UFOS: THE REAL QUESTION
by Richard Hall, Assistant Director of NICAP(*), for the Colorado UFO
[(*)2005 Introduction: National Investigations Committee on Aerial
Phenomena. On November 28, 1966, Donald E. Keyhoe (Maj., USMC Ret.),
Director of NICAP, and I as Assistant Director addressed the Colorado UFO
Project scientists and staff in Boulder, Colorado, by invitation. They
were just beginning a 2-year study of UFOs under a grant from the Air
Force Office of Scientific Research, and knew very little about the
subject. .My paper presented that day long ago illustrates how little has
changed in the intervening years. The paper, unfortunately, proved to be
prophetic. - Richard H. Hall, January2005.]
A fundamentally important matter for scientists investigating the UFO
problem is to pose correct questions whose answers will do more than
merely reflect a number of misconceptions and stereotypes that presently
exist within the scientific community. Unless the hard-core unexplained
UFO reports receive special attention, the investigators might be misled
by the admittedly high noise level of erroneous reports and cultist
groups. The author, who has read and studied over 10,000 individual
reports during the past eight years, argues the need for specific
approaches to the UFO problem after analyzing skeptical arguments. In
particular, the need to test whether a presently unrecognized real
phenomenon may be behind some of the reports is stressed.
What is the real question we are trying to answer when we concede
that there is a "UFO problem" and set out to solve it? In posing the
problem of UFO investigation, it is important to frame our hypotheses in a
manner which will not preclude the discovery of a "signal" among the
considerable "noise" (to borrow the analogy used by [J. Allen] Hynek and
If we ask, "Are large numbers of people misled by conventional
objects or phenomena, sometimes viewed under unusual circumstances?", then
the answer clearly is "yes."
If we ask, :Are all people who report UFOs misled?", then an
affirmative answer cannot fairly be given until sociological and
psychological evidence is produced showing how this could apply to the
best witnesses (scientists, engineers, professional pilots...).
The real question is,: "Are the unexplained UFO reports describing
some presently unrecognized phenomenon?" And if so, "What is the nature
and significance of the phenomenon?" This cannot be answered by citing
percentages and studying only known instances of "noise."
It is NICAP's opinion that the "percentage-explained" approach to
UFOs is grossly misleading and scientifically invalid. For years, public
statements by the Air Force have denied the existence of any real UFO
phenomenon because something on the order of 97% of all reports allegedly
had been explained in conventional terms. Without bothering to dispute the
accuracy of some of the claimed identifications, we think it is clear that
such reasoning begs the question.
Though at any given moment it may be unlikely that a hostile nation
will launch an attack on the United States, this is a real possibility
which causes us to desire an efficient radar/observational network for
rapid detection. False alarms caused by birds or stray aircraft (in one
case by the Moon) do not reduce the possibility; in fact, have no effect
on it. Unquestionably 97% of all reports to date [by the defense network
under discussion.--RH] have had conventional explanations. (The remaining
3% might include Russian spy planes skirting or attempting to penetrate
Erroneous indications in this network (or any network established
for a specific purpose) are a nuisance which need to be screened out.
Those responsible for the success of the network naturally are most
interested in possibly valid reports. Studies of why false reports occur
would be relevant and important, but more important--because of their
potential signficance--would be indications of a real penetration. It
would make no sense at all for responsible authorities to argue that a
penetration was not occurring or could not occur because 97% of all
reports had been explained as false alarms.
Similarly, 97% of the "nibbles" a fisherman feels on his line may
be caused by his line snagging on rocks or seaweed, or by wave motion.
This doesn't prove there are no fish in the ocean.
On numerous occasions, the author has encountered among scientists
three distressing lines of skeptical argument on UFOs:
(1) An argument from theory which, somewhat
over-simplified, is--life on other planets in our solar system is
extremely unlikely, the distances to other solar systems likely to support
life are prohibitive, therefore UFOs (as interplanetary visitors) could
The many flaws in this reasoning include the imperfect knowledge we
have of other bodies in our solar system, the assumptions of a human life
span and presumed upper limits of human technology, and the uncertainty of
possible relativistic effects applicable to hypothetical extraterrestrial
travelers. However, the dangers of reasoning from human analogies aside,
the "UFOs, i.e. spaceships, are impossible" theory begs the question of
what people are seeing in our atmosphere; this normally results in
"explaining away" UFOs without studying the observation reports.
(2) An argument from stereotype, based on lack of
acquaintance with detailed observation reports, that UFOs are only reports
of point sources of light, of brief duration, usually made at night,
mostly by untrained observers, etc. That such vague reports give us no
reason to become excited and talk in terms of possible extraterrestrial
visitors, and that the reasons people are doing so must be basically
This argument reflects not only a lack of acquaintance with the
detailed observation reports, but also that the most important reports
have not been studied at all. There exist hundreds of intricately detailed
reports from competent and reliable persons describing structured objects
observed for long periods of time, frequently in daylight,. e.g., Portage
County, Ohio, case, April 17, 1966; Red Bluff, Calif. sighting by State
Police, August 13, 1960.
