Science and the UFO Phenomenon:

Skeptics often use science as a way to deny any reality to the UFO phenomenon. But indeed, even if almost no large scale scientific effort has been devoted to the study of UFO, science has a lot to say that might be quite embarrassing to the skeptic.


This article titled "Case for 'Real' UFO's" was published in "Physics Today, June 1970, p. 14, and authored by William T. Powers.


Gerald Rothberg's review of several recent books on UFO's (including the Condon Report) mentions once again a common notion about explanations - a notion that has only today struck me as clearly flawed. Rothberg says: "The point of view of the project report is that all but a small percentage of UFO reports can be reasonably explained, including some that seem very strange. Therefore it is plausible that the residue of unexplained reports could also be explained if more information were available ..." This was, in fact, the officially expressed point of view of the Air Force's Project Blue Book, and it has been expressed in nearly the same terms by many scientists who believe that there are no interesting UFO's.

The flaw in this argument that has just occurred to me is so elementary that I should have seen it years ago: The argument holds reasonably true if and only if the set of unexplained reports is similar to the set of explained reports save for completeness. That is not, as far as I know, the case.

Most "explained" reports involve sightings of nocturnal lights of one kind or another. A considerably smaller number involves misidentified aircraft, missiles, planetary objects and meteorological phenomena seen in the daytime. There is a scattering of hoaxes and delusions, but the above categories account for at least 90% of the explained cases.

The good unexplained cases, however remain unexplained - not because there was insufficient information to allow a firm identification in one of the above categories, but because there was enough information in the report to rule out any of the above explanations. The UFO's that are kept on the books as "real" UFO's are kept in that category precisely because they do not fall into any ordinary class. Any experienced UFO researcher knows that it is easy to spot a case that is likely to remain unexplained (excluding the trivial types that are simply poor reports and contain little descriptive material) on the basis of its general resemblance to other unexplained cases, and its clear differences from cases that are resolved eventually. Thus it is not true that unexplained reports are simply less well defined than, but similar to, explained cases. In fact, the reverse is more likely to be true; cases that are not simply shelved as being too sparse in information, and that are admitted to the ranks of "real" (that is, startling) UFO's, are so admitted because they are generally more complete and contain clearer descriptions than most explained cases. Therefore it is unlikely, not likely, that additional information would lead to an ordinary explanation of a UFO. Of course, it does happen sometimes that continued effort to solve a case results in a good and acceptable explanation, but that is a rare exception. Some cases, like the Lakenheath Case in the Condon Report (Case 2), are so well witnessed and reported that one would hardly know what kind of additional information could be obtained that would lessen our bafflement.

Of course, it would be desirable to get better reports and to obtain scientific observations rather than anecdotes. The nature of most UFO reports is such that one is never really satisfied that he understands exactly what the witness experienced, and certainly the subject matter of a good UFO report leaves one tantalized. But I am not arguing here that we should take such reports at face value, or cease to try to understand them in familiar terms where that can be justified; I am only pointing out that there seem to be generic differences between good UFO reports and reports that eventually lead to factual explanation. If that is really true, and I highly recommend an organized study to see if it is, then there is no justification for behaving like the new bank teller counting money: "One hundred, two hundred, three hundred - well, it's all right so far, it must be all right the rest of the way."

W. T. Powers
Northwestern University

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This page was last updated on 04.05.2001