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Science and the UFO phenomenon:

"Statement on Unidentified Flying Objects"

This statement has been submitted by Dr. James E. McDonald, Senior Physicist, Institute of Atmospheric Physics, and professor, Department of Meteorology, The University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, to the House Committee on Science and Astronautics at July 29, 1968, Symposium on Unidentified Flying Objects, Rayburn Bldg., Washington, D.C.

I created a table of content below; which was not part of the original scientific publication. The 56 pages publication is some 250Kb and I broke it in several files for acceptable web access speed.

Please go to the Science section of this website for more scientific papers by James E. McDonald and other scientists, plus comments and information regarding scientists' work and position about the UFO phenomenon.

Table of content

Dr. James E. McDonald.

Some alternative hypothesis:

In seeking explanations for UFO reports, I like to weigh witness accounts in terms of eight principal UFO hypotheses:

  1. Hoaxes, fabrications, and frauds.
  2. Hallucination, mass hysteria, rumor phenomena.
  3. Lay misinterpretations of well-known physical phenomena (meteorological, astronomical, optical, aeronautical, etc.).
  4. Semi-secret advanced technology (new test vehicles, satellites, novel weapons, flares, re-entry phenomena, etc.)
  5. Poorly understood physical phenomena (rare atmospheric-electric or atmospheric-electrical effects, unusual meteoric phenomena, natural or artificial plasmoids, etc.)
  6. Poorly understood psychological phenomena.
  7. Extraterrestrial devices of some surveillance nature.
  8. Spaceships bringing messengers of terrestrial salvation and occult truth.

Because I have discussed elsewhere all of these hypotheses in some detail (Ref. 2), I shall here only very briefly comment on certain points. Hoaxes and fabrications do crop up, though in percentually far smaller numbers than many UFO scoffers seem to think. Some of the independent groups like APRO and NICAP have done good work in exposing certain of these. Although there has been a good deal of armchair-psychologizing about unstable UFO witnesses, with easy charges of hallucination and hysteria, such charges seem to have almost no bearing in the hundreds of cases I have now personally investigated. Misinterpreted natural phenomena (Hypothesis 3) do explain many sincerely-submitted UFO reports; but, as I shall elaborate below, efforts to explain away almost the entirety of all UFO incidents in such terms have been based on quite unacceptable reasoning. Almost no one any longer seriously proposes that the truly puzzling UFO reports of close-range sighting of what appear to be machines of some sort are chance sightings of secret test devices (ours or theirs); the reasons weighing against Hypothesis 4 are both obvious and numerous. That some still-not-understood physical phenomena of perhaps astronomical or meteorological nature can account for the UFO observations that have prompted some to speak in terms of extraterrestrial devices would hold some weight if it were true that we dealt therein only with reports of hazy, glowing masses comparable to, say, ball lightning or if we dealt only with fast-moving luminous bodies racing across the sky in meteoric fashion. Not so, as I shall enlarge upon below. Jumping to Hypothesis 6, it seems to receive little support from the many psychologists with whom I have managed to have discussions on this possibility; I do not omit it from consideration, but, as my own witness interviewing has proceeded, I regard it with decreasing favor. As for Hypothesis 8, it can only be remarked that, in all of the extensive literature published in support thereof, practically none of it has enough ring of authenticity to warrant serious attention. A bizarre "literature" of pseudo-scientific discussion of communications between benign extraterrestrials bent on saving the better elements of humanity from some dire fate implicit in nuclear-weapons testing or other forms of environmental contamination is certainly obtrusive on any paperback stand. That "literature" has been one of the prime factors in discouraging serious scientists from looking into the UFO matter to the extent that might have led them to recognize quickly enough that cultism and wishful thinking have essentially nothing to do with the core of the UFO problem. Again, one must here criticize a good deal of armchair-researching (done chiefly via the daily newspapers that enjoy feature-writing the antics of the more extreme of such groups). A disturbing number of prominent scientists have jumped all too easily to the conclusion that only the nuts see UFOs.

The seventh hypothesis, that UFOs may be some form of extraterrestrial devices, origin and objective still unknown, is a hypothesis that has been seriously proposed by many investigators of the UFO problem. Although there seems to be some evidence that this hypothesis was first seriously considered within official investigative channels in 1948 (a year after the June 24, 1947 sighting over Mt. Rainier that brought the UFO problem before the general public), the first open defense of that Hypothesis 7 to be based on any substantial volume of evidence was made by Keyhoe (Ref. 3) in about 1950. His subsequent writings, based on far more evidence than was available to him in 1950, have presented further arguments favoring an extraterrestrial origin of UFOs. Before I began an intensive examination of the UFO problem in 1966, I was disposed to strong doubt that the numerous cases discussed at length in Keyhoe's rather dramatically-written and dramatically-titled books (Ref. 4) could be real cases from real witnesses of any appreciable credibility, I had the same reaction to a 1956 book (Ref. 5) written by Ruppelt, an engineer in charge of the official investigations in the important 1951-3 period. Ruppelt did not go as far as Keyhoe in suggesting the extraterrestrial UFO hypothesis, but he left his readers little room for doubt that he leaned toward that hypothesis. I elaborate these two writers' viewpoints because, within the past month, I have had an opportunity to examine in detail a large amount of formerly classified official file material which substantiates to an almost alarming degree the authenticity and hence the scientific import of the case-material upon which Keyhoe and Ruppelt drew for much of their discussions of UFO history in the 1947-53 period (Refs. 6 and 7). One of these sources has Just been published by NICAP (Ref. 7), and constitutes, in my opinion, an exceedingly valuable addition to the growing UFO literature. The defense of the extraterrestrial hypothesis by Keyhoe, and later many others (still not within what are conventionally regarded as scientific circles), has had little impact on the scientific community, which based its write-off of the UFO problem on press accounts and official assurances that careful investigations were turning up nothing that suggested phenomena beyond present scientific explanation. Hypothesis No. 7 has thus received short shrift from science to date. As one scientists who has gone to some effort to try to examine the facts, I say that this has been an egregious, if basically unwitting, scientific error - an error that must be rectified with minimum further delay. On the basis of the evidence I have examined, and on the basis of my own weighing of alternative hypotheses (including some not listed above), I now regard Hypothesis 7 as the one most likely to prove correct. My scientific instincts lead me to hedge that prediction just to the extent of suggesting that if the UFOs are not of extramundane origin, then I suspect that they will prove to be something very much more bizarre, something of perhaps even greater scientific interest than extraterrestrial devices.

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This page was last updated on September 21, 2002.