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Three central thesis

The term "UFO" has proven useful to keep the extraterrestrial hypothesis out of public and scientific discourse. In order to identify something we have to compare it to something that is already known. However, it is impossible to learn anything new that way. Even worse: popular culture has turned the UFO issue into a modern myth that fits seamlessly into the realm of conspiracy theories and pseudo science. According to Bernhard Pröschold this kind of marginalisation has just one purpose: to banish any confrontation with the "radical other" from public and scientific discourse.

Over the last few decades we have been asking the wrong questions, says Pröschold. It is not a question of whether extraterrestrial visitors exist or not. The question is: why do so many of us treat the very possibility of their existence with ridicule? And why do others find this idea appealing? Nobody (other than a handful of particle physicists) gets nervous when we ask whether Higgs-Boson particles really do exist or not. Why, then, is there such conspicuous denial and nervous laughter around extraterrestrial visitors? If we ask this question with an open mind, says Pröschold, we can learn a lot about ourselves – and perhaps about the universe too.

Recent findings in astronomy such as the discovery of numerous exoplanets have catapulted the debate about UFOs and extraterrestrial life into mainstream western popular culture. According to a Roper survey (SCI FI Channel/Roper poll 2002) nearly half of the US population believes that “UFOs” have visited Earth at some point. In contrast to this, academia in general treats all discourse about UFOs and extraterrestrials with a great deal of scepticism. Mainstream astronomy research organisations prefer to use antennas to listen out for signals from extraterrestrials in outer space rather than keeping a lookout for signs of extraterrestrial life on Earth itself. Meanwhile, mainstream sociology tends to analyse speculation about UFOs and extraterrestrials from the point of view of conspiracy theories and modern mythology.

In order to explain the lack of scholarly interest in UFOs and extraterrestrial life, Bernd Pröschold makes use of concepts developed by cultural theorists working in the tradition of Max Weber, Pierre Bourdieu and Arnold Gehlen. Why does the idea of encountering life forms different from us make us feel uneasy? Why is western rationalism only able to handle the “radically other” by exerting technological control over it? What kind of a culture do we inhabit that searches for signals from extraterrestrial life in outer space even as it ridicules the notion of extraterrestrials visiting Earth? Surely it makes sense to make ourselves aware of our culturally specific presuppositions before casually dismissing UFO phenomena as a modern myth: Extraterrestrials is essentially a book about humans.

In philosophy contingency is describing the experience that social order could always be different from what it currently is. The hypothesis of extraterrestrial visitors is confronting humans with a maximum of contingency. It points to the fact that all social order could be different. That is why extratrerrestrials are subject of a taboo.

Rationalism of world mastery
In western culture the most important strategy to deal with the foreign has always been found in its adoption. According to Max Weber modernism is characterized by a
rationalism of world mastery, considering the adoption of the foreign as a kind of technical mastery. And this very strategy of technical mastery has to fail in the face of presumably technologically superior extraterrestrial visitors.

"UFOs" as a myth
Since its development in the 1950th the popular discourse about "UFOs" has been highly mythologized. This is why the whole issue is facing a huge amount of scepticism in science and the public. The argument "UFOs are a myth" is relieving the public from the confrontation with the foreign.

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