Most people use the term, "UFO" or "unidentified flying object," as a catch-all phrase for extraterrestrial craft. Actually, the term means what it says: an object in the sky that hasn't yet been identified. Some UFOs are eventually identified and turn out to be nothing more than the planet Venus, swamp gas, weather balloons, northern lights, or a hoax. In principle, all UFOs could become IFOs—"identified flying objects", if we had enough relevant, verifiable information. Though some UFOs do remain unidentified, this does necessarily not mean that they are alien craft. A substantial number of observers claim that they have identified objects that they saw in the sky specifically as alien craft. Herein resides the source of the controversy: Are UFOs "something real"? Are they alien aircraft? And if no such evidence yet exists, is such an assertion or belief paranormal in nature?

Extraterrestrials almost certainly exist somewhere in the universe. This is not a paranormal belief. Most astronomers believe that, in all probability, intelligent life exists on planets outside our solar system. The late Carl Sagan spent much of his life thinking and speculating about and searching for extraterrestrial intelligence; SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, his pet project, now defunct, expressed this hope. There are hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy, and very possibly hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe. The laws of chance almost dictate that the universe, in some places other than Earth, be teeming with life. Yet Sagan did not believe that UFOs were "something real," and today, neither do most scientists. But ufologists argue that a search for extraterrestrial intelligence outside our planet is misdirected since, they believe, evidence demonstrates that that intelligence is right here, flying above, or even walking on, the earth. What makes most scientists, especially astrophysicists, uncomfortable about the extraterrestrial hypothesis? And why would some of them brand it as a paranormal belief?      

Most people who think, talk, and write about UFOs are mainly interested in one issue: Are they alien spaceships? If we came across evidence documenting the affirmative, this would almost certainly be the most momentous discovery in human history.

Observers have made literally thousands upon thousands of UFO sightings in the United States each year. Since the 1940s, every couple of years, a new poll asks a sample of the American public about their views on UFOs and whether they think they have seen one. In the United States, about eight percent of the population, or one in 12, say that they have seen a "mysterious object" in the sky that might have been a visitor from another planet, and a third believe that it's likely that aliens have visited Earth. Among adults, this computes out to about 20 million people. Supporters of the UFO hypothesis argue that the very volume of such reports provides strong evidence that at least some of them are valid. How could all of them be false? they ask, insisting, "Something must be out there!" Indeed, if 90 percent, or even 99 percent, of these reports, or even all except one, turn out to be hoaxes or misperceptions, then the extraterrestrial hypothesis would still be correct. After eliminating many, most, or nearly all, or all but one, false reports, there remains an irreducible minimum that can't be dismissed or explained away. For the anti-UFO position to be correct, every single report of a UFO would have to be disproven, an obvious impossibility.  

To put the matter another way, the fact that there are no valid UFO sightings is readily falsifiable. All that would be necessary is for a single extraterrestrial craft to park itself in a location for everyone to see: a classic flying saucer landing in the Rose Garden of the White House during a press conference with two hundred reporters in attendance, complete with tiny gray creatures emerging from the craft and uttering the classic line, "Take me to your leader."

On the other hand, the view that UFO sightings are interplanetary craft is not falsifiable. There is no conceivable evidence that could be presented or even imagined that will satisfy all or even most committed pro-UFO adherents that space creatures have not visited Earth. If one sighting is shown to be a hoax or a case of misperception, another will be offered. If a hundred are refuted, ufologists will come up with a hundred more. There is no possibility of refuting all of them. This is not a matter of bias on the part of UFO believers or scientists, it is inherent in the logic of the position that most scientists hold: a single piece of unassailable evidence would verify the pro-UFO position; but on this issue, the committed skeptic's position requires all evidence to be negative-which cannot be satisfied. Hence, all reports of UFO sightings do not have to be refuted for the position to be false, according to the scientist. The fact that most follow a recognizable pattern is important.

