extraterrestrial hypothesis

The Extraterrestrial Hypothesis: In the Debate Over UAP Origins, Scientists Wrestle With Possibilities… and Biases

As UFO interest reaches unprecedented heights, a favored theory about their origin presents new challenges for scientists.

Few would dispute the fact that UFOs have undergone a renascence in public interest in recent years. According to recent data, it also appears that more Americans now seem willing to entertain the possibility that these aerial mysteries could represent a phenomenon unrecognized by science.

A recent Gallup survey found that while half of Americans remain skeptical about UFO sightings, that number has dropped ten points since 2019, when similar surveys found that 60% of Americans had reservations about the idea that UFOs could have anything other than earthly explanations.

One thing the new Gallup data seems to convey is the impact recent U.S. government involvement in the longstanding UFO question has had on public opinion. The presence of unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAP as the military prefers to call them, were seemingly confirmed with the release of a nine-page preliminary assessment in June by the Navy’s UAP Task Force (UAPTF), which reported 144 cases involving objects of unknown origin observed by military pilots and others that currently remain unexplained.

Most of these incidents were collected following the institution of a formalized reporting mechanism by the Navy in 2019, the same year previous Gallup surveys found more than half of Americans remained skeptical about possible extraterrestrial origins of such objects. In late 2020, the U.S. Air Force followed suit, with the combined Navy and Air Force data constituting the majority of the reports discussed within the Task Force’s assessment delivered to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) at the end of June.

According to the report, additional information is also being provided by several other agencies, including the FAA, who in recent days confirmed in a statement provided to The Debrief its own role in documenting UAP incidents that can be corroborated with radar or other data on behalf of the UAPTF. Notably, the inclusion of data from the FAA would seemingly indicate that some incident reports from civilian pilots are also among the 144 incidents the UAPTF has currently examined.

extraterrestrial hypothesis

In the days since the report’s delivery to the ODNI, several news outlets have tried to reign in on the subject’s current widespread appeal. Just days after the delivery of the UAPTF’s preliminary assessment, the New York Post Editorial Board called out most of the recent UFO “news” in advance of the report as clickbait, aimed at cashing in on widespread interest in the subject, rather than contributing anything meaningful to the ongoing discussion.

“Yes, UFOs and ‘little green men’ are fun and have inspired tons of entertaining fiction,” the Post editorial read. “But the US intelligence community was entirely right to dump all over the conspiracy theories and ‘They’re really out there’ nonsense in its report on sightings of unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP).” Although the Post Editorial Board noted that extraterrestrial sources were not specifically ruled out in the June report, “it also provides zero evidence supporting alien theories.”

More recently, The Guardian noted that people’s current UFO fascination is primarily “rooted in hope,” while elsewhere The Washington Post Magazine argued what it labels the current “UFO mania” simply has to end.

As the recent Gallup data helps show, it’s no wonder UFOs have been on the minds of so many Americans lately. Thanks in large part to the anticipation ahead of the UAPTF report’s delivery to the ODNI, during the first half of 2021 UFOs have seen more consistent, serious media attention than they have in decades. As a byproduct of this, the New York Post correctly notes that many outlets appear to have jumped on the UFO bandwagon in order to claim their share of traffic from all the attention the subject has received. It is a trend that has been slowly building since late 2017, following a New York Times article revealing the existence of the Pentagon’s Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP), which analyzed aerial phenomena that might pose a challenge to national security.

However, there is something else the recent Gallup data reveals about people’s attitudes toward UFOs. Since 2019, Americans appear not only to have softened their skepticism toward the subject, but also appear more willing to accept the idea that the phenomenon might represent evidence of extraterrestrial technology. In the recent survey, 41% of adults in America now also associate their belief in UFOs with extraterrestrial spacecraft, representing an eight-point rise from 2019 when similar surveys found just 33% of Americans held such views.

And some scientists think this could represent a problem going forward.



Scientists Remain Divided on The Extraterrestrial Hypothesis

“In the search for extraterrestrial life, scientists must be thoroughly open-minded. And this means a certain amount of encouragement for non-mainstream ideas and techniques,” wrote Peter Vickers, Associate Professor in Philosophy of Science at Durham University in an article for The Conversation.

However, even in a scientific community where open-mindedness toward non-mainstream ideas may occasionally be encouraged, many draw the line when it comes to UFOs.

“I have no doubt that there’s extraterrestrial intelligence,” SETI Institute senior astronomer Seth Shostak told CBS in May. “But it’s a different thing to say, ‘And not only are they out there, but they’ve come to visit!’”

For Shostak, a man who has devoted most of his professional career to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, the current evidence presented by UFO proponents simply “is not good.”

Although Shostak and many other scientists keep UFOs at arm’s length when it comes to the search for alien life, the extraterrestrial hypothesis (as it has come to be known mainly among UFO proponents) still represents a valid possibility in terms of what the origins of these objects might be.

The problem is that it also carries a lot of historical baggage.

In the years immediately following World War II, it would have been difficult for any reports of advanced, unrecognized aircraft in American skies not to have aroused concern. The appearance of what had first been dubbed “flying saucers” should be remembered in this context: although jokes and jabs about “men from Mars” and space aliens began to appear almost immediately in American newspapers, this had not been the interpretation that warranted attention from the U.S. Air Force. Instead, it was the concern that the Soviets might possess some new technology capable of surveillance, or even future attacks against the United States. 

It didn’t take long to conclude that the objects being observed in U.S. airspace probably didn’t belong to the Soviets. By January 1950, word about a top-secret Air Force “Estimate of the Situation” had become public knowledge thanks to Major Donald E. Keyhoe, a former Marine Corps serviceman and contributor to popular magazines of the period. It was Keyhoe’s 1950 article, “Flying Saucers Are Real,” which not only argued that the objects existed, but that they originated from outer space. Citing examples that included the death of pilot Thomas Mantell, whose plane crashed while pursuing what he and others described as a large metallic disc, and the electrifying story of a large, glowing rocket-like craft seen over Alabama in July 1948 by pilots Clarence S. Chiles and John B. Whitted, Keyhoe drove home the idea that there was simply no better source for these aerial mysteries than outer space.

Donald Keyhoe
Major Donald E. Keyhoe, filmed at a Pentagon Press Briefing in Washington DC on July 31, 1952 (National Archives/Public Domain).

By some estimates, his True article from 1950 is still regarded as being one of the most widely read and discussed articles of all time, and in effect, Keyhoe successfully sold this “extraterrestrial hypothesis” to an interested American readership. With Keyhoe’s help, the saucers had finally landed on dimly lit runways within the public imagination, and their alien occupants had now been exposed.


Extraterrestrials, and Other Alternatives

The problem with all this is that there was never anything conclusive as far as evidence in support of this idea. That was true in 1950, and it remains the case more than 70 years after the publication of Keyhoe’s article.

Despite this, many modern proponents seem to conclude that there are no other realistic possibilities, and therefore just like Keyhoe argued, UFOs must be extraterrestrial.

“The United States has the highest military technology in the world. Period. Everyone in the Pentagon down to the floor polishers knows this,” read a quote from Stephen Bassett, executive director of the Paradigm Research Group (PRG) which appeared in one of its newsletters dated June 6, 2021. According to its website, the PRG is an advocacy group that has for years sought to expose government knowledge of “an extraterrestrial presence engaging the human race.”

According to Bassett, “there is only one option left to explain not 120 incidents over the past two decades, but thousands of incidents since 1947, and that explanation is extraterrestrial. PERIOD.” Bassett’s statement was in response to a New York Times article published in advance of the delivery of the UAP Task Force’s preliminary assessment to the ODNI in June.

Not all proponents of the study of unusual aerial phenomena are quite so married to the idea that they must have an extraterrestrial source. Dr. David Clarke is a professor of journalism and folklore who acted as a consultant and spokesman for Britain’s National Archives during the period when the Ministry of Defence (MoD) released its records on UFOs. Clarke says that while he would hesitate to link UFO sightings to extraterrestrials, he has found cases in the MoD’s files that left him stumped.

“There are lots and lots of accounts and experiences that I just find utterly baffling, but they aren’t really the ones that are well known,” Clarke says. “If I explained some of these stories, you would never have heard of them before, because no one knows about them. They’re not as media-friendly.”

David Clarke
David Clarke, Ph.D., Associate Professor in the Department of Media Arts and Communication at Sheffield Hallam University, UK (Credit: David Clarke).

Clarke published a feature earlier this year in Fortean Times which argued convincingly that many UAP encounters receiving widespread media attention may not be as rock-solid as they are often conveyed. “The idea that military detection of UFOs on radar provides empirical evidence of visitations to Earth by an unknown technology is an attractive one – if it were true,” Clarke wrote in the article.

However, speaking with Dr. Clarke about his research, he stops short of saying that all UFO reports can be easily explained.

“I’m not for one minute trying to suggest that science has got an explanation for everything,” Clarke says, adding that when it comes to UFOs, “I certainly don’t think that at all.”

Clarke says that in addition to reports he has uncovered from his own research at the Ministry of Defence archives, he was particularly intrigued by the conclusions of Project Condign, a secret study of UFOs that the British Government’s Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS) conducted between 1997 and 2000. It resulted in a four-volume, 460-page report on the project’s findings, in which its author concluded, “that UAP exist is indisputable… [they] clearly can exhibit aerodynamic characteristics well beyond those of any known aircraft or missile – either manned or unmanned.”

“When I actually read that, and I actually got hold of that report twenty years ago, it was quite a stunning conclusion,” Clarke says. “So here was the guy, the UFO expert at the Ministry of Defence, he was actually saying ‘well, I’ve studied this for thirty years. My conclusion is these things exist.’”

While Project Condign’s conclusions seemed to affirm the MoD’s views about the existence of UFOs, they did not link such aerial phenomena to theories about an extraterrestrial presence on Earth.

“They’re not aliens,” Clarke says of the report’s findings. “They’re not extraterrestrials, but they’re some kind of atmospheric plasma. That was his explanation.”

To Clarke, the fact that Project Condign would leave open the possibility that an as yet unrecognized phenomenon could account for UFOs “was almost like an invitation to scientists to say ‘hey, come and have a look at this data. This guy’s taking it seriously.’” Clarke adds that the report’s author “had access to a lot of secret data that a lot of average atmospheric scientists perhaps wouldn’t be aware of.”

“But no one seems to be interested in that,” he laments. “It’s not showbiz, is it?”

“Atmospheric plasmas aren’t as interesting or as sexy as aliens in spaceships,” Clarke says. “So the media aren’t gonna go with that one.”


The Extraterrestrial Hypothesis: A Scientific Perspective

The legacy of the extraterrestrial hypothesis is one that has endured long enough for it to have become ingrained in our culture, and thereby it permeates much of our current thinking about UFOs. The presence of this “ET bias” in the current dialogue creates difficulties for scientists who wish to look objectively at the UFO subject, while also taking the possibility of extraterrestrial visitation seriously without becoming married to it.

Robert Powell, an Executive Board Member and co-founder of the Scientific Coalition for UAP Studies (SCU), a group which applies science toward resolving the UFO/UAP question, is clear in pointing out that while the extraterrestrial hypothesis could one day be validated, presently it is still only one possibility.

“A hypothesis is simply that. It’s what theory best fits the facts with what we know today,” Powell says. “It doesn’t mean that we’ve said [a UFO] is an extraterrestrial spaceship.”

Before his work with the SCU, Powell served as Director of Research at the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) from 2007-2017 and established the organization’s Science Review Board in 2012. Although he emphasizes that theories about extraterrestrial technologies are only hypothetical, he also says they are a logical approach toward possibly understanding the phenomenon.

“What we’re saying is that the extraterrestrial hypothesis is the best of the hypotheses that we’ve come up with to explain [UAP],” Powell explains, adding that “someone could always come up with better hypotheses, or we get new data that makes us change [our minds].”

While some scientists like Powell see the extraterrestrial hypothesis as being potentially useful as an explanatory model for understanding UAP, others see the problem of categorizing UAP based on our current knowledge of the phenomenon as being nearly impossible at the present time.

“I truly do not know as to how and what to categorize [UAP],” says Ravi Kopparapu, a Planetary Scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Among his research interests, Kopparapu has been involved in NASA-funded searches for possible technosignatures of alien civilizations in recent years.

“Confirmed UAP completely defy any reasonable imagination that we could have,” Kopparapu told The Debrief in an email. “I would not categorize them, at this point, as technosignatures because there is no evidence that I know of that could indicate that they are from a technological civilization.”

Kopparapu, while interested in the study of UAP, takes issue with those who conclude that since they cannot be easily explained, they must therefore represent extraterrestrial technologies.

“‘What else could they be?’ is not a scientific explanation,” Kopparapu says. “We need hard evidence. And to collect hard evidence, we need a systematic collection of data on UAP, or access to data that may have already been collected.”


Scientists Seek Access to UAP Data

Kopparapu is one of the many scientists who, in recent days, have noted that current efforts to collect information about UAP by the U.S. government will be of little use to scientists if the data remains classified.

“The sky is not classified,” wrote Harvard Astronomer Avi Loeb in an article for Scientific American in June, adding that “only government-owned sensors are. By searching for unusual phenomena in the same geographical locations from where the UAP reports came, scientists could clear up the mystery in a transparent analysis of open data.”

“When the UAP report [was delivered] to Congress, it was quite intriguing to me,” Loeb recently told The Debrief, “because it defined some objects as real because they were detected by multiple instruments, so they couldn’t have been a malfunction of a particular camera or a hallucination of a pilot. And at the same time, it suggested that the government doesn’t know the nature of these objects.”

“That’s an unusual admission by the intelligence agencies,” Loeb says, “because they’re getting paid to figure out what flies in our sky. And they admit to Congress that they can’t figure it out.”

“So at that point, it became clear to me that this subject needs to move away from the talking points of politicians and military personnel, and to the realm of science.”

Dr. Avi Loeb and 'Oumuamua
Dr. Avi Loeb (Image Credit: Kris Snibble. Source: Harvard file photo)

In the days following the arrival of the UAP Task Force’s preliminary report, Loeb announced the launch of The Galileo Project, an effort that he and other astronomers will be undertaking that will attempt to obtain high-resolution imagery and other data related to UAP.

“I cannot stress enough how important it is to have the data available to scientists to know what they are,” Kopparapu told The Debrief. “Without access to proper data, un-substantiated hypotheses and conspiracy theories take the vacuum created by the lack of a science-based hypothesis. I equate this with superstitions we have had over the centuries until science replaced them.”

Although exploring the possibility that some UAP could have extraterrestrial origins is not inherently a conspiracy theory, over the decades there have been countless claims that involve alleged coverups of an extraterrestrial reality by the U.S. government. This, in addition to stories of alien abduction, purported wreckage retrievals of alien craft or technology, and a host of other claims involving extraterrestrial visitation to Earth.

Despite the widespread support they often see from many proponents of unidentified aerial phenomena, the majority of these claims remain unsubstantiated. Even if they were actually true, no conclusive evidence in support of the existence of extraterrestrials or their technologies has ever surfaced that would be capable of satisfying the requirements of science, let alone producing a testable hypothesis.

Despite his concerns about unsubstantiated theories—extraterrestrial or otherwise—which have often lead the UFO/UAP narrative in the past, Kopparapu does not doubt the presence of a genuine phenomenon behind the more credible reports.

“UAP are real and they exist,” Kopparapu says. “Many of them we see in our skies. Some may have perfectly sensible explanations, but not all of them can be explained away. That kind of thinking is not scientific.”

Although he feels sure about their existence, nothing Kopparapu has studied about these phenomena makes them any less perplexing.

“As a scientist, it is just baffling to me that they exhibit characteristics that we do not understand, and we are not paying attention to it. They are absolutely worthy of a scientific study, probably one of the most interesting studies. We have done that in the U.S. a few decades ago. Other countries also studied them, so it is not U.S.-specific.”

Whether the ultimate solution to the UFO question has roots in technologies from other worlds or phenomena that arise from here on Earth, the results of future studies may one day finally bring a resolution to the debate. Today, scientists are still a good way from reaching any conclusions about the mysterious aerial phenomena that have received so much attention in recent months, and recaptured the imaginations of those who wonder about the greatest question of all: are we alone? 

For Kopparapu, however, the path forward is clear.

“We need data on them, and any collected data [needs to be] made available,” Kopparapu says.

“There is no other way to say it.”

Micah Hanks is a longtime researcher and proponent of the scientific study of unidentified aerial phenomena. You can find his podcast, The Micah Hanks Program, and other podcasts he produces at his website, and follow him on Twitter: @MicahHanks