The new UFO craze and the failures of our public intellectuals

Carl Sagan would be rolling in his grave

In case you’ve been living under a rock1, there is a massive push by UFO proponents in major media outlets. I won’t even link them all, it’s too tiring. They’re everywhere. Like cicadas.

It’s because the Pentagon has “released reports” of a couple “incidents” wherein pilots or other military personnel saw weird aerial phenomena they couldn’t immediately explain. The cause of these releases likely comes from the fact that the Pentagon gets bombarded by freedom of information requests from UFO enthusiasts, so eventually they just release whatever documents they have from internal investigations into unexplained phenomena (themselves having spent minimal effort on explaining it). All to say such releases are mainly a way to stop doing paperwork.

Meanwhile, The Telegraph runs the headline “The Pentagon strongly suspects aliens exist - and we've got the evidence.”

Except the evidence is so bad it’s literally laughable. Every single video is so easily explained it is a blow to the dignity of the human race that journalists at major news organizations are willing to run with this without, you know, the briefest sort of investigation.2 This is tinfoil-hats levels of evidence. Everything in the videos are just dots and blips on thermal or night-vision cameras from incredibly far away, and could easily be caused by simple illusions or natural phenomena or just like, distant planes. If your two possibilities are a) distant plane and b) alien visitation, your priors should make that decision pretty simple.

Here’s an example of a 100% clear debunking of one particular video. A video that was, of course, broadcast on the Today Show:

The video taken from a Navy ship shows a triangular or “pyramidal” UFO blinking in the sky. It’s a video that has already been soundly and completely debunked by professional skeptic Mick West. He goes through three facts:

a) the light source only appears as a glowing flying pyramid (I can’t even write this with a straight face) because the video comes from a night-vision camera that’s out-of-focus. Light sources, such as planes in the sky, appear triangular if the triangular aperture is not all the way up. It’s a well-known effect.

b) the "pyramid” blinks at the exact frequency of the lights on a Boeing 737.

c) the Navy ship was under a popular flight path for passenger planes like Boeing 737s.

Quod erat demonstratum: it’s an out-of-focus Boeing 737, not pyramidal alien spacecraft. What more do you need? I can’t even imagine a more solid debunking for such a grainy terrible video. It’s like you took a blurry photo of your closet and Mick West used it to identify your address, your mother’s maiden name, and the brands of all the clothes.

Now I could go through the videos one-by-one, but it’s the same sort of thing in every case (and ask yourself: even if there’s an obvious alternative explanation for only like 4/5 of these videos, what do you think the odds are the remaining one is real?).

Yet debates about this sort of thing generally go something like this (the reply is by the reporter for the Today Show):

That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works!3

The military reports are just a loose collection of weird stuff those in the military saw over decades. What people seem to misunderstand is that the military has no unique or relevant expertise for this sort of thing. Nor are they claiming there are aliens. Rather, they just have a handful of unexplained sightings over the years and finally started releasing them. The videos are the “proof” itself.

But it’s the military! So what? It’s all rare edge cases of far-away unusual stuff or in some unusual circumstance (like not putting your aperture all the way up and you forgot). There are no special “military technologies” that make identifying what’s going on in such edge cases any easier. Does the military have advanced instrumentation? Sure, although almost all the videos are just thermal cameras or night-vision, which isn’t exactly advanced. Even if the military did have advanced instrumentation in some cases, all instruments have have weird edge cases, and that’s precisely what this is all about. This whole thing is like asking: “Why do one in a million members of the military get fooled by a magic trick?”

