UFOs? OK. Alien Spacecraft? No so fast.

I found How Washington Got Hooked on Flying Saucers to be fascinating if somewhat depressing. “There is nothing new under the sun.”

This is a subject I have been watching from a safe distance for well over half a century, when I first read Martin Gardner’s Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (Few books have influenced me more than this one).

I met J. Allen Hynek in my last year of high school, 1967-68, when I was a student in the Astro-Science Workshop (Still around although in a different format) at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium. This program was organized and run by Hynek. Hynek was a pleasant and interesting speaker, and a good teacher, but he never spoke to us kids about UFOs.

In addition to Hynek, we had other speakers from the Universities in the area. All were first-rate scientists. One of them (I have long forgotten his name) did mention the subject, possibly in a discussion of scientific methodology. He was a skeptic and I did, and still do, find his arguments to be quite persuasive. The key point is that just because something is unidentified, and flying, and (presumably) an object does not imply that is an alien spacecraft. There are many other possible explanations, all of which have to be ruled out before you can speak of aliens. The Sagan Standard applies: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” which goes back at least to Laplace, who wrote “The weight of the evidence should be proportioned to the strangeness of the facts.”

Ethan Siegel makes the same point in Why Aren’t Astronomers Paying More Attention To UFOs?, listing some of the other possibilities. He concludes:

The reason scientists don’t talk very much about UFOs or UAPs is simple: without sufficient data, we cannot draw any meaningful conclusions. It’s very easy to throw out an idea (or a guess) as to what each of these videos might actually be showing, and many scientists and non-scientists alike have eagerly done exactly that. However, what we’d like to do, as scientists, is to gather enough data to determine what these objects are likely to be. At present, it would be the height of irresponsibility to claim that we have that information.

We simply don’t know what they are. Are they unidentified? Absolutely. Unexplained? At least so far. Are they “flying” or aerial entities? Almost certainly; they certainly appear to be. And are they objects or phenomena? Sure; those words are nebulous enough that they apply equally to jumbo jets as they do to aurorae. What you mustn’t do, however, is to draw a fantastic conclusion — like “these objects must be aliens” — without sufficient evidence to do so. Given that these UFOs/UAPs are most frequently seen in areas with military presences, and have never been recorded in the professional telescopes of astronomers, the null hypothesis of these being terrestrial phenomena must continue to be our default position.

Is there a conspiracy to cover up the evidence? Flying saucers have been looked at by thousands of people over the last 74 years. There is no way there could be a coverup. I lived through Watergate. There were a lot fewer people involved, on an issue with far higher stakes, but it unravelled completely in less than two years.

Goind back to the New Republic article, Harold Puthoff was at Stanford when I was in grad school there, 1972-1976, but I don’t think I ever met him. In the 80s when I learned about his more exotic interests I found that we had some mutual connections in the Applied Physics and Electrical Engineering Departments.

This is an expanded version of a piece I posted on Facebook on May 24, 2021.

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