Back in the late 1960s, the University of Colorado UFO Project, also known as the “Condon Committee”, issued its final controversial report on scientific findings related to UFOs. Forever since, they have largely been credited with “debunking” UFOs well enough that the subject would never be afforded the serious attention it once had seen, particularly under the early years of the USAF’s Project Blue Book.
Despite the largely damning argument against UFOs, the Condon Committee actually concluded that there were at least some reports in the Blue Book files that appeared to remain valid, as well as unexplained. “To find clear, unambiguous evidence on this point would be a scientific discovery of the first magnitude,” Condon would say in 1969, “one which I would be happy to make.” However, the inexplicable nature of a handful of reports still was not enough to substantiate the idea of UFOs, in the broader sense, to Condon and his group. “We found no such evidence, and so state in our report.”
Interestingly, Condon had later stated that, despite his committee’s own determinations, perhaps one day scientific UFO studies would become warranted again. “Contrary to popular belief,” Condon said shortly after the report was published, “we do not rule out all future study (of UFOs).” In other words, with time, and the acquisition of new knowledge and technologies, perhaps UFOs would become a more worthwhile pursuit.
Maybe now, with the passing of a few decades, and the technological advancements that have occurred since then, the time is right for a renewed scientific interest in UFOs.
A new project with just such aims, UFODDATA, has its sights set on using modern technology for new scientific UFO studies, and in ways that might have been done decades ago, had such resources existed. Led by Mark Rodeghier, scientific director and president of the J. Allen Hynek Center for UFO Studies, along with Professor Alexander Wendt of Ohio State University, the team’s objectives mirror those of past groups that have sought to employ science in solving the UFO mystery, though with hope of bringing a touch of modernity to the endeavor.
“Such a science is needed because of misplaced certainties on both sides of the UFO debate,” the group’s website states. “Believers (are) convinced that UFOs are extraterrestrials, and (skeptics are) equally convinced that UFOs do not even exist. Our own view is that humanity knows very little about the true nature of unexplained UFO reports, and that the only way to resolve this lack of understanding is through serious scientific study.”
It is true that each side of the argument over UFOs has become more and more polarized over time, due to their equally dogmatic approaches. In The Skeptic’s Dictionary, an interesting illustration of this sort of dogmatism is presented by the author, Robert T. Carroll, in the book’s entry on UFOs, where he recalled J. Allen Hynek’s own definition of a UFO as,
“…the reported perception of an object or light seen in the sky or upon land 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.”
“That is,” Carroll went on to write, “if intelligent people cannot devise a rational explanation for an observation of a UFO, then it is reasonable to conclude that what was observed was an alien craft.” Interestingly, it is Carroll here who asserts the “alien” component; Hynek, to his credit, had not (at least in his definition retrieved above). Carroll makes the erroneous assertion that this was the exclusive meaning of Hynek’s statement, rather obviously, based on the dogmatized view among believers that “UFO = alien spaceship”. In playing off of this stereotype, we find that Carroll’s contrary argument is equally biased in its assessment of what a UFO is supposed to be (or not be).
There have been scientists that have approached the subject from a less rigid perspective. One of these had been offered in the written works of William R. Corliss, an American physicist who had sought to study natural anomalies, which included a variety of nocturnal illuminations akin to ball lightning, which often were documented behaving in unusual ways which seemed to run counter to conventional explanations such as meteors, distant automobile headlights, illusions or refractions, and similar misleading effects.
Another similar approach was presented by physicist Harvey D. Rutledge, in a rather obscure book on the subject titled Project Identification: The First Scientific Field Study of UFO Phenomena. Rutledge, a skeptic himself, was slowly persuaded to visit a small town in Missouri called Piedmont, where a purported UFO flap had been occurring. When he began to observe a number of unusual illuminations himself through binoculars, he gradually began to feel that there was something worthy of further study, and began employing time-lapse photography and other equipment that included a Questar telescope in an effort to document the phenomena being observed. Over the course of the project, Rutledge had received the help of 620 volunteers, many of them students, over a period of seven-years.
Throughout the course of their observations, Rutledge and his associates began to feel that the objects, obviously physical in nature, somehow were able to interact with, and perhaps also anticipate certain actions they made. An example of this had been the way the objects would seemingly change their behavior in conjunction with having a finger pointed at them, or when a camera was aimed in their direction (admittedly, the latter point would no doubt present endless fodder for the more cynically inclined).
Despite the interest that small groups of individuals have given the UFO subject over the years, if anything deemed convincing by academic institutions had been discovered, it would seem that a lot more interest would have resulted. The fact that the subject remains relegated to the lunatic fringe is both telling, and also unfortunate, in that while we see that there is little of a physical nature to substantiate UFO claims, this may not (or in the opinion of this author, resolutely does not) warrant an outright dismissal.
With the unsteady ground upon which the future of UFO research now rests, it will inevitably be left to the kinds of smaller groups we have recognized here that, like Rodeghier and Wendt’s current UFODATA group, will hope to provide that “breakthrough” data which may help garner more official attention.
Ambitious though it may be, the past has shown that attempting to draw praise for UFO research from the scientific community could be likened to moving a mountain with a shovel; it would be quite a chore, but eventually the job might be completed, with enough time and dedication.
For any progress to be made, eventually one has to begin digging somewhere, don’t they?