For the most part, the SETI community has treated UFOs as a bad smell.
Given the often outlandish excesses of UFO enthusiasts, the credulity, lack of scientific rigour and downright hucksterism of the majority of published literature, this is hardly surprising.
However, SETI must be careful not to throw out the baby with the bath water. The SETI paradigm assumes a biological universe capable of producing life, and if intelligence can be detected by electromagnetic means then such an ETI is in advance of ourselves and theoretically capable of space exploration.
Whilst the extra-terrestrial hypothesis for UFOs is totally unproven, large sections of the public are seemingly conditioned to accept it and even want it to be so. And duly constituted authority such as military and other intelligence agencies have been prepared to consider the ETH, some personnel even persuaded by it. As such, UFO reports offer behavioural scientists, psychologists and sociologists an insight into the potential impact of a verified ETI discovery, and are therefore worthy of defined study by the SETI community.
Having read widely (and critically) in both fields, I would like to suggest some selected reading for both sides; here, the UFO books SETI advocates should read:
Captain Ruppelt headed Project Blue Book, USAF’s intelligence investigations into UFO reports during the seminal period of the early 1950s. Despite his own scepticism, Ruppelt’s fascinating account reveals that many involved in those early investigations were prepared to advocate the extraterrestrial hypothesis, including senior military ranks – this was also verified by arch-debunker Professor Donald Menzel, who told a 1968 House of Representatives symposium
“By 1952 a sizeable number of those in the Air Force group had concluded that extraterrestrial vehicles were the only explanation.”
Given that, directives to attempt to shoot down UFOs, and machinations by the CIA to ensure the subject was to be debunked because of psychological warfare fears, must surely be of interest to SETI proponents who ponder the consequences of contact.
Dubbed the ‘Galileo’ of UFOlogy, Hynek started consulting with USAF’s investigations into UFOs from the beginning until the closure of Project Blue Book in 1969. Initially a skeptic, Hynek became puzzled by some of the reports he was charged with investigating and believed they might contain valuable scientific data. Although he never advocated the ETH, he naturally considered it. His ambition was to write ‘a good UFO book’ and it is generally considered he achieved that. His taxonomy of UFO reports became pop culture when Spielberg used the classification ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ as the title of his UFO cinematic opus. Hynek believed the UFO subject was worthy of serious scientific research (as did his contemporary Dr James McDonald), and scathing of what he perceived to be USAF’s lackadaisical modus operandi. But he always stressed that there were no UFOs to study, only UFO reports, requiring great caution on the part of investigators and he generally gave low confidence to single witness sightings. Hynek had nothing to say of the Roswell ‘circus’ or fables of crashed Saucers and their diminutive occupants.
Post-Blue Book, Hendry was Hynek’s only full-time employee at the Centre for UFO Studies (CUFOS) during the 1970s. His UFO handbook is easily the best account of, and guide to, the practical issues surrounding the thorough, unbiased investigation and study of UFO reports. Clearly this a formidable task since most UFOlogists concede that at least 95% of reports are mistakes, the mundane and hoaxes. Does it follow that the serious UFOlogist must spend 95% of his or her investigative efforts and time on the mundane? That would require a special dedication. Hendry paints a pessimistic picture of UFOlogy, overrun by amateurs, and the book is such a damning account of UFO investigations that arch-skeptic Philip Klass called it
“one of the most significant and useful books on the subject ever published.”
It is vital reading for any student of the subject.
Aviation historian Peebles gives a sceptical overview of the often exotic meanderings of UFO history since 1947, encompassing the many fads which frequently bear little direct association with UFO reports but build a fantastic mythology immune to any meaningful scientific investigation, e.g. the fabled Men In Black. All the key milestones are covered in this account, prompting a reviewer for strangemag.com to write:
‘Peebles has held up a mirror to the state of ufology and the picture revealed is a tortured image of a community too willing to believe in the fantastic and so conspiracy-minded that it can’t look forward for always checking its collective backside for those who plot to suppress the truth.’
The main criticism here, and of much UFO literature, is that it is too American-centric, though of course that may be telling in its own right. That does not apply to the final suggestion:
SETI proponent and enthusiast Ashpole casts a scientific eye over the UFO phenomena, arguing it cannot be ignored by SETI proponents, nor should it be. Any ETI detectable over vast distances of both time and space has had the time to launch probes or other artefacts that could have, or may, discover earth. Of course the great problem is how to filter out the ‘noise’ surrounding the subject; how does one decide which UFO reports may be worthy of further analysis? Ashpole is not alone in the SETI movement for advocating a watchful eye on UFO phenomena, Albert Harrison, Peter Schenkel and Allen Tough all concede that visitation is theoretically possible (as does Seth Shostak). This is a valuable perspective on UFOs for the SETI advocate, and it should be noted that Ashpole does not suggest there is definitive evidence we have been visited.