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  (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Controversy ignited after quote was taken out of context

While it went largely unnoticed at its time of publication back in 2012, a book published and edited by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) created a stir this week. Various news outlets discovered that the book includes third-party commentaries seemingly endorsing the idea that strange ancient rock art drawings could be the work of extraterrestrials visiting Earth in the early days of man.  Suddenly "Archaeology Anthropology and Interstellar Communication" [PDF] was a hot topic.
 
I. The Accurate Bit -- Yes, Book Was Published by NASA
 
As we'll explain it turns out those commentaries are inaccurate, diluting a far more fascinating, yet scientifically sound commentary.
 
One part of the coverage that has been largely correct is the book's strong ties to NASA.  It was indeed published by NASA's History Program Office.

Douglas Vakoch
Douglas Vakoch -- a SETI/NASA scientist -- edited the book in question. [Image Source: SETI]

The book was also edited by NASA's Director of Interstellar Message Composition at the Seti InstituteDouglas Vakoch.  In his preface, he writes:

If a radio signal is detected in a modern Seti experiment, we could well know that another intelligence exists, but not know what they are saying.
...
Even if we detect a civilisation circling one of our nearest stellar neighbours, its signals will have traversed trillions of miles, reaching Earth after travelling for years.

To move beyond the mere detection of such intelligence, and to have any realistic chance of comprehending it, we can gain much from the lessons learned by researchers facing similar challenges on Earth.

Like archaeologists who reconstruct temporally distant civilisations from fragmentary evidence, Seti researchers will be expected to reconstruct distant civilisations separated from us by vast expanses of space as well as time.

As we attempt to decode and interpret extraterrestrial messages, we will be required to comprehend the mindset of a species that is radically Other.

The rest of the 330-page book contains a number of chapters written by various experts.  Some chapters discuss the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Project's hunt for signs of alien life in more universally accepted scientific terms.
 
aliens
The SETI project aims to find signs of intelligent alien life, if they're out there.
[Image Source: Corbis]

Other parts of the book wander close to highly speculative and controversial territory, the kind that's typically associated with so-called conspiracy theorists.  Or they do, if you misread them, at least.

II. The Specious Bit -- Expert Quote on Rock Art was Misrepresented

The media hoopla has been focused on Chapter 15 of the book "Constraints on Message Construction for Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence", which is written by Professor William H. Edmondson [ResearchGate] from the University of Birmingham, UK.  

William H. Edmondson
Professor William H. Edmondson examines pulsar activity in telescope logs. [Image Source: SETI]

Professor Edmondson's background is in speech recognition, but over the past decade he became very passionate about lending his technical expertise to the quest to find alien life on our own world or on other worlds.

His first formal research collaboration came via a 2003 paper in collaboration with a physic professor at the Univ. of Birmingham.  In the paper -- published in the peer-reviewed International Journal of Astrobiology -- he suggests that pulsars could one day be exploited by mankind as beacons to contact alien lifeforms.  Alternatively, he proposed that alien lifeforms might be sending such a message to Earth.

In Chapter 15 of the NASA-published book on SETI he comments:

Consider again, therefore, the desirability of establishing symbolic/linguistic communication with ETI. It is helpful to review some parallels from human existence that pose problems for us today. One of these is "rock art," which consists of patterns or shapes cut into rock many thousands of years ago.

Such ancient stone carvings can be found in many countries, and the example in Figure 15.1 is from Doddington Moor, Northumbria, England.  We can say little, if anything, about what these patterns signify, why they were cut into rocks, or who created them. For all intents and purposes, they might have been made by aliens.  Unless we find a readable exegesis of them produced at the time they were made, we will never be able to say with certainty what the patterns mean.

Jesus Diaz of Sploid/Gizmodo was the first to comment on the passage in an article entitled "NASA is getting ready to communicate with aliens using a new strategy".  Technically his article is the most correct as it does not clearly misrepresent Professor Edmondson's commentary.  Still it leaves things ambiguous enough so as to create confusion.  Later pieces would seize on the false premise that NASA's book somehow contained a commentary suggesting that aliens created rock art.

