt thought on what he calls “semiotic opacity,” the difficulty of communicating meaning.
But the Daily Mail’s Jonathan O’Callaghan misunderstood Edmondson’s article even worse: “In one section, for example, William Edmondson from the University of Birmingham considers the possibility that rock art on Earth is of extraterrestrial origin.” He did not, as a check of the original rather than Diaz’s misleading excerpt and ambiguous phrasing makes plain.
Of course it was Glenn Beck’s The Blaze that simply threw all caution to the wind. Blaze science editor Liz Kilmas cited Edmondson’s article both as an official U.S. government pronouncement and as evidence that NASA was contradicting Obama Administration claims that no evidence of alien contact has ever been discovered.
Though the White House maintains that there has not yet been credible evidence that suggests the presence of extra terrestrial (sic) life, a new volume of an official NASA e-book released this week details the hunt for such evidence by the space agency and other organizations and even suggests that unusual patterns cut into rock actually “might have been made by aliens.”
Needless to say, Kilmas also cites Diaz and does not appear to have read the original. But by then it was too late. The story had taken on an internet life of its own.
NASA removed the volume from its website sometime before 3 PM yesterday, less than five hours after the Blaze story. NASA told Gizmodo earlier today that they became aware that a draft version of the eBook and accompanying webpage had been published accidentally a month early after seeing the news reports:
...the page you saw was a draft web page for the planned book release early next month. Our publication support folks accidentally published the page to the web instead of saving it for review. The PDF and e-Book versions you saw there are complete, but the rest of our publication release process (e.g., getting the hard copies from the printer) are not done yet. We expect to make the book available (in print and in free e-Book versions) around June 10th.
You can read the eBook by downloading a copy below.
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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