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Aliens are plausible — but not because of UFOs

If intelligent aliens visit the Earth, it would be one of the most profound events in human history.

Surveys show that nearly half of Americans believe that aliens have visited the Earth, either in the ancient past or recently. That percentage has been increasing. Belief in alien visitation is greater than belief that Bigfoot is a real creature, but less than belief that places can be haunted by spirits.

Scientists dismiss these beliefs as not representing real physical phenomena. They don’t deny the existence of intelligent aliens. But they set a high bar for proof that we’ve been visited by creatures from another star system. As Carl Sagan said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

I’m a professor of astronomy who has written extensively on the search for life in the universe. I also teach a free online class on astrobiology. Full disclosure: I have not personally seen a UFO.

Unidentified flying objects

UFO means unidentified flying object. Nothing more, nothing less.

There’s a long history of UFO sightings. Air Force studies of UFOs have been going on since the 1940s. In the United States, “ground zero” for UFOs occurred in 1947 in Roswell, New Mexico. The fact that the Roswell incident was soon explained as the crash landing of a military high-altitude balloon didn’t stem a tide of new sightings. The majority of UFOs appear to people in the United States. It’s curious that Asia and Africa have so few sightings despite their large populations, and even more surprising that the sightings stop at the Canadian and Mexican borders.

Most UFOs have mundane explanations. Over half can be attributed to meteors, fireballs, and the planet Venus. Such bright objects are familiar to astronomers but are often not recognized by members of the public. Reports of visits from UFOs inexplicably peaked about six years ago.

Many people who say they have seen UFOs are either dog walkers or smokers. Why? Because they’re outside the most. Sightings concentrate in evening hours, particularly on Fridays, when many people are relaxing with one or more drinks.

A few people, like former NASA employee James Oberg, have the fortitude to track down and find conventional explanations for decades of UFO sightings. Most astronomers find the hypothesis of alien visits implausible, so they concentrate their energy on the exciting scientific search for life beyond the Earth.

Most UFO sightings have been in the United States.

Are we alone?

While UFOs continue to swirl in popular culture, scientists are trying to answer the big question that is raised by UFOs: Are we alone?

Astronomers have discovered over 4,000 exoplanets, or planets orbiting other stars, a number that doubles every two years. Some of these exoplanets are considered habitable, since they are close to the Earth’s mass and at the right distance from their stars to have water on their surfaces. The nearest of these habitable planets are less than 20 light years away, in our cosmic “back yard.” Extrapolating from these results leads to a projection of 300 million habitable worlds in our galaxy. Each of these Earth-like planets is a potential biological experiment, and there have been billions of years since they formed for life to develop and for intelligence and technology to emerge.

Astronomers are very confident there is life beyond the Earth. As astronomer and ace exoplanet-hunter Geoff Marcy, puts it, “The universe is apparently bulging at the seams with the ingredients of biology.” There are many steps in the progression from Earths with suitable conditions for life to intelligent aliens hopping from star to star. Astronomers use the Drake Equation to estimate the number of technological alien civilizations in our galaxy. There are many uncertainties in the Drake Equation, but interpreting it in the light of recent exoplanet discoveries makes it very unlikely that we are the only, or the first, advanced civilization.

This confidence has fueled an active search for intelligent life, which has been unsuccessful so far. So researchers have recast the question “Are we alone?” to “Where are they?”

The absence of evidence for intelligent aliens is called the Fermi Paradox. Even if intelligent aliens do exist, there are a number of reasons why we might not have found them and they might not have found us. Scientists do not discount the idea of aliens. But they aren’t convinced by the evidence to date because it is unreliable, or because there are so many other more mundane explanations.

Modern myth and religion

UFOs are part of the landscape of conspiracy theories, including accounts of abduction by aliens and crop circles created by aliens. I remain skeptical that intelligent beings with vastly superior technology would travel trillions of miles just to press down our wheat.

It’s useful to consider UFOs as a cultural phenomenon. Diana Pasulka, a professor at the University of North Carolina, notes that myths and religions are both means for dealing with unimaginable experiences. To my mind, UFOs have become a kind of new American religion.

So no, I don’t think belief in UFOs is crazy, because some flying objects are unidentified, and the existence of intelligent aliens is scientifically plausible.

But a study of young adults did find that UFO belief is associated with schizotypal personality, a tendency toward social anxiety, paranoid ideas, and transient psychosis. If you believe in UFOs, you might look at what other unconventional beliefs you have.

I’m not signing on to the UFO “religion,” so call me an agnostic. I recall the aphorism popularized by Carl Sagan, “It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out.”

This article by Chris Impey, University Distinguished Professor of Astronomy, University of Arizona is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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UFOs, national security, and what we know ahead of next week’s report

Last year’s biggest joke has seemingly become a reality this year: aliens haven’t invaded, but it seems there are UFOs flying around the sky around the globe and no one knows what they are. The public has been anticipating an unclassified report on the phenomenon for the past half-year and their patience has nearly paid off. The report is scheduled to be published next week, but we’ve already seen some major details drop.

