For the record, what Pitts endorses is the “unidentified” aspect of an unidentified flying object. “I have never seen a UFO myself,” he says, “and I am not saying that UFOs are ET spacecraft. I am saying [that] here, there is some mystery, and we should be able to address it scientifically, without all the stigma involved.”
– Astronomer Derrick Pitts quoted in ET, Phone Derrick Pitts

As most boys, I was quite interested in UFOs and was even a member of the UFO organization in Norway. In my teens, the interest shifted into exploring UFOs as projection objects (especially after I found Jung’s book on the topic), and later on, I have occasionally read up on what’s happening in the field.

UFOs are interesting to me for a few different reasons:

Some appear to be natural phenomena not very well understood by science, or entirely unknown to science.  The Hessdalen lights in Norway may be one example.

They are excellent projection objects – unknown, rare, ephemeral, mysterious. They are great for putting our fears and hopes on and create beliefs around. (They will save us, they will eat us, I will dismiss it and don’t take it seriously.) This in itself is a very interesting phenomenon, and well worth exploring.

Some – a few – may be crafts of nonterresital origin. The universe may be populated by many different civilizations, and although the chances of any one actually visiting us may be miniscule considering the huge distances and enormous space, it could happen. After all, our modern scientific exploration of physics is very young, what we don’t know will always be infinitely more than what we do know, and what we have discovered so far, through for instance quantum physics, shows us that reality seems much stranger than what we could have imagined. It’s worth keeping an open mind, take the possibility of visits seriously, and do some serious investigation.

And then there is the military and national security reasons. Independent of origin, some may be crafts. This is one reason most or all governments take UFOs seriously, whether or not they admit to it.

The rational approach is to take and investigate the more well documented reports seriously.

UFOs clearly exist. People see unidentified flying objects all the time. The question is, what is it in each case? The answers may range from the mundane to little known natural phenomena, and may also include possible ET visits. I don’t think I would be surprised either way. If we are visited, the implications are significant. And if there eventually is contact – in the open and at a large scale – then it’s the beginning of a new phase of human civilization.

Here is a good interview of author Leslie Kean by Michio Kaku.

One of several documentaries, I Know What I Saw:

Another, Out of the Blue:

Secret Access based on Lesile Kean’s book:

And an interview with the former Ministry of Defense (MoD) UFO project chief. This quote gives one reason why some governments have kept their UFO investigations secret, and perhaps why the US still does even as other countries have adopted a policy of transparency.

“What’s abundantly clear from these files is that, while in public we were desperately pushing the line that this was of no defense interest,” Pope told The Huffington Post. “We couldn’t say ‘There’s something in our air space; pilots see them; they’re tracked on radar; sometimes we scramble jets to chase these things, but we can’t catch them.’ This would be an admission that we’d lost control of our own air space, and such a position would be untenable.”
As U.K. Releases UFO Files, Former UFO Project Chief Apologizes For ‘Spin And Dirty Tricks’ from Huffington Post.

Some beliefs for me to look at:

For myself….

Some UFO fantasts are caught in projections, they are irrational, they are caught in fears/hopes, they do the cause a disservice through their approach.

Some debunkers are caught in beliefs, they dismiss out of ignorance and fear, they are irrational. Debunking scientists are unscientific and irrational, they do science and the public a disservice.

And some I imagine for others, which means these beliefs are here too – perhaps coming up in different settings and on other topics:

Taking UFOs seriously means…. I will be ridiculed. It will be professional suicide. My career will go down the drain.

Making UFO info public means…. We (the military/government) will be ridiculed. We won’t be taken seriously. It will cause problems. People are not ready for it. We can handle it better. It’s better if the public is not involved. (These apply more to the US, not the governments who are making their info public.)

Governments don’t make their UFO info public, and that means…. They are withholding information. They are doing things behind our backs. It’s better if the info is public. The info should be made public.

Note: I notice Stanton Friedman doesn’t seem happy about SETI – search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Why search for them if they are already here? I see three arguments for SETI: (a) There is no conclusive or widely accepted “evidence” for ET visitations. Until there is, SETI makes good sense. (b) Even if we are visited, our visitors don’t seem all that interested in communication and exchange of views and information – at least not publicly and at a larger scale. If we can connect with other and more communicative civilizations through SETI, that would make the effort worth wile (even if the exchange would be slow). (c) Even if some civilizations do visit us, there must be many more in the universe that don’t. Why not connect with them as well? Friedman’s view seems analogous to a somewhat narrow minded ornithologist who says “there are birds here, I’ll only study only these and not be interested in any other birds anywhere else, *and* I don’t approve of anyone interested in these other birds”.

