May 24 2021

UFOs Are Back – And They Are Still Nothing

One of the unofficial functions of the skeptical movement is to serve as a form of institutional memory. Pseudoscience tends to come around in cycles. Each generation or two gets fascinated with the same topics only to eventually tire of them when they ultimately come to nothing. The die-hards stay on and keep the flame going until the next generation. Each time a paranormal or dubious topic rears up again, the same poor evidence, sloppy logic, common myths, gullible journalism, and old tropes are trotted out. This is where skeptics come in. We are like antibodies that remember the history and can respond to the nonsense much more quickly and effectively.

Fascination with UFOs (unidentified flying objects) has waxed and waned a few times over the last 60 years. After a relatively quiet period interest is once again peaking. While “UFO” simply refers to something in the sky we cannot identify, everyone knows we are really talking about alien spacecraft. Whether you want to be coy, technical, or explicit – that is always what people are really talking about. This time the government appears to be the cause of increased interest, which is a break from the standard narrative that the government knows all about it and is covering it up.

In 2007 Senator Harry Reid wanted to know if there was anything to the whole UFO thing. This lead to Pentagon investigations and eventually the formation of the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force (UAPTF). Next month they are due to give their official report to congress, and that is what has journalists all aflutter. They love stories like this – you can have serious-sounding people with connections to government talking about UFOs (now UAPs), and always there is the idea in the background that these can be aliens. The government officials won’t ever endorse – or deny – that idea. They take the coy route. We just want to know what’s going on. There is something interesting happening. Their answers seem like a wink and a nod. The journalists can tell a sensational story with plausible deniability, and never have to dig deep enough to tell the real story.

Government officials, many of whom seem sincere, but some are barely concealing their real interest (remember that meme – “I’m not saying it’s aliens, but it’s aliens”), cover their interest with the semi-plausible explanation that UAPs can be foreign technology. Perhaps the Chinese are suddenly 100 years ahead of us in aerodynamics. We need to know if this is a security threat. Sure – but the Pentagon can investigate UAPs without so blatantly misrepresenting the nature and implications of the evidence.

Let’s talk about that evidence, what has been released or leaked to the public so far. Because that is where the rubber meets the road. I will say up front – it is all a giant nothing-burger. We have not seen a single piece of compelling evidence, only the UFO equivalent of blobsquatch – blurry blobs, shapes, and dots with no real context for size, distance, or speed. We basically have the same level of evidence (and the same errors in analysis) we had 60 years ago. There is a reason none of the video is in focus – because the in focus images are clearly not anything interesting. They are aircraft, balloons, birds, even insects. When they are out of focus, then suddenly they are mysterious.

But, promoters will protest, now we have more than just these terrible out-of-focus video without any reference for scale. We have the pilot eyewitnesses. Here comes the “trained observer” trope, as if pilots somehow are magically immune to all the optical illusions that are baked into the hardwiring of the human brain. They aren’t. They are just as easily fooled as anyone else, and there are copious examples of this. But but, now we also have radar and infrared imaging to back up the blurry video. But this only confirms that there is something there, it does not mean that the something is not a bird or a plane. But, but but – how can you explain the tremendous speeds and g-forces these objects are pulling? The problem here is that these calculations are based on faulty assumptions about what is being seen. An object disappears and reappears far away – but how do you know that’s the same object?

Here is the ultimate demonstration that all this evidence is essentially worthless. There are now numerous cases with all the features of a UAP – a trained observer, triple evidence, physics-breaking performance – and yet, when the object is ultimately identified it turns out to be, a bird (for example). OK, you might argue, that one was a bird, but what about all the rest. The point is, however, if that one can be a bird, despite all the super-impressive evidence, then that means the evidence is not so super impressive. It means you can have all of those features presented as iron-clad proof that something unusual is going on when it isn’t. In other words – all the features that so many journalists and officials find impressive are not predictive of something actually interesting going on. They don’t predict that what was being observed and recorded is not something mundane.

Fortunately we have this generation’s dedicated UFO skeptic who does actual investigation and analysis, detailed work – the kind of thing you would think the Pentagon (or even a serious journalist) would be into. Mick West has been doing excellent work breaking down these videos, and convincingly showing that they are mundane objects like commercial jets. One video is just a bokeh lens effect, creating a triangle-shaped blur. There are other videos of artifacts of infrared, such as glowing and apparent rotation.

On the 60 Minutes piece (which was terribly gullible) one pilot said that such UAP encounters were daily. This was meant to be impressive, but it actually undermines the hypothesis that these are something not mundane. A phenomenon so common and frequent that a pilot could encounter them on a daily basis would be difficult to hide. You would think by now we would have a single piece of clear evidence.

This is a general principle that crops up in very different fields. If the observed phenomenon you are seeing is extremely common then the cause must be equally common, or something systematic like an artifact.

There are a few bottom lines we can state here. First, there is nothing in the evidence we have seen that is positive evidence for anything alien or beyond our known capabilities (allowing for incremental advances). There is nothing clear, despite the incredible explosion of cameras and recording technology. We are back in the 1960s.

Second, it is not necessary to hypothesize any new phenomenon to explain the evidence we have. We can explain them with mundane objects and optical illusions. If you make false assumptions about distance, then all other conclusions will be wrong, and can create the powerful illusion of impossible movements, even from mundane objects. In fact, the hypothesis that UAPs are all mundane objects combined with misinterpreted data and optical illusions is strongly supported by those cases where a clear mundane answer has been demonstrated. This blows the arguments for other similar-quality videos out of the water.

In the end we are left with nothing. We are in the exact same place as we were 60 years ago – the same ambiguous evidence combined with the same invalid arguments. Nothing at all has changed, except perhaps for the government’s willingness to talk about it and release videos. If there were a new phenomenon going on (aliens or whatever) you would think that the dramatic increase in the number and quality of cameras would have resulted in an increase in clear evidence. But it hasn’t. And the simplest explanation for this fact is that UAPs are not anything new or interesting, just the same ambiguous evidence and misinterpretation.

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