UFOs exist – that much we should all be willing to concede.
But let’s quickly clarify that UFOs are very likely not aliens from outer space. They are simply objects that are flying and whose identification has eluded us for the time being. Simply put, they are, as the name implies, unidentified flying objects.
If, one day, extraterrestrial intelligence were ever to be discovered (especially here on Earth), then it would require extraordinary and reliable evidence. After all, one could argue that this would be the greatest discovery for humanity to finally answer the question… are we alone?
So, blurry pictures, shaky videos, and spooky anecdotes aside, here are 20 things to consider before coming to the conclusion that what you’re seeing or hearing about is actually a UFO piloted by an alien from outer space…
Sprites are large electrical discharges that occur above thunderstorm clouds. They can be in various shapes and are sometimes even preceded by a sprite halo, which is pancake-shaped (a-la-UFO). Sprites are visible from the ground but have also been reported by pilots and seen from space.
Remember the viral video about the UFO spiral in Norway? The military is constantly testing new technology, and sometimes we’re fortunate enough to witness their failures. In this particular case, it was the Russian’s testing their Bulova missile. When its rocket motor spun out of control, it created the spiral of white light near where the missile was launched from a submarine in the White Sea.
Hole punch clouds (also known as fallstreak holes) are a rare type of spectacular cloud formation which looks like a hole was literally punched through the clouds. They are formed when the water temperature in the clouds is below freezing but the water has not actually frozen yet. When the conditions are right and ice crystals form (perhaps as a result of a jet flying through) it sets off a domino effect causing the water droplets around the crystals to evaporate. This leaves a large (often circular or elliptical) hole in the clouds which can give the illusion of a UFO. Another cloud type – lenticular clouds – are also commonly mistaken for flying saucers.
Weather balloons come in all shapes and sizes, and depending on the viewer’s vantage point, they can easily be misidentified as a UFO. Even at night, they can be lit up by the sun on the day-side of the Earth, making the illusion of a UFO all the more convincing.
Venus (or Other Planets)
The planet Venus is very often mistaken for an airplane, satellite, or UFO. It’s the second brightest object in the sky – only the moon is brighter – and sometimes is reported by people driving in cars that it’s a fast moving object, hovering 500 ft or so above the horizon. Because Venus is close to the Sun, it never ventures far from the horizon – exactly where you’d expect to see a landing airplane… or apparently, a flying saucer.
Bonus fact: Venus is so bright that it can even be seen during daylight – this is known as a daylight disc. Because this is a rare and quite an unusual sight, it’s often reported as a UFO.
(Source: http://home.comcast.net/~tprinty/UFO/Venusufo.htm Images via Tim Printy.)
Illumination flares dropped from planes can give the illusion of multiple bright objects moving in the sky in “formation”. Perhaps one of the most famous examples occurred on March 13th, 1997, when, starting at around 10PM, hundreds of not thousands of people in the Phoenix area witnessed a row of brilliant lights hovering in the sky, and then slowly falling. As explained in the Wikipedia article on the Phoenix Lights:
The U.S. Air Force explained the second event as slow-falling, long-burning LUU-2B/B illumination flares dropped by a flight of four A-10 Warthog aircraft on a training exercise at the Barry Goldwater Range at Luke Air Force Base. According to this explanation, the flares would have been visible in Phoenix and appeared to hover due to rising heat from the burning flares creating a “balloon” effect on their parachutes, which slowed the descent. The lights then appeared to wink out as they fell behind the Sierra Estrella, a mountain range to the southwest of Phoenix.
A Maryland Air National Guard pilot, Lt. Col. Ed Jones, responding to a March 2007 media query, confirmed that he had flown one of the aircraft in the formation that dropped flares on the night in question. The squadron to which he belonged was in fact at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona on a training exercise at the time and flew training sorties to the Barry Goldwater Range on the night in question, according to the Maryland Air National Guard. A history of the Maryland Air National Guard published in 2000 asserted that the squadron, the 104th Fighter Squadron, was responsible for the incident. The first reports that members of the Maryland Air National Guard were responsible for the incident were published in The Arizona Republic newspaper in July 1997.
Lanterns or other Light Decorations
With the increased popularity of light decorations like Chinese lanterns, it’s no coincidence that UFO reports have also increased. And there’s good reason – from a distance, Chinese lanterns look very strange – hovering brilliantly in the sky, slowly moving. When there’s a group of lanterns at once, they tend to move in unison due to the wind giving the appearance of multiple flying objects in the sky.
