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Dangerous Doubt: Unwarranted UFO Skepticism May Be at Odds With National Security

There is an old Chinese curse (at least according to one former British statesman) which goes, “may you live in interesting times.” I think few would doubt that these are interesting times, particularly as it relates to the subject of UFOs.

No matter where you stand on the issue, it can’t be denied that there is a renewed interest in unusual aerial phenomenon at present. The subject has continued to receive credible attention in the popular media in the last several months, with publications like The New York Times, Washington Post, Bloomberg, and Politico all reporting on potential “unknowns” in our skies with mostly straight faces.

More impressive are the recent statements by the U.S. Navy, who announced last week that they would be upping their game in relation to study of unexplained aerial phenomenon, or UAP.

And why wouldn’t they? If there are unidentified aircraft which could pose a potential threat to national security operating in our airspace, I think it would be safe to say that most Americans would want their government to take such matters seriously. Most people elsewhere around would probably like their governments to do the same.

If what the U.S. Navy has had to say on the subject lately is any indication, this appears to be precisely what’s going on. “There have been a number of reports of unauthorized and/or unidentified aircraft entering various military-controlled ranges and designated air space in recent years,” read one portion of a recent Navy statement on the issue, as reported by Politico.

Quite obviously, there has been a shift in attitudes lately (or at very least this is the appearance being given publicly). Brian Bender, who authored the piece for Politico, noted that “To be clear, the Navy isn’t endorsing the idea that its sailors have encountered alien spacecraft. But it is acknowledging there have been enough strange aerial sightings by credible and highly trained military personnel that they need to be recorded in the official record and studied — rather than dismissed as some kooky phenomena from the realm of science-fiction.”

Yes, if there is any reasonable potential that these unidentified aircraft or objects–whatever their nature or origins might be–could pose a security threat to the United States and other nations, then surely the matter warrants serious attention. But as Bender noted in his article, all-too-often such things have been dismissed in the past “as some kooky phenomena from the realm of science-fiction.”

Since their arrival on the cultural scene in the late 1940s, the objects that had first been dubbed “flying saucers” immediately captured our imaginations. What else could these objects be, if they don’t appear to be anything of our own, and greatly exceed the capabilities of known technologies here on Earth? However, as the U.S. Air Force and other agencies around the world began to take the matter seriously, it quickly became evident that not all of the flying objects were saucers. In fact, it might be argued that reports of disc-shaped craft were in the minority, and merely one area in a broader emerging mythos of peculiar things seen in the skies. For this reason, Edward Ruppelt, the first chief of the USAF’s Project Blue Book, coined the term unidentified flying object or UFO, in order to promote the concept in more ambiguous terms.

This might have helped somewhat at the outset. However, with time the subject became steadily more sensational, with stories of the “saucers” flooding the pages of popular books and magazines. Far-out claims from opportunists like George Adamski further insinuated that “Space Brothers” were behind the non-existent saucers he had claimed to photograph, as told to him telepathically by a pleasant chap from Venus who dropped in for a visit with him in 1952. With time, and further outlandish claims about the “saucer people” made by other would-be UFO cultists following in Adamski’s footsteps, it was only a matter of time before the subject would be relegated to the lunatic fringe.

We don’t need to go into a detailed history of UFOs here in order to get the point across that a subject which otherwise should have been of great interest to the military and science communities became co-opted by fringe claims and, over time, steadily delegitimized. The entire blame can’t be laid on the shameless opportunists though; there were plenty of serious UFO researchers that sprang forth in advocacy of their extraterrestrial origins, and in equal measure, there were plenty of skeptics who, from the outset, were unwilling to entertain any ideas about anything so seemingly outlandish as “flying saucers.”

In terms of popular opinion, while various polls over the years have continued to show both interest, and belief in UFOs, the consensus majority in the scientific community has largely been that UFO research is a form of pseudoscience; an opinion offered mostly in response to popular writing on the subject. With the recent statements by the U.S. Navy about its updated UFO reporting procedures, which noted similar expected practices on part of the US Air Force, it does at least seem that the subject is being taken seriously again by some government groups.

Writing for Open Minds, Alejandro Rojas commented on the Politico piece, noting that, “[I]t would seem this stigma has caused the military to do a lot of linguistic gymnastics in the past when it comes to UFOs. It seems intuitively obvious that the military would be interested in aircraft entering U.S. airspace that cannot be identified.”

While there are probably a lot of reasons why government agencies might steer clear of the UFO subject, I agree with Alejandro that the stigmas associated with the subject, and the skepticism that has often resulted from it, hasn’t helped. Which brings us to an interesting question: could unwarranted skepticism pertaining to UAP studies actually do more harm than good?

In many ways, I count myself as a “hopeful skeptic” when it comes to subjects like UFOs. I don’t profess to know what they might be, so I suspend judgment on the matter until data forthcoming warrants having an opinion. On the other hand, I wish to have little to do with movements or ideologies associated with “Skepticism” (note the capital “S” here… for more on the inherent problems with such groups, see John Horgan’s excellent blog at Scientific American on why it’s sometimes necessary to apply a bit of healthy skepticism to Skeptics). While I’m intrigued by the idea that our Navy and Air Force have monitored unknown aircraft in our skies and express some concern about them, I am by no means convinced that this is equivalent to “proof” that extraterrestrials are visiting Earth. I simply have no way of knowing, or proving conclusively, what the origins of these objects might be.

However, if they are apparent enough to our military that they continue to be studied, that alone should say something. Further, I worry about ideological skeptics who might dispute such apparent phenomena, based mostly on lingering stigmas of the past rather than information being conveyed in a serious manner at the governmental level. At least in any official capacity, there appear to be few making any claim to the fact that these things are “alien” technology… not our spokespeople at the Navy, nor the Air Force, nor those journalists at The New York Times, Washington Post, Bloomberg, and Politico who have all been gradually inching toward career suicide in order to report on a “forbidden” subject that, based on the military’s aforementioned attitude, should absolutely be taken seriously. 

Further, while there is no evidence that our military’s interactions with UAP they have observed or engaged have presented any kind of a threat, their presence alone–as unidentified objects in military airspace–nonetheless presents a security concern. Hence, again I think it is fair to argue that unwarranted skepticism toward this subject may actually conflict with logical national security interests. Fortunately, the military doesn’t appear to be maintaining this attitude themselves… not anymore, at least.

Interesting times indeed… although to add a final thought to all of this, my intention is not to dismiss skepticism, nor is it to attack those who are critical of the UFO subject. I actually think that a critically-minded approach is the best way to engage such subjects. A simple look at some of the classic books on UFOs–or any subject generally deemed “paranormal”–usually offers a number of fringe claims that haven’t aged very well; time, and accessibility to better information, often causes us to have to rethink old ideas (there are dozens of examples of this, although Nick Redfern gives a good summary of one of my favorites in his article here, where a hoax that was taken out of context became a pillar of “evidence” for many authors in the cryptozoology genre).

We need skepticism, quite simply, because getting to the bottom of our world’s mysteries also requires critical thinking and logic. However, we also need to be able to determine instances where some of our inherent skepticism may be unfounded; I think the recent military discussion of UFOs–whatever they might represent–and the security concerns they have raised presents such an occasion.

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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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