Mitigating Biases and Naiveté in UAP Studies
Kevin H. Knuth, Ph.D.
Department of Physics, University at Albany, Albany NY USA
“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”
— Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man
Since December of 2017, with the New York Times article breaking the news about the existence of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s secret Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP), we have been confronted with the fact that the US Government has been taking Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon (UAP) or Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) seriously. Since that time, the US Navy has released infrared videos of UAPs taken from F-18 fighter jets and made it clear that UAPs are a real phenomenon that at times pose a potential threat or hazard to military operations. On Tuesday, May 17, 2022, the US House of Representatives Intelligence Counterterrorism, Counterintelligence, and Counterproliferation Subcommittee, chaired by Congressman André Carson (D-Ind.) held the first open Congressional hearing on unidentified aerial phenomena in 50 years.
Part of the perception that is being portrayed is that UAP are a new phenomenon, at times plaguing the US Navy, since the Nimitz encounters in November of 2004. On that occasion, my friend and colleague on the USS Princeton, Senior Chief Kevin Day, detected what are now called “TicTacs” on radar during a training exercise. This notion that UAP are a new phenomenon is now perpetuated by Congress’ UAP Task Force, which has maintained that it will only focus on encounters occurring after 2004. This appears to be an effort to limit studies to present-day data obtained with modern sensors, while at the same time ignoring and dismissing the fact that this phenomenon has been seriously looked at and downplayed for over 70 years.
As an academic scientist working to develop a program to carefully and methodically study UAPs, it is quite challenging to know where to begin studying these phenomena. Typically, when taking on a new project, we scientists do our homework by reading up on past studies to understand what is known, what is not known, and how the most effective progress can be made. In the case of UAPs, there is very little in the scientific knowledge base to go on as there is no more than a handful of peer-reviewed scientific papers discussing any aspect of the UAP phenomenon since a surprisingly incurious scientific community has ignored the topic. Of course, not all scientists were incurious, but many of those curious individuals were scared off by the taboo surrounding the UFO phenomenon, which was labeled a pseudoscientific topic.
The difficulty is that the scientific method works by testing and ruling out hypotheses through repeated observation and experimentation. This is a process termed eliminative induction, where hypotheses are tested with data and pruned away, leaving a smaller subset of hypotheses supported by the data. You have probably seen this very procedure used in the doctor’s office, such as when the doctor orders an MRI for your injured wrist by writing a script that reads “R/O Fracture,” indicating that the purpose of the MRI is to rule out the hypothesis that you have a wrist fracture.
While science works by proving hypotheses wrong, pseudoscientific efforts typically focus on trying to prove a pet hypothesis to be true. Over the last 70 years, the difficulty faced by ufology was that to be treated seriously, it first had to be demonstrated that UFOs were a real and interesting phenomena. As a result, there was a concerted effort to display, or prove, that UFOs were real. The problem is that, from the outside, such behavior looks like pseudoscience is at work trying to establish a hypothesis is true.
Many people conflate UAPs and UFOs with Extraterrestrials, and many scientists have found this to be unpalatable, which is part of the reason the subject is not studied seriously. The fact is proving that something is extraterrestrial is extremely difficult, requiring a great deal of hard evidence, which, in the case of UFOs, does not exist. However, it is also true that many of those who have witnessed UFOs have observed them traveling at almost impossible speeds. In fact, minimal estimates of UFO accelerations and speeds indicate that they have been observed to travel as fast as our fastest spacecraft (about 45,000 mph), and accelerate at rates that, if sustainable in space, would put them in a class of extraordinary interstellar craft potentially capable of relativistic speeds in surprisingly short periods of time. As a result, people sometimes jump to the conclusion that UFOs are spacecraft because they are observed to travel as fast as spacecraft do! It would be beneficial for scientists to understand and appreciate this.
Unfortunately, ufology was forced into looking like a pseudoscience proving UFOs were real by overly dogmatic scientific beliefs. As a result, mainstream science has been stuck in a tautological loop where:
- Scientists do not study UFOs because there is no scientific evidence of UFOs.
- There is no scientific evidence of UFOs because scientists do not study them.
