UFO – An apraisal of the problem

Joachim P. KuettnerKuettner, Joachim P.: Astronautics and Aeronautics (journal de l'AIAA), November 1970


At the suggestion of the AIAA management, the Technical Committee on Atmospheric Environment and the Technical Committee on Space and Atmospheric Physics jointly formed a UFO Subcommittee in 1967.

The Subcommittee was asked to arrive at an unbiased assessment of the present situation and to serve as a focal point in the AIAA for questions regarding the UFO problem. In appointing the Subcommittee, special care was taken to insure that none of its members was committed one way or another on this issue.

In its attempt to get to the heart of the matter, the Subcommittee naturally found the UFO problem complicated and often buried in what appeared to be a maze of preconceptions, emotions, bias, hasty conclusions, and excessive and misleading publicity.

The Subcommittee soon recognized that it is much too early to expect a meaningful interpretation of UFO phenomena. Rather than enter the arena of speculation, it directed its efforts toward finding out whether or not a scientific problem exists at all the accompanying report describes the approach the Subcommittee took and the results it obtained.

Joachim P. Kuettner

The article

To gain a fresh and objective perspective on the UFO problem, the UFO Suhcommittee of the AIAA, from its inception in 1967, decided to place specific, well-defined questions to UFO experts of high scientific qualifications but strongly divergent views. Surprisingly, the factual answers the Subcommittee obtained in a series of interesting interviews were strikingly similar. Differences occurred in certain quantitative estimates and in the degree of emphasis, but not in principle.

It was at the next step where the views began to diverge: subjective judgment as to the scientific significance of the problem and the need to pursue and explore it. Obviously, such opinion depends on the criteria applied by the individual, and much of the discord appears to be due to a lack of analysis of these criteria. It is at this stage where guesses and speculations creep into the discussion and lead to controversy.

In the opinion of the UFO Subcommittee, such speculations are entirely premature and no position is ahsolutely derensible to this point in time. This applies specifically to statements that the extraterrestrial hypothesis ("ETH") is the least probable or the least unprobable explanation (National Academy of Sciences, Review of the "Condon Report"; James E. McDonald's statements). There is no scientific basis for assessing such probabilities at this time.

The Subcommittee was greatly perturbed by the paucity of thorough scientific and technological analysis applied to practically all observations before the Condon study. The few, often courageous, efforts by individuals to come to grips with this problem should be viewed more from an aspect of focusing attention on the problem rather than of solving it, since there is little doubt that it takes more than a personal effort to investigate fully a problem of such complexity.

In the opinion of the committee, the Colorado University study, "Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects," (the "Condon Report," Bantam Books, New York, 1969) at this time represents the most scientifically oriented investigation published on the UFO problem. Attacks directed against the study seem to overlook the almost insurmountable difficulties which a short-time, one-shot project of this type faces: building up the multidisciplinary, unbiased talent, accumulating practical experience, collecting hard information, sorting out the signal from the noise, applying the best analytical methods, and writing and editing a report in less than two years.

To understand the rapport Condon, which is difficult to read, due in part to its organization, one must study the bulk of the report. It is not enough to read summaries, such as those by Sullivan and by Condon, or summaries of summaries, on which the vast majority of readers and news media seem to rely. There are differences in the opinions and conclusions drawn by the authors of the various chapters, and there are differences between these and Condon's summary. Not all conclusions contained in the report itself are fully reflected in Condon's summary. For example the optical/radar chapter contains the following statement on the Lakenheath caseLakenheath (1956):

The apparently rational, intelligent behavior of the UFO suggests a mechanical device of unknown origin as the most probable explanation of this sighting. However, in view of the inevitable fallibility of witnesses, more conventional explanations of this report cannot be entirely ruled out.

On Colorado Springs case (1967):

In view of the meteorological situation, it would seem that AP (anomalous propagation) was rather unlikely. Besides, what is the probability that an AP return would appear only once and at that time appear to execute a perfect practice ILS approach.

Condon's own conclusions have been widely misquoted. He says:

...Scientists are no respecters of authority. Our conclusion that study of UFO reports is not likely to advance science will not be uncritically accepted by them. Nor should it be, nor do we wish it to be. For scientists, it is our hope that the detailed analytical presentation of what we were able to do, and of what we were unable to do, will assist them in deciding whether or not they agree with our conclusions. Our hope is that the details of this report will help other scientists in seeing what the problems are and the difficulties of coping with them.

If they agree with our conclusions, they will turn their valuable attention and talents elsewhere. If they disagree, it will be because our report has helped them reach a clear picture of wherein existing studies are faulty or incomplete and thereby will have stimulated ideas for more accurate studies. If they do get such ideas and can formulate them clearly, we have no doubt that support will be forthcoming to carry on with such clearly defined, specific studies. We think that such ideas for work should be supported.

...Therefore we think that all of the agencies of the federal government, and the private foundations as well, ought to be willing to consider UFO research proposals along with the others submitted to them on an open-minded, unprejudiced basis. While we do not think at present that anything worthwhile is likely to come of such research each individual case ought to be carefully considered on its own merits.

Condon's chapter, "Summary of the Study," contains more than its title indicates; it discloses many of his personal conclusions. Making value judgements was no doubt one reason why Condon was asked to handle the project. One is happy to obtain the judgement of so experienced and respected a man; but one need not agree with it. The UFO Subcommittee did not find a basis in the report for his prediction that nothing of scientific value will come of further studies.

