The View

UFOs are out there, and so is the booming conspiracy industry

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 December, 2015, 7:30am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 December, 2015, 7:30am

Karl Marx famously said that money alienates man from himself. Less well known is the role money plays in connecting man with … the aliens.

I have just finished a book on UFOs which a friend asked me to read after I scoffed at the idea that unidentified flying objects are extra-terrestrial in nature, and these ETs have mastered the technology to zip about at supersonic speeds and disable nuclear warheads and fighter jets.

The book is surprising. A New York Times best-seller by journalist Leslie Kean, “UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record” is witty, interesting and well-executed.

The first surprise comes from the foreword, written by a prominent Washington lawyer and former lobbyist, John Podesta, who was President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, worked in the Obama administration and is now on Hillary Clinton’s election campaign.

Another big-name contributor to Kean’s book is Nick Pope, whose career at the British Ministry of Defence included four years in the 1990s running the office that investigates UFOs. Today, Pope makes a living off speaking, consulting and promoting the subject of aliens and conspiracy theories. His résumé includes plot development on the “X-Files” film and little nuggets like this: “Located a photogenic and articulate alien abductee for a feature pegged on the DVD release of the cult sci-fi series ‘V.’ ”

Is there a similar money trail with Podesta? Well, he and his brother Tony founded the powerful Podesta Group lobbying firm, whose clients include aerospace and defence firms, which sell equipment used in space. Has humanity sunk so low that Washington power brokers might scaremonger about UFOs to increase aerospace military budgets?

Hopefully not – but more on that in a moment. First, a look at the upside of the extra-terrestrial industry. Let’s put it in the same category as anti-aging creams, balding cures, dog whisperers, feng shui masters and acupuncturists. These are items and services whose scientific backing is flimsy but the jobs and revenues they render are real. So what’s the harm?

The universe may still be expanding, but most OECD economies are not. If we cut out all economic activity that is not strictly “rational,” then global GDP might crash to earth harder than a derailed spaceship in the New Mexican desert.

Besides kicking up opportunities for merchandisers, conference-room bookers, TV-script writers and publishers, the fascination with UFOs is also a source of job-creation for scientists and aerospace engineers.

Just last summer the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking backed a space project to hunt for extra-terrestrial life forms, thanks to US$100 million from the Russian tech investor Yuri Milner. This is the same Hawking who in the past has surmised that if the aliens respond to our radio signals, then we earthlings are toast.

“Encounters between civilisations with advanced versus primitive technologies have gone badly for the less advanced,” he drily noted.

But hey, if some rich Russian wants to spend his own money on high-tech space exploration – what astrophysicist can resist? Where’s the harm?

Here’s one potential danger: according to US historian Robert A. Goldberg, the digital age has put a rocket under the conspiracy industry. And those willing to believe one conspiracy theory - that the US military covered up an alien encounter in Roswell, New Mexico – are only one click away from a wide universe run by “conspiracy entrepreneurs,” many of whom peddle fear-and-hate-mongering hogwash.

Some conspiracy entrepreneurs, like Alex Jones, wring so much money from their followers as to make a TV evangelist blush. Jones makes an estimated US$10 million a year spouting absurdist rubbish -- like that governments put hormones in beverages to turn men gay and thus slow population growth.

“Conspiracy thinking is not harmless,” Goldberg says. It demonises public officials to the point of interfering with governance. It is hard enough to hold governments accountable for their many glaringly known failings; conspiracy theorists chase the shadows and debate the unknown.

And, of course, sow distrust and paranoia. On that note - am I crazy in thinking that the White House could be occupied by lawyer-lobbyist hucksters who promote false narratives to aide their defence and aerospace industry buddies?

In the age of conspiracy, I guess we all get sucked in eventually. Beam me up, ET.

Cathy Holcombe is a Hong Kong-based financial writer