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Why the government has started taking UFOs seriously

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

The U.S. military received hundreds of new reports of potential UFOs over the span of just over a year, according to an unclassified document released by the government last week.

The filing documents 366 total incidents in which unidentified aerial phenomena (UAPs) were observed between March 2021 and August 2022. More than half of those were categorized as “unremarkable” and attributed to objects like balloons, drones and “clutter.” But that left 171 that could not be readily explained, including some that appeared to demonstrate “unusual flight characteristics or performance capabilities.”

The report itself does not include the word “alien,” and officials have said there’s no tangible evidence pointing to extraterrestrial explanations. “At this time, the answer’s no, we have nothing,” a senior Pentagon official told reporters before the report was made public.

Like a similar report released two years ago, this latest disclosure doesn’t provide any definitive answers on the question of UFOs. Both sides of the debate — hard-core skeptics and true believers — will find plenty inside it to bolster their own preconceptions.

The most remarkable thing about the report, perhaps, is the fact that it exists at all. For decades, UFOs were treated as a fringe issue that serious scientists and government agencies rarely discussed publicly. But that’s changed over the past few years thanks in part to news reports about the Pentagon’s secret efforts to make sense of unexplained encounters by military pilots and pressure from members of Congress. In addition to releasing two reports on UAPs, senior government officials held the first congressional hearing on the issue in more than half a century last year. NASA also recently created a team to apply its unique scientific capabilities to investigating UAPs.

Why there’s debate

Most experts agree that it’s unlikely — though not impossible — that this new, more serious attitude toward UFOs will uncover proof that we’ve been visited by aliens. But many still say the change in approach is important and likely to bring real benefits beyond the search for extraterrestrial life.

Military officials argue that it’s crucial that the U.S. find out what these unidentified objects are in order to determine whether they pose a national security risk. The existence of aircraft or drones that can defy our current understanding of aerial flight could pose a major threat to Americans, they say. Others make the case that UFO research presents a chance for the U.S. military to be more open about its projects, lifting a veil of secrecy that has historically undermined public trust and fueled alien conspiracy theories over the decades.

Some scientists have also celebrated the new level of openness, saying it finally allows for the proper scientific method to be applied to such an important topic. Many add that UFOs present the kind of grand problem that can inspire major breakthroughs as science tries to solve it, even if a true answer never comes or is ultimately unremarkable.

Support for the new approach isn’t unanimous, though. A few experts argue that anything that treats the existence of alien visitors as a true possibility, even a small one, will fuel conspiracy theories and distract from the many real problems facing humanity.

What’s next

On top of requiring the military to document current encounters with unidentified objects, Congress has also mandated the Defense Department to conduct a review of historical documents related to UFOs dating all the way back to 1945 — two years before the incident in Roswell, N.M., that has inspired countless conspiracy theories over the decades. The Pentagon has until summer 2024 to submit that report to Congress.

Perspectives

America’s security depends on finding out what these objects really are

“This is more serious than most people probably think. Even if there isn’t much chance of travel between solar systems, much less between galaxies, these “events” as the military terms them are dangerous. If some other countries are playing cat-and-mouse above nuclear plants in the United States, you can see the clear and present danger.” — Editorial, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Whatever these investigations unveil, the effort will be worthwhile

“We should begin by getting rid of the stigma associated with UAP research. Let science do its work. I don’t know what we will find. We might at least discover some previously unknown natural phenomena. … But the payoff could be much greater: solid evidence that we are not alone in the Universe.” — Dirk Schulze-Makuch, Big Think

Finding aliens would be so monumental that it’s worth pursuing even if the odds of success are minuscule

“The problem is that if someone presents me with a photo purporting to show a flying saucer, I know that the odds overwhelmingly favour it being a fake, and so I’m likely to dismiss it rather than wasting my time examining it carefully. But supposing I’m wrong? … Admittedly, this seems very unlikely. But not impossible. It would be a terrible loss if, among all our careful searching through the data, we missed the thing we had been searching for because it was too easily dismissed as a trick of the light.” — Ray Norris, Conversation

The last thing Americans need is more fantastical thinking

“Inside-the-box thinking has some considerable virtues. … There are millions of Americans who have been lied to about the pandemic, lied to about the vaccines, lied to about the motivations and credibility of the nation’s scientists and the mainstream media. So they think they shouldn’t get vaccinated. They subscribe to outside-the-box claims that are outside the box for precisely one reason: The claims are not true. Please, people: Get in the box!” — Joel Achenbach, Washington Post

American troops need to know they won’t be laughed at if they report something they can’t explain

“It’s pretty clear that partly because of this stigma attached to UFOs, the military are convinced that this phenomena is being underreported, because pilots are skittish or squeamish about, you know, talking about something they don’t understand or might be a UFO. So I think at the top level, the Pentagon is trying to remove that stigma and make sure pilots report what they actually see and pay attention to these things and look for them.” — Chris Impey, astronomy professor, to Marketplace

Conspiracy theories won’t go away, but secrecy has caused real harm in the past

“Perhaps, with the Cold War behind us, the Pentagon’s new UFO office signals a new chapter of sensible transparency surrounding aerial unknowns that could pose a threat to our security. But with the Pentagon’s long history of whipsawing between stoking and stifling public fascination, it doesn’t seem likely that UFO true believers will give up on the mystery any time soon.” — Erik German and Peter Bergen, CNN

UFOs should be treated as a question for science, not the military, to answer

“Congress and the rest of the government need to view the UAP issue as fundamentally a scientific one and not just a matter for military intelligence. They need to invest adequate funding and other resources to explore something that could meaningfully affect our understanding of the universe. Viewing UAPs only through a security lens means that the military is likely to classify any findings that are truly extraordinary.” — Rizwan Virk, NBC News

An open, well-documented inquiry will show the public the power of science

“At their best, these efforts can seize upon an issue of great public interest to offer a master class in how science works. For a nation awash in science denial, that would be no small thing. And by creating a blueprint of what evidence is demanded by a question as extraordinary as whether we’re alone in the universe, the panel can show the equally extraordinary progress science is making toward answering it.” — Adam Frank, Los Angeles Times

The government uses UFO speculation to hide its own secrets

“Finally the real danger comes into view, and it’s not aliens or even Chinese or Russian possession of super-advanced technology. It’s intelligence officials who think their job includes promoting false and tendentious information to the American public for their own purposes.” — Holman W. Jenkins Jr., Wall Street Journal

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Photo illustration: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images