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From Flying Objects to Aerial Phenomena: Still Unidentified

But for those that want to believe, a new government report offers validation.

Key points

  • A report by the US government declares that evidence to explain unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) is "largely inconclusive."
  • Skepticism is warranted based on past claims about UFOs and alien abductions that have been debunked with more plausible explanations.
  • UFOs and UAP remain unexplained, but the US government report will boost true believers' confidence that we are not alone.
U.S. Department of Defense
"Gimbal" UFO
Source: U.S. Department of Defense

“I want to believe.” —Fox Mulder, The X-Files

On June 25, 2021, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released its much-anticipated report on UFOs or what it now prefers to call unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP). Spoiler alert: It doesn’t say anything definitive about whether extraterrestrials have been visiting Earth in flying saucers (or “tic-tacs,” “pyramids,” “spheres,” or any other unfamiliar shapes that people have been seeing in the sky through the years).

Instead, summarizing the investigations of the Department of Defense Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force (UAPTF), it declared that the evidence to explain UAP was “largely inconclusive” and that observations of “unusual flight characteristics” in a minority of 18 cases “could be the result of sensor errors, spoofing, or observer misperception and require additional rigorous analysis.” Of the 144 total reports of UAP occurring between 2004 and 2021, most of which were firsthand accounts of military pilots, only one could be identified as a weather balloon—the rest remain unaccounted for.

In the end, the report amounts to an admission by the US government that UAPs—phenomena that appear in the sky that it can’t explain—seem to exist, but are still unidentified. And they may or may not be “flying,” thus the preference for the new term “UAP” over “UFO.”

The report also concludes that UAP “lack a single explanation” but might be explained by five broad categories of phenomena: airborne clutter, natural atmospheric effects, classified US government programs, foreign adversary systems, and “other” unknown sources. "Other" presumably includes both extraterrestrial sources (though neither "extraterrestrial" or "alien" are mentioned in the report) as well as human errors of subjective misperception.

When I was around 8 years old, I saw a UFO myself. I was looking out my bedroom window one night while getting ready for bed. As a looked out across my backyard into our neighbor’s and beyond, I saw an orb of white light zipping back and forth at great speed. When I went to ask my father to explain what it was, he was frustratingly unable to see it. After a while, even at the age of 8, I realized that what I was seeing was a kind of motion artifact caused by a streetlight as I quickly moved my head back and forth scanning for the object. My unidentified flying object was identified. And it wasn’t flying after all.

Later, when I was a teenager, I read fiction writer Whitley Streiber’s supposedly non-fictional memoir of his own alien abduction, Communion: A True Story. It was a haunting read, especially when I later discovered that a Harvard psychiatrist, John Mack, had been compiling similar firsthand accounts of people’s encounters with aliens and their supposed abduction experiences. At first glance, the striking similarity of people’s purported alien abduction experiences suggested that they might be real.

However, it didn’t take long to realize that the similarities of such accounts might just as well be due to suggestibility. Certainly, by the 1990s when Mack published Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens, the meme of being beamed up into spaceships and subjected to the likes of anal probes by alien “greys” with huge bug-like eyes was well-established—the popular, long-running TV show The X-Files that often featured such narratives started running in 1993. But by then, evidence from the McMartin Preschool Trial of the 1980s had also made it clear that similarly consistent accounts of supposed Satanic ritual abuse were in fact due to suggestibility when interrogating alleged victims in a leading fashion and moral panic. In addition to suggestibility, psychologists over the past two decades have presented strong cases that alien abduction experiences are better explained by dissociative experiences and sleep paralysis.1-3

Source: emdot/Flickr
Flying Saucers
Source: emdot/Flickr

Around the time that John Mack was popularizing alien abductions in the 1990s, media coverage arose of a different kind of UFO—unidentified flying organisms—or "rods" that looked like elongated linear creatures that flew in the sky with an array of propeller-like “wings.” They seemed to be largely invisible to the naked eye, but manifested themselves on video recordings so that the evidence to support them was not just subjective as in the case of alien abductions, but objective.

