THERE is no doubt UFOs exist in the sense that people genuinely see things in the
sky that they cannot identify. But the real question is: what do these things
turn out to be on investigation?
Not all reported UFOs can be extraterrestrial spacecraft, and no one pretends
they are. Even UFO believers agree that at least nine reports out of every ten
are readily explicable in known terms. The main culprits are bright stars and
planets, aircraft, meteors, and satellites – although a complete list of misidentifications would be almost endless. UFO
proponents often point to the residue of unexplained cases as proof that there
must be something to UFOs after all, but that’s not so. An unsolved case is not evidence for any theory. If even the most
credible and honest witnesses turn out to be demonstrably wrong nine times out
of ten it is not unreasonable to suppose that all cases would be soluble if we
had sufficient information.
A cornerstone of the UFO believers’ case is that UFOs are reported by trained observers such as pilots and
policemen whose eye-witness testimony would readily be accepted in a court of
law. However, experience shows that they make the same mistakes as everyone
else. (For some illuminating examples from the UK, see here and here.)
J. Allen Hynek, the pro-UFO astronomer who coined the famous term Close
Encounters of the Third Kind, wrote in his book The Hynek UFO Report (p.271 of the paperback edition) that “commercial and military pilots appear to make relatively poor witnesses”. Hynek found that the majority of pilot misidentifications were of astronomical
objects, just as they are for other UFO witnesses. Only slightly better results
were found by Allan Hendry, who investigated over 1,300 cases reported to the
Center for UFO Studies in the US during the course of a year. Hendry found that
he could explain 75% of the sightings from pilots. In the case of sightings by
police officers, the clear-up rate rose to 94%.
Another favourite claim is that the unidentified sightings are somehow
qualitatively different from the ones that are identified, but again Hendry’s experience offers little comfort. Reporting on his findings in The UFO Handbook, Hendry pondered (p.284): “How can I be sure if my remaining “UFOs” aren’t simply IFOs [i.e. identifieds] misperceived to the point of fantasy?”
There is an effect at work which I term the UFO Uncertainty Principle which
states that one cannot have a UFO sighting which is both highly reliable and highly specific. By a reliable sighting I mean one with many independent
witnesses who all agree on what they have seen. When these occur the object is
usually something unspecific like a light in the sky and quickly becomes
identified as a natural or man-made object. By specific sightings, I mean ones
that speak of silvery craft, alien occupants and even abductions – but these are supported by only limited testimony and are highly unreliable.
After more than half a century of world-wide investigation by those who have
dedicated themselves to proving the reality of UFOs, there are still no
Identified Alien Spaceships.
It is a favourite cry of UFOlogists that there is some great government
conspiracy to prevent them – and us – from getting at the truth about UFOs. As more government files relating to UFOs
are released in response to public pressure, the less convincing these claims
become (see, for example, The UK’s Real X Files by David Clarke and Andy Roberts). On the other hand, what has become clear to
experienced researchers is the existence of a different sort of UFO cover-up,
operated by UFO believers themselves who regularly fail to acknowledge
inconvenient evidence which undermines their most cherished cases. Evidence to
substantiate this statement can be found on this web site and in the links
It seems to me that the truth about UFOs is quite simple: it is rooted in human
misperception, human self-delusion, and the quite natural human tendency to
delude others. In other words, UFOs are a terrestrial phenomenon, not an
extraterrestrial one. By studying UFOs we learn not about extraterrestrial life
or interstellar travel but about human nature.
There are those who will be profoundly dissatisfied with this conclusion. I do
not agree. For if searches for alien spacecraft and extraterrestrial radio
signals both fail, there is an even more exciting conclusion to be drawn: there
is only one high-tech civilization in the Galaxy at present, and we are it.
What could be more elevating than the possibility that the stars are the
birthright of the inhabitants of planet Earth?
UK Government attitudes:
■ Click here for the latest release of UK Government UFO files.
■ Click here for a study guide to UFO documents at The National Archives, Kew.
■ As of 2009 November, the UK’s Ministry of Defence closed its UFO Desk as a waste of resources. Click here to read the UK Ministry of Defence’s current official policy on UFOs and here to read its former policy.
■ Click here to read the formerly classified report of a UK government working party on flying
saucers, completed in 1951 but not published for another 50 years, which concluded: “We accordingly recommend very strongly that no further investigation of reported
mysterious aerial phenomena be undertaken, unless and until some material
evidence becomes available.”
■ Click here to read The Condign Report, a formerly secret study of UFO reports collected by the UK’s Ministry of Defence, completed in 2000 and released in 2006 under the Freedom
of Information Act.
■ Click here for an article about the work of the MoD’s UFO desk.
Further skeptical views on the subject of UFOs, with many links to illuminating information not normally
encountered in pro-UFO publications, can be found below.
(from where I borrowed the ‘flying saucer’ image at the top of this page)
■ Rory Coker’s potted history of UFO belief:
© Ian Ridpath
Content last updated 2010 November