UFOs are probably nothingJuly 10, 2021
The point of this post that I want readers to take more than anything else is that the recent rash of UFO interest is not unprecedented and you shouldn’t be changing your mind too much on the basis of this interest.
A bunch of people seem to think that a recent rash of UFO sightings admitted to by the US Navy are important, and possibly indicative of alien visitors, or some as yet unknown natural phenomenon. The US military is officially investigating these reports.
I don’t think these sightings indicate anything particularly interesting, and likely have a boring explanation. But more importantly I think these new sightings aren’t really a big departure from what we’ve seen historically. So I don’t think we should change our minds much based on this new information.
History of UFOs
As a teenager, I was intensely interested in UFO sightings and encounters, as well as ideas of a deliberate conspiracy to cover them up. This section is me dredging up my knowledge of some of the interesting UFO encounters in the past.
There is a long history of humans seeing weird things in the sky, going back to the premodern era. One can reinterpret religious texts (Ezekiel’s “chariot of fire”) to be UFOs (and indeed some people have done so).
Things start to get more reliable in the 20th century. We get:
- Mystery airships around the tail end of the 19th century
- Foo fighters near aircraft in WW2
- An incident where a pilot was killed after pursuing a UFO
- The famous Rendlesham forest incident
(See here for a fuller list).
Many of these incidents have similar features to today. We see experienced and seemingly reasonable people giving sober minded accounts of strange objects. We see instruments (mostly radar) giving readings that show physical aircraft exhibiting weird behavior. We have the occasional picture or video. We don’t see concrete physical other than that.
Government responses to these incidents go through phases, and one only has to look at the long list of US government programmes to see this. People see something weird, someone raises a fuss, an investigation happens, the investigation turns up nothing, and the issue goes dormant for a while. Repeat every couple of decades.
You might think that the track record of UFO sightings in the past means that we should think there is some enduring phenomena - something really there that we don’t understand.
In my view, the only enduring phenomena here are:
- Human error
- Instrument error
Whenever this issue is properly investigated, it turns out to be nothing interesting, or we don’t have enough information to tell. If we don’t have enough information, we should assume the cases with limited evidence are much like the cases with more evidence that turn out to be nothing.
The main way this issue keeps coming up, and why I see it coming up now, is social proof. We look at the US government and see that they are investigating. We see sitting senators talking about UFOs and saying they are important. We see a few grainy photos from the Navy, who tell us they are ‘taking things seriously’.