It’s time to stop UFO mania

Friends and colleagues have urged me to write something about UFOs, because the topic is hot again and I’m sort of the space alien reporter on staff. This refers not to where I’m from, but to the kind of stuff I used to write about. I wrote a book (“Captured by Aliens,” 1999) that was primarily about the scientific search for extraterrestrial life and included a long section on UFO mythology. I’ve been to Roswell. I wrote about the mass suicide of the 39 Heaven’s Gate cultists who thought they would be transported to a spaceship trailing comet Hale-Bopp. I’ve interviewed people who think their bodies have become inhabited by aliens from the Pleiades.

But I’m wary of returning to that strange universe, because anything I write is guaranteed to be unsatisfying for everyone involved. My strong suspicion is that the number of UFO sightings that involve actual alien beings, from deep space, with the tentacles and the antennae and so on, is zero. I would put the likelihood at 0.0000 and then add some more zeros, before eventually, begrudgingly — because I’m so intellectually flexible — putting in a little 1 out there somewhere to the right, a lonely sentinel, because who knows? (Yes, I’m saying there’s a chance.)

This skeptical take, however, is the boring take. A better story would be that, after all these decades as a skeptic, I’ve converted, because the recent rash of UFO sightings has persuaded me that these are, in actual fact, spaceships from somewhere else in the universe, or perhaps from the future, and could even be future humans, such as grad students getting their PhDs in paleoanthropology. Much better story.

Science journalists regularly disappoint people by refusing to confirm really cool things like UFOs, past-life recall, astral projection, telekinesis, clairvoyance and so on. When I wrote my aliens book I made a disastrous marketing mistake by not including any aliens in the story, focusing instead on people who believe in aliens. Thus it was a major disappointment for readers who bought a copy after finding it in the “Occult” section at Barnes & Noble.

Over the years I have found less joy in telling the believers that what they believe is not true. It gets old, always telling people to stop reading the horoscope. We all rely on our beliefs to get through the day. They are our handrails on a shaky planet. People don’t need someone with a fanatical desire to be correct to come along and pry their fingers loose.

Make no mistake: I want to be the reporter who goes out on a limb and breaks the space aliens story. I want my name on a front-page story with a 72-point headline saying THEY’RE HERE. That would be a great, career-making story. But the aliens never deliver. It doesn’t matter how many front-page stories there are about UFO sightings, or that the Pentagon acknowledged it had an in-house UFO-probing office, or that some government officials think UFOs might be aliens. None of that means they’re here.

There are practical, mechanical reasons for being reluctant to engage on this. To do any kind of UFO story requires a descent into the rabbit hole of ufology, and that hole is bottomless. And this isn’t the kind of story where you can do a lot of fieldwork. Earlier this year, in an appearance with late-night host James Corden, former president Barack Obama spoke about videos of UFOs shot by Navy pilots: “[T]here is footage and records of objects in the skies that we don’t know exactly what they are.” But Obama could have gone further: We don’t know where they are.

The classic UFO narrative — the interesting conjecture, the one with extraterrestrial beings in it — involves a ziggurat of unknowns and unknowables. We’re talking about elusive spacecraft piloted by unknown beings, of unknown biology, using unknown technologies. Whose motives are unknown. And who come from … somewhere. And who right now are … hiding? Watching us? Their location cannot be discerned because they have special cloaking technologies. But which mercifully are not perfect, thus allowing military pilots to see them, sometimes, and even capture them on poor-quality videos.

The lack of resolution to the UFO debate appears to be built into the inquiry. The subject is interesting only to the extent that the phenomena under scrutiny remain mysterious — and therefore outside the normal boundaries of logic, journalism and science.

Let’s review the UFO renaissance for those of you who have been paying attention to other, purely terrestrial stuff, like the pandemic. On June 25, the U.S. national intelligence community released a long-awaited report on UFOs. The report by the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force followed a series of prominent articles in recent years about videos taken by Navy pilots showing mysterious objects, some of which appeared to be moving at astonishing speeds and with motion unlike any known terrestrial aircraft.

Interest in UFOs had been boosted further by the revelation that in 2007, at the behest of several U.S. senators, the Pentagon created a secret office dedicated to studying such enigmatic reports. It was called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, and, after it was disbanded, its existence was disclosed by the New York Times in 2017. The fact that the government was secretly studying something previously considered pseudoscience helped rehabilitate the image of UFOs. (The Pentagon had decided that unidentified flying objects should be rebranded as UAPs: unidentified aerial phenomena.)