Airplanes, Helicopters, Drones, Satellites, or the ISS
If an airplane is flying directly at you at night, its lights will appear very bright and may fluctuate in size. At the same time, because its going towards you (rather than horizontally) it will look like it’s hovering in place. Helicopters and drones can produce a similar effect (in fact, pranksters have attached very bright LEDs to quadrocopters to make it look like a UFO).
Satellites and the ISS can also move across the sky in an eerie fashion, and can appear especially bright depending on atmospheric conditions and their position relative to the Sun.
Military Experiments or Aircraft
The late 1940s and early 1950s were a great time for spotting UFOs and aliens in New Mexico, primarily because that’s where the Air Force was conducting some of its top-secret research. One such program was known as Project Mogul and involved floating microphone-carrying balloons to high altitudes in an attempt to pick up the sound waves generated by Soviet atomic bomb tests. The Air Force has since confirmed that a 1947 crash of one of those balloons created the debris that birthed the Roswell UFO Incident (more on that below).
On another occasion, residents of County Cowley, Kansas, thought a UFO had been captured and was being transported through town. Much to the dismay of ufologists, a spokesperson for Northrop Grumman (an aircraft manufacturer) revealed that the object was a covered wingless version of its X-47B craft being transported from California’s Edwards Air Force Base to Patuxent River, Maryland. It was further explained that they shrink-wrapped the rest of the fuselage after taking the wings off the drone for the cross-country road trip.
A Hoax or Prank
Crop Circles Are Just Made By Humans
Despite countless admissions from pranksters, people continue to believe that crop circles are a message from aliens. However, conspiracy theorists argue that “that’s what they’d like us to believe“…
The Face on Mars Is An Illusion
Was the discovery of a face on Mars an example of alien architecture? No, but it’s a great example of pareidolia.
This phenomenon – detecting something clear and distinct from an apparently obscure stimulus – is called “pareidolia“. Carl Sagan hypothesized that, as a survival technique, human beings are “hard-wired” from birth to identify the human face. This allows people to use only minimal details to recognize faces from a distance and in poor visibility but can also lead them to interpret random images or patterns of light and shade as being faces. If you look at modern high resolution images of the Face on Mars, it’s clearly just the shape of the natural landscape.
The Roswell Incident and Alien Autopsy Was a Hoax
In 1995, a grainy, black-and-white film surfaced that had supposedly been shot by the military shortly after the Roswell incident in 1947 (which we previously discussed was the crash from Project Mogul). The video shows a post-mortem dissection of an alien body, and was touted as evidence of what some UFO buffs had claimed all along: that alien bodies had been recovered from the Roswell crash site by the U.S. government.
Soon after the alien autopsy footage was broadcast on Fox television, serious doubts were raised about its authenticity. Skeptics (and even many UFO researchers) branded the film a hoax, pointing out anachronisms and inconsistencies in the film. In 2006, the special effects artist who created the alien body shown in the video confessed that it was in fact an elaborate hoax.
The Term “Flying Saucer” is the Result of Poor Reporting
The familiar term “flying saucer” is actually the result of a reporter’s error. After interviewing Kenneth Arnold about his sighting, a reporter from the Eastern Oregonian newspaper reported that Arnold saw round, aerial objects (in fact he said they were “crescent shaped”). Arnold said that the objects “flew erratic, like a saucer if you skip it across the water”—not that what he saw resembled an actual saucer.
Yet that “saucer” interpretation stuck, prompting many eyewitnesses to repeat (and hoaxers to duplicate) Arnold’s nonexistent description. This strongly shows the role of suggestion in UFO sightings; as skeptic Marty Kottmeyer asks, “Why would extraterrestrials redesign their craft to conform to [the reporter’s] mistake?” Also, one should ask, “Where were all the UFO sightings before the article was publicized by mass media?”
Alien Abductions Are a Product of Our Culture
In The Demon-Haunted World, astronomer Carl Sagan points out that the alien abduction experience is remarkably similar to tales of demon abduction common throughout history.
