Why the Air Force UFO Investigation is Unscientific
In response to criticisms of its UFO (flying saucer) investigation, the Air Force has issued periodic statements attributing its conclusions to "top scientists." The claim is made that the investigation has been completely scientific and, by implication, that the conclusions (that flying saucers do not exist) are unquestionably correct. In order to judge these claims, it is necessary to see whether the Air Force methods of investigation conform to the rules of scientific investigation. The question to be examined is thus a double one: What is the scientific method, and has this method been applied to UFOs as claimed?
The following quotation from a Department of Defense news release, November 5, 1957, typifies the Air Force position on this question:
"The selected, qualified scientists, engineers, and other personnel involved in these analyses are completely objective and open minded on the subject of 'flying saucers.' They apply scientific methods of examination to all cases in reaching their conclusions ... the data in the sightings reported are almost invariably subjective in nature. However, no report is considered unsuitable for study and categorization and no lack of valid physical evidence of physical matter in the case studies is assumed to be 'prima facie' evidence that so-called 'flying saucers' or interplanetary vehicles do not exist.“
The emphasis is on the superior quality of the investigating teams, the open-mindedness they display, and the inferior quality of the data they are forced to work with.
However, it turns out in most cases that the "almost invariably subjective data" allows the Air Force to make identifications of UFOs as common objects with such certainty that it is considered sacrilege to question the conclusions. It also turns out, perhaps significantly, that many of the cases involving non-subjective data (i. e., radar trackings, photographs, and movie films) could not be explained and have been classified as "unknowns." A good example of this "unknown" category is the Rapid City, S. D. case, August 12, 1953. * In this case an unidentified light in the sky, giving a radar return, caused a jet scramble. An F-84 was vectored in and gave chase, pursuing the UFO for 120 miles. When he gave up and turned back, the UFO turned back and followed him. A second F-84 then chased the UFO, which was registering on his gun sight radar, as ground radar showed both the F-84 and the UFO. When the second pilot turned back, the UFO continued on its way, seen by a Ground Observer Corps post as it passed. In 1959 the Air Force admitted that gun camera photos of the UFO had been obtained, but that they could not be analyzed.
This case is one of the many hundreds of good, verified UFO reports classified as "unknowns" which have accumulated through the years, and which are the reason why so many people are not satisfied with the Air Force conclusions. Contrary to the above statement by the Air Force, the category studies--in which UFOs are said to be identified as this or that common object--do not take into account the possibility of UFOs being interplanetary vehicles or any other unique objects. As will be shown, the techniques employed preclude this possibility.
Before analyzing the actual techniques employed by the Air Force to see whether they are scientific, it is appropriate to establish in general terms the nature of scientific investigation. The following statements about scientific method are taken from philosophers of science, and paraphrased from texts on the subject. **
"Scientific work is group work; the contributions of individual men to the solution of a problem may be smaller or larger, but will always be small compared to the amount of work invested in the problem by the group... the amount of technical work involved in the solution of a problem goes beyond the capacities of an
* Ruppelt, E. J. The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects (Doubleday) p. 303.
** For example, see: Cohen & Nagel, Logic and Scientific Method.
individual scientist... the social character of scientific work is the source of its strength."--Hans Reichenbach, in "The Rise of Scientific Philosophy."
Abstracting from this, we see that science implies a community of scientists checking and rechecking each other's work. The opinions of one scientist, so commonly used in an authoritative manner today, do not constitute a scientific investigation, and may or may not be correct once an investigation is completed. Such opinions, especially when they precede any investigation, will reflect only the prejudices of the individual scientist. In other words after a free interchange of data among the scientific community, it is the weight of evidence as established by scientific techniques which provides the solution to a problem.
"When a man desires ardently to know the truth, his first effort will be to imagine what the truth can be. He can not prosecute his pursuit long without finding that imagination unbridled is sure to carry him off the track. Yet nevertheless, it remains true that there is, after all, nothing but imagination that can ever supply him an inkling of the truth. He can stare stupidly at phenomena: but in the absence of any imagination they will not connect themselves together in any rational way. "--C. S. Peirce, in "The Scientific Attitude and Fallibilism."
