SETI and Ancient Alien Wars
“The statistics presented earlier in this paper suggest that the Earth has been visited by various galactic civilizations many times (possibly 10,000, more or less) during geological times.” —Carl Sagan
The disclosure that Carl Sagan was a lifelong believer in ancient aliens and crafted a science-based model is certain to have a major impact on the ancient alien community, and it is likely to be highly disruptive. No ancient alien theorist, living or dead, has scientific credentials that can compare with Carl Sagan.
Sandwiched between popular ancient alien founder Erich von Däniken on the one hand, and professional skeptic and anti–ancient alienist Michael Shermer on the other, is Carl Sagan, who was both an ancient alien theorist and a founder of the modern skeptic movement. As a skeptic, Sagan fought tirelessly against the von Däniken Model because he didn’t believe that the evidence von Däniken cited measured up to scientific standards. At the same time, as an ancient alien theorist, Sagan argued in research that has been suppressed by NASA that it was aliens who introduced civilization to humans through the Sumerians.
Sagan himself said that every legitimate science has its pseudoscientific counterpart. What this implies is that as the Sagan Model of ancient alienism gains traction, it will occupy the empirical end of the scientific spectrum, leaving the von Däniken Model to remain where it is: at the opposite end of the spectrum where it is broadly dismissed by NASA as pseudoscientific. For ancient alien enthusiasts, there is now a choice to be made: to stay with conventional advocates like Erich von Däniken, or to follow Carl Sagan.
This could create a schism within the ancient alien movement that, if it were to happen, would result in two opposing ancient alien camps, one where traditional scholarship is recognized, and claims are advanced and defended only to the degree that they can be supported by credible data; and the other camp, where traditional scholarship is routinely ignored and the bar for what constitutes supporting evidence is set extremely low.
In this scenario, those who identify with the Sagan Model will seek to interface with mainstream science and the mainstream media, while alternative ancient alienism will continue to spread its message through tabloids, esoteric books, slick Websites, late-night radio, and highly scripted television documentaries.
Let me take a moment to address both von Däniken and Shermer, and their millions of fans and followers. Von Däniken first.
The distinctions between the Sagan Model of ancient alienism and the von Däniken Model are philosophical, not granular. The Sagan Model is theory-driven and the von Däniken Model is evidence-driven, so it is simply not possible to draw any detailed comparison between the two. Sagan’s strategy was to establish the science of interstellar spaceflight and then argue, based on Fermi’s Paradox and ancient myths, that there is a strong likelihood that long-lived advanced extraterrestrials have visited Earth. That is where he stopped. His goal in establishing an Earth-based SETI to complement the radio telescope search was so that more research could be invested into the science of interstellar spaceflight and more investigations of ancient manuscripts that referenced encounters between humans and godlike beings who came from another place in the cosmos.
In contrast, the von Däniken Model of ancient alienism is based on specific archeological and historical evidence gathered from all over the world. Though it can appear impressive and convincing to non-scientists, establishment scientists and scholars haven’t bought into it. They accuse von Däniken and other conventional ancient alien theorists of not following the scientific method. Except for an occasional joke and disparaging remark, scholars and scientists seldom mention ancient alienism, leaving the subject to professional skeptics such as Michael Shermer, who attack ancient alienism and its proponents with unrelenting vigor. Still, on at least one occasion, Sagan offered his opinion—at the centennial of the famous Gifford Lectures in Scotland in 1985 that was published as a book in 2006. Following are relevant excerpts:
The fundamental hypothesis of von Däniken was that there is impressed in the archeology and folklore and myth of many civilizations on Earth certain indications of past contact with the Earth by extraterrestrials beings. This is not an absurd proposition on the face of it, but how acceptable the hypothesis is depends on how good the evidence is. And, unfortunately, the standards of evidence were extremely poor, in many cases, non-existent.
Sagan then goes on to debunk, with surgical efficiency, von Däniken’s theory that aliens helped the Egyptians build the pyramids, and that they assisted in designing the large animal drawings on the Nazca plains in Peru; and in creating the stone monoliths on Easter Island.
In response to those he thought were making extraordinary claims about the Egyptian pyramids based on shaky evidence, Sagan frequently blended science, history, and logic with humor and a tinge of sarcasm. After citing the Greek historian Herodotus’s writings about Egyptians transporting blocks of stone on rafts and moving them along land on rollers, he adds:
There were even inscriptions on a few key blocks that say the equivalent of “My goodness, we did it!” signed “Tiger Team Eleven,” which seems an unlikely delight in modest construction by some being who had effortlessly travelled through interstellar space. And we know that the first pyramid that was ever constructed fell down and that the second pyramid, halfway through construction, had the angle of the sides dramatically pared, because they had learned from the example of the first one that fell down.
We have all marveled at the extremely accurate drawings of a hummingbird and other animals etched in the vast drawings on the Peruvian plains, and wondered how primitive humans could have pulled off such a feat without extraterrestrial assistance. Sagan, with no small amount of satire, compares this to fans holding up signs and doing the wave at sporting events.
How could primitive people on Easter Island move blocks of monolithic stone images weighing several tons over long distances and then set them upright so they were looking out to sea? Conventional ancient alien theorists insist that they got help from alien visitors, but Sagan had a better answer: “Years before von Däniken wrote, Thor Heyerdahl with a small team . . . had transported and erected one of these monoliths that had been found in a supine position. And the erection method included just shoving small bits of dirt and stone under one side of it until it got to the high, steeper angle and then finally stood up.”
