What one man can fantasize, another man will believe.
Shakespeare has Juliet ask: "What's in a name?" In certain situations the answer is: everything. For example, for thousands of years people have seen strange lights in the sky.34 No great attention was paid to the phenomenon until the lights acquired a catchy name. Call them "flying saucers" and suddenly everyone is interested.
We can date the precise moment when a person first saw a "flying saucer." On 24 June 1947, Kenneth Arnold was flying his private plane over the Cascade Mountain range in Washington State. From his cockpit he saw several airborne objects; when he landed he reported his sighting, describing the objects as skipping "like saucers across a pond." The name stuck. The press was hungry for gossip about these "flying saucers," and the term found resonance with an American public nervously entering the
Cold War. Many people took it for granted that the flying saucers were crewed by aliens — either Russians or extraterrestrials.35
If flying saucers are real, if they are indeed spacecraft crewed by aliens, then the Fermi paradox is instantly resolved. Of all the proposed resolutions of the paradox, this one has most support with members of the public. As surveys consistently show, a majority of Americans believe flying saucers are visiting Earth right now; the proportion of Europeans holding that belief is smaller, but is still significant. Many people even believe that a flying saucer crashed at Roswell, New Mexico, in late June/early July of 1947 (suspiciously close to the time of Arnold's sighting), and that the US military recovered alien bodies from the wreckage. Nevertheless, science is not a democratic process. Hypotheses are not proven right or wrong through a ballot. No matter how many people believe in the truth of a particular hypothesis, scientists will accept the hypothesis (and then just provisionally) only if it explains many facts with a minimum of assumptions, if it can withstand vigorous criticism, and if it does not run counter to what is already known. So the question is: how well does the hypothesis that flying saucers are evidence of ETCs stand up?
Before discussing this, it is best to agree to use the neutral term "unidentified flying object," or UFO, when examining claims about strange lights or objects in the sky. The term was coined by Edward Ruppelt, who undertook an investigation of UFOs for the USAF.36 Unfortunately, the terms "UFO" and "flying saucer " are often used interchangeably. But if used correctly, a UFO is just that: an aerial phenomenon that is unidentified. Everything we see in the atmosphere is either a UFO or an IFO (an identified flying object). Only upon investigation can a UFO become an IFO; an IFO might turn out to be a flying saucer — but only after careful scrutiny can we make that determination.
Under this definition, it is undeniable that UFOs exist. Indeed, it is tempting to say that if you have not seen a UFO, then you have not been looking hard enough! The sky is host to a myriad of interesting phenomena, both natural and artificial. Nevertheless, upon even a cursory examination most UFOs are explicable; they become IFOs. People often mistake Venus for an artifact; aircraft can create unusual visual effects; each day, 4000 tons of extraterrestrial rock and dust burn up in the Earth's atmosphere and produce the occasional light show; and so on. Some UFOs become IFOs only after a thorough and detailed investigation. (For example, the novaya zemlya, fata morgana and fata bromosa mirages have fooled people for hundreds of years. They are caused by relatively rare atmospheric conditions; perhaps the same mechanism can explain some UFOs?
Maybe some of those strange lights in the sky are the beams of car headlights refracted through abnormal air conditions?) A few UFOs might be the result of accidents (one mysterious light turned out to be the result of a golfball thrown onto a bonfire — who knows what other effects everyday events might produce?). The explanation of some UFOs might even require advances in science (the phenomenon of ball lightning, for example, is poorly understood and not well researched — ironically for the same reasons that many scientists feel uncomfortable with the idea of UFOs). Finally, many UFOs turn out to be the result of deliberate hoaxes.
Upon investigation, then, most UFOs become IFOs. But each year has a tiny residue of cases in which no rational account is forthcoming. We should not find this surprising. After all, as the noted skeptic Robert Sheaffer points out, police do not achieve a 100% solution rate for murders.37 But many people find this unacceptable when discussing UFOs; they want an explanation for all sightings. How can we explain these UFOs? There are two cases to consider: sightings of lights in the sky, and sightings of — perhaps even encounters with — aliens or alien technology.
If a reported UFO was simply a light in the sky, then one could argue that, no matter how strange it appeared to be, we do not have to explain it. Life is too short for scientists to explain every instance of every phenomenon. A scientist no more has to explain the detailed circumstances that produced a particular light in the sky than he has to explain the shape of the strange dragon-like cloud formation I saw this morning as I was walking to work. There are more important things to study.