It is not that scientists couldn’t get their heads around this tautological trap. Instead, it is more likely that they didn’t want to get their heads around it. There is a strong desire to ignore uncomfortable truths, and the implication that there might exist non-human intelligences that are far superior to us is a prime example of such a potential uncomfortable truth.
In the long run, the lack of will to study fringe phenomena because of unfounded dogmatic beliefs that they must be impossible only serves to erode the public’s confidence in science. As Jacques Vallee has noted:
“Skeptics, who flatly deny the existence of any unexplained phenomenon in the name of ‘rationalism,’ are among the primary contributors to the rejection of science by the public. People are not stupid and they know very well when they have seen something out of the ordinary. When a so-called expert tells them the object must have been the moon or a mirage, he is really teaching the public that science is impotent or unwilling to pursue the study of the unknown.”
Since the US Navy has made it clear that UAPs are physically real phenomena, and pose a significant problem, we now know that the “tinfoil-hat-wearing crazies” were at least right about the reality of UFOs. This ought to be a very uncomfortable position for the armies of dismissive scientists and skeptics who have, for my entire life, held that UFOs were nonsensical fiction. It now stands to ask, “what other knowledge do witnesses possess about UFOs?” Are we to take the hundreds of accounts of alien abductions worldwide seriously? More importantly, what valuable information does the public possess about the UAP phenomenon that will be necessary to inform the groups of scientists presently developing programs to study UAP?
Since there are no more than a handful of scientific papers on UAPs, if one is to prepare for a scientific study of the topic, one is forced to consult with the information compiled by independent UFO researchers over the last several decades. For scientists, this is daunting. Most scientists refuse to give any credence to such research in ufology as almost all available data are anecdotal and often very difficult to believe and assess. As a result, many scientists believe that there is no information to be had among the ufologists, and they refuse to research or study the topic because it is not scientific. Again, they fall victim to another tautology brought on by a dogmatic belief that the only useful knowledge comes in the form of scientific papers.
I recently finished a research fellowship at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies (STIAS) in Stellenbosch, South Africa. One of the things I learned during my time in Africa was that Western Culture, or as South Africans would call it, Northern Culture, has a tradition of devaluing non-scientific knowledge. Academics, especially, are guilty of overvaluing scientific expertise at the expense of other kinds of knowledge. My friend and STIAS research fellow, Dr. Aili Mari Tripp, from the University of Wisconsin Madison wrote:
“One way this devaluing of other forms of knowledge is evident is in medicine where scientific approaches, dressed up in white coats and test tube bottles, are deemed superior to the exclusion of other forms of medicine, and yet we know that many of the herbs used by medicine men in a country like Tanzania, are quite effective…. It would seem that a more inclusive approach would be warranted.”
The devaluation of the literature compiled by UFO researchers has serious costs. Scientists, even those who are now interested in studying UAPs, refuse to look at the existing literature and refuse to do their homework, based on the idea that reports based on anecdotal evidence cannot be trusted. As a result, many scientists are ignorant and naïve when it comes to UAPs and possess a cartoon picture of what they are like. This fact is most obvious when they proceed to make ‘professional’ statements or proclamations on the topic. For example, physicist and ufologist Stanton Friedman quoted one astrobiologist as writing:
“… the banality of the aliens’ putative agenda, which seemed to consist of grubbing around in fields and meadows, chasing cows or aircraft or cars like bored teenagers, and abducting humans for Nazi-style experiments. Not what one would expect of cosmic superminds.”
My first response to this is:
“Be curious, not judgmental” — Ted Lasso
A curious individual could at least make an effort to find out if there is something of this sort actually going on, and then try to learn about what purported aliens are doing while “grubbing about” in a field, what they purportedly do with cows, cars, and aircraft, and what is said to happen during purported abductions. For my part, I have done my homework, and the answers to some of these questions are both interesting and disturbing.
So how does a scientist go about assessing the relevance and veracity of a body of cultural knowledge that does not come in the form of peer-reviewed scientific papers?
