* In search of extraterrestrial visitors


* En busca de visitantes extraterrestres

Do you believe in UFOs? Many people do believe. And they have motivation: the Galaxy is very large, the conditions for life may exist in many places beyond Earth, and many specialists believe that interstellar travel is possible. Since the first one in 1947, UFO cases are now totaling over a million worldwide. But scientists face the problem with a particular way of thinking: the Scientific Method.


According to a Gallup poll of 1977, 87 % of the people have heard or read stories about UFOs and admit having seen something they believe to have been a UFO, though we would have to analyze what they really saw. But statistics released by Mark Cashman (Mutual UFO Network of Connecticut) show that apart from aviators (who work watching the sky), specialized people hardly see UFOs, and when they do, their stories tend to be less fantastical than those of non-prepared people.


What is in heaven? For the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, for Moses, Claudius Ptolemy, Dante Alighieri and other people of antiquity, the sky was inhabited by all sorts of divine beings, but not by earthly beings. By 1600 began to appear the incredulous: Giordano Bruno, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, Christiaan Huygens, Jules Verne and others understood that the Earth is just one of countless worlds that could be inhabited. But the idea that “they” invade us only started in 1889 with H.G. Wells and his “War of the Worlds”. In World War II rockets finally became practical vehicles, and by 1947 Kenneth Arnold and his followers began to see extraterrestrials spaceships everywhere. In addition, from 1955, with George Adamski, UFOs become part of new religions.

Maybe someday the mystery of the existence of extraterrestrials becomes clear. But then, what will we see in the sky? Visitors from the future? Visitors from parallel universes?


News that ETs are coming have caused anything ranging from widespread panic to even tragic suicides. Some argue that the biblical angels are ETs, in disguise, trying to influence the destiny of Humankind. But following a rationale like Larry Robinson did ("UFOs: you've been hoodwinked! Mistakes and misidentifications in UFO research", available at http://midimagic.sgc-hosting.com), after analysis the stories of ETs are definitely much more like plain horror movies than some goodwill or redeeming stories from the Bible. Moreover, James Oberg notes ("Quest for evidence: how to prove you're an alien", OMNI Internet, 1998) that the “contactees” seem to have no more information about outer space than astronomers.

However, Stephen Hawking, during a reception at the White House in 2000, candidly conceded the possibility that actually there is a government cover-up to keep the secret that U.F.O.s really contain extraterrestrial aliens, as many people are convinced of. 

But despite this, how to approach the problem is often wrong. It is common to hear: “Do you believe in UFOs?” In fact, Unidentified Flying Objects do exists. “Do you believe that extraterrestrial beings are visiting Earth?” sounds better. You can respond, “No, I do not think”, but what if I am wrong? Or then “Yes, I do believe?”, but again, what if I am wrong? Ludwig Wittgenstein philosophized in "On certainty" (compiled and edited posthumously by Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe and Georg Henrik von Wright, translated by Denis Paul and G. Elizabeth M. Anscombe, published by Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1969-1975) that knowledge is not something subjective but is objective (paragraphs 415, 245a). One only simply puts forward "I believe" in something when she or he is not able to prove what she or he is putting forward, otherwise, if one is in conditions to prove it, one firmly puts forward that "knows" (550, 432, 245b, 243). A belief can not prove anything; that is the big difference with true knowledge (487, 175, 253, 166, 569). The experimentation and observation of Nature is the only way to know something. (488, 504, 505).  

Scientists are asking other questions: “Are there other advanced civilizations in the Galaxy?” We do not know. “From there, they could reach the Earth?” Yes. “UFOs are proof of their existence?” No. “Are we being visited?” We do not know.

To reach these conclusions, scientists use a particular way of thinking known as the Scientific Method. First, define what is the question. Then think on a mechanism that could explain what is happening, then one possible response is defined, and define what evidence would make the possible answer incorrect. Then design an experiment to find the truth, perform the experiment and collect data. Finally analyze the collected data, a conclusion is drawn and you disseminate the work for review by others.

Now, is UFOlogy a science? Well, Science requires rigorous data verification, requires testable theories, requires that the experiments or observations that would disprove a hypothesis answer if this is “right” or “wrong”, requires evidence, and that evidence of a discovery be provided by the discoverer, without forgetting that, to paraphrase a certain person, and Marcello Truzzi ("On the extraordinary: an attemp at clarification", Zetetic Scholar, Volume 1, Number 1, 1978, pp. 11-19), and Pierre-Simon Laplace and perhaps David Hulme, you would better have some evidence quite extraordinary if you will take seriously any allegation that is also quite extraordinary, in order to be able to prove it.


About 95 % of the cases are misidentifications. Why? There are several explanations, such as limitations of our senses, difficulties in perception, (we see with the brain, not with the eyes), memory limitations, lack of scientific literacy, psychological predisposition, or the simple fact that most people really want to believe in extraterrestrial visitors. And 5 % of the cases are not identified. Why? It may be for insufficient data, or false data, or errors in analysis or interpretation, or simply bad luck. But you can still have a simple explanation for these cases.

As Oberg pointed out (in his award-winning essay "The failure of the 'science' of UFOlogy", New Scientist magazine, London, 11 October 1979), there are other cases that “Science failed to explain”, for example the authors of some crimes, cases of missing persons, the causes of some airplane crashes or, we may add, some magic tricks of David Copperfield. This is common and means nothing. In fact, no one can demand that scientists know the explanation for everything; in the end they are human beings!


