Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization

First Edition

© 1975-1979, 2008 Robert A. Freitas Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization, First Edition, Xenology Research Institute, Sacramento, CA, 1979; http://www.xenology.info/Xeno.htm


3.2.2  The Evidence for UFOs

While it is certainly true that hidden xenoarchaeological treasures may lie veiled forever in ancient legend and folklore, the observational data for flying saucers are frequently completely worthless. As British writer Maxwell Cade notes, "there is clear evidence of much fraud, more hysteria, and still more wishful thinking."45 Such bitter experience has taught us that when we have an emotional vested interest in a particular result and expectations run feverishly high, we must demand only the most scrupulous honesty from ourselves and refuse to accept any but the most rigorous, compelling evidence.20,562

Most researchers would be delighted to find extraterrestrial life be cause it would be such a momentous discovery. Perhaps the strictest rule of evidence in xenology is that all conclusions must be compelled by the facts. There must remain no rational alternative explanations.

L. Sprague de Camp has set forth the following criteria by which to judge the authenticity of UFO reports: (1) The report must be first-hand; (2) The teller must show no obvious bias or prejudice; (3) The teller must be a trained observer; (4) The data must be adequate and available for checking; and (5) The teller must be clearly identified.1922 A case which satisfies these requirements, and which can perhaps be checked independently with a large number of witnesses, would be considered reliable by the majority of the scientific community.

But in addition to being reliable, UFO reports must also be exotic. An exotic case is one which is inexplicable in terms of common phenomena; for example, a strange moving light in the sky could be an aerial refueling operation, a satellite passing overhead, a police helicopter with a searchlight, etc.15

Sagan maintains that to date there are no reliable cases which are exotic, and no exotic ones which are reliable.18

Can flying saucers exist? Sagan himself has presented an interesting paradox which apparently rules out the possibility of ufonaut exploration of Earth. If there are many advanced civilizations in our galaxy then there is probably nothing terribly unusual about what is going on here. Hence, there is no urgent reason for aliens to go to the enormous expense of visiting us. On the other hand, if there are few technical cultures around, there won't be enough of them advanced enough to send visitors!15

Skeptics often cite the fact that observed UFOs are totally nonstandardized in size and shape -- repeat visits by the same craft are rare. In general we would expect such standardization from experienced aliens, since the retention of a single configuration over a long period of time is possible only when its design has matured. Given a specific mission and a specific level of technology, an optimal definitive form can usually be found. So how can we explain the fact that UFOs appear to be shaped not only as cigars and disks, but also cubes, spheres, doughnuts, insect shapes, etc.?

Other arguments purporting to dispute the legitimacy of UFOs have been submitted by Friedman,694 Sagan,20,1317 Abell,1908 and Chiu.1311 The logic proceeds as follows: Using the acceptable estimates that there are a million communicative extraterrestrial civilizations (in our galaxy of 200 billion stars) each having a lifetime of ten million years, then if each culture dispatches one exploratory starship per year, Earth -- by random chance -- should be visited only about once every 100,000 years. Of course, if the ETs discovered something interesting happening on our planet they’d come more often to keep closer tabs on us. What is not clear is whether humans are of such inordinate interest as to justify the large investment of alien time and resources that ufologists claim is being made.

When dealing with ufology the careful reader will always bear one additional question in mind: If we put ourselves in the aliens’ shoes, what is the most rational way to go about planning a successful first contact effort with a planet like Earth? Although this xenological problem is explored in greater depth later on, a few issues can profitably be raised now:

1. Disturbance of the system -- Since they are the ones with high technology, they will not fear us.1208 Thus the greatest danger to the enterprise is that of observer influence (a common problem in measurement science).77{?} If the mere act of observation will disrupt or destroy the system under observation, it behooves the observer to minimize that disruption. As Richard J. Rosa of Avco Everett Laboratories puts it: "A hundred years {may be} of little consequence to them. The fact that Columbus did not hesitate to talk to the Indians was not without consequences that were unfortunate for Europe and tragic for the Indians. Perhaps our interstellar visitors have learned to be more cautious -- and considerate."344

2. Minimizing the disruption -- An advanced society can certainly make a planetary survey without the primitive indigenes knowing about it.377 As added security in maintaining anonymity, aliens and their artifacts could sport many clever disguises.49 Ufologist Jacques Vallee notes: "To make ultimate detection impossible, {the aliens} would have to project an image just beyond the belief structure of the target society."1189 In fact, it is rather difficult to explain why, if they wish to avoid contact, the UFOs allow themselves to be seen at all.747