Newspaper Rock
"Newspaper Rock", a famous piece of Native American rock art found in Utah.
[Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]

This led to articles like "Have aliens already visited Earth? Nasa book suggests that ancient rock art could have been created by extraterrestrials" (Mail Online (UK)), "Book Published by NASA Actually Suggests Ancient Rock Art ‘Might Have Been Made by Aliens’" (The Blaze), and "Nasa: Strange Markings Across The Globe 'Might Have Been Made By Aliens'" (Huffington Post UK).
 
Notice that all of these titles -- including the original one by Mr. Diaz -- clearly mislead and misquote NASA.  Aside from the Mail Online piece, each presents the quote with the sentence clarifying the author meant the passage as a parallel, not a conspiracy theory (as the titles of the blog articles suggest).  The Mail Online piece is one of two more egregious interpretations as it paraphrases the quote even further to:

We can say little, if anything, about what these patterns signify, why they were cut into rocks, or who created them... For all intents and purposes, they might have been made by aliens.

None of the articles clarify or note that Professor Edmondson was clearly talking about manmade pictorial communicative art forms.  
 
III. Following Paragraphs Would Have Added Further Context -- But no One Bothered to Post Them
 
Furthermore, none of the articles include the paragraphs that followed the passage on rock art.  In those lines Professor Edmondson fleshes out the previous theme, writing:

The Voynich manuscript offers another parallel that may be helpful in understanding the diffculties with symbolic CETI. This 240-page vellum codex probably dates from the early 15th century and remains undeciphered despite many efforts
to identify the script.

Whether or not the "writing" (see Figure 15.2) is in fact genuinely linguistic is still unclear; there are no convincing reasons to suppose the document is not a hoax. Intriguingly, one is under the impression that one can say some things about its context and possible content—the proposed date and format of the manuscript suggest the ravings of a secretive alchemist, but even the illustrations are not readily interpretable. 

The Voynich manuscript illustrates how linguistic, or serial, organization of symbols can present an intractable problem for interpretation because of their arbitrariness and semiotic opacity. It would be unfortunate and counterproductive if CETI were to become some sort of galactic encryption/decipherment exercise or challenge (or even game? how would we ever know?).

Indeed, the situation might be even worse—a signaling system devoted to conveying arbitrary symbols could confuse would-be interlocutors by making it diffcult for them to know whether they had accurately sorted out the protocol (content cannot be obviously distinguished from medium when both are essentially arbitrary). Furthermore, ETI's intention in sending messages must be understood for messaging to work. ETI and Earthlings both know this, and that the intention cannot successfully be communicated.

 
Voynich manuscript
The Voynich Manuscript is clearly the work of human hands, but remains an undeciphered codex.
[Image Source: The New Yorker]

It almost seems deliberate that this portion of his commentary was left out.  Because clearly far fewer people think a vellum illustrated book was made by alien hands, versus cryptic ancient rock art -- a popular talking point among so-called "UFOlogists".
 
Taken together the two passages clearly illustrate how Professor Edmondson is comparing works of man to potential future art forms employed by possible alien lifeforms for communication.  That's a scientifically valid and sound way of discussing things.  The problem is when you play telephone and pass along an increasingly paraphrased message, which by the second article seemingly misrepresents this expert's views as an endorsement of conspiracy theorists.

SETI Telescopes
Radio telescopes are used by the SETI project to hunt for possible signs of alien life.
[Image Source: CSIRO]

It's good that the book -- and SETI Project in general -- are getting deserved attention.  But it's unfortunate that so many articles would mischaracterize NASA's work in such a way as to seemingly implicate it with conspiracy theorists that have no scientific evidence.  The actual commentary is factual, scientific, and intriguing, in its own right, by an expert in the field.
 
Then again, maybe this is some sort of cosmic comeuppance to the SETI project for shafting Star Trek fans who won the campaign to name a new moon of Pluto "Vulcan", only to see their victory invalidated.
 
Unfortunately the book -- which was hosted for free by NASA -- was taken down [broken link] after the publicity/misunderstanding hit. Fortunately you can still find a copy in the Wayback Machine here.

Sources: Archaeology Anthropology and Interstellar Communication [Wayback Machine backup copy; PDF], Sploid (Gizmodo), Mail Online, The Huffington Post (UK)



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Shoosh
By macca007 on 5/22/2014 5:52:23 AM , Rating: 2
You are giving the clowns over at ancient aliens another idea for an episode!




