For decades, academic researchers have dismissed the study of UFOs as pseudoscience. But as the evidence becomes harder and harder to ignore, some organizations are finally taking steps to make the field legitimate.
For as long as humans have claimed they’ve seen UFOs—and it’s been a long, long time—the established scientific community has more or less considered them to be nonsense. While that hasn’t changed much, even as we’re in the midst of a modern ufological renaissance, some renegade scientists are fighting to bring academic rigor to UFO research.
Take Richard Hoffman, a 25-year information technology expert on contract with the U.S. Army’s Material Command at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. As a Senior Lead Architect, he keeps the Army’s digital infrastructure running and safe from attack.
He’s also a UFO researcher.
“The scientific community still has to deal with the decades of stigma associated with what they see as pseudoscience or fringe science,” Hoffman tells Popular Mechanics. “Many scientists do have interests in the phenomena, but are most often discouraged by others to embrace it so they hide it.”
Hoffman is one of three board members who run a nonprofit scientific organization known as the Scientific Coalition for UAP Studies (SCU). Unknown or unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) is the current rebranding of unidentified flying objects (UFO), a term that many believe to carry too much cultural baggage.
“There are very few UFO organizations remaining today,” Hoffman says. “Of the few that do remain, they each have their unique contributions to the phenomena, but most are in data collection roles versus long term scientific study of cases.”
The difference with the SCU—and it’s a big one—is that it collects data that can be analyzed and studied by scientific experts, subsequently generating peer-reviewed papers published in journals and on websites, says Hoffman. The SCU doesn’t collect day-to-day UAP sighting reports, but rather, digs into the more complex cases where multiple sensory data like radar tracks and video may exist.
An Objective of Legitimacy
The SCU played a significant role in studying the Nimitz UFO Encounter, when it released a nearly 300-page report on the incident. The requisite refresher: Two year ago, the New York Times posted a story about Navy pilots who intercepted a strange object off the coast of San Diego in November 2004 and captured video of the object with their F-18’s gun camera.
Earlier this month, Popular Mechanics published a story about several other military personnel who also witnessed the Nimitz encounter on their radar systems and over their ship’s video system.
The SCU paper examined the available public data and testimony available regarding the case and concluded that the “results suggest that given the available information, the AAV’s capabilities are beyond any known technology.”
To be clear, the SCU hasn’t concluded that some non-human intelligence is responsible. Fully aware of the significant gaps in data, the organization has suggested that “the public release of all Navy records associated with this incident to enable a full, scientific and open investigation is strongly recommended.”
The UFO research community is used to having scant data on UFO incidents. The vast majority of cases are purely anecdotal. When physical evidence or data is available, the well-established ufological conspiracy and myth-making machines begin to put that data in jeopardy.
“To date, there hasn’t been an extensive and well-funded scientific investigation of these phenomena using state-of-the-art investigative tools and a dedicated investigative team,” Robert Powell, an SCU board member and device physics expert, tells Popular Mechanics. The SCU is aiming to change that. Membership in the organization requires a resume submission, and a committee meets to thoroughly vet each new member.
So who makes up the 69 active members of the SCU, exactly? Mostly scientists, former military officers, and former law enforcement personnel with technical experience and investigative backgrounds, Powell says. And the credentials are impressive: Try “two current and one former NASA PhDs, and members with backgrounds that include Lockheed, NORAD, and the U.S. Space Command,” he says.
To begin bridging the gap between the UFO research community and the scientific community, the SCU has a team in place that will begin a peer-reviewed journal. “Initial plans are for the journal to be biannual with the first published journal in the first half of 2020,” Powell says. “Anyone wishing to submit a paper to the journal should contact SCU.”
Fighting the Stigma
Yet for all the promising progress, the SCU and similar organizations are still facing an uphill battle. The decades-long taboo surrounding UFOs and their study is thoroughly entrenched in established scientific and academic communities. They are, in essence, a dirty subject that can kill a professional career.
