Future Tense

I Look for Aliens for a Living, and No, I Don’t Study UFOs

A black-and-white computer screen image with some text and lines on it.
Screengrab of released video from Department of Defense/the Naval Air Systems Command FOIA Reading Room.

I once discovered aliens! I was really excited for about two days.

Turned out my “aliens” were actually a subtle glitch in the camera and telescope we were using that took a while to hunt down. I was privately embarrassed, but fortunately I hadn’t told anyone outside my team about it until we had figured it all out. That caution came about because as a SETI (or search for extraterrestrial intelligence) scientist, I’m a professional skeptic. I always treat my results—especially my “huge if true” results—with the most skepticism I can muster.

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I’m often asked what I think about UFOs. In fact, I’m often told by UFO enthusiasts that I should be studying them, because they might be alien, and it’s silly for us to use telescopes to find aliens when they might be right here in the atmosphere! Shouldn’t my professional curiosity as a SETI scientist drive me to learn much more about them? I’ve also been accused of being hubristic, closed-minded, and incurious because I won’t study them or admit that they could be alien.

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But I actually have thought hard about it, and I’ve decided: I’ll pass, for a few reasons. You see, there are a few big differences between SETI and the study of UFOs as potential alien spacecraft. (By the way, some of the people who work on UFOs call them “unidentified aerial phenomena,” or UAPs, and many say they are interested in them regardless of what they turn out to be—alien, experimental U.S. military aircraft, foreign surveillance drones, or something else entirely. And, of course, there are likely various different explanations for the many mysterious lights in the sky.)

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First of all, SETI is based on the premise that any alien technology out there follows the laws of physics as we know them. We use those laws to deduce ways we might detect that technology.

People who argue UFOs might be alien spacecraft usually do so because the videos and sightings seem to show aircraft making maneuvers that no human-made aircraft could—things like accelerating to supersonic speeds in the blink of an eye yet producing no shocks, signs of propulsion, or sonic booms which, as far as we know, is impossible. So in that sense, it’s the opposite of SETI. It’s not what I do.

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Second, SETI proceeds with extreme skepticism. Things like my alien sighting happen all the time in astronomy: We see an anomaly, get excited, track it down, and find out it’s nothing. Sometimes we never figure out what it was or follow it up, but if it could reasonably have been something mundane like a miscalibrated detector, then we just shrug and move on, calling it “one of those things.”  As a result, the field has very few signals or objects that we think have a good reason to think could actually be alien—in fact I’d say we have basically none.

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UFO studies, on the other hand, are awash in candidates, and those candidates linger around long after we can no longer do anything to collect more data on them. A particularly persuasive photograph or video or fighter pilot testimonial will get repeated and discussed over and over again, even after a debunker offers a plausible explanation. It’s a different standard of evidence for what counts as a good candidate for an alien technology, and one I’m not comfortable with.

Third, SETI is based in astronomy and related fields. We astronomers have very few skills that translate into the fields needed to study UFO sightings—military aircraft camera design and operation, meteorology, advanced aeronautics, human perception and psychology, and so on. I’m no better qualified than any other scientist to study those videos and weigh in on them, so I don’t really have much to offer the effort.

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Fourth, it seems to me much more likely that aliens, if they’re out there, will be in space than in our atmosphere. Right now, we don’t have a great handle on things in space because they’re so very far away. Space could be filled with alien civilizations and signals, but it’s such a big haystack we’d have to get very lucky to have found a needle yet (unless it’s a really obvious one!).

The atmosphere, by contrast, is something we know enormously better. We’ve studied it for millennia, and there’s just not a lot of room for alien spacecraft to mostly hide from meteorologists, air traffic controllers, and everybody on Earth with a cellphone and still be sort of barely detected the way they are.

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You see, if I find something that looks like it could be aliens, I ask: How many weird things would have to be true for it to be aliens, and how many weird things would have to be true for it not to be aliens? For UFOs to be aliens, it’s a pretty tall order: First they have to be visiting at all, of course, which would be pretty amazing. But also it’s a weird pattern that they are always just at the edge of detection, even as our cameras get better and more ubiquitous every year. It’s also weird that it’s mostly a very recent and very American phenomenon. It’s not just aliens are visiting, but that they are visiting in a very specific way.

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It’s also strange that they would be able to apparently break the laws of physics just like alien spacecraft from science fiction do. Of course, there are laws of physics we don’t know yet, and I don’t pretend we have them all figured out. But it would turn out to be an awfully big coincidence if the way we have gotten physics wrong up until now just happened to match the way it needs to be wrong to make the technology invoked in science fiction a reality. After all, ships like that in science fiction exist as a plot contrivance so the story can move quickly among the stars—how lucky of those writers to have guessed right!

So what is on the other side of my probability ledger? What do I think they could be?

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Well, I have seen the videos, I’ve seen the arguments they show advanced craft, and I’ve seen the debunking videos. And, as I wrote, I’m not really qualified to say—I’m not an expert in these things. But when people ask, I tell them I’ve never seen anything that made me think these are alien. If I had to guess, I’d say that some are just instrument blips or malfunctions, others are real objects whose actual motions and shapes are being misinterpreted because the camera is moving, or because these highly specialized detectors can do weird things, or because distance is very hard to gauge, even for an expert pilot with the best equipment.

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In principle, one can study all sorts of UAPs scientifically regardless of whether they are alien, and I would have no problem with such research at all! But in that case I don’t need to get involved because it has nothing to do with SETI. In fact, I would be surprised if there weren’t more study of these things by the government and aerospace companies than we have heard of.

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I also appreciate how persuasive those videos can be, especially when packaged up professionally by people who want to make the strongest case for aliens that they can. It’s not surprising or revealing at all to hear about senators or former presidents or generals who think there’s something very strange going on. I expect there to be lots of revelations about these studies in the months and years ahead, and lots more pilots and government officials talking about spooky and hard to understand UAPs—especially after the upcoming release of a Pentagon report.

But those things coming to light will not change anything about my stance that it’s not part of SETI, or the credence I give that they are alien spacecraft, or that they seemingly violate the laws of physics.  Only real data vetted by independent, skeptical experts will do that.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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