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The UFO Enigma: What Can Be Said About Anecdotal Evidence?

What is the reality — if any exists at all — behind the UFO phenomenon?

This question has been asked for decades already, and still we collectively don’t seem to have any real answers that help instruct us as to whatever “reality” may constitute serious, tangible data on UFOs.

Way back in 1955, Edward Ruppelt, the first director of the USAF’s Project Bluebook, wrote that, “I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess as to what the final outcome of the UFO investigation will be, but I am sure that within a few years there will be a proven answer.”

I often wonder if Ruppelt would ever have foreseen that well after the turn of the next century, we would still be awaiting that final “proven answer” that he anticipated.

At the very least, we might say that, based on what anecdotal evidence has been collected in UFO witness testimony since the end of World War II, there appear to have been varieties of unusual aircraft seen in our skies for decades now. Their origin, however, remains a matter of conjecture, due to the lack of physical evidence to support the range of theories that have been proposed in this regard.

Hence, with little more than decades of witness testimony, and the occasional (though scant) physical evidence that turns up rarely, perhaps one of the most important questions that should be asked is, “how useful is the anecdotal evidence at our disposal?”

At this point, it would seem appropriate that I give a disclaimer: what follows in this article is intended for readers that are still perplexed by the subject of UFOs, as I am, and are willing to ask serious, sober, and scientifically-informed questions about it. The points addressed will likely be of disdain to the willful believers that are already “certain” (in their minds, at least) of an extraterrestrial reality, and of space brothers who came here long ago to instruct humankind, or perhaps even save us from our own destructive potentials. In equal measure, dogmatic skeptics may be similarly discouraged from bothering with reading further; particularly those who have convinced themselves that nothing exists behind any UFO reports whatsoever (even those which seem indicative of clandestine, experimental manmade aircraft… which constitutes a perfectly reasonable potential solution to at least some alleged UFO reports).

For those willing to continue in the spirit of open-minded, but discerning skepticism, we must return again to the question of anecdotal data: what does it really tell us about the UFO enigma?

While unable to provide physical evidence that can be tested under laboratory settings, the point is frequently argued that anecdotal evidence, particularly gathered from multiple sources, is often what must be relied upon in a courtroom; especially in cases where physical evidence is lacking. I realize fully that this argument does little to sway the minds of skeptical scientists, who demand (and rightly so!) physical proof before they can commit to belief. However, the point to be made is that in the face of numerous instances where testimonies given by individuals seem to match, or are otherwise relatable in some way, perhaps some anecdotal data should be given consideration, as it is presently all that we have to work with.

Recently, a pairing of questions were posted at the Paracast Forums, where one of the users, operating under the amusing moniker of “Greer’s Event Planner,” raised several points of contention about UFOs in modern times. Among these had been the following:

“As a total body of evidence there is nothing that would pass scientific muster and there are no reliable multiple witness cases that prove the aliens in physical ships hypothesis.”

The thread had been partly in response to a recent appearance on The Paracast’s subscriber show by researcher Paul Kimball (also a friend and colleague of mine), who similarly offered that, “There may be a paranormal / supernatural component to it all, but I don’t see anything that even remotely indicates structured craft from an extraterrestrial source.”

Indeed, while we have a plethora of UFO reports that have piled up over the decades, some of which lend descriptions of strange beings or other phenomena, where has there been any hard evidence of extraterrestrial visitors?

This raises a common, but important misconception about the broader UFO phenomenon: that if proof of unidentified flying objects were obtained, it would therefore mean that proof of aliens exists.

Not so. 

The extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH) has long been a favorite among UFO theorists, but it is by no means a consensus view among UFO advocates. The UFO phenomenon remains far too ambiguous and varied to be able to present a good case for any conclusive origin. If anything, it could be argued that early interpretations of UFOs as being evidence of extraterrestrial visitors probably relied heavily on the influences of science fiction books and films on our culture (both in America, and abroad). Also influential were our expectations about space travel in the coming decades, and our own projections for how space travelers from elsewhere might get here, from the perspective of a civilization only on the cusp of going off-planet ourselves.

Old ideas die hard, of course, and this seems to be the case with the extraterrestrial hypothesis. While it seems evident that a variety of expectations (and misconceptions) were likely informing our bias toward “alien” visitors, that meme has stuck throughout the ages… and still today, many see the concepts of “UFOs” and “aliens” as being indistinguishable.

