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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.