Scientists introduce claims and supporting evidence to their peers, inviting their critical analysis. These claims are often rebutted by counter-explanations of the evidence. Like an extended tennis match, these collegial exchanges and interactions can go on for years before a consensus is finally reached. Unfortunately, this traditional back-and-forth rarely happens with conventional ancient alien proponents, and it didn’t happen in this instance. Erich von Däniken proposed, Carl Sagan disposed, and then von Däniken, rather than openly addressing Sagan’s alternate explanations, disengaged from the conversation. The only conclusion one can draw is that von Däniken, without a logical comeback, chose to bypass mainstream science, ignore Sagan’s rebuttal, and plead his case to the masses, who he knew would be less critical.
He then continues:
I’ve presented some of his best cases. Fundamentally, what von Däniken has done is to sell our ancestors short. . . . I consider it an extremely dangerous doctrine, because the more likely we are to assume that the solution [to Earth’s problems] comes from the outside, the less likely we are to solve our problems ourselves.
For current followers of ancient alienism—and they number into the tens of millions worldwide—the discovery that Carl Sagan was a die-hard believer in ancient aliens and the recovery of his seminal research on the subject is a decisive moment. Will they continue to follow the ancient alienism leaders they have in the past, or will they switch over to the Sagan Model and help fulfill Sagan’s dream of seeing ancient alienism become a part of the scientific mainstream, which, in my opinion, is where it deserves to be?
For 30 years I have been a devout believer in ancient aliens— but, by intention, I chose not to identify with Erich von Däniken and the mainstream ancient alien movement. Instead, I identify myself with Dr. Carl Sagan, who, more than 10 years before Erich von Däniken wrote Chariots of the Gods?, was openly telling close friends and associates that he was convinced that Moses and Jesus were extraterrestrials. The following excerpt is from the Sagan biography A Life in the Cosmos, by William Poundstone:
One Sunday morning toward the end of summer, Abrahamson, his fiancée, and Sagan were washing the car the couple had been given as an engagement present. Sagan propounded a new theory: that Moses, Jesus, and all the great religious figures of ages past were really extraterrestrial beings. The miracles of the Bible had all happened as described. Moses parted the Red Sea, Jesus turned water into wine, and so forth. They used advanced technology that was perfectly normal on their planet—but which we earthlings could take only as proof of divinity.
Abrahamson good-naturedly challenged him. Sagan refused to budge. He was either serious or acting as if he was serious. With Sagan, it was hard to tell which.
That afternoon, Abrahamson took his fiancée and Sagan out to dinner at what was, for Bloomington in the 1950s, a very posh establishment. It was “the kind of restaurant where people went after church.” In the middle of dinner, without any warning, Sagan slammed his fist on the table, sending the dishes rattling. He looked Abrahamson in the eye and bellowed, “I tell you, Jesus Christ is extraterrestrial!”
The restaurant fell silent. It took a subjective eternity for conversations to resume with something of their former spontaneity. Abrahamson and his fiancée wanted to crawl under the table.
With all due respect to Erich von Däniken, Zecharia Sitchin, and other ancient alien theorists of the modern era, the question needs to be asked: Why tether one’s belief in ancient aliens to them, the Johnny-come-latelies, when one can follow the ancient alien beliefs and teachings of one of the most accomplished astronomers and celebrated scientists of the 20th century?
With the discovery of Carl Sagan’s science-based model, ancient alien aficionados now have the opportunity to step out of the shadows and become part of the scientific mainstream. It’s an opportunity for them to associate themselves and their cause with one of the most respected scientists of the modern era. Why would they not welcome that opportunity?
One possible reason is that, if they choose this path, it will mean disassociating themselves from popular ancient alien leaders and organizations that they have come to know and trust. Another reason is that they may have a hard time adjusting to Carl Sagan’s rigid commitment to the rules of evidence that prevail in contemporary science, where supporting data is subject to such brutal scrutiny that, unless one is hardened to the process, can easily be misinterpreted as bullying and discrimination. Science people play hardball. If an advocate and their claim and evidence whither under the heat, it doesn’t deserve to be in the game.
In what may be called neo–ancient alienism, there will be new voices, new authorities, and a new kind of literature, and this may all be so unfamiliar and intimidating for traditional ancient alienists that they will long for the “good old days” when their beliefs were comfortably ensconced within the genre known as alternative science. I know that it may be hard—no, will be hard—for long-time ancient alien followers to switch, but if they are sincere in wanting to see their beliefs impact the world to the degree that I believe they can, they have no choice but to honor Carl Sagan as the new voice and authority of ancient alienism.
Like Carl Sagan, I am uncomfortable with what I see as a casual disregard of the scientific method, a willingness to bend the rules of evidence, and an unwillingness to engage the legitimate concerns of honest skeptics like Michael Shermer. I believe that at some point and on some level, there needs to be accountability. If one is going to state a claim, one must also be willing to defend that claim in front of the academy. Retreating to the safe haven of alternative science to avoid the sharp barbs of critical scrutiny is not a winning strategy; it’s a sign of weakness.
Every year dozens of books are published on ancient alienism, including some by the publisher of this book, that, without exception, follow a prescribed template that takes for granted that the claims and evidence being proposed and advanced are true—claims and evidence that are then rejected wholesale by professional skeptics and mainstream science. Think of what it would be like to have books that advance the basic tenants of ancient alienism from a strictly scientific perspective—literature that challenge the scientific community to openly engage the data, test the evidence, and show where we are wrong.