3. Standard first contact procedures -- Spacefaring ETs will undoubtedly be experienced at the business of contacting other cultures. The following has been suggested by anthropologists familiar with the problem:

"Exploration will proceed in a series of ordered steps. At each star the team will investigate the system and locate any planets. If they find a planet they will evaluate its habitability, physical resources and life forms. If any signs of intelligent life are discovered the survey team will have to decide whether to withdraw or attempt contact. This will involve careful observation from a distance to acquire information before actually making contact. At first, in order to gain language skills and social understanding, contact will be limited to individuals in small groups. In this way we can increase the chance of success at the official, formal meeting with ET leaders to arrange recognition and continued contact."615

Most rational observers would agree that the vast majority of sightings are the result of misidentification of familiar objects viewed under unusual conditions of lighting, weather, and so forth.18 There are also a multitude of outright hoaxes and exaggerations on record. For instance, in what Time magazine called the "gullibility experiment," three Cal Tech undergrads launched helium-filled polyethylene balloons from which were suspended metal rods with vanes and lighted railroad flares. Throughout the Los Angeles area reports came in of red, orange and green lights in the sky that moved at "fantastic speed."335 Similar deliberate hoaxes were arranged two years later near Castle Rock, Colorado.1312

Not all sightings of flying saucers can be summarily dismissed as hoax, weather balloon, or ball lightning.337,339,345 Dr. David Saunders at the University of Colorado has collected more than 70,000 unidentifieds and has placed them in a computer indexing and retrieval system.1789 There even seems to be enough data for meaningful statistics to begin to appear.

According to Poher and Vallee, both computer specialists, several trends and conclusions have already emerged: (1) The frequency of UFO reports increases with increased atmospheric visibility (which would not be the case if they were hoaxes); (2) the number of sightings is a bell-shaped distribution as a function of the logarithm of sighting duration; (3) the number of reports increases for objects farther away from the observer; and (4) the data show a peak a few hours before midnight, and a smaller secondary peak a few hours after midnight.787

What kind of information would be needed to really verify a UFO sighting? Eyewitness accounts are unreliable, heavily dependent upon the observer’s education, health, emotional state, and predisposition to falsehood. The kind of evidence that would be really compelling must be primarily physical. Photographs, for instance, are generally regarded as hard evidence by scientists. But pictures showing aliens, lights in the sky, or actual UFOs in flight are extremely easy to fake, as illustrated by the shots in Figure 3.3. (The author made a double exposure of a street light with a telephoto lens.)


Figure 3.3. UFO photographed by the author on March 30, 1976

Photographed by the author using Pentax Spotamatic and Kodak ASA-125 Plus-X Panchromatic. The object appears to fly off to upper right in the frame. See text for details.


After fifteen years of looking into the UFO phenomenon, NICAP (National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena) director Stuart Nixon reported in November, 1972, the following conclusion regarding the literally thousands of photos he had received: "NICAP has never analyzed a structured object picture that is fully consistent with the claim that an extraordinary flying device was photographed. In every case, there has been some small detail, or group of details, that raised the suspicion of a hoax or mistake."695

As Philip Klass aptly notes, there are more than 80 million cameras in the United States alone shooting roughly 5 billion still photos every year.695 Deft cameramen have managed to capture on film such rare occurrences as meteor falls, tornadoes, and plane crashes. And yet there is not a single photograph of UFOs or their occupants which can stand the strictest scrutiny and compel our acceptance of its authenticity.*

What about astronomical photography? Each night hundreds of telescopes turn skyward to record events occurring in the heavens. Thornton Page, Chairman of the AAAS Special Committee on UFOs, states that "professional telescopes are not an efficient patrol net for extraterrestrial visitors" because they don’t see enough of the sky often enough.340 However, the Smithsonian Prairie Meteorite Network has sixteen wide-angle Schmidt telescopes covering an estimated 440,000 square miles of the Earth’s surface. Canadian and Czech meteor networks add a small additional area to the coverage.

According to Page’s calculations, assuming a 50/50 chance of a UFO being photographed by one of the networks and given that none have so far been detected, there can be no more than 690 luminous UFOs worldwide per year. If we just look at the United States, the upper limit becomes only 25 objects per year. (That is, if more than 25 UFOs were tracking across our skies each year, then the chances would be better than 50/50 that at least one of them would be spotted by a network telescope and recorded on film.) In conclusion, observational astronomy can neither convincingly rule out nor compellingly affirm the existence of UFOs.

