In “Report on the Threatened City,” envoys from an alien species land in San Francisco to warn the city’s inhabitants about an impending earthquake that will destroy the city. But the aliens learn that despite already knowing about the potential danger—San Francisco even has an institute that studies and predicts earthquakes—the city’s residents don’t seem to care about it. Thus, the envoys come to understand that for humans, perceiving doesn’t necessarily equal believing. For example, the society’s leaders are invested in maintaining the status quo: people who rightly perceive UFOs find themselves “repulsed, ridiculed, or even threatened” by authorities who cast them as “mentally inadequate or deluded.” In this sense, the story suggests that opinions are more important to humans than perceivable facts, especially when the facts seem to contradict those opinions. Thus, the gap between perception and belief in San Francisco’s inhabitants arises because the evidence of danger opposes “received” opinions—in the form of news broadcasts—that celebrate the city and emphasize the importance of its growth.
Interestingly, the alien envoys initially exhibit this same gap between perception and acceptance. They can see but are unwilling to accept the overwhelming evidence of human indifference to suffering and death, believing that any creature who knows of impending danger would, like them, “have learned from the event and taken steps accordingly.” Yet the envoys—unlike the humans—continually reevaluate their actions, plans, and assumptions. By the time they leave, although they have failed in their mission of warning the inhabitants of the “threatened city,” they have begun to understand the mental frameworks that rendered their mission futile—knowledge that can be used in future missions. Through the aliens’ reports, the story suggests that it’s perhaps natural for humans (and, in the context of the story, aliens) to let biases and assumptions cloud their perception, but that aligning one’s beliefs with reality is ultimately necessary for survival.
Perception and Belief ThemeTracker
Perception and Belief Quotes in Report on the Threatened City
Observing their behavior […] our Commissioners for External Affairs decided that these people could have no idea at all of what threatened, that their technology, while so advanced in some areas, had a vast gap in it, a gap that could be defined, in fact, precisely by that area of ignorance—not knowing what was to befall them. This gap seemed impossible.
We took it absolutely for granted, an assumption so strong that it prevented our effective functioning as much as these creatures’ assumptions prevent them from acting—we believed (since we are so built ourselves) that it would be impossible for a disaster to have occurred already, because if we had experienced such a thing, we would have learned from the event and taken steps to accordingly. Because of a series of assumptions, then, and an inability to move outside our own mental set, we missed a fact that might have been a clue to their most extraordinary characteristic—the fact that such a very short time ago they experienced a disaster of the sort that threatens again, and soon.
Here we approach the nature of the block, or patterning of their minds—we state it now, through we did not begin to understand it until later. It is that they are able to hold in their minds at the same time several contradictory beliefs without noticing it.
Large numbers, everywhere on the planet, see craft like ours, or like other planets’ craft or war machines from their own or other geographical areas. But such is the atmosphere created by the war departments that dominate everything that these individuals are regarded as mentally inadequate or deluded. Until one of them has actually seen a machine or spacecraft, he tends to believe that anyone who claims he has is deranged.
For one thing, at that time we did not know how to differentiate between the effects of the drugs and the effects of their senses. We now do know and will attempt a short description. The drug causes the mechanisms dealing with functions such as walking, talking, eating, and so on, to become slowed or dislocated. Meanwhile, the receptors for sound, scent, sight, touch, are open and sensitized. But, for us, to enter their minds is in any case an assault because of the phenomenon they call beauty, which is a description of their sense intake in an ordinary condition.
While at that stage we were still very confused about what we were finding, we had at least grasped this: that this species, on being told something, has no means of judging whether or not it is true. We on our planet assume […] that if a new fact is made evident by material progress, or by a new and hitherto unexpected juxtaposition of ideas, then it is accepted as a fact, a truth—at least until evolutionary development bypasses it.
For it is as if the mechanism fear has been misplaced from where it would be useful—preventing or softening calamity—to an area of their minds that makes them suspicious of anything but the familiar.
Thus disguised, we walked about the city engaged in observation, on the whole astounded that so little notice was taken of us. For while we were fair copies, we were not perfect, and a close scrutiny would have shown us up. But one of their characteristics is that they, in fact, notice very little about one another; it is a remarkably unnoticing species.
Essentially, a received idea is one that has become familiar, whether effective or not, and no longer arouses hostility or fear. The mark of an educated individual is this: that he has spent years absorbing received ideas and is able readily to repeat them. People who have absorbed opinions counter to the current standard of ideas are distrusted and may be called opinionated.
We have concluded that the young are in a state of disabling despair. While more clear-minded, in some ways, than their elders—that is, more able to voice and maintain criticisms of wrongs and faults—they are not able to believe in their own effectiveness. Again and again, on the beach, as the air darkened, versions of this exchange took place:
“But you say you believe it must happen, and within five years.”
“So they say.”
“But you don’t think it will?”
“If it happens, it happens.”
“But it isn’t if—it will happen.”
“They are all corrupt, what can we do? They want to kill us all.”
We have a tentative conclusion. It is this: that a society that is doomed to catastrophe, and that is unable to prepare for it, can expect that few people will survive except those already keyed to chaos and disaster. The civil, the ordered, the conforming, the well-tempered, can expect to fall victim at first exposure. But the vagabonds, criminals, mad, extremely poor, will have the means to survive. We conclude, therefore, that when, within the next five years, the eruption occurs, no one will be left but those types the present managers of society consider undesirable, for the present society is too inflexible to adapt—as we have already said, we have no idea why this should be so, what is wrong with them.
The two southern landings coincided with the disappearance of 11 people, five the first time, six the second. This makes 450 people gone without trace during the past two years. We suggest it is no longer possible to dismiss the fact that the landings of these craft always mean the disappearance of two to ten people with the word ‘coincidence’. We must face the possibility that all or some are manned, but by individuals so dissimilar in structure to ourselves that we cannot see them. We would point out that Sonoscope 4 is only just able to bring these types of craft within vision and that, therefore, the levels of density that might indicate the presence of ‘people’ might escape the machine. We further suggest the facetiousness of the phrase ‘little green men’ might mask an attitude of mind that is inimical to sober evaluation or assessment of this possibility.