Those who write books on ancient alienism who make extravagant and unfounded claims will soon realize that there is a new sheriff in town, Carl Sagan, who will demand that self-described and self-appointed ancient alien theorists follow what is known in science as the Sagan Rule, which is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Neo–ancient alienism will not tolerate wild, unfounded speculations and flimsy evidence. Conventional ancient alienism theorists take notice: As the Sagan Model becomes better known, there is going to be a major defection of ancient alien enthusiasts who are tired of living on the fringe, who are ready to go mainstream and play by mainstream rules.
I recently traded in my old Samsung 2 for a smartphone. What a difference! Sure, the new technology took some getting used to, but it was worth it. For the millions of devout followers of Erich von Däniken and other old-school advocates of ancient alienism, I strongly recommend that you go for an upgrade, and associate yourselves with Carl Sagan and the model he devised. For millions of others who believe in ancient aliens but are sitting on the fence because they are hesitant to identify with individuals who are routine dismissed as “pseudoscientific,” and with literature that is typically classified as paranormal or alternative science, attaching your belief in ancient aliens to Carl Sagan, whose writings can still be found in the popular science section at Barnes & Noble alongside books written by Stephen Hawking, Brian Greene, Freeman Dyson, Richard Dawkins, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and other mainstream scientists, identifies you as someone who understands and appreciates the scientific method and accepts its inherent norms and practices.
Unfortunately, conventional ancient alienism is routinely associated with eccentric iconoclasts who take positions so far outside of the scientific mainstream that they are called weirdos, flakes, and scam artists—individuals that no one in polite company would dare identify with. But state that you believe in ancient aliens because Carl Sagan believed in ancient aliens and you create an entirely new dynamic. Of course, you will be pressed to prove that Sagan was an ancient alien theorist, and that is what this book is about.
Old-school ancient alienism has served its purpose. For a half-century it has kept the flame of truth at least flickering until the Sagan Model was rediscovered and broadly disseminated. Now that there is a science-based model to base our convictions on, it’s time for ancient alien enthusiasts to leave the old, adopt the new, and not look back. With Sagan as our teacher and guiding inspiration, neo– ancient alienism is on the cusp of being accepted as mainstream science. To settle for anything less than full recognition of a theory we deeply believe in would be to miss a golden opportunity and to dishonor Sagan’s legacy.
There is no reason and no logic for ancient alien traditionalists to reject the Sagan Model of ancient alienism or to turn their back on a famous scientist who was in complete and total agreement with their basic premise. How could any rational person not be in favor of converting what they believe into a more scientifically rigid and intellectually compelling argument? How could anyone who sincerely believes that Earth has been visited by advanced aliens turn their back on new evidence and new arguments that bolster their controversial point of view?
In the coming months and years, conventional ancient alien theorists will be pressed to respond to the model of ancient alienism that Carl Sagan crafted at Stanford University. They will be under pressure to explain how his research stacks up against their own, and how their credentials compare to his. Remember: It was as far back as 1962, years before Erich von Däniken wrote Chariots of the Gods?, that Carl Sagan tried to turn ancient alienism into a mainstream scientific endeavor, and it was only because of a vicious NASA conspiracy that his brave voice was silenced and his courageous initiative terminated. Given these proven facts, how can any ancient alien enthusiast not lift up Carl Sagan as the founder and iconic leader of a new and much welcomed iteration of our movement? I urge ancient alien believers to embrace Carl Sagan and his ancient alien teachings, and to elevate their game by adhering to modern scientific standards.
Pop culture ancient alienists are now confronted with a new reality: Carl Sagan, a leading mainstream astronomer, was an ancient alien believer. But that irony, as great as it is, is multiplied many times over with professional skeptics, because Carl Sagan, besides being a mainstream and highly respected scientist, was also one of the founders of modern skepticism. What are Michael Shermer, James “The Amazing” Randi, and thousands of other professional skeptics and skeptic organizations going to do now that the great Carl Sagan, the icon of their profession, has been proven to be a lifelong ancient alien theorist? To this point, they have assumed the ostrich position of sticking their collective heads in the sand and pretending that it isn’t really true—when inside their hearts and minds they know that it is. This is an embarrassing response from people who regularly sing the praises of full disclosure and beat the drums for transparency.
Over a span of two years I had tried getting NASA and SETI to openly recognize Carl Sagan’s deep and abiding interest in ancient alienism, but they refused to talk to me. For some reason, unknown to me at the time, science-based ancient alienism was a sensitive subject they didn’t want to discuss. With the doors at NASA and SETI slammed shut, I turned to professional skeptics, people known for being gregarious, engaging, and more than willing to tackle controversial subjects. Much to my surprise, they responded in the same way. They refused to consider the possibility that Carl Sagan, who, for many, was their mentor and guiding inspiration, was an ancient alien theorist.
It’s no exaggeration to say that professional skeptics honor Sagan as a true icon in their industry. His books on the scientific method and critical thinking are classics. One of the world’s best-known skeptics, Michael Shermer, has a special place in his heart for Carl Sagan. In the dedication of his bestselling book, Why People Believe Weird Things, he writes:
To the memory of Carl Sagan, 1934–1996 colleague and inspiration whose lecture on “The Burden of Skepticism” ten years ago gave me a beacon when I was intellectually and professionally adrift, and ultimately inspired the birth of the Skeptics Society, Skeptic magazine, and this book, as well as my commitment to skepticism and the liberating possibilities of science.
Because I was from the Sagan school of neo–ancient alienism, and not associated in any way with tabloid models, I had reasonable hopes that skeptics like Michael Shermer and James “The Amazing” Randi, a personal acquaintance of Sagan, would jump at the opportunity to investigate my data to see if it accomplished what I claimed.