However, others are looking for signs of advanced civilizations among the stars, but not here on Earth. Although these programs (collectively called Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or S.E.T.I.) are relatively small, they get access to huge radio telescopes, sophisticated computers and budgets of several million dollars. U.F.O. hunters would hardly get U.F.O research support, even as a student project. Why?

On the one hand, S.E.T.I. has a well-defined scope: Astronomy and Computer Science; researchers are often professionals with university degrees and postgraduate courses in the area; only accept physical evidence, such as electromagnetic signals; does not care to explain the “inexplicable” and conclusions are always "true" or "false". But the study of U.F.O. is ranging from Aeronautics, Meteorology or Psychology to Folkloristics and Jurisprudence. Despite their goodwill, U.F.O. investigators are often amateurs, “investigating” in their free time; accepting stories as “proof”; go round and round on facts labeled “inexplicable", which by definition do not explain anything, and do not understand that granting “is a mystery” is the same as granting inconclusive.

But in the end, a particular case of those 5 % unidentified, what would it be? According to Peter Sturrock (cited in Sturrock et al., "Physical evidence related to UFO reports: the proceedings of a workshop held at the Pocantico Conference Center, Tarrytown, New York, September 29 - October 4, 1997", Journal of Scientific Exploration, Volume 12, Number 2, 1998, pages 179 through 229) would be (and an astronomer urged this order to him): 1) fraud, 2) a well known phenomenon or device, 3) a known, though uncommon natural phenomenon, 4) an uncommon technological device of earthly origin, 5) a hitherto unknown natural phenomenon, 6) a technological device of [now yes] extraterrestrial origin, 7) any other cause that may be specified, and 8) any other cause that can not be specified. The order given above is important, because as William of Ockham wrote in the Middle Ages ("Quaestiones et decisiones in quattuor libros Sententiarum Petri Lombardi", Lugduni, Lyons, 1495), “At no time what is proposed is multiplied without necessity”, that is, do not complicate theories: always start with the known and only after this is done we can go into the unknown. In fact, extraterrestrial spacecraft are tremendously unknown.

To evaluate hypothetical contacts with Extraterrestrial Intelligence, in 2001 Jill Tarter proposed the so-called Rio Scale, which aims to measure the importance we should give to these reports. The value (from 0 to 10) depends on type of phenomenon, its apparent distance, the circumstances of discovery, and scientific credibility of the report.


So far, no one has answered yet the following: are all UFO cases simply unknown phenomena just to witnesses or among them are truly real physical phenomena unknown to Science? Or put another way: Could Psychology or Sociology explain the UFO phenomenology without the Physical Sciences?


We should overcome the traditional UFOlogy and divide it in two fronts: 1) the scientific study of Anomalous Observational Phenomena (A.O.F.), which can be anything; and 2) if we truly believe in the possibility of visitors from outer space, establish rational programs for the Search for Extraterrestrial Artifacts (S.E.T.A.). 

Let's not forget the warning of Arthur C. Clarke, summarized in his "Third Law" ("Hazards of prophecy: the failure of imagination", in "Profiles of the future", revised edition, Harper & Row, New York, 1973) which postulates that a technology demonstration appears virtually identical to a demonstration of magic if the technology in question is sufficiently advanced. But choosing the path of S.E.T.A. involves finding physical evidence, authenticated and present of a clearly artificial and technological object, product of or carrying non-human intelligent beings, and from beyond Earth.

An exemplary project is at work in Hessdalen, a valley in Norway famous for its tales of strange lights in the sky. A local university installed a multitude of scientific instruments and discovered that the lights are real, but found no features of technological artifacts, let alone extraterrestrial, and rather would be unprecedented atmospheric phenomena related to the proximity of the magnetic pole.

Why don't world leaders fund more projects like this? Why ignore the U.F.O. phenomenology? They would have several reasons, including fear of ridicule, belief that if in 60 years of UFOlogy nothing was found is because there is nothing to discover, or fear of losing the leadership if more powerful beings are discovered. But perhaps it is for the simple fact that in this world there are many other more urgent things to solve. Either way, the truth is still out there.

A. L.

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Based on a lecture given at USP, on 30 November 2002. First published in ABC Color, on 4 June 2006. A slightly retouched version of this article, joined to many other related articles from this website making a compilation titled "Do you believe in UFOs?", is available for sale in electronic book format at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00GF0REFI. Photograph: Coyame, Mexico, resident Leandro Valeriano examines debris from the crash of a small plane in the Chihuahuan Desert just north of that town. It is unknown whether this wreckage is related to the reported 1974 collision of a UFO and a small plane in this same area. Photograph credit: Noé Torres (original license, of the photograph only, available at: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/deed.en). With permission from Noé Torres.

A scientific, very respectful and well-thought reply to the popular question "Do you believe in UFOs?"  This book evolved as a reply to one of the most frequent questions that I used to hear from the public when I was working in an astronomical observatory: "Do you believe in UFOs?". That seems an odd question to ask to scientists, but after researching conscientiously for about a full year, I discovered, to my surprise, that mainstream Science has a few things to say about the topic.  This book is not about conspiracy theory, "NASA is hiding the truth", or much less, that flying saucers have already landed on the lawn of the White House. Rather, it is a book about what is the most rational reply that a scientist, or in my case, a science writer, can offer when people insist on asking that question.  Of course, "Do you believe in UFOs?" is, understandable, one of the most popular questions that common people ask (even if silently, to themselves) when they raise their eyes and look at the stars. So it has to be treated respectfully, and why not, given a well-thought reply.