In 1953, the Robertson Panel was formed to look at UFO reports at the behest of the government due to a string of odd aerial objects being spotted over Washington, D.C. the previous year. The panel concluded in its classified report that UFOs posed no risk to national security, and proposed that the National Security Council actively debunk UFO reports with the intention to ideologically inoculate the public to ensure UFOs become the subject of ridicule. The Panel even recommended that UFO investigative and research groups be monitored by intelligence agencies for subversive activity.
Seventeen years later, the infamous Condon Report, which was a product of the U.S. Air Force and the University of Colorado, was responsible for the death of the Air Force’s UFO study, Project Blue Book. The report became embroiled in controversy when a memorandum was released explaining that the report itself had to “trick” the public into thinking the study was objective, but would ensure that the final and official position is that all UFO incidents were hoaxes, delusion and human error.
“THE WIND IS CHANGING ON THIS, JUST LIKE IT IS ON A LOT OF THINGS.”
Officially, UFOs became the subject of ridicule. Tie that in with the rise of new-age UFO prophets and cults, stories of space men from Venus, alien bases in Antarctica, and the merging of UFO and conspiracy cultures, and those who used empirical data or maintained a rational and logical research approach became lumped into the same subculture as people claiming to be alien channelers or time-traveling alien ambassadors who often use people’s gullibility to earn a living.
It’s no wonder academics, professionals, and scientists publicly shy away from the subject. In research for this article, one physicist from a university in New York expressed their discomfort and asked that their name not be used because they were still trying to get tenure.
“I don’t get the sense the scientific community is any more interested or open than it was before,” Alexander Wendt, a political science professor at the Ohio State University, tells Popular Mechanics. “But what has changed, I think, is the politics. I think that the wind is changing on this, just like it is on a lot of things. And it’s probably young people in particular who are driving the change and are more open.”
Forging a Scientific Future
Wendt, who has done academic work on the UFO question and presented a lecture at TEDx Columbus on the science of UFOs, sits on the board of UFOData, a project designed to create high-tech observation systems to monitor the skies and track anomalous phenomena. He knows that the taboo exists surrounding UFO research, and getting any grant money to study UFOs is still impossible. According to Wendt, neither the government nor any established scientific organizations are going to fund UFO research. The solution seems to be crowdfunding or finding private donors who will invest in these projects.
UFOData isn’t the only group engaged in observational studies. For three decades, Project Hessdalen, a small observatory station that monitors a valley in Norway subject to strange light phenomena, has been jointly funded by the Østfold University College and personal donations. Another organization, the UFO Data Acquisition Project (UFODAP), is also building small computer units designed to monitor and track aerial oddities. Using multiple sensors, the UFO Data Acquisition Unit is designed to record and track UAP, as well as provide metadata which can be analyzed.
Hoffman recognizes that contemporary ufology still makes academics and scientists nervous. Even with the recent announcement by the Navy that UAP do violate American airspace and that the Pentagon was running the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, people are starting to ask more questions and some scientists are starting to participate.
“We are encouraged by this and believe it will continue to advance, however, the UFO community itself is composed of factions which continue to make scientists cringe,” Hoffman says. “SCU is attempting to support scientists and serious researchers by focusing on what science can do to advance their interests. They see us as being a safe place where conspiracy theories are non-existent and scientific methodologies win.”
So while the existence of UFOs is no longer up for debate, their source very much is. The UFO community has always been comprised of cultural and social renegades who haunt the fringes of mainstream culture, subjects of ridicule more than respect. While some still smirk at the thought of anomalous aerial objects occupying our skies, the information slowly coming out into the public domain is starting to prove that these objects may not be a laughing matter.
Whether the source of some of these data-rich UFO incidents is secret government technology, an alien nonhuman intelligence, or something fundamentally beyond our physical and philosophical understanding, we’re left to wonder, as countless thinkers and, yes, even scientists, have before, “What if?”
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