Thursday, February 13, 2014

Intelligent Life on Earth

Over 10 years ago I was mentoring an at-risk teenager. We both shared an enthusiasm for science fiction, so when I read in the paper that the public library was hosting a lecture on "Alien Life on Mars," I suggested that we attend it.

It turned out to be a meeting of a club whose members believed that UFO sightings were alien spacecraft, that human life came from ancient aliens, that aliens had abducted humans for painful experiments, etc.

The lecture centered on this NASA photo:

1976 NASA photo - Viking 1
The speaker claimed that the image proved that a race of aliens lived on Mars and had sculpted the face, much as humans had sculpted the faces of American presidents on Mt. Rushmore. He also claimed that the government was trying to suppress this evidence. To support his claims he quoted several books and articles written by people who believed the same thing.

The problem with all this was that NASA had already published more recent photos, taken by the Mars Global Surveyor:

2001 NASA photo - Mars Global Surveyor
This more recent high-definition photo revealed that the earlier image looked like a face because of the angle of sunlight on the mountain. There was no face at all.

The new photo had been made public some time before our attendance at the lecture, so I could only conclude one of two possibilities. Either the speaker had seen the new photo and suspected that it was fabricated to discredit the truth, or he had not seen the photo because he already had all the proof he needed to support his belief.

I was tempted to confront him, but I decided not to be a spoil-sport. The people in the room wanted to believe in aliens - maybe needed to believe in aliens, and so my input would be seen as a mean-spirited, uninformed attack.

So instead we picked up some cookies from the table at the back of the room and left.

I sometimes ponder why intelligent people believe in things that are hard to believe and have even been proven false many times over. The lecture reminded me of an incident when I overheard two psychologists talking about what their astrologers had told them. It amazed me that people in a scientific profession would believe that being born during a specific time period meant that you could predict events in their lives. And further, to consult regularly with people who made belief in astrology their business.

Apparently, like all of us they've had big questions, and they embraced the answer their theory provided. And they had invested in the belief for so long that it became a part of how they view the world, and so would not want to give it up. They would seek out the company of similar believers and preserve anything that would seem to support their answer, and they would carefully avoid or deny anything that would claim otherwise. To challenge the belief would be blasphemy.

Apparently, this kind of compartmentalized thinking is something human intelligence is capable of. Certain concepts, theories or beliefs are deemed precious and are carefully protected from opposing evidence or arguments.

In my most charitable and open-hearted moments I think this is a part of what makes life on Earth wondrous and mysterious.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2014. Building Personal Strength .

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