This states one of the basic requirements of scientific method --the need for an imaginative hypothesis to order the data and provide a tentative explanation which, of course, is to be checked by subsequent experiments and observations. (The last sentence of the quote from Peirce applies particularly well to the Air Force UFO investigation, since the Air Force is more interested in dissecting UFO phenomena into arbitrary categories than in testing to see whether there is a rational order to the key cases.)
From these and similar statements the scientific method can be characterized in the following propositions:
(1) Science is the attempt to solve problems and understand phenomena through investigation by a free community of scientists, any one of whom has access to the reasoning, experiments and techniques used by the others.
(2) Any hypothesis (imaginative explanation) must be chosen,
taking the facts into account. This hypothesis should be as free as possible of our preferences or desires, and should not be held sacred and beyond question. It must be tested thoroughly before being accepted as fact, and even then is subject to modification if more evidence is obtained.
(3) Science implies selectivity and critical judgment--choosing of relevant data and discarding of irrelevant data; choosing and testing a hypothesis and either modifying confirming or discarding it depending on the results of applying it to all relevant data.
It will not be necessary to go beyond these elementary points. How does the Air Force investigation of UFOs stack up against these criteria?
(1) None of the UFO data obtained by the Air Force since 1952 are available to the scientific community for study. Only the conclusions in the form of "fact sheets."
(2) No attempt has been made to test any hypothesis which admits the existence of an unexplained phenomenon. No one is allowed to examine the reasoning and techniques of the Air Force investigators in order to test their multiple explanation "hypothesis."
(3) No one can tell, except by inference, how critical the Air Force investigators are of their own "hypothesis, "... since the relevant data are not available to scientists. The possibility that the Air Force "hypothesis" might be inadequate and outmoded is not admitted.
The statement that "no report is considered unsuitable for study... “indicates a lack of selectivity which stacks the deck in favor of the Air Force category studies. As most serious students of UFOs are aware, the Air Force has implicitly adopted the hypothesis that UFOs are many different natural phenomena; moreover, that they are familiar phenomena seen under conditions which fool the observers. Rather than taking the facts into account, this is actually a denial of the reported facts. The observers, it says, only thought they saw flying discs. The "scientific methods" applied to UFOs then become techniques designed to determine the number of UFO cases which can be explained as familiar objects seen under conditions which deluded the observers. (All unofficial competing hypotheses are based on the premise that, after allowing for erroneous observations, the real UFOs are one or possibly two or three phenomena -- e. g., space ships, secret devices, space animals...)
The only sense in which this Deluded Observer hypothesis has any meaning is as a psychological study on the ability of human beings to describe accurately things which they see in the sky. Obviously many observers are fooled, especially when interpreting what has been seen, but less frequently in describing what has been seen. Descriptions from the average intelligent observer with some practical observing experience can be taken as essentially accurate. Interpretations, however, are best left to a community of scientists aided and abetted by crosschecks such as radar or photographic data. If it were true that no observational data is reliable, there could be no science; yet this is the paradoxical assumption underlying the Air Force category studies.
Since "no report is considered unsuitable for study...," it is an easy matter to "confirm" the Deluded Observer hypothesis. Failure to select for study only the observations from intelligent laymen and trained or experienced observers will inevitably lead to a preponderance of poor or inaccurate observations. Thus the Air Force is not testing to learn if real, unique objects are being seen. It is assuming that such objects are not being seen, and attempting to show in each case that some common object could have caused the report. It is not surprising, therefore, that common objects could have caused 90-odd percent of current UFO reports. Whether they did or not is another question which has not been answered in more than a small percentage of cases.
In the case of "unknowns," common objects have been ruled out. Because it is assumed beforehand the observer must have seen some common object which fooled him, however, the possibility of its being an uncommon object is automatically rejected. This leaves the "unknowns" in a state of limbo, carefully camouflaged by irrelevant statistics. Actually, if the Deluded Observer hypothesis were adequate to explain UFOs there would be no need to continue the study, since this hypothesis has been amply "confirmed" by the Air Force.