But what if an explanation is demanded? My feeling is that we need no new hypothesis to explain the anomalous sightings: the reasons that account for most UFOs would account for all UFOs if we were clever enough (and if we had enough time) to carry through the investigations. Sheaf-fer highlights the interesting finding that the percentage of "inexplicable" UFOs does not vary much within the overall number of sightings. In other words, whether it is a busy year or a quiet year for UFO sightings, the Ifo/ufo ratio is about the same. This is not at all what one would expect if the "inexplicable" UFO sightings represented alien craft. The simplest explanation of this finding is that, in Sheaffer's words, "the apparently un-
explainable residue is due to the essentially random nature of gross mis-perception and misreporting."
None of this proves that we are not receiving visits from ETCs. (Nor does it prove that when we see UFOs we are not watching manifestations of ghosts, fairy craft or the sporadic intersection of higher-dimensional beings with our own spacetime.) But neither does the observation of UFOs prove that we are receiving visits. The cast-iron, unimpeachable sightings of lights in the sky are just that: sightings of lights in the sky. The existence of unidentified aerial phenomena simply does not provide any evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial visitations.
What if the reported UFO was something more than a light in the sky? How can we explain the "close-encounter" sightings? Unfortunately, the interesting sightings, the events that would prove the flying saucer hypothesis true, are all in some way problematic.
There are claims, for example, of individuals being abducted by aliens, being probed, being forced to have sex. However, no matter how plausible you find these stories (I freely admit to bias; I find the stories utterly implausible, since the chances of totally separate evolutionary lines producing organisms morphologically similar enough to have sex are surely infinitesimal), the evidence required to support such claims is non-existent.
There are reports that alien craft have crashed; the Roswell incident, mentioned above, is well known. But once again, whether or not you find it likely that a craft can successfully travel interstellar distances yet fail to negotiate a planetary atmosphere, the evidence in favor of such reports is shoddy. An item of advanced equipment or a sample of an unknown alloy would prove the case; instead, we are given a video of an autopsy of one of the "aliens" from the crashed Roswell vehicle — a video that was, of course, a (profitable) hoax.
There are claims that alien craft have landed in various countries. In England, for example, UFOs have been blamed for the crop circle phenomenon. At least some, and maybe all, of the crop circles are man-made. In a recent case, a self-confessed maker of crop circles got into trouble with the law. He made a 7-pointed shape after hearing an "expert" claim that elaborately designed crop circles were impossible for man to make. (Crop circles actually have a variety of shapes; there are crop triangles, crop hexagons, even crop fractals.) Complex designs had been documented, so this was proof — according to the expert — that at least some crop circles were extraterrestrial in origin. The crop circle maker, armed only with some planks, bamboo poles and a torch, proceeded to create his 7-point shape over three nights in a field of ripening wheat. Personally, I admire his devotion to rationality, but the farmer was not impressed; neither was the judge, who issued a £100 fine for criminal damage. (And my guess is that, despite the demonstration, the expert is still of the opinion that crop circles are the landing marks of flying saucers.) In these situations, surely we should use Occam's razor, one formulation of which is that explanations of unknown phenomena should first be sought in terms of known quantities.38 We can explain crop circles, cattle mutilations and other fringe phenomena in terms of known quantities. We do not need the flying saucer hypothesis to explain them.
Whenever an extraordinary claim is made for flying saucers, no extraordinary evidence is presented to support the claim. Instead, we get lies, evasions and hoaxes. The flying saucer hypothesis may be the most popular explanation of the Fermi paradox, but surely there are better explanations.
Incidentally, I should state here that I have seen a UFO, and it remains one of my most vivid memories. While playing soccer in the street as a child — this was before the increasing number of cars stopped children playing in the street — I looked up and saw a pure white circle about the size of the full moon. Protuberances on either side of the circle made it look rather like Saturn showing its rings edge-on. Whatever it was, it seemed to hover for a few seconds before moving off at tremendous speed. I was with a friend, who also saw it and remembers it still. Interestingly, we differ in our recollections: I remember it shooting away to our left as we watched; my friend says that it moved away to our right. (People are poor observers, and I know from experience that I am a very poor observer. But I am adamant that it moved to the left!) We definitely saw something in the sky that day and I have no idea what. But no, it was not a flying saucer. It was just a light in the sky.
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