Look, Up There – What Are UFOs?

February 2005
by Steven Novella, MD

UFO005I once saw a UFO. That is, I saw an object in the sky I couldn’t identify. Chances are you have too, probably more than once. What I saw were lights in a large “V” shape, moving silently, too slow to be a plane, moving out of view after about 10 minutes. Was it a flying saucer, and alien spacecraft, a time-traveling psychic Bigfoot, or perhaps something more prosaic–something boring?

There are thousands of reported UFO sightings each year, and in this digital age you can easily find numerous pictures and video clips on the internet. Does this mean we are being visited by alien spacecraft? Probably not.

After more than half a century of fascination with flying saucers, there has yet to emerge a single piece of credible evidence that we are being visited by aliens. There isn’t one unambiguous photograph or video that holds up to scientific scrutiny, not one piece of physical evidence. No smoking saucer.

Any reasonable person should ask believers why that is. Believers will often counter that the aliens don’t want us to know they are here (in which case they are doing a pretty bad job of hiding their presence, what with all the crashed saucers and anal probing), but that is just special pleading. No evidence is still no evidence.

Skeptics also point out that the very concept of a “flying saucer” was born of nothing more than a reporter’s liberties. In 1947, pilot Kenneth Arnold started the modern flying saucer craze when he reported seeing several UFOs. He described them as boomerang-shaped, but also noted that they were hopping, like a saucer skipping on the water. A reporter then coined the phrase “flying saucer” and the image stuck. And the fact that most UFO witnesses report seeing saucer-shaped objects demonstrates how suggestible we are.

There are numerous known stimuli for unusual or unexplained sightings. Astronomical objects seem to be the most commonly mistaken for UFOs; Venus is often a bright and unexpected addition to the early evening or early morning sky, for example. The crescent moon can seem eerie peeking through the clouds, and it can seem to follow a traveling observer. In addition to natural objects, countless man-made artifacts now clutter the sky: satellites, planes, rockets, weather balloons, experimental aircraft and more. Then, too, there are outright hoaxes.

Proponents of the “extra-terrestrial hypothesis” (ETH) often point out that there is a residue of unexplained sightings, occurrences that can only be due to real flying saucers. These partisans are committing, however, a suite of logical fallacies. First, “currently unexplained” does not equal “unexplainable”–a good explanation may be just around the bend. Second, “unexplained” does not mean alien spacecraft (a bit of illogic called the argument from ignorance)–unexplained just means unexplained. Third, the fact that there remain unexplained cases does not necessarily point to the ETH. Given the millions of such sightings, isn’t it reasonable to propose that there should by necessity be a small percentage of unexplained cases, even in a world without alien visitors? Sometimes we just can’t explain things. That doesn’t mean some loopy, improbable theory must be right.

No flying saucers does, of course, mean we should try to explain how so many observers could be mistaken. Well, this is not as difficult as it may seem. First, most sightings are of points or shapeless blobs of light–those could be anything. Other sightings are of shiny or metallic-seeming objects, but without clear detail to suggest a spacecraft.

Sometimes people do report details, like windows or fins. They also report objects moving at fantastic speeds or carrying out seemingly impossible maneuvers. However, when viewing an object against the sky, without a clear background for reference, it is impossible to estimate size, distance, and speed, and we are subject to optical illusions.

Also, human beings have an innate tendency to perceive details that are not present, often triggered by expectation or suggestion. And our memories are not reliable; they are malleable and subject to contamination. Even the so called “reliable” witness can be unreliable: Air Force pilots mistake common objects for UFOs all the time.

It is admirable to look up into the sky with awe and wonder. Astronomy is awesome, and true scientific mysteries invite our wonder. But curiosity must be coupled with intellectual discipline. We should be aware of the limitations of our own observations and memory, the human tendency toward suggestibility and wishful thinking, and the dictates of logic.

So what was that object I saw in the sky? Turns out it was five mischievous ultralight-airplane pilots, flying in formation. But if I had never discovered the truth, it wouldn’t mean we were being visited by alien spacecraft.

Letters and Dr. Novella’s Responses

Letter 1

Dear Steven,

I just read your article and while you make great points you dismiss all the data collected such as radar tracking and actual video footage of UFO’s made by reliable witnesses (both government and private individuals.) Please check out the upcoming Peter Jennings ABC news special on 2/24/05 regarding UFO’s. Also, please take the time to view the 50 minute video on the Disclosure Project (http://www.disclosureproject.org/). Something is happening and we need science to help us identify, explain, and deal with the eventual outcome of whatever this phenomena is.

John Lennon witnessed a UFO in New York City and remarked to a very skeptical friend that he had never hallucinated anything so outlandish even while taking LSD. Why would so many risk their careers and all they have achieved to come forward with the similar accounts of incredible technology that is not being utilized by the government, military, and most surprisingly, greedy corporations?

While your sighting was explained, thousands of other sightings have not been explained. Those are the ones that are most important right now.


Beth Glover

Dr. Novella Responds:


Thank you for your letter.

First, I do not dismiss any data, sightings, radar, or other pieces of evidence. There is something happening, I just think that what is happening is a psychocultural phenomenon, not an extraterrestrial one. The psychocultural hypothesis (PCH) is a much better fit to all of the data than the extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH).