How about radar sightings? Although it is true that many UFOs have been detected on radar screens in the last few decades, a radar return need not always correspond to a real physical object. For instance, it was discovered early in World War II that meteor trails could cause radar echoes.49 Birds and swarms of insects produced baffling returns until the true cause was ascertained.1773 Temperature inversions, so familiar to the inhabitants of the smog-filled Los Angeles basin, can cause radar beams to bend along a "duct," thus permitting the detection of objects much farther away than normal.1788 Radar signals can bounce off clear air turbulence or reflect back from patches of air whose temperature, humidity, or ionization differ from their surroundings.18

Naturally, the Early Warning BMEWS network would be ideal for picking up UFOs. In 1966 it was reported that more than 700 "uncorrelated targets" were being detected monthly.1189 Unfortunately for ufologists, the BMEWS, SAGE, and NORAD computers automatically discard any object that appears not to be following a ballistic trajectory or an Earth-orbital ellipse.18,597 And some really good cases of combined visual and radar tracking are probably being withheld for security reasons (e.g., "spoofing" tests, etc.). But Sagan and Page have pointed out that even a combination visual and radar sighting might not indicate a solid body -- it could be an aurora, for instance, or mistaken identification.18 We see that it is only through the concatenation of many independent sources of confirmation that the authenticity of a UFO report can be compellingly demonstrated.


Figure 3.4 UFO-Related Objects and Phenomena17,18

Meteorological -- subsun, sundogs (parhelia), moondogs (paraselene), lenticular clouds, noctilucent clouds, mirages, "dust devils", St. Elmo’s fire, grindstone clouds, solar reflections on low-hanging clouds, lightning (ball, streak, chain, sheet), Brocken ghosts, green fireballs(around NaCl crystals or dust), swamp gas flickers (ignis fatuus, methane combustion,"will-o-the-wisp"), large flattened gliding hailstones, sun glint off shiny objects, rainbow-related phenomena, bolides, ducted ground light reflection, ice flakes, coronal effects, tornado lightning, volcano lightning, Earthquake-Associated Sky Luminescence (EASL), AgI used in cloud-seeding, pile d’assiettes clouds(stack of coins), ice halo, pilot’s halo

Astronomical -- meteors, fireballs, satellite reentries, auroras, planets (Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn), stars (Capella, Sirius), objects seen through haze/jet trails or magnified by temperature inversion, Moon, sunspots and solar flares, comets

Experimental and Technological -- balloons sandwiched between dense air layers, test aircraft unconventional aircraft, helicopters with bright lights, high-altitude projectiles, rocket launches, contrails, aircraft reflection or after burners, bomb tests, refueling operations, searchlight reflections, military flares, satellites, blimps, parachutes, radiosondes and pibals, landing lights

Physiological and Psychological -- autokinesis (perceived motion of stationary objects), autostasis (perceived stopping of moving objects), "airship effect"(perceived connection of separate sources), "excitedness effect", hallucination and mass hysteria, afterimages, autosuggestion(seeing what one is looking for), entopic effects(retinal or vitreous humor defects within the eyeball), motes on the cornea(perceived as spots), astigmatism and myopia, failure to wear glasses, reflections from glasses, religious invention

Photographic -- development defects, internal camera reflections lens flare, deliberate fakes (moon, street lamps, garbage can lids, phonograph records, hubcaps, lens cap suspended by thread, straw hat, Frisbee, models, window glass reflections)

Radar -- temperature inversions and ducting effects, ionized gases in upper atmosphere, angels, bogies, phantoms, false returns (ice-laden clouds, birds, insects), "window" (long strips of chaff), ranging/calibration balls, hot-air bubble reflections

Biological -- airborne debris(leaves, feathers, milkweed seeds), "angel hair"(gossamer spider parachutes), birds or flocks of birds, insect swarms, luminous fungi on birds, fireflies, glowing owl eyes, seagulls, moths, tumbleweeds

Industrial -- detergent foam, soap bubbles, refuse from defective filter in chemical-industrial plant (milk, rayon), smoke plumes

Miscellaneous -- kites, firefly trapped between window panes, radio astronomy dish, plastic bag with candles or flares, searchlight & headlight reflections off clouds, flashing ambulance light, tossed lighted cigarette, fireworks displays, reflection off building’s windows, airborne loose paper, beacon lights and lighthouses, water tanks, lightning rods, TV antennas, weathervanes, hoaxes


Despite prosaic explanations (Figure 3.4, Table 3.1), occasionally more exotic physical evidence will turn up. Coral Lorenzen described a detailed chemical and spectroscopic analysis of the alleged remains of a UFO which exploded off the coast of Brazil, near Ubatuba, in 1957.1672 The metal fragments were touted as magnesium metal purer than any manufacturer could have produced at the time of the catastrophe.