(3) Related to the above, it has been argued that
UFOs are such unpredictable, elusive, will-o-wisps that they are not
readily amenable to scientific study. That they are essentially
unrepeatable phenomena, in the sense of laboratory experimentation, hence
not a proper matter of scientific investigation.
In addiiton to
reflecting a misconception about the nature of the best UFO reports, this
argument also reflects a seeming lack of faith in the ingenuity of
scientists. Imaginative scientists always have devised new techniques and
instruments to tackle new problems, once they have decided that the
problems are important.
Collectively, these arguments indicate clearly
that a laymens' theory (UFOs are spaceships) has unduly influenced
investigation of UFO reports. The seeming improbability of spaceships has
caused a lack of attention to specific UFO reports. Those few scientists
who have studied the question at all usually have looked at reports so
generally that they have seen only the high percentages of poor
observations, and the general reasonability of conventional explanations
in large numbers of cases. The tendency then has been to assume that if
80-odd percent can be explained, the remaining relatively small percent
probably could be too "if we had more complete information."
Scientific authoritarianism has also played a role in down-grading
UFO reports when busy scientists have chosen to accept the conclusions of
scientific skeptics, notably [Donald] Menzel, rather than what may often
(with good reason) seem to be a popular delusion propagated by crackpots
and opportunists. Again, this has taken place with no effort to examine
the specific reports or to study the skeptics' reasoning about them.
The prevailing practice of approaching the UFO problem on a
percentage basis has introduced a subtle bias, not generally recognized,
against the possibility that there is a new and potentially significant
phenomenon represented among the UFO reports. The importance of the
problem of the "signal to noise ratio" cannot be overrated because of the
repressive effect it has had on scientific investigation.
others, believe there is a "signal" which has been detected and which
needs intensive study. Others, such as the Air Force and most professional
scientists, have detected only "noise" and have tended to attribute all
reports to conventional/psychological causes. In the case of UFOs, it
becomes a question of whether we are most interested in the possible
"signal" or the known "noise."
In short, a real phenomenon and myths
about it may co-exist. Both can be studied. One danger is that the
phenomenon may be obscured by human reactions to it. But if one of the
real possibilities is that UFOs may be manifestations of extraterrestrial
intelligence, as we believe to be the most reasonable interpretation of
the "signal," then the "real" aspects deserve a higher priority than the
If one seeks to test the Deluded Observer Hypothesis (the working
assumption that there is no "signal"), then he will find strong support
for this view in terms of the large number of cases in which it is
possible to find convincing conventional causes. There is no question that
something on the order of 80% of phenomena reported as UFOs can reasonably
be explained in this manner. There is no question that "UFO hysteria"
during periods of publicized UFO sightings causes inexperienced observers
to look at the sky and report the planet Venus as a UFO, or that popular
works on the subject have sometimes reported fireballs as UFOs. There is a
serious question whether this sort of explanation can reasonably be
extrapolated to the 20% of substantial unexplained cases. A crucial test
of this hypothesis would be to attempt to find conventional explanations
for a strong sample of the hard-core cases. If a special effort in this
direction were to begin turning up reasonable answers, the case for unique
UFOs would begin to crumble.
The author prefers a more positive
statement of the problem in the Hypothesis of UFO Uniqueness (the working
assumption that there is a "signal.") This would ignore the percentage
arguments entirely (on the grounds that one validated report of an
interplanetary spaceship would negate thousands of erroneous reports) and
concentrate on a program of gathering quantitative evidence. Organized
observation networks using cameras, electro-magnetic sensors, etc., would
be developed and an attempt made to obtain multiple observations and
photographs, and triangulations.
Why should this be done? Because UFOs have been viewed negatively
throughout the meager history of scientific attempts to explain them, and
the Deluded Observer Hypothesis has not satisfied many (if any) of those
who have investigated the problem most thoroughly. Attempts to account for
all UFOs in these terms have been neither convincing nor successful, often
leading to preposterous "explanations" for detailed specific cases.
The advantages of testing the UFO Uniqueness Hypothesis include:
(a) the obvious desirability of obtaining more precisely observed
substantial cases for detailed study; (b) if no substantial data were
obtained after a reasonable period of organized observation, and only
identifiable aerial objects were observed, the hypothesis would be
severely weakened, its adherents placed in an untenable position; (c) most
investigation to date has proceeded on the assumption that no "signal"
would be found, with investigators seeking only to find conventional
explanations. With the positive approach, the attempt to obtain
quantitative data would be made within a psychological framework allowing
investigators more leaway to evolve imaginative instrumentation plans.
