Ufos a Scientific Point of View

UFO’s, Unidentified Flying Objects, have been reported by humans since men of ancient times first looked into the sky. Possibly the first documentation of UFO sightings were found carved into the rock in the granite mountains of China. The carvings, made by Neanderthal man some 47,000 years ago, depict cylindrical objects with what might be their extra-terrestrial occupants. If so, UFO’s predate the emergence of modern man.

There have been sightings of UFO’s throughout history, yet the number of sightings has increased since World War II, along with the attention given them by the Air Force and other military institutions in many countries. The term UFO is little more than 50 years old. The term was designated to replace the original term “flying saucer” coined in 1947 after private pilot Kenneth Arnold reported seeing a cluster of nine crescent shaped objects. He estimated the objects to be traveling at roughly 1,000 mph, significantly faster than any terrestrial aircraft was capable of doing at the time. Originally, UFO’s were thought to be an American phenomenon, although over the years, UFO’s have been documented in nearly every country around the globe.

According to a 2001 Gallup poll, 33% of Americans believe in UFO’s. The term UFO has come to imply a spaceship or vehicle of extra-terrestrial origin, even though more than 90% of the UFO’s become Identified Flying Objects once investigated and can be anything from airplane landing lights to weather balloons.

With thousands of sightings occurring annually around the world, why doesn’t science study them? The heyday of UFO sightings occurred from 1950 to 1960’s. The phenomena were studied by government funded agencies and privately supported panels of scientists. From 1951 to 1969, the government investigated UFO sightings through Project Blue Book. Of the 12,618 reported sightings, 701 remain unidentified. Proponents of UFO’s cite Project Blue Book as a government cover up to explain away UFO sightings while the real studies were being done elsewhere.

In December, 1968, a sub-committee was formed by two committees of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). The Committee on Atmospheric Environment and the Committee on Space and Atmospheric Physics established a joint subcommittee to focus on the study of UFO’s. The panel was made up of notable members of the scientific and engineering community. The conclusions of the subcommittee were that the UFO issue cannot be resolved without further study of the phenomenon in a quantitative scientific manner and that the issue deserves further attention. Even so, the scientific and engineering communities, those individual who are trained in the use of the scientific process, have not shown particular interest in studying UFO phenomena.

Then two things happened. The official Condon study of 1969 ended the government’s reporting of UFO sightings through Project Blue Book. Then in 1977, Hollywood began making movies that fantasized UFO’s, Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Suddenly, the subject became a fringe topic unworthy of the intellectual. Those who bought into the idea were considered uneducated, to have over-imaginative minds, or indulged in science fiction fantasies. It was discussed in the same circles as other pseudo-sciences such as astrology, ESP, near-death experiences, and reincarnation.

Pseudoscience is the study of claims that appear to be science but in reality lack objective supporting evidence and plausibility. Most current UFO investigations lack the scientific rigor required by the scientific community, regardless of the initiative and dedication of the researchers involved.

Peter Sturrock, professor of applied physics at Stanford University, organized and directed the Sturrock Panel in October 1997. The group consisted of nine scientists gathered to review physical evidence of purported UFO sightings. Their objective was not to confirm or deny UFO phenomena but to determine if there was enough evidence to prompt further investigation. The panel concluded that some supposed UFO sightings have been accompanied by unexplained physical evidence that deserves serious scientific study. The panel also made the following observation: “Wherever there are unexplained observations, there is the possibility that scientists will learn something new by studying them.”

The late Dr. Carl Sagan, astronomer, author, and educator, has been quoted many times as saying “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The claims that UFO’s are extra-terrestrial in origin are indeed extraordinary, yet they are not supported by sufficient extraordinary evidence. Without physical evidence, the scientific method cannot be applied. The prevailing attitude among scientists today is that UFO’s are not real; therefore there is nothing to investigate.

Michael Zimmerman, professor of philosophy and former Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Tulane University believes that many scientists refuse to discuss UFO’s for the following reasons:
1. Fear of loss of social status due to ridicule.
2. Superior non-human intelligence threatens personal psychology and world view.
3. Fear of social chaos in the face of Extra-Terrestrial superiority.

If scientists are to investigate UFO’s, the evidence needs to be presented to them in a context with which they are familiar, the discipline of science as it is practiced today. Science is the objective, disciplined methodology for investigating natural phenomenon using the scientific method. Any other methodology is considered pseudoscience and will never be accepted by the mainstream science community.