The case was investigated by the Air Force-sponsored Condon Committee study group in Colorado, authors of the 1000-plus page report on UFOs that came out in 1969.17 It turned out that magnesium of suitable purity had been produced, though only in relatively small batches, by one American company several years prior to the event at Ubatuba. In no case to date has any piece of an alleged alien spacecraft shown signs of other than terrestrial manufacture.1312


Table 3.1 UFO Sightings and Unidentifieds
U. S. Air Force Project Blue Book17,18
All Sightings
All Sightings
All Sightings
701 (~5.6%)


Other physical evidence (largely unconvincing) was also examined during the two year study at the University of Colorado, including stalled automobile engines, evidence of strong magnetic field fluences,** circular burn marks and "landing pad" depressions on the ground, broken tree limbs, and so forth -- all to no avail.

A growing number of UFO reports in recent times involve observation of the alien occupants themselves. For example, the following articles appeared in the British Flying Saucer Review, perhaps the oldest and most respected ufology journal in the world: "Violent Humanoid Encountered in Bolivia" (1970 case -- includes photograph of parked UFO and humanoid posing nearby);775 "The Humanoid at Kinnula" (1971 case -- close encounter with genuine "little green man");777 "The Extraordinary Case of Rejuvenation" (1973 case -- advanced medical knowledge imparted telepathically by humanoid aliens with "round ears and slit eyes," standing roughly 1.8 meters tall);780 "Remarkable Encounter at Draguinan" (1974 case -- a group of French UFO enthusiasts are accosted by three silvery humanoids more than two meters tall);785 and "UFO Landing and Repair by Crew" (1974 case -- light-skinned, eight-foot-tall humanoids garbed in "wetsuits" are observed giving their flying saucer a tune-up in the forest, using wrenches and screwdrivers).782

Perhaps the first alleged contactee in modern times was the medium Helen Smith. Her travels in space were published in 1900 along with a dictionary for translating Martian into French.1924 More recently, everything from sexual seduction of humans by aliens1623 to miraculous cures of myopia and rheumatism1347 has been attributed to direct contact with UFOs and their occupants. One of the more notorious contactees was the late George Adamski, who claimed to have shaken hands with visitors from Venus when they landed in the desert near his hamburger stand in the early 1950's.1193,1787 (Adamski has since been shown to be a fake by a member of the British UFO Society.289)

And then there are the persistent rumors that UFOs have crashed and their contents are being studied in secret by the government.814 One unconfirmed report states that the bodies of twelve tiny humanoids are being kept in cryogenic suspension in Hangar 17 at Wright Air Development Center near Dayton, Ohio. The alien corpses, and various parts of a flying saucer, are supposedly the remains of a UFO crash in the New Mexico desert in 1948.1672

Probably the most celebrated contactee case is that of Betty and Barney Hill, alleged to have been abducted aboard a spacecraft on September 19, 1961, and given a thorough medical examination by ETs.1795 (Betty was able to recall the incident via hypnotic investigation five years later, though Barney apparently could not.695) One of the few corroborative pieces of evidence is a star map which Betty had been shown by the alien pilot, and which she later reproduced from memory. Marjorie Fish, an Ohio schoolteacher, attempted to fit the map to the known positions of actual nearby suns in space. The fit she came up with contains fifteen Sol-like stars which all lie in a single geometric plane and center on what is presumably the extraterrestrials' home sun: Zeta Reticuli.351,1775

Carl Sagan and Steven Soter have disputed the authenticity of the Fish interpretation of the Hill map, but the case remains one of the most fascinating of its kind on record. Zeta Reticuli is a double star system, each sun believed to be suitable for the evolution of life as we know it and separated by a mere 0.05 light-years (only 1% of the distance to our nearest neighbor, Proxima Centauri). Unusually rapid technological advancement on the part of the sentient inhabitants of either of the Zeta Reticuli stellar systems might well result from the tantalizing closeness of the two stars. As the giant, luminous Moon beckoned to man throughout the centuries, perhaps the Zeta Reticulans too would find the challenge irresistible -- only sooner.


* The two best-known motion picture films of UFOs in flight, a total of 1425 frames shot in Utah and Montana in the early 1950’s,1923 are highly questionable.695

** In case anyone is interested, I have in my files a circuit diagram for a most unusual piece of equipment -- entitled "The Electronic UFO Detector".770


Last updated on 6 December 2008