The long-awaited Pentagon report on UFOs (officially known as Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena), from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (1) is a triumph of Zen expression. I say that because it says a lot while appearing to say nothing. “Very Zen,” as the saying goes.
I have been studying UFOs since I was 10 years old, and I think I have a solid background on the topic, so I was very interested in this report. At first, I was disappointed, but now I am not so sure. Let’s discuss it.
Why It Says Very Little
Let me be specific by first sharing why I would assert that it says nothing, or very little:
Compared with what the US government undoubtedly knows, not much was disclosed. When I first started investigating UFOs, I read a book about an extensive government inquiry into UFOs called Project Blue Book. It was written by Edward J. Ruppelt, the Air Force officer who oversaw the project by the same name in the 1950s. Here is what the National Archives entry says about the project today:
From 1947 to 1969, a total of 12, 618 sightings were reported to Project BLUE BOOK. Of these 701 remain “Unidentified.” The project was headquartered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, whose personnel no longer receive, document or investigate UFO reports. (2)
Blue Book was comprehensive and thorough, and they did explain a lot of the sightings that had been reported to them. In spite of the rigor of their efforts, however, they could not explain about six percent of the reports.
By comparison, the Pentagon report only covers 144 sightings and those were made over a period between 2004 and 2021, when a new reporting system had been implemented. The new analysis did not include any material from Project Blue Book or any sightings that might have been investigated by the government between 1969 and 2004. This small sample size then becomes a rationale for being unable to draw any firm conclusions about UFOs, or as they call them, UAPs:
The limited amount of high-quality reporting on unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) hampers our ability to draw firm conclusions about the nature or intent of UAP. (3)
This circular reasoning is frustrating. It is like the old story of a person looking for a lost object under a streetlight because he can see better there, even though he knows he lost it somewhere else!
The Pentagon has changed the name from “Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs)” to “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP)”: Unidentified Flying Objects is a perfectly valid descriptive term that has been used for decades. After all, we are simply saying that we don’t know what they are, that they are flying, and they are objects. The phrase does not say that they are extraterrestrial spacecraft or anything else. The new definition retains the word “unidentified,” while substituting “aerial” for “flying” and “phenomena” for “objects,” without explaining why. We might think there is some reason for this change in nomenclature, but the report does not reveal why it has taken place, which is frustrating.
When we look up the definitions of these terms, “aerial” and “flying” are not very different, but “objects” and “phenomena” are slightly shifted in meaning.
The definition of object is:
A material thing that can be seen and touched. (4)
Whereas, the definition of phenomena is:
A fact or situation that is observed to exist or happen, especially one whose cause or explanation is in question.(5)
Thus, even though the authors of the report do not reveal the reason for the change, we can, to some degree, grasp it. “Object” implies something that is, without question, physically real, while “phenomena” focuses on questioning the cause or explanation. However, it would have been helpful if the report’s authors had offered an explanation.
The report finds that most of the sightings cannot be explained, and gives rather bland explanations of what they might be: Of the 144 sightings, only one was explained and that was a “deflated weather balloon.” By comparison with Project Blue Book, this study could only explain less than one percent of the total. It gives the impression, in my opinion, that the investigators didn’t try very hard.
The other 143 explanations fell into five categories:
Airborne Clutter: Birds, balloons, recreational unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), or airborne debris like plastic bags.
Natural Atmospheric Phenomena: Including ice crystals, moisture, and thermal fluctuations that may register on some infrared and radar systems.
USG or Industry Developmental Programs: “Some UAP observations could be attributable to classified programs by U.S. entities. We were unable to confirm, however, that these systems accounted for any of the UAP reports we collected.”
Foreign Adversary Systems: Technologies deployed by China, Russia, another nation, or a non-governmental entity.
Other: “Although most of the UAP described in our dataset probably remain unidentified due to limited data or challenges to collection processing or analysis, we may require additional scientific knowledge to successfully collect on, analyze and characterize some of them.” (5)
It stretches credulity to imagine that if any of the unexplained sightings were “birds, balloons,” or similar objects, not one of them could be identified as such. I think the same is true of “natural atmospheric phenomena” and “US government programs.” Regarding the latter, this is The Government writing the report. Couldn’t they have found out from their colleagues if at least one of these sightings might be coming from our own government? Not knowing about the “foreign adversary systems” is understandable, but “Other” is about as vague a category as you can conjure up.
The report talks a lot about “needing more study,” but they have been studying this phenomenon at least since 1947. What else do they need? Any time I see a report that calls for more study, I ask myself, “Why?” With all the years that you have been aware of this topic, couldn’t you have come up with something more definitive? Is it the case that you really don’t want to do so, and “more study” is simply a cop-out?
