The truth is out there, and it lies somewhere between the extremes of skepticism and believe-anythingism. That’s especially the case for the phenomena we call UFOs, or as the military now calls them, UAPs. A clear view of the UFO phenomena is obscured by people’s assumptions and vested interests.
I don’t pretend to know what UFOs are, but as a philosopher, I aim to clear away the underbrush and obstacles of the assumptions and agendas that hamper reasonable discussion of the UFO phenomena.
Video version of this article (text below):
The Phenomena is Real and Assumptions are False
Let’s first knock down two assumptions. On one extreme is the assumption that there’s nothing to the UFO phenomena except delusion. On the other extreme is the assumption that UFO sightings are proof of aliens. Both positions are irrational and contrary to evidence. Skepticism is a claim to know more than others do, a claim not always backed up with rational argument or evidence. We can’t just dismiss UFO phenomena because they don’t fit within our preexisting paradigm. People are obviously witnessing something, and not all of them are delusional or mere attention seekers. But there are also true believers who come to the topic of UFOs assuming aliens are behind the phenomena, despite no conclusive evidence. These people want to see birds as being UFOs and space dust as being spaceships. When you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
The biggest nail that the hammers want to pound is the conspiracy theory that the government knows that UFOs are aliens and is covering that up. That’s the main issue I want to talk about: this narrative of a long cover up by shadowy government agents that will eventually fail, leading to Disclosure that aliens are here.
A Phenomenological Approach
If we look at the UFO phenomena without presuppositions, what can we say? Well, not much. People see things in the sky. To be honest, these sightings are extremely rare, but not so extremely rare that the phenomena can be dismissed. What scientific evidence there is, indicates that a nontrivial percentage of recorded images are of actual phenomena that can’t be easily identified. There are unidentified lights and shapes in the sky doing things we aren’t used to seeing lights and shapes do. Beyond photos and videos, physical evidence of UFOs, depending on your criteria, amount to next to nothing or nothing. We are left with this small collection of unexplained images and some dubious claims by some dubious people.
Let’s apply some basic rational thinking to this collection of phenomena. Could UFOs be extraterrestrial spacecraft? Sure; it’s possible. But given current evidence, the only argument that they are aliens is if we believe we have no better explanation for the phenomenon. That’s an argument from ignorance and it’s fallacious. On the opposite extreme, the skeptical claim that it’s impossible for extraterrestrials to come to Earth is also an argument from ignorance. We don’t know what alien civilizations are capable of, so we can’t say what they can or can’t do.
Yes, we could be being visited by ET, but the narrative that UFOs have an extraterrestrial origin has serious difficulties. We’d have to believe that on the one hand, an alien civilization is technologically advanced enough to travel the many light years to us, but on the other hand does not possess reliable technology to remain undetected. It’s far more plausible that any ETs who can conquer the light speed limit can also manage to stay hidden and certainly don’t need to leave their lights on for people to spot them. It certainly seems unlikely that their technology is so unreliable that their spaceships crash fairly regularly. And only crash in remote areas, have you noticed? The logically consistent position is that if aliens are visiting Earth and they don’t want to be seen, then we aren’t going to see them.
The Disclosure Narrative
Even more implausible is the Disclosure narrative that the government has proof of alien visitation and even crashed alien spaceships. There is an industry of conspiracy theorists who make a living selling the Disclosure narrative. And I’m not talking about the crackpots here, though those people are still out there. I’m talking about the supposed UFOlogists who pose as Woodward and Bernstein wannabes uncovering a vast government conspiracy. It’s a great story: recovered alien spaceships, complete with dead aliens, military high muckity-mucks ordering a cover up, shadowy figures within the deep state enforcing secrecy, even eliminating those who know too much. Yeah, that’d make a great TV show. Oh wait, it DID! But, the X-Files was fiction. Those weren’t real people and those weren’t real events. But it’s typical of how popular culture works, how much UFOlogy’s Disclosure narrative has incorporated elements of the fictional X-Files grand story arc.
Let’s apply some basic rational thinking to the Disclosure narrative. Does the military and government keep secrets? Yes, they do. But it’s quite a leap from that general fact to the specific claim that the military and government are hiding proof of alien visitation. It’s also quite a leap to believe that the government is SO successful at keeping the biggest secret ever that it can keep the tens of thousands of people who would have to know something about it from talking. And it’s a huge leap to believe that a few UFOlogists have miraculously cracked the secret, but will tell you all about it for $14.95 plus shipping and handling.
There’s something self-contradictory about someone walking around saying they are leaking info the military will kill to keep secret, and then not being killed for walking around saying all this stuff. I know, I know, letting a few live is all part of the deep state’s plan, and after all I’m just part of the deep state’s disinformation campaign, and so on. That’s how conspiracy theories work—no matter what, the theorist can claim there’s one more layer to the conspiracy.
But the Videos!
A believer in the Disclosure narrative will ask: What about the leaked videos? The true believers get to score one point there … maybe. First, they have to explain why after decades of saying the government is always lying to us, they suddenly will believe in these couple of videos. Because they fit with their assumption? Confirmation bias is a natural partner for conspiracy theories. Again, apply basic reason: what do the videos show, assuming they are real? More images that can’t be easily explained. That’s it.
The Disclosure narrative says that the government is preparing us for Disclosure, slowly releasing information to get us ready for the big reveal of the ET presence. That idea has been around for years. The idea runs afoul of not only being a fallacious argument from ignorance, but from it being an assumption kept alive by nothing but the power of confirmation bias. It’s a story like the X-Files was a story; and it’s a nail that is constantly pounded by the hammer of conspiracy theory. “This is the year of UFO Disclosure. Oh it wasn’t? Well, next year will be the year of UFO Disclosure.”
Granted. People in power, both in government and outside of it, lie to us. That doesn’t tell us what they are lying about. The UFOlogists have to tell us more than they want to believe; they have to show us some evidence that supports the Disclosure narrative. Sorry, yet another image that can’t be explained, even the totality of unexplained images, doesn’t rise to the level of compelling evidence. The people in power, who are keeping real secrets about real things, are no doubt happy that people are talking about UFOs rather than what those people in power are really up to.
What if There’s Nothing to Disclose?
One more application of basic reason. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the military has seen objects in the sky that they can’t identify. Let’s say, again for the sake of argument, that the military is at some point willing to talk openly about that. Why assume that anyone in the military or government knows anything more about UFOs than you or I? There will soon be yet another government report on UFOs. Yes, it will say there is a small collection of unexplained sightings but no actual evidence of aliens. The skeptics, their presumption appeased, will say they told us so. The true believers will say it’s just part of the cover up, and have some more stuff to talk about on late night radio shows and UFO conferences. And the Disclosure narrative will move to the next round of “next year Disclosure will come.”
The true believers will disagree, but there’s no tangible evidence of an extraterrestrial presence on our planet. And that’s coming, not from a skeptic, but from someone who would readily accept any actual evidence. Far more likely is that the extraterrestrials have no reason to visit us, and the odd lights and shapes in the sky are some terrestrial phenomenon that we can’t explain.