The UFO Problem
I remember the moment in April 1999 when I began to take UFOs seriously, which is when I realized that I didn’t know what they were. That might sound strange, since by definition UFOs are Unidentified, so of course I didn’t know what they were. However until watching a video featuring John Mack that my dad had given me, I had always bought the official line that – despite being unidentified – we (somehow) do know that UFOs are not Extra-Terrestrials (ETs). What I realized that day was that this claim to knowledge has no scientific basis. That that does not mean that UFOs are ETs either; while believed by millions, that claim has no scientific basis either. What I’m saying is that human beings have no idea what UFOs actually are (or are not), but are simply and utterly ignorant.
Perhaps because I’m a political scientist, the more I thought about this ignorance the more unsettling it became. For if (IF!) any UFOs actually are ETs then a) we are under surveillance by a highly advanced alien civilization, with capabilities and purposes unknown, and b) if this became known, it would be one of the most important and potentially disruptive events in human history. With so much at stake, therefore, you might think that even a small chance that UFOs are ETs would have generated interest from the scientific community (not to mention governments). But instead what we have had is dead silence, and not just the passive silence of neglect, but the active silence of what is in effect, at the elite level, a taboo on taking UFOs seriously. As a result no systematic scientific work has ever been done on UFOs, which only reinforces our ignorance about what these phenomena are.
So much so in fact that UFO “skeptics” may object that “UFOs don’t exist,” so why study them? But that objection is so confused that it is not even wrong. First, it implicitly assumes that ‘UFO’ and ‘ET’ mean the same thing, which is not the case. It is perfectly possible that UFOs have nothing to do with ETs. Second, UFOs – in the strict sense of unidentified aerial phenomena – are facts, not beliefs. They happen every day, not just in over-active, publicity-seeking imaginations, but in physical traces on F-16 gun cameras, ground based radars, citizens’ cell phones and videos, and so on. For some good exemplars of what these cases look like:
New York Times article (link)
CNN article (link).
Probably most UFO traces have conventional explanations, but there is a hard core of cases – 5-20% -- that resists being explained easily away. (If you doubt it, talk to the French Air Force and recently several air forces in South America, which have now directed their pilots to report UFO encounters). So to say that “UFOs don’t exist” is simply to deny the facts; what is in question is only whether any of those facts are also ETs. That is what we do not know, not least because of the UFO taboo.
Which presents us with a puzzle: if there’s even the slightest chance that ETs are surveilling us, then why is the issue taboo in official and scientific circles? That was the question that [another political scientist] Raymond Duvall and I addressed in an article we published in 2008 called “Sovereignty and the UFO” (link). Our argument in a nutshell was that in contrast to previous eras, where political orders were in part founded upon the idea that the gods (or Nature) were ultimately sovereign, in the modern era human beings have taken all the sovereignty for themselves. As a result of this anthropocentric assumption, the modern state cannot even ask whether UFOs are ETs, much less study it, since to do so would call its own legitimacy into question. So there is no conspiracy here to hide the truth, since states have no more clue what UFOs are than does anyone else.
To my knowledge that article was the first ever published in a social science journal to admit that UFOs might (MIGHT!) be ETs. And also the last, since despite its controversial claims, no response has ever been published (though apparently it has been downloaded more than any other article in Political Theory, the journal that published it). That has been a disappointment of course, but hardly a surprise, since it vindicates our central thesis that there is a taboo on the whole subject!
As a piece of political science I am proud of the UFO paper, not least because it is actually political. But its failure to get traction from other academics held an important political lesson of its own: that any effort to persuade the Establishment – governments, scientific community, or mainstream media – to take UFOs seriously is doomed to failure. At the present time, the weight of the UFO taboo is just too great. So all the UFO “believers” out there who are trying to convince the government to reveal its hoard of alien bodies or crashed spacecraft, or just to do a scientific study like we would on anything else we don't understand, are looking in the wrong place for answers. The only way to tackle the UFO problem is by going around the authorities and doing the necessary physical (not political!) science ourselves.
It was seeing the politics of the UFO problem in this new way that led me to found a non-profit organization with Mark Rodeghier called “UFO Detection and TrAcking” (link). Our goal at UFODATA is to design and build a crowd-funded network of automated surveillance stations that will monitor the skies 24/7 looking for physical traces of UFO phenomena, and if any are detected to collect as much data as possible for scientific analysis. We are all volunteers working on this on the side of full professional careers, and so progress has been slow. But on the design side it has definitely picked up, especially in the past year, and we hope to move into a more engineering phase of prototype construction soon – and then start crowd-funding after that. Feel free to lend whatever hand you can!