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UFO research is up in the air: Can it be scientific?

Sounds Sciencey

Sharon Hill

August 28, 2013

A few months back, a British anomaly investigation organization announced the possible death of UFOlogy. They admitted that failure to provide proof that UFOs were extraterrestrial craft and a decline in the number of UFO reports suggests that aliens do not exist after all. Was this the end of “UFOlogy”—the study of UFOs? “No way! It's alive and well here,” said the U.S. UFOlogists. So it is. But what is the real status of the study of UFOs?

The UFO research field is having a bit of a crisis these days. Reports come in by the hundreds. There are not enough people to investigate them. Yet, decades of UFO research by private and military organizations have resulted in disappointment for those who surely thought there was something out there to reveal. Many of the historic figures of UFOlogy are aging or have passed away. Who is doing the work now? And what exactly are they doing?

The major organization remaining in the U.S. for investigating UFO sightings is MUFON, the Mutual UFO Network. MUFON is not in good shape. Their stated mission is to conduct scientific investigation of UFO reports for the benefit of mankind. But there is dispute about their ability to actually do that. The current version of MUFON, according to those observing the situation, is focused on everything except proper UFO investigation and is nowhere near scientific. Membership in the organization has fallen off and some local MUFON groups are disgruntled. Leadership upheavals over the past few years may have been distracting and overall, they are experiencing a serious case of mission creep.

MUFON consists of chapters covering each state across the country who operate somewhat independently with members paying dues to the main headquarters. They promote a scientific method. But do they actually accomplish that goal? Recent commentators say no, they do not. The focus in local MUFON chapters meetings these days is decidedly unscientific with talks on alien abduction, conspiracy theories, human-ET hybrids, hypnotic regression, and repressed memories. That's a wide range of pseudoscience in one place. It's dragging down the credibility of the entire subject as well as missing the point of improving actual UFO investigations.

A comprehensive two-part piece recently appeared online describing the changing of the guard at MUFON that is installing its fourth director since 2009. The UFO Trail blog critiques the current status the field and takes note of the rising voices in the community, some of whom wish to elevate the investigations and methods out of the realm of pseudoscience. Author of The UFO Trail, Jack Brewer, is critical of the current methodology, characterized it as “sham inquiry”—a label I used to describe amateur paranormal investigation and one he thought also applied in this case.

The newly named director of MUFON, Jan Harzon, states that UFOlogy is a science and intends to put a scientific face back on UFO investigations. Their latest symposium, held in Las Vegas this past July had the theme “Science, UFOs, and the Search for ET.” The conference featured presentations from several science professionals (current and former) but did not provide any blockbuster information or do much to promote science.

"We hope to bridge the gap between science and UFOlogy," said Jan Harzan, state director of network's Orange County bureau. "They're one in the same." - Las Vegas Sun (19 July 2013).

Many skeptical critics would dispute the claim that UFOlogy is a science but that depends on how you wish to define “science.” A general definition such as a “systematically collected body of knowledge” is not very descriptive of a subject area that contains a lot of data but few constructive hypotheses to provide a framework. The UFO sighting data is mostly witness reports and much of it is of questionable veracity or too old to be of much value any longer. The National UFO Reporting Center has a database of reported sightings but I haven’t found any compelling reports about flaps or trends to make sense of the data. It could be that I’m not reading cutting-edge UFO research but if there really was a good report that solidly concluded that there was a pattern and subsequent explanation for UFO flaps, I would be interested. I would hope I’d have heard of it, at least from those who have a more in-depth knowledge. But, as with claims of proof of psychics or hauntings, we only have popular, often biased reports about particular events from individuals that have a belief to promote. Those case studies in addition to being problematic in their accuracy (since it’s hard to confirm many of the events via witnesses), are not robust enough to aid in explaining the phenomenon.

The discussion coming from a small group of today's modern UFO researchers suggests that UFOlogy is on the wrong track these days. With a focus on abductions, conspiracies, and exopolitics/disclosure, the core of the field is no longer about investigating and identifying what people are reporting to have seen in the sky.

Antonio Paris runs the API Aerial Phenomenon Investigation Team, which has a somewhat different focus than MUFON. He wishes to return to the “nuts and bolts” idea of UFO investigation and get away from the conspiracy and fringe topics that so often dominate the symposiums and local MUFON talks.

I asked Antonio what sorts of tools his organization uses to do investigations. He noted that Internet sites can help identify some of the man-made objects like aircraft and satellite. MUFON also mentions these tools on their sites along with astronomical sites to identify bright celestial objects that are sometimes confusing to people viewing them on the ground. Paris is also familiar with the shape of many military aircraft and says he can typically identify them in association with military bases nearby. API has tackled about 300 or so cases but does not pursue those that look like jokes, hoaxes, or give them nothing to go on. There is no lack of UFO reports. An initial screening to determine viable cases is necessary to remove those cases not worthy of investigation or they would be overwhelmed.

