What Do the UFO Videos Really Show?

What Do the UFO Videos Really Show?
Gif: Elena Scotti (Photos: Getty Images, United States Navy)

It must be a thrilling time, for what remains of the ‘60s counterculture: first tie-dye went mainstream, then psychedelics, and now the belief in UFOs. The videos lately leaked by the government purporting to show mysterious and possibly alien-linked aerial phenomena has incited maybe the most serious reckoning with the possibility of alien life in America’s history, with more or less respectful news articles and TV segments and, now, a Congressional hearing. But is what we’re seeing now really substantially different from what we’ve seen in the past?

What exactly is going on in all those videos?

For this week’s Giz Asks, we reached out to a number of experts — as much as anyone can be an expert in things that are unidentified — to find out.

Avi Loeb

Professor of Astronomy at Harvard University and the author of Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth

This new report is different from past discussions on Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) or Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) in that it involved documented evidence collected by military personnel based on detection by multiple instruments (radar, infrared cameras, optical cameras), indicating the possible existence of objects which behave in ways that cannot be explained by the technologies we possess. Past top-level government officials who had access to this data (including former President Obama, former Intelligence Director John Ratcliffe, former CIA Director James Woolsey and former Senator Harry Reid) made statements recently that they believe these are real objects but they do not understand their nature. It is possible, and likely, that most of the past reports on UFOs from the general public can be explained by human-made or natural phenomena, or as illusions, but we need to pay special attention to the small number of reports where the evidence is strong and undisputable. The key is to collect more evidence with our best recording devices.

It would be prudent to progress forward with our finest instruments, rather than examine past reports. Instead of declassifying documents that reflect decades-old technologies used by witnesses with no scientific expertise, it would be far better to deploy state-of-the-art recording devices, such as cameras installed on wide-field telescopes or audio sensors, at the sites where the reports came from, and search for unusual signals.

Mick West

Science writer, sceptical investigator, and the author of Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect

They show a variety of different things. Consistent only in their variety, the videos that have leaked out of the US Navy herald little more than disappointment for the UFO enthusiasts who hope that alien technology is just around the corner.

The most dramatic video, code name “Gimbal,” seems to show an actual flying saucer skimming over the clouds. It comes to a stop and rotates 90 degrees in an aerodynamically impossible manner. Surely this is the evidence we’ve been looking for? Sadly, no — close examination reveals the shape on the screen is rotating when other faint shapes rotate, showing it’s an optical artefact, not actually saucer-shaped, just the shape of a thermal glare, probably from the engines of a distant, human, jet. The rotation? An artefact of the gimbal-mounted camera — hence the code name.

The other videos likewise disappoint. “Go Fast,” when put under the magnifying glass of a little high-school maths, turns out to not be going fast at all. More like balloon speed. The Tic-Tac, supposedly pulling impossible g-forces, is instead plodding along with the movement again reflecting only motion of the camera. Then there’s the “Green Pyramid” — lauded as the greatest UFO footage of all time for a few days, until it was pointed out that it looked exactly like an out-of-focus 737 which also happened to be flying overhead at that same time.

There are unknowns in the sky. Some of them represent real issues — foreign threats, or challenges of identification, or recalcitrant radar. But, exciting though the prospect might be, very little points to possible advanced technology, and none of them point to aliens.

Jack Singal

Associate Professor, Physics, University of Richmond

I think in terms of three levels of consideration for videos like those that recently came out related to the Pentagon report on unexplained aerial phenomena.

At the first level, one needs to assume that any video, on any topic, that is shared over social media, or on a show that monetizes clicks or ratings, has been deceptively edited in some way. In the case of purported UFO sightings, a video you are seeing may have been sped up, slowed down, or spliced together to make objects appear to move in strange ways, or cropped to remove objects that could provide a sense of [scale], for example.

At the second level, if we are still intrigued after considering that we may be misled by deceptive video edits, we should consider mundane explanations for what we are seeing. These videos are usually amateur and often low resolution, and lack good context such as readily identifiable objects for scale such as buildings or trees, and other moving objects to gauge speeds. Are we sure we aren’t just seeing objects like kites, frisbees, or spotlights? What about drones?

Finally, even if we think that a mundane explanation is not enough, we have to remind ourselves that the atmosphere is a strange and amazing place. For example, it makes tornadoes so powerful that they can pick up and throw a car, and hailstones as big as softballs. We’ve seen clouds and colours so crazy that nobody could have painted them. Given that, should we really rule out that atmospheric processes could make some apparently strangely shaped clouds or reflections that move strangely for a few minutes? Just because something in the sky is strange doesn’t mean it is from another planet.

These recent videos are coming at a time when our scientific understanding of the possibilities for life elsewhere in the Universe has exploded due to the discovery of many habitable exoplanets around other stars. However it is a big leap from considering that life may be out there trillions of miles away to concluding that they are visiting us secretly, based on grainy amateur videos.

Brian Dunning

Executive Director of Skeptoid Media

The past few years of credulous, uncritical reporting of UFO videos by the popular media have been frustrating for many science writers. While the media only wants to interview people who have been career believers in alien visitation and who will promote the “mystery” perspective, the science experts have been largely left out, leaving the claim that these videos show something extraordinary to go largely unchallenged.