I was presenting skeptics with a golden opportunity to correct the popular but errant and misleading notion that Sagan was 100-percent committed to SETI and radio telescopes, when through his own writings he clearly stated that his preferred search method was based on the assumption that aliens have been to Earth in historical times. Sagan insisted that a better strategy than radio telescopes would be to examine ancient manuscripts related to the Sumerians, who built the world’s first high civilization. The truth is that Sagan was critical of the SETI experiment from the beginning and openly voiced serious doubts that it would succeed.
I was inviting skeptics to draw a distinction between old-school versions of ancient alienism, represented by Erich von Däniken, and neo-ancient alienism, represented by Carl Sagan’s Stanford Paper. It was an opportunity to challenge the scientific credentials of those who call themselves “ancient alien theorists” who, in reality, can’t hold a candle to Carl Sagan and his academic credentials and scientific accomplishments. I was hoping that professional skeptics would join me separating Carl Sagan’s intellectually and scientifically robust model of ancient alienism from superficial versions of the theory.
I was shocked and surprised to find that professional skeptics are as adamant in their refusal to discuss Sagan’s belief in ancient aliens as NASA and SETI. I quickly realized that my first priority had to be to break through a conspiracy of silence that, even among professional skeptics, has effectively shrouded Sagan’s greatest achievement in near total secrecy.
The scientific method is not about perfection at first sight; it’s about systematically chipping away at flaws and irregularities until the chaff is gone and all that’s left is the pure kernel of truth—and the truth is that Carl Sagan believed that it was aliens who brought us civilization. The paper he wrote in 1962 at Stanford University on ancient alienism was intended to be the scientific foundation on which he would continue to build his career and make his mark on the world. This is an indisputable fact that I am hoping professional skeptics will recognize and publicly affirm.
Professional skeptics perform a valuable service in exposing and debunking bad ideas. Unfortunately, up to this point, the skeptics I have contacted haven’t been willing to investigate direct evidence that Carl Sagan was an ancient alien theorist. Without exception they think ancient alienism is a bad idea, and it appears that they don’t want the reputation of their hero tainted by having him associated with what they are convinced is pseudoscience.
Despite direct evidence in the public domain that Sagan believed in ancient aliens, it appears that most professional skeptics know Carl Sagan like millions of other people know Carl Sagan: as a tireless ambassador for the scientific method, as a highly effective corporate representative for NASA and SETI, and an accomplished critical thinker. Why do skeptics go to great lengths to attack ancient alienism, and not say a word about science-based research on the subject conducted by one of the world’s best-known scientists? Is it possible that they have they been intimidated by NASA? Have skeptics like Michael Shermer, James “The Amazing” Randi, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and many others kowtowed to NASA by refusing to talk or write about the Stanford Paper, or about Sagan’s extensive work on ancient alien theory? Have they been complicit in the cover-up?
Engaging Ancient Alienism
NASA and SETI scientists act as if the whole subject of ancient alienism is beneath them—as though it would offend the dignity of their calling to publicly engage an idea that they consider so self-evidently wrong-headed that it isn’t worth commenting on. Professional skeptics are just the opposite. They think ancient alienism is so wrong-headed that it is worth commenting on. They rank ancient alienism alongside Bigfoot and UFOs as among their favorite things to debunk. So why aren’t skeptics debunking Carl Sagan’s model of ancient alienism, or even admitting that it exists?
The truth is that Carl Sagan invested 10 years of his life developing the first and only science-based model of ancient alienism. As one of the founders of modern skepticism, Sagan didn’t attack old school advocates of ancient alienism like Erich von Däniken and Zecharia Sitchin for their claim that aliens were on Earth in antiquity, which he agreed with, but for the weak and often-fabricated evidence they submit to support their claims.
Professional skeptics routinely convey the false impression that the scientific establishment is 100-percent against ancient alien theory, but that is not true. In his book, Lonely Planets, space scientist and long-time family friend of Carl Sagan, David Grinspoon, writes: “If I was asked, ‘Do you believe that the universe is full of extraterrestrial beings, and do you think it possible that some of them are now on Earth, or have been in the past?’ I think I’d check the ‘yes’ box.”
Despite NASA’s intimidation, there are respected scientists such as Grinspoon and perhaps others who have read Carl Sagan’s literature on the subject and agree that past alien visitations to Earth, while not yet a proven fact, are an entirely plausible thesis.
Michael Shermer, the chief editor of the magazine Skeptic, gives us a possible solution to the problem of professional skeptics refusing to comment on Sagan’s Stanford Paper: “It is our job at Skeptic to investigate claims to discover if they are bogus, but we do not want to dignify them in the process. The principle we use at Skeptic is this: when a fringe group or extraordinary claim has gained widespread public exposure, a proper rebuttal deserves equal public exposure.”
According to Shermer, when public interest in Carl Sagan as an ancient alien theorist reaches a certain tipping point, he will presumably respond in kind if he thinks it’s not true. In this 20-year commemoration of Carl Sagan’s death, I am informing the world about Sagan’s belief in ancient alienism—and I will be eagerly waiting for Shermer’s response. For me, it seems strange to call Sagan’s belief in ancient aliens an extraordinary claim when the evidence is so overwhelming.
In fall 2012, after identifying myself as a fellow secularist and a huge fan who had read all his books, I asked Michael Shermer via e-mail if he would be kind enough to assess evidence linked to Carl Sagan’s theory of past alien visitations. It was a very honest and straightforward request, and I innocently (and naively) assumed that because it was connected to a theory espoused by Carl Sagan, whom I knew Shermer held in deep respect and admiration, he would perhaps be willing to assess my data.