Having a positive bias would make the (supposed) lack of forthcoming data
even more conclusive; (d) if, on the other hand, meaningful data were
obtained, the advantages are self-evident.
With this approach we would
be saying, "All right, there is a `signal'. What is it? Let's design our
investigations to study it, and differentiate it from the background
`noise.' It may or may not be spaceships, but we will not rule out that
possibility a priori." The Deluded Observer Hypothesis, on the other hand,
tends to preclude any "signal," whether spaceships or some "natural
phenomenon yet to be explained." In view of the admittedly serious
background "noise" problem, it is likely that investigators inclined to
accept this hypothesis would not find the near-conclusive sort of physical
evidence they might require to change their view, lacking a positive
attempt to seek it out.
While conceding that the social and psychological aspects of the
UFO problem are important and worthy of study, they alone could not answer
the real question directly. Many of the obvious things that would be found
in social/psychological studies already are well-established facts, e.g.,
that human observers can be fooled; that popular misconceptions and myths
can exist and movements form to exploit them.
Past scientific attempts to rationalize what later proved to be
important discoveries purely in terms of "myths" and human frailties
should give us pause in the matter of UFOs. In the 18th Century the French
academy said "stones don't fall from the sky because there are no stones
there," and blamed farmers' reports of meteorites on their lack of
sophistication. The discovery of Australopithecus (a "man-ape") in Africa
by Raymond Dart in 1924 was greeted derisively at first because of
contemporary scientific skepticism about a so-called "missing link"
between men and the higher apes. (In this connection, it may be pertinent
to quote H.G. Wells from the 1925 edition of The Outline of History:
"There may be, there probably are, thousands of deposits still untouched
containing countless fragments and vestiges of man and his
progenitors....What we know today of early man is the merest scrap of what
will presently be known.")
Some parallels of investigations in modern science provide examples
of various features discernible in the UFO controversy. Ball lightning,
until recently, was generally considered to be a folk myth. Its eventual
acceptance undoubtedly was due to several factors, least among which were
the repeated observations by laymen. Major scientific centers today
investigate ball lightning partly because of its potential as a "weapon,"
partly because of the discovery that Russian scientists were taking it
seriously and studying it. The realization dawned that, in spite of not
understanding how ball lightning could exist, we might be overlooking
something important that could have serious consequences if ignored.
Other partial parallels are the "science" of detecting enemy
missiles; the observations of novas or other unpredictable astronomical
events such as fireballs; and efforts to photograph lightning. Once we
accept that such things exist, no matter how rare they might be, the
problem becomes one of sharpening our tools and planning for the next
"episode" so that we will stand a greater chance of recording meaningful
information about it. Clues such as the reported recurrence of UFO
sightings in the vicinity of power lines, repeated pacing of vehicles,
etc., might suggest locations or circumstances which would increase our
chances of obtaining better data. In this respect, frequency studies by
computer conceivably might suggest optimum sites for UFO instrumentation.
In our view, UFOs are essentially a straightforward physical
question (a body of puzzling reports which recur, and a modium of physical
evidence suggesting that planned instrumentation would be fruitful.) What
has been lacking is the motivation for science to undertake to find an
answer. The motivation problem concerns me. The question of science's
ability to study UFOs does not. [Jacques] Vallee has properly termed the
UFO problem a "challenge to science" and has suggested some promising
lines of investigation.
For all these reasons of stereotype, bias, emotion, and the
requirements of scientific method, the author favors a program of
investigation which focuses on the analysis of existing hard-core cases,
plus a positive effort to obtain even more complete data on similar cases
in the future.
Certain types or categories of reports would lend themselves to
specialized investigation since they involve something in the nature of
physical evidence at most, close-range observations at least. Numbered
among them are:
(1) Electromagnetic effects on electrical circuits
(especially in vehicles)
(2) Landing reports (actual
touch-down often with physical markings left on the ground) and
near-landings (hovering just off the ground)
Pacing of vehicles (including reports of UFOs blocking the
(4) Physiological effects on UFO witnesses
(eye damage, burns, etc.)
(5) Radioactivity (measured,
or inferred from witness symptoms)
(7) Satellite object cases (overlaps Vallee's
(8) Other physical effects such as sounds,
If some other mechanism can be discovered to account for the observed
or experienced effects. then UFOs and their potential significance might
be discounted. However, if these effects are (as we suspect) fairly
commonly associated with and possibly caused by UFOs, they should provide
many clues to the nature of UFOs.
In any event, the lowest common
denominator of what is necessary in UFO investigation is a close study of
the best unexplained cases in isolation, at least temporarily, from the
Total Phenomenon. The author would view with a jaundiced eye any
investigation centered exclusively on the "noise" and postulated on the
alleged improbability that there could be any "signal."