The Time I Saw A UFO

July 28, 2008 – Discussion of alien visitation, its probability, its relationship to god, and the fallibility of human perception. Also a philosophical discussion about belief systems and honest devotion to truth above all.

By The Cerebral Aesthetic Vagabond

It was back around the year 2000, and one night I was gazing out the window of my San Francisco apartment, admiring the city lights, when I observed a mysterious, perfectly spherical, orange-white, glowing orb moving, or rather floating, directly toward me. My apartment was high on a hill and overlooked both the city and San Francisco Bay. When I first noticed the orb it was over the bay, but it traveled deceptively quickly: one minute it was over the bay and the next it was seemingly about to crash into my apartment! Its shape and silent, graceful, floating motion was like nothing I had ever seen. My heart was pounding and my mind was racing through the catalog of aircraft patterns housed in my brain, but there was nothing in there that matched the glowing orb. This glowing orb was definitely something new, and even its close approach didn’t help me identify it.

When it looked as though it could come no closer without crashing, it abruptly turned to my left, toward the city, revealing itself to be an ordinary blimp festooned with thousands of small lightbulbs. Seen from the front it presented a perfectly spherical orb, but seen from the side it was clearly an elliptical blimp. My thrill dissipating into disappointment, I sat down and allowed my heart return to its normal pulse rate.

UFO Over San Francisco, March 26, 2004
UFO Over San Francisco, March 26, 2004

I found the above photograph on a site called UFO Evidence, which hosts a treasure trove of UFO photographs. I selected this particular photograph because it closely depicts what I saw. The view of the city in this photograph is similar to the view from my apartment, although my apartment was higher up the hill and my view was less obstructed by buildings. And while this photograph is nowhere near as clear as what I saw – I honestly feared the blimp was going to crash into my building, it was so close – the oblong shape seen here is not unlike the elliptical profile of the blimp I saw. And the color is the same as that of the blimp I saw, as near as I can recall.

Am I A UFO Buff?

Now, you might be thinking that I’m “into” UFOs, but I am not. I find UFOs intriguing, but let’s remember that these are unidentified flying objects. It’s difficult to get terribly worked up about something that’s unidentified. Unfortunately, many people today make the semantic mistake of equating the acronym, “UFO,” with “alien spacecraft.” I firmly believe that people see UFOs, that is, unidentified objects, but I’m more than a little skeptical that people have ever seen alien spacecraft or alien beings here on planet Earth.

I’ve wanted to share my thoughts on this subject for a while. Now that there seems to be a spate of recent UFO sightings and a supposed admission by a former U.S. astronaut that there is some kind of alien coverup, it seems like an opportune time to share my thoughts. Just by coincidence I also happened to finish reading a book titled Flying Saucers, composed of psychiatrist Carl Jung’s notes from the 1940s and 1950s about UFOs. (Another famous psychiatrist, Sigmund Freud, could probably offer a titillating interpretation of alien abduction stories and the concomitant anal probing.)

Do I utterly dismiss the idea that alien visitation is possible? Absolutely not! In fact, on many nights I can be found outside, arms raised to the heavens, imploring aliens to abduct me and take me away from this planet and its moronic humans! Just kidding, I’m not that nuts ... not yet. I do believe that there are literally millions of planets in the universe harboring life, some less advanced than humans, some more advanced. I believe the universe is some 15 billion years old and that the Earth is about a third as old, so it seems likely to me that there are lots of life forms out there that are far more advanced than we are. I just don’t happen to believe that they are visiting our planet, and not because I don’t want to believe it – for I can think of nothing I’d rather experience in life than meeting an alien from another world – but because I have never seen a single shred of physical evidence that aliens are visiting our planet.