The response I got back was shocking. Rather than referencing Carl Sagan’s theory of past alien visitations, Shermer tried to associate my data with the ancient alien theories of Erich von Däniken, and then personally attacked me by suggesting that I had to be some kind of religious nut or New Age fanatic, even though I explicitly informed him that I was a secular humanist and 100-percent committed to the scientific method.
To put it mildly, I was stunned. Why this venomous response to such a simple inquiry? Was I missing something? I suspected that something was going on beneath the surface, so I took out a subscription to Shermer’s slick publication, Skeptic, to see if perhaps my claim and evidence might be addressed in a future volume.
It was, sort of. In 2013, in the Vol. 18, No 4 edition, the front cover featured a cartoonish picture of an alien in a flying saucer levitating a pyramid and, below, another alien wearing a Pharaoh headdress teaching primitive Egyptians how to use a wheel. The caption read: “Did Ancient Aliens Bring Us Civilization? We Examine the Best Evidence.”
The cover was such a gross distortion of the historical record that it simply added to my suspicions that Michael Shermer was being purposefully evasive and had no intention of responding to my inquiry in a fair and thoughtful manner. The magazine had the wrong people, the wrong continent, and the wrong millennium! A thousand years before the Egyptians constructed their great pyramids, the Sumerians, in the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, built the world’s first high civilization. They were the ones who invented writing, the use of the wheel, and dozens of other technologies and innovations. Without stone, they built the world’s first pyramids out of clay with their construction of massive ziggurats. Even schoolchildren learn that ancient Sumer, not Egypt, is the cradle of human civilization.
An even more egregious error is that Shermer was attacking the wrong ancient alien theorist. If you want the best evidence for an extraordinary claim, one of the rules of professional skepticism, developed by skeptic pioneer Ray Hyman of the University of Oregon, is that you investigate the work of its most qualified advocate. When Michael Shermer used the phrase the best evidence, he was hinting that there is other evidence related to the question of ancient alienism that is inferior to that of von Däniken and Sitchin, a not-so-subtle dismissal of the evidence I sent to him that supports Carl Sagan’s science-based model of ancient alienism that he introduced in his 1962 Stanford Paper.
Let me be clear: Ancient alienism began in the late 1950s and early 1960s, years before Erich von Däniken made his debut as an ancient alien theorist. From that time to the present, the only ancient alien theorist with the academic and scientific credentials to claim such a title was Carl Sagan. It was Sagan who crafted the original theory. Any skeptic who claims to examine the best evidence that aliens brought us civilization, and who doesn’t begin with Carl Sagan and his Stanford Paper, is either being purposely disingenuous or is professionally inept.
This is where I find myself in a dilemma. There is no way that I can write about professional skeptics and their position on ancient alienism without offending them. If they are sincerely ignorant of Sagan’s 10-year investment in ancient alien theory, they come across as grossly incompetent. On the other hand, if they know about the Stanford Paper, and chapters 32 and 33 in Intelligent Life in the Universe, then why aren’t they citing Sagan’s science-based research on the subject as they go about debunking the tabloid versions of ancient alienism? It smacks of a cover-up.
Professional skeptics cast themselves as Sir Galahads, white knights in shining armor defending the Flame of Truth against the dark forces of ignorance and superstition, and, in most instances, they do a fantastic job. But individuals such as Michael Shermer, James, “The Amazing” Randi, Bill Nye, and hundreds of others professional skeptics may be holding on to a dark secret. They appear to be knowingly suppressing information about the late Carl Sagan that they don’t want released to the public, which is that until the day he died, Carl Sagan fervently believed that human civilization was a gift from visiting aliens, and that it was introduced through the Sumerians.
Professional skeptics are in the truth business. Truth is their capital and stock-in-trade. For that reason, their honor and personal integrity as faithful truth-seekers, who are always willing to follow the evidentiary trail regardless of where it may lead, are paramount to their craft. This is why exposing their participation in a massive NASA cover-up involving Carl Sagan, one of the founding fathers of modern critical thought, is one of the most explosive and potentially damaging developments in the history of professional skepticism.
Why are professional skeptics refusing to acknowledge that Carl Sagan was an ancient alien theorist? The most generous explanation I can think of is that they are doing it to protect his reputation as a mainstream scientist. By effectively scrubbing his curriculum vitae of what they consider an unfortunate episode in his life when he was indulging in what many of his peers in the astronomy community called “bad science,” they perhaps believe they are doing him a favor.
Even if that were the case, from an ethical perspective it is still terribly wrong. If scientists screw up in major ways, it goes on their record and it can never be expunged. For example, in 1989, two scientists, Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, claimed to have discovered cold fusion. They didn’t, and they are regularly mentioned by skeptics in less-than-complimentary terms as examples of credible scientists doing bad science. Another example: In 2011, Professor Antonio Ereditato, a lead scientist at CERN Laboratories, publicly claimed to have discovered a particle that travels faster than the speed of light. He didn’t, and he was so thoroughly disgraced that he was forced to resign from his prestigious post. Theoretical scientists are always walking a fine line between fame and infamy. Their calling is not for the faint of heart.
Why should Carl Sagan be treated any different than other theoretical scientists? If he was guilty of a major scientific blunder by proposing in a published scientific paper that aliens have visited Earth, why shouldn’t that be listed as a stain on his record, just as it is for other scientists who have disgraced themselves? Why are professional skeptics giving Sagan a pass when no one else gets one? Skeptics like Michael Shermer and James Randi refuse to answer this question, so I will do it for them.
