Here’s what we know: People report seeing things in the sky they cannot explain. Reported objects come in all shapes and sizes: saucers and triangles and cigar shapes and everything in between. Glowing orbs and rotating lights have been reported as well. Some people report encountering entities associated with these objects. They, too, come in all shapes and sizes, but most reports of the beings are anthropomorphic. Due to a lack of better explanation, some people conclude (despite all the differences) that there’s a core truth here that the human race is not alone, that it’s being visited or coexisting with an entity that appears to be so advanced and mysterious that it’s nearly godlike. We don’t know if the entities are extraterrestrials, interdimensional beings, or some combination thereof. They are, however, undoubtedly the greatest players of hide-and-seek the human race has ever encountered.
In the early days of UFOlogy, that of the 1940s, 1950s, and some decades later, the extraterrestrial hypothesis was the preferred explanation. But it never panned out; there never was a White House landing or equally clear public revelation. So UFOlogy evolved, only in the wrong direction. An intelligence was still assumed in play, and the search continued to explain what it was. Name your flavor of what it is and there’s now a book, blog, or article trying to convince you of the author’s preferred hypothesis: extraterrestrials, ultradimensionals, interdimensionals, and even demons bent on perverting Christians.
In an attempt to throw a larger fishing net to explain the diversity of the phenomenon, Jacques Vallee penned Passport to Magonia in 1969, cataloging stories similar to twentieth-century UFO encounters. Vallee showed that UFO reports go back as far as the oldest written records and are just as varied as today. Sightings were interpreted differently depending on the culture, era, and all the other variables afforded by the time in history in which they occurred. Not only things in the skies but encounters with nonhuman beings were reported as well (Vallee 1993). Human history is filled with stories of demons, succubi, fairies, angels, leprechauns, Jinn, ad infinitum. What they all have in common is they are all just stories. This cannot be stressed enough. There is no evidence that passes scientific muster to conclude there really is an alien intelligence interacting with human beings.
Let’s take the UFO occupants for starters. Joe Nickell’s Alien Time Line (first published in the September/October 1997 Skeptical Inquirer) is a handy chart listing numerous types of reported nonhumans in chronological order of when they were seen. Most are anthropomorphic: a head, two arms, a midsection, and two legs. Some look like robots or a toaster. There’s a big blue grasshopper, too (Nickell 1997). Based on just this, if we have a nonhuman intelligence piloting UFOs, it appears there’s a lot of different species who managed to make contact but remain relatively hidden for whatever reason. The question has to be asked and answered: Is it likely different races just happen to evolve on different planets/dimensions to be anthropomorphic and these many races are able to get here and they all have chosen to stay out of human reach? What are the odds of this? Or are all the reported races better explained by a psychological explanation? Until we have real tangible evidence, a psychological explanation seems more realistic according to Occam’s razor.
What of the fantastic machines? After ruling out balloons, airplanes, drones, and birds—after one concludes the UFO is an “other”—what then? How do we compare the saucer to the triangle? And what of the numerous kinds of saucers—fat, slim, wide, nearly ball shaped? How about the single orb of light to the many orbs of light? Are we to conclude numerous types of craft are being used by numerous species of aliens? Or is faulty human psychology a better explanation?
In an attempt to explain the elusive nature of this intelligence, Greg Bishop (2017) uses a co-creation hypothesis. This hypothesis argues that UFO alien intelligence interacting with humanity is so alien that the human mind describes it the only way it can, which accounts for the varied sightings and encounters. This hypothesis fails in that it assumes there’s an alien intelligence in the first place. The horse is before the cart.
Where Bishop is correct is the human mind is a key part of the phenomenon; that is, when it comes across something it cannot account for, it does its best. And since the human mind quite often sees purpose in random events and natural occurrences, it’s hardly a surprise we have a history of fairies and demons and now, in our space age, the varied descriptions of extraterrestrials or interdimensional beings in their wondrous flying machines.
UFOlogy has an endless supply of anecdotal reports of unidentified things seen in the sky. There are also endless photographs and videos, many of which turn out to be hoaxes or are later identified. The logical fallacy occurs when the combination of all UFO reports that remain unidentified is attributed to a nonhuman intelligence as opposed to something else. It’s one thing to see something in the sky you cannot identify; it’s quite another to conclude after running through the possibilities that what you saw was of an intelligence yet to be defined by us. Even if you truly could rule out the mundane, can you seriously confirm intelligent alien control? The first thing we have to do before assuming there’s an alien intelligence driving some UFOs is to verify there’s an alien intelligence there at all. And most important, verify that it isn’t in our own heads. The sheer number and diversity of sightings and encounters suggest human psychology is more in operation here than an objective phenomenon.
