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Reading about alien hunters that claim to have found evidence of life on Mars I came across this sentence:

But let's not trade our tin foil hats for helmets and prepare for Mars to attack just yet

which really has thrown me for a loop.

I know that our tin foil hats refer to our paranoia but trading them for helmets, would metaphorically mean to exacerbate our paranoia? That's what I understand from the context but I'm not completely sure.

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The definition of tin foil hats you have is fine but I think the more literal meaning is more appropriate here... essentially, people who wear tin foil hats generally believe that aliens (or "the government") are messing with our brains:

A tin foil hat is a hat made from one or more sheets of aluminium foil, or a piece of conventional headgear lined with foil, worn in the belief it shields the brain from threats such as electromagnetic fields, mind control, and mind reading.[...]

The use of foil headgear is often based on a belief that such hats prevent mind control by governments, spies, or paranormal beings that employ ESP or the microwave auditory effect.[...]

So, people wearing tin foil hats are expecting mental attacks by aliens/Martians.

Someone wearing an actual helmet would be expecting a physical attack from Mars.

The implication is that, for some reason, now that we "know" Martians exist, they will attack us.

But, the sentence after this one in the article explains why the trade of hats is likely unnecessary:

One NASA scientist says there's a perfectly good explanation for these sightings.

It then goes on to describe scientific explanations for all of the "alien" objects.

Vasavada is alluding to a phenomenon called pareidolia, which is when your brain recognizes a familiar object or pattern even though it's not actually there. It explains why people see the Man in the Moon, Jesus in their lunch, or even a tiny woman wandering around Mars.

  • +1 for pareidolia, I thought of mentioning it in my answer then forgot :) – laureapresa Aug 31 '15 at 15:52
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    I think the OP's original definition is more accurate, then the author is saying "Let's not take our (tin foil hats)[irrational fears] and replace them with (helmets)[actual concerns/precautions] just yet" - rather than actually expecting mental vs physical attacks (we may need to prepare for both!) – DoubleDouble Aug 31 '15 at 20:06
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The article does not seem to be serious at all: from the title itself, it kind of mocks amateurs who are desperately looking for evidence of life on Mars, maybe even thinking the government is hiding findings from them (hence the term "tin foil hat", IMHO). After all, the writer calls these people the more, er, imaginative minds in our midst.

These people would probably be quick to believe that since they found "evidence" of life on Mars, they should be prepared for this life to be hostile! Hence, drop their tin foil hats and wear (war) helmets, getting ready to fight back.

So yes, it'd mean going one step further in an imaginary paranoia scale.

Thank you for the article by the way, I enjoyed reading it!

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As you note, "tin foil hats" is a classic reference to people with irrational fears. Wearing helmets would imply that we are taking a warning of danger seriously. So "trade our tin foil hats for helmets" would mean changing from seeing a fear of Martians as something irrational and silly to seeing it as something rational and serious.

Note that the writer says that there is no need to do this, i.e. he believes that a fear of Martians remains irrational.

I've never heard this wordng before. In my humble opinion it's a clever turn of phrase. I'll probably plagiarize it.

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