Sagan’s belief in ancient aliens was a huge embarrassment to the astronomy community. If he had been a scientist of minor influence he could have been shunted aside with minimal damage to NASA’s reputation or to SETI’s radio telescope experiment. But Sagan, a public relations genius, was designated to become the face and voice of NASA and SETI. Neither organization could afford to lose him, yet they couldn’t allow the public to know that he believed in ancient aliens or that he harbored serious doubts that a radio telescope search would work. At that point, the hard thing to do would have been for officials at NASA and SETI to be honest with the public and address the issue openly and candidly; instead, they did the dishonorable thing and tried to suppress the Stanford Paper and cover up the truth about the man who would go on to become as famous as movie stars and sports heroes. In doing so, NASA stigmatized Sagan’s ancient alien research to the point where it can’t be discussed without it being demonized by associating it with popular models of ancient alienism that are considered outside the scientific mainstream.
Identifying Carl Sagan as an ancient alien theorist is sure to infuriate NASA and SETI leaders and professional skeptics who routinely use his name and fame in their literature to bolster ideas about ETI that, in truth, he would not have agreed with. Hopefully, some among them will join the cause and help us make Sagan’s dream of turning the subject of ancient alienism into a scientifically acceptable field of inquiry a reality.
Professional skeptics who knew about this cover-up should have been exposing this fraud. Instead, they ended up participating in it. It was as if the dog guarding the henhouse had fallen in league with the fox. The reason professional skeptics don’t want the public to know that Carl Sagan was a life-long ancient alien theorist is because Sagan was as much the father of modern skepticism as he was the public image of SETI and radio telescopes. Skeptics have created a false choice narrative that states that anything that has to do with ancient alienism is, a priori, pseudoscientific, and that any individual who advocates ancient alienism is, by inference, a charlatan. Leaders of all three institutions—NASA, SETI, and professional skepticism— have a vested interest in hiding the truth that Carl Sagan, the great alien-hunter and skeptic par excellence, never, throughout his entire life, recanted his view that Earth has been visited by aliens.
By openly stating that Sagan was the father of science-based ancient alienism, some might think I run the risk of being sued by the Sagan family for defamation, or attacked by professional skeptics for disseminating a lie, but neither of these things will happen, because it’s a truth that is easily verified. Even Keay Davidson, Sagan’s official biographer, makes many references to his belief in interstellar spaceflight and past alien visitations in her book, Carl Sagan, A Life.
If professional skeptics ever come to their senses and admit the truth that Carl Sagan was an ancient alien theorist, they will be forced to investigate the Stanford Paper and get up close and personal with such science-based concepts as the Drake Equation, Fermi’s Paradox, and Moore’s Law as applied to advances in space science and technology, probability theory, logic, the size, age, and evolution of the Universe, exoplanetology, exobiology, the Mediocrity Principle, Sumerology, archeology, anthropology, mythology, ethnology, linguistics, and much more. Not the least of their problems is that they will have to explain how long-lived aliens couldn’t have reached Earth when the Pentagon and NASA are currently working on building a starship. Slapping a cartoon of an alien in a spaceship levitating a pyramid on the front cover of a magazine won’t cut it.
Are there no skeptics who have read the book The Scientist as Rebel by Freeman Dyson, and considered the possibility that professional skepticism, having grown ossified and overly cautious with age, needs its own rebels to challenge the status quo and shake things up? I offer one extract from Dyson’s book: “[T]here is no contradiction between a rebellious spirit and an uncompromising pursuit of excellence in a rigorous intellectual discipline. In the history of science, it has often happened that rebellion and professional competence went hand in hand.”
I consider myself a true friend of professional skeptics, and I am demonstrating that friendship by imploring people who work in a profession I care about deeply to own up to their wrongdoing, to ask for public forgiveness (which they would get), to learn from their mistake, and to then move on to bigger and better things.
Now that the truth about Carl Sagan being an ancient alien theorist is out in the open, professional skeptics are at a crossroads. If they choose to keep pretending that Sagan wasn’t an ancient alien theorist, the hole they are digging for themselves will only get deeper. They can’t win this fight because the truth is not on their side. While I’m exposing their cover-up, I’m also extending them a ladder that will enable them, rung-by-rung, to climb out of the deficit of credibility they find themselves in and win back the confidence of the people they serve. Whether skeptics do it individually or collectively, they just need to tell people the truth about Carl Sagan and the Sagan Model of ancient alienism, and the sooner the better.
Any way you choose to look at it, the Sagan Model deserves to be taken seriously as a unique, free-standing theory of ancient alienism that was developed in good faith by one of the leading scientists of the 20th century, a brilliant man who deserves to be recognized by both friend and foe as an expert on the subject. The mistaken claim that Sagan’s Stanford Paper was falsified early on because alien interstellar spaceflight is impossible has itself been debunked.
Friends of Carl Sagan have every right to be outraged that professional skeptics have failed to accurately represent what Sagan believed—when the evidence that he believed in ancient aliens is on the record, even posted online. They have a right to demand that Carl Sagan’s Stanford Paper be placed on NASA’s table for active consideration, and that any evidence that supports that model be professionally adjudicated with full transparency.