“There is no spaceship in these stories. But most of the central elements of the alien abduction account are present, including sexually obsessive non-humans who live in the sky, walk through walls, communicate telepathically, and perform breeding experiments on the human species. Unless we believe that demons really exist, how can we understand so strange a belief system, embraced by the whole Western world (including those considered the wisest among us), reinforced by personal experience in every generation, and taught by Church and State? Is there any real alternative besides a shared delusion based on common brain wiring and chemistry?”
(Source: The Demon Haunted World, by Carl Sagan)
Alien Implants Aren’t From Aliens
It is claimed that aliens have implanted various objects in human abductees. Victims claim to have found small objects in their bodies and come to the conclusion they must have been abducted. Some alien implants have even been recovered, and when they are tested, they are found to be indestructible or of materials not found on Earth. Really?
Using the magic of science, we can test this.
Joe Nickell, a columnist for Skeptical Inquirer magazine, noted that, “Since 1994, alleged implants have been surgically recovered but they’ve become remarkably diverse: one looks like a shard of glass, another a triangular piece of metal, still another a carbon fiber, and so on. None was located in the brain or nasal cavity, instead being recovered from such extremities as toe, hand, shin, external ear, etc.; some were accompanied by scars while others were not. As physicians know, a foreign object can enter the body unnoticed, as during a fall, or while running barefoot in sand or grass—even as a splinter from a larger impacting object.” People find all sorts of weird things in their bodies, but so far none are of alien origin.
SETI is Actively Looking For UFOs
UFOs are usually observed by untrained people and almost never by professional or amateur astronomers who spend their lives staring up at the skies looking for extraterrestrial life. They’re never captured in picture or video with high end optical equipment that can be properly analyzed in greater detail. Isn’t that a bit odd? Don’t you think that since SETI (whose sole mission is to find extraterrestrial life) would have found something, anything – anything! – that could confirm at least one of the many alleged UFO videos or pictures out there?
Also, one would think that with the increased availability of smart phones to take video and photos, you’d see many more high quality videos and photos of UFOs, but in fact, the videos are just as lousy – they’re out-of-focus and just as shaky.
The Drake Equation
The Drake Equation, developed by Frank Drake in 1961, is a tool to estimate the odds of finding intelligent life in the universe. The estimates for the variables are rife with debate, but as technology improves, the estimates for each of the variables become more accurate.
Plug in some numbers and try it out for yourself – the odds are still exceptionally low that intelligent alien life is even out there, let alone hovering in our backyard.
Just because “we don’t know” doesn’t make it a UFO
Now, since the majority of UFOs can be explained, what about the ones that can’t? One must be careful to not fall into the trap of “just because we can’t explain it, therefore, aliens”.
Sure, there are some cases of UFOs that are legitimately unidentifiable – that is, we still don’t know what they are. But the fact that some pilots or scientists claim that cannot think of an explanation is not proof that they have observed an extraterrestrial spacecraft. It simply means they don’t know what they saw.
It seems reasonable to believe that the main reason we can’t explain some UFO sightings is because we simply do not have enough evidence. If we had more evidence, these sightings could very likely be explained by conventional means.
But you can’t prove what I saw was NOT a UFO!
Another common tactic of UFOlogists is to claim that the skeptic cannot prove that what was seen was not an alien craft. One is supposed to infer from this fact that the perception probably was of an alien craft. This kind of reasoning is known as the argumentum ad ignorantiam. A claim does not become true or reasonable if a contrary claim cannot be proved to be true. With arguments for UFOs there are two distinct moves here.
One is to claim that no logical explanation is possible because some scientist, pilot, Air Force Colonel, or Ph.D. cannot think of one. This logical fallacy is known as the “Argument from Authority”. If an authority says “it’s gotta be a UFO, then it’s gotta be a UFO”. Not true.
The other is to point to the lack of contrary evidence: no counter-testimony of other eyewitnesses, no proof that there were not aliens or alien spacecraft. Here, too, there is a logical fallacy. The fact that someone can’t come up with an explanation for something is irrelevant to deciding whether the correct explanation should be couched in terms of aliens from outer space.
The choice is not either (A) we know this explanation is correct or (B) we must conclude that aliens have visited us.
The Bottom Line
Of the many paranormal ideas/mysteries/legends out there, UFOs and “intelligent aliens” are at least somewhat plausible – though unfortunately I think there is an reasonably high probability that the human race will never encounter intelligent beings from outer space. But one can hope that one day, extraordinary evidence will presented and we will celebrate the proof that we are not alone in this universe…