On SETI and the alleged extreme implausibility of UFO

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Today, the label „UFO“ and „ufology“ seem to be hopelessly tainted.

More than anything else, the nearly endless number of ridiculous, groundless and absurd claims of believers (see for example the recent scandal of the Roswell slides) have led countless people to consider the whole topic as the domain of charlatans, lunatics and mentally impaired.

Like so many, I too used to throw out the baby with the proverbial bathwater. Until I came across a book written by the American astronomer charged by the US Air Force between 1947 and 1969 with the study of sightings of alleged unidentified flying objects.

I was struck by his professionalism, rigour and above everything else by a number of incidents which are truly anomalous and seem (in some cases) to clearly involve an intelligence disposing of means we could not dream of.

Another good book making a decent case for the reality of UAP (Unidentified Atmospheric Phenomena) is „UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record“ written by American journalist Leslie Kean. Despite the title, this book is free of sensational claims, crazy conspiracy theories and it presents hard facts which point toward the reality of  anomalous aerial phenomena. I certainly don’t endorse all contributions and think that some cases (such as the Belgian UFO wave and Rendlesham forest) are probably best explained by sophisticated military exercises having nothing otherworldly or supernatural whatsoever.

Still, I do believe that this book is an excellent read. I was delighted to see Leslie recently commenting on the SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) project which hopes to find sign of intelligent life beside distant stars but rejects as absurd the possibility that it may already have reached our solar system. I decided to use the opportunity to answer her (on her facebook page).

One of the main points I want to highlight is that both believers and sceptics are unaware of the fundamental presuppositions with which they approach the field. Thinking about the foundations one stands upon can certainly help frame a better debate.

(Very) Local SETI: The Launch of a New UFO Science

Last July, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner announced the launch of a bold $100 million project „to reinvigorate the search for life in the universe.“  The amplified SETI initiative is „the most powerful, comprehensive and intensive scientific search ever undertaken for signs of intelligent life beyond Earth,“ according to the project’s website

„The chance of finding life has risen a billion-fold when we realized that Earth-like planets are not rare, but that there are literally billions of them just within our own galaxy,“ Astronomer Royal Lord Martin Rees stated at the time.  Noting that the payoff could be „colossal,“ he wondered whether alien life to be discovered could be organic, or maybe „machines created by long long-dead civilizations.“

PHL @ UPR Arecibo (phil.upr.edu) July 23, 2015

As someone who has studied official UFO/UAP (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena) documentation for many years, I was naturally inspired — even elated — by this announcement. But at the same time, I couldn’t help relating it to my all too keen awareness of the taboo against taking UFOs seriously, despite the obvious relationship of UFO phenomena to the quest for finding extraterrestrial life. After all, couldn’t some UFOs be the machines that Rees referred to? And must they belong only to dead civilizations?

There is no sign that Milner’s team will include our own solar system among the many others that it will search for signs of intelligent life. Most scientists have repeatedly stated that whatever data (if any) we have on UFOs are insufficient for study. Yet, as I made clear in my book UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go On the Record, there is plenty of evidence for the existence of unexplained aerial phenomena, and some governments (such as France and Chile), in cooperation with their own scientific teams, have made this a matter of official record.

Even so, the larger, multi-disciplinary search for extraterrestrial intelligence, seeking even the tiniest and most wide ranging clues, has never given a nod to this „forbidden realm“ of intriguing, highly suggestive evidence — in fact, it has been completely ignored. And at the same time, SETI has yet to find any evidence for extraterrestrial intelligence in its effort to detect radio signals or light from distant locations „that would reveal the presence of technically sophisticated beings,“ as SETI describes it.

But now, for the first time, a new group of scientists and other professionals is determined to change this outdated and unbalanced scenario, once and for all.  Yes, we do need more scientific data on UFOs — but who is going to provide it?

In October 2013, I attended a meeting led by Mark Rodeghier, scientific director of the J. Allen Hynek Center for UFO Studies, and political scientist Alexander Wendt, whom some of you might recognize as a co-author of the chapter „Militant Agnosticism and the UFO Taboo“ from my book, to solidify a new, rigorously scientific approach to the UFO problem. Rodeghier and Wendt have since formed a non-profit, 501 (c)(3) organization called UFO Detection and TrAcking (UFODATA for short), which includes an international team of scientists and engineers with an interest in UFOs, including (among others) Massimo Teodorani, Dave Akers and Erling Strand, as well as several academic „silent partners“ who do not want to be publicly identified. „We are establishing this project out of frustration with the impasse that the UFO debate has been at for over sixty years,“ Wendt says.

I acknowledge my own current involvement: I accepted Rodeghier and Wendt’s invitation to join their Board of Directors, along with Philippe Ailleris, Project Controller at the Space Research and Technology Centre of the European Space Agency.

Please see UFODATA’s website — just launched today — for more details.