At some point in the near future I hope to receive a copy of Skeptic magazine and find a picture of Carl Sagan on the cover, along with the caption “The Stanford Paper—the Best Evidence That Aliens Brought Us Civilization?” Some would like to pretend that Sagan merely dabbled with ancient alienism early in his career and then left it just as quickly, but the facts do not support that conclusion. Quite the opposite: Until the day he died, Sagan never reneged on the content of his Stanford Paper. He remained a dedicated ancient alien theorist to the very end, and the paper he was working on when he died had to do with long-lived alien civilizations and their exploration and colonization of the Galaxy.
Michael Shermer and other professional skeptics need to openly concede that Carl Sagan was an ancient alien theorist, of a different kind, and join with me and others in celebrating his courage in standing up to an establishment that still refuses to engage his research on the subject. When they begin to systematically and exhaustively investigate his Stanford Paper as a plausible neo–ancient alien theory that bears little resemblance to the tabloid models, they can educate the public on the scientific method by citing the distinctions between the two.
Carl Sagan: Master Skeptic
Carl Sagan is revered by most professional skeptics as one of the founders of their movement. In 1969, he helped launch the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), an organization comprised of leading scientists that was created to combat pseudoscientific ideas that were corrupting young minds and undermining scientific education. It now goes under the more workable name the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and features a popular magazine and a number of Nobel Prize–winning scientists on its advisory board.
In the secular world, professional skeptics serve as the equivalent of priests and ministers, proclaiming truth and exposing error. For that reason, millions of people around the world who embrace secular values expect professional skeptics to carry out the valuable service they render with the highest ethical standards and an unwavering commitment to truth and transparency. This is why it brings me no joy to write a chapter that accuses professional skeptics of colluding with NASA and SETI in a massive, long-term cover-up to keep the public from learning that the late Carl Sagan, throughout his illustrious career, was a staunch believer in past alien visitations to Earth.
While busy attacking and exposing ancient alien claims associated with Erich von Däniken, skeptics were busy building a wall of secrecy around Carl Sagan, the famous astronomer who wrote a NASA-funded research paper six years before von Däniken’s book, that argued on scientific and historical grounds that it was aliens, the Apkallu, who brought civilization to humans through the Sumerians, a people of unknown origin who spoke a language that scholars have been unable to trace to any other.
One has to wonder: If professional skeptics are convinced that advanced extraterrestrials have never been to our planet, then why do they attack von Däniken and not Carl Sagan? Is Sagan off limits because he almost single-handedly turned professional skepticism into a respected and, in some cases (such as Michael Shermer), highly lucrative profession?
If that’s the case, then skeptics across the board are guilty of a fundamental and inexcusable violation of one the guiding principles taught by Carl Sagan, the master skeptic: In the pursuit of truth, show favoritism to no man, regardless of status or influence. There is no room for sentimentality in science.
In a normal and intellectually healthy environment, competition between scientific hypotheses is considered not only desirable, but is eagerly sought after. The overriding reality is that a terrible injustice was afflicted on Carl Sagan that, on this 20th anniversary of his death, needs to be made right. It is my hope that current NASA director Michael Bolden will agree, and allow the Sagan Model of ancient alienism into its sphere of interest. For NASA to do any less would only be a further desecration of Sagan’s legacy.
NASA’s New ETI Search Strategy
Sadly, the entire subject of extraterrestrial existence today is so muddled, so bereft of the kind of deep and sustained thought and technical analysis that Sagan put into his Stanford Paper, that we find ourselves lost in the weeds. NASA and SETI claim that long-lived alien civilizations probably exist, but they refuse to entertain the possibility that they have been to Earth. Carl Sagan, meanwhile, was a lifelong ancient alien theorist, but for more than 50 years his work has been covered up. While all this was going on, a recent poll indicated that one in three adults believe it possible that extraterrestrials have been to Earth, which explains why fringe science books on ancient alienism have sold in the tens of millions.
How does a rational individual go about finding clarity in such a toxic environment? The first order of business is to blow the whistle on NASA’s conspiracy to bury the evidence that proves that Carl Sagan believed in ancient aliens, and the place to begin is to tell the world about the Stanford Paper and Intelligent Life in the Universe, the two products that Sagan intended as the foundation for a science-based model of ancient alienism. The reality is that the failure of radio telescope SETI to intercept an alien signal leaves Carl Sagan’s ancient alien theory and NASA’s current search to find extraterrestrial microbial life as humankind’s two best remaining hopes for answering the question: Are we alone?
SETI’s deployment of radio telescopes to make contact with extraterrestrials too far away to come to Earth was a top-down approach. It was searching for advanced intelligent life, not invisible microbes. But SETI’s failure to intercept an alien signal has forced NASA to change strategy and invest in a bottom-up approach that is looking for exoplanetary mold or slime rather than high intelligence. The idea is that if extraterrestrial slime is found, the discovery of alien intelligence will follow. This completely ignores the commonsense rationale that if advanced extraterrestrials exist, it is all but certain that they would own the technology and have had the time to have reached Earth. So, why isn’t that possibility being addressed? Sagan’s model of ancient alienism is in NASA archives. NASA administrators know it’s there. Unless there is an official cover-up going on, why is it not being activated? Why is it still being ignored?
NASA’s search for simple life in space has already enjoyed a significant measure of success. First, its astronomers began looking for other planets, and they found them—a lot of them. It is now scientific fact that planets began forming shortly after the Big Bang and that there are at least 17 billion of them in our Galaxy alone. The next step was to find planets in the Goldilocks zone, the right distance from their host star where they are neither too hot nor too cold to support life, and NASA is finding them in abundance. Next was to find planets or moons that have water, a necessary component of life, and they have been found in our own solar system, so we know that there is a plentitude of water throughout the Universe.
