SPACE.com Columnist Leonard David

UFOs 101: Hype, uproar, disinformation and mystery: 'Here we are again.'

U.S. Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence Scott Bray explains a video of an unidentified aerial phenomena, as he testifies before a House Intelligence Committee subcommittee hearing at the U.S. Capitol on May 17, 2022 in Washington, DC.
U.S. Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence Scott Bray explains a video of an unidentified aerial phenomena, as he testifies before a House Intelligence Committee subcommittee hearing at the U.S. Capitol on May 17, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Image credit: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

A university history professor developed a virtual classroom lecture series that probed the history, evolution, and impacts on society of the Unidentified Flying Object phenomenon.

The intent of the five-part course was not to prove true believers or skeptics of ET visitation are right. Rather, the series goal was to develop a deeper understanding of the UFO enigma and the social, political, and cultural developments that now shape it and not pick sides.

As the course description explains, UFOs are making headlines again, with U.S. intelligence services and NASA announcing they're studying more recent reports of sightings. 

"And as has always been the case, the public response has focused on the question of what's going on, a discourse dominated mostly by the believers and the skeptics. But lost in the hype and ruckus is the question of when this all started and how we got to this point," states the course outline.

Related: How big a deal is NASA's new UFO study?

Greg Eghigian
Greg Eghigian

Greg Eghigian is a historian who studies how societies answer the questions and problems associated with modern life through the lenses of science, technology, and medicine. Eghigian has researched and written about the history of supernatural and paranormal phenomena and is writing a book about the history of UFO sightings and claims of alien contact throughout the world.

More thoughtful look

Greg Eghigian is a professor of history at Pennsylvania State University and led the classroom-like experience that wrapped up late October. The lessons were not undertaken by Penn State, but were hosted by Atlas Obscura Online Courses that are designed and taught by expert instructors.

Why now and what's the rationale for delving into decades of UFO chatter and folklore, along with assessing the newly-termed Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon (UAP)?

"This time around, there is no question that there's something different," Eghigian told Space.com. "I have seen a lot over the years and on one hand, it's not all that new."

Moments in history

There have been other moments in history, Eghigian said, where people in authoritative positions, be they in government or academia, have taken the UFO topic seriously enough to publicly say the subject needs a more thoughtful look.

"But why it is gaining a little more legitimacy than usual is the fact the military and intelligence community is onboard. Over the past few years, they have come forward and basically said these are real sightings, not computer glitches, not misidentification. Real objects are being seen and are being captured by instruments," Eghigian said. "We have not heard that kind of thing before in the past."

Eghigian flags the fact that there's a lot of classified information not available for public eying due to intelligence and military constraints.

A government employee photographed a UFO that hovered for 15 minutes near Holloman Air Development Center in New Mexico, on Dec.16, 1957.

A government employee photographed a UFO that hovered for 15 minutes near Holloman Air Development Center in New Mexico, on Dec.16, 1957. (Image credit: Bettmann/Getty Images)

Loosey-goosey language

For starters, are UFOs and UAPs cut from the same cloth of the unexplained? 

"The language is actually really fascinating," said Eghigian. "When it all started in the 1940s it was 'flying saucers' and then 'UFOs' … and both are deeply flawed as a concept. 'UAP' to me also doesn't solve the problem. By calling it a phenomenon you have broadened it some, allowing it to be really up in the air and loosey-goosey."

By labeling it a phenomenon, Eghigian said that plays well in paranormal community circles. "It has opened up that possibility, that kind of explanation," he said.

Be it flying saucers, UFOs or UAP terminology, as for what moniker should be suitably used, Eghigian comes up dry.

Detective-like fervor

In his sessions, Eghigian noted that after flying saucers were first reported in 1947, observers and commentators were puzzled. 

The mystery of UFOs, the professor advised, gave birth to sleuths and groups who took it upon themselves to explain the phenomenon. Fueling that detective-like fervor was dismissal of eyewitness reports and the ridicule heaped on observers by skeptics, and that only made devotees question what they were being told.

"I think there are those people who will not be satisfied until it's that answer they want it to be," said Eghigian.

An alleged unidentified aerial phenomenon (UAP), as captured by the sensors of a U.S. Navy jet. (Image credit: DoD/US Navy)

Omnipresent question

Within the larger picture of UFOology is the omnipresent question: Are we on our own within the Universe at large? There are those backing the verdict that we're not a "home alone" civilization and knowing that fact means everything would change.

"I'm not sure I believe that," Eghigian said. Actual contact communication, while significant, wouldn't bring about world peace, he said, "as I don't have enough confidence in the human race. That's something history teaches you … to be very cynical about humanity."

