Attempts to study UFOs and their occupants probably will be futile, at best


The US government shut down its official UFO investigations in 1969, and thereafter, for more than four decades, the UFO phenomenon wallowed in a low-culture morass of tabloid stories, books by “abductees” claiming to have been impregnated by ETs, TV documentaries about ancient aliens, etc. Over the past decade or so, thanks to the efforts of influential enthusiasts in the U.S. Senate and the military/intelligence community, UFOs have begun moving back towards mainstream acceptance. Since 2021, the Pentagon has had an office—currently called the “All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO)—tasked with collecting and analyzing UFO reports. The recent media flap over a Chinese spy balloon prompted the setup of an additional Pentagon-FAA-DHS-CIA “airborne objects” study team. Even NASA now has its own blue-chip panel for studying UFOs “from a scientific perspective.”

It would be tough to argue that these developments are entirely bad. We’re now in the Drone Age of warfare, so it absolutely makes sense to “watch the skies” and identify what’s up there. It also seems sensible not to dismiss UFOs as purely terrestrial phenomena—a small proportion of cases, including some sensational recent ones involving military aircraft, really do invite an ET interpretation.

That said, I suspect this will be a case of shifting from low-culture nonsense straight to elite hubris and foolishness—premised on the conceit that we can undertake a detailed study of ET-UFOs as if they were ordinary scientific phenomena.

It should be obvious that we cannot—not if these phenomena represent advanced intelligent ETs that are studying us, reading our beliefs and intentions and shaping our perceptions, perhaps to obscure their true nature. This is just common sense, although the UFO lore also supplies many instances of mysterious aerial objects’ seeming to anticipate, and sometimes even thwart, the actions of human observers such as pilots.

And what if, despite our very limited ability to learn about UFOs, we gathered enough evidence to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that some really are advanced, starfaring ET species? Would we take pride in this “scientific” discovery? Or would we enter into a state of smoldering despair, as we faced the painful fact that we are an also-ran species? Anyone who seriously ponders the ET-discovery possibility is reminded eventually of the many inter-civilizational encounters in our own ages of conquest and discovery. Those encounters generally went badly for the inferior party—in part because the “knowledge” they gained was basically toxic to their prideful worldview.

The good news is that the average starfaring alien in our galaxy is unlikely to be apprehensible enough to have this toxic effect. The popular notion of a Captain-Cook-like ET visitor who is eager to tell us about his own world, eager to share his advanced scientific and technical knowledge, seems particularly far-fetched. The thing that we humans find hardest to understand about putative ETs—and this is evident from our relentlessly anthropomorphic depictions of them in fiction, folklore, and even academic papers—is just how alien most would be.

Consider that our galaxy, along with the rest of our observable universe, was around for roughly 10 billion years before our solar system existed. That’s a lot of time in which other life forms might have arisen, and it suggests that the average age gap between our starbound species and true starfarers in our galactic vicinity is on the order of billions of years. The resulting difference in civilizational development would thus be enormously greater than that between, say, 18th century Englishmen and Pacific Islanders. It would be more like humans vs. ants, or humans vs. bacteria.

Conceivably an alien species even with that degree of superiority could communicate in some way that our comparatively rudimentary brains could understand. But why would it even bother? We humans don’t feel compelled to introduce ourselves to ants or bacteria, let alone try to teach them things about ourselves or other aspects of the reality we know. These lower species cannot contain the kind of information we would consider worth imparting.

By the same logic, any specific assumption we humans make about the activities of advanced alien civilizations based on what we would do (broadcasting radio signals, building megastructures, and sending probes from motherships are favorite themes among our so-called experts) is just fatuous anthropomorphizing. We simply lack the capacity to imagine what it would be like to be such creatures. “Where there are no men, there are no motives accessible to men,” as Stanislaw Lem famously put it in Solaris.

Out on the long tail of the age-gap distribution, there might be some ET visitors that are only hundreds to thousands of years more advanced than we. But even they would be very difficult for us to grasp, given the vast differences in our environments and evolutionary histories, and the technologies they would have that we don’t. How would a modern fighter jet roaring overhead look to someone living in America just 300 or 400 years ago? Probably no less strange than the “dark gray cube inside of a clear sphere” that Navy F/A 18 pilots observed in a 2014 midair encounter off the Virginia coast.

Whatever we can grasp about aliens is likely going to be found in the common threads of UFO reports—for example, the apparently benign nature of putative ETs and their craft. They don’t go around killing people, and despite official fears about midair collisions, they have never verifiably knocked a manned aircraft out of the sky. That is at least consistent with what our own history as a species suggests: that as we’ve become more civilized, we’ve tended to become more “humane” and caring, towards outgroups within our species and even toward other species. If ETs are at least as humane as we are, and smarter as well, then even the ones closest to us in age and development might not want to disturb us too directly, lest they trigger our despair-driven demise.

It seems at least plausible, then, that virtually all ETs capable of visiting us are either too advanced and alien to bother, or, if they do visit, are wise and benign enough not to make their presence too obvious. This is one possible resolution of the “paradox,” famously stated by physicist Enrico Fermi in 1950, that aliens seem scarce and elusive though our universe should be teeming with them.

If this way of thinking about ETs is correct, then our “scientific studies” of UFOs should yield little, at least while we remain in the pre-starfaring state. Though the skeptics might consider themselves vindicated in this case, it would otherwise seem the happiest possible outcome for us as a proud, ambitious species.

On the other hand, it is at least conceivable that among the 100+ billion star systems in our galaxy, there are some starfaring civs that have zero empathy for primitives like us, and would upend our world with no more thought than you or I would have for bugs we happened to crush underfoot while strolling outdoors. These aliens are the kind that would park on the White House lawn, making their presence impossible to ignore. These are the ones we should fear. That our experts frequently evince a yearning for such open contact really underscores how primitive and vulnerable we are.

Incidentally, the gulf between our prideful view of ourselves as a species and our (likely) actual backwardness and insignificance—which direct ET contact presumably would force us to acknowledge—points to yet another reason UFOs seem so scarce: that intelligent creatures tend to die of despair as soon as they discover their true place in the universe.