NASA’s current mission is to find planets or moons that have atmospheres hospitable to life. After that, it’s to find planets or moons that have the essential building blocks of life, such as methane and carbon. Finally, the ultimate goal of NASA is to confirm the existence of life, any life, on a moon, planet, or comet that did not originate here on Earth. This is the gold ring that NASA scientists are hoping to snatch. If microscopic life has evolved independently outside of Earth, it will confirm what is known as the Mediocrity Principle, the concept that there is nothing about Earth that is so unique or special that one can safely conclude that ours is likely the only planet in our galaxy where life has evolved. At a 2015 Washington, DC conference, chief NASA scientist Ellen Stofan daringly predicted that primordial extraterrestrial life would be found in the next 10 to 20 years.
NASA’s search for exoplanetary microbial life and the Sagan Model of ancient alienism are both science-based and nonduplicative. In the interests of scientific progress, one would think that NASA would allow the Sagan Model to compete against what I call the Slime Model. Not surprisingly, that has not happened, leaving the Slime Model with no serious competition. This is tragically reminiscent of the extreme bias that was shown in favor of the Drake Model in 1964 when a potential competitor, the Sagan Model, was first rejected. As Yogi might have said, this is like déjà vu all over again.
The demise of the radio telescope experiment has created a vacuum, and an opportunity for NASA to formally launch another strategy to complement its search for exoplanetary microbial life. Carl Sagan’s model of ancient alienism would seem to be the perfect candidate to fill that void. Unfortunately, the chances that NASA will resurrect Sagan’s thesis and activate an Earth-based search to compete against its Slime Model appear vanishingly small. The engrained bias in the astronomy community against ancient alienism is still alive and well.
If the proponents of a theory have a strategy and that strategy is implemented—and the results falsify the theory—the advocates, if they are honorable, will own it. A good example is the SETI Institute, whose theorists, all credible scientists and scholars, openly admit that, after more than 50 years, they have found no hard evidence of extraterrestrial existence using radio telescopes.
Of course such brutal candor does nothing to help SETI build a following or to raise financial support. Quite the opposite: The use of radio telescopes to find an alien signal is a fast fading experiment that appears destined to go down in scientific history as an abject failure. The harsh reality is that people don’t support losers, and SETI has lost.
Time to Change
In 1960, searching for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence in the electromagnetic spectrum with radio telescopes may have been a long shot, but it wasn’t a stupid thing to do. Cocconi, Morrison, and Drake knew we had the technology, so, what the hell, let’s give it a try and see what happens. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Well, we’ve been at it for more than 50 years and nothing’s turned up. Seems kind of strange, doesn’t it? So what should we do now? Keep on searching another 50 years in the hope we finally detect something, or convert our radio telescopes over to more useful purposes and shift our resources over to other strategies? As President Barack Obama has said, in reference to the failed United States Cuba policy, “I know in my bones that if something’s been done for fifty years and it hasn’t worked, it’s time to try something different.” How about instead of looking for intelligent life, we start searching for signs of any kind of life? NASA thought that was a great idea, and it is now actively engaged in looking for signs of simple life forms on other planets in other solar systems. Good for them.
Here’s another idea: Why not look for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence here on Earth? After all, if advanced aliens exist, they would have had plenty of time to explore the entire Galaxy, and a past alien visit to a planet as attractive as Earth would not seem out of the question. In fact, it seems highly plausible. Despite NASA and SETI stonewalling, confirming that Carl Sagan was an ancient alien theorist has been easy. The proof is abundant and in his own writings. The big challenge now is to prove whether his amazing hypothesis is true or false. If Sagan was wrong, and Earth has not been visited by aliens, his claim could be abandoned for scientifically legitimate reasons, but that has yet to be established. Sagan’s model was abandoned, not after an exhaustive search, but out of military ambition and political expediency. NASA, with its all-out commitment to radio telescopes, didn’t want non-space-orientated competition, particularly competition generated by one of its own astronomers. Now that the radio telescope experiment has failed, NASA has pivoted into building an interstellar starship, hoping that no one will ask the question that Carl Sagan asked: If we are within a century or two of embarking on the exploration of interstellar space, shouldn’t long-lived extraterrestrials have been at it for millions of years?
Incredibly, the censorship and suppression that Sagan experienced from his fellow NASA astronomers in 1963 continues at NASA, at the SETI Institute, and among professional skeptics. NASA’s conspiracy to deligitimize Sagan’s research, beginning in 1964 and ending in 1996 when he passed away, hinged solely on its resolute denial of interstellar spaceflight. It was the Big Lie that dashed Sagan’s dream of seeing the study of ancient alienism become a mainstream science. For more than 30 years, denial of interstellar spaceflight was the norm at NASA—but, my, how times have changed. In both science and in popular culture, interstellar spaceflight, for both humans and aliens, is now considered inevitable. In a stunning reversal of position, NASA is currently involved in two projects that have the goal of building a working starship by the end of this century. Today, one would be hard-pressed to find a single NASA scientist who would go out on a limb and insist that interstellar spaceflight is a forever impossibility for humans, and certainly not for advanced alien civilizations that may be millions or even billions of years older than our own.
Given these new realities, the Sagan Model that astronomers in the 1960s lampooned as ludicrous because it required interstellar spaceflight for aliens, should have been revisited a decade ago when human interstellar programs got underway. But it wasn’t. Incredibly, Sagan’s research is still being concealed, and the long-term suppression of his theory of ancient alienism continues to this day.