RE: Shoosh
By Dr. Fosgate on 5/22/2014 8:01:24 AM , Rating: 2
Clowns? Maybe so, as some of the concepts presented are pretty extreme. Personally I am a lot more comfortable with the idea of us being visited by extraterrestrials in the past than I am with the idea of us being visited by God and/or his children…

If anything, that show adds a new dimension to “thinking outside the box” and for that I applaud them.


RE: Shoosh
By Reclaimer77 on 5/22/2014 8:26:49 AM , Rating: 4
Except there hasn't been one shred of physical or historical evidence to back the lunatic ravings of that show.

Thinking outside the box is great. However turning pure fiction into faux-history isn't noteworthy.


RE: Shoosh
By Dr. Fosgate on 5/22/14, Rating: 0
RE: Shoosh
By inighthawki on 5/22/2014 11:25:25 AM , Rating: 2
Seriously? If you consider that as evidence, I don't even...


RE: Shoosh
By Dr. Fosgate on 5/22/2014 12:06:38 PM , Rating: 2
I’m not very intelligent.


RE: Shoosh
By Spuke on 5/22/2014 12:44:57 PM , Rating: 3
quote:
I’m not very intelligent.
Goes without saying.


RE: Shoosh
By Dr. Fosgate on 5/22/2014 12:46:17 PM , Rating: 1
I feel the need to backup my post with some evidence. The following is a list of shows I watch…

-The Five
-The O’Reilly Factor
-Gold Rush
-River Monsters
-Ancient Aliens
-How It’s Made
-How do they do it?

Plus other shows on the channels in which those reside, my TV seldom leaves those channels.


RE: Shoosh
By Reclaimer77 on 5/22/2014 2:09:44 PM , Rating: 3
I'm sure Ancient Aliens made it seem all very credible. But it's just another hoax.

http://ancientaliensdebunked.com/dont-dropa-the-st...

There's no cave painting depicting "grey" aliens. There never was.


RE: Shoosh
By Dr. Fosgate on 5/22/2014 2:31:35 PM , Rating: 1
The most common line in the show seems to be, “Ancient alien theorists believe…(bla bla bla)”, where they present some information, and then analyze it with their spin on it.

I have yet to find them explaining something as fact, or even expecting anyone else to take it as fact. There are no “Experts believe…” or “Scientists believe…” comments I can remember.

I just happen to find their theories to be fascinating.

The show has been on for awhile now, so I can’t be the only one watching it. And, I am pretty sure anything I take from watching it is a heck of a lot more than I will get out of watching American Idol, or The Real World, etc…


RE: Shoosh
By Piiman on 5/24/2014 9:48:37 AM , Rating: 2
What are you on about? "“Ancient alien theorists believe" That the host with the whacked out is in fact an alien!


RE: Shoosh
By MrBlastman on 5/22/2014 2:20:10 PM , Rating: 1
quote:
Personally I am a lot more comfortable with the idea of us being visited by extraterrestrials in the past than I am with the idea of us being visited by God and/or his children…


Then I take it the concepts of extradimensionality, M-Theory and multiverses not only confound you, but utterly scare you?


RE: Shoosh
By Dr. Fosgate on 5/22/2014 2:41:03 PM , Rating: 2
I think your comment confounds me.

Am I an expert on the three concepts you mention? Nope.

I have learned a bit over the past few years about those concepts as they relate to string theory.

None of those concepts scare me, if anything I find them interesting and wish to learn more.

My original comment you quoted was primarily to establish that I am not a religious person, if anyone thought I might be.


RE: Shoosh
By MrBlastman on 5/22/2014 2:50:11 PM , Rating: 2
Well if you can believe in them, then you can't rule out religious possibilies, either. They exist as a potential something--with out sufficient evidence and backing data, of course. But theoretically speaking, shouldn't be ignored as avenues of exploration through the scientific method.


RE: Shoosh
By Reclaimer77 on 5/22/2014 3:04:50 PM , Rating: 2
What I found funny about his comment is that there's more "evidence" (notice I used quotes here) backing Christianity than there ever has been to support extraterrestrials visiting Earth.

I don't see how one is any more grounded in reality than the other, personally.


RE: Shoosh
By Dr. Fosgate on 5/22/2014 3:14:53 PM , Rating: 2
OK, I think you guys caught me there. The idea that I can believe in one, and just as easily believe in the other is something that has totally slipped by me.

