• Home Page
  • UFO Topics
  • UFO Photos
  • UFO Cases
  • Sighting Reports
  • Report a Sighting


The Skeptic's Dictionary: UFOs (unidentified flying objects)

Robert Todd Carroll, The Skeptic's Dictionary

original source |  fair use notice

Summary: A UFO is an unidentified flying object which has been identified as a possible or actual alien spacecraft. So far, however, nothing has been positively identified as an alien spacecraft in a way required by common sense and science. That is, there has been no recurring identical UFO experience and there is no physical evidence in support of either a UFO flyby or landing.

"…nothing has come from the study of UFOs in the past 21 years that has added to scientific knowledge...further extensive study of UFOs probably cannot be justified in the expectation that science will be advanced thereby." –Edward U. Condon

A UFO is an unidentified flying object which has been identified as a possible or actual alien spacecraft. Such objects include meteors, disintegrating satellites, flocks of birds, aircraft, lights, weather balloons, and just about anything moving within the visible band of electromagnetism. So far, however, nothing has been positively identified as an alien spacecraft in a way required by common sense and science. That is, there has been no recurring identical UFO experience and there is no physical evidence in support of either a UFO flyby or landing.

There are as many photographs of UFOs as there are of the Loch Ness Monster, and they are of equal quality: blurs and forgeries. Other physical evidence, such as alleged debris from alien crashes, or burn marks on the ground from alien landings, or implants in noses or brains of alien abductees, have turned out to be quite terrestrial, including forgeries. The main reasons for believing in UFOs are the testimony of many people, the inability to distinguish science fiction from science, the willingness to trust incompetent men telling fantastic stories, the ability to distrust all contrary sources as being part of an evil conspiracy to withhold the truth, and a desire for contact with the world above. Belief in aliens in UFOs is akin to belief in supernatural beings..


"UFOlogy is the mythology of the space age. Rather than angels...we now have...extraterrestrials. It is the product of the creative imagination. It serves a poetic and existential function. It seeks to give man deeper roots and bearings in the universe. It is an expression of our hunger for mystery...our hope for transcendental meaning. The gods of Mt. Olympus have been transformed into space voyagers, transporting us by our dreams to other realms." --Paul Kurtz


Dr. J. Allen Hynek, astronomer, foremost proponent of UFOs, and the one who came up with the expression "close encounters of the third kind," defines a UFO as:

[T]he reported perception of an object or light seen in the sky or upon land the appearance, trajectory, and general dynamic and luminescent behavior of which do not suggest a logical, conventional explanation and which is not only mystifying to the original percipients but remains unidentified after close scrutiny of all available evidence by persons who are technically capable of making a common sense identification, if one is possible.

These mystifying words seem to say that when you see something which intelligent people cannot rationally explain, then you are seeing a UFO. Witnesses to such sightings often claim that what they saw could not be explained by the known laws of physics. They claim to have witnessed a violation of a law of nature, i.e., a miracle.

What Hynek considers to be "all available evidence" may be much less than what a skeptic would require. For example, the evidence appealed to by UFOlogists consists of (1) the testimony of people who claim to have seen aliens and/or alien spacecraft; (2) facts about the type of people who give the testimony; (3) the lack of contrary testimony or physical evidence that would either explain the sighting by conventional means (weather balloon, prank, meteor shower, reflection of light, etc.) or discredit the reliability of the eyewitness; and, (4) alleged weaknesses in the arguments of skeptics against the UFOlogists. The last item is irrelevant to the issue, yet it plays a disproportionately large role in UFOlogy.

Attacking an opponent's arguments or motives, instead of presenting positive evidence in defense of one's own view is common among defenders of the claim that UFOs are alien spacecraft. Of course, there is nothing wrong with attacking an opponent's argument and exposing weaknesses and faults thereby. But refutation is no substitute for support. It is simply faulty logic to assume that because an opponent’s reasons are flawed, one’s own reasons are valid. One’s own reasons may be just as flawed as an opponent’s, or even more flawed.

Another common tactic of UFOlogists is to claim that the skeptic cannot prove that what was seen was not an alien craft. One is supposed to infer from this fact that the perception probably was of an alien craft. This kind of reasoning is known as the argumentum ad ignorantiam. A claim does not become true or reasonable if a contrary claim cannot be proved to be true. With arguments for UFOs there are two distinct moves here. One is to claim that no logical explanation is possible because some scientist, pilot, Air Force Colonel, or Ph.D. cannot think of one. The other is to point to the lack of contrary evidence: no counter-testimony of other eyewitnesses, no proof that there were not aliens or alien spacecraft. Here, too, there is a logical error. The fact that some genius cannot come up with an explanation for something is irrelevant to deciding whether the correct explanation should be couched in terms of visitors from outer space. The choice is not either (A) we know this conventional explanation is correct , or (B) we must conclude that aliens have visited us.

It seems more reasonable to believe that the only reason we cannot explain these sightings by conventional means is because we do not have all the evidence; it not because these sightings are probably due to alien visitations. If we had all the evidence, we would probably be able to explain the sightings by some conventional means. The fact that we cannot prove that Mr. and Mrs. Barney Hill were not abducted by aliens, does not support the hypothesis that they were abducted by aliens.