Perhaps they should never really have become bedmates in the first place.

Returning again to what the anecdotal evidence says, we are faced with myriad problems. For one, there is the issue of the apparent variety of UFO craft reported over the years. While there are some general themes which have emerged consistently — “flying saucers” are probably the most well known of these — the actual variety of UFO craft reported since the end of WWII far exceeds anything that could be expected of a single, systematic survey of Earth by intelligent extraterrestrials. Varieties of craft include discs or saucers, globes, triangles, cigars or torpedo-shaped craft, and other strangely shaped aerial objects.

Granted, the term “daylight discs”, first used by astronomer J. Allen Hynek as a general classification system, didn’t necessarily mean that all such objects were truly “discs.” According to Hynek’s reasoning, this was merely to be used as a general classification system; however, a variety of objects, possessing various shapes, were placed in this category. Hence, many of the “discs”, at least in terms of statistics, actually weren’t discs at all.

Among the myriad types of UFOs that have remained present over the years, there is one type that, in the opinion of this writer, does appear to maintain a particular presence, and consistency, which sets it apart from other UFO category types. These are the so-called “Black Triangles,” which are large, ominous (and often very quiet) aircraft seen passing at relatively low altitudes by cover of night.

Even the Federation of American Scientists have looked into the possible relationship between reports of these aircraft, and possible black project programs, as outlined in the following quote from the FAS website:

“A very intriguing aircraft was been reported in the late 1980s. Some observers claim to have witnessed a vast black flying wing, estimated at between 600 and 800 feet in width, passing silently over city streets in California. The craft moved so slowly one observer claimed that he could jog along with it. The aircraft reportedly executed bizarre maneuvers in which it stopped, rotated in place and hovered vertically, pointing its thin trailing edge toward the ground. This vehicle’s unlikely gyrations suggest that it is distinct from the other sightings, and could be a lighter-than-air craft pushed by slow- turning propellers.”

On a personal note (and in keeping with our discussion about the relevance of anecdotal witness reports), I’ve collected several reports of aircraft like this over the years, which I deem to have been from reliable sources. Among my favorites is the following description, provided to me by a Canadian witness just a few years ago:

“We had noticed a very bright light on the eastern horizon but didn’t take much notice of it until we realized that it was slowly coming directly towards us.  We kept checking in that direction and watched as the now amber light kept coming straight at us.  When it was almost on top of us it was like we became frozen to the spot staring at this light that we could now see had a dark shape behind it.

The triangle flew directly over us. I estimate that it was about 75 – 100 ft. off the ground.  I made this estimate because at one point I realized that it was so low I was concerned that it was going to hit the chimney on our 2 1/2 story house!  We sat transfixed as it seemed to take the triangle forever to pass overhead due to the extremely slow speed that it was travelling at.  I would estimate it was going no more than 10 mph.  As it was about halfway over I realized that the triangle was so massive that it filled my entire field of vision.  We couldn’t make out any detail of the underneath of the triangle; it was just an enormous black shape lit on each corner by an amber light.  I really can’t think of anything to compare the size of the triangle to it was so huge.”

Unlike a lot of UFO reports collected since the beginning of the 1950s, the more recent reports of these “triangles” bear an almost peculiar consistency… enough so that, as the FAS seemed to think by virtue of their analysis of some of the triangle reports, these probably should not be lumped in alongside other typical UFO reports from the last few decades. In likelihood, the triangles are probably a top secret aircraft of some variety, and whether DARPA or some other agency was behind its development, it is the opinion of this writer that this craft is seen often enough, and described consistently enough by witnesses, that it warrants particular attention among those who pay attention to reports of un unusual aircraft in our skies. In other words, here the anecdotal evidence seems to support the idea that there have been a number of legitimate sightings of some variety of aircraft operating in our night skies.

To conclude, we return again to a quote from Edward Ruppelt in his Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, where he said, “Maybe the final proven answer will be that all of the UFO’s that have been reported are merely misidentified known objects. Or maybe the many pilots, radar specialists, generals, industrialists, scientists, and the man on the street who have told me, ‘I wouldn’t have believed it either if I hadn’t seen it myself,’ knew what they were talking about. Maybe the earth is being visited by interplanetary spaceships. Only time will tell.”

Although time has yet to give up the secrets Ruppelt had been looking for, it is with hope that our persistence, and a bit of logic, may yet unravel a few secrets about our world, and the types of things many have reported seeing in our skies for many decades.

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Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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