An apparently unidentified object detected on a Navy plane’s infrared camera. (U.S. Department of Defense/Navy Times)

It seems to happen with some regularity.  Claims that Unidentified Flying Objects are visiting us have captured the public imagination once more and a big reveal is expected soon.

That will come, oddly, from a government report required to be released by the end of June that will supposedly detail the many sightings made by high-flying military pilots and unexplained detections by satellites.  The requirement was added to the Covid relief package that was passed by Congress in December and orders the Department of Defense and the Office of the DIrector of National Intelligence to release their unclassified findings on the subject, information that has been apparently collected for decades.

In terms of national defense, these reports could indeed be meaningful.  If other nations are sending

This well known poster was first introduced during an episode of the 1990s television show, “The X Files.” and featured in a subsequent movie.

drones or satellites of some sort (true UFOs) to get close to and study American assets, then that’s important news.

But, of course, the UFO drama is overwhelmingly about something else:  The claimed presence of intelligent aliens that are scoping out Earth for reasons ranging from awe-inspiring or extremely worrisome.

The report — which sources say concludes that there is insufficient evidence to confirm or conclusively rule out extraterrestrial UFO sightings —  will no doubt be widely consumed by a population with many “UFO believers.”  After all, a 2019 Gallup poll found that 33 percent of American adults said that alien spacecraft from distant planets and galaxies have been visiting us.

I find all this to be not only unfortunate but also misguided and potentially damaging.  The moment will pass with no intelligent aliens identified, and then will return again some time in the future for another round.

The potential damage is to the very real, very challenging, very cutting-edge science being conducted around the world that seeks to identify actual signs of actual extraterrestrial life in the cosmos, or at least to know what to look for when we have space telescopes and instruments with the necessary power.

And I’m concerned that a focus on UFOs imagined to be carrying intelligent alien life takes away from the hard-won seriousness of their enormous and so compelling scientific effort.  This is especially true now that the scientific search for extraterrestrial life is on the front burner for the National Academy of Sciences, which will soon make recommendations about a next grand observatory for the 2030s.

Two of the four concepts being considered — LUVOIR and HabEx— have as a primary mission the study of exoplanets and their habitability and potentially whether they are home to some form of extant life.

The discovery in recent decades that billions upon billions of planets orbit stars other than our sun has super-charged the field of astrobiology, which seeks to find life beyond earth. (NASA)

The report to be formally released later this month comes after four years of government acknowledgements of unexplained sightings and will be the most direct and substantive U.S. government account of what officials call unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) ever made public.

It must by statute include “detailed analysis of unidentified aerial phenomena data and intelligence” collected by the Office of Naval Intelligence, the FBI, and the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force. (This is a program the Department of Defense created last summer to “detect, analyze and catalog UAPs that could potentially pose a threat to U.S. national security.”)

The report will likely provide details on several UFO sightings by Navy pilots that were reported in the New York Times in 2017, and later declassified by the Pentagon.  The pilots reported breathlessly about the shape of the aircraft — often referred to as Tic-Tac or cigar-shaped — and were alarmed by high speeds and abrupt stops they identified, with no apparent propulsion systems identified.

Another Navy pilot reported being met by what seemed to be a strange object hovering in restricted airspace off the Atlantic Coast.  The pilot told “60 Minutes”  that he was stunned because there was no no exhaust plume, no visible engine and all the makings of something secret and maybe dangerous.

The same spacecraft is seen by various Navy pilots almost every day, pilot Ryan Graves said on the show.

What’s more, various political and intelligence figures have hinted that there is much more unclassified and also highly classified material about UFO sightings.

All these fuzzy photos and firsthand accounts make for good stories,  but science they are not.  When it comes to real findings about extraterrestrial life, that is the very interdisciplinary realm of astrobiology, planetary science, geochemistry, radio astronomy and more.

To be science requires a method that includes an ability to replicate a finding, as well as a hypothesis that can be confirmed or refuted.  If a finding by its very nature cannot be disconfirmed  — and nobody will ever have evidence about the alleged presence of aliens in this flying objects — then it isn’t science.