Out of pure ignorance, I have never read the Bible. All I know about it is from what I hear from others around me. Based on this, the stories in it seem laughable. When I think about extraterrestrials visiting Earth, some of the concepts at least seem plausible to me. With this in mind, I have pretty much tossed religion to the side.

So now based on just a few key points from you guys I think I need to consider connecting the ideas of religion and aliens together as far as my viewpoint on them goes.


RE: Shoosh
By Reclaimer77 on 5/22/2014 3:45:44 PM , Rating: 2
Christians seem to pick and choose which parts of the Bible are meant to be taken literally. Some stories are "parables", some are literal. Who decides which is why, and how do they know? Don't question it, just bow your head and say "Amen" fool.

All I meant was, if we used the same standard for "evidence" and "proof" as that Aliens show used, a hell of a lot of religious claims would have to be accepted as facts too. The shroud of Turin would be "proof" Jesus existed. And so on and so forth.

But hey, now that you've said you just watch the show for entertainment, I'm cool. That wasn't clear from your OP.


RE: Shoosh
By Dr. Fosgate on 5/22/2014 4:16:36 PM , Rating: 2
I watch the show for entertainment, but I also watch it for fact. Although maybe I need to question its facts. By facts what I am referring too is if they show a video clip of some ruins in South America, I am under the assumption I can hop on a plane and fly there, then look at the ruins myself. I am assuming what they are showing me is not computer generated, or a model on a hollywood sound stage, and is actually a physical place. I am guessing this holds true for many of the details they show, but this could be the grey area. If they pan the camera over to a wall, and on the wall are carvings in stone showing a sun and some people or something, I am guessing I could look around the site after I fly there and see those carvings for myself.

If I am wrong on this and these places and things really don’t exist, then I have been taken a fool, hook, line, and sinker!

Either way I appreciate the insightful comments from you guys. It is pretty easy to read what I wrote, label me a nut job and move on. Taking the time to question my perspective and dig deeper it a great reason I have followed these comment boards for around 10 years now, and recently made the decision to join.


RE: Shoosh
By Digimonkey on 5/22/2014 7:56:14 PM , Rating: 2
Well there are some theories that Angels in the bible were actually extraterrestrials...


RE: Shoosh
By Piiman on 5/24/2014 10:07:23 AM , Rating: 3
There is no factual "evidence" backing Christianity.


RE: Shoosh
By Wazza1234 on 5/26/2014 7:23:44 AM , Rating: 2
quote:
What I found funny about his comment is that there's more "evidence" (notice I used quotes here) backing Christianity than there ever has been to support extraterrestrials visiting Earth. I don't see how one is any more grounded in reality than the other, personally.


No there isn't. There isn't any evidence for either.

And the alien theory is more grounded in reality because it is aligned with science, and statistically highly likely.


RE: Shoosh
By 1prophet on 5/26/2014 11:03:35 AM , Rating: 2
Theories require scientific proof, the theory of evolution for example, one can point to dinosaurs and other ancient fossil artifacts and construct a time line using PROVEN scientific methods.

Alien theory has not even the smallest shred of scientific evidence just like religion, so saying one is grounded in reality and aligned with science and the other isn't,

is nothing more than a false dichotomy, usually pushed by those who want to believe in something as long as it isn't religion.

At best what you are looking at is a conjecture not a theory.

Explanation of theory, laws, hypothesis, and conjecture as it applies to science.
http://www.furryelephant.com/content/radioactivity...


RE: Shoosh
By Wazza1234 on 5/27/2014 5:37:11 AM , Rating: 2
What the hell are you talking about? Everything about your comment is just wrong, but what's more you seem to be arguing against things I didn't say, or even arguing for things I did say.

quote:
Theories require scientific proof


No, they don't. Hardly any 'theories' have been proven - if ANY.

quote:
Alien theory has not even the smallest shred of scientific evidence


Did my sentence 'there is no evidence for either' somehow get mixed up in your brain to the point that you thought I said the opposite?

quote:
Alien theory has not even the smallest shred of scientific evidence just like religion, so saying one is grounded in reality and aligned with science and the other isn't,


Ah, you're confused. Science provides a known method and a proven possibility for aliens to exist. We're that evidence. Our universe is that evidence. The millions and billions of other stars and planets that we know to exist are that evidence. Science actually dictates that it's highly unlikely that we happen to be the only planet which had the correct conditions to support life. It would go against all known science if that were to be the case.