UFO report briefing

The unclassified report on UFOs, which the government calls UAPs, is scheduled to be released on or before June 25. However, some members of Congress were given a private briefing on the matter yesterday, prompting comments that are both exciting and disappointing. The briefing follows multiple released videos allegedly showing unidentified aerial phenomena, some of which have prompted criticism over their blurry, grainy nature.

According to some of the politicians who participated in the private briefing, the information provided wasn’t terribly exciting, but it did raise some questions about national security and introduce at least some members to things they didn’t know before.

In a statement to the NY Post following the briefing, D-NY Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney said:

We take the issue of unexplained aerial phenomena seriously to the extent that we’re dealing with the safety and security of US military personnel or the national security interests of the United States, so we want to know what we’re dealing with. I think it’s important to understand that there are legitimate questions involving the safety and security of our personnel, and in our operations and in our sensitive activities, and we all know that there’s [a] proliferation of technologies out there. We need to understand the space a little bit better.

A number of other politicians reinforced the national security aspect of the briefing and phenomenon, but it doesn’t seem anything too mind-boggling was reveal during the meeting. D-Vt Rep. Peter Welch told the NY Post that he wasn’t ‘on the edge’ of his seat regarding the information provided, disappointing some who have taken his statement as evidence that the report won’t reveal anything new.

Videos to watch

Perhaps the biggest video to catch the general public’s attention this year was a recent 60 Minutes interview involving Luis Elizondo, former director of the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP). The interview followed months of video releases, increasingly unusual statements, and the ultimate declaration that UFOs are real and no one knows what they are.

Last month, former President Obama fueled the flames in response to a question on The Late Late Show with James Corden. Reggie Watts asked the former POTUS about UFOs, prompting Obama to respond, “When it comes to aliens, there are some things I just can’t tell you on air.”

Obama went on to explain that while he isn’t aware of any lab containing alien specimens and spaceships, he did say in a fairly serious tone:

But what is true, and I’m actually being serious here, there is footage and records of objects in the skies that we don’t know exactly what they are. We can’t explain how they move, their trajectory, they did not have an easily explainable pattern. And so I think that people still take seriously trying to investigate and figure out what that is. But I have nothing to report to you today.

This isn’t the first time Obama has answered a question about aliens, but it is the first time he spoke at such length about the peripheral topic of UFOs and in such a serious tone. Other former government officials have also chimed in with similar claims, including former CIA directors John Brennan and James Woolsey, as well as the former director of national intelligence John Ratcliffe.

Then, of course, there are the three declassified Navy videos showing what are allegedly UFOs/UAPs first released a few years ago:

Back in April, another video was released showing what is alleged to be a UAP in the shape of a large orb near a US Navy military ship positioned around San Diego. The object is filmed eventually descending into the ocean where it seemingly disappeared into the water:


Though some politicians’ comments about the briefing deflated hopes among enthusiasts, it seems the report may only be the start of something larger. Over the past several weeks, popular intellectual and neuroscientist Sam Harris has made some interesting statements claiming that he was approached to help disclose the phenomenon to the public.

In a post on his Trail of Saucers account, David Bates made note of all three unusual statements from Harris, each of which was given during different podcast interviews. According to Harris, someone close to or in the US government had contacted him about the UFO phenomenon, indicating that it is ‘alien’ in nature and that he can play a role in helping the public understand the matter.

During his time on the Lex Fridman Podcast last month, Harris revealed that he’d been approached, suggesting that he isn’t the only one:

I’ve received some private outreach, and perhaps you have, I know other people in our orbit have, people who are claiming that the government has known much more about UFOs than they have let on until now, and this conversation is actually about to become more prominent, and … whoever is left standing when the music stops, it’s not going to be a comfortable position to be in as a super rigorous scientific skeptic who’s been saying there’s no there there for the last 75 years.

Harris also touched on some seemingly far-fetched aspects of the phenomenon, indicating that it may not only be non-human in nature, but that the driving force behind it may have had ongoing involvement with humans for decades:

But the … what is being promised here is a disclosure that is frankly, either the most alarming or the most interesting thing in the world, depending on how you take it, but it’s not a representation of the facts that will give scientific skeptics any comfort, and that’s just … we’re faced with the prospect of having to apologize to the people we’ve been laughing at for the last fifty years who have been alleging that they’ve been abducted or that cattle have been anally probed, pick your punch line.


It’s hard to say what the government’s UAP report will reveal next week, but all signs point toward it being a piece of a larger, more interesting puzzle that expands beyond the bounds of Congress and hush-hush Department of Defense teams. Though the classified part of the report won’t be published, the rest of the report will be unclassified and available for anyone to read.

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