All right, let me now say why I believe this report somewhat surprisingly says a lot.
Why It Says a Lot
As I begin to list the reasons this report may actually say a lot, I will seem to be contradicting myself, and that’s the whole point. The Zen mindset contradicts itself without being embarrassed about it, and that is the only way to consider this report.
It says that UAPs are probably real: To be specific, it says the following:
Most of the UAP reported probably do represent physical objects given that a majority of UAP were registered across multiple sensors, to include radar, infrared, electro-optical, weapon seekers, and visual observation. (6)
This is a really important statement, because detractors of UFO stories have often implied or stated outright that the witnesses are probably hallucinating or imagining what they think they are seeing. This point of view has been expressed by numerous observers. While it is true that human beings are able to imagine that many experiences are physically real when they are not, this report does not default to that explanation, or even consider it as one of the possibilities for explanation. I feel fairly certain that fear of ridicule has been a primary reason for under-reporting of this phenomenon, and the Pentagon report may reduce that concern by giving the sightings some credence as physical realities.
The report says it cannot explain 99 percent of the sightings: Here, it may seem that I do indeed contradict myself. One interpretation of the finding is that the authors of the study didn’t try hard enough, but we can also say that they did not rely on an old method of debunking these sightings, which was to say that they probably could be explained as natural phenomena. While that is one of the possible explanations cited in the report, it is rather remarkable that, even for a very small sample size, they were willing to admit that they had no ready interpretation of what is going on here.
They cite the fact that some of these objects appeared to display advanced technology:
To quote the study:
In 18 incidents, described in 21 reports, observers reported unusual UAP movement patterns or flight characteristics. (7)
If there is one characteristic that stands out in observers’ descriptions of their encounters with UFOs, it is that they do things our aircraft and even our spacecraft simply cannot do. The report confirms what so many have already told us: these things are incredibly maneuverable.
They admit that UFOs could be a threat to national security: Some observers (including me) have suggested that this could be a self-serving statement. If UFOs might be a national security threat, then surely we need to increase the budget for the military to counter that threat! To my knowledge, however, the Pentagon has never admitted this possibility in the past, and it seems embarrassing for them to do so now, when we know that UFOs have been buzzing military installations and even the airspace above the nation’s capital for years. So, even though it may serve the military establishment’s interests to make this statement, it isn’t, as they say, “a good look.”
Why It Matters
If anyone really expected that the US Government would assert that UFOs are spacecraft piloted by extraterrestrials, they were doomed to disappointment and I never thought the Pentagon would, or should, say so. Allen J. Hynek, scientific consultant to Project Blue Book, developed a complete taxonomy of UFO sightings, which included Close Encounters of the First, Second, and Third Kind, and most of these cases are not close encounters of any kind, which require that the sighted object be within 500 feet of the observer. (Hynek had other categories for objects seen at a greater distance.) Indeed, anything confirming the existence of alien pilots would require categorization as a Close Encounter of the Third Kind. As far as I know, none of the events analyzed in this report are in that domain, though a larger database would definitely include those types of interactions.
A major mistake of the UFO community for many years has been the conflation of UFOs with extraterrestrials. Based on my own experiences and research, I have always insisted that UFOs are, for the most part, physically real, but we do not know what they are. My definition eliminates the notion that many of the sightings are hallucinations or natural phenomena, but does not make the leap to their being ETs. One benefit of this report is that the government seems to agree with that assertion and this may reduce the stigma of reporting UFO experiences.
If we are able to collect many more reports and if the government is more transparent in dealing with the data, we might actually determine what we are confronting in our skies.
All of this matters not only to space philosophers but also to people in every walk of life. Philosophically, we want to know if we are alone in the universe or if the cosmos is teeming with intelligent life like ourselves. Even more to the point, it would be a huge paradigm shift if further investigation revealed that an advanced form of intelligence, either from outer space, or homegrown on planet Earth, has been interacting with humanity for years, or even centuries. We would need to rewrite all of our history from the beginning to the present!
This topic must now emerge from the world of science fiction, fantasy, and conspiracy theories, and become a subject of scientific and philosophical investigation. As a popular television program asserted on a weekly basis, “The truth is out there.” The time has come to find it, and this report may be “one small step for the Pentagon, one giant leap for humankind.”
Note: Frank White discusses the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) as an aspect of human evolution in the fourth edition of The Overview Effect, now available from Multiverse Publishing. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0932GSDM3 He discusses the topic in greater detail in the second edition of his book, The SETI Factor, available from Multiverse Publishing in late 2021 or early 2022.
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