In reviewing the material accumulated to date, the Subcommittee found an exceedingly low signal-to-noise ratio, as illustrated by the statistics of the Air Force's Project "Bluebook" quoted in the University of Colorado study, which showed 3.3% unidentifed observations (253 out of 7741 available at that time (*)). This figure is frequently disputed, but its order of magnitude (5%) appears to be correct, taking all available reports into account. The fact that the Condon study itself arrives at a much higher percentage of unexplained cases - namely, at about 30% (35 out of 117) - is primarily due to the preselection of specific cases for investigation. The precise figure is hard to assess, for the Condon report does not lend itself easily lo this type of analysis, the same cases being treated often in different sections and under different identifications. ((*) The final figures, according to our information, appear to be 701 out of 12,618 or 5.5%.)

It has been variously estimated that the reported cases, approximately 20,000, represent only 5 to 15% of the total observations, since most observers either do not go to the trouble of an official report or fear ridicule. In turn, various polls suggest that 3 to 5% of the U.S. population claim to have seen UFOs. It follows, then, that the available reports which can be classified as "unidentified" represent a very small percentage of all UFO sightings on the one hand, but not a negligible number of observations on the other.

It is interesting that, contrary to public opinion, the estimated percentage of "hoaxes" is likewise small (less than 5%) and that the great majority of UFO sightings can be explained by known phenomena (about 75%) while 15 to 20% contain insufficient data. In other words, what may appear to the untrained observer as strange and unexplainable is in most cases known and explainable.

Taking all evidence which has come to the Subcommittee's attention into account, we find it difficult to ignore the small residue of well-documenred but unexplainable cases which form the hard core of the UFO controverse. They represent only a small fraction of the "unidentified" cases and are characterized by both a high degree of credibility and a high abnormality ("strangeness" in Hynek's terminology). Although none of them offers to our knowledge quantitative recordings by calibrated instruments for permanent inspection, they are often called "hard cases."

The Subcommittee has tried to explore the nature of this hard-core residue and found estimates to vary between 10 and several hundred cases, depending in part on a subjective judgment as to the criteria for a "hard case." High credibility is generally accepted for observations by multiple independent witnesses of known and reliable background or by multiple independent sensing systems (reported by multiple independent operators) or both; high abnormality or strangeness, when no known natural phenomena whatsoever seem to fit the observations. It is clear. then, that the hardcore residue represents less than 1% of the total available reports.

Those used to working under controlled laboratory conditions find it difficult to consider seriously any observation which is not available in recorded form for quantitative inspection. As a matter of fact, they make this a criterion for a "hard case." On the other hand, there are those, including some members of this Subcommittee, familiar with the intricacies of research in the complex and uncontrolled laboratory of the atmosphere, who find this less of a deterrent. They discover parallels between the UFO problem and certain atmospheric phenomena which fall in the class of rare events. A rare event always involves at first a question of the reality of a qualitative observation. Later, scientific investigation, usually combining statistics and physics, resolves this question one way or the other.

Although the University of Colorado report deals only with a very small fraction of the existing observational material (less than 1%), it offers itself enough substance of the described sort, especially if additional information extracted by McDonald is added to some of the cases. In fact, the Subcommittee finds that the opposite conclusion could have been drawn from its content, namely, that a phenomenon with such a high ratio of unexplained cases (about 30%) should arouse sufficient scientific curiosity to continue its study.

The issue seems to boil down to the question: Are we justifed to extrapolate from 0.99 to 1.00, implying that if 99% of all observations can be explained, the remaining 1% could also be explained: or do we face a severe problem of signal-to-noise ratio (order of magnitude 0.01) ?

In the opinion of the Subcommittee, this question must be asked critically and objectively in each individual case. In cases which do not fit the extrapolation alternative, the further question should be explored: Do they evidence common attributes ? It appears to the Subcommittee that the University of Colorado group has made no serious attempt in this direction.

If it is already difficult to reach a consensus on what constitutes a hard case, it appears even more difficult to find agreement on the advisability and importance of continued research. As mentioned earlier, it is at this point where the controversy often becomes heated because criteria for such assessment are not well-defined.

Earlier, Condon's statement was quoted that clearly defined, specific studies... should be considered and supported. In this connection he calls attention to important areas of atmospheric optics, including radiowave propagation, and of atmospheric electricity in which present knowledge is quite incomplete. These topics came to our attention in connection with the interpretation of some UFO reports, but they are also of fundamental scientific interest, and they are relevant to practical problems related to the improvement of safety of military and civilian flying.

The Subcommittee finds this statement of the Condon report a better criterion for support of UFO-related studies than the claim by some ETH exponents that UFO research deserves maximum support as long as there is a ghost of a chance that UFOs are extraterrestrial vehicles, or the opposite claim that proof for the ETH must be provided before serious consideration of the UFO problem is justified. Both opinions strike the Subcommittee as unwarranted.

We have already expressed our disenchantment with arguments about the probability of the extraterrestrial origin of UFOs, since there is not sufficient scientific basis at this time to take a position one way or another. However, in view of the infancy of our scientific and technological knowledge (approximately one century), the Subcommittee would agree with this statement by Condon: We must not assume that we are capable of imagining now the scope and extent of future technological development of our own or any other civilization, and so we must guard arainst assuming that we have any capacity to imagine what a more advanced society would regard as intelligent conduct. On the other hand, we find no convincing basis for his statement. It is safe to assume that no ILE (intelligent life elsewhere) from outside of our solar system has any possibility of visiting Earth in the next 10,000 years. (When does one start counting ?)

The question arises whether there is a need at all to speculate on a specific hypothesis, such as ETH, in order to decide on the significance