Friday, November 27, 2015

Common Misconceptions About Aliens

Most information mentioning aliens comes from science fiction. There are books, short stories, films, and other media. The purpose of a writer of one of these science fiction items is not to investigate what aliens might be or have to be, but to provide entertainment for his audience. Entertainment needs a plot, it needs characters, and a setting. The author may stress one of the three more than another, but they all are essential.
The characters have to be understandable. The audience identifies with them, or demonifies them. The author is trying to obtain an emotional reaction from his audience, so they will form a positive opinion of his work. This means they have to largely behave in ways which are comprehensible. Further, comprehensible means the characters must behave like humans do. Perhaps they are a bit more extreme, but the audience has to be able to recognize the humanness of their decisions, feelings, and actions. Thus the good guys and the bad guys, with some exceptions, have to have human brains even though they may have alien bodies. Perhaps part of the excitement of the book is the gradual revealing of this humanness, and the final recognition of familiarity brings a feeling of completeness and comprehension to the readers. This is a part of a success in science fiction writing.
The plot has to be interesting. The characters have to face some challenges, and strive to overcome them. Often there is a happy ending, when the favorite character succeeds in accomplishing his goal, despite the obstacles that others or nature has set. The plot has to have surprises, as if the audience can predict the entire thing from just reading the first chapter or watching the first few minutes, the item is a failure. Audiences expect surprises. A surprise is something unexpected happening, which implies that the audience is set up to expect something, and something different is portrayed. The audience isn’t going to be able to form expectations if the plot isn’t human in some way. Humans live lives here on Earth, and this forms the context in which they will form their expectations. The author has to make the connections needed so that these expectations can be found.
Science fiction is about the setting. Some technological gizmo or gizmos have to be part of the setting. If the gizmo is a magic wand, then the item is not science fiction but fantasy. If the gizmo is introduced with a few details, like scientific-sounding words or a scientific-sounding background, the magic is concealed and then the item is science fiction. In reality, much of the science is simply fiction, and the science fiction item is simply fantasy with some science words peppered here and there, often in the initial parts when the setting is being presented. It would be possible to try and keep the science fiction setting as much in accordance with what we already know about science, but that might be too constraining for the characters and the plot to fit into.

Most of the population on this planet are not scientists, have no deep understanding of science, and have not spent much time digging into it. They are not quantitative, and science is. This means that the large majority of people hearing science fiction tales cannot sort out the magic from the science, and are buried in ideas about aliens that are not as well based as they could be. Science fiction, if done well, is memorable, probably for most people more memorable than science papers.

Science writing is the other source of information for most people. This is done, often by non-scientists but often by scientists, who provide synopses of new discoveries or new inventions. Many in the audience do not have the background to make such synopses themselves from the scientific papers that cover them, nor to serve as a reviewer of the quality of the data and extractions from it, nor to know about the possible contradictions with other scientific work. It is, for much of the audience, a story, and the goals of the story-telling is not to provide all the limitations and caveats that go along with real science, but to be interesting, memorable, and pleasing to read. Furthermore, science writing is usually about discoveries rather than deductions. No aliens have been discovered. Little science writing of the usual variety can cover them. It is possible to speculate, but speculation should have rules and principles, and almost none of it does. It is based on feelings rather than on deductions. The feelings about aliens by authoritative figures can be very interesting, but not definitive.

Thus we live in a cloud of thoughts about aliens, much of which is done by authors seeking to make their science fiction works popular, which means recognizable by humans, and science writers seeking the same thing, popularity, which comes from novelty. This means it is likely that much of the cloud of ideas about aliens are simply equivalent to fantasy. They are misconceptions.

Here are four of the common misconceptions about aliens.

One is they are just like humans, with the same ambitions and goals, and the same shortsightedness. This ignores the most likely conclusion is that they have had enough time to improve their intelligence and education, so they have well thought out goals, and know how to plan and execute plans. Humans want to conquer other nations for emotional reasons. Aliens will have developed enough understanding of emotions that they will not be controlled by them. Having a spaceship full of alien troops, robotic or not, is just not in the cards. Having a mentor flying around the galaxy looking for savages to bestow technology on is not, either.

Another is that their equipment is magical. They are not constrained by kinematics, or energy, or anything. This might be based on the idea that science goes on forever and more and more barriers are overcome, including the most famous one of the speed of light. Science is not forever, it is asymptotic, and reaches its limits fairly quickly, in a period of a millennium or so. After that, everything is known. Magic simply doesn’t happen if you wait long enough.

A third is that they haven’t figured out everything important. To give some examples, they will understand music and its appreciation in a scientific manner, knowing how neurology of hearing and sound perception, rhythm and melody perception, the combinatorics of notes and probably note-free music as well, how to generate sounds of any sort whatever, pleasing to their own ears, and more. This means they have absolutely zero interest in our music. The same goes for any art or writing. They understand sociology, and would have no interest in observing us. It may be hard to appreciate, but there is nothing they could learn here, and they have much better ways to amuse and entertain themselves than watching us. And on and on, resulting in the inescapable conclusion that we are as uninteresting to them as anything else could be.

The last of the four is that they are technologically different. Technology is the same no matter who discovers it or where it is discovered or when it is discovered. It converges on one set of knowledge, and for those planets with intelligent life that pursues technology, they will all find the same things. They will all find the same energy sources, the same motive systems, the same communication systems, the same ways to recycle, the same ways to extend life, the same ways to launch spaceships, the same everything. Technology is a function of the laws of the universe, not of the locale where they are revealed. This means that if there is a reason one goes extinct, they all will. If there are reasons why they do not travel between stars, they will all find them. This means that probabilistic arguments about aliens based on the postulation that there are many worlds full of them, saying there is likely to be at least a few who want to visit us, are not valid. If one sees no reason for coming here, they all do.

It is probably much harder to write science fiction that is based on realistic expectations about alien civilizations than to write fantasy cloaked as science fiction. So, the current state of affairs, with popular misconceptions, is likely to continue for a while.

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