Although I believe there are millions of planets harboring life, those planets are spread throughout the universe among billions of galaxies. People who claim to have seen alien beings describe life forms that sound as though they are no more than a few hundred thousands more evolved than us. A few hundred thousand years, however, is the blink of an eye compared to the age of the universe. In other words, the beings people claim to have seen are quite close to us in evolutionary terms. So my reluctance to believe in alien visitation is based on the seemingly infinitesimal probability that there exists a planet harboring life forms only slightly more evolved than us (in terms of the age of the universe) and close enough to make travel to Earth practical. Of course, my assumption about the difficulty of traveling vast distances through the universe is based on my understanding that one cannot travel faster than the speed of light. That popular notion may well be wrong – some popular scientific beliefs have eventually turned out to be wrong – however, for the time being that’s the knowledge I have to work with. Some alien visitation proponents claim that aliens know how to travel faster than the speed of light, perhaps by “bending” the universe or some such thing. Well, I’m open-minded enough to be persuaded that they can do this, but I need to see some proof! Another question I have is why aliens would go to all the trouble and expense to come here and then not reveal themselves or their purpose. I could perhaps understand their exercising caution during their first encounter with us, but they’ve supposedly been visiting our planet regularly for over sixty years! Surely that’s long enough to exercise caution. Where in the annals of our own history do we see human explorers maintaining such degrees of stealth and caution when encountering new peoples?

I consider myself to be a scientist at heart, even if not by credentials. The unbiased pursuit of the truth should be the goal of every genuine scientist. A true scientist should not fear disabusing himself of a once cherished hypothesis. A hypothesis that’s honestly based on the facts and observations available at one point in time should be discarded without hesitation or shame should the collective facts change. At the present time, I see no evidence that aliens are visiting the planet. Sure, there are many claims by people that aliens are visiting the planet, but without physical evidence to back up those claims, the claims are little more than hearsay. Let me be clear, should physical evidence of alien visitation emerge, I will change my position in a heartbeat. I would honestly welcome such proof! I share astronomer Carl Sagan’s attitude, expressed in his book titled The Demon-Haunted World (page 73):

I don’t think anyone could be more interested than I am in whether we’re being visited. It would save me so much time and effort to be able to study extraterrestrial life directly and nearby, rather that at best indirectly and at great distance. Even if the aliens are short, dour, and sexually obsessed – if they’re here, I want to know about them.

I admit that the photos I saw at UFO Evidence are intriguing, but they do not constitute physical evidence. And unfortunately, many of the photos are too blurry to see much of anything and none of them show anything that could conclusively be called an alien spacecraft. (Why are there never any closeup photographs of alien spacecraft?) Some of the photographs show objects that could be unusual aircraft (such as military stealth planes) viewed from unusual angles, for example, from the back and underneath.

Compelling though they may be, photographs are not physical evidence; they are at best proxies for physical evidence. Physical evidence is something physical, such as something one could hold in their hand or examine under a microscope. Physical evidence is something that anyone could examine and from which likely derive the same conclusion as any other person. Circumstantial evidence, such as blurry photographs and hazy recollections of experiences, needs to be “interpreted” in order to draw a conclusion and that process of interpretation is subject to the psychological biases of the interpreter.

Photographs are also notoriously easy to fake, especially today, what with digital photography and computers. I know, I know, all the people who submitted these photographs claim that they are not retouched in any way, but where’s the proof that they have not been tampered with? At one time crop circles were widely believed to be constructed by aliens, but today the vast majority of crop circles are acknowledged to be the work of terrestrial human beings. As to physical evidence, where is there a museum where I can go see a piece of an alien spacecraft or an alien skeleton in a display case?

Some people claim that aliens have formed a special pact with the U.S. Government and shared their technology with the U.S. Government. Where’s the proof? Prove to me that military stealth airplanes are based on alien technology. Prove to me that the U.S. possesses other weapons derived from alien technology. Prove to me that “Area 51” houses alien spacecraft and is anything more than just a secret military base. And why have aliens singled out the U.S. for their beneficence? If, on the contrary, alien visitation is a worldwide phenomenon and aliens are in contact with many governments, not just the U.S. Government, then how is it that the thousands of people involved, people who are scattered all over the globe, people who work for different governments and harbor different loyalties, have been able to maintain such secrecy and suppress the evidence so thoroughly for some sixty years? Consider other major secrets that the “authorities” have tried to maintain for shorter periods of time. Were they successful?

