NEW YORK - If you’re reluctant to believe the latest round of media claims that alien spacecraft are lurking around our airspace and surprising U.S. Navy pilots, well, you are not alone.
The New York Times leaned toward aliens as the reason navy pilots have seen unexplained flying objects, and The Washington Post made a similar case in its news coverage followed by a guest editorial: “UFOs exist and everyone needs to adjust to that fact.” Others followed suit. Congress is getting classified briefings.
But the pro-extraterrestrial visitation arguments rest on two serious errors. One is the confusion of observations with interpretations, and the other is a slight twist on an error called god of the gaps. The UFO sightings should be investigated in a scientific way, but the errors are undermining the effort.
The first error made in most of the news coverage was to claim that navy pilots observed aircraft that accelerated, rose upwards or turned faster than is physically possible. But pilots can’t know any object’s speed or rate of acceleration without knowing whether these were little things seen close up or bigger things that were farther away. It’s just one clue that the vocabulary is being blurred.
James Oberg, a former NASA engineer turned space journalist, pointed out: “The bizarre events reported by navy pilots are not ‘observations’; they are interpretations of what the raw observations might mean.” To start an investigation from a conclusion rather than from data is, he says, “a recipe for confusion and frustration and dead-ended detours.”
Oberg says it is telling that as our detection technology gets better, rather than seeing crystal-clear images of the fuzzy old 20th-century UFO observations, we are seeing “a new flavor of ‘anomalies’ that precisely match the limits of vision of new technologies.”
The other error cropped up many times when I wrote newspaper stories about evolution. Readers would sometimes write in to argue that if scientists couldn’t completely explain some phenomenon — say, the origin of DNA — then it must be an act of God. Theologians sometimes use the term “god of the gaps” to describe the erroneous use of supernatural explanations for natural phenomena that aren’t yet explained. The same thing is happening with UFOs, with alien visitors being used to fill gaps in our understanding of the latest detection technology, the sky and human vision.
The arguments for extraterrestrial UFOs falsely equate the possibility that extraterrestrial life exists with the plausibility that it’s visiting us and lurking around, neither cloaking nor announcing itself. Yes, there are a bunch of other planets out there, and some might harbor life forms, but why should we assume they’d want to come here? Are we really that exciting? If we take the possibility of these visitors seriously, we should clean up this place.
Extraterrestrial visitors and gods fall into the same category of unscientific explanation because they haven’t shown themselves to humanity in a coherent enough way for claims about them to be tested.
Many UFOs have been explained scientifically. The U.S. Air Force conducted studies starting in 1947, and continuing through the 1960s, when, after a congressional hearing, the matter was turned over to a panel of civilian scientists headed by physicist Edward Condon at the University of Colorado.
The committee investigated hundreds of cases, and explained most, but not all of them, as reflections, equipment glitches, balloons, astronomical phenomena and human-built craft. Len Finegold, a retired physics professor, had worked at the university during the Condon investigation and consulted on a few cases. One, he said, involved a woman whose car was mysteriously stopped, and then was found to be magnetized. It all sounded very mysterious, but it turned out that some degree of magnetization is a normal result of the manufacturing process.
I asked him whether the lack of explanation for some cases worried him. There are plenty of unexplained phenomena left in physics, he said, “so we’re used to that.” Mysteries of life may or may not one day be solved, but in the meantime, let’s get comfortable with the gaps.
Science writer Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She has written for the Economist, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Psychology Today, Science and other publications. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology.