It’s Time to Think Beyond the Science and National Security Framework When It Comes to Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena

Over the next twenty years, it’s very likely that the study of what we’re currently calling unidentified anomalous phenomena, or UAP, will make serious progress toward becoming a fully formed discipline. It’s impossible to know how it will develop, what questions and methods will define it, and what its boundaries and partner disciplines will be. There’s no underlying genetic code that determines those things. At present, UAP studies are just an embryo, so it’s fragile and susceptible. And it’s not being allowed to develop organically because it’s being held within a single box, whose shape it will permanently take on after too long.

The only framework within which we are, at the moment, allowed to study the UAP subject is what I call the *science and security* framework. I want to lay it out briefly and offer some reasons why we shouldn’t let it have exclusive access to study these phenomena. The science-and-security framework is the product of two basic assumptions:

(1) The question “What is UAP?” can only be answered by studying them as physical phenomena, and so the answer will come in the language of physics.

(2) The most pressing reason we have for studying UAP is to determine their significance for national security.

Now, those two statements might sound about right to you, and that would mean you’ve adopted this as your own framework for thinking about UAP. It’s certainly possible that these two assumptions are right enough. It might be that UAPs are essentially just physical objects we don’t yet understand operating according to physical principles we don’t yet understand–just a kind of very advanced automobile. I, and a lot of people working on this subject, think UAP might be something much stranger, but we’d need to study them to find out.

Why should we study them, though? Well, maybe we’ll get some knowledge that we can use, but whatever that knowledge is, we’re doing alright without it now. So, having it would be a net gain, but not having it isn’t a net loss. However, if there were any potential danger posed by UAP, then we are talking about net losses, and for human brains, the prospect of loss is far more motivating than the prospect of gain. We like getting a new, good thing, but we absolutely abhor losing something good that we already have.

There’s little question that, whatever UAPs are, they could conceivably be used as powerful weapons. Anything that could move as fast and as nimbly as some observed UAP could be a potent instrument of malice. If it were used as an invincible missile, it could outmaneuver anything trying to intercept it. So, there is at least a sound, psychologically motivating case that we should study UAP within the framework of—or through the lens of—science and security.

However, it doesn’t follow that we should only study UAP through that lens. Even if UAP are just fancier, more technologically sophisticated versions of cars–and it’s not at all obvious to me that that’s what they likely are–it’s inconceivable that there’s nothing else worth finding out about them than how they work, or how to keep others from using them to kill us. Just as there’s more about cars worth studying than how they work and how to make them safe. As a philosopher of technology, I try to teach others to understand technologies not only through the physics lens that construes them as physical objects that obey physical laws but also as objects that play important parts in how we live, that facilitate and alter our relationships with one another and our environment, that raise new and urgent ethical questions, that even influence our religious lives.

There’s more to understanding a car than how it works; through the sociological lens, we can see its significance for, say, how we practice our religions or have sex. Maybe you think those things are unrelated. If so, it’s probably because you think of cars as “really” just physical, mechanical objects.

But you’d be wrong. When cars became affordable for the middle class, church attendance bottomed out because a lot of people considered a long drive and a picnic to be a much nicer way to spend a Sunday than going to church. So, Sunday church services started having to compete with picnics, matinee shows, and trips into the city, and this became an enormous influence on what church leaders chose to do during those services. Making cars available to the general public also amounted to giving people a mobile space for clandestine sex, which generated a sprawling series of social consequences that Ford himself tried to halt by installing a bar in the back seat so one (or two) couldn’t lie down, but, evidently, there wasn’t much consumer interest.

This multi-lens view of automobiles isn’t just interesting and valuable; not having it sooner came with a cost. We were far too slow to study automobiles through the bio-medical lens, so billions of people breathed in toxic fumes from leaded gasoline for decades. We were too resistant to study automobile use and combustion engine use in general through the lens of ecology. The damage to the environment has been irreparable.

If there are this many dimensions to our simple automobiles, if there was, from the outset, so much potential to harness value and mitigate harms, starting with the Model T, then how much more potential is there to harness with UAP? How much more harm to pre-empt? How much more do we have to learn about their implications for all areas of human activity?

Even if everything that UAPs do can be explained by good old physics, there’s still going to be a lot of interesting questions to ask, questions whose answers will have a lot of economic and intellectual value. Missing out on those answers won’t just be a missed opportunity. They will come with a cost.

Through the religious lens, there are already UAP cults. Through the political lens, there are innumerable questions about policy, public and international communication, information distribution, private regulation, and military strategy that need to be laid out and systematically pursued. The view of the situation will be just as complex and unique through other lenses, like ecology, philosophy, biomedicine, materials science, linguistics, psychology, theology, and many others. We should seek answers to questions like:

    • What are the consistent psychological elements of UAP encounters?
    • How are UAP encounters interpreted within different cultural, religious, political, moral, and philosophical views? How do they affect those views?
    • What is the overlap between UAP encounters and various folklore traditions? Are modern UAP phenomena “the same thing” as Native American encounters with Star People, medieval portents, European faerie encounters, etc?
    • How have popular cultural accounts of UAP shaped the public’s experience of actual UAP?
    • How have UAP accounts changed over time? Is there a pattern that can predict the character of future UAP encounters?
    • What theoretical works in history, psychology, physics, philosophy, religion, ecology, psychoanalysis, anthropology, politics, and sociology offer useful frameworks for understanding these phenomena?

Now is the time to begin taking this multi-spectrum view of these phenomena. The longer we wait, the more the UAP subject will have been baked into the mold of a traditional science-and-security problem, and the harder it will be for other disciplines to get access to it or to study it on their own terms, and that will be bad for everyone, including the scientists and military folks.

We didn’t study the automobile through a biomedical or ecological lens when we should have, and missing out on that knowledge came with costs that we paid in the form of harm to our bodies from leaded fuel and to the environment from carbon dioxide emissions.

It’s impossible to know ahead of time what costs will come from not studying UAP through the lenses of religion, psychology, ecology, anthropology, meteorology, philosophy, folklore, or others. Still, I offer the following as a reliable guiding assumption: the long-term cost of our ignorance will be higher than the price of knowledge.

Michael Glawson, Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and consultant. He served as a professor at the University of South Carolina, Georgia State University, and the College of Charleston for over ten years. He taught philosophy courses on logic, technology, and science & religion, as well as ethics courses for medical students and engineers. He has made scholarly contributions in philosophy of religion, philosophy of technology, pedagogy, and corporate ethics, and co-created one of the United States’ pioneering engineering ethics curricula. As a consultant, he developed a corporate ethics curriculum adopted by numerous government agencies and Fortune 500 companies. Michael is a member of the Scientific Coalition for UAP Studies. You can follow him on Twitter @michaelglawson, reach out to him via email at michaelglawson[at]me[dot]com, or find his work at