Update: It’s now July 2012 and I have read some articles and listened to some talks and interviews since I wrote this post. It’s quite clear – as I knew – that UFOs deserve to be taken seriously by governments, media and scientists. It seems clear that some UFOs are phenomena and even crafts of unknown origin. Some approach this in a quite level headed and scientific way, differentiating what’s known from speculation (Leslie Kean, Richard Dolan), for some there may also be a mix of personal beliefs and/or commercialism (Nick Pope writing his story about UFO invasion and the Olympics to promote a video game), and others do not display a great deal of critical thinking (caught up in hopes and fears, believing whatever they wish to believe).

In the face of the evidence for crafts of unknown origin, including mass sightings such as the Phoenix Lights, there is an odd silence from governments, scientists and the media, and if there is an acknowledgment of the topic, it’s often to dismiss or ridicule it. As Richard Dolan said, this is perhaps even stranger than the phenomenon itself.

Although I haven’t read any of these books yet, it seems that the following are worth looking at:

UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record – Leslie Kean

UFOs and the National Security State: Chronology of a Coverup, 1941-1973 – Richard Dolan

The Cover-Up Exposed, 1973-1991 – Richard Dolan

A.D. After Disclosure: When the Government Finally Reveals the Truth About Alien Contact – Richard Dolan

Flying Saucers and Science: A Scientist Investigates the Mysteries of UFOs: Interstellar Travel, Crashes, and Government Cover-Ups – Stanton Friedman

And an article about the typical media silence/ridicule of this topic:

Getting Inside Your Head: Media, Mind Control, and Marginalization of UFOs – Richard Dolan

Update 2: Instead of writing a new post on this topic, I’ll just add to this one.

There are several quite fascinating sides of the UFO topic to me. One if of course the implications for human civilization if or when there is contact, whether they come here or it’s through SETI, whether it has already happened or not, and whether it happens on a small or larger and more public scale.

Another is the dismissal, denial and ridicule of the topic by the media, scientists and governments, at least in the US and some other countries. From the available data, it’s quite clear that some UFOs are crafts of unknown origin, and yet, media and scientists regularly dismiss it as a joke. Why is that? Are they simply uninformed? (In which case, they are not really doing their job as government officials, scientists or journalists.) Afraid to be seen as kooks? (If so, quite cowardly.) Afraid to lose their jobs? (If so, they could perhaps have found a more skillful way of approaching it.) Cold hearted? (Ridiculing people, some or many of whom are simply reporting what they saw.)

I find it especially interesting how someone like Seth Shostak (SETI), obviously an intelligent person, can dismiss the UFO phenomena outright. He says “there is no evidence” to warrant a serious investigation into the UFO phenomenon, while there clearly are a great deal of cases with multiple witnesses (including military, police, pilots), radar recordings, and crafts operating in ways far beyond what our current technology is capable of. The most likely answer is that he tries to distance himself and SETI from the stigma of UFOs. And in doing so, he is quite far from taking an open minded, curious and scientific approach to the issue.

Some scientist dismiss the topic due to the huge interstellar distances, and that makes sense in light of our current science and technology. And yet, what we don’t know will always vastly outstrip what we do know. Our modern science and technology is still in it’s infancy. And we regularly see new developments that we didn’t or couldn’t imagine just a few generations ago. (And, of course, much that was imagined that didn’t and may never happen.)

Yet another topic is the slippery slope in exploring this. The first step is to take a look at the data, and see that some UFOs are clearly unexplainable, and some are quite possibly crafts of unknown origin (the Phoenix Lights is just one example). It’s also possible, judging from the technology of these crafts, that some are of alien origin. From here, it’s possible to imagine a whole host of scenarios, each one possible and and each one more speculative and supported by weaker evidence. (US government possessing and reverse engineering alien crafts, abductions, men in black and so on.)