In attempting to establish delusions, the problem is to explain every case possible in terms of some common phenomenon and, when assumptions are made, it is naturally desirable (and tempting) to choose those which will favor this identification. In the process of attempting to locate a familiar object in the
right place at the right time to account for a UFO report, it is a simple matter to assume that which is not known with any degree of certainty; for example (as in the Mantell case)* that a balloon probably caused the sighting because balloons were being launched during that period of time in the general area; or (as in the Gorman case) ** that a balloon deluded the pilot observer into imagining complex maneuvers because one pilot had previously been deluded by a balloon. Identifications such as this, very common in the Air Force study, are partly responsible for the high percentage of "explained" UFOs. A real identification would, at the very least, produce the records of a balloon launched on the correct date in the general area of the UFO report and show that the balloon probably was at the position where the UFO was seen.
Because the Air Force has always favored the Deluded Observer Hypothesis, it has been at enmity with the Interplanetary Object Hypothesis. As often happens when two diametrically opposed hypotheses collide, the Air Force (as the entrenched authority) has ridiculed and debunked its enemy, denying that there is any evidence for the opposition hypothesis. The worst sort of prejudice, as it manifests itself in science, is clinging to an outmoded and inadequate hypothesis, forcing the evidence to fit it, while at: the same time deriding the opposition for its "science fiction" conclusions. There are a lot of intelligent advocates of the Interplanetary Object Hypothesis and, unlike the Air Force, they approve of and are attempting to encourage a full scientific review of the evidence, as well as an active attempt to gather better data.
The Air Force, it is worth emphasizing, has never made an effort to test an obvious alternative hypothesis--that there may actually be disc-shaped objects flying around, regardless of the question of their origin. Refusal to modify or change a hypothesis even though it has been unable to produce a rational scheme of explanation is unscientific. Instead of producing a rational scheme, the Air Force has produced an irrational scheme in which thousands of serious, competent witnesses are ridiculed, their claims only superficially examined if at all, their sightings automatically considered to be delusions.
The Air Force refusal to release its data to civilian scientists
* Ruppelt, E. J., The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, p. 59.
** Ruppelt, E. J., op. cit.; D. 67.
makes it nearly impossible to test other hypotheses. Today, official ridicule showers down on anyone audacious enough (1) to think that the "unknowns" might be real, unexplained objects (2) to think that the Air Force investigation might leave something to be desired. Neither of these possibilities is very startling when examined in isolation, but put them together and they seem to make a package which is too incredible for the average person to take seriously. It should be pointed out that criticism and demand for factual evidence is the essence of science, and that no scientific conclusion is beyond question.
Not only is the accumulated data on UFOs kept secret, but also current information of UFO sightings. JANAP 146(C) --a Joint Chiefs of Staff Bulletin -- by threat of fines and stiff punishment prevents both military and civilian pilots from revealing the contents or existence of a CIRVIS (Communications Instructions for Reporting Vital Intelligence Sightings) report, which includes reports of UFOs. * This surprising directive, while encouraging secret UFO reports, drys up the best single source of reliable public information on the subject; namely pilots (military and civilian) flying all over the world. This censorship --for what else can it be called -- makes knowledge of UFOs the exclusive property of the Air Force and a few highly-placed security and defense officials. If UFOs are only misidentified natural phenomena, there is no valid reason for such strict security measures. As long as JANAP 146(C) remains in force, the far-flung military communications network will be worthless for scientific purposes as a source of data. The Air Force investigation is unscientific, most of all, because it has usurped the right to study UFOs, and has substituted dogmatism for science.
This article is not intended as a criticism of the Air Force as a whole. In fulfilling its function, the Air Force is a powerful force for defense of the free world. It is intended as a criticism of those individuals, be they military or civilian, who are responsible for the current policy on UFOs; and especially those who claim that there has been a scientific investigation which has settled the question once and for all.
* A recent revision of this document, JANAP 146 (D), includes Canadian pilots in the CIRVIS network. The wording of the section on "security" has been modified to play down the strict security measures which keep UFO reports secret. The reports, however, are still secret.