The major dimension along which believers and doubters differ is the likelihood of accepting alternate realities. Some people have a mind-set that regards anomalous stimuli verifying paranormal phenomena. Others encounter the same stimuli and assume that it must be conventional or routine in origin. Just as devout Catholics see a miracle in a form or shape that resembles Mary or Jesus, ufologists see an alien spaceship in lights or unexplained objects in the sky. Seeing UFOs as real is correlated with reading science fiction, believing that astrology is accurate, and believing in the occult. Believers do not so much reject mainstream culture as they adapt it to their own version of reality. They are entranced with the mysteries of life, the anomalous, the unusual, the hidden, the fantastic. They believe that there is a dimension beyond the mundane plane of existence that is every bit as real as that which we see in our everyday lives. In addition, it is far more interesting, entrancing, and captivating. Moreover, they are more likely to believe that what they see in their everyday lives provides a clue to that alternate reality; the clues are there if only we have the sensitivity, intelligence, and insight to look for them.

In a study I conducted among my undergraduates, I found a consistent relationship between belief in the reality of UFOs and acceptance of a wide range of paranormal assertions. I asked my respondents to tell me if they agree or disagree with the statement: "Many of the unidentified flying objects (UFOs) that have been reported are really space vehicles flown by intelligent beings from another planet." Just under one respondent in five (19 percent) agreed; four in ten disagreed (40 percent); and the rest weren't sure. Respondents who agreed with the UFO question were also significantly more likely to agree that: the Loch Ness Monster is real; King Tut's curse is real; astrology is valid and true; some people have ESP; ghosts are real; angels exist; the devil is real; and God created Earth in six days, as narrated in the Bible.

Belief that UFOs are "something real" rests on a general paranormal outlook. Believers hold to a view of reality that is compatible with the idea that: traditional empirical science is incomplete; scientists are often wrong, and what they regard as scientific laws can be skirted or violated; there are dimensions or manifestations of reality not noticed or explained by conventional natural scientists; strange things happen that require unconventional explanations; the ordinary man or woman may notice phenomena that are missed by scientists; it is plausible that occult, supernatural, or spiritual events take place in the material world; and the line between the material, spiritual, and paranormal is often unclear. Theirs is a worldview that finds it perfectly understandable that anomalous, ambiguous stimuli in the sky are alien craft. In addition, ufologists almost always attribute extraterrestrials with paranormal or supernatural powers: the ability to move through physical barriers, "rematerializing" on the other side; to move physical objects with their mind; to "beam up" physical objects to their space ships; to communicate without speaking; to read the mind of humans.

Einstein's theory of relativity holds that the speed of light traveling through a vacuum is a constant 186,000 miles per second. Hence, objects cannot travel faster than the speed of light; nature prohibits it. As an object approaches the speed of light, the theory holds, it becomes infinitely heavy. All the planets outside the solar system are simply too far for a spacecraft from a location beyond ours to reach us in any conceivable lifetime. To get here from any distant plant, barring improbable modes of transportation-worm holes, black holes, parallel dimensions, a time warp would require almost unimaginably long periods of time. Light leaving Alpha Centauri at the time of Moses, roughly 3,300 years ago, would arrive here today. All the other stars are much further away. Most scientists regard the obstacles facing technology to travel such vast distances to be virtually fatal. It's not a matter of being smart or advanced enough to overcome such obstacles; it's that the laws of physics dictate limitations on inter-stellar travel. Advances in science are not so much a violation of previously devised laws as an extension of them. No matter how intelligent extraterrestrials are, they cannot work out technology that contradicts Mendeleev's table of periodic elements, Newton's law of gravitation, or Einstein's constant.

Are UFOs extraterrestrial craft? It's more likely that every sighting of an alien craft is erroneous than aliens have gotten here from a distant-that is, non-solar system-planet. Is ufology a paranormal belief? If it brushes away the theoretical problem of surmounting Einstein's constant as a technicality, yes, it is a theory that's based on a paranormal foundation. Ufology is entertaining, entrancing, and enchanting, but it's probably only so much hocus-pocus. We'd all love to rub shoulders with benevolent aliens, but traditional science holds the assertion that they are in fact among us to be as fanciful as belief in angels, fairies, gods, and demons.             

About the Author

Erich Goode, Ph.D.
Erich Goode, Ph.D. is an independent scholar, the author of dozens of academic and popular articles and chapters and encyclopedia entries, and ten books, most recently Drugs in American Society.

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