Is The Truth About UFOs Out There?

12:13 minutes

a black and whia video of black dot on a radar screen
A still from a video released by the U.S. Department of Defense showing an encounter between a Navy aircraft and an “unidentified” object. Credit: U.S. Department of Defense

Over the past several years, U.S. Navy pilots have reported several instances of ”unexplained aerial phenomena” while in flight. They’ve recorded videos that show shapes that appear to move in unusual ways, zooming and turning in ways  beyond the capabilities of our own aircraft. After several members of Congress requested an explanation for the videos, the government put together a report on the phenomena.  

The report, however, doesn’t definitively answer the question of what the observations show. While it does say that the observations aren’t of secret U.S. technology, it has no conclusions on whether the reports show foreign technology, camera artifacts, or something else—like alien technology.

Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, spends his time searching for signs of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. He says that while he does believe intelligent alien life exists—and may even be discovered within the next 20 years or so—he does not think the sightings included in the government report indicate alien visitors. He shares his reasons for skepticism with host Sophie Bushwick, as well as talks about people’s desire to believe in extraterrestrials. 

Further Reading

Segment Guests

Seth Shostak

Seth Shostak is a senior astronomer and director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. He also hosts the SETI Institute’s Big Picture Science radio show.

Segment Transcript

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: This is Science Friday. I’m Sophie Bushwick, sitting in for Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, some new research into music therapy, but, first, what summer would be complete without a big blockbuster featuring aliens? And there’s one expected for release this week, but it’s not coming from Hollywood. It’s a long-awaited government report on UFOs.

Of course, in government style, the report isn’t about UFOs but what it calls UAPs– unidentified aerial phenomena. And it includes some videos of strange things moving in strange ways in the sky. The report doesn’t say that these objects are the result of aliens, but it does leave that possibility open.

Joining me now to talk about the report and what it might mean is Seth Shostak. He’s senior astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. Thanks for joining me today.

SETH SHOSTAK: It’s a pleasure to be here, Sophie.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So where did this report come from? What’s the origin story here?

SETH SHOSTAK: Well, there have been lots of interesting videos that have been appearing in the newspapers since, well, 2017. And I think that that’s the direct impulse for this report. People want to know what these things are.

You look at these videos, and it looks like there’s something in front of the aircraft that made the videos that’s doing funny maneuvers. And this sort of feeds into a situation that has been developing probably for the last 5 to 10 years in the UFO community, which, by the way, includes one third of the population of the United States. One third of the population thinks that some of these things seen in the sky are actually alien craft. And they’ve been waiting for the government to come clean about what they know, so that’s the real impetus for the report.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Some of the videos do look strange. So what’s your take on them?

SETH SHOSTAK: Yeah, they do look strange. Now, mind you, this is coming from the military. The military actually made the videos, right? And the military has an obvious and direct interest in anything that’s in the sky that they don’t know about, clearly.

I don’t know whether they think they might be aliens that have come to visit. But they do think that they might be craft from some other country, and they need to know what their capabilities are and where they are that kind of thing. So there are multiple motives.

But from the standpoint of alien visits, which is, of course, what a lot of people are quite interested in, you see these things in the videos, where, in one relatively well-known one, you see what looks like a black peanut right in the center of the field of view. And then that black peanut kind of twists and so forth. And what is this thing? And then it might leave the field of view altogether.

So the conclusion that some people draw is at this thing is some sort of craft that can move very quickly, can move around the sky very quickly, pulling so many Gs that, if you actually had a human in that thing, their face would be the size of a pancake or at least the dimensions of a pancake after making that maneuver. All these sorts of things feed into this need by the UFO folk to have the government come clean about what it knows.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: You mentioned they could be some sort of technology from another country.

SETH SHOSTAK: Yeah. It has been hypothesized that what they’re actually photographing here are not Klingon craft, but they might be Chinese craft or a Russian craft or something like that. Personally, I don’t get that impression. I think that if, indeed, the Russians or the Chinese had craft, they were able to sort of pace these Navy F-18 Hornets, we would already know about that because they do plenty of reconnaissance from satellites and stuff like that.

We wouldn’t have to wait until they showed up over the oceans of California to know about those things. Obviously, I don’t know what these things are for sure. Nobody seems to know. Even the Navy says they don’t know what they are. But they look to me like artifacts from the cameras, in most cases, or very simple things. When you see a peanut like that– this is an infrared camera. It’s sensitive to heat– you might just be looking up the tailpipes of a twin engine jet in front of you.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So do you think camera artifacts are the new explanation, the new swamp gas or weather balloon?

SETH SHOSTAK: Yeah, I think they might very well be. There are some very clever analyses of these Navy videos in which they point out, look, what you’re seeing here is the result of the camera gimbals, in other words, the way they keep objects centered in the field of view and camera artifacts. And anybody who has a camera know that there are all sorts of camera artifacts. I get emails every day about sightings.

And not a small number of them actually are sending me photos that are the result of very well-known and almost trivial camera artifacts. But not everybody knows about internal reflections or diffraction patterns. But those can look like aliens if you’re inclined to believe they’re aliens.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Well, is there anything that’s in this report that’s not based on video that could be based on an eyewitness account, where you can’t blame it on an issue with the camera?

SETH SHOSTAK: Yes. There are plenty of eyewitness accounts. Actually, there’s a reporting center in Eastern Washington state that accepts reports of UFOs, as they were for such a long period of time called. Last year, they got like between 7,000 and 8,000 reports. And the question is, well, what are all those. I mean, eyewitness reports.

And the people who report these things, they’re not nuts or anything like that. They’ve seen something. But the question is what, and we don’t know that. And I think the same is true here.

