Why UFOs are hard to prove

Yesterday the Defense Department in Britain released a file of the reports of Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs).  A couple of them are tantalizing observations by seasoned, hard-headed pilots.  An American pilot was ordered to shoot a UFO down, but it seemed to disappear in thin air.  Another pilot was bringing his Alitalia plane into land in London’s Heathrow Airport in 1991.  He saw a missile-shaped object whiz outside his window, his co-pilot saw it, and it was observed on radar by the air traffic controllers.  Investigators have established that it wasn’t a missile, a weather balloon, or a space rocket, and closed the investigation without a clue about what it was.

So given these events and others like it, why aren’t most scientists convinced that we are faced with hard proof that flying objects from outer space are visiting Earth?

To answer this question, it helps to understand why scientific “facts” are never absolute and unchanging.  What science accepts as a fact is based on empirical observations usually by many different scientists in a variety of repeatable conditions.  But that is not all.  Those observations are then explained or given a meaning and it is this explanation (or theory) that often changes.

UFOs, for instance.  Nobody doubts that they have been seen by the hundreds.  The disagreement is about the explanation of what people have seen.  Some UFO sightings seem to be reported by people who in all sincerity are reporting what they think are objective experience but which are hallucinations.  It might be a speck in the observer’s eye, the result drugs, or mental illness.  But not all sightings, by any means, can be dismissed in this way.  Some UFOs are the result of mistaking the identity of familiar flying objects like balloons, our own space craft, miscellaneous bits of space debris, or even birds.  Other sightings are the result of an unusual interplay of light and atmosphere.

But while these may explain the majority of reported UFO sightings, there is a handful that mystify investigators.  Yet most scientists don’t accept them as hard scientific evidence that planet Earth is being visited by alien creatures.  Why not?  Why isn’t the evidence so far scientifically compelling?  The following are some of the reasons:

1.  Although there are many reports of sightings, there is very little physical evidence that has ever been left behind – no vehicles, no stay bits of strange DNA, no food wrappers from an intergalactic Fast Food stop.  So what we have is mostly what people report they have seen and heard, but not the thing itself that has been observed.  We don’t even have any radio messages, though we’ve been listening.

2.  And that makes the observations impossible to replicate.  Generally, when scientists publish an important finding, other scientists try to repeat the study in order to confirm that it can generally be observed by many different people under appropriate conditions.   We can’t do that with the kind of UFO evidence we currently have on hand.

3.  Scientists, being a sceptical lot by nature, look for the simplest explanation before accepting more exotic possibilities.  And most scientists today, although accepting that there are some very strange unexplained things out there, think that there are simpler explanations for UFO sightings than that aliens have come for a visit.

Suppose for instance, your four-year-old daughter came into the kitchen and said she’d just seen a dinosaur walking down the street.  Would your first thought be to believe that she’d actually seen a dinosaur?  or would you tend to test out a simpler explanation first?  Perhaps you might wonder about the local circus in town, or if she’d seen a large lizard.  And if you went out to the street and did not see anything unusual yourself, what would you think?  Many people would probably think that perhaps something strange was happening, but that it probably wasn’t a dinosaur.

Does this mean that science therefore has proof that aliens have never visited Earth?  No, science can never prove the negative, because it’s always possible to argue that we just haven’t found it yet.  Just as it is possible that there is a Loch Ness monster in Scotland, it is possible that some UFOs today are from outer space. 

So what science doesn’t have is proof that some UFOs are aliens from outer space, not proof that they aren’t.

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About Terry Sissons

Terry Sissons is the author of The Big Bang to Now: All of Time in Six Chunks, and this blog is a dialogue about the universe and what’s happened in the last 13 billions years.
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4 Responses to Why UFOs are hard to prove

  1. I’ve seen comments such as yours written many different ways. Yours however is organized, eloquent and complete. To have said it ‘your way’ on Larry King Live, would have at least kept ufology and Bill Nye from arguing to the point of embarrassment.

    Sadly, as much as I would like to post your link in my blogs, I cannot since the UFO believers (of which I am one also) will ignore it and then wonder ‘what was I thinking’ by posting it. lol

  2. To Atrueoriginall: thank you for your comments on my UFO post. I do appreciate comment from readers (especially the positive ones).
    But I wonder why you you think a link to my blog would make UFO believers wonder what you were thinking. In fact, I would think that my posting could even conceivably strengthen the case for alien visitors, because it explains why science hasn’t proved they don’t exist.
    I don’t claim that I myself am a “UFO believer,” but I certainly understand why some people are. And I do know that some of the things that science has presented us with are just as fantastic and mind-boggling as UFOs.

  3. 1. there is very little physical evidence.
    WRONG. There are scorch marks, implants, crop circle damage to the plants, radiation, radar returns, and a host of verifiable artifacts.

    2. impossible to replicate.
    That is only one part of the scientific method. You could catch a fish and that action cannot be “replicated” exactly. Scientists also use inference, statistics, and deduction to add proof to a theory.

    3. look for the simplest explanation
    Good point, and when the simple explanation doesn’t fit the observations, then the open minded scientist will consider other possibilities – something you would HAVE TO consider when a 3-man flight crew reports and object circling their plane, then zipping off at mach 4.

    • Thank you for your comment. You are right, of course, that there are unanswered questions about some things people have found or seen, and one of the possible explanations of these findings are that UFOs have landed on Earth.

      It is, of course, not possible to prove using scientific methods that something did not happen, only that it did. I am not convinced by the evidence, and some of it has turned out to be bogus. Young men here in England have confessed to being the source of many of the crop circles, for instance, in order to increase tourism.

      Nonetheless, there are people who agree with you that the evidence suggests that aliens have visited Earth, just as there are many who, like me, are unconvinced.

      In any case, it is not something on which most people are agreed on. In other words, it’s not a universally agreed conclusion like gravity is, for instance, or acceptance that the world is round rather than flat.

      Again, thank you for your input. It would be interesting to hear from you again.

      Terry Sissons

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