Fermi’s Paradox and Mythology as Science

I know a few people who get a real kick out of those History channel shows where they talk about how all of humanity’s greatest achievements are all due to aliens, and aliens clearly exist because ancient mythology matches up to modern-day beliefs of what aliens would have to be. While that’s one solution to Fermi’s paradox, which contrasts the high probability of extraterrestrial life with our lack of evidence for it, it’s not my favorite.

“So? Where is everybody?” — Enrico Fermi

Not because I particularly doubt the existence of aliens — I don’t — but because the so-called scientists on these types of shows make a fundamental mistake that frustrates me immensely. Namely, they take bits of mythology and use them as scientific proof of not only the existence of aliens, but as proof that aliens have been intimately involved with humanity for millenia. One argument (and I use the term very loosely) included the notion that the Spear of Lugh is obviously an alien artifact because it shoots fire and light from its tip and can cut through ranks and ranks of warriors. Another argument put forth the idea that Chinese dragons were alien spacecraft coming down due to the fact that they breathed fire and were indestructible and bore a resemblance to rockets. A third involved Alexander the Great turning back from his invasion of India due to alien spacecraft spooking his war elephants.

Now, what I’m ever so not interested in is a discussion of the plausibility of whether aliens would get involved in human affairs in such a way, or why aliens would care, not because those conversations bother me but because I think they’ve been done before and I want to poke at something a little more meta. Namely, this notion that mythology in any way, shape or form provides scientific evidence.

We live in a world in which psychologists have just about proven conclusively that eyewitness reports are usually contradictory and crappy, where the awareness test is a thing a bunch of have people have been exposed to, where even before we get into the fact that we’re discussing mythology we’re looking at the evidence these scientists — namely, witness accounts — being skewed. Perception is one of those tricksy things that you have to allow for, and these guys don’t.

black, white, gray?

What color are the dots?

But we aren’t even talking about eyewitness accounts. This isn’t “I think I saw bigfoot, but what I saw was a bear” — cryptozooligists have a much better point than these people. As much as it pains me to give them much credit at all, cryptozoologists are often wrong but usually (especially in the case of the ones in the 1500s and suchlike) working from something vaguely resembling evidence, at least in the case of stuff like hypogriffs and dragons, since fossil remains can be misinterpreted. This is “2000 years ago, somebody saw something and now we have the results of oral tradition.” This is a bare minimum of two millenia worth of telephone games, of exaggeration and storytelling and the notion that you get to say the fact that the Bible and Greek mythology have instances of flaming chariots implies alien involvement is ridiculous on the face of it, particularly from people purporting to be scientists.

It is the equivalent of people thinking that James Bond movies are a proper representation of what happened during the Cold War, and then going on to use M’s technology to somehow prove that aliens had a hand in it. It’s irresponsible and above all it’s purposefully ignorant of every principal of storytelling we have. I understand wanting to solve fermi’s paradox… but this is not how you go about it.

We’ve only been pumping stuff into space for a few decades. In terms of interstellar distances and travel, that’s nothing. It takes the average American, traveling alone, quite a bit of time to cross to the other side of our globe. Think of how long it takes our bureaucracy to do that. As far as how I prefer to solve Fermi’s paradox, I think it makes perfect sense that they — whoever they may be — aren’t here yet. Things take time, and a few hundred years isn’t very long at all in the grand scheme of things, and however special we think we are, there are an awful lot of potentially habitable planets out there.

How do you guys explain the (apparent) lack of alien involvement in our lives?

Eleanor

Eleanor teaches Social Studies to 6th graders and spends the bits of time left over writing books that bring history -- and magic -- to life. She enjoys rock climbing, bullet journaling, & gardening focused on plants you can actually eat.

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4 Responses

  1. I’ll admit I don’t usually get into a detailed argument about it, but my opinion is simple. Yes, the universe is vast. Yes, there could be life out there. No, Earth isn’t the middle of the great cosmos, Earth is probably not even on the great cosmos’s radar beyond being a blip of life, and even if there were space-capable aliens, the chances they’ve visited Earth are very, very, very slim, so thinking that aliens stopped by at some point to help the human race is very self-centered of us.

    Not that I don’t enjoy a sci-fi with space-capable aliens in them, like Stargate! 🙂

    • Eleanor says:

      I think you make a very good point about the self-centeredness of the “ancient aliens” argument, which hadn’t even occurred to me. It does mirror the whole “the Earth is the center of the solar system / universe” problem we as a species tend to have, though.

      Have you ever read the Ringworld series by Larry Niven? His aliens absolutely fascinate me, and seem totally plausible on the surface of things… but aliens definitely do randomly stop by Earth and take part in early human civilization in totally plausible (and terrifying) ways.

  2. Neight says:

    As Socrates said “…this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls”
    If only writing hadn’t ruined our memories perhaps we would know what happened.

    The best part of the original ancient aliens was the message was question authority and question what we are taught … However it has degraded into reality TV bible thumping to the believers.

    As to the gods being “aliens” (they are certainly extra terrestrials by mere definition), maybe we should just ask. Just remember to listen to what they say. the universe isn’t so empty once we open our eyes.

    • Eleanor says:

      I’m not sure it’s writing that ruined our memories; stories grow in the telling, whether we have good memories or not. Besides, we’ve had writing since ancient times; I’m confident that writing did a better job of preserving stories like that of Beowulf and Gilgamesh and Abraham than oral tradition.

      I do think it’s important to question authority and what we’re taught — for instance, I personally believe that Delilah is a fantastic biblical hero and that Samson does not deserve to be considered heroic — but you’re right that that there’s a line between questioning and fanatical devotion to an outlandish conspiracy theory, and I think that claims to critical thinking have been lost.

Let me know what you think!