The Scientific Obligation
“Men of science are being increasingly compelled to pursue the end of governments rather than those proper to science.” -- Bertrand Russell.
The investigation of unidentified flying objects has been a curious business from the start. Although government today is making increasing use of scientific talent in defense programs, scientific investigation of phenomena has never been considered a purely governmental concern. It is therefore puzzling to see the Air Force as the sole agency investigating something which it alleges is only natural phenomena and scientific skepticism doubting that there is any justification for an investigation at all.
When UFOs began to appear in large numbers during 1947, it was thought that they were revolutionary new aircraft of some sort. Since they were not ours, the Air Force began an investigation. In 1948 the Air Force investigation was made official through Department of Defense orders. Official orders were later drawn up, including Air Force Regulation (AFR) 200-2, giving the Air Force sole responsibility for investigating UFOs. All reports from other armed services, government agencies, and citizens were then channeled to the Air Force. In the 12 years that have passed since 1947, the Air Force is the only sizeable agency--official or unofficial--which has investigated UFOs. The problem has never been tackled by science.
In order to understand the attitude of scientists who are extremely skeptical of UFOs, it is important to realize the following points:
(1) Ever since 1947 there has been a tremendous outpouring of nonsense on the subject.
(2) The press, on the whole, has ridiculed "flying saucers" and has tended to laugh at the people who report them.
(3) The information available to the casual observer has been mostly the two extremes: Wild claims by apparent psychopaths and Air Force statistical summaries.
The average scientist, occupied with projects of immediate importance, would not take UFOs seriously unless he chanced to see one himself or if he were predisposed to have an interest in unusual atmospheric phenomena. The evidence for UFOs has been muddled from the start, and scientists need to see evidence before they will get excited about something. If there has been a straightforward investigation from the start, scientists would have been encouraged to examine the data; but this was not the case.
Since most scientists have not seen the evidence, and since the wild rantings of mystics and the official disclaimers deter them from taking a look, the average scientist is prone to accept the work of Dr. Donald Menzel, Harvard astrophysicist, that UFOs are merely a collection of misidentified natural phenomena. To do this, he must also accept the corollary argument that there is basically a psychological explanation for the UFO movement--world tensions, the desire for outside help, and the usual glib explanations of this sort. There is no other explanation for the persistence of UFO reports consistent with Dr. Menzel's theory. To the uninitiated, his ideas are plausible and so they are accepted without much independent investigation.
Dr. Menzel's arguments are reasonable and logical only if the assumption is first made that nothing unique and different is being seen by those who report UFOs. This is the one thing which Dr. Menzel has in common with the Air Force: The presupposition that all UFOs are natural phenomena seen under conditions which deluded the observer into thinking he had seen something exceptional. Once this assumption is made, it is then quite logical to attempt to identify the particular natural phenomenon which give rise to a UFO report. This is exactly what Dr. Menzel and the Air Force have attempted to do.
This approach to UFO investigation, which I have called the "Deluded Observer Hypothesis," is a dangerous one. There is no assurance that all observers have been deluded--an assumption which would tend to make science an impossibility if applied consistently. If the question to be answered is: "Do UFOs represent a unique, unexplained phenomenon?" then this method assumes its own conclusion. Suppose that real, solid disc-shaped objects of undetermined origin were actually present in our atmosphere. Would they ever be discovered by this approach?
Attempting to find natural explanations for UFOs is a valid approach up to a point, and a quite necessary part of UFO investigation. But it is only part of what is needed for a true scientific investigation. Attempts to explain all UFOs have failed. There has always been a remaining percentage of so-called "unknowns." Those who accept the Deluded Observer Hypothesis explain this by saying that the remaining "unknowns" could have been explained too if the evidence had been more complete. This argument is fallacious on two counts: (1) The evidence was complete in the cases which the Air Force classified as "unknowns." The "insufficient data" category is a separate one. The "unknowns" could not be explained because of the nature of the evidence, not because of any lack of evidence. (2) Investigators working on the assumption that UFOs are all natural objects are understandably prone to "find" a conventional object in the right place at the right time to explain a UFO report. Many of the "explained" UFOs were explained solely by guesswork. In short, the embarrassing "unknowns," which (to the Air Force investigators) "must be" natural objects, have been rationalized in one way or another. There is real danger that, in their eagerness to find natural explanations, the Air Force will explain away unknown objects as something commonplace.
