The subject of Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) as viewed by the hardcore professional scientific community mixes just about as well as oil and water. Here I examine some of the in’s and out’s surrounding that mix although the basic fundamentals seem to revolve around the fact that the UFO issue was never initially considered a scientific issue, just a national security issue. Like the rest of the great unwashed, scientists weren’t welcome into the realm of the inner national security sanctum. That excuse no longer can no longer hold water.
Author’s Introductory Note
Much of what follows was taken from a to-and-fro debate with an armchair but scientifically inclined UFO sceptic. I’ve edited my responses to the exchange to hopefully yield a reasonably coherent article.
Scientists and UFOs
While it is true that the scientific community, in general, have formally shied away from the UFO field, numerous scientists in all fields (astronomy, physics, biology, psychology, etc.) have on their own behalf taken a personal interest and made a study of the subject. I can and have below named names. I also suspect, based on some surveys of the scientific community by some scientists, that a fair number have a personal interest in the subject, but leave that interest behind their front door when they go to work.
The main reason scientists shy away from the area harkens back to the early history of the UFO phenomena when the powers-that-be had to reassure the great unwashed that there was nothing to see here, there were no national security implications, etc. The subject was down-played, even ridiculed in order to calm down any possibility of public concern. I mean the very possibility of aliens (or even the Russians) violating your nation’s airspace and the powers-that-be being totally unable to do anything about it might be under discussion at the highest levels behind closed doors but not ever to be publicly admitted. The powers-that-be got a helping hand because of the far-out fringe elements that got introduced by those who just like to get their names in the papers and muddy the waters. The impression any scientists would have gotten from officialdom is that everything is under control; there’s nothing to this; only the nut cases see ‘flying saucers’ and meet and greet the ‘space brothers’ from Venus. What officialdom uttered behind closed doors was quite a different matter.
If readers doubt all of this, I strongly advise acquainting yourself with the CIA sponsored Robertson Panel and Report from January 1953 which was inaugurated at the direct request of the White House. I have to repeat my earlier comments that from the very beginning UFOs (nee ‘flying saucers’) were a national security issue, NOT a science issue. Scientists need not apply for the position of UFO investigator with officialdom since they didn’t have proper security clearances or a need to know and wouldn’t be allowed to publish their findings or give UFO lectures to their students.
So another major reason why scientists couldn’t deal with the issue from the get-go was that they didn’t have access to the data. All the UFO sighting reports were in the hands of the USAF (and other security agencies like the NSA) and classified. Scientists can’t investigate in the absence of hardcore data.
It is indeed unfortunate that scientists can’t just snap their fingers and have UFOs appear and reappear on demand, but that applies to other phenomena as well like Transient Lunar Phenomena, gamma-ray bursts, ball lightning, supernovae, even SETI, etc. Somehow these other elusive, unpredictable, unrepeatable phenomena are considered worthy of science and are considered to be in the realm of science, so your argument there falls flat.
Scientists and the UFO Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH)
Some (note: some) people (including some scientists) considered the UFO ETH (extraterrestrial hypothesis) and dismissed it as implausible (note: but not impossible). Other people (including some scientists) have considered the UFO ETH and considered it plausible, even the most likely explanation.
I, on the other hand, note that with the UFO ETH, we have a perfect union between theory and observation. Theory just about mandates or requires that extraterrestrial intelligence(s) be here. Observations strongly suggest that they are here. As I said, a near-perfect match. Isn’t science wonderful?
The Scientific Consensus on UFOs
There are those who seriously suggest that when it comes to the entire scientific community “As far as science is concerned, the entire UFO subject is an embarrassment”.
