The subject of Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) as viewed by the hardcore professional scientific community mixes just about as well as oil and water. Here I examine some of the in’s and out’s surrounding that mix although the basic fundamentals seem to revolve around the fact that the UFO issue was never initially considered a scientific issue, just a national security issue. Like the rest of the great unwashed, scientists weren’t welcome into the realm of the inner national security sanctum. That excuse no longer can no longer hold water.
Author’s Introductory Note
Much of what follows was taken from a to-and-fro debate with an armchair but scientifically inclined UFO sceptic. I’ve edited my responses to the exchange to hopefully yield a reasonably coherent article.
Scientists and UFOs
While it is true that the scientific community, in general, have formally shied away from the UFO field, numerous scientists in all fields (astronomy, physics, biology, psychology, etc.) have on their own behalf taken a personal interest and made a study of the subject. I can and have below name names. I also suspect, based on some surveys of the scientific community by some scientists, that a fair number have a personal interest in the subject, but leave that interest behind their front door when they go to work.
The main reason scientists shy away from the area harkens back to the early history of the UFO phenomena when the powers-that-be had to reassure the great unwashed that there was nothing to see here, there was no national security implications, etc. The subject was down-played, even ridiculed in order to calm down any possibility of public concern. I mean the very possibility of aliens (or even the Russians) violating your nation’s airspace and the powers-that-be being totally unable to do anything about it might be under discussion at the highest levels behind closed doors but not ever to be publicly admitted. The powers-that-be got a helping hand because of the far out fringe elements that got introduced by those who just like to get their names in the papers and muddy the waters. The impression any scientists would have gotten from officialdom is that everything is under control; there’s nothing to this; only the nut cases see ‘flying saucers’ and meet and greet the ‘space brothers’ from Venus. What officialdom uttered behind closed doors was quite a different matter.
If readers doubt all of this, I strongly advise acquainting yourself with the CIA sponsored Robertson Panel and Report from January 1953 which was inaugurated at the direct request of the White House. I have to repeat my earlier comments that from the very beginning UFOs (nee ‘flying saucers’) were a national security issue, NOT a science issue. Scientists need not apply for the position of UFO investigator with officialdom since they didn’t have proper security clearances or a need to know and wouldn’t be allowed to publish their findings or give UFO lectures to their students.
So another major reason why scientists couldn’t deal with the issue from the get-go was that they didn’t have access to the data. All the UFO sighting reports were in the hands of the USAF (and other security agencies like the NSA) and classified. Scientists can’t investigate in the absence of hardcore data.
It is indeed unfortunate that scientists can’t just snap their fingers and have UFOs appear and reappear on demand, but that applies to other phenomena as well like Transient Lunar Phenomena, gamma-ray bursts, ball lightning, supernovae, even SETI, etc. Somehow these other elusive, unpredictable, unrepeatable phenomena are considered worthy of science and are considered to be in the realm of science, so your argument there falls flat.
Scientists and the UFO Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH)
Some (note: some) people (including some scientists) considered the UFO ETH (extraterrestrial hypothesis) and dismissed it as implausible (note: but not impossible). Other people (including some scientists) have considered the UFO ETH and considered it plausible, even the most likely explanation.
I on the other hand note that with the UFO ETH, we have a perfect union between theory and observation. Theory just about mandates or requires that extraterrestrial intelligence(s) be here. Observations strongly suggest that they are here. As I said, a near perfect match. Isn’t science wonderful?
The Scientific Consensus on UFOs
There are those who seriously suggest that when it comes to the entire scientific community “As far as science is concerned, the entire UFO subject is an embarrassment”.
Such advocates are seriously uninformed. Many “serious UFO books” have been authored by scientists, scientists who have published in leading academic journals. I mean scientists like J. Allen Hynek (former scientific consultant to Project Blue Book); Jacques Vallee, Frank Salisbury, James E. McDonald, Peter A. Sturrock, Stanton T. Friedman, John E. Mack, Richard F. Haines, C. G. Jung, David R. Saunders, Berthold E. Schwarz, Ivan T. Sanderson, Karla Turner, Bruce Maccabee, and on and on it goes. You even have Carl Sagan & Thornton Page editing the anthology “UFO’s – A Scientific Debate” (Cornell University Press; 1972). Further, journals like “Science” have NOT neglected the UFO issue. “Science” and “Nature” have certainly published letters-to-the-editor and book reviews on or about UFOs.
By the way, I hope readers noticed the use of the word “scientific” in the Sagan/Page anthology given above. Further, the title of the late J. Allen Hynek’s book was “The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry” uses that magic word “scientific”. In addition to being the scientific consultant to the USAF on the UFO issue, Hynek was Chairman of the Department of Astronomy, Northwestern University. Lastly, the University of Colorado’s UFO study, under the direction of the late Edward U. Condon, was titled “Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects”. There’s that word again. The only thing unscientific about it was the behaviour and attitude of the Director, Edward U. Condon himself who was a disgrace to the term “scientific”. In short, it would appear that UFOs were NOT an embarrassment to Carl Sagan or Thornton Page or to J. Allen Hynek or to the University of Colorado staff who conducted that UFO study.
In fact, UFOs could not have been an embarrassment to each and every scientist (Ph. D. or M.D.) that has written a serious book on the UFO subject. It doesn’t appear they were worried about peer pressure. Indeed, perhaps there was no established scientific community backlash against them.
Other scientists may not have written UFO books, but they have gone on the public record with pro-UFO statements. Such scientists include Clyde W. Tombaugh (discovered the planet Pluto), Leo Sprinkle (Professor of Psychology), Robert M. L. Baker, Jr. (President of West Coast University), Margaret Mead (Anthropologist), Hermann Oberth (pioneer rocket scientist), Lincoln LaPaz (meteorite specialist, University of New Mexico) and many more if you include foreign countries. Finally, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics have publicly issued statements in support of UFO research.
Some More about the Scientific Consensus on UFOs
Many people still suggest that there is a scientific consensus on the UFO issue and that consensus gives the subject the thumbs down. I’m not aware there was or is a scientific consensus on the UFO question. Can anyone tell me what official scientific body speaks on behalf of scientists around the world, or at least in one or more of the developed nations of the world (USA, Canada, England, France, Germany, Australia, Russia, etc.) and has issued that scientific consensus? What was the date? What is the text of that official so-called scientific consensus? Is that so-called consensus made up of just physical scientists, or are biological scientists part of that so-called consensus too? What about behavioural scientists? Are anthropologists and archaeologists included in this consensus? Perhaps the so-called consensus is just a loose and informal opinion shared by some individuals who happen to be scientists. And somewhere between the extremes of impossibility and the proven readers will no doubt find a spectrum of loose and informal opinions that individual scientists have, some to the right of that so-called consensus, some to the left of that so-called consensus, albeit there will be a cluster which might be loosely termed a consensus. Dare I suggest that the so-called consensus people will actually reveal when hard pressed, a diversity of opinions among scientists on the UFO question as they’d probably find on many other issues, social, cultural, political, religious, etc.