UFOs and the Boundaries of ScienceRoundup
tags: history of science, CIA, UFOs, extraterrestrials, Paranormal
Greg Eghigian is Professor of History at Penn State University, specializing in the history of modern science and medicine. He is presently writing a history of the UFO and alien contact phenomenon. His research on UFOs has received funding from the American Historical Association, the American Philosophical Society, NASA, and the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum.
On June 25 of this year, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a brief report entitled “Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.” It fulfilled a 2020 directive from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, chaired at the time by Marco Rubio, which ordered the national intelligence director to publish an unclassified, public appraisal of the “potential aerospace or other threats posed by the unidentified aerial phenomena to national security, and an assessment of whether this unidentified aerial phenomena [UAP] activity may be attributed to one or more foreign adversaries.” The request came partly as a response to news reports that Navy personnel had, in recent years, filed a number of incident reports involving UFOs.
In the lead-up to the report’s release, both believers and skeptics were abuzz with anticipation. Chatter on social media was lively, and the self-styled crusader for government disclosure about UFOs, former intelligence officer Luis Elizondo, announced he would run for Congress if the report seemed misleading.
In the end, the preliminary assessment proved a mixed bag. Enthusiasts could be buoyed by the government’s admissions that most reported UFOs were real objects, that only 1 in 144 could be definitively explained, and that fear of ridicule had thus far stymied witnesses and thereby inhibited effective inquiry. Debunkers, on the other hand, could point to the fact that most reports suffered from a lack of “sufficient specificity,” that the overwhelming majority of UAP demonstrated conventional flight characteristics, and that there remained a great many mundane explanations for the phenomena. All sides felt vindicated, all could claim victory.
And so, ambiguity reigns. To anyone familiar with the history of unidentified flying objects, this represents a familiar state of affairs. The first modern report of a UFO took place in Washington State in 1947, and since then the phenomenon has been caught in cycles of periodic, animated interest from government officials, civilian enthusiasts, and scientists. During such moments, it always seems that the riddle of UFOs is about to be solved. But the result is always inconclusive findings and a dispersal of interest, leaving few minds changed and everyone returned to their corners to await the bell for the next round. The seeming effervescence of our current moment notwithstanding, it’s doubtful we should expect anything different this time around.
This most recent fanfare surrounding UFOs—or UAP, as those seeking distance from UFOs’ outsize reputation now prefer—began in December 2017, when the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Politico all published exposés revealing the existence of a secret government program which, between 2007 and 2012, had investigated UFOs. Then followed viral videos of Navy pilots encountering unusual objects (reported upon in the same outlets); a cable television series on the incidents featuring Elizondo and former Blink 182 band member Tom DeLonge; announcement of the first human-detected interstellar object to enter our solar system (’Oumuamua); and a highly publicized, though admittedly frivolous, attempt to storm Area 51 in Nevada. And in July, astronomer Avi Loeb announced the creation of a new project at Harvard University, called Galileo, that will use high-tech astronomical equipment to seek evidence of extraterrestrial artifacts in space and possibly within Earth’s atmosphere. This follows closely on the publication of Loeb’s book Extraterrestrial, in which he argues that ’Oumuamua might be an artificial light sail made by an alien civilization.
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