The organization has one goal and one goal only: to design, build and deploy a global network of automated surveillance stations that will monitor the skies full time looking for UFOs.  UFODATA has no interest in alleged government conspiracies or adding more witness reports or FOIA documents to the thousands already on file. The idea here is that only a complete change of methodology toward a purely scientific approach to the UFO issue will enable us to move forward.

courtesy Massimo Teodorani, UFODATA

The monitoring stations, of which UFODATA eventually hopes to have dozens, will contain a suite of sophisticated instruments that will record numerous physical characteristics of any UFOs that appear in their range. They will all send their data back to a central location. Current projections are that the stations will cost about $10-20,000 each, thanks to the unprecedented convergence of high resolution digital camera technologies, off-the shelf scientific instrumentation, powerful low-cost computing platforms and far-reaching high-speed internet access. (More information about the instruments and science involved can be found on the site.)

UFODATA will rely on crowd funding to finance the stations, allowing the millions of people who take UFOs seriously to be involved in the effort, independent of the scientific establishment. Some supporters may wish to host a station in their own location or offer their expertise to the organization.

The campaign will unfold in two phases initially.  First, it will focus on filling gaps in its volunteer technical staff and on raising enough money by word of mouth to build a prototype station.  This prototype will serve as a technical testbed, providing concrete evidence of capabilities to support Phase Two, which will launch the formal crowd-funding campaign. Phase Two will have a larger financial target, to fulfill the objective of building a small but fully functioning network of stations which will begin collecting data and also attract additional media, scientific and public attention to support further network development.

Massimo Teodorani, astrophysicist from Italy, presenting the project in July, 2014 to the first scientific workshop organized by CNES/GEIPAN in Paris. Photos: Philippe Ailleris

courtesy Massimo Teodorani, UFODATA

„Are we really alone? Or are there others out there? It’s one of the biggest questions,“ the Milner announcement reads. „And only science can answer it.“ We completely agree. Rodeghier points out that we are simply taking SETI to its logical limit — local SETI. „Several researchers interested in the conventional search for ET have pushed the boundaries to suggest that it is not misguided to search in the solar system, including around the moon, for ET artifacts or other evidence for extraterrestrial intelligence,“ he says. „But they have rejected looking in near-Earth orbit. Logically this prohibition makes no sense, and so with UFODATA we will also break the taboo of searching for signs of ET right here, not just millions of kilometers away.“

He points out that SETI has spent huge amounts of money over fifty years with no success. „Why not, in comparison, take a few years with modest funding to study UFO evidence close to home?“

Short of US government recognition that UAP are worthy of investigation, I believe that this grassroots initiative is the best effort we can make to move toward a rational answer to the UFO question. Ironically, sidestepping government to study UFOs in this way could also ultimately help win respect for the issue within the political (as well as scientific) establishment. UFODATA should appeal to those who are tired of the misplaced certainties on both sides of the UFO debate — conspiracy theorists convinced that UFOs are extraterrestrial spacecraft and debunkers equally convinced that UFOs don’t even exist. Precisely because so little science has been done on UFOs, humanity is actually quite ignorant about what they are. This is a unique moment for something radically different, with the potential to unite all of us in a pivotal, larger goal. We now have the opportunity to elevate UFO investigations so that they become part of the larger scientific search for extraterrestrial life and will eventually be recognized as such by the world community.

For now, we remain agnostic about the nature and origin of UFOs. However, „whether or not we find any ETs, this will constitute a radical breakthrough in both the study and status of the UFO problem,“ says Wendt.  „And if it does turn up any ETs, well, that would be one of the most important events in human history…“

My response follows.

Hi Leslie.
I find it is a wonderfully written article!
Sceptics like to see themselves as objective and completely unbiased observers who look at the evidence for unidentified aerial phenomena and just find it wanting.
Having now read lots of their publications and assertions, I’ve become convinced that the whole foundation of their position is their deep conviction that anomalous aerial phenomena are extremely unlikely to be real FROM THE VERY BEGINNING.
It is this strong PRIOR BELIEF in the incredible implausibility of any aerial phenomenon defying our current knowledge that leads them to reject good cases.
Among many other examples, they presume that a witness must have had complex hallucinations which occurred coincidentally beside traces on the ground which cannot be readily explained. Or that a respectable and apparently mentally healthy policeman concocted a very complex hoax where he damaged his own vehicle and harmed himself just for the fun of it.

A French peasant is facing a UFO in Valensole. Two aliens are standing in front of it.

UFO encounter in Valensole. A witness everybody would have believed under other circumstances.