As I pondered this, Benjamin Radford’s SI article “The Curious Question of Ghost Taxonomy” came to my attention, and its argument regarding ghosts is exactly what I was thinking regarding UFOs. Radford writes, “Over the years various attempts have been made to classify and categorize ghosts … usually according to eyewitness reports.” And then he makes it clear anecdotal information is subject to human error and is unreliable. Radford continues, making the point throughout the article that there are so many definitions with equal amounts of evidence as to pretty much make the whole subject useless. He writes, “Trying to classify inherently unknown entities whose very existence and nature remains unproven is a fool’s errand: How many types of ghosts are there? As many as you want there to be” (Radford 2018).
Speaking particularly about cryptozoology but applicable to UFOlogy, geologist and investigator Sharon Hill notes:
The primary problem … by and large [is they] assume that a mystery creature is out there for them to find. They begin with a bias … . They are not testing a hypothesis but instead seeking evidence to support their position … . They also begin with the wrong question. Instead of “what happened?” they ask “Is it a cryptid?” (Loxton and Prothero 2015)
I discussed this topic with Tyler Kokjohn, professor of microbiology at Midwestern University, who also publishes and contributes to articles critiquing alien abduction claims. He wrote to me in a July 5, 2018, email:
Seeking confirmatory evidence for a position is not a sin; scientists champion hypotheses all the time. The problem here is that they never get any data or [they] interpret junk data in the most hopeful way. In science at some point no means no and is accepted as such. In ufology it is a signal to multiply hypotheses to explain failure.
Back to ghosts, Radford writes:
Ghost reports and sightings can of course be catalogued, analyzed, and categorized, but ghosts themselves cannot. This is a basic mistake, confusing a type of ghost for a type of ghost report; they are not the same thing at all, and ghost hunters confuse the two at their peril. A ghost report is merely a record of something that someone—for whatever reason and under whatever circumstances—could not explain and chose to attribute to an unseen spirit and may or may not reflect an actual ghost appearance. (Radford 2018)
Change the word ghost to UFO in that above paragraph, and you have the current field of UFOlogy.
Radford concludes in his column that although ghost hunters are convinced ghosts exist, they still can’t tell you what they are. The same applies to those who believe some UFOs are of extraterrestrial origin or are otherwise an “other” intelligence. What ghost hunters and UFO hunters have in common is both assume their unproven entity of choice is an intelligence. And they do so by the fallacy of arguing from ignorance.
UFO believers who have concluded there’s an intelligence flying around have offered just as many properties on the ET as ghost hunters have on ghosts and the religious have on the old gods. I say this with purpose. UFOlogy operates very much like a religion. Absent real evidence of aliens and their machines, faith is the operating virtue of the believer. Why are they here? Why did they come? Why are they not more communicative? Any day now, a big enough sighting will come that everyone will have to acknowledge it. Disclosure is always expected but never comes. Aliens are preparing humanity for full contact that never comes. Chosen people are picked to spread their message. Aliens have replaced the angels. Aliens will help us solve (insert coming disaster here). If there’s any evidence to Jung’s archetypes, aliens and flying saucers are the space age imprints on them.
Human history is full of misunderstandings and wrong interpretations and in many cases is thought to have an amazing godlike intelligence acting on its behalf. Once it was thought the sun went around Earth due to the gods; the rain fell for the same reason, and the crops grew when they favored them. Disease struck when the gods were displeased, and mental illness was the work of a demon. And yet, time and again, these mysteries were found to have natural explanations. Attributing intelligence to mysterious, unidentifiable phenomena seems to be a very human thing to do. It is my conviction that it was only through the error of claiming to already know the answer that questions stopped being asked and it took longer than it should have to solve what is common knowledge today.
UFOlogists suffer from the same confirmation bias, arguing from ignorance, and the god of the gaps fallacies as ghost hunters, cryptid hunters, and religious types. They are all prone to draw conclusions that what they experienced was a nonhuman intelligence. In fact, the bottom line is probably more a very human intelligence that is much more faulty—and yet creative—than we give credit.
- Bishop, Greg. 2017. The co-creation hypothesis: Human perception, the informational universe, and the overhaul of UFO research. In UFOS: Reframing the Debate. Ed. by Robbie Graham. White Crow Books.
- Loxton, Daniel, and Daniel Prothero. 2015. Abominable Science! Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Nickell, Joe. 1997. Extraterrestrial iconography. Skeptical Inquirer 21(5) (September/October): 18–19. Alien timeline graphic available online at https://www.joenickell.com/Iconographer/Iconographer2.html; accessed July 6, 2018.
- Radford, Benjamin. 2018. The curious question of ghost taxonomy. Skeptical Inquirer 42(3) (July/August).
- Vallee, Jacques. 1993. Passport to Magonia: On UFOs, Folklore, and Parallel Worlds. Chicago: Contemporary Books.