I notice I prefer to stay on safer ground, know a bit about the different scenarios, and stay curious and keep an open mind. And as a strategy to open up this field to serious investigation by governments, media and scientists (in the places where that’s not already happening) such an approach makes sense as well. As a first step, we can share the solid evidence that some UFOs are unknown phenomena deserving an open and scientific investigation. Leslie Kean does this, and – quite wisely – avoids further speculation that may scare people away. Richard Dolan is an example of someone who is unafraid to explore these further steps, and does it in a mostly level headed way, differentiating between what’s quite certain and what is speculation.

When I read about this topic, I often ask myself what would hold up in a court of law. The cases Leslie Kean writes about most likely would. And the rest – speculations that they are aliens, alien abductions, reverse engineering of alien technology etc. – wouldn’t. It’s based on far too flimsy data. There may be many people saying similar things, and there may be some documents floating around, but that doesn’t count for much unless it’s supported by stronger evidence.

Again, it seems that some – perhaps quite a few – folks interested in this topic are quite gullible, taking even flimsy data as if it’s solid evidence, and that’s one reason why more serious minded folks tend to shy away from this as a field of research.

Update 3: I’ll add this here instead of making a new post. I notice I am still curious about why there is a culture of ridicule and dismissal by the very ones that we could expect to be most interested in this phenomenon: Government officials, scientists and journalists. And also why many individuals buy into this culture, dismissing the phenomenon outright without looking into it more closely. The explanation for the latter is probably fear. If I fear being a target for the ridicule, and I don’t question this fear, I may chose to join with the ones doing the ridicule. It’s of course what has happened throughout history in many different variations: the witch hunts, the inquisition, the red scare and so on. The fear of ridicule, rejection etc. is an effective way to keep people’s behavior in line with the sanctioned view.

I should also mention that I have listened to Richard Dolan’s Truth Our radio programs, and some of the UFO Think Tank podcasts. Although the hosts seem quite reasonable, I also notice they tend to be less critical than I would be. If something wouldn’t hold up in a court of law, it may be moderately interesting, and it’s also important to be very clear that the data – mostly just what someone said – is quite questionable. I wonder if they are more open than what seems reasonable because (a) they wish it is true, (b) they don’t want to offend the witnesses, and (c) they wouldn’t have much to talk about otherwise.

Trust and skepticism. It seems that there are at least two topics that’s often not addressed by UFO enthusiasts: (a) In countries where the government is closer to the people and there is more trust and transparency in general, there is much less fertile ground for paranoia and conspiracy theories in general than it is in – for instance – the US. And that also goes for the UFO topic. Where officials take UFOs seriously and there is more open sharing of info, there is – not surprisingly – not such a fertile ground for paranoia and conspiracy theories as there is in the US. I think it would be helpful to point that out more often, since it shows that the paranoia and the conspiracy theories are largely culture bound. It comes from a particular situation and a particular culture. There may be some grain of truths in some of it, and much of it is fear fueling fantasy without having much support from solid data. Most of it would not hold up in a court of law. (b) I sometimes wonder if the UFO community does itself a disservice with the anti-debunking culture sometimes found there, and the social pressure that may go with it. It’s of course good to point out that some UFO-skeptics dismiss UFOs routinely without serious investigation, often pointing to explanations that are clearly inaccurate. And yet, it’s very good to take a critical and level-headed look at the phenomena – and especially the data, the different theories, and what’s supported by solid data and what’s not. If basically friendly folks with a critical mind are dismissed as debunkers, it’s doing everyone a disservice.

A big deal or not? Are UFOs a big deal, or not? They are clearly a big deal (a) in terms of aviation and perhaps national security, and deserve to be taken seriously in that context. (b) If they turn out to be from other civilizations (aliens, other-dimensional beings), and there is contact publicly and on a larger scale, it will change how we see ourselves and our place in the universe, and we may gain access to information or technology which may transform our civilization (not necessarily for the “better”). It would be a watershed moment in human history, the day human civilization joined a larger community. Also, it’s not such a big deal. (a) Human civilization is always changing, sometimes dramatically so, and this is no different. Change is routine, and this seems a logical next step. (b) Our challenges today have more to do with priorities than lack of technology (we would be able to feed everyone, switch to renewable energy etc. if it was a priority), so access to new technology is probably not the answer (other than that it would make a lot of money for someone). (c) And if it turns out that the US government and/or private groups withheld information from the public, there is nothing new there. It’s routine. A lot of examples are already well known. And many may also see it as the right thing for them to do, to keep it a secret for a while. (d) It will, probably quite rapidly, become the new normal. Even within a few years, most won’t even remember how it was before “contact”.