Alternative Explanations For UFOs

Carl Jung’s essential point in his aforementioned book seems to be that some UFO sightings are like hallucinations, projections of the subconscious mind. At times of acute anxiety or emotional tension, the subconscious mind will create vivid, realistic images in order to express itself.

According to Jung, the circular shapes often ascribed to alien spacecraft are ancient, primitive ones, probably innate to our psyches. The same circular shapes and ethereal qualities attributed to alien spacecraft also appear in paintings inspired by artists’ dreams, lending support to Jung’s hypothesis that some UFO sightings are projections from our subconscious, just like dreams.

I think Jung is onto something. Most people don’t appreciate how much psychology alters our perception. People assume that if they’ve seen something with their own eyes, then the image stored in their minds is infallible. However, studies of peoples’ observational skills in various situations have shown this to be false. Different people seeing the same thing can have markedly different recollections of it.

Another plausible explanation for UFOs is the transformation of perfectly normal phenomena, such as flashes of light, reflections, planets, or aircraft into UFOs. For instance, some of the photographs of UFOs that I have seen look as if they could simply be odd-looking aircraft (such as military stealth planes) viewed from unusual angles. Under the right circumstances, if the viewer’s mind is predisposed to seeing UFOs, ordinary phenomena can look like something otherworldly. Consider my experience with the glowing blimp. What if I had not been able to observe the blimp long enough to see it change course and fully reveal its shape? What if I had seen that blimp head-on while driving on a windy mountain road and had to prematurely return my attention to the road? I might never have identified that UFO as a blimp and it might have been recorded as an authentic UFO sighting.

Deception Versus Perception

I am aware that there are lots of photographs of UFOs, which would seem to undermine the theory that some UFOs are mental projections, but consider my comments about photographs above. Also consider that while the number of people who have seen UFOs probably measures in the millions, the number of published photographs of UFOs measures in the thousands. That means that on the order of only one person in a thousand who has seen a UFO has gone to the trouble of taking a photograph of the UFO and publishing it. Does anyone disagree that the ratio of unscrupulous individuals among us is far greater than one in a thousand, and perhaps even greater than one in a hundred? In other words, it is not outside the realm of possibility that every single photograph of UFOs ever published is a fake, although I’m not asserting that to be the case. In addition, it’s helpful to bear in mind that some people who publish such photographs are motivated by dreams of profit or fame, which increases the likelihood of their publishing a fake. Thus, these photographs are not statistically random samples, but are published by a self-selected, minuscule minority of the population who may have ulterior motives for publishing them.

I experienced a rather instructive lesson recently regarding the purported capabilities of cell phones, which I think has some bearing on the subject of UFO photographs. Several weeks ago I read an article in which its authors claimed to have cooked an egg by placing it between two cell phones that were in communication with each other for one hour. Being something of an engineer and being familiar with the way cell phones work, I was a little skeptical about this claim. But since I’m not particularly interested in cell phones and seldom use them, I didn’t pursue an investigation of these claims and simply filed the information away in my mind under the category of “possibly true.” A couple of weeks later I saw several videos demonstrating cell phones apparently popping corn. Again, I was skeptical because cell phones don’t communicate directly with each other, so placing anything in between two cell phones that are connected together in a call shouldn’t do any more than placing something beside a cell phone. Nevertheless, I could not deny what I saw with my own eyes! I saw the corn popping, evidently due to the radio emissions from the cell phones. So I sent an e-mail containing a link to those videos to my friends and family and advised them to minimize their use of cell phones.

