“Yes, this all sounds way out,” District Attorney Catterson said of Ford’s plot. “But when I read the Unabomber manifesto, some of his ideas were just as bizarre. That’s why I take this and the imminent threat to the individuals concerned here very seriously.” Recalling the World Trade Center bombings and Oklahoma City, Catterson commented, “This all convinces me that there is a side to humanity that defies definition.”
Murder plots like Ford’s are clearly the aberration in the world of UFO and cryptid enthusiasts, most of whom are normal, law-abiding folks. But there are shades of overlap between these searchers and the darker strands of conspiracy theory that have come to dominate the landscape of late. They share a similar distrust of established voices, be they scientific or governmental—a distrust that encompasses a spectrum from healthy skepticism to paranoia.
By themselves, these ideas don’t necessarily breed paranoia or violent ideas. Much of what attracts people to these fringe beliefs is a belief in a world of wonder and marvel, a world outside the ken of humanity, a world just out of reach. But our fascination with things unexplained, our obsession with things hidden from view, our need to believe in monsters at the margin—these drives, through the decades, have contributed to a rising sentiment of distrust in science, in academic institutions, and in government. The toxic mélange of anti-vaxxers, school-shooting truthers, and right-wing militia groups didn’t appear overnight; as long as there has been a scientific establishment, there’s been distrust of that establishment, and as long as there have been democratic governments, there’s been suspicion about what’s really going on. The rise in our fascination with things like cryptids and UFOs offers one vector for explaining how we got to where we are today.
Why? How do such beliefs take root? Often, their genesis and evolution follows a fairly standard, almost predictable, pattern. Something genuinely anomalous or difficult to explain happens, and it’s followed by increasingly elaborate explanations—explanations that are designed, ultimately, to resist positive or negative confirmation. The curious case of Erich von Däniken and his wildly successful “ancient alien” hypothesis offers a particularly paradigmatic example of how a fringe belief is structured.
[ Return to the review of “The Unidentified.” ]
It begins, as often as not, with legitimate science, and with a legitimate, unsolved question—in this case, the Fermi Paradox (named after nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi), which posited that, based on what we know about the size of the universe, the likely number of planets conducive to supporting life, and the statistical probability that a civilization like our own would develop, it seems inconceivable that we are the only advanced civilization in the universe. In 1950, at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Fermi was discussing extraterrestrials with a few other scientists when he asked, “Where is everybody?”
Since then, other scientists have worked to better understand this paradox; various mathematicians and astrophysicists have attempted to better understand the probability involved, the likelihood of another race capable of interstellar travel, and other aspects of the science involved. Then in 1963, a young assistant professor at Harvard named Carl Sagan authored a paper entitled “Direct Contact Among Galactic Civilizations by Relativistic Interstellar Spaceflight,” which offered a highly provisional hypothesis that perhaps “Earth was visited by an advanced extraterrestrial civilization at least once during historical times.” Sagan never did much to follow up on this article, or test this hypothesis, and gradually moved on to other questions of astronomy and physics.
But there were others who were less willing to let this idea go, among them, a hotel clerk and convicted fraud Erich von Däniken. Von Däniken had no formal science training, but he liked the idea that aliens had visited Earth in the distant past and that they may have left behind tangible clues and evidence. His 1968 book, Chariots of the Gods?, suggested that the Egyptian pyramids, the Moai statues of Easter Island, and Stonehenge in England were all artifacts of previous contact between humanity and alien civilization. An instant bestseller, Chariots of the Gods (the book’s title long ago lost its question mark) has spawned a seemingly endless series of follow-ups by von Däniken, who turned his idea into such an industry that he opened a theme park in Switzerland devoted to it.