By at least 2006 however, the rod phenomenon had received a solid debunking that revealed it to be a motion artifact created by images of flying bugs and birds and other random debris caught in the wind that were distorted by video frame rates. But despite the debunking, the History Channel ran an hour-long episode of "MonsterQuest" in 2007 (it was recently posted to YouTube in 2019 as if it was a new episode) suggesting that the rods might represent unknown “missile-like” cryptozoological organisms or “visitors from another dimension” while noting that “a surprising number of rods are found in and around military operations or where aircraft are seen.” By the end of the program, the debunking explanation was mentioned, but it left the door open for debate. Then in 2014, an Oklahoma City CBS news affiliate ran a similar story with minimal reference to the debunking that described the rods as a “skyfish” and suggested they might be a “living entity of some kind… very evasive [and] super fast.” Apparently, continued debunking by the likes of The Straight Dope continues to be necessary through 2020.

Like the debunking response to rods, “polite debunker” Mick West has been offering compelling counter-explanations for UAP in the past few weeks suggesting that some video footage might be explainable as misperceptions, consistent with the ODNI report’s conclusion that “sensor errors, spoofing, or observer misperception” might very well account for some UAP. As expected, not everyone buys West’s explanations, but as Star Trek's “Bones” McCoy likes to say, “I’m a doctor, not an engineer.” I’ll leave the debates to those better-versed in technological dissection.

From my perspective as a psychiatrist who studies belief, the object lesson that previous tales of alien abductions and video footage of so-called rods provide is that subjective perception, experience, and eyewitness accounts are thoroughly fallible and that human interpretations of radar blips and grainy videos—the likes of which we’ve seen not only with rods, but Bigfoot, and the Loch Ness Monster—can be just as fallible. A couple of weeks ago, I ran across an internet meme that summed up the state of UAP evidence perfectly:

“There is very good reason that footage of unidentified objects tend to be terribly low-quality. That is because when footage is of good quality, the objects tend to be identified.”

So call me a skeptic. Whether “flying objects” or “aerial phenomena,” unidentified still means unidentified. And there’s no evidence to conclude that UAP is best explained by space aliens. It still doesn’t make any sense to me, if they were, that aliens would be flying spacecraft around our skies for decades or more—detected by humans—with no apparent purpose and no attempt to make contact. Although the ODNI report implies that UAP aren’t US military aircraft, there’s no reason to reject the ideas that they’re still being less than forthcoming (as with the infamous events at Roswell), that UAP could be unmanned surveillance drones deployed by foreign countries like Russia or China, or even that UAP have been sent back in time from the future. And as Elon Musk has opined, it’s just as possible that we’re living in a computer simulation, so that UAP might represent “glitches in the Matrix.”

In terms of belief then, while UAP could be explained by ODNI's category of "other" phenomena that includes space aliens, the new report doesn't present any actual evidence that would warrant anything other than a cautiously skeptical take on the issue. But for true believers who have endured social stigma due to their extraterrestrial beliefs through the years, it does offers a major concession: “Most of the UAP reported probably do represent physical objects given that a majority of UAP were registered across multiple sensors, to include radar, infrared, electro-optical, weapon seekers, and visual observation.” In other words, after decades of silence on the matter, the US government now says that UFOs, or UAP, may remain unidentified, but do exist. That’s sure to fuel the imaginations of people who want to believe that we are not alone for years to come.


1. Holden KJ, French CC. Alien abduction experiences: Some clues from neuropsychology and neuropsychiatry. Cognitive Neuropsychiatry 2002, 7:163–178.

2.McNally RJ, Clancy SA. Sleep paralysis, sexual abuse, and space alien abduction. Transcultural Psychiatry 2005; 42:113-122.

3. French CC. Close encounters of the psychological kind. The Psychologist 2015; 28:812-815.

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