Perhaps you’ve heard: Alien panic is sweeping the internet.
You can’t go more than a week or two without a new and ridiculous story about life maybe being out there in the universe going viral, spawning breathless coverage and debunks alike. It’s exhausting.
This week, all that alien panic is swirling around a story citing a Harvard astronomer claiming that the first interstellar asteroid or comet ever discovered named ‘Oumuamua might actually have been sent by aliens from distant space. It’s sensational! It’s perfect for the internet! It’s also something you should be totally skeptical of.
Start with the motto “It’s never aliens,” and work back from there. But that’s easier said than done.
Here are just a few things to think about the next time you’re trying to spot an alien panic (or aliens) on the internet:
Who’s the source?
This is the big one. Always question where a story is coming from — with aliens and with anything else.
In the case of the interstellar asteroid piece going around this week the story is based on the conjectures of one Harvard researcher, who gave NBC a quote speculating that the asteroid might be an alien ship sailing on the radiation of our sun.
The piece was pegged to a new study that hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed, which briefly mentions the idea that maybe aliens could have sent the asteroid into the far-reaches of space based on how it’s moving.
Effectively, all of this alien panic coverage was stirred up from one quote from one researcher. So here’s a good rule of thumb: Offhand comments do not new stories make.
Now, if the piece announcing aliens was heavily sourced to more than one astronomer and had plenty of peer-reviewed evidence behind it, things might be different.
How is it written?
You can learn a lot about a story based on the way it’s written. As for a good story about aliens, you want it to have more than one source, or at the very least, plenty of context.
For example, a quick search shows that scientists actually kept an ear out for any radio signals being sent by ‘Oumuamua when it passed through the solar system last year. However, they didn’t find anything. That’s the kind of context that needs to be in any news story about this particular finding.
Do a quick Google search to figure out exactly what’s being said about the story. If you find a debunk — of which there are many for ‘Oumuamua — that’s a pretty good indication that perhaps the more breathless takes aren’t what they seem.
Also, always be wary of appeals to authority in journalism. If the story (and headline) rely heavily on just one researcher from a high-profile institution, then the story probably isn’t news at all.
Which publication wrote the story?
While how the story is written is the most important tool you can use to judge an alien news story, a look at which publication is running the story can also help you evaluate whether the news is something to get excited about.
Ask whether the publication has a history of covering science in a reliable way. (Look to places like The Verge, Ars Technica, big newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post, The Atlantic, and, yes, Mashable for really consistently good science coverage.)
It’s probably best not to trust a tabloid when it comes to science writing as a rule. If science-minded publications aren’t writing about this, or if they’re more skeptical, be skeptical as well.
What’s the timing?
You can figure out a lot about an alien story if you know why it’s being published when it is.
NASA is the master of inducing alien panic with obvious timing. Usually, the space agency will announce a press conference for either 1 p.m. ET on a Wednesday or 2 p.m. ET on a Thursday under the auspices of some exciting announcement related to “life in the solar system,” or some other tantalizing news nugget.
While the agency won’t give away what the actual news is, the savvy observer can actually figure out a bit about the story.
If the press conference is announced for one of those specific times, it will correspond with an embargoed study being released in one of two major science journals — either Science or Nature. (We know this because journalists have embargoed access to these journals each week.)
In all likelihood, that means the story will be compelling, but probably not definitive proof of alien life.
The truth is, if you’re hoping for some kind of “we’ve found little green men announcement,” then the White House will almost definitely be involved. Cool incremental science stuff about microbial life out there in the universe, however, will likely come through the journals and NASA.
I don’t want to be a buzzkill. It’s fun to think about aliens. It’s great to wonder about whether we’re alone in the universe.
But, at least for now, it’s just a thought experiment. Just remember one thing: It’s never aliens … until it is.