Eghigian admitted that sometimes he shares a similar unease expressed by the late Stephen Hawking about alien encounter and how that might not necessarily serve us and serve our own interests as a species.

"I don't know what would come out of it in the end," Eghigian added.

Close encounters with the New World

Looking to centuries past, the history professor sees the European encounter with the New World as case in point. It was the age of exploration, but also the age of conquest. "Looking to serve self-interest, 'we're here and this is now ours' doesn't provide a comforting lesson of mutual compromise and conciliation," Eghigian cautioned.

In his Atlas Obscura series, "Close Encounters: Tracing the History of UFOs," Eghigian said his approach was exploring the human side of the topic and what it says about us — humanity.

As human beings trying to grapple with this subject over generations, how has society taken it to today's present level, Eghigian said, "because, ultimately this is part of human history. As I keep saying to people, nobody escapes being a part of the stream of history."

A print from April 14, 1561 in Nuremberg, describing celestial phenomenon that occurred over Nuremberg on the April 4, 1561. In recent years, the print has been cited as evidence of UFO sightings from pre-aviation history. (Image credit: Public domain)

Disinformation, fake news

Still, Eghigian emphasizes that we are living in an age where disinformation and fake news is basically a part of our steady diet of information being distributed. He is concerned about this state of affairs, one that has people very selective about the experts they want to listen to … and the ones they want to summarily dismiss.

"There has not been in UFOology what I call a hierarchy of knowledge and information. That's something that those of us in the academic world recognize," Eghigian said.

The fact that NASA has undertaken its own UAP study is important and unusual, Eghigian said. "It's pretty eye-opening. It is always a good thing when you have civilian scientists being asked to chime in, who are not beholden to the military and to be secretive about things. One could expect, hopefully, for far more transparency and more openness about results."

National security issues

The mysterious element of what's behind UFOs and UAPs is very porous, open to different influences by those engaged in appraising the phenomenon, Eghigian feels. That's why UFOs have easily been folded into New Age philosophy, from technological utopia arguments, interdimensional beings, demons and the work of Satan to even a little psychic spoon bending along the way, he said.

There's another source that's part of the UFO picture — no matter how out-of-focus that photo might be.

Eghigian senses that the new kind of geopolitical, international anxieties that surround spying is helping to nourish UFO interest. "We live in this age of where data is stolen, government secrets have been stolen, Russia and China are spying, with drones and drone technologies used for these purposes, along with nefarious actions in Russia and in China that are undermining elections, not just in the U.S. but elsewhere." 

This 'Big Gulp' of concerns, Eghigian stated, has helped prompt certain politicians to take UFOs seriously. "I don't think they were sold by people just saying these might be aliens. This was about national security issues. And that's the stuff they hang their hats on."

In the long historical sweep of UFOs and now UAPs, "it's a new chapter for sure. New life has been breathed into this phenomenon. So here we are again," Eghigian concluded. 

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as Space.com's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He was received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.

  • Unclear Engineer
    I think the government has reached a point where it wants sightings to be reported for national security reasons, due to the advent of drones and other potential technological spying apparatus. The situation for the last few decades has been so skeptical of reports that the Russians could probably paint some midgets green and land them in the U.S. and anybody with an important position who saw them could be too afraid to report it, for fear of being fired and confined to a mental treatment facility. And of course those who are not so well reputed would be dismissed for whatever they report.

    Meanwhile, responsible people like military and commercial pilots have been reporting both visual and instrument detections that have unexplained anomalies that might be caused by unfriendly powers using devices that our government is unaware of.

    Thinking back on past technological developments, things like the SR-71 would seem to be too high and too fast until there was some information leaked that made it credible. Now, we seem to be on the cusp of hypersonic airplanes and already have hypersonic missiles. And, there is stealth technology that probably makes things visible to the naked eye invisible to instrumentation. And then there is all sorts of technological spoofing to confuse targeting systems, that intentionally makes anomalous detections in sensing systems. And there are unmanned vehicles that can pull extremely high G maneuvers compared to what human pilots can withstand - it just takes more robust frame design and maybe artificial intelligence for autonomous mission execution.

    So, clearly, there is good reason to want to know what these reports are really about. But, because the sensing systems that are used have classified capabilities, this is not something that can be fully discussed in the open literature.

    So, from the public's point of view, I suspect the UAP term is going to just join the terms "Flying saucer" and "UFO" in the lexicon of media tabloids and Hollywood screenwriters without much change in tone.

