The idea of UFOs has gone mainstream. The dam broke with a New York Times story about a year ago on three declassified Navy videos. Last weekend, 60 Minutes did its own report, and The New Yorker has a nice long writeup of the history of the debate within the American government.
The sightings involve objects that seem to defy the laws of physics. According to Luis Elizondo, a former Pentagon official,
Imagine a technology that can do 600 to 700 G-forces, that can fly 13,000 miles an hour, that, that can evade radar and can fly through air and water and possibly space, and oh, by the way, has no obvious signs of propulsion, no wings, no control surfaces and yet still can defy the natural effects of Earth’s gravity. That’s precisely what we’re seeing.
It’s the “physics-defying” aspects of UFOs that imply an advanced alien civilization. Although some suggest that Chinese or Russian drones could be behind what people are seeing, the idea of those nations being that far ahead of the United States can probably be dismissed.
This raises obvious questions. How plausible is all of this? And are there better explanations for what people have seen?
Aliens Smart Enough to Defy Physics, Dumb Enough to Be Caught
Imagine an alien civilization that can make it to this planet from somewhere in the universe beyond what we can observe. Once they get here, they are so advanced that all of our scientific knowledge leaves us dumbfounded about how they can achieve such speed and mobility.
At the same time, these aliens keep getting caught on camera, and sometimes on radar (while humans have already invented aircraft that largely avoids it). But the pictures are never any good! They’re just dots in the distance that seem to move around erratically, and despite all of our improvements in technology and camera resolution, our pictures and videos of them never improve.
I can imagine three possibilities:
1) Aliens visit this planet and want to get caught.
2) Aliens visit this planet and don’t care if they get caught because they’re too advanced and physics-defying to care what we think.
3) Aliens visit this planet and don’t want to get caught.
We can rule out 1, as if they wanted to get caught they’d clearly provide much stronger evidence.
I think we can also rule out 2, because a common theme of these sightings is that when military cameras start to lock in on the aliens, they fly away and disappear. If they didn’t care if we saw them, it’s likely they would leave some more evidence behind, and not freak out when they’re observed.
As for 3, it’s hard to imagine that a species this advanced would be so incompetent. Intergalactic travel seems a lot harder than avoiding radar and US military pilots. Maybe aliens are flying around all the time, it’s just their lowest IQ pilots that keep getting caught. But you’d think a species that advanced would have a more meritocratic selection process for space missions.
I guess there’s a fourth possibility. Maybe they’re toying with us in the same way we might tease a stray cat. Pick up a few randos from the middle of nowhere, anally probe them, and watch as they become laughing stocks. Perhaps they drop some crumbs here and there, and just see what happens. I’d like to think a civilization that advanced would be a little more mature, and that they’d have enough video games, VR, etc. to entertain themselves, but maybe not. Imagine a horse looking at humans and saying “surely a species advanced enough to go to the moon wouldn’t be so lame as to want to watch me run around a track,” but we do. This joke possibility seems a lot more plausible to me than 1-3.
Camera and Lighting Tricks
Mick West has spent years debunking chemtrails, UFOs, and other conspiracies. This interview of him, brought to my attention on Twitter, seems to conclusively show that the Navy videos can be explained with some basic trigonometry and an understanding of how cameras work.
He’s even replicated some of the camera tricks to recreate images that resemble what we can see on the Navy videos. If you’re interested in the topic, I highly recommend watching the interview. Here’s a shorter video for those who want the basic idea.
There’s apparently an entire UFO-skeptic community out there, and so far the media seems completely uninterested in what they have to say, even to debunk them. Yet while I’ve seen several interviews with UFO believers in newspapers and on TV, I hadn’t heard of Mick West until I saw his name in The New Yorker piece cited above. This should make people skeptical of the claim that it is UFO believers who have been treated unfairly by the media.
People Still Trust the National Security State
As West points out in the first video above, there is nothing new about the latest UFO releases. All that has changed is that now the government has released its own footage, which is basically the same kind of evidence that he and other skeptics have debunked in the past, just with better resolution. But because the government now tells them it’s ok to believe something, people take that as a sign of credibility.
What’s depressing about this, as someone who writes about foreign policy, is that the national security bureaucracy is apparently still considered credible. These are the people who spent 50 years investigating psychic ability while James Randi was alive. Glenn Greenwald has written about how the media often treats unsubstantiated claims from this class as gospel, even when officials might have obvious political motivations for what they’re saying (think the “Russian bounty” story meant to keep the US in Afghanistan).
Marco Rubio brings up UFOs as a “national security issue” as he tells us that they might be some advanced technology coming from China and Russia, and encourages us to spend more money to compete with those countries. It seems to me that if China and Russia have figured out how to defy the laws of physics, then nothing we do is going to help us catch up and we might as well give in to whatever their demands are.
It seems that at one point, the Pentagon and its allies saw UFOs as a distraction. Yet they eventually realized that by talking about physics-defying craft as a “national security issue” they could use it to get more military funding, which is what they have always wanted anyway.
The UFO story is not new, but something we’ve observed too many times in American politics: a self-serving national security establishment working with a credulous and lazy media to manipulate public opinion for its own ends.