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Out of This World

By Michael Shermer

Sunday, November 21, 1999; Page X05


The Search for Life and Truth in a Very Large Universe

By Joel Achenbach

Simon and Schuster. 415 pp. $25

In the wee hours of the morning of Aug. 8, 1983 I was abducted by aliens. I was traveling down a lonely rural highway just west of Haigler, Neb., when a large craft with bright lights appeared and, despite my best efforts to resist, forced me into their vehicle. After regaining consciousness 90 minutes later, I was back on the road but with no memory of what had transpired inside. These aliens, however, were not the stereotypical "grays" with bulbous heads and almond-shaped eyes. These looked just like humans, but I knew they were aliens because they had stiff little fingers.

Washington Post staff writer Joel Achenbach would love this story because it fits the theme of his splendid new book so well -- a fantastic yarn with a prosaic explanation that tells us far more about humans than about aliens. In my case, I had ridden a bicycle over 1,250 miles from Santa Monica, Calif., in the first part of the 3,000-mile nonstop transcontinental bicycle Race Across America, stretching my ad hoc sleep deprivation experiment to 83 hours. The alien craft? My brightly lit motor home. The aliens? My support crew. The lost 90 minutes? A sleep break. The stiff little fingers? The memory of a 1960s television series, "The Invaders," in which aliens shapeshifted into human forms but, for some peculiar reason, could not bend their pinkies.

What Achenbach would like about this story is what it tells us about how culture determines the content of our apparitions. The demon-haunted world of the Middle Ages witnessed people abducted by incubi and succubi; the spirit-haunted world of 19th-century England and America recorded people harassed by ghosts and apparitions. We don't experience demons and spirits because, Achenbach says in a clever title double-entendre, our culture is captured by aliens. From "Star Trek" and "Star Wars" to "ET" and "The X-Files" on the pop-culture front, and from NASA's Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program to the Mars rock microbes on the scientific front, Achenbach shows just how powerful this theme is in our collective imagination. We live in an alien-haunted world.

Yet evidence for alien existence is, well, nonexistent, and this is where Achenbach's narrative gets interesting. Humans are, by nature, pattern-seeking, storytelling animals, and we are quite adept at telling stories about patterns whether they exist or not. Aliens are the Rorshach test of our age, an ET inkblot of our unconscious hopes and fears, in which vastly superior intelligences with wisdom far beyond our comprehension make contact with Earth, and from these contacts we glean the knowledge we need to save ourselves and our planet. As Achenbach takes us on his "travelogue" through our alien-haunted world, we encounter everything from the sublime (the leaders of NASA, SETI, the Planetary Society and the Mars Society) to the ridiculous (the followers of the Aetherius Society, the Unarius Academy of Science, and Heaven's Gate).

This is science writing at its best -- I could not put the book down, and read it on planes, taxis, and even during interview breaks on a book tour -- and should be required reading for all scientists who want to explain what it is they do. After years of "doodling around in alien country," for example, Achenbach thinks the UFO phenomenon "can be viewed as an astrosociopolitical issue of great complexity, or, more simply, as a question of human psychology. Why do some people construct their world-views around ideas that other people find ludicrous? Where's the fault line? It's not intelligence or social class. It's not like poor, fat, Velveeta-eating people believe in aliens and rich, thin, brie-eating people don't." (He does, however, identify my neck of the woods as Alien Central: "Aliens seem to be more prevalent in the West, and in California they're simply taken for granted, more strange guests at the cocktail party.")

And when Achenbach meets with alien true believers, such as Roswell aficionado Philip Corso, he is confronted with an uncomfortable choice: "Either he saw an alien corpse, and later became engaged in a massive program to reverse-engineer UFO technology, which in turn helped win the Cold War and stave off the full-bore alien invasion -- or his tale is a lie. There's not much middle ground there. How do you decide? Lacking direct information, one must go on feel and smell and instinct. You have to ask yourself if there might be a narcissistic impulse behind his book. You have to linger a moment on the wonderful penultimate sentence: 'Sometimes, once in a very long while, you get the chance to save your country, your planet, and even your species at the same time.' (And write a best-seller.)" That's good prose.

Achenbach is a journalist, not a social scientist (thus accounting for his inability to construct obfuscating paragraph-long sentences sprinkled with "therefore," "furthermore" and "moreover"), so don't look for hypothesis-testing of the latest social psychological theory of mass hysteria or cognitive dissonance. His insights into human nature instead come from a more basic and in many ways deeper understanding through real-world experiences with the participants themselves (outsiders would be amazed to learn just how many psychological theories were constructed around the thoughts and behaviors of students cajoled into participating in their professors' experiments). At the core of this secular religion, as with its theistic counterparts, is faith, the ultimate prophylactic against us skeptics.

So are Achenbach and myself (a disbelieving journalist and skeptic, respectively) wasting our time tilting at alien windmills? What should we do when we confront that fault line between fantasy and reality? "What Would Carl Do?," we might ask, paraphrasing the popular catch phrase of another faith. If, as Achenbach says, Sagan was "the gatekeeper of any serious discussion of extraterrestrial life," the "go-to guy for anyone with a new idea," and the man who decided "if a creative idea should be allowed into the lecture hall or instead left outside," then what would Carl do when facing the veracity question? "Someone has to propose ideas at the boundaries of the plausible," Sagan once said, "in order to so annoy the experimentalists or observationalists that they'll be motivated to disprove the idea." Yet Carl was also fond of quoting the skeptics' mantra "Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence."

Enough of the blurry photographs, grainy videos and anecdotes about things that go bump in the night. Until ET phones me I will have to settle for being amazed and amused by the tales of alien dreamers so well recounted in this beautifully written book.

Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine (www.skeptic.com) and the author of "Why People Believe Weird Things" and, most recently, "How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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