I’m not going to be the wet blanket who discounts sightings of Santa Claus this evening. (You can track Saint Nick’s progress at Norad to save yourself some time outdoors.) But as we wait for Christmas to arrive, I wanted to share some thoughts on what appears to be a subtle shift in the attitudes of other people looking up into the night skies.

For a long time now it’s been absolute taboo for anyone in the professional media (or any other “proper” social circles for that matter) to talk about the idea of intelligent extraterrestrial beings hanging around in the vicinity of the Earth except in jest. To do otherwise was an invitation to exile with the rest of the kooks, nuts and general conspiracy theorists. But after that curious report in the New York Times which I wrote about recently, I’m sensing a change.

People who would formerly never have uttered more than a few one-liners on the subject suddenly seem just a tad bit more open to at least suggesting… a possibility. We’ve been hearing stories and whispers from people who (sometimes at least) don’t really seem all that insane, claiming that they saw or experienced… something. Oh, to be sure, we all have to quickly add stern, grown-up caveats about how it could still be explained by something totally mundane. But there’s also been a muted “maybe” attached ever since that New York Times story came out, exposing the revelation that the government has indeed been up to… something related to the subject. One such story came from the completely sensible and practical Michael Brendan Dougherty at National Review.

Over time I put away Mysteries of the Unknown and tried to forget my nightmarish preoccupations with life out there. And on balance, I resolved to believe we probably are alone. I’m fine being the sort of person unsophisticated enough to believe humanity really is at the center of the great cosmic drama, that all this space, all those lights, all the cosmic flashes, and all this beautiful and scary mystery was daubed across the great blackness for us. In fact I think this is the more humble view, the one that accepts that humanity isn’t left to “socially construct” all the meaning for itself.

But once in a while, I think it is okay to take a second glance at the mysterious picture and think to yourself the words on that poster in Mulder’s office: “I want to believe.”

Dougherty isn’t the only one quoting Fox Mulder’s poster this month. Sure, there are still some dour individuals like Matthew Walther who sensibly remind us that too much obsession with what’s “out there” can lead us to ignore, neglect and further ruin the infinite mystery of what’s right in front of our eyes here on Earth. But then there are eminently respectable eggheads like Rafi Letzter, a science reporter at Scientific American (among other journals), who seems to have folded a slightly shifted attitude toward the extraterrestrial phenomenon into his baseline. He spends a great deal of time in this article criticizing the New York Times discussion of the “unusual alloys” allegedly being stockpiled in Las Vegas. This is because he feels that we already have a reliable grasp on the science of such things to the point where we could identify most any alloy we encounter or, if not, could define the properties of a new one quickly.

All of that is fair enough from the perspective of most metallurgists I suppose. But Letzter also tosses in the following paragraph, as if it were the most normal thing in the world. It’s the part where he outlines the three main “bombshells” in the New York Times article. (Emphasis added)

1. Many high-ranking people in the federal government believe aliens have visited planet Earth.

2. Military pilots have recorded videos of UFOs with capabilities that seem to outstrip all known human aircraft, changing direction and accelerating in ways no fighter jet or helicopter could ever accomplish.

3. In a group of buildings in Las Vegas, the government stockpiles alloys and other materials believed to be associated with UFOs.

Points one and two are weird, but not all that compelling on their own: The world already knew that plenty of smart folks believe in alien visitors, and that pilots sometimes encounter strange phenomena in the upper atmosphere – phenomena explained by entities other than space aliens, such as a weather balloon, a rocket launch or even a solar eruption.

That’s very strange to read in a scientific journal rather than, let’s say, the website of Mysterious Universe. The author blithely points out that “plenty of smart folks” are already believers (or at least those who truly want to believe) from the school of Fox Mulder. Not hopeless, borderline schizophrenics who have gone off their meds or con artists looking to pitch their next reality show. Smart people leading otherwise respectable lives.

Yes, he includes the still (mostly) mandatory caveat about how many sightings can be attributed to decidedly non-alien phenomena. But what we saw in the government video was something else. A fifty-foot long white tic tac with no wings, rotors or exhaust ports which was solid and could be tracked from multiple radar stations, dropping down from 80K feet to hover over the ocean, be filmed by (multiple) experienced Navy pilots, and then leave a pair of Super Hornets capable of doing nearly Mach 2 in the dust? That was no balloon, swamp gas, ball lightning or trick of the light, bending the image of a solar flare through some inversion layer in the atmosphere. So what was it? We don’t know yet, and we might not unless the military knows more and cares to tell us. It’s unidentified. Hence the acronym.

So if I see something in the sky tonight that I can’t identify, sure… I’ll leave room for the possibility that it might be Santa on his sleigh. Or, just perhaps, it might be something else. It’s a big, empty looking universe. But at least in the way it’s being treated in the “respectable” media now, it may have just gotten a tad bit smaller and perhaps even a bit more crowded. So do I Believe? Not yet, because I haven’t experienced anything like that myself thus far and, as Carl Sagan once said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. But I’m at least willing to say in public that I really want to. There’s more room in our world for Fox Mulders now, as long as we keep a healthy supply of Dana Scullys around to peer review the findings.