The pseudo-science of Ufology can be said to be in its’ infancy, as it is little more than half a century old. The term ‘flying saucer’ was first prevalent and can be traced to June 24, 1947, when private pilot Kenneth Arnolds reported sightings of nine luminescent, crescent-shaped objects, flying at incredible speeds. What he described as resembling “a saucer skipping over water,” made newspaper headlines as “flying saucers” (Stacy, UFO Evidence).The subsequent coining of the acronym UFO for ‘Unidentified Flying Object’ may be attributed to Captain Edward J. Ruppetts in 1951 – 1953, in his role as Director of the U.S. Air Forces’ ‘Project Blue Book,’ whose mandate was to investigate reports of UFOs. A UFO may be defined as,
the reported perception of an object or light seen in the sky or upon the land, the
the appearance, trajectory and general dynamic and luminescent behavior of which
do not suggest a logical, conventional explanation and which is not only mystifying
to the original percipients but remains unidentified after close scrutiny of all
available evidence by persons who are technically capable of making a
commonsense identification, if one is possible. (J. Allen Hyneck, qtd. in Stacy, UFO Evidence).
Hyneck categorizes UFO experience into nocturnal lights, daylight discs, radar, CE-1: Close Encounters of the First Kind, which include observation at close quarters, CE-2: Close Encounters of the Second Kind, with reported physical evidence, such as ground traces and electromagnetic effects, CE-3: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in which both objects and occupants are reported and CE-4: Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind, which denotes reported abductions by aliens. (Berliner, UFO Evidence). Whatever may be the status of Ufology itself, it is an undisputed fact that “UFOs are arguably the most widely reported unexplained mysteries of this or any other century” (Stacy, UFO Evidence).
As supported by Gallup polls, Ufology remains the pseudo-science with the largest number of adherents: 70% of Americans profess to believe in UFOs. The believers contend that even if the vast majority of reported sightings of UFOs are subsequently identified or traced to hoaxes or psychological phenomena, there still remains a substantial 25% of sightings which cannot be explained away. Another basis of their argument is that UFO sightings have, by and large, been reported by witnesses usually perceived as reliable: air force and airline pilots. A third contention is that UFO reports all exhibit a certain consistency of character: the objects are symmetrically shaped as spheres, cylinder or discs, all of which do not qualify for optimum aerodynamics in human terms. they travel at incredible speeds which no known aircraft has yet reached. they are luminescent. they emit invisible radioactive energy. they interfere with electrical systems. they emanate odors of ozone or formaldehyde. they are solid, with no obvious aerodynamic features. These supporters discount the commonly held view that most UFOs are secret military aircraft by saying that such secrets could not be concealed over decades and make no sense in political or economic terms. This leads them to the conclusion, by default as it were, that UFOs must be extraterrestrial in origin (MUFON Web site). The other argument mustered by believers is the claim of physical evidence, such as ground traces of impact, radar evidence and reports of debris. Large numbers of people persist in believing in UFOs and accuse scientists of condescendingly relegating Ufology to the fringes of science and disdaining to make scientific inquiries into the veracity of reported sightings. The widespread contention is that official secrecy, based on national security, hampers investigations into UFOs.
At the other end of the spectrum stands the traditional science establishment which steadfastly refuses to acknowledge Ufology as a mainstream science. Their stand can be encapsulated in the ‘residue fallacy,’ which holds that “there will always be cases which remain unexplained because of lack of data, lack of repeatability, false reporting, wishful thinking, deluded observers, rumors, lies and fraud. A residue of unexplained cases … can never constitute evidence” (Hudson Hoagland, qtd. in Oberg, New Scientist Magazine). Scientists dismiss Ufology as a ‘sterile science,’ and contend that, instead of conclusively and scientifically proving the validity of cases, its’ adherents conveniently shift the burden of proof to the skeptics, who are asked to prove the falsehood of each report. The main villain of the piece is the media, which publicizes each reported UFO sighting in attention-grabbing headlines, but ignores or confines to a back page, the subsequent reports of identification or explanation. The similarity of UFO sightings are not consistent proofs of validity, as claimed by the believers, but the natural outcome of the widespread UFO culture familiar to everybody. After all, many people telling the same story does not constitute proof!!
Let us consider some notable UFO reports, which believers hold up as proofs. The ‘crop circles’ in fields in England in the 1970s and 1980s, which exhibited complex geometrical patterns that Ufologists attributed to landings by UFOs, were debunked fifteen years later by the perpetrators themselves: two men in Southern England, who executed the hoax with the nocturnal use of rope and boards (Sagan, Nova Online)! The July 1947 Roswell incident, in which the U.S. military was supposed to have concealed its’ recovery of the debris of a crashed UFO, was later shown to involve the remnants of clusters of balloons used in a classified U.S. Government operation (code named Project Mogul), to spy on the Soviet Union (Korff, Skeptical Inquirer Magazine). President Carter’s reported sighting of a UFO in 1967 was later acknowledged to be but the misidentification of the planet Venus: a very common error. In all these cases, the initial publicity far outshone the coverage of the subsequent true revelations.
In the light of the above analysis, one cannot but agree with astronomer Carl Sagan’s assertion that “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” (qtd. in Nova Online). A rigorous application of scientific criteria needs to be applied to Ufology, if it is to overcome its’ obviously merited label of a pseudo-science. Validity cannot be based on anecdotal reports which are subject to human fallibility. Unimpeachable reliability of sources, tangible physical evidence which can be subjected to rigorous scientific analysis and verification by other sources are all necessary. The need of the hour is hard proof: not the continued collection of data of reported sightings and Close Encounters and the postulation of theories. In the present scenario, when vestiges of life being discovered in the planets of our solar system, the presence of intelligent extraterrestrial life need not always remain in the realm of science fiction. However, until the day Ufology stands up to scientific examination, I remain firmly in the ranks of the skeptics: albeit with an open mind.
Berliner, Don. UFO Evidence. Terminology of UFOs. 8 December, 2006
<. http://www.ufoevidence.org/documents/doc1984htm >. Korff, Karl K. What Really Happened at Roswell. Skeptical Inquirer magazine,
July/August 1997. 8 December, 2006.
<. http://www.csicop.org/si/9707/roswell.html >. Oberg, James. The Failure of the ‘science’ of Ufology. From New Scientist Magazine, London, October 11, 1979. 8 December, 2006.
<. http://www.debunker.com/texts/ObergCuttySark.html >. Sagan, Carl. Interview with Sagan on Nova Online, 1996. Kidnapped by UFOs?
8 December 2006.
<. http://pbs.org/wgbh/nova/aliens/carlsagan.html >. Stancy, Dennis. UFO Evidence. A Short Introduction to Ufology. 8 December, 2006
<. http://www.ufoevidence.org/documents/doc365.htm >. No Author. MUFON Web site. 1997. Summary of the UFO Phenomenon. 8 December 2006.
<. http://www.temporaldoorway.com/mufonct/summary.htm >.