May 02 2019

Pilots Reporting UFOs

The Navy recently drafted new policies for how its pilots and other personnel should report any encounters with “unexplained aerial phenomena” – more commonly known as unidentified flying objects, or UFOs. They say this is in response to an uptick in pilots reporting such encounters and requesting a formal way to report them.

The reporting on this topic ironically reveals the underlying problem in the first place – there is a stigma attached to the reporting of UFOs because of their cultural association with claims that they are (or may be) alien in origin. People mentally equate UFO with flying saucer (a colloquial term for any alien spacecraft of any shape).

Even sober takes on this topic focus heavily on the probability that such sightings are an alien phenomenon. Tyler Cowen does touch on many possible interpretations of UFO sightings, but spends the bulk of his commentary exploring how probable it is that aliens are visiting. He concludes it is not likely, but the chance is non-zero and deserves to be explored.

While I basically agree, I still think the framing is problematic. Essentially we are taking a phenomenon that likely has multiple causes, some known and some unknown, and focusing most of our attention on what is probably the least likely unknown possible cause. This would be like defining a new clinical syndrome by the least likely possible disease that could be causing it. This constrains our thinking, and in this case creates an unfair stigma. It also fuels conspiracy theories and wild speculation by the public. An further, it has resulted in paying too little attention to a phenomenon that may have practical real-world implications.

Returning to the medical analogy – there are fake diseases in the popular culture used to explain very real symptoms. For example, some people with chronic skin symptoms think they have a bizarre form a parasitosis. They clearly don’t, but that should not cause us to be dismissive of everyone with the same symptoms, or to ignore the search for underlying real causes.

Equating UFOs with aliens is also part of a larger problem in science, mainly in astronomy – the desire to jump to an alien hypothesis for every new phenomenon of unknown cause. Recently, for example, astronomers studying Tabby’s star found the light levels dipped significantly and in an irregular pattern. Perhaps the least likely hypothesis to explain this, alien megastructures, received most of the media attention. Eventually a non-alien explanation was found, as it has been every time so far.

And hey, I get it, my mind went to alien megastructures immediately as well. It is the most interesting, if not the most likely, hypothesis. But we cannot confuse most interesting with most likely, or let that distract from real investigation.

Getting back to the Navy and UFOs, the Wapo reports:

In some cases, pilots — many of whom are engineers and academy graduates — claimed to observe small spherical objects flying in formation. Others say they’ve seen white, Tic Tac-shaped vehicles. Aside from drones, all engines rely on burning fuel to generate power, but these vehicles all had no air intake, no wind and no exhaust.

There has been a recent increase in pilots reporting such encounters. Possible explanations include that a cultural change has resulting in increased reporting, even though the underlying phenomenon is stable. Or, there may be an increase in our ability to detect whatever it is that is going on. Perhaps most likely, there is something new going on, triggering real sightings.

Just as with the astronomy analogy, history is a guide here. The number of UFO sightings have been generally increasing over the last 70 years, tracking with the increase in satellites and aircraft. The more stuff we put into the sky, the more people see stuff they can’t identify. When lighting floating candles became popular, they sparked a new wave of UFO sightings. Ultralight aircraft caused another wave, as did mylar balloons.  Certain kinds of satellites that produce visible phenomena create new types of sightings.

So if there is a genuine new phenomenon going on that is resulting in an increase in pilots reporting seeing unknown aerial phenomena, history indicates that the most likely cause is a change in terrestrial technology. Interestingly, the author may have hit upon the cause – drones. The presence of drones in the sky has dramatically increased in recent years.

Regardless of what the Navy finds when they explore this question, I agree that there absolutely should be no stigma attached to reporting that you saw something you could not identify. There are four classes of phenomena that our military and security communities would benefit from understanding. One is neurological and psychological causes of misidentified perceptions. Pilots are still humans, with flawed perceptual systems, ones that are not necessarily adapted to the flying environment. Pilots and the people they report to need to know all the various ways in which their perceptions can fool them.

Second, we need to have a thorough understanding of all the benign terrestrial phenomenon that might interact with military and commercial air flight. If, for example, there is a dramatic increase in private or commercial drone operation, that will likely have implications for air travel.

Third, there may be hostile terrestrial phenomena that we certainly need to know about. The military is already acutely aware of this, and often this is the reason for secrecy surrounding UFOs. Hostile foreign governments may be testing our air defenses, or exploring new methods for spying. Also, sometimes our own spying efforts, or testing of new military craft, result in UFO sightings. In fact for a time the airforce allowed and even encouraged the equating of UFOs with aliens, because it was a huge distraction from the reality that people were occasionally seeing their secret test aircraft.

And finally, there is a non-zero probability that one day a new phenomenon will indeed be alien in origin, or represent some other entirely new phenomenon that expands our understanding of the universe. The unknown always carries with it that possibility. But this last possibility is the zebra, it is the rare disease or the black swan. It may exist, but needs to be put into perspective – this is the least likely possibility by far, and should not distract from all the far more likely explanations.

So yes, let’s remove the stigma from UFO reporting, partly by distancing such sightings from automatically being equated with aliens.

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