I am familiar with the disclosure project. They do not have any piece of evidence that can be considered a smoking gun – nothing which is incompatible with the PCH or which demands the ETH. If you think there is any such evidence, then let me know what it is. I would be happy to take a close look at it. Keep in mind, every single time I have issued such a challenge to a UFO proponent, the evidence was either never forthcoming or was proven to be either mundane or fraudulent. Also, volumes of evidence is not a substitute for quality. I would be happy to revise my opinion if someone could show me a single piece of evidence which is even remotely impressive.

Further, you do reiterate a couple of common fallacies that I did address in my article. First, there is no such thing as a reliable witness. No one’s testimony, by itself, will be sufficient to establish a phenomenon such as alien visitation. We are all susceptible to well-documented errors in perception and memory. Also, you seem to imply that since you cannot imagine why someone would lie, that they must be telling the truth. Yet, it is also well documented that people do lie for strange and personal reasons. And, keep in mind that most witnesses probably are not lying, they are just mistaken and perhaps over eager.

You also refer to the sightings which remain unexplained. They, of course, are more interesting than those that are explained, but they are not evidence for alien spacecraft. They are simply unknown, and there are thousands of quirky but mundane possible explanations. You can’t build a case on ignorance. As an aside, I recently saw advertised in a magazine a large mylar silver toy blimp shaped like a flying saucer. Most people probably do not know such things exist and if they saw one without knowing what it was probably could not guess.

I hope this clarifies my position, and again I would be happy to follow up with any specific cases you feel are compelling.


Steven Novella

Beth Replies:

Dear Steve,

I’m impressed with your quick response and thank you for it. I just read your article regarding PCH. If you are right, there are millions who have succumbed to “magical thinking” and curiously are willing to risk public ridicule by acknowledging it. Perhaps a clinical study should be undertaken to examine the phenomena of magical thinking so we’ll better understand ourselves.


Beth Glover

Dr. Novella again replies:


There already is a large body of psychological literature on “magical thinking” and related concepts. It appears that humans do have several inborn tendencies that contribute to magical thinking, for example the propensity for pattern recognition and story-telling, the desire for meaning, the allure of the fantastical, etc. The solution is to understand logic and to practice intellectual discipline (what I would call healthy skepticism).

You seem to be placing a great deal of significance on the claim that people who admit to having had a UFO experience subject themselves to public ridicule. I think you should reconsider this premise, however. More than 50% of the public believe in UFOs. In fact, I find myself much more the target of attacks by being skeptical of the ETH. Further, there is a large subculture of people who embrace and celebrate the ETH – a very large support group.

You also should consider the logic of this statement. If your premise is correct, that would only mean that witnesses believe their own accounts, it does not mean that their accounts are true and accurate. Also, to be consistent, you have to apply the same logic to people who make other claims – demonic possession, miracles, bigfoot encounters, ghost encounters, crop circles, psychic ability, etc. Why would all those people lie or face public ridicule?

I can also give you a personal observation, from years of working with many people who hold a range of fringe beliefs. To me they seem thrilled to have something interesting and potentially meaningful in their lives, and they seem unconcerned about criticism from stodgy skeptics and scientists.

In short you seem to be overemphasizing and misinterpreting the significance of alleged fear of public ridicule, and giving insufficient significance to a host of other psychological factors, such as the simple desire to have something interesting in your life.

But all of this is ultimately irrelevant, because we can argue endlessly about what to infer from such things. The bottom line remains this – what does the evidence show? To date, there is a conspicuous lack of anything demonstrably alien.


Steve Novella

More from Beth:


I can see that you readily accept the company line offered by our government. Since you are not privy to government information, why do you contend that you have all the evidence at your disposal to conduct a scientific study? Again in your attempt to calm your fears, you got all mixed up and didn’t read carefully what I said. I said that UFO’s have deactivated nuclear weapons and played cat and mouse with military jets – there is documentation to support that. I don’t think your fears are nonsense and understand your motivation to deny.

Your collection of hypotheses offered up to explain my deficiencies in rational thought are no doubt unlimited but at this time I remain unmoved by your arguments and unblinded by your science. I prefer to keep my mind open to the possibility that the scientific community and our government don’t have all the answers at this time to explain what UFO’s are or what they mean to mankind.


Dr. Novella Responds:


You still didn’t provide documentation. You say it’s well documented – give me a name, a link, a book, something.

You appear to be taking the “fear” angle, common to UFO believers. What exactly do you think I am afraid of? If the aliens were here and had hostile intentions, we would be toast already. If they are here and don’t have hostile intentions, then what a boon to humanity that would be. What is their biology, how do they manage to travel the vast interstellar distances, what is their physics and cosmology? Even if they only let a few crumbs fall to us, how fascinating that would be. I truly hope to live to see us make contact, either directly or through SETI, with an alien civilization.

I have no fear. Your insistence that I do is puzzling. Perhaps it means that you have nothing more substantial to fall back on. You still have yet to point out an error in logic or to provide documentation of a case that points to aliens. The fear thing is the UFO believer “company” line, but it’s nonsense. Do you know any adults who are afraid that we are being visited by aliens? Maybe there are a few out there, but almost everyone I know is fascinated by the idea and without fear.

Finally, you claim the government has proof of aliens I can’t know about because they are hiding it. Well, then, how do you know about it? This is not evidence, it’s just using a conspiracy (for which there is no evidence) to explain away the lack of evidence. That’s called special pleading.


Steven Novella