Such advocates are seriously uninformed. Many “serious UFO books” have been authored by scientists, scientists who have published in leading academic journals. I mean scientists like J. Allen Hynek (former scientific consultant to Project Blue Book); Jacques Vallee, Frank Salisbury, James E. McDonald, Peter A. Sturrock, Stanton T. Friedman, John E. Mack, Richard F. Haines, C. G. Jung, David R. Saunders, Berthold E. Schwarz, Ivan T. Sanderson, Karla Turner, Bruce Maccabee, and on and on it goes. You even have Carl Sagan & Thornton Page editing the anthology “UFO’s – A Scientific Debate” (Cornell University Press; 1972). Further, journals like “Science” have NOT neglected the UFO issue. “Science” and “Nature” have certainly published letters-to-the-editor and book reviews on or about UFOs.
By the way, I hope readers noticed the use of the word “scientific” in the Sagan/Page anthology given above. Further, the title of the late J. Allen Hynek’s book was “The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry” uses that magic word “scientific”. In addition to being the scientific consultant to the USAF on the UFO issue, Hynek was Chairman of the Department of Astronomy, Northwestern University. Lastly, the University of Colorado’s UFO study, under the direction of the late Edward U. Condon, was titled “Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects”. There’s that word again. The only thing unscientific about it was the behaviour and attitude of the Director, Edward U. Condon himself who was a disgrace to the term “scientific”. In short, it would appear that UFOs were NOT an embarrassment to Carl Sagan or Thornton Page or to J. Allen Hynek or to the University of Colorado staff who conducted that UFO study.
In fact, UFOs could not have been an embarrassment to each and every scientist (Ph. D. or M.D.) that has written a serious book on the UFO subject. It doesn’t appear they were worried about peer pressure. Indeed, perhaps there was no established scientific community backlash against them.
Other scientists may not have written UFO books, but they have gone on the public record with pro-UFO statements. Such scientists include Clyde W. Tombaugh (discovered the planet Pluto), Leo Sprinkle (Professor of Psychology), Robert M. L. Baker, Jr. (President of West Coast University), Margaret Mead (Anthropologist), Hermann Oberth (pioneer rocket scientist), Lincoln LaPaz (meteorite specialist, University of New Mexico) and many more if you include foreign countries. Finally, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics have publicly issued statements in support of UFO research.
Some More about the Scientific Consensus on UFOs
Many people still suggest that there is a scientific consensus on the UFO issue and that consensus gives the subject the thumbs down. I’m not aware there was or is a scientific consensus on the UFO question. Can anyone tell me what official scientific body speaks on behalf of scientists around the world, or at least in one or more of the developed nations of the world (USA, Canada, England, France, Germany, Australia, Russia, etc.) and has issued that scientific consensus? What was the date? What is the text of that official so-called scientific consensus? Is that so-called consensus made up of just physical scientists, or are biological scientists part of that so-called consensus too? What about behavioural scientists? Are anthropologists and archaeologists included in this consensus? Perhaps the so-called consensus is just a loose and informal opinion shared by some individuals who happen to be scientists. And somewhere between the extremes of impossibility and the proven readers will no doubt find a spectrum of loose and informal opinions that individual scientists have, some to the right of that so-called consensus, some to the left of that so-called consensus, albeit there will be a cluster which might be loosely termed a consensus. Dare I suggest that the so-called consensus people will actually reveal when hard-pressed, a diversity of opinions among scientists on the UFO question as they’d probably find on many other issues, social, cultural, political, religious, etc.
So there is NO formal document or position paper or statement issued by any body that represents the scientific community, like the AAAS, that states a position on the UFO question. Any so-called consensus is just a hodge-podge amalgamation of lots of individual statements or opinions. I could just as easily compile a list of pro UFO ETH opinions by scientists and call that a consensus. The bottom line is that there is NO single position taken on the UFO question by the scientific community. If anyone finds one, kindly let me know.
Now if you were to ask every scientist in say the USA, “Are the hardcore UFO unknowns a representation of extraterrestrial intelligence and technology?”, then, if they were really honest, they’d have to answer “I don’t know” on the grounds that they have, in all probability, never actually studied the issues central to the subject. If you rephrase the question along the lines of “Is it likely/possible/probable that the hardcore UFO unknowns are a representation of extraterrestrial intelligence and technology?” then you might get more “yes” or “no” answers, but that rephrased question is ultimately more a Fermi Paradox question than it is a UFO question since you’re really asking is it likely/possible/probable that ET is here and now.