Prominent figures in and out of government added further credibility. Former CIA director John Brennan, for example, said last year that the sightings could be “some type of phenomenon that is the result of something that we don’t yet understand and that could involve some type of activity that some might say constitutes a different form of life.”

The U.S. intelligence investigation looked at 144 reports involving UAPs. It solved only one of them: “With the exception of the one instance where we determined with high confidence that the reported UAP was airborne clutter, specifically a deflating balloon, we currently lack sufficient information in our dataset to attribute incidents to specific explanations,” the report said.

Instead, it offered five distinct categories of explanations: “airborne clutter, natural atmospheric phenomena, [U.S. government] or industry developmental programs, foreign adversary systems, and a catchall ‘other’ bin.” But despite the inconclusive nature of the report, it received robust news coverage and much attention on social media. From the New York Times: “U.S. Has No Explanation for Unidentified Objects and Stops Short of Ruling Out Aliens.” From Reuters: “Watershed U.S. UFO report does not rule out extraterrestrial origin.”

Make no mistake: I want to be the reporter who goes out on a limb and breaks the space aliens story. I want my name on a front-page story with a 72-point headline saying THEY’RE HERE. But the aliens never deliver.

The report was greeted as something of a triumph by people who are active in UFO research. “The UFO Report is out. The implications are profound. UFOs, as we have known for a long time, are real, defy conventional explanation, and until more is learned, pose a serious potential threat to U.S. national security,” wrote Christopher Mellon, a former Defense Department official who had pushed for the disclosure of UFO sightings. He added, “But don’t just take my word for it,” and linked to the U.S. government report.

What UFO proponents have long wanted is for the government, the media and the scientific establishment to take the subject seriously. The intelligence report does that. It says that some of the reports appear to involve real objects, because they were observed by multiple instruments or witnesses. There’s something there; it’s not imaginary. So, yeah: Unidentified flying objects do exist!

This UFO moment is strikingly reminiscent of how the UFO mythology began in 1947. On June 24 of that year, a pilot named Kenneth Arnold reported seeing nine mysterious objects traveling near Mount Rainier at high speed. Arnold said the objects “flew like a saucer would if you skipped it across the water,” and the media took it from there, inventing the concept of “flying saucers.” Soon the whole nation was quite obsessed. Not long afterward, a balloon-borne military surveillance instrument crashed on a ranch near Roswell, N.M., and even though it looked nothing like a flying saucer or, for that matter, anything remotely extraterrestrial, the debris somehow spontaneously generated a series of increasingly dramatic narratives, culminating in a sturdy hoax about recovered alien bodies and reverse-engineered alien aerospace technology.

In those early days of ufology, the classic story involved something in the skies seen by pilots or ordinary citizens. Mysterious lights. Scientists would weigh in and say this was due to some kind of perceptual error. People were fooled by Venus, by the moon, by “swamp gas.” Intensive investigation by government experts and the Pentagon failed to find any evidence of alien spacecraft.

Then the mythology took an interesting turn: People started getting abducted by aliens. It happened in their sleep. Science fiction writer Whitley Streiber wrote a book, “Communion,” that claimed that such an abduction happened to him. Then a Harvard professor, John Mack, wrote a book saying that the reason people believed they were being abducted by aliens is that they were, in fact, being abducted by aliens. They came from … another dimension?

That mythology ran its course, maybe after being so thoroughly narrativized by “The X-Files.” Now we’ve come full circle: Pilots are once again seeing things they can’t understand. The difference is this time there are videos.

The “republic of science” is engaged in the study of “observable natural phenomena.” I have lifted both phrases from Richard Rhodes’s monumental book “The Making of the Atomic Bomb.” This is why science and science journalism are not well equipped to fact-check religious beliefs. Religions typically involve events that are neither natural nor necessarily observable on demand. And that is where science runs into trouble with UFO reports. The videos and photos are ambiguous to say the least. Eyewitness reports, even from credible witnesses, are not the same as having a piece of an alien spaceship to scrutinize or, better yet, some alien DNA.