What about the verbal reports from a couple pilots? They should be ignored. Seriously. If we’re going by verbal reports millions across the globe have been “visited” for decades. Doctors, lawyers, women and men of standing and prestige—not just dozens of accounts, but likely closer to millions. Assuredly plenty of ex-military. You should give the same credence to reports of Bigfoot—i.e., none. In the context of these sorts of things humans are fallible, illusion-prone, bipedal morons running from place to place like chickens with their heads cut off. If reports are even worthy of consideration there are way better ones than “pilots saw kind of a big white thing from an unknown distance for a brief period of time and couldn’t figure out what it was and then later we got this crappy video that was easily debunked.” Yet the media now glowingly cover the verbal report accompanying the debunked video. A flying huge tic tac!4

The truth is that if we include eyewitness reports the evidence for aliens is supremely overwhelming and has been for a century. If we don’t include eyewitness reports the evidence for aliens is supremely underwhelming. It’s pretty clear what to do in that circumstance. There’s a reason it always comes down to “okay the video isn’t convincing and has all sorts of problems but what about the accompanying verbal report?” The pilots were confused about a big ballon or a bubble or a cloud or swamp gas or a mirage or a weather balloon or a bird from an odd angle, or whatever, it literally doesn’t matter, verbal reports are useless for these issues.

Since this whole aliens thing is a nonstarter, here’s my real question, the actual reason for this post: where is someone like Neil deGrasse Tyson? Or Michio Kaku? Where is anyone? We have solely Mick West, who is good at actually debunking, but is not exactly a well-known public intellectual with trust to burn.5

Meanwhile, the episode of StarTalk Radio that Neil deGrasse Tyson did while all this has been going on is called “Alternative Aliens with Andy Weir and David Grinspoon.” Its description reads:

What do aliens look like? In this episode, Neil deGrasse Tyson and comic co-host Chuck Nice talk aliens with David Grinspoon, “Dr. Funkyspoon,” featuring Neil's interview with The Martian author, Andy Weir, on his new book Project Hail Mary.

The episode is ironically about the speculations of what astrobiologists think aliens on other planets might look like. There’s no skepticism about the ongoing media storm at all. He hasn’t tweeted about this new UFO craze either, which is possibly the biggest (and funniest) in history. That’s just head-in-the-sand sort of activity. It’s borderline irresponsible.

So why is Neil deGrasse Tyson not on every single TV program from CNN to Fox News saying to approach this skeptically and for everyone to calm down?

Here’s Carl Sagan from The Demon-Haunted World doing this expertly:

Most people honestly reported what they saw, but what they saw were natural, if unfamiliar, phenomena. Some UFO sightings turned out to be unconventional aircraft, conventual aircraft with unusual lightning patterns, high-altitude balloons, luminescent insects, planets seen under unusual atmospheric conditions, optical mirages and looming, lenticular clouds, ball lightning, sundogs, meteors including green fireballs, and satellites, nosecones, and rocket boosters spectacularly reentering the atmosphere. Just conceivably, a few might be small comets dissipating in the upper air. At least some radar reports were due to “ananomalous propogation”—radio waves traveling curved paths due to atmospheric temperature inversions. Traditionally, they were also called radar “angels”—something that seems to be there but isn’t. You could have simultaneous visual and radar sightings without there being any “there” there.

Yet Sagan is dead, and all that remains of him are some bones in Ithaca, some books on the shelf, old videos, our memories, and a voice memo from him waiting for us on Mars.

And this whole thing makes me miss him terribly. Frankly, almost all our public intellectuals are shadows of their predecessors. The adults are gone. Why do we even have someone like Neil deGrasse Tyson if not for precisely this moment? To make fun of bad sci-fi movies on twitter? And what does it say about our current crop of public intellectuals that no one is willing to take a stand on this, the easiest of hills to live on?


If so, good for you. Stay there.


Another way these things go is the old “Well UFO just means it’s unidentified” as if any of these reports are newsworthy without the implicit or explicit inference of aliens.


Notice how these amazing alien craft are all completely different from one another, described as pyramids, tic tacs, flying saucers, bell-shaped, ball-shaped, etc. How surprising! It’s almost as if. . .


I say that without any offense meant toward Mr. West, I doubt he even considers himself a “public intellectual,” which is a strange sort of beast anyways.