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What THEY Don't Want You to Know About UFOs

Donate Some great ways to think about all the current UFO craze.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Aliens & UFOs, General Science

Skeptoid Podcast #866
January 10, 2023
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What THEY Don't Want You to Know About UFOs

I'll start by confessing that's a totally clickbait title. It implies that there is some secret government committee, probably in an underground lair with dramatic undertable lighting, plotting to prevent you from knowing the truth about aliens who are visiting the Earth. Now I'm certainly not omniscient, but I'm pretty sure that's not the case, to the point that I'll go out on a limb, slide my chips to the middle of the table, and declare for a fact that it's not the case. But there are people out there, among us right now, who do indeed promote an unscientific perspective on the UFO phenomenon and hope to persuade you to believe it too. So, in a sense, there actually is a group of people who don't want you to have a science-informed position on the matter.

I see this as a problem. We all know — from more than 16 years of Skeptoid — that misinformation and disinformation are everywhere, and that pretty much all of us believe some of it. I am sufficiently self-aware to acknowledge that I believe some things that aren't true, and I hope you are as well. I don't know what those things are; if I did, I would fix them. I would love to know what I believe that's wrong. I would love for all of my positions to be better informed by real science. And I have enough faith in humanity to believe that almost all of us would acknowledge the same thing. That's the basic reason I've kept Skeptoid from being an "us vs. them" thing; to keep it balanced, and to be something that everyone can enjoy. We're all in the same boat of hoping that our beliefs are true, and being hopeful of fixing it wherever necessary.

Those of you who follow me on social media, mainly Facebook and Twitter at @BrianDunning, know that I'm currently producing an indie documentary film called The UFO Movie THEY Don't Want You to See. Today's podcast episode is something of a preview to that movie. It takes this same stance. Whatever you think about UFOs — whether you think some of them are alien visitors, whether you think they are some strange unknown phenomenon, whether you think they're secret classified military planes — this movie will help you better inform that position with good science. And for those of us who are UFO skeptics, who insist that none of them are either aliens or are unexplainable, will also find something to give our thoughts a tune-up as well. Now the movie, at feature length and with pictures, obviously goes into much greater detail than today's audio podcast is able to. But we can still cover the basics.

To begin with, I want to lay out one particular fact that I believe everyone can agree with, and that's that it would be super cool to learn of the existence of an intelligent race of aliens and to be able to learn stuff about them. What kind of culture do they have? What kind of art? Do they have music? Have they fought great wars on their planet with primitive weapons? Have they come up with some amazing technological inventions that we haven't yet? How do they communicate? Do they have genders? What do we have in common with them, and in what ways are we completely different?

In recent years, we humans have taken our first steps in exobiology — the study of life outside the Earth. So far most of this has been with finding exoplanets. We now know about thousands and thousands of exoplanets, in all shapes and sizes, and with all kinds of conditions. Most of them we don't know very much about. But we're getting better and better at finding them, and — to a small degree with the James Webb Space Telescope, and to a much higher degree with the generation of space telescopes to follow — we're very close to being able to search for biosignatures in their atmospheres. When a planet has life, that life leaves chemical traces in the atmosphere that can be studied spectroscopically from very far away. And if life becomes intelligent life, and if intelligent life becomes technological life, they may leave technosignatures too. (This is basically smog.) One way we know this is that life on Earth has done this. If some hypothetical alien astrobiologist out there turns their eye toward the Earth, they would see what's essentially the dream planet. Earth screams to the cosmos that there is life here. Consider the staggering number of planets out there, and the non-zero chance that some of them have given birth to civilizations advanced enough to have astrobiologists of their own.

Consider that. And realize that science says we may have been observed by aliens interested in us. This is true even if you are the most hardcore UFO skeptic. To me, that is the most astounding and exciting thought I can imagine. And I believe it's a prospect interesting enough to intrigue almost anyone. And it's solid science. There are a lot of unknown variables and probabilities in there, but it's all non-zero.