Many UFOlogists think that if eyewitnesses such as Whitley Strieber, Betty and Barney Hill, or other alleged alien abductees are not insane or evil, then they cannot be deluded and are to be trusted with giving accurate accounts of alien abduction. Yet, it seems obvious that most sane, good, normal people are deluded about many things and not to be trusted about certain things. While it is generally reasonable to believe the testimony of sane, good, normal people with no ulterior motive, it does not follow that unless you can prove a person is deranged, evil, or a fraud that you should trust his or her testimony about any claim whatsoever. When the type of claim being made involves the incredible, additional evidence besides eyewitness testimony is required. Would it be reasonable to convict a paraplegic of a crime on the basis of the testimony of ten pillars of the community who said they saw the defendant flying naked with angel's wings and snatch the purse from a little old lady? It is much more reasonable to believe that good people are doing evil things, or that they are deluded, than to believe a paraplegic could sprout wings and fly.

UFOlogists would rather follow their faulty logic than accept the conclusions of Project Blue Book, the U.S. Air Force report which states that "after twenty-two years of investigation...none of the unidentified objects reported and evaluated posed a threat to our national security." (It was in this Blue Book that Edward Ruppelt coined the term "UFO.") UFOlogists are unimpressed with the Condon Report, as well. Edward U. Condon was the head of a scientific research team which was contracted to the University of Colorado to examine the UFO issue. His report concluded that "nothing has come from the study of UFOs in the past 21 years that has added to scientific knowledge...further extensive study of UFOs probably cannot be justified in the expectation that science will be advanced thereby."

It is assumed by UFOlogists that the government, especially the CIA, is lying and covering up alien landings and communication. However, there is no evidence for this other than a general distrust of the government and the fact that many government officials have lied, distorted the truth and been mistaken when reporting to the general public. The CIA, however, has shown little interest in UFOs since about 1950, except to encourage UFOlogists to believe that reconnaissance flights might be alien craft. UFOlogists prefer another kind of lie to the government lie. They support the work of NBC, for example, which produced two dozen programs called "Project UFO," said to be based on Project Blue Book. However, unlike the Air Force, NBC suggested that there were documented cases of alien spacecraft sightings. The programs, produced by Jack Webb of Dragnet fame, distorted and falsified information to make the presentation look more believable. No UFOlogist took NBC to task for lying. To the skeptic, NBC was pandering to the taste of the viewing audience. Government agents lie for all sorts of reasons, but covering up alien landings does not seem to be one of them.

Most unidentified flying objects are eventually identified as hoaxes or astronomical events, aircraft, satellites, weather balloons, or other natural phenomena. In studies done by the Air Force, less than 2% of UFO sightings remain unidentifiable. It is more probable that with more information those 2% would be identified as meteors, aircraft, etc., than that they are alien spacecraft.

The reason no logical explanation seems credible to UFOlogists is probably because those making and hearing the reports either do not want to hear a logical explanation or they make little or no effort to find one. In any case, the fact that some pilots or scientists claim they cannot think of any logical explanations for some perceptual observations is hardly proof that they have observed alien spacecraft.

Finally, it should be noted that UFOs are usually observed by untrained skywatchers and almost never by professional or amateur astronomers, people who spend inordinate amounts of time observing the heavens above. One would think that astronomers would have spotted some of these alien craft. Perhaps the crafty aliens know that good scientists are skeptical and inquisitive. Such beings might pose a threat to the security of a story well-told.

See related entries on alien abductions, area 51, autokinetic effect, cattle mutilations, crop circles, flying saucers, Men in Black, and Roswell.


further reading

The Klass Files (Archive of Skeptics UFO Newsletter)
"The Quest for Extraterrestrial Intelligence" by Carl Sagan
Scientific Skepticism, UFOs, and the Flying Saucer Myth - Royston Paynter
Parascope Nebula
SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute
The J. Allen Hynek Center for UFO Studies
"CIA's Role in the Study of UFOs, 1947-90" by Gerald K. Haines
"The Secret CIA UFO Files" by Jim Wilson
Penny Fisher's Stargazer Home Page
An Interview with Philip J. Klass, the World's Leading UFO Skeptic By Gary P. Posner
The Tectonic Strain Theory of UFO's by Michael A. Persinger, Ph.D.
The Phases of Venus by Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer
Natural Identified Flying Objects
Early Morning Bright Object: Not a UFO!
Condon, Dr. Edward U. Final Report of the Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects Conducted by the University of Colorado under Contract to the United States Air Force (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1969). Online version.

-----UFO's: A Scientific Debate, ed. Carl Sagan and Thornton Page (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press 1972).

Dudley, William, ed. UFOs (At Issue - Opposing Viewpoint Series) (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1999).

Frazier, Kendrick. (ed.) The Ufo Invasion : The Roswell Incident, Alien Abductions, and Government Coverups (Prometheus, 1997).

Klass, Philip J. UFOs: the Public Deceived (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1983).

Kurtz, Paul. The Transcendental Temptation: a Critique of Religion and the Paranormal (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1986).

Randi, James. Flim-Flam! (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books,1982), ch. 4.

Sagan, Carl. Broca's Brain (New York: Random House, 1979), ch 5. "NightWalkers and Mystery Mongers: Sense and Nonsense at the Edge of Science".

Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World - Science as a Candle in the Dark, ch. 4, (New York: Random House, 1995).

Sheaffer, Robert. UFO Sightings: The Evidence (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1989).

Read more articles on this topic:

Skeptical Views