The republic of science has some cultural norms and ground rules. One of them is openness. That means you have to show your data. Also, scientists have to be honest. They are allowed to be wrong, but they can’t be liars. There’s a great deal of trust that’s built into the scientific enterprise.

And so, scientists (and science reporters) tend to be wary of conspiracy theories, which have secrecy as their essential, defining feature. Most UFO narratives are conspiracy theories of sorts. They posit not only the existence of extraterrestrial visitors, but also a conspiracy of silence, obfuscation and intimidation of witnesses by the government, or maybe the news media, private corporations, the globalists, etc. Or even by the aliens who are secretly running everything.

Science is often mistaken for a list of things we know. It is really just a system, a set of techniques and principles for investigating the world. It’s extremely successful as a method of interrogating the natural world. It revealed, among other things, that the universe is imponderably vast and marvelous.

Unfortunately, this system, although able to penetrate the cosmic darkness, is less useful for detecting things conjectured to be in some manner cloaked, or able to duck into a different dimension or parallel universe. Maybe the aliens traverse the universe in wormholes that are invisible to us. But how would you know?

The UAPs may turn out to have prosaic explanations. In fact the intelligence report mentions many of them. Consider the first two of the five explanatory categories:

“Airborne Clutter: These objects include birds, balloons, recreational unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), or airborne debris like plastic bags that muddle a scene and affect an operator’s ability to identify true targets, such as enemy aircraft.”

“Natural Atmospheric Phenomena: Natural atmospheric phenomena includes ice crystals, moisture, and thermal fluctuations that may register on some infrared and radar systems.”

Let us all agree that plastic bags, birds, ice crystals, moisture and thermal fluctuations are not exciting explanations for mysterious observations. What’s exciting is alien spacecraft. Which is why the Times, in covering the intelligence report, wrote, “There was no affirmative evidence that the unexplained phenomena are alien spacecraft in the report. But because the government has offered no explanation for so many of the episodes, the new report is sure to fuel the enthusiasm of those who believe they could be.”

This is true, but it should be noted that the intelligence report does not actually mention “alien spacecraft” or anything of the sort. Not only did it not produce “affirmative evidence” of such extraterrestrial vehicles, it did not broach the topic.

The allusions to space aliens in the news reports were not entirely out of the blue. Officials gave background interviews to journalists. Reuters quoted an unnamed “senior official” saying, “Of the 144 reports we are dealing with here, we have no clear indications that there is any non-terrestrial explanation for them — but we will go wherever the data takes us.” Make of that what you will.

Most amazing, stunning, mind-boggling new concepts are wrong. The bolder the idea, the more likely it will evaporate in the harsh glare of scientific sunshine. Like cold fusion.

The presence of aliens in these stories is understandable: It’s a possibility that is far more interesting than the sightings being caused by, for example, classified military aircraft. The headlines did not say “Pentagon Report Does Not Rule Out Classified Military Aircraft,” although that would have been more accurate since such things were actually mentioned in the report.

The intelligence report notes that a small subset of the UAPs “exhibit unusual flight characteristics,” and UFO proponents say these vehicles move in ways that defy the laws of physics. To my eye this suggests a prosaic explanation, which is misperception, instrument malfunction, etc. The contrary cannot be ruled out, however: We cannot arrogate to ourselves the assumption that the known laws of physics are incontrovertible or comprehensive. But I am reluctant to write about physics-defying objects because I am busy enough covering stories involving things that obey the laws of physics. I do not think this makes the scope of my journalism too narrow.

Others are more open-minded. Among them is Luis Elizondo, a former Pentagon employee involved in UFO research. Recently he gave a live-streamed interview to The Washington Post: “This may not necessarily be something from outer space. In fact, this could be something as natural to our very own planet as us. We’re just now at a point we’re beginning to technologically be able to interact and collect data. This could be something from under the oceans. This could be something from, yes, from outer space. We really don’t know.”

He offered a brief tutorial on the history of physics: “[S]omeone once described it as you have this box sitting on the ground, and in walks a dog, and all of a sudden two cats walk out. And as crazy as that may seem, that’s precisely what we’re seeing in these observations with quantum physics, proverbially speaking of course.”

What this view does is create a kind of epistemological can’t-miss landscape in which anything is possible. Because of the quantum thing. But if anything is possible, then nothing is disprovable. And if it ain’t disprovable, it’s arguably at the very outer limits of what science can deal with. Other than to say that a dog walking into a box and coming out as two cats is unlikely.