So all of us share this foundation of enthusiasm, even if for many of us, it's tempered with low probabilities. So what should we do with that? Should we all rush outside and look up at the skies? Are our new friends dropping in for a visit right now?

As you can probably imagine, this is where we start running into problems. Some of these problems are pretty big, namely, that nobody can travel faster than light. It's not just where we run into problems, it's where we run into faulty thought patterns that cloud our ability to understand these problems. One of these faulty thoughts is the notion that "Hey, aliens are smarter than us, so the laws of physics don't apply to them." And that's not science; that's wishful thinking, and it's also proven to be factually wrong.

In the movie, we talk to astrophysicists and astrobiologists who explain that the laws of physics are not laws that human scientists made up. They are observations grounded in physics equations, and math is math, everywhere in the universe. We look at how we've been able to verify that the laws of physics today are the same as they were billions of years ago, and how we've been able to verify that the laws of physics here are the same as they are on the other side of the universe. Math is math. The aliens' math will give them the same answers that our math does. If you try to brush that aside with the illogical "The laws of physics don't apply to aliens," then you've abandoned our shared goal of better informing our beliefs with science. Instead, you're informing your beliefs with the magic of leprechauns and genies.

Besides the problems of long-distance travel, we have other problems, too. One involves not distance, but time. I call it the Christmas Tree Problem. Imagine a Christmas tree with strings of blinking lights running throughout it. Each illuminated bulb represents the lifespan of a technological civilization. It's on for a while, and then it's off — due to something horrible like a planet killer asteroid, a pandemic, a war, or some other cosmic catastrophe. If two civilizations hope to meet each other, they would need to be very close together in order for the distance problem to be manageable — but their lights would also have to just happen to be on at the same time. Suddenly the chances of any two civilizations having the opportunity to meet just went way, way down. The Christmas Tree Problem exacerbates the distance problem, and slashes the probabilities to very unhappy low levels.

So now at this point we're facing what appears to be another conundrum. We've reason to believe there are likely people out there somewhere, and even a possibility that some of them know about us and are interested in us. They might even like to visit us, just as much as we'd want to visit anybody we found out about. But if the distance problem and the Christmas Tree Problem take that off the table — for all practical purposes — then how do we explain all of these UFOs which (for many people) have no reasonable explanation other than alien spacecraft?

Here's where experienced Skeptoid listeners can probably jump in and supply the answer. The answer is to have, hold, and respect a high bar for the quality of evidence that you accept. Because when you come right down to it, the existing evidence for any UFOs to have been alien visitors is of the very worst quality. It consists of anecdotal evidence with a thick layer of fiction on top. Many of us have found certain famous UFO cases to be very compelling evidence of alien visitation. Often that comes from cases dramatized on TV programs. It's really hard for a lot of people to accept, but the fact is that the writers of these TV shows have little to gain by showcasing anything mundane or anticlimactic. Since they are not bound by any rules, they dramatize and fictionalize these famous cases to absurd proportions, and suddenly those of us who want evidence of aliens have all we need.

I don't like the idea of "debunking" things. Debunking, by itself, is an inherently negative process. All it does is tell someone that their cherished belief isn't true. Yet, in my UFO movie, we take a look at several famous UFO stories, and carefully show the difference between what actually happened and what is popularly believed to have happened. These cases include the Rendlesham Forest case. In 1980, when it happened, a handful of guys from a US Air Force base saw a faraway light flashing red through the forest. This is all that happened, and we have hard evidence from 1980 that this is all that happened, including police reports, Air Force interviews, and an audio recording made at the time. However, after 40 years of TV shows about the case, the story has grown and grown; and now the version we have today includes one of the airmen examining a landed flying saucer up close and personal. What was a minor mystery then has become a work of almost pure fiction.

In the movie we give the same treatment to the Ariel School case in Zimbabwe from 1994; to the day in 1967 when something happened at a Minuteman missile launch facility that people now interpret as UFOs having the ability to shut down our nuclear defenses; and to the very famous Navy videos of UFOs that have been all over the media since 2017. We even go to Georgia, to the home of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, to find out first hand what that thing was in the sky that made President Jimmy Carter always say was an unidentified flying object. We don't cover these stories for the sake of debunking anything. We look at them from the perspective of failure mode analysis, to see what goes wrong when people fail to set a high bar for quality of evidence.

