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.
Scott David Hamilton
5/22/2014 05:26:23 am
How a few words can make a difference. If Diaz had written a bit more carefully ("they might as well have been carved by aliens" instead of "they might have been carved by aliens") we wouldn't be subjected to the years of fringe historians claiming that NASA has admitted that ancient aliens are real.
5/22/2014 05:30:17 am
That was fast. The update came between the time I wrote this piece this morning and now. I'll update the above with the information.
5/23/2014 12:55:31 am
Drake's Equation takes this to a level of total logic as it
5/23/2014 12:58:47 am
Under the theme of highly revered (by some) organizations exploring "fringe" ideas - A PBS show about Europeans getting to the Americas before Columbus. Oh dear, Jason. Even PBS is starting to ask the wrong questions.
5/23/2014 01:27:55 am
I covered that story months ago, Steve, when I reviewed the episode, and the German fellow whose idea the show was based on came to this blog and eventually agreed that PBS presented his idea in a way that read as racist. Several prominent archaeologists and science writers also blasted the show for its poor quality.
5/23/2014 12:28:05 pm
Steve St Clair strikes out again!
5/24/2014 04:35:27 pm
in that particular thread, he also stated he had no control
5/24/2014 05:11:59 pm
Steve StC has made a telling point about the 22 replies
Vincent S Artale Jr
5/22/2014 07:05:41 am
Another well articulated article Jason, thanks!!
5/22/2014 07:39:00 am
I second Vincent's comment above.
5/22/2014 09:05:29 am
5/23/2014 05:11:32 am
Oh dear, terrible article. Its like they never did any research on the Bible....or even bothered to read it.
5/22/2014 07:48:08 am
The e-book was taken down?
5/22/2014 09:54:24 am
Thanks Jason. When I read it yesterday, my first thought was some political hack at NASA was writing something and threw his opinion. Remember NASA is a large organization and yes there probably are some engineers there or even PAOs who think UFOs are real. Doesn't mean NASA actually believes this junk. Nothing to note here..
5/22/2014 12:26:36 pm
The problem, titus, is that often these engineers and PAOs are using UFO in its original meaning rather than its popular meeting. Remember, it means "unidentified flying object." There are a crapton of UFOs of purely terrestrial origins, but until you identify them, they are, by definition, unidentified. That doesn't mean that all the same people believe in flying saucers and little green men from outer space.
5/22/2014 01:37:25 pm
Good points. I remember reading Carl Sagan hypothosizing that perhaps we were visited in the ancient past. I think he probably regretted it given the ammunition it gave to the Von daniken folks.
5/22/2014 08:37:00 pm
Carl Sagan often tried not to be narrow minded.
5/23/2014 01:32:15 am
Remember, "UFO" means Unidentified Flying Object. And they could be terrestrial in origin.
5/23/2014 01:01:07 pm
Late to the party again, KIF; that's PRECISELY what I already said.
5/22/2014 04:23:10 pm
This is exactly how all this conspiracy stuff starts. Someone slightly misconstrues a story, then the next person twists it a bit more, and the next a bit more until it no longer resembles the original story. Then you claim the government is covering it up when NASA says they didn't endorse AAT.
5/22/2014 11:05:45 pm
5/22/2014 11:14:36 pm
IMOHO many MJ-12 "docs" said to be contemporary to poor ole
5/22/2014 08:34:47 pm
our modems when being wireless send information digitally.
5/23/2014 12:18:47 am
Chapter XIII of the NASA E*Book talks about
5/22/2014 08:43:57 pm
the upper one percent or one tenth of one percent of
5/23/2014 01:17:03 pm
The odds that we are being observed by ETs is not 50/50. The odds are much, MUCH lower than that, because you have to calculate the odds of there being other life out there AND it being technologically advanced AND close enough to get here AND interested enough to bother. The odds that we are being observed would be the odds of ALL of those things being true at one, which is at BEST 1 in 8, or 12.5%. At that, I simplified that to an excruciating degree, based on a simple yes/no 50/50 for each question but the first, and the odds for each question are different. I even gave the question "Is life out there?" a 100% chance of being true, because science has predicted that the odds of there being other life--or any kind--approaches 100%.
5/24/2014 04:12:24 pm
the essay extrapolates progress in almost a linear way.
5/24/2014 04:18:37 pm
my basic assumption is that our lil ole solar system
5/22/2014 08:53:38 pm
So what if AA has been given a reprieve from cancellation
5/22/2014 11:26:45 pm
the 'typo' or un~careful turn of phrase just resurrected
5/22/2014 11:42:30 pm
problem is, since the 1960s "auto-pens" could replicate
5/23/2014 01:30:22 am
Oh no - time to feed Roosevelt to the Loch Ness Monster again
5/23/2014 10:01:53 am
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.