Well, I’m embarrassed to admit that I got burned. A few weeks after I sent out my warning I ran across an article on snopes.com explaining how the corn popping videos were a “marketing” ploy. The lesson here is that there are people out there who perpetrate convincing hoaxes that can fool even skeptics like me, and it’s very, very difficult to dismiss what you have seen with your own eyes, regardless of whether it’s authentic or a hoax, and especially if you are receptive to seeing that particular phenomenon. In my case, the article about the egg being cooked between two cell phones had, without my realizing it, predisposed me to being susceptible to the subsequent hoax involving the popping corn. In addition, back in the early 1990s I read an article by a cell phone engineer who said that the radio emissions from cell phones were, in fact, dangerous, and he discontinued using them! So I followed suit and stopped using mine too. Of course, the cell phones back then had roughly the same dimensions as bricks and were analog and had to transmit a signal ten times as far as today’s petite digital cell phones. Nevertheless, that warning has always been firmly lodged in my subconscious and I didn’t get another cell phone until years later when low-power digital ones came out. So that story, combined with the egg-cooking story left my mind highly receptive to the corn popping hoax. To my credit, I swallowed my humiliation and sent out another e-mail to my friends and family recanting my warning and telling them that it was likely a hoax. But the point I’m trying to make is that past experiences or convincing tales can leave a person’s mind receptive to “seeing” what is, in fact, not real.

My Hypothesis

Based on Jung’s ideas I formed a hypothesis that if he were correct that anxiety or emotional tension were partly to blame for UFO sightings, then there ought to be a correlation between between social or political crises and the number of UFO sightings. It was difficult to locate good information about the frequency of UFO sightings over the years, but I finally found some data at an excellent web site called The National UFO Reporting Center, which I plotted below.

UFO sightings per month in the U.S., 1945-2008
UFO sightings per month in the U.S., 1945-2008 (source: http://www.nuforc.org/webreports/ndxevent.html)

Since this web site is called The National UFO Reporting Center, and since the vast majority of the reports in the data set appear to emanate from the U.S., I’ve indicated that the data depicted in the chart applies to the U.S. only. It shows the number of UFO sightings per month from 1945 to 2008.

One curious and prominent pattern in the data is that the number of UFO reports surges in two particular months of each year: June and July. You can observe this peculiarity in the highly periodic spikes in the chart above. Some might dismiss this peculiarity by asserting that people in the U.S. spend more time outdoors during the months of June and July and that’s why they are more likely to observe UFOs then. Perhaps that is the case, however, there are many other nice months to be outdoors, so why is there a pronounced surge in sightings during these two months in particular? This peculiarity in the data demonstrates how human behavior or perception has a significant impact on the frequency of UFO sightings. It’s unlikely that aliens have been visiting our planet more frequently every single June and July for the past sixty years, so these spikes must have something to do with us humans, either in our sightings of UFOs or our reporting of them. One can’t help but wonder, therefore, in what other ways does human behavior or perception influence UFO sightings.

Since my hypothesis is that UFO sightings ought to increase during times of societal anxiety, does the above data support my hypothesis? Since this data is almost entirely from the U.S., we should examine whether there’s a correlation between the data and events in the U.S. The data shows a barely perceptible bulge in UFO sightings following World War II until about 1960. Could the comparatively small rash of UFO reports during this period be related to the hysterical fear of Communism that prevailed, or perhaps to lingering anxiety about the recently ended World War II and whether it was the “last” one? (After all, WWI was supposed to be the “last” one, and then just twenty years later a bigger war came along. So people had ample cause to be apprehensive about future wars.) There is a slight bulge in UFO sightings in the latter half of the 1960s. Could that be due to terrifying and shocking events that occurred a few years earlier, such as the Cuban missile crisis and the assassination of JFK? We can discern a significant bulge in UFO sightings in the mid- to late-1970s. Could that bulge be due to anxiety over the Vietnam War which ended in 1975? Or to anxiety over the economic and energy crises of the time? Or to imaginations stimulated by several U.S. missions to the moon between the late 1960s and the early 1970s? We see a lull in UFO sightings between roughly 1980 and 1995, one of the more socio-politically stable and superficially prosperous eras in U.S. history. Interestingly, since about 1995 UFO sightings have skyrocketed, suggesting that perhaps the Internet has played a substantial role in the reporting of UFOs. I suggest that today’s spate of UFO sightings in America is due to the increasing unease Americans are feeling about the economy, energy prices, food prices and prospects for future wars.