A lot of the closing segment of the movie expands upon some of the ideas in Skeptoid #272, "Are We Alone?" in which we talk about some of the ways we have reached out to other possible alien civilizations — which we've done on a number of occasions — and why we believe hypothetical aliens would try to reach out to us. The energy requirements of sending a crewed spaceship to visit in person are enormous, to say nothing of the human cost of people locked up in a little capsule for entire lifespans. So instead of doing that, we've tried sending uncrewed probes out there — think of the Pioneer and Voyager missions. The energy requirements are dramatically less, but even still, we can't provide them enough energy in advance that they'd ever be able to come back to us. So they are relatively dumb one-way messengers.

Because of how much easier uncrewed probes are, we'd expect to receive those long before we get any actual alien visitors in person. But there is an even easier method of contact that we've tried that requires orders of magnitude less energy, and travels a lot faster and farther: radio communication. In the Skeptoid episode about the famous Wow! signal we received from space in 1977, we talked a lot about the frequency it was on. It's a frequency that astronomers call the waterhole — like the office water cooler where everyone gathers to chat. The waterhole frequency is a universal constant, and besides being easy to find on the electromagnetic spectrum and with obvious pointers highlighting it, it travels through a quiet band in space and it penetrates atmospheres. The Wow! signal used the waterhole frequency, and it's at the top of the list for frequencies we should be listening to if we hope to receive an interstellar hail from that alien astrobiologist that we hope just might exist and just might have their eye on us.

I, for one, believe this will happen one day. Maybe I'm wrong, but the science says this a solid non-zero probability.

So that's what my UFO movie will be about. It was fun to make, because I got to go to a lot of amazing locations, but it was also a lot of very hard work. Oh, and I also got hypothermia at one shoot, which turned into a little mini-drama of its own, and also kind of sucked. You can read all about what happened there on the production blog, at theufo.movie. On that website you can also sign up for production updates, including when and where you can see it; so do totally sign up for that — it's separate from any Skeptoid mailing lists you might already be on. theufo.movie is the website; The UFO Movie THEY Don't Want You to See is the title; and using science to better inform everyone's opinion about UFOs is the name of the game. I hope this little preview podcast version was as fun for you as it was for me, and remember, always watch the skies. But stay skeptical too.


By Brian Dunning

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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "What THEY Don't Want You to Know About UFOs." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 10 Jan 2023. Web. 31 Jan 2023. <https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4866>

 

References & Further Reading

Andersen, R. "The 'Wow!' Signal: One Man's Search for SETI's Most Tantalizing Trace of Alien Life." The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group, 16 Feb. 2012. Web. 22 Dec. 2012. <http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/02/the-wow-signal-one-mans-search-for-setis-most-tantalizing-trace-of-alien-life/253093/>

Gowdy, R. "SETI: Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence." Astronomy: A General Education Course. Virginia Commonwealth University, 18 May 2008. Web. 10 Aug. 2011. <http://www.courses.vcu.edu/PHY-rhg/astron/html/mod/019/s5.html>

Matson, J. "Alien Census: Can We Estimate How Much Life Is Out There?" Scientific American. 10 Feb. 2009, Volume 301, Number 2.

Plait, P. Death from the Skies! New York: Penguin Group, 2008. 7-32, 67-101.

Ridpath, Ian. "The Rendlesham Forest UFO Case." IanRidpath.com. Ian Ridpath, 1 Jun. 2009. Web. 16 Jan. 2010. <http://www.ianridpath.com/ufo/rendlesham.htm>

SETI League. "What Is the Water-Hole?" SETI League: General Information. The SETI League, Inc., 4 Jan. 2003. Web. 18 Dec. 2012. <http://www.setileague.org/general/waterhol.htm>

 

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