Appeal to Authority
Now you know that in science there is NO appeal to authority. Just because a scientist says something is so, or isn’t so, doesn’t make it so. It’s just like sceptics who endlessly spout off that they (ET) are not here. Just because they say so doesn’t of necessity make it so. They know (or should know) their science and related history. How many things used to be a position of consensus but are now utter rubbish? Once upon a time, there was a consensus that dragons existed and that sea monsters patrolled the ocean deeps. The ancient Greeks had a consensus that Zeus and Hera existed; ditto the ancient Egyptians with Horus and Isis. Stones couldn’t fall from the skies (meteorites) and the Sun couldn’t have blemishes (sunspots). The Earth, of course, was created in 4004 BC. The Earth was also the centre of the cosmos. The raisin pudding model of the atom was by consensus correct. Continental drift was by consensus impossible. Examples could be tripled without breaking into a sweat. So dear sceptics, don’t give me this “spin”, this lump of bovine fertilizer about how consensus is the be-all-and-end-all that brings us all closer to reality.
The bad news is that science is NOT a democracy; the majority doesn’t rule. So people who adopt the idea or the philosophy of scientific consensus can take that consensus and then know where to stick it!
For yet another example, the whole ‘plurality of worlds’ debate has swung from one extreme of consensus to the other extreme and back again; then repeats the ever-changing altering of consensus of opinion. When it comes to extraterrestrials, you can prove to your own satisfaction just about any and every position you care to take based on some once-upon-a-time consensus.
Regarding UFOs & Scientists versus Leprechauns & Scientists
One sceptic of my acquaintance makes the statement that no scientific body or bodies have spoken out on the UFO issue for the same reason that they have not spoken out on fairies and leprechauns. If UFOs are in the exact same category as fairies and leprechauns then everyone and every body that has spoken out on UFOs should also have spoken out on fairies and leprechauns. Clearly, that is not the case. Many people and organizations have waxed lyrical about UFOs yet have kept their opinions about fairies and leprechauns to themselves.
The American Congress has held Congressional Hearings on UFOs, but NOT on fairies and leprechauns. Why is that? The British and Australian Parliaments have talked about UFOs, but NOT about fairies and leprechauns. Why is that? I’m sure that applies to many other legislative bodies around the world. American Presidents Truman, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Obama have uttered words of wisdom about UFOs, but not a peep about fairies and leprechauns. Why is that? Other world dignitaries have talked about UFOs but not about fairies and leprechauns. Why is that? The American security agencies like the CIA and the NSA and the FBI have pondered over the UFO issue, but to the best of my knowledge not pondered the issue about the reality of fairies or leprechauns. Why is that? That also applies to various security agencies in other countries. The American military agencies have taken various positions on the UFO issue, but never, ever uttered a peep about fairies and leprechauns. In fact, many individual scientists have given opinions on the UFO issue – pro and con – but refrained from entering the hotly contested subjects centred on the reality of fairies and leprechauns.
Readers might note that a Big Question philosophically-themed website like “Closer to Truth” has a section devoted to aliens and whether or not they might be in the here and now, but gosh-golly-gee-wow, they have forgotten to include a section for viewers to debate fairies and leprechauns. Why is that? So, if it’s good enough for all of these agencies and individuals to wax lyrical on UFOs but not wax lyrical about fairies and leprechauns, then perhaps UFOs and fairies/leprechauns are NOT in the same pigeon-hole as my sceptical acquaintance surmises.
This might suggest that scientific bodies that speak on behalf of the scientific community are the ones out of step by not saying something about a topic that nearly everyone else has had a go at. Perhaps these institutions are a bit too elitist and up themselves for their own good.