Data. One of the striking features of the UFO field is the messy data. There are, as Leslie Kean points out, a few good cases, including the Hessdalen research. Apart from that, there is a great deal of fuzzy data. Most of it is witness testimony, which is notoriously and inherently unreliable. The more interesting cases have a large number of independent witnesses reporting similar observations at the same time, such as the Phoenix Lights. And the rest may be more dubious. People around the world may report similar stories of abduction, and ex-government officials may say similar things, but that doesn’t mean what they say reflect reality. People misremember. Hypnosis is a terrible way to access memories, and an excellent way to subtly and unintentionally plant false memories. Government officials, ex or not, may have incentives to not tell the truth or to mislead. If I was – for instance – in the CIA, I would want to plant false UFO stories to distract from other aspects of what my organization was up to. Also, as Jung showed through his research on dreams, fairy tales and myths, the human mind tends to come up with very similar (imagined) stories (archetypes) in different individuals even if there is no direct connection between these individuals, and sometimes people take these as real.

Disclosure. I have to admit there is a lot I haven’t read about UFOs in general, and disclosure in particular. So here are some preliminary thoughts. (Of course, any thoughts, no matter how much I had read about it and reflected on it, would be preliminary.)

First, I am unsure how much there is to disclose. It seems obvious that the US government in particular sit on information they don’t share openly with the public. So what is it that they don’t share? It could simply be cases similar to the ones we already know about, and that they are as puzzled as people in general are about the phenomenon. As some suggest, they may simply be embarrassed that something seems to fly around in their airspace, they don’t know what it is, and they cannot do much about it. Other governments seem more open in sharing what they know, and it’s not much. It’s possible that they hold back some info, and it’s also possible they don’t. If the US government is similar to what other governments know, it may well be they don’t have that much to disclose. At most, it may be that something is flying around that seems to be under intelligent control and they don’t know what it is (which in itself would be quite remarkable, although it’s also what most folks already suspect.)

It is also possible that they know more than this, that they have crashed vehicles, have investigated alien technology, and possibly have contact with someone behind some of the more inexplicable UFO phenomena. It seems that the evidence for this is quite weak and disputable. Mostly, it’s directly or indirectly from folks with background from the government, the military, CIA or similar organizations. And it’s quite clear that they may have good reasons for planting false UFO stories to distract from other things they are doing, and if they did, they would obviously know how to come across as sincere and believable.

Second, what would be the consequences of disclosure. If all they have is the most basic data – indicating that something is out there, it looks like it’s under intelligent control, and we don’t know what it is – it would in itself be significant. It would certainly get a lot of attention, at least at first. And it could help shift the attitudes among some government officials, journalists and scientists. It may help make it be seen as a legitimate area of exploration and research, similar to how it was seen in the 1950s. Some would still dismiss it, and some of these would dismiss it without looking at the data (as many do today), and some would dismiss it from a more informed perspective. Both are helpful since it is an invitation for people who take the topic seriously to be even more serious about it, to think about it in a more careful way, informed by solid data.

If they do know more than the basics, if they have access to non-human technology and even are in contact with non-human beings, it would of course have a larger impact. It would be a watershed event in human history. I know people have explored the possible consequences of a more significant disclosure, and I haven’t read most of it, so I won’t say too much about it. I suspect it wouldn’t have much impact on religions, apart from perhaps slight adjustments here and there. If what’s disclosed involves science and technology, it would of course influence those areas. And if it involves a direct and more open contact with non-human intelligences, it will of course have a big impact, especially over time. We will join a larger community of intelligent species. Most likely, it won’t be as good as some think, or as bad as some others think. It won’t save us from ourselves. We already have the technology needed for an ecologically sustainable civilization, we know what changes we need to make in our economical models and systems to reflect ecological realities, we have enough food to feed everyone and so on. What’s missing is priorities, not new technology or knowledge. Would knowing that we are not alone in the universe change how we treat each other? Perhaps not much. And it probably won’t destroy us. In the worst case, it would mean a major disruption and change in our civilization, and we may “lose” some of our traditions and be disoriented for a while. That’s at least what has happened when less technologically advanced civilizations meet more advanced ones. And in this case, we would be the less advanced one.

