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The UFO Problem: ‘What Are They’ and ‘Where Are They From’ Might be the Wrong Questions

Since the modern concept of UFOs first appeared on the cultural landscape in the late 1940s, a number of civilian and government studies have been conducted in order to try to study the phenomenon and assess what elements may characterize it.

Opinions remain divided more than 70 years later, and many researchers and theorists continue to argue about the nature of UFOs, and whether they represent a unified, unexplained phenomenon, or if there are many elements that contribute to a cultural idea that we collectively refer to as “UFOs”.

There are merits to both positions, and many people that take the UFO idea serious enough to study it acknowledge this. Within the broader body of UFO reports are undoubtedly countless claims of sightings of unusual things that can likely be ruled out as misperceptions, hoaxes, and other similar sources.

A NOAA weather balloon (public domain).

Here, the UFO advocate will assert that a distinction must be made: when we discuss truly unexplained aerial phenomena or, as longtime researcher Bruce Maccabee has called them, “TRUFOs”, we mean aircraft or objects that are not the result of hoaxes or misperceptions, and which bear genuinely anomalous characteristics.

Although making this distinction helps, it brings us to one of the most fundamental questions in all of UFO study and research: even if we can agree that there are “unknowns”, what are they, and what are their origins?  

Many who take interest in the subject—both believers and skeptics—operate under a fundamental bias that discussion of UFOs is equivalent to speculations about extraterrestrial visitors. Critics may confidently proclaim things like, “a good UFO sighting or report still does nothing to prove that aliens are visiting,” while advocates may similarly argue that, “some areas of UFO research, while of merit, don’t help us prove that UFOs are spaceships.”

Such arguments illustrate the problem on both sides: whether they do or don’t believe the UFO reports in question, the extraterrestrial bias is fundamentally the same.

(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“The ETH is a strong claim,” wrote Allan Hendry in his 1979 book The UFO Handbook. During the 1970s, Hendry worked for a period at J. Allen Hynek’s Center for UFO Studies, and used the data he compiled during that period to author one of the most important, and yet often overlooked and underrated books on the subject.

“[S]trong claims require strong evidence,” Hendry wrote, “evidence of a kind that has not manifested itself in thirty years. The burden of proof is on the shoulders of the ETH claimants and the strain is starting to show. More and more UFOloglsts are seeking alternative (but equally extraordinary) explanations to the ETH for the high-strangeness UFOs.”

As an illustration of this, Hendry described a 1976 conference in Chicago where 53 participants were handed a questionnaire asking them to what they thought the UFO phenomenon was attributable. Hendry gave the results as follows:

  • An extraterrestrial source: 28
  • Other: 28
  • No Answer: 2
  • A civilization on earth: 1

“Just what does ‘Other’ include?” Hendry asked, noting the appearance of theories about UFOs ranging from inhabitants of parallel realities to interdimensionals, the “ultraterrestrials” favored by the late John Keel, “metaterrestrials,” hollow-earth inhabitants (with a nod back to the 1940s “Shaver Mystery” stories), and even remnants of the long-lost continent of Atlantis.

“None of these has made much impact,” Hendry noted, “since they constitute nothing more than wild speculation, but they do all reflect one common feature: the need to find an extraordinary solution for the UFO reports. This is necessary to account for the extraordinary observations… providing the observations are accepted at face value.”

Hendry, although too skeptical to the liking of many of his contemporaries, had a firm grasp on the problems that “UFO theorizing” often presented. Attempting to find commonality between UFO reports and then reducing them down to a single overarching theory about their origins may actually counterproductive.

Allan Hendry (Credit: Center for UFO Studies)

In Hendry’s view, “this leads to a blanket explanation for them all and strikes me as an error in judgment, as the different UFO subtypes all suggest different natures.”

“I do not believe that thee is a single UFO phenomenon,” Hendry argued, warning that the propensity among some researchers to toss seemingly unrelated anomalous occurrences into the mix of UFO studies was “directionless,” and may do more harm than good.

What Hendry illustrates here is that in our need to “know” what UFOs are, and where they come from, we may be setting ourselves up for failure as researchers. In other words, just like the believers (and skeptics) who presume that talk of UFOs and extraterrestrials are mutually exclusive, attributing UFO studies broadly to any single, overarching “theory” could be misleading.

However we look at it, there is a genuine phenomenon present with UFOs. Even if we could presume that all such observations are misperceptions, delusions, and the like, that alone would still constitute a social and psychological phenomenon worthy of study. For my own part, I feel that there is more than this to a number of the better UFO reports collected over the years, pointing to a physical reality behind many of them… whatever that reality may be.

Hence, there is something here worthy of studying, and doing so might even be beneficial for humankind. However, as we proceed with the study of all the things we call “UFOs,” it will actually help us in the long run not to leap to conclusions about what they might be, and instead keep an open, but discerning mindset as we proceed.


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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