So, to all of those why make a constant comparison of UFOs with fairies/leprechauns, I just conclude that its nonsense and they know it to be nonsense. It’s like comparing a pterodactyl with a dragon. I’m not one to knock dragons, but they don’t have much structure and substance relative to pterodactyls. In continuing an idiocy of comparing something of substance and structure, something with physical evidence backing it up, with fairies and leprechauns, is just making such advocates look more foolish than they already are on this topic. Of course, that’s their right, and if they want to play the fool, well I’m not going to stop them. I’d suggest a good night’s sleep or a vacation as something in order for these sceptics, but then again neither sleep nor a holiday ever cured acute foolishness.
Another example to contrast the two subjects, I made a recent trip to a DVD shop. They had a half-dozen UFO and/or alien documentaries in stock; a sum total of absolute zero titles on hand when it came to documentaries on fairies and leprechauns! It would appear that the buying public is way more interested in UFOs than they are in Celtic mythology. Can that observation resonate inside that relatively foolish brain of yours or is that revelation too complex for you to comprehend? The bottom line is that there is WAY more structure and substance to the UFO issue than pondering the realities of fairies and leprechauns in residence at the bottom of your garden.
Regarding the Nature of Scientific Theories
According to some of a scientific turn of mind, my sceptical acquaintance, the Theory of Gravity is good but the Theory of UFOs is bad. Ah, but there is an exact parallel here. No one debates the existence of gravity and no one debates the existence of UFOs (just the association between UFOs and ET)! However, there is a debate about exactly what gravity is. Is it warped space-time meaning that space and time have to have structure and substance? Or is gravity just caused by a force particle – the graviton, an accepted part of the standard model of particle physics, akin to how the electromagnetic force is caused by the photon. Gravity exists but the cause is still debated. UFOs exist; the debate is how much evidence is required for the ETH to be acceptable to the mainstream. Even such things which science has once upon a time considered bagged and tagged – no debate required – has come unstuck. Newton was bagged and tagged; Einstein let the cat out of the bag or the worms out of the can. I have to repeat an earlier observation that nothing in science is absolutely fixed and set in stone. What was once debated might no longer have been debatable only to have an Einstein come along and require a new debate. Now, what if the simulation hypothesis that we exist as virtual beings in a computer software-generated landscape is correct? Then gravity will have yet another explanation! Gravity is just software!
Though this isn’t the place to discuss the nature of gravity in depth, I do feel somewhat compelled to – briefly – mention two other debating points. 1) Why is gravity so incredibly weak relative to the other three quantum forces, and 2) why can’t gravity be unified into a Theory of Everything? So you see, there is just as much debate over gravity as there is with respect to the nature of those hardcore UFO unknowns. Those with that scientific turn of mind picked a bad example with Gravity is Good for a comparison.
My acquaintance points out that gravity exists and that is not something that can be debated. I point out that UFOs have existence and that cannot be debated. The nature of gravity and the nature of UFOs CAN and HAVE been debated. Why do some sceptics have an issue with that? In attempting to discredit UFOs by crediting gravity, sceptics have picked a bad example on the grounds they really have exact parallels. Logic my sceptical friends, logic! If they deny the entire existence of UFOs, then what the heck were the USAF and hundreds of other agencies around the world investigating? The ET facet relates to an explanation of the nature of UFOs, not their existence.
Real Scientists versus Armchair Scientists Regarding the Issue of UFOs
Real scientists get up off of their collective butts and attempt to falsify a claim, suggestion, idea, hypothesis, or postulate, whatever you wish to call it made by another scientist. Translated, they walk-the-walk. Armchair ‘scientists’ and associated UFO sceptics sit behind a PC and just mouth-off. They just talk-the-talk and then they talk-the-talk some more, again, and again, and again. That’s the difference between real scientists and armchair ‘scientists’, like my sceptical acquaintance.
Science librarian; retired.