In the television series V, flying saucers bring advanced "Visitors" to 29 cities of Earth. They cure disease and recruit teenagers to be ambassadors of cross-species peace. The Visitors soothe their new hosts with blandishments, but are secretly infiltrating Earth's population and a few wily humans learn their secret: The aliens are lizard-like beneath their perfect human faces, concealing nefarious plans.
This scenario is not implausible, according to the world's leading astrophysicist, Stephen Hawking. "Advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planet they could reach," he proposes in a new documentary series launched on the Discovery Channel this week, kicking off a firestorm of media attention. Think of humans as the bewildered natives on the shore, Dr. Hawking added, and the alien as a tech-savvy Christopher Columbus – who got the best side of that story?
Trying to communicate with them, Dr. Hawking concludes, "is a little too risky."
Unless they are already here. In April, , a survey of 22,000 people in 22 different countries reported that one in five respondents said they agreed either "strongly or somewhat" that extraterrestrials are already living in their communities, disguised as human beings. That works out to a lot of people presumably with humanoid aliens as neighbours – especially in China and India, where the number of people agreeing with that statement came in at an astonishing 42 and 43 per cent respectively. Canadians were more skeptical at 16 per cent: Which was less than the Americans at 24 per cent, but bigger believers than western European countries such as Denmark, at 8 per cent.
"Were the respondents drunk?" said Susan Clancy, a psychology professor at Harvard University and the author of Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped By Aliens, echoing other sociologists' doubts.
But surveys over the past few decades have shown an enduring belief in E.T. encounters. A 2005 Gallup poll, for instance, found that 24 per cent of Americans and 21 per cent of Canadians believe that "extraterrestrial beings have visited the Earth at some time in the past." Believers also include Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who said in 2007 that the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration had covered up UFO visits; Miyki Hatoyama, the first lady of Japan, who insists a UFO carried her to Venus; and a portion of Denver's citizenry who is pushing for an August vote that would require the city to form a commission to collect evidence that E.T. has already landed.
"There are a lot of people, more than you think, who do believe in impossible things, like aliens and abduction ..., and that [aliens]are here on Earth walking among us," says Dr. Clancy, whose research included people from every social strata. "We're exposed to a lot of cultural scripts [movies]that tell us it's possible ... and most of us want to believe it's possible."
While India and China are not normally considered hotbeds of alien activity by science-fiction enthusiasts, news reports suggest that the level of belief in E.T. and UFOs may be on the rise. Both countries are emerging superpowers, with space programs. And both countries have a rich mythology of spirits and demons, and a strong tradition, in literature, of gods and goddesses taking human form.
"The notion that a being with the great powers of a godhead can move in the guise of humans or animals is already available in the mythology and religion of the region," says Anand Mahadevan, a Toronto-based novelist who grew up in India, and who posed the question this week to some friends and colleagues back home. And supernatural beliefs can be sustained alongside science, he says. "Some teachers of physics who understand the mechanics of the lunar eclipse will still pray so that the demons Rahu and Ketu who are swallowing the moon will release it back."
Science fiction is popular in Asia – Arthur C. Clarke was a long-time resident of Sri Lanka – and UFO sightings get widespread media attention. One theory, reported in the Times of India, suggests that the high number of UFO sightings in India may be linked to Hindu belief in mystical flying chariots.
China is also reaching for the stars, in reality and in imagination. An infamous sighting during a daytime solar eclipse in Deqing, China, was caught on film by students in 2009 and shown on Chinese television. The Chinese UFO Research Organization claims to be the largest network of ufologists in the world.
Just as the U.S. space program fuelled both a fascination with aliens and paranoia about government activity, China's space program – the country launched in first lunar probe in 2007, and has vowed recently to continue it exploration of the moon – has inspired suspicions about the government.
"China has a long history of people being very skeptical about what their government tells them," says Chris Rhea, an Asian studies professor at the University of British Columbia, "and has also entertained this possibility, that maybe there are these creatures around and the government is just not going to admit it."
Yearning for Contact
Back in the 16-per-cent West, on an early February morning in 2008, David Fairn, a 25-year veteran of the RCMP, looked out his bedroom window and saw a strange set of lights in the sky. Peering though binoculars, the 65-year-old saw "a flat disc" circled by light with bump in the middle – the classical flying saucer. "It sat in one spot for half an hour, then it started to edge away a bit, and all of a sudden – boom – it just went."
It's not the first time he has seen what he believes was a UFO. While patrolling the coast in an RCMP police boat, he claims to have seen lights in the sky he can't explain. Since moving into his home in Mission, B.C., Mr. Fairn says he and his adult son have even given chase. And he's not shy about sharing his story, even to guffaws at the local pub. "If people want to be close-minded, they don't want to believe, what can I do?" he asks.
Asked to consider whether he believe aliens are now walking the Earth specifically disguised as human, he puts himself in the "somewhat agree" category, hedging his bets. "I don't know if they do, but I would not be surprised if they were," he says on the telephone. "What better way to learn something than to walk amongst us?"
It has been 50 years since U.S. astronomer Frank Drake pointed his radio telescope into the stars, listening for an answer back. So far, the stars have been silent, but that hasn't stopped us, scientists suggest, from trying to make sense of them. What David Fairn calls being open-minded, researchers suggest is actually our brain's natural design – we are prone to believing strange things, even if the evidence is sketchy.
It's a survival instinct, suggests Michael Shermer, author of the upcoming The Believing Brain, that centuries of scientific discovery hasn't overcome – making us, as he puts it in his book, "pattern-seeking, agent-postulating primates." There's a natural selection, dating back to our early days on the plains of Africa, to assume that all rustles in the grass are dangerous predators, he says. "If you make the other mistake – that is, you assume the rustle in the grass is just wind and it turns out to be a predator, you are likely to be lunch." That leads to all kinds of weird, supernatural beliefs, he argues.
And the idea of intelligent life elsewhere – however unlikely – makes the universe less empty. In the search for the meaning of life in a secular society, sociologists say, it's no surprise that the idea of E.T takes root in our imaginations. Where God is supplanted by science, aliens, especially omniscient and benevolent ones, become a new kind of religion.
Stephen Hawking's position this week – that aliens are to be avoided – falls into a cycle that keeps the human fascination with E.T. alive, drifting between real and pseudoscience, even as scientists and ufologists debated his argument this week. At Temple University in Philadelphia, David M. Jacobs, who has been studying alien abduction reports for more than 20 years, agrees with Dr. Hawking: "There is no evidence to suggest that extraterrestrials would automatically be benevolent. We might be easy pickings for them."
On the other hand, suggests Seth Shostak, the senior astronomer at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Berkeley, Calif., "I can hardly belief that any society capable of coming here, which is very, very hard to do, maybe impossible to do, has any interest in doing something malevolent to us."
And on the long shot that intelligent life advanced enough to cross galaxies does exist, argues Paul Davies, an English physicist based in Arizona and the author of Eerie Silence: Renewing our Search of Alien Intelligence, they have certainly known about Earth and its resources for billion of years. "If they wanted them, they would already be here."
Which is why, back in Mission, B.C., David Fairn continues to watch the sky, hoping for another sighting. "We're having a dry spell," he says. "I check every night."