Some of the Navy pilots have also claimed that they could see things with their own eyes that they didn’t understand, too. So you have a mix of the videos but also eyewitness testimony. But of course, Sophie, eyewitness testimony, it’s not great evidence in a murder trial, and it’s even less great evidence when you’re talking about science.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And from what we’ve been told, the government report is pretty noncommittal. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. Why do you think they’re being so careful?

SETH SHOSTAK: Well, it may be that a certain fraction of the videos that they have– all you’re seeing is a very tiny fraction of the evidence they presumably have. They’re probably making videos every time the plane takes off. So they have a lot of material.

But this seems to be special because it’s interesting, and it’s showing something they don’t understand. That is the nature of all UFO investigations, and there were plenty of them in the 1950s. And how they work?

Well, there were things seen that people didn’t understand, and then they would bring together usually a bunch of academics and people who knew about effects in the atmosphere and in aviation stuff like that. And they would say, OK, let’s look at the hundred best cases. And the report, eventually, would say, well, 90 of those 100 we could explain. But there are these 10 that we can’t explain.

And so there will be members of the public who say, see? Those 10, those are the ones. The aliens are in that sample. And that’s really, really very strange. It’s like saying, well, the local police department solved 90% of the homicides in the city, and they were all committed by humans but what about those other 10, or 10%? Maybe they were committed by aliens. Maybe. Doesn’t seem to be a very reasonable conclusion.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And we should note that the main report is unclassified, but there’s apparently a classified appendix. So do you think that’s something that those people who really want to believe in the 10%, that the 10% are caused by aliens, do you think that’s going to be something UFO fans are going to latch onto?

SETH SHOSTAK: You betcha. Of course, this report is not going to shift the goalposts or convince anybody. The skeptics are going to say, look, you didn’t find any convincing proof of extraterrestrials, and that’s such an important thing to know. If you didn’t find convincing proof, you haven’t moved the ball down the field.

And the UFO folk will say, look, see? They couldn’t say categorically that none of these were alien craft. So everybody’s happy.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right. And you are at the SETI Institute, so your job is, in large part, searching for signs of intelligent extraterrestrial life. Do you believe that they’re out there somewhere?

SETH SHOSTAK: Well, of course, yeah. Yeah, we wouldn’t do our experiment if we didn’t think they were out there somewhere. But I think we have a slight edge in this because, to begin with, there are a lot of opportunities for aliens that might not be in our airspace. But there are like a trillion planets in our own galaxy, a trillion. That’s a lot.

And most planets are not so interesting. But it’s said that something like one in 10 or one in 100– it doesn’t matter. Even if it’s one in 1,000, even one in a million, that still leaves a lot of planets where you could have the evolution of life and maybe intelligence. So yeah, we do think that they’re out there.

But there’s another difference, which, I think, is important. If we were to pick up a signal, for example, coming from another star system that we thought, you know, this is somebody’s transmitter, we would be able to verify that, have other people look at it. And that’s a little different from the UFO situation, where verification is very difficult.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Speaking of that kind of signal, how long do you think it might be before we actually find one?

SETH SHOSTAK: I bet everybody a cup of coffee that we’ll find them in the next 10 or 20 years. I’m certain not more than a cup of coffee. I want to make that clear, but–


But the reason is simply that, because of some private funding for SETI, there will be more than a million star systems that will be checked out for signals. That’s what we do– just like in the movie Contact– in the next 15 years or so. And after that, it’ll be more millions. And it just seems to me that, if you look at a million star systems, your chances of finding a signal are not zero, so that’s why I’m willing to bet that cup of coffee.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: You’ve talked about why you think that there are aliens, but you’re still skeptical of reports like this one.

SETH SHOSTAK: Yeah. You could make arguments that actually have nothing to do with the data. Just is this reasonable? Why would the aliens, for example, decide to visit the Earth now when we can photograph them with this kind of equipment? Or maybe they’ve been here all the time.

But if they were here all the time, we would have seen them. Amateur astronomers are looking at the skies all the time. Every clear night, there are some amateur astronomers looking up at the sky, and they’re very good at recognizing things that are not Jupiter or anything like that.

And they don’t report these things. There are more than 700 satellites in orbit around the Earth that can see things– well, you can go on Google Earth. You can see your car in the driveway. They can at least see something that size, and I’m sure many of them can do much better. And they don’t see these things.

And you say, oh, well, they do see them, but the government’s covering up. But yeah, not all the satellites belong to the US government. So you have to assume that there’s a big cabal of– there’s some secret agreement that all countries with satellites agree not to report the UFOs, and it doesn’t really make sense to me.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: What would it take to convince you that one of these videos is actually a video of alien activity? So what sort of evidence do you think that even skeptics might want to be on the lookout for?

SETH SHOSTAK: You notice that back in the ’50s and ’60s, there were photos made of UFOs and films and so forth. The objects were always rather far away, so you didn’t see any detail. And that’s important.

Now, cameras have gotten better, and now everybody has a camera in their pockets. But somehow, the photos haven’t gotten any better. The aliens have continued to distance themselves based on your photographic capability. That doesn’t make any sense. But that seems to be what’s happened.

So I think what it would take to convince me is either physical evidence, one of these things lands on the sidewalk and you kind of snare it and you take it to the lab and open it up. That would be pretty convincing. Or if they just make a photo close enough that you could see the rivets or little green faces behind the windows or whatever, that you could see something that you could say, unambiguously, this is not from Earth. It shouldn’t be so hard to recognize that.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Seth Shostak is senior astronomer with the SETI Institute. Thank you so much for joining me today.

SETH SHOSTAK: My pleasure.

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As Science Friday’s director and senior producer, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

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Sophie Bushwick is senior news editor at New Scientist in New York, New York. Previously, she was a senior editor at Popular Science and technology editor at Scientific American.

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