    But, I hope our government learns a lot in the process, even if they can't tell us about it.
    Reply
  • Peter Debye
    Leonard > Thank You USAF/CIA for lying about UFOs / UAPs. Why? ‘It’s The National Security, Stupid.’ ET is interesting Q, study away, but The Physics is big weapons business. Last breakthrough = ‘atom bomb’ … next … easier micro WMD? ‘Disclosure’ still good? Has ‘next gen’ Manhattan Project ever ended? In the 1990s, the most valuable intellectual property in human history, came free, with a turkey sandwich lunch, Travelers Food and Books, Union, CT. In the basement, literally stuck between the covers of two old 1970s Playboys, an old Kurt Gödel diary, written in Gabelsberger script, detailing secret work with Albert Einstein on quantum gravity (13th notebook / copy?). USAF/CIA worst nightmare, Physics in the clear. Now destroyed, per old scientists dictate, all sleep well. Question for the world is how to disclose physics as unified global community or destroy one another. Not job for USAF/CIA. Can the ‘Scientific Community’ lead as a Global community? Or only subscriber war with one another in typically tribal fashion? As Einstein entreated, “For All or Nothing.”
    Reply
  • NiMo
    This is pretty bad and dismissive. I mean, as a fellow Historian who graduated from UC Santa Cruz, this pander's to pro-government censorship and complacency with unregulated space agencies. Let's cut to brass tacks; the real concern here isn't that some far away alien civilization is being hidden from us- if they wanted to talk to us, they'd have done it already.

    The problem here is MJ-12, aka Operation Majestic - 12, a clandestine group intended on reverse engineering that had no oversight nor did it have to report to Congress or the executive branch. The government and its agencies continue to pretend this group is not real or that more specifically, there are no agencies with space programs that operate outside of the US governments jurisdiction, but then when congress asked if investigators looked into these things, the investigators responded by saying they'd have to be told to do so "from a higher power"- members of Congress literally were told they don't have the power to tell these investigators what to investigate, and the question of whether the President holds such "power" was not appropriately answered. Notice, when questions about UAP that would go in and out of the ocean were brought up, all of that conversation was censored and stated that it would only be touched upon in private session. They continue to censor the truth and expected the public to be complacent with such a poorly done investigation, thus, they failed the American public.