Of course, if such explanations were used to explain away mundane events (such as drug trafficking or an aggression), most police persons would write them off very quickly or even laugh.
So, I think that their position stands and falls with their ability to DEMONSTRATE that UAPs are very unlikely to exist from the outset (See The burden of proof is a double-edged sword).
Most debunkers don’t offer much thought to this important foundational question.
Instead, they mistake their own subjective feelings that belief in UAPs is ridiculous for iron-clad arguments showing that the probability of their existence is incredibly small.
I find it completely INCOHERENT that (at the same time) they also believe that the universe is teeming with intelligent SPACE-FARING liveforms using radio signals to communicate with each others.
If it is so (and if we know almost nothing about their psychology and technology), we have absolutely no grounds for confidently proclaiming that the probability of their reaching the solar system is ludicrously small.
In that way, we should be as open to the possibility of their actions in the solar system and on earth as we are to the detection of an intelligent signal coming from a distant galaxy.
That said, I am very sceptical about the odds of UFODATA successfully detecting the presence of an unknown intelligence amidst us.
I think that a look at all UFO data shows that when an unkown intelligence is apparently involved, it seems to be deceptive, manipulative and not willing to give us a proof of its existence which would be recognised by everyone (such as landing on the lawn of the white house).
When encounters seemingly occur, it appears to be them choosing to interact with us and not us stumbling across them by chance.
The important point here is that UFODATA can only succeed if the intelligence apparently responsible for some UFO cases has no intention to hide its existence to the larger public or is not able to conceal itself sufficiently. Given the pattern emerging from the analysis of many incidents, both options seem highly dubious.
Following Jacques Vallee and Alan Hynek, I don’t consider it absurd at all to think that we have been visited all along by beings from another realm who appear to us in many disguises.
(I actually don’t think that anyone can show this to be very unlikely without begging the question. I know this is quite an astonishing claim and would be glad to discuss about that with my readers).
Yet, I don’t know anything about the psychology of putative space aliens, so I cannot rule out that some of them would act like this.
I agree with you those are exciting times, though. If (against my expectations) UFODATA manages to find clear evidence, this would refute both debunkers and proponents of the inter-dimensional hypothesis such as Jacques Valles and establish once and for all the presence of aliens not far from us.
Best wishes.

I later posted the following comment.

Scientific reasoning (understood as testing theories making clear predictions) isn’t the only way to draw warranted conclusions.
I think it would be much more desirable to dispose of such hard data, indeed.

But this relies on the assumption that the putative „aliens“ (whoever they might be) are either
1) willing to let us discover them
2) unable to avoid detection

If both conditions aren’t satisfied (e.g the aliens do not want humanity to be aware of their presence AND they dispose of means to avoid an irrefutable detection), the project is going to come up blank and this absence of evidence will (wrongly) be interpreted as strong evidence against the reality of UAPs in general.
(From a purely logical standpoint, this would not undermine belief in aliens who want to remain hidden and have the ability to do so).

While I salute your effort, I think this might backfire in the end.

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6 Antworten zu On SETI and the alleged extreme implausibility of UFO

  1. Tony Sandy schreibt:

    A clever alien race that wants to work in secret studying us, while we are trying to study them, would of necessity hide their activities / presence. If they are technically more advanced than us, then mentally they are going to be more advanced than us, psychologically and psychically (If they can read our minds, then they are not going to be where we want them to be, are they?). Like adults can run rings round children and predict their games / behaviour, an advanced race would laugh at our efforts to detect them and bring them out in the open (Would you trust a primitive race that slaughters members of its own race without much thought or helps wipe out the life forms / pollutes the environment it needs to survive, all for the subjective (social) advantage of money i.e. that is destroy the real, physical world for little bits of paper and metal? )

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  2. Tony Sandy schreibt:

    Look up: topografia cerebral de pessoas abduzidas, a Portuguese site but the study by Norman Don is in English. Why have all the big UFO organisations ignored this work which gives us a template to distinguish who are genuine contactees and abductees versus hoaxers / fantasists, through brain wave pattern ability? This is science at work, yet this study is ignored. What can we conclude from this and other UFO evidence? The authorities don’t want to know the truth, preferring to ignore it as a nuisance that they cannot control and therefore an embarrassment that makes them appear helpless before a superior power (a little bit of an ego problem)

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  3. Tony Sandy schreibt:

    Another point to consider is those elements that maybe paranormal. I think the whole subject of consciousness, revolves around cause and effect. You can’t have solid proof of something that is not solid, only its effect upon something that is. By this I mean subjective phenomena can leave objective traces, through the medium of change. The mind for instance is software and the brain is hardware. We have proof of the latter’s existence because it is a constant and proof of the former by the change motion and emotion bring upon it (time is proof of change as matter is proof of existence). What proof do you personally have that the moon landings happened? None unless you were on the actually rockets that went you (first hand expereience). All you have is grainy films and items that supposedly relate to this series of events. In other words you are relying on anecdotal evidence (second hand information). This is why people in some countries don’t believe the moon landings happened and why conspiracy theorists can pick holes in the subject and do.

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  4. Sue St Clair schreibt:

    Regarding the Belgium wave that you reference within the article I would disagree with you. This very well documented wave had a diversity in types of experience by multiple witnesses including types of objects being reported, many of who would be fairly familiar with military aircraft. It also somewhat coincided with the Soviet wave of 89-90 that was equally well examined by Jacques Vallee and Russian scientists at the time. This is really picking a nit though. Your article is well thought out in my opinion and you raise valid points. I guess we can hope for the best, and that is the best we can currently do with this initiative.

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