Religion, on the other hand, has no basis or explanation in science whatsoever, and a lack of existence of God would not change anything. There are no logical steps you can take which lead you to the conclusion of a god. There are, however, logical reasons why men would try to make other gullible men believe in some kind of 'divine justice' - for behavioural reasons.


RE: Shoosh
By thesaxophonist on 5/24/2014 3:00:39 PM , Rating: 1
The only fascinating thing about that show is Tsoukalos' hair. That shit has to be the work of aliens; no sane human would create it.


RE: Shoosh
By tamalero on 5/28/2014 12:41:26 AM , Rating: 2
What if aliens had the "god" halo and looks and thus was declared god by ancient humans?
humans tends to idolize anything they dont understand.


RE: Shoosh
By adon37 on 5/28/2014 3:12:00 PM , Rating: 2
.
Who are the experts, the ppeople they are interviewing. Did you see Seth Shostak before congress? The Russian Dytlov pass incident was first presented on Ancient Aliens. Autopsies showed the only logical explanation for their deaths involved aliens. The Dytlov pass incident is a fact.?


RE: Shoosh
By Jeffk464 on 5/22/2014 3:49:14 PM , Rating: 2
What a waist using all those monitors for scientific work. He should be loading up the latest and greatest 1st person shooter.


Huh?
By TETRONG on 5/22/2014 12:59:03 AM , Rating: 2
quote:
But it's unfortunate that so many articles would mischaracterize NASA's work in such a way as to seemingly implicate it with conspiracy theorists that have no scientific evidence. - See more at: http://www.dailytech.com/article.aspx?newsid=34945...


Not all people who claim contact with extraterrestrials or have had sightings of UFO's are "conspiracy theorists".

What is a "conspiracy theorist", but a historian anyways?




RE: Huh?
By JasonMick (blog) on 5/22/2014 2:18:42 AM , Rating: 2
quote:
Not all people who claim contact with extraterrestrials or have had sightings of UFO's are "conspiracy theorists".

What is a "conspiracy theorist", but a historian anyways?
Err, reread what I wrote...

I'm specifically referring to theories that aliens have infiltrated mankind in the past or present, making art, playing politics, etc.

I think those kinds of theories are a league beyond simply seeing a UFO and saying what you saw. I don't doubt many honest people saw with their eyes UFOs. Maybe they were something out of this world... maybe they were swamp gas. But that's a far cry from what I'm talking about. :)

Clearly I'm referring explicitly to those who believe that rock art was made not by human hands, but by alien "visitors" as conspiracy theorists.

Even if we discovered aliens and UFOs were real and were visiting Earth that would STILL be in conspiracy theory given that rock art is very much in line with more modern human artforms. Mankind was just making the best of an era where it had little paper.

Get what I mean, now?


RE: Huh?
By Reclaimer77 on 5/22/2014 8:29:48 AM , Rating: 2
quote:
Clearly I'm referring explicitly to those who believe that rock art was made not by human hands, but by alien "visitors" as conspiracy theorists.


What you don't think a highly advanced space-faring race would travel millions of light years to Earth, and cut crude carvings into rocks?

God, Jason, how dare you.


RE: Huh?
By japlha on 5/22/2014 12:11:34 PM , Rating: 3
I just wish these alien visitors would go back to rock carving instead of all the anal probings.


Quid Veritas
By Iantech on 5/22/2014 12:39:19 AM , Rating: 2
Soon the box open will be.




Memories of the future
By Visual on 5/22/2014 8:50:35 AM , Rating: 2
Von Danikens of the world, unite! Lets blow this out of proportion before people can react!




They should focus on...
By Zak on 5/22/2014 12:12:38 PM , Rating: 2
They should focus on finding intelligent life on Earth first.




experts don't lie.
By adon37 on 5/24/2014 4:25:45 PM , Rating: 2
Who are the experts, the ppeople they are interviewing. Did you see Seth Shostak before congress? The Russian Dytlov pass incident was first presented on Ancient Aliens. Autopsies showed the only logical explanation for their deaths involved aliens. The Dytlov pass incident is a fact.?




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