MUFON trains their investigators through a manual and an exam. Paris noted to me that the test requires no specialized skills and many people could potentially pass it without even looking at the manual. The certification as a field investigator is a worthwhile effort by MUFON to standardize their methods and provide a framework for consistency of methods but it's only internal to MUFON. When each MUFON chapter operates pretty much on its own, inconsistency and regional differences creep in. Paris told me he is frustrated by the lack of sharing of information both internally and externally of MUFON noting that an object of interest can fly over a wide area. Coordination of reports that may be of the same object would be a worthwhile effort. Science is dependent on sharing information either through collaboration or peer review of findings. UFOlogy appears weak in that area having no established journal or even an online location for filing results.

Even more fundamental to UFOlogy than answering “Is it a science?” is “Can it ever be scientific?”

UFOs are uniquely difficult to investigate for several reasons. The observation is fleeting. It may not repeat. It is difficult to reproduce. If it remains airborne, it leaves no physical evidence behind, only the story of the witness. The observation is often made in the dark under conditions in which it is difficult (or impossible) to accurately judge size and distance.

The options for making a UFO into an IFO (identified) are many and various. Along with the typical reports (satellites, aircraft, flares and planets), we have more man-made things in the air now than ever: experimental balloons and aircraft, weather balloons, Chinese lanterns, drones, dirigibles, toys and deliberate hoaxes. Even people can become UFOs.

Can UFOs be scientifically investigated?

If by “scientific” we mean methodical, objective observations in consideration of natural laws, logic and reason, then, yes. I think UFO investigation can be scientific but the sea change that is needed would be pretty huge for the field and I don’t know if they can pull it off. As with paranormal investigators, UFO researchers tend to lean towards the believer side. That’s what keeps them passionate. But it's also their undoing. A bias towards belief in a mystery or in alien craft is the first giant misstep in UFOlogy. The first step for a rejuvenated field to gain credibility is to drop the default belief that ETs are visiting earth and back up to the very basic question, “What, if anything, did this witness see?” Begin looking for real world answers instead of “proof” to support a belief in alien life.

I found a great example of one such sound UFO investigation. Andrew Hansford recently gave an excellent talk at the 2013 Amazing Meeting about how he examined a UFO case from Marblehead, MA. You can see his report here. He was able to glean the best answer and make a solid conclusion from rather few bits of initial information. He used the tools available to him to seek a down-to-earth explanation.

I asked CFI fellow and Skeptical Inquirer UFO columnist Robert Sheaffer his thoughts about scientific investigation of UFOs. It's a bit tricky. Many have assumed it's possible, he says, but it turns out to be more difficult than it seems. Sheaffer has documented the several times “rapid response” teams have been attempted by UFO organizations. It was hoped that by gathering “reliable witness reports,” and implementing a “rapid response team” to capture the UFO with professional filming techniques, better evidence could be put forth for the claim that something worth paying attention to was really occurring.

Rapid response teams turned out to be disappointing, says Sheaffer. Antonio Paris was part of one such team, the “STAR Team” for MUFON. Millionaire Robert Bigelow funded the project. “MUFON has been somewhat tight-lipped about the results,” Sheaffer tells me, “but they are generally conceded to be hugely disappointing.” It did not give them the results they hoped for.

Sheafffer has written about other “rapid response” efforts prior to the STAR Team in his Psychic Vibrations column of July/Aug, 2009 of Skeptical Inquirer. In 1967, J. Allen Hynek proposed and later implemented a national toll-free UFO Hotline. Experienced screeners manned the lines twenty-four hours a day. They contacted local police and/or other investigators who would rush to the scene. Hynek expected this method would yield excellent evidence. Even with the cooperation of the FBI, years later, it did not produce the expected results.

The National UFO Reporting Center, run by Peter Davenport, has had a telephone hotline since 1974.

In 1977, the French government created an agency called GEPAN to investigation UFO reports. After producing nothing convincing, official UFO investigations in France ended in 2004. The British UFO desk was closed in 2009 despite a surge of sighting reports. Nothing was distillable from the reports.

In the late 1990s, the Los Vigilantes of Mexico City was organized to respond to a flap of UFO sightings in the area. Cameras were at the ready to respond to UFO reports on short notice. Sheaffer says, as far as he was aware, they never obtained anything of significance.

MUFON still gets hundreds of cases a month and there is considerable backlog of investigations. That’s a hefty work load for volunteers. There is a need to sort the wheat from the utter chaff but there still are valid means to find out what people probably saw in the sky. Most reports will have a satisfying answer if diligently investigated. But that may not happen or the eyewitness may not accept it.

Paris’s API group is in contact with the new leadership at MUFON and is encouraged that a more sound approach to the field is on the horizon. This may be a new dawn for UFOlogy as the old guard dies away and the new, more centered, serious thinkers take over. UFOlogy is undergoing a transformation once again.

For now, UFOlogy attempts to sound sciencey, but it is not nearly up to the standards to be called “science.” Can it be science? Only with a wholesale change in assumptions and approach. Drop the fascination with conspiracies and abductions—go back to nuts and bolts.

Sharon will be participating in UFOCon14 in Baltimore, Maryland in 2014.

Sharon Hill

Sharon Hill's photo

Sharon Hill specializes in issues of science and the public and runs the Doubtful News website. Sharon can be reached at shill@centerforinquiry.net.