We’ve just gone through a period when science was often disregarded in favor of belief, and I see this UFO craze as as a  continuation of that.  Unless, that is, the flying objects can be determined to be spy assets of another nation.

The many people skeptical of alien UFO reports point to the ways that a very fast-flying jet pilot can “see” something that is a common optical space illusion or a radar-confounding collection of objects.  And what looks like a UFO can be a natural phenomenon or an entirely benign flying object.

And then there’s this logical question:  If all these alien space ships are circling the Earth, why don’t some of them land or otherwise make their presence known?

Renowned nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi, who during the 1950s UFO craze famously posed the question of why none of the alleged alien spacecraft had landed and the occupants made their presence known.

This line of thought circles back to the famous “Fermi Paradox.”  Named after renowned nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi, is the apparent contradiction between the lack of evidence for extraterrestrial life (in the form of higher civilizations) and various estimates for their probability.

Walking to lunch with three other prominent physicists in 1950, the issue came up because of widespread coverage then of alleged alien UFOs.  Fermi weighed in with a question that has remains a staple in the field:  “But where is everybody?”  (or something similar.)  The “paradox” over time became a critique of sorts of the search for extraterrestrial life.

This hardly seems like a paradox to me because the focus on extraterrestrial civilizations is off base.  We now know there are billions and billions of exoplanets out there, but the scientific focus is now primarily on searching for signs of life of any kind — microbial, simple multi-celled or just possibly more advanced.  Life on Earth, after all, was present for more than 3 billion years before it evolved to the multicellular level, and Homo sapiens emerged only 300,000 years ago and technological civilizations only about 200 years ago.

So based on our planet’s evolutionary history, technological civilization is a blip in time.  In terms of astronomical and evolutionary time, there is no particularly good reason to assume potential life on other planets has reached that point, or will ever reach that point.  And if it did, maybe the intelligent beings just aren’t interested in travel.

(The effort to find extraterrestrial life does include a search for intelligent life — the effort of SETI practitioners.  They are indeed scientists, using radio astronomy to identify narrow-band transmissions from other planets that are clearly not natural. They have also begun seaches for laser-like beams. In more than 60 years of observing, however, no signs of intelligent life have been detected.)

Arthur C. Clarke, at home in Sri Lanka. The author, futurist and space enthusiast was knighted in 1998. (Wiki)

A final observation comes from Arthur C. Clarke, science fiction writer extraordinaire, futurist and early advocate of space travel and exploration.

As he wrote in a 1975 review of books on UFOs for the New York Times, he and filmmaker Stanley Kubrick had what they initially thought was a sure observation of a UFO.

The two men had just decided to go forward with a movie project that would become “2001:  A Space Odyssey” and were extremely excited by it.  They walked to Kubrick’s Manhattan penthouse and, Clarke wrote, “Suddenly we noticed a brilliant star rising in the south. As it climbed steadily up the sky. I assumed was the ECHO balloon satellite—but to our astonishment, when it reached the zenith it apparently came to rest, hovering vertically above the city.”

“We rushed indoors to collect Stanley’s telescope. By the time we had it set up, the object was moving again, and we followed it for almost 10 minutes before it disappeared over the northern horizon. But even through the telescope, it remained a featureless point of light.”

Clarke looked up the expected timing of the transits over New York of the ECHO balloon satellite – a very early NASA communications satellite — and found it was later than when the two men saw the “UFO.”  Clarke writes that he was shaken and the men really thought they had seen something unusual and maybe extraterrestrial.

Only later did they find that the timing they had relied on was incorrect, and that the ECHO satellite was indeed passing over New York at the time they saw it.

Clarke’s assessment, and rather acidic conclusion:

“The illusion that the object was hovering at the zenith had, like so many U.F.O.’s, multiple causes: (1) We were too excited to observe calmly, (2) it is almost impossible to judge the angular movement of anything vertically overhead, (3) bright moonlight had obliterated the star background which normally {reveals) satellite motion.”

“The whole incident once again underlines the only lesson we have so far learned from U.F.O.s. They tell us absolutely nothing about intelligence elsewhere in the universe; but they do prove how rare it is on Earth. “

My conclusion:  Let’s leave the search for extraterrestrial life (and just possibly intelligent life) to the scientists.