I am open for any possibility, although I think – right now at least – that it’s most likely they don’t have much to disclose, and no big revelations will happen anytime soon.

Abductions. I haven’t looked much into the abduction stories, but two things strike me from a superficial knowledge of it: (I) (a) Many of the stories come out under hypnosis, and this is notoriously unreliable. It’s very easy for the hypnotist or interviewer to subtly and unintentionally suggest something, which then is experienced by a real memory by the one under hypnosis. It’s a terrible way to get any valuable data. (b) Most or all data comes from what people say, whether under hypnosis or not, and this is unreliable for many reasons. It wouldn’t hold up in a court. (c) That people who don’t know each other tell similar stories can be explain several different ways. Archetypes is one. (II) The aliens or beings behind the abductions seem to go about it in a surprisingly crude way. If they are technologically advanced, wouldn’t that be reflected in their procedures? It’s easy to think it’s because it’s all imagined. If it’s not imagined, why would they go about things in such a simple minded way? (Jacques Vallee has some interesting ideas on this.)

Free energy? Some folks seem very excited about the idea that the government and/or some private companies have alien technology that allows us unlimited amounts of free energy. There are so many potential flaws in this logic that it’s difficult to know where to start. (a) We already have the technology to provide renewable and clean energy for our needs, just as we have enough food to feed everyone. It’s a matter of priorities, not technology. (b) Unlimited free energy is not necessarily a good thing. The potential drawbacks may easily outweigh any benefits. (Fueling population growth on an already overpopulated planet, and allowing for further extraction of limited natural resources, are two obvious ones. And it will have consequences we can’t imagine in advance, some of which may be quite serious.) (c) The idea that this technology is known and hidden rests on a chain of speculations, each one based on questionable and very limited data. For instance, there are many possible reasons why people retired from positions in the government, CIA, the military etc. tell these stories, and if they do it to muddle the waters (distract from what they are actually doing), to sell a book, or because they genuinely think it’s true but don’t really know, they may still come across as sincere and believable.

Too far? Some say the distances between solar systems are too far for anyone visiting us. That’s of course true from the perspective of our current technology and science. And it’s also perhaps a bit silly. After all, our current knowledge and understanding is very limited. (a) Even over the last few decades and generations, we see that what was not even dreamt of – or was dreamt of but not seen as plausible – has become reality. So a civilization that may be quite different from ours, and  centuries or millennia ahead of us in terms of science and technology, is likely to be able to do what for us is only imagined or not even imagined. (b) Some scientists today explore possibilities for interstellar travel, including a form of warp drive. (c) An alien civilization may use robots or a combination of robotics and genetics to send out explorers throughout the galaxy, these will have the luxury of time, and some may be here now. (d) Something else entirely may be going on, such as inter-dimensional travels (whatever that means).

A good thing? Some UFO enthusiasts seem to think it will be a good thing if there is contact on a larger and more public scale, or if there is “disclosure” of possible UFO related knowledge by governments and associated organizations. But is that so certain? (a) As many points out, when two quite different civilizations encounter each other, it’s not always a good thing for the one that’s less developed, or less advanced in terms of science and technology. The culture of the less developed civilization may even be demolished, if our human experience is anything to go by. And this may happen even if there is the best of intentions. (b) Advanced technology may not be a good thing in the hands of a relatively young species and civilizations such as ours. Even something as apparently innocent as access to cheap and unlimited energy may have many problematic and potentially dramatic consequences, including some that are unforeseen. If we get our hands on technology that’s normally would be centuries or millennia ahead of us, it may be similar to handing a nuclear power plant over to a toddler. (c) An alien civilization will have agendas and motives on their own, and these may not be aligned with ours or what we see as being in our own best interest. (d) In general, any contact on a larger and more public scale will mean big shifts for our civilization, species and planet, many of which are unforeseen, and some may be perceived as quite problematic. There is a reason why science fiction authors come up with ideas such as the prime directive, or the very slow and gradual contact suggested in Carl Sagan’s Contact.

A couple of articles. Here are a couple of articles I found interesting: New Book Chronicles Official Government UFO Investigations and Skeptics vs. Believers: Let’s Do the Math on UFOs.

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