The UFO Question


Are UFOs real? If so, what are they? Aliens? If UFOs are not real, what have hundreds of thousands of people been seeing? Why is the government interested in UFOs?

This is the UFO question and it has bothered me since I was a kid in the eighties. There never seem to be any answers. Over the past five years, UFOs have been in the news again and again I'm thinking about UFOs.

For me, the main question is: are UFO sightings based on real, non-mundane, events? Until this question is answered any analysis involving motivations or theories about origins is not very valuable. We need consensus on whether the experiences themselves are real or not.

UFO Lore

In 1947, Kenneth Arnold reported seeing nine crescent-shaped saucer-like crafts while he was flying his private plane. This event was the origin of the American UFO story. It was widely reported and introduced the phrase "Flying Saucer" into the culture. Even before 1947, we have reports of crafts we would consider UFOs such as the "Foo Fighters" of World War II and the post-war "Ghost Rockets" in Europe. Some people will argue that UFO sightings go back to ancient times

Since 1947, UFOs have become a staple of pop culture and the focus of government attention. Every few years, we experience "UFO Flaps" where people in a geographic area will report a large of UFO sightings. Every few years, there will be public efforts by the government and military to either investigate or debunk UFO rumors. Every few years we hear from government whistleblowers who testify about UFOs to the media or Congress directly.

Typical UFO sightings are similar to what Arnold reported. People will generally see unusual crafts that perform unexpected and seemingly impossible aerial maneuvers. Nighttime sightings will include brightly colored lights. These sightings take place in backyards and airplane cockpits.

More rarely, people encounter "beings" who exit crafts that have landed and some people report being abducted and taken to fantastical locations. Occasionally, people continue to experience unusual events after the sighting such as paranormal activity, mind reading, and encounters with "Men in Black".

UFOlogists wrap up all of these types of sightings in the phrase "The Phenomenon". This acknowledges the fact that we don't know what people are experiencing and the experience sometimes goes beyond the sighting itself.

What Do We Know for Sure?

This is the UFO story in America as told by the people who experienced UFOs. It's a compelling story that is based on a set of highly reported news stories. For the most part, it's all stories and eyewitness accounts. Occasionally, we will see claims of evidence in the form of pictures, videos, radar detection, and marks on the ground. In addition to the stories, the UFO myth has become embedded in our culture, people's belief systems, fringe science, TV Shows, speaking circuits, and government and military involvements on both sides of the UFO reality question.

In this swirl of content and competing interests, it can be hard to even know what we know about UFOs. To think critically about this problem, I think it will help to lay out what we know for sure.

1. Massive Numbers of Sightings

While the UFO narrative is shaped by a set of very prominent events, thousands of ordinary people report UFO sightings to UFO centers every year. NUFORC alone has 100,000+ cases on record and that is just one agency in one country. It's safe to say that millions of people believe that they have witnessed a UFO and were confident enough in this fact that they believed it was worth reporting.

2. Government Involvement & Secrecy

We know that the military and government overall have investigated UFOs since the beginning of the story in 1947. We have a public record of this with Project Blue Book and more recently with UAP Taskforce. Because these efforts have mainly been housed in the military arm of the government, we expect and see a lot of secrecy. While this secrecy doesn't mean that the government is hiding UFOs, it does make any statement coming from the government suspect. Over the years, we have received mixed messages from these efforts. Sometimes they appeared to investigate UFOs with good faith while other times they just took a very dismissive stance.

3. Whistleblowers

Every few years, UFO whistleblowers will appear with stories about UFO programs run by the government, military, and powerful private companies. The most recent was David Grush, but we've heard from Bob Lazar and Philip Corso in the past. Their stories do imply that powerful interests have access to exotic technology that appeared alien to these people. Generally speaking, these whistleblowers come to us with stories and sometimes memos and other documentation but they generally do not come with irrutable evidence.

4. UFOlogy Industry

All the UFO conferences, speaking gigs, books, TV Shows, movies, and the rest add up to a one billion-a-year industry. Many of the content creators in this space are part of a vast echo chamber where the most important currency is attention. If you look into this industry you will find a stream of podcasts, social media, TV productions of various quality, interviews, and on and on. They all want your attention, likes, follows, and subscriptions. So it should be noted that there is a significant financial incentive when it comes to UFO culture.

5. Independent Scientific Study

There are efforts underway to scientifically study the UFO phenomenon. The most prominent of these efforts is Harvard's Galileo Project headed by Avi Loeb. They are installing sensors on tops of buildings that can observe the sky and use machine learning algorithms to note anything out of the ordinary. There are a handful of other serious science work being done and while it is at a small scale, it does show that some scientists have an interest in this topic.

To sum it all up: we have large numbers of UFO reports and very powerful interests with competing narratives about the nature of these reports. There is no broadly recognized evidence of the existence of UFOs nor is there any broadly recognized evidence that aliens have visited Earth. However, there are serious efforts underway to determine the nature of UFO reports. We don't know much.

What We Suspect

That's what we know for sure, but people interested in the UFO topic have suspicions and beliefs that while not supported shouldn't be dismissed too quickly.

The most obvious issue here is that most people believe that the government is more involved in the UFO topic than they publically admit to. We know that they are at least superficially involved but most people believe this goes further. There are an awful lot of ex-government officials who speak publically about UFOs and logically most people realize that if the government did have access to alien technology it would be kept secret. I believe that more is known than what is disclosed however I think this belief exists on a spectrum.

Related to that is that a lot of people believe that there are pro-disclosure and anti-disclosure forces in the Pentagon. Disclosure refers to a movement where UFOlogists rally to pressure the government to release everything it knows about UFOs. These two factions appear to be fighting sometimes in public which is why we seem to have contradictory messages coming out of places like the Pentagon. I also believe this based on what I've seen as I followed this topic recently.

While I don't believe the next one myself, most UFOlogists assume that UFOs are real and that they are some version of aliens to us. Many consider this an assumption and want to move on to the "origin question". I'm stuck on the "are they real" question still.

As you move deeper into the UFOlogy rabbit hole, verifiable facts get harder and harder to come by. Yet people are very deeply suspicious that the military has UFO crash retrieval programs, that aliens are in contact with various elites, that there is alien influence over our technology, and that aliens generally have a lot of influence in our lives. Most of these ideas are based on speculation and it's hard to address. I believe we are not yet in a position to talk about the origin theories of the UFO phenomenon.

What the Debunkers Say

The UFO topic is usually debated via two sides: the UFOlogists and the Debunkers. Most people are in the middle here and are like me: I suspect something is happening, but I'm skeptical of the evidence that we have so far. Debunkers, on the other hand, seem to believe that UFO mysteries can be resolved with simple explanations. Oftentimes, they are right.

Debunkers have consistently found explanations for many UFO sightings. For instance, as SpaceX started to launch satellite pilots regular people started to report these as UFOs. Even most UFOlogists believe that 95% of documented sightings have a prosaic explanation.

Normally, debunkers like to focus on the facts of a specific case. But I think it's fair to say that most debunkers will say that UFO reports are not aliens and even if they can't debunk it conclusively the issue is missing facts and not aliens. They would say that unresolved cases lie in the "low information zone".

They also tend to dismiss the overwhelming numbers of eyewitness accounts. The mantra is that this kind of information is not acceptable for scientific analysis since the human senses are so easily fooled. Even accounts that are a mix of eyewitness testimony and physical evidence will have the testimony ignored.

This angle is challenging because it's almost impossible to address every UFO video and case that you will find online. Most of what I see don't rise to the level that they truly need attention. Many "sightings" are just blurry smudges from a camera phone. When it comes to the debunkers, for me they are technically correct since we have not seen any open-source evidence with UFOs that could meet scientific standards. However, the lack of authentic curiosity here is disturbing to me and I have a hard time understanding what the motivations of the debunkers are.

Alternative Theories

Most people who just get into the UFO topic assume that it's all about the aliens as seen in Close Encounters of the Third Kind or The X Files. UFOs are aliens and part of a grand conspiracy embedded with powerful people who influence our day-to-day lives from the shadows.

However, there are alternative theories about UFOs. Some people believe that UFOs and their occupants are part of a long-lost Earth civilization that exists among us, that they are future humans, reptiles, gods and demons, and psychedelic experiences. Some people believe that we are watching a new type of religion form and see ancient symbology and myths in the UFO story. Jacque Vallee believes that that phenomenon is directing the growth of our civilization through signaling. These are all very interesting ideas, however, it's almost all just pure speculation.


That is the landscape as I see it. To do this analysis, I want to start with my own experience and the experiences of people that I know.

I've never witnessed a UFO or had any experiences where I can say that "I saw it with my own eyes" nor have I had any alien encounter that you would consider a classic UFO contact or sighting. Close friends and family members have had UFO sightings and in each case, they are almost embarrassed to talk about their experiences. Usually, they will make an effort to say "I don't know what I saw...but..." This is also true of the hundreds of UFO sightings I've read through in databases. I can say that the people I know who have had these experiences seem otherwise normal and are not even particularly interested in UFOs.

Most of the second-hand information about UFOs can't be trusted. Reports from the government and military are always subject to censorship and media management. Anyone who has worked in a bureaucracy can see that the information that is coming out of the Pentagon is heavily managed and is not much better than disinformation. The stuff we hear from the UFO-Industrial Complex in podcasts, documentaries, and movies is also suspect. These people cannot exist without a steady stream of content even when no real UFO stories are circulating. This constant stream of hyperbolic sensationalized content just amounts to a lot of noise.

While I trust the independent scientists who are working on this topic, these efforts are all too early to amount to any coherent discussions about the reality of this phenomenon.

I am not closer today to understanding UFOs than I was in 1980. Based on the amount of reports, government, and scientific interest I do believe that the UFO phenomenon does exist. However, even after 70 years we still have the same problem of a massive number of compelling stories and almost no reliable physical evidence. Nor do we have an honest atmosphere where this problem can be discussed. In short, we are still in the "Low Information Zone".

To move forward, we just need more data. There are three threads that I think we can follow to get to a place where we can make some real progress:

  • Investigative Journalism The military is not going to have a "Disclosure" for no reason. Our best hope in finding out what the military knows is to do old-fashioned investigative journalism. We need world-class journalists to do in-depth reporting on this topic.

  • Scientific Research Something I'm doing is following the major scientific projects and attempting to support them while I can. At the end of the day, we need reliable peer-reviewed open-source research on this topic. This is not something that should be controlled by entities like the military or government that also require secrecy and responsibilities for defense which will always come before any type of "Disclosure".

  • Psychological Research We rarely talk about "Alien Abductions", but there is a sizable portion of UFO sightings that take place in people's bedrooms at night where they feel that aliens come and take them to exotic locations to perform unusual medical tests. These types of sightings could be in a different class and may very well turn out to have some kind of psychological explanation. Or perhaps a psychedelic or spiritual dimension is in play here.

To conclude, I do believe there is something "going on here". However, I don't feel like we have made much, if any progress, on wrapping our collective heads around this problem. As boring as it seems for this topic, we just need to take a breath and do the hard work. For me and a lot of people, this means that we have to admit "I don't know" is the correct answer to the UFO question. For now.