For myself, I have adopted a methodology based on information theory. In information theory, an important quantity, defined as the logarithm of the probability of an event, is sometimes called the surprise because it quantifies how surprising (improbable) the event is. A logarithm is a mathematical operation that considers a number as some number called the base raised to some power. The logarithm, for a particular base, is simply that power, or exponent. In other words, the logarithm crudely tells you how big or small a quantity is. It is like saying that someone makes a six-figure salary rather than stating that they make several hundred thousand dollars a year.
The amount of information in a signal is quantified by how surprised you are by the components comprising the signal, which is quantified by averaging the surprise (logarithm of the probability) of each of the signal components over the entire signal.
So how can this be used to assess the relevance and veracity of information about UFOs? For example, I enjoy listening to the videos produced by UFO researchers, such as Preston Dennett. Dennett has compiled information about a variety of interesting topics related to UFOs from a library of tens of thousands of personal reports. Surprising reports promise to provide the most information, and multiple similar independent reports promise reliability and possibly veracity. Taken together multiple independent, albeit similar, reports of a surprising nature are almost certainly important. Of course, one cannot simply believe what one wants, but such a procedure can help one to focus one’s attention.
Last year, my scientific team, UAPx (http://www.uapx.space), performed our first UAP data gathering mission where for five days we monitored the Catalina Channel, the body of water between Laguna Beach California, and Catalina Island, for UAP activity. This first mission was documented in the film, A Tear in the Sky (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt15120486/), which was released on May 3, 2022. The location was selected, in part because of the role of the location in the 2004 Nimitz TicTac encounters, and also due to both UFO and USO (unidentified submerged objects) sighting statistics compiled by Dennett . We are now planning future missions and statistics of UAP sightings will play a significant role in deciding where we will go to collect more data with our newly designed and acquired equipment.
I was surprised to learn from one of Dennett’s videos that there are a number of cases where people claim to have witnessed aliens collecting, or stealing, plants. I found this to be surprising, especially given the quote from the astrobiologist above. Why shouldn’t extraterrestrials be grubbing around in fields and meadows? How is that activity banal? I know plenty of biologists who cannot help but grub around in fields and meadows, even fields and meadows with which they are very familiar. For example, while in my fellowship in South Africa, I had the great pleasure of getting to know Dr. Jonathan Kingdon (Oxford University) and his wife Dr. Laura Snook. On one organized hike in the Jonkershoek mountains, I stayed at the back of the group with Jonathan and his wife. And as we are birdwatchers, we stopped to look at every single bird, and Laura being an expert in botany, stopped many times to point out a number of interesting Fynbos plants endemic to South Africa. I think we barely made it half a kilometer into the hike as there was so much to see! I doubt that extraterrestrials would have made it much further. I would have expected that an astrobiologist would have appreciated that, or perhaps I am wrong and that he would have hurtled past all of these “banal” things to complete the course and get his steps in.
Whereas we animals are engineers, plants are chemists, and as such, plants on Earth produce an amazing variety of organic molecules.
Several years ago, I was the principal investigator of a NASA-funded project to identify the chemical species of organic molecules in space by looking at infrared spectra recorded from interstellar clouds. One of the main difficulties of the project was that there were simply far too many types of organic molecules to consider. Specifically, we were looking at polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are built from carbon rings decorated with hydrogen atoms. As such, they make molecules that, when diagrammed, look a lot like chicken wire. The problem is that there are many ways of making such molecules, especially when one considers replacing one atom of one element with another atom of a different element. In fact, the combinatorics is formidable, and it turns out that there are more possible types of molecules than there are particles in the visible universe. That means that at any given moment, there are organic molecules that cannot be found anywhere within the visible universe. With organic molecules on Earth being so diverse, why wouldn’t extraterrestrials be fascinated by plants, which are chemists capable of producing a vast array of organic molecules that might not be found anywhere else?
Certainly, many scientists are put off by the extraterrestrial hypothesis, which is understandable given the paucity of hard evidence. However, might it be the case that the truth is even stranger than any of us is prepared to deal with? If so, how do we plan to weather this storm?