In my opinion, it is time that Dr. Menzel, the Air Force, and any others who reason that all UFO observers are deluded, examine their presuppositions. In their eagerness to debunk the idea of visitors from space, they have created a climate of opinion in which it is not acceptable to test any hypothesis which admits the possibility that UFOs are something unique and unexplained. An hypothesis recognizing the "unknowns" as a real phenomenon would credit good observers with having seen what they reported, but would not commit investigators to any particular explanation of what the objects were.
For scientific purposes, it is not crucial that many people are fooled by common objects. This is an obvious fact; yet it is the only thing which can be established by a test of the Deluded Observer Hypothesis. By itself, this hypothesis is incapable of testing to see whether UFOs might be something unique because it has presupposed that they are not.
In order to be scientific, first and foremost, the investigation would have to include an active attempt to gather better information through instrumentation. At present, the Air Force only investigates sightings reported voluntarily and through channels. Many excellent cases involving competent witnesses are therefore ignored when they are not reported directly to the Air Force. This is true even of cases reported in the press and known to the Air Force.
Secondly, after active data gathering, those UFO reports which have complete data and can not be explained--the "unknowns"--should be carefully examined. Are the reports consistent in any way? Do they show any patterns in regard to shape, performance, etc. ? If so, it would appear that we could not assume a natural explanation for all UFOs, and that the "unknowns" must be something unexplained. The next problem would be to devise some crucial experiments to determine what the objects were and, perhaps, to form a coordinated skywatch to study the behavior of the objects. (Officials of General Mills Inc. suggested in 1951 that the government start a 24-hour sky-watch after their balloon-tracking personnel had reported several UFOs.) Although these steps would be necessary in a true scientific investigation, none of them have been taken.
Unless the Air Force is hiding some secret information which shows that UFOs are real, which is flatly denied, it is inconceivable to me that there is any justification for having UFOs remain a military problem. If nothing is being hidden, there is no reason why the investigation cannot be turned over to civilian scientists. Why must the Air Force retain this burden which, they themselves have suggested, distracts them from the more vital task of defending the country from air attack?
There is one possible factor which might prohibit turning the investigation over to the scientific world: The fact that
UFOs are not recognized as a scientific problem. An easing up of secrecy would solve that problem, however. Before there can be any final solution, the government apparently will have to endorse UFOs as a scientific mystery (nothing more), turn the investigation over to civilians, and encourage a sane, thorough investigation by making the subject respectable. In this way the stifling effects of military secrecy would be counteracted and Air Force personnel would be freed for other duties.
To take this step would not necessarily entail making any sensational announcements. On the contrary, if properly handled, it could be done quite casually as the normal and logical thing to do. If something of this sort is not done, we will continue to have stringent security measures hiding evidence of an allegedly non-existent phenomenon and preventing any independent scientific investigation. Until something of this sort is done, there will be no scientific solution to the problem of UFOs.
As a means of settling the long-standing controversy about UFOs, which threatens to go on indefinitely unless something is done; I propose that the following steps be taken:
1. That the Executive Department relieve the Air Force of its responsibility in UFO investigation (it now has sole responsibility), emphasizing that UFOs are a scientific mystery apparently not connected with problems of national security.
2. That all Air Force records on UFOs be declassified (shorn of witnesses' names, and technical data which might help an enemy.)
3. That this data be turned over to a committee of professional scientists from accredited universities for analysis and further study.
4. That NICAP become a semi-official clearing house for UFO information, sending cases of scientific value to the committee, and releasing information and the conclusions of the scientific committee to its members and the press.
5. That military personnel, pilots, and other responsible citizens be encouraged to report all sightings and other pertinent information to NICAP for evaluation and dissemination.
6. That the government, by example, encourages scientists around the world to participate in a cooperative scientific investigation of UFOs along with other routine scientific projects.
A central organization--NICAP--already exists, which can digest the bulk of data and make significant evidence available
to scientists. Among the NICAP membership are enough professional scientists to form the nucleus of the scientific committee, and other professional scientists would undoubtedly become interested. In this way, the transition could be made to a public, scientific investigation with a more liberal information policy, and the Air Force would be able to concentrate on other things. Air Force scientists could be represented on the committee in the event the scientific findings turned up anything relevant to air defense.
There is nothing in the problem of UFOs which could not be resolved if all scientists had access to the data and citizens were kept well-informed on the progress of the study. In science, it is essential that all relevant data be exchanged freely. In a democracy, it is essential that the populace be well-informed so that it may prepare intelligently for any event. This necessary information is not available today, but it could be if the Air Force and the government are sincere in their desire to resolve the issue. The UFO problem would then be what it should be--the responsibility of science and society.