In fact, there’s a very good reason why these UFO videos have only been reported in the mass media, and hardly mentioned at all in the science, aviation, or military press: there’s simply nothing very interesting in the videos. All of them show mundane targets consistent with conventional air traffic (in some cases proven to be specific commercial flights) or objects such as mylar party balloons or parachute flares, albeit distorted by well-known and well-understood camera and lens effects.

We’re frustrated because nobody wants to report the truthful, sober version of this, only the sensational view that there’s some alien mystery afoot. It’s bad journalism, and it’s harmful to the public intellect.

A big part of the problem communicating this to the public is the popular belief that Navy pilots can’t be mistaken, that they’re somehow immune to the types of perceptual errors that are endemic to our human neurology. What we’re seeing are simple optical illusions, aided in most of the videos by artifacts caused by the lenses. We’ve all seen optical illusions and we all know how easily our brains can be fooled by them. Yet, when the same thing happens to a pilot, many people believe — with no clear reason — that these human limitations have somehow been “trained” out of them. We know for a fact this is not the case. In at least one of the videos, called GOFAST, the numbers on the ATFLIR screen prove, with no room for doubt, that what’s being displayed is very different from what the pilot interpreted, and what the mass media has amplified.

Bottom line is that if the Earth is indeed being invaded by aliens, we don’t yet have the evidence of it. It’s certainly not in these decade-and-a-half old videos. Remember, even the Navy itself said “the authorised release of these unclassified videos does not reveal any sensitive capabilities.”

Adam Frank

Professor of Physics and Astronomy at University of Rochester

We don’t have the data we’d need to begin a real scientific analysis. The videos are certainly interesting and deserve more study. But there is nothing about them that would lead a scientist to jump to the extraordinary conclusion that the videos tell us something about life elsewhere in the Universe. My colleagues and I are deeply involved in the search for life (simple and otherwise) on planets orbiting distant stars (i.e. exoplanets). The whole field is undergoing a revolution now because we have discovered so many of these exoplanets and we’re working on developing the capacities to detect biospheres and “technospheres” on them. But if and when we claim that we’ve found evidence for such life using telescopic data, you can bet we’d get hammered by the rest of the scientific community. They would want to check for every possible source of error and try to exhaust every possible alternative, simpler explanation before they accepted that we’d answered humanity’s oldest question (i.e. are we alone). This is how science works and it’s the reason why we have working cell phones in our pockets rather than inert bricks. So, as of now, those videos show something that is unidentified. That’s it. If we want to know more we’ll have to do some science!

Christopher Conselice

Professor, Physics and Astronomy, University of Nottingham

These new videos and sightings show that there are observations that have no obvious explanation. However, that does not mean that these events are from aliens or visitors from other planets. They almost certainly have a natural explanation and are likely due to optical effects, atmospheric effects, or perhaps some physical effects we do not fully understand quite yet. The latter however is simply due to the fact that these observed phenomena are seen through complex systems and perhaps unique circumstances leading to interesting features that are rarely seen.

Diana Walsh Pasulka

Professor, Religious Studies, University of North Carolina, Wilmington, whose research is concerned with the links between technology environments and spiritual and religious belief. Author of American Cosmic: UFOs, Technology, and Religion

To scholars of religious studies, reports of unidentified luminous objects that fly around in the sky is nothing new. Historical records reveal copious testimonial accounts of flying objects, some of which appear to carry humanlike beings, and others which are described as flying ships or houses. However, there are significant differences between historical accounts, some over one thousand years old, and current testimonies from pilots and people whose job is to fly planes and drones and observe the sky. Pilots and naval crew have radar, video, and proximity to unidentified aerial phenomenon (UAPs). They have captured mysterious objects with recording devices that were not invented when people from previous eras wrote about their testimonies. Basically, the difference is that our senses, that of seeing and hearing, have been extended by our technology, and that gives us more and better data. Yet, what does this really show or reveal about these events?

Initial reports from a recent Pentagon sponsored study of UAPs is that military authorities do not know what they are; they are technically “mysterious.” This conclusion, which is an apparently honest one, is much different from most of the conclusions made by people from foregone eras about aerial phenomenon. In the past, these events were subsumed, for the most part, within a religious narrative. In the Catholic tradition, they were sometimes called souls from purgatory, or angels. The point is not what they were called, but that people felt the need to name them. Naming them made them less mysterious and provided people with a handy way to shut down further examination of these events.

What is new — or at least modern, as the government has concluded that UAPs are mysterious at least twice before (see Project Bluebook and the Robertson Panel) — is that the report refrains from making conclusions about these events — that is, to call them extraterrestrial. To conclude that we do not know what these objects are is a step in the direction of making some progress toward a fledgling, yet honest study of what they could be. That’s the good news. Other news is that the U.S. government has admitted to engaging in controlling the education of the public about this phenomenon since at least the 1950s. This should at least inspire some level of credulity with respect to any media, fiction or nonfiction, regarding these events.

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