“We are dealing with a yet unrecognized level of consciousness, independent of man but closely linked to the earth … I do not believe anymore that UFOs are simply the spacecraft of some race of extraterrestrial visitors. This notion is too simplistic to explain their appearance, the frequency of their manifestations through recorded history, and the structure of the information exchanged with them during contact.” — Jacques Vallee
It is extremely difficult for us humans to imagine the full extent of what we will find in the universe. Instead, we very readily trap ourselves by our own biases and naivete into, what the Harvard Professor Emeritus David Perkins calls, a “narrow canyon of exploration,” in his book The Eureka Effect: The Art and Logic of Breakthrough Thinking. It isn’t the laws of nature that constrain our thinking as much as it is the fact that we are overly confident despite our ignorance. We are constrained by the belief that some things cannot be for the sole reason that we lack the ability to imagine them.
Scientists are starting to take a look at the constant stream of UAP reports, and while some are beginning to conjecture that some UAPs might represent craft constructed by non-human intelligence, the high accelerations reported, though, limit their imagination to visions of autonomous probes, rather than craft piloted by living beings. Space travel is difficult for our fledgling technological society, and since we, the “pinnacles of creation” on this little world, find space travel difficult, certainly other intelligences will fare no better. This belief is simply the re-manifestation of the human hubris that led those in Copernicus’ time to cling to the idea that the Earth was the center of the universe.
There are many reports of alien encounters taking place during UFO sightings and landings, such as the well-documented Ariel School landing in Ruwa, Zimbabwe in September of 1994, which will be the focus of a documentary, Ariel Phenomenon (https://arielphenomenon.com/), to be released later this month in May 2022. Since the US Navy is claiming that their UAP sightings represent real objects, then it is hard to a priori dismiss the entire subset of UAP reports that involve alien contact and claim that UAP cannot be piloted.
In addition to being severely limited, beliefs that UAPs are unpiloted are potentially dangerous. I have been in a number of conversations with scientists who have dispassionately suggested that there should be efforts to bring down UFOs for closer study. Such careless comments reveal a great deal of hubris about the self-centered importance of science in the minds of scientists as well as their ignorance about both the phenomenon and humanity’s long history of interactions with UFOs. If those scientists had done their homework, they would have known that there had indeed been efforts to shoot down UFOs, and that such plans have been misguided and unsuccessful.
Even if most UAP are autonomous, as many scientists assume, who is to say that they are not conscious machines, living beings in their own right? Or perhaps the pilots are tiny? One does not necessarily need a 1.5 kg brain to think and be conscious. Some UAP could be piloted by a superorganism, much like an anthill or a beehive, comprised of thousands to millions of tiny individuals.
It is hard to think beyond our own imaginations, but we will have to. That means that we must have the humility to accept our ignorance, and to do our homework by considering the vast body of knowledge, both cultural and scientific, that exists about UFOs. When scientists look into the cultural knowledge that exists about UFOs, they will begin to appreciate the work and effort that hundreds of thousands of unfairly marginalized witnesses have put into recording their own experiences and trying to understand these truly anomalous phenomena. Such efforts are what is needed for scientists to humbly approach the study of UAPs/UFOs, to learn something about them, and to gain some serious traction on this rather fantastic and unexpected problem.
1 Knuth, K.H., Powell, R.M. and Reali, P.A., 2019. Estimating flight characteristics of anomalous unidentified aerial vehicles. Entropy, 21(10), p.939.
2 Oberth, H. Lecture notes for Lecture about Flying Saucers 1954. The Australian U.F.O. Bulletin, Sept. 1991; pp. 5–9. Available online (accessed on 14 September 2012).
4 Dennett, P. 2018. Undersea UFO Base: An In-Depth Investigation of USOs in the Santa Catalina Channel, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
5 Dennett, P. 2020. Extraterrestrial Gardeners. https://youtu.be/Xq2TqLhGRnA
6 This was explained to me by an Ecuadorian guide on the Galapagos Islands while we were discussing the fact that many tropical plants have medicinal value.
7 One can prove this using a simple, but elegant idea, called The Pigeonhole Principle where if there are more pigeons than pigeonholes, then there must be pigeons without pigeonholes.