While the data I’ve examined here does not conclusively prove my hypothesis (though it does offer some support to it), it does not undermine my hypothesis either.

Alien Visitation And God

I used to have gentle debates with a dear friend about alien visitation. I maintained an open mind, listened to my friend’s arguments, purchased and read some of the books he recommended, but I was never persuaded to his point of view. Our debates often ended with me asking, “Where’s the physical evidence?”

During one such debate my friend said that the lack of physical evidence is proof that there’s a conspiracy to cover up such evidence, and that the existence of this conspiracy proves that there is something to cover up, namely, alien visitation. I told my friend that his argument was circular, at which point he got a little frustrated with me and said I just have to have faith that aliens are visiting the planet in order to see that there is a conspiracy to cover up that fact. I agree with that assertion! If I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that aliens were visiting the planet and yet there was utterly no physical evidence of such, then there would indeed have to exist an ongoing conspiracy to cover up that evidence.

What really struck me was my friend’s use of the word faith and its importance as a cornerstone of his argument. His use of that word suddenly caused me to observe that belief in alien visitation and belief in god were extremely similar: both entities emanate from the heavens, both are omnipotent (at least compared to us) and wield seemingly supernatural powers, both can defy the laws of physics (as we understand them), both are enigmatic and largely invisible, and both have been credited with creating human life on this planet.

Just as with alien visitation, though, I see no evidence whatsoever for the existence of god. And it’s not from failing to look for such evidence. I have looked for evidence of both, but all I have to show for my efforts is conjecture, anecdotes, hearsay, blurry photographs and admonitions to have faith.

I harbor not the least bit of antipathy toward others’ belief in god nor their practice of religion (as long as they don’t foist their beliefs on me). Due to the lack of evidence, I simply don’t believe that god exists. Yet, were someone to present me with unassailable physical evidence for the existence of god, I’d change my point of view faster than they could snap their fingers, and it would not bother me in the least to do so. If the facts change, then a genuine devotion to the truth demands that I change my point of view.

A decade after my debate with my friend in which he said I must have faith in alien visitation, we had another discussion, this time about god and Christianity. During that latter discussion my friend did not manage to persuade me that god exists, but he did largely convince me that he believes that god exists and that Christianity is the world’s true religion! Only later did I realize that my friend had unwittingly confirmed my observation from long ago that belief in alien visitation and belief in god ought to be comfortable bedfellows.

As a final comment, it appears to me that belief in both god and alien visitation creates a conundrum. According to some religions, man is created in god’s image and man is unique in all the universe. If that’s so, then where do aliens fit into this schema? Did god create the aliens too? If so, then maybe aliens, not man, were created in god’s image. If god did not create aliens, but man alone, then who created aliens, another god? If so, then the god that created man is not omnipotent, as is commonly claimed.

Conclusion

I don’t want people to think I’m ridiculing them for believing in alien visitation or god. I am not! I have no predisposition to believing one way or the other, no agenda other than knowing the truth, no argument to prove, no antipathy toward the beliefs of others. As far as I’m concerned, people are free to believe whatever they want as long as they don’t impose their beliefs on me. If kept within that single constraint I think such beliefs are harmless and may be comforting to those who harbor them. I respect others’ beliefs and promise to always be open-minded enough to listen to their rational arguments in support of their beliefs. Who knows? Maybe someday someone will provide me the concrete proof I demand and I’ll be forced to change my mind.

My only interest is to rationally, logically and scientifically examine the evidence and draw conclusions based on the evidence that exists today. Should the body of evidence change in the future, then I’ll reexamine my conclusions. Based on that methodology, I do not believe that aliens are visiting planet Earth. I do, however, enjoy seeing stuff about UFOs and wondering, “What if...”

Update – 6 February 2009

According to this recent article, a researcher estimates that there may be 40,000 planets hospitable to intelligent life in our galaxy alone! Although this is more of a back-of-the-envelope calculation than a robust scientific estimate, it is nevertheless titillating, especially if one multiplies that estimate by millions, if not billions of galaxies!

The End