No aliens, but government transparency and the desire for better data could bring science to the UFO world

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On June 25, 2021, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a long-awaited document UFO report to Congress. The military renamed unidentified flying objects to unidentified aerial phenomena – UAP – in part to avoid the stigma that has been attached to claims of aliens visiting Earth since the Roswell incident in 1947. The report does not present any convincing evidence that alien spaceships have been spotted, but some of the data defies easy interpretation.

I am a professor of astronomy who has written extensively on the seek life In the universe. I also teach a free online course in astrobiology. I don’t believe the new government report or any other UFO sightings in the past is proof that aliens are visiting Earth. But the report is important because it opens the door to serious examination of UFOs. Specifically, it encourages the US government to collect better UFO data, and I think releasing the report increases the chances that scientists will try to interpret that data. Historically, UFOs have felt outside the confines of mainstream science, but maybe more so.

Three US Army videos recently sparked renewed interest in UFOs.


Read more: U.S. Government UFO Report: From a Wrapped History to a Data-Driven Future – Podcast


What is in the UFO report?

The main thing the report focuses on is the lack of high quality data. Here are the highlights of the nine page slim report, covering a total of 144 UAP observations from U.S. government sources between 2004 and 2021:

  • “Limited data and inconsistent reporting are key challenges in assessing UAP. ”

  • Some observations “could be the result of sensor errors, identity theft, or observer misperception.”

  • “The UAP clearly poses a flight safety problem and can pose a challenge to the national security of the United States. “

  • Of the 144 observations, the working group was “able to identify a reported PAN with great confidence. In this case, we have identified the object as a large deflating balloon. The others remain unexplained.

  • “Some PSUs are often technologies deployed by China, Russia, another country or a non-governmental entity.”

The office of the director of national intelligence prepared the report for the congressional intelligence committees and the armed services.
Office of the Director of National Intelligence

UFOs are taboo among scientists

UFO stands for Unidentified Flying Object. No more no less. You would think that scientists would like to take on the challenge of solving this puzzle. Instead, UFOs have been taboo for academic scientists to investigate, and therefore the unexplained reports have not received the scrutiny they deserve.

One of the reasons is that most scientists believe there are less to most reports than it looks, and the few who have dug deep have above all demystify the phenomenon. More than half of the observations can be attributed meteors, fireballs and the planet Venus.

Another reason for scientific hesitation is that UFOs have been co-opted by popular culture. They are part of a landscape of conspiracy theories that includes tales of abduction by aliens and crop circles. Scientists are concerned about their professional reputation, and the association of UFOs with these supernatural stories causes most researchers to avoid the subject.

But some scientists have watched. In 1968, Edward U. Condon of the University of Colorado published the first major academic study on UFO sightings. The Condon report put the brakes on further research when it found that “nothing has come of the study of UFOs in the past 21 years which enriched scientific knowledge.

However, a revision in 1998 by a panel led by Peter Sturrock, professor of applied physics at Stanford University, concluded that some observations are accompanied by physical evidence that merits scientific study. Sturrock too professional astronomers interviewed and found that nearly half believed UFOs deserved scientific study, with higher interest in younger, more informed astronomers.

If astronomers are intrigued by UFOs – and believe that some cases deserve to be studied with academic rigor – what is holding them back? A story of mistrust between ufologists and scientists did not help. And while UFO research has employed some of the tools of the scientific method, he did not have the core of an evidence-based skeptical reasoning that distinguishes science from pseudoscience.

A search of 90,000 recent and current grants awarded by the National Science Foundation find none relating to UFOs or related phenomena. I’ve served on review boards for 35 years and I can imagine the reaction if such a proposal went to peer review: raised eyebrows and a quick vote not to fund.

A group of satellite dishes pointing in various directions.
Radio telescopes like the Allen Telescope Array shown here scan the skies for signs of intelligent life in the universe.
Brewbooks / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

A search for aliens that has lasted for decades

While the scientific community has almost entirely avoided engaging with UFOs, much more common research of intelligent aliens and their technology has been going on for decades.

The research is motivated by the fact that astronomers have, to date, discovered more than 4,400 planets orbiting other stars. Called exoplanets, some are close to Earth’s mass and the right distance from their stars to potentially have water on their surface, meaning they could be habitable.

Astronomers believe that there is 300 million habitable worlds in the only Milky Way galaxy, and each is a potential opportunity for life to develop and intelligence and technology to emerge. Indeed, most astronomers think that it is very unlikely that humans are the only or the first advanced civilization.

This confidence fueled a alien intelligence research, known as SETI. It has been unsuccessful so far. As a result, the researchers rephrased the question “Are we alone?” to “Where are the aliens?” The lack of evidence for intelligent aliens is called the Fermi Paradox. First articulated by physicist Enrico Fermi, it is a paradox because advanced civilizations should be distributed throughout the galaxy, yet we see no sign of their existence.

The SETI activity has not been spared by scientists critical. It has been deprived of federal funding for decades and has recently gained most of its support from private sources. However, in 2020, NASA resumption of financing from SETI, and the new NASA administrator wants researchers pursue the subject of UFOs.

In this context, the intelligence report is welcome. The report draws some concrete conclusions on UFOs and avoids any reference to aliens or alien spaceships. However, he notes the importance of de-stigmatizing UFOs so that more pilots report what they see. It also sets itself the goal of moving from anecdotal observations to the collection of standardized and scientific data. Time will tell if this is enough to involve scientists in the effort, but the transparency to release the report reverses a long history of secrecy surrounding U.S. government UFO reports.

I don’t see any compelling evidence of alien spacecraft, but as a curious scientist, I hope the subset of UFO sightings that are truly unexplained will be investigated more closely. Scientists are unlikely to intervene if their skepticism generates attacks from “true believers” or if they are ostracized by their colleagues. Meanwhile, the truth is still there.

This article has been updated to clarify that the report was produced by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

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