    The reason these excuses are no longer acceptable to the American public is entirely due to the government and its agencies notoriously being untrustworthy and purposely malicious - case in point; MK ULTRA. We American's cannot forget this, or otherwise, our government WILL repeat its mistakes and subject its citizens to harm again. We cannot forgive our government for such misdeeds, and if our government isn't happy with that response or being labeled as such, then they can do better and be more open with its citizens. That is a fact. So thus we must be skeptical of government agencies and corporate media's dismissive misinformation, and we must continue to scrutinize the lack of transparency of our government and its agencies, regardless of slanders of "conspiracy theories" from those that aren't even bothered to document these things in the first place.
    Reply
  • Wes I
    The UFO sightings are still insignificant "disinformation, fake news" that has no significant government and life-changing, society consequences. They still are in the realm of tabloid entertainment, until there is a confirmed contact or an alien abduction. Then the UFO conspiracy theories might become sci-fi come true, and an issue of: First Contact, To Serve Man, Independence Day, V, etc.
    Reply
  • Hendy44
    First and foremost: Why is the quote in the title different from the quote in the last line of the article? A simple mistake or a more "click" worthy title by making the quote seem more sardonic? Secondly, the history is not lost on most people that have been interested by the topic for some time. The history is lost on newly interested parties that are allowing the govt to tell them that this has only been a recent issue.
    Unfortunately, I do have to agree that so many people will not be satisfied until THEIR truth is confirmed. Humans have an INSATIABLE desire for a binary answer when you break it down. Are UAP a craft? Yes/No....Are they Earthly? Yes/No....Are they from our Universe? Yes/No....Does the govt have crashed craft? Yes/No.....If people do notnhave a concrete binary answer, they will manifest their own truth and they will FIERCLY defend their own truth. To them, it is a truth.....they did research....they found like minded people to support their claims....they interpret the information towards their truth.....it is comforting for them to realize a binary answer.
    A PERFECT example of this is Missing 411. David Paulides has written a number of books on the topic. He is by a far margin the expert on the topic and his answer *shoulder shrug* "I dunno?"....he legitimately does not even want to speculate on the matter and I respect him a great deal to be brave enough to say "I....dont....know". So, you have the leading expert not knowing what is happening, yet, I PROMISE you if you go to a comments section in his videos or on his twitter, the vast majority of comments are people saying: "pppffftttt, it is so simple....it is *insert whatever pragmatic answer you want here*". If you speak to these people, they have not read the books, they have not watch documentary pieces on it, they take a small amount of info, for a binary answer in their head, commit to it, defend it and/or move on.
    IT IS OK TO NOT KNOW SOMETHING! Just gather more data until a more clear view comes into focus....it may take time....but be comfortable not knowing along the journey.
    Reply
  • NiMo
    Hendy44 said:
    First and foremost: Why is the quote in the title different from the quote in the last line of the article? A simple mistake or a more "click" worthy title by making the quote seem more sardonic? Secondly, the history is not lost on most people that have been interested by the topic for some time. The history is lost on newly interested parties that are allowing the govt to tell them that this has only been a recent issue.
    Unfortunately, I do have to agree that so many people will not be satisfied until THEIR truth is confirmed. Humans have an INSATIABLE desire for a binary answer when you break it down. Are UAP a craft? Yes/No....Are they Earthly? Yes/No....Are they from our Universe? Yes/No....Does the govt have crashed craft? Yes/No.....If people do notnhave a concrete binary answer, they will manifest their own truth and they will FIERCLY defend their own truth. To them, it is a truth.....they did research....they found like minded people to support their claims....they interpret the information towards their truth.....it is comforting for them to realize a binary answer.
    A PERFECT example of this is Missing 411. David Paulides has written a number of books on the topic. He is by a far margin the expert on the topic and his answer *shoulder shrug* "I dunno?"....he legitimately does not even want to speculate on the matter and I respect him a great deal to be brave enough to say "I....dont....know". So, you have the leading expert not knowing what is happening, yet, I PROMISE you if you go to a comments section in his videos or on his twitter, the vast majority of comments are people saying: "pppffftttt, it is so simple....it is *insert whatever pragmatic answer you want here*". If you speak to these people, they have not read the books, they have not watch documentary pieces on it, they take a small amount of info, for a binary answer in their head, commit to it, defend it and/or move on.
    IT IS OK TO NOT KNOW SOMETHING! Just gather more data until a more clear view comes into focus....it may take time....but be comfortable not knowing along the journey.
    This pretty much nails it. The bigger problem isn't so much "are they real" as it is "what tangible evidence exists, and why is it being kept secret after such a long period of time".
    Now, on the outside, most of this just looks like tinfoil hat wearing conspiracies about aliens being real - but if you trace it to its roots, this isn't per say about aliens; it is about the reality that unbeknownst to everyone, including congress, there may exists groups or organizations within our own government, operating on Agency Contingency Plans such that people can't know they exist, cause then they may find out things about what they've been doing, or specifically, building, they may be concerned what they're using it for(ie; sheltering systems built in secret in case of nuclear attacks to house essential members, extensive spy satellites compromising civilians devices, drones and other autonomous devices with air/sea capabilities that could preemptively attack a country leaving little trace, satellites that can attack and disable other nations satellites, etc). Most of these already exist, and have inadvertently become so obvious to the public that they forget that those things are run in a way that if our government doesn't collapse, the Contingency Government is still woven into the framework of our government such that it still has access and ability to hide what it's truly doing from the public.
    Many agencies followed this skeleton frame work of government, such as the CIA and the NSA, well into the 70's until the Church Committee blew the lid on just a fraction of the things these agencies were doing without congressional oversight. If you paid close attention during the UAP congressional hearing, you realize that the topic of MJ-12 is brought up. As my comment above mentions with regards to MKULTRA, while it seems utterly ludicrous that Congress has to ask whether an agency or group within the government exists doing things without any oversight under the classification of national secrets, this isn't without precedent that the truth may be far more complex than what was previously known, and even more questionable, all answers were shuttered to backroom closed sessions.
    The public has a right to know.
    Reply
  • ErrolEss
    Wes I said:
    The UFO sightings are still insignificant "disinformation, fake news" that has no significant government and life-changing, society consequences. They still are in the realm of tabloid entertainment, until there is a confirmed contact or an alien abduction. Then the UFO conspiracy theories might become sci-fi come true, and an issue of: First Contact, To Serve Man, Independence Day, V, etc.

    While we don't know the nature or origin of UAP, there are a number of statements (compiled in the UAP Guide) from senior government officials around the world that imply they don't believe UAP have a conventional explanation, so it's ironic to say that someone who believes them is a conspiracy theorist. If you believe world governments and military are lying to mislead or cover up, by definition, you're the conspiracy theorist.

    https://www.uap.guide/
    Reply