The alien explanation for UFOs requires a massive infrastructure of presumptions, not least of which is that the aliens, whatever their motivation, have found a way to get here. Deep space is deceptive, because it is generally transparent and we see things that are incredibly distant. The nearest star is about 25 trillion miles away, and although this sounds like hyperbole, it is, in fact, the correct number. So to do space travel you really need warp drive. And there is no such thing as warp drive.

Okay, now there is no such thing, but as we get better and smarter, we might figure it out, and the aliens who are billions of years older than us may have solved warp drive long ago. This is speculation, though. It’s not based on anything at all. It’s what scientists refer to as arm-waving.

You know the dictum that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” This is a gatekeeper rule of sorts: Your belief is welcome into the community of science provided it is backed by evidence, and provided that the evidence is solid and commensurate with the novelty of the claim.

Most amazing, stunning, mind-boggling new concepts are wrong. The bolder the idea, the more likely it will evaporate in the harsh glare of scientific sunshine. Like cold fusion. That doesn’t mean bold new ideas are always wrong. Einstein’s theory of relativity was a bold new idea that was not universally embraced for many years, indeed not until astronomers went to tremendous lengths to measure the displacement of starlight as it passed near the sun during a total eclipse. That was the extraordinary evidence. And a century later, scientists are still prodding the theory to see if there are any soft parts.

The unhappy reader thinks: This guy is refusing to think outside the box. And that’s a fair criticism. Science writers tend to linger in the box, and that can lead them to miss important developments. The pandemic comes to mind.

We wrote a story in The Post on Feb. 22, 2020, saying this thing was probably going to be a pandemic. That was fairly early in the crisis, and sobering news. But the pandemic turned out to be much worse, more lethal, more protracted and certainly more disruptive than anything we imagined in those early weeks. None of us had lived through a pandemic of this magnitude (the 2009 influenza pandemic kind of fizzled). We didn’t see the scale of the disaster in advance because we had no template for it. Maybe that was a moment when some outside-the-box thinking could have helped.

Indeed, some intellectual humility must come into play in these debates about UFOs and other contentious topics. One of the first things you discover in science journalism is that the best scientists tend to be transparent about their uncertainties. This is partly because much research is conducted on the edge of the known, in fuzzy territory. But it’s also because scientists tend to view knowledge as provisional.

Let’s cut to the key question: Are we alone? The plaintive tone of that question tells you how much we want the answer to be “no.” Unfortunately, there’s only one solid answer: “We don’t know.”

While covering the pandemic over the past year and a half, the statement I’ve heard most from scientists is “We don’t know.” When will the pandemic be over? “We don’t know.” Why do some people get really sick or even die after a coronavirus infection and others don’t even get the sniffles? “We don’t know.” Where did the virus come from, exactly? “We don’t know.” This is not a failure of science; it’s what makes science so effective. The good scientists don’t start with the conclusion.

One thing I discovered while reporting my book is that people who believe in ideas that I found extremely improbable were not crazy or uneducated. Nor uninformed. They did research too. They just processed information differently. They had different sources of information. They used different factors and probability estimates in their mental equations as they searched for answers. So their answers were different from mine. They could be right. I could be wrong. (But I’m right.)

Inside-the-box thinking has some considerable virtues, though. The biggest problem facing the United States in the summer of 2021 is not that too many people refuse to think outside the box, but that too many people think that what’s in the box isn’t true. We need more people thinking inside the box. Science is a candle in the dark, to use a phrase Carl Sagan chose for a book he wrote shortly before his untimely death in 1996. There are millions of Americans who have been lied to about the pandemic, lied to about the vaccines, lied to about the motivations and credibility of the nation’s scientists and the mainstream media. So they think they shouldn’t get vaccinated. They subscribe to outside-the-box claims that are outside the box for precisely one reason: The claims are not true. Please, people: Get in the box!

UFO skepticism can sometimes be mistaken for anthropocentrism, a kind of biological arrogance. The issue of whether a UFO sighting involves an actual alien spaceship can turn, with head-snapping speed, into a philosophical debate, with an accusation at its core. The believer says to the skeptic, “So you think in all the universe, among billions and billions of galaxies, each with billions and billions of stars and untold numbers of planets, we humans are the only form of intelligent life?”

An adjunct to this is the assertion that, among intelligent beings in the universe, humans are likely relatively primitive, since we’ve only been around for, what, 100,000 years or so, and the Old Ones out there may be billions of years ahead of us.

It would actually be reassuring, at a deep existential level, to know that interstellar space travel is possible. That it’s something we might do someday. Alien visitors by their mere existence would imply that we can overcome our worst instincts (war, hatred, pollution, Twitter) and survive. It would be nice to know that the kind of intelligence humans possess, and which gives rise to technological civilizations like ours, won’t always backfire, that it’s not only a nifty evolutionary adaptation in the short run but something that’s durable. The aliens give us hope. In fact, in many UFO narratives that’s why they’re here, to help us along and save us from ourselves. They’re a little bit like angels.

What’s more anthropocentric is to assume that human beings are so fascinating that aliens want to visit us and study us. The aliens seem a bit obsessed with us. These are not tourist trips. Some UFO narratives imagine that we have something the aliens are missing. Like: feelings. When you’re doomed to life as an intelligent reptilian from Rigel you will go a long way to get some warm-and-fuzzy human DNA.

Another common theme is that we humans were, in fact, engineered by the aliens. We are their prized creation. In this scenario, we’re not just a highly successful (so far) species of primate. We’re super special! That’s straight out of the Book of Genesis.

Question: Why would the human-obsessed aliens come all this way in big, hulking, too-easily-spotted spaceships to monitor us when they could surely do it remotely or through miniature probes? If we learned nothing else during this pandemic, it’s that you can still do your job from home.

Let’s cut to the key question: Are we alone? The plaintive tone of that question tells you how much we want the answer to be “no.” Unfortunately, there’s only one solid, incontrovertible answer: “We don’t know.” No one knows. It is among the biggest unknowns in science. If anyone knows what the answer is, whether positive or negative, please email me at The Post because that’s a great story.

A couple of decades ago I posed the “are we alone” question to Stephen Jay Gould, the Harvard paleontologist and prodigious author of popular science books. Gould had long thought through the question of the evolution of the human species in the grand context of life on Earth over the course of 4 billion years. Gould argued quite vociferously that if we were to start the whole biosphere over again from scratch, with primitive forms, and rerun the process, the likelihood of human beings appearing again would be infinitesimal. The real question, though, is not whether humans would arise a second time if we started from scratch, but whether an intelligent species would.

The Drake Equation is the handy tool for thinking through the probabilities. Developed by astronomer Frank Drake in the early years of radio astronomy, it provides an estimate of the number of extraterrestrial civilizations that are communicative. That is, if we turn an instrument, such as a radio receiver, toward deep space, how likely is it that we will get a signal? The smart thing about the Drake Equation is that it doesn’t pretend to provide an answer, because many of the factors aren’t known. We don’t know the likelihood of life appearing on a planet, or the likelihood that it will evolve into intelligent, communicative life-forms that manage to stick around a long time.

Back to Gould: When I asked him about intelligent life beyond Earth, he answered, “No data.” This was true then, and remains true today, with the caveat that astronomers have discovered that planets are common, and many appear to be small, rocky, Earthlike planets. The abundance of plausible habitats for life boosts the odds that life is common, and therefore has plenty of opportunities to achieve — through the trial-and-error of natural selection — complexity and perhaps intelligence.

My assumption is that intelligent life is out there. What happened on Earth probably has happened, or will happen, on other worlds, perhaps frequently. But this is just a hunch. It’s not a belief. And it’s certainly no evidence that those UAPs floating around are aliens.

I believe in a bunch of other stuff, though. I believe in the usefulness of science. I believe in footnotes. I believe in peer review. I believe in the value of expertise.

I also believe that holding views that are provisional and potentially subject to change is not a sign of intellectual weakness but rather one of intellectual modesty. And I believe the future will surprise us. There could come a day when we make contact with the Old Ones.

But in the meantime, UFOs are a distraction. We have pressing concerns that merit our full attention. Viruses. Humans. The biosphere. Terrestrial life. And let’s never assume someone from space is going to save us.

Joel Achenbach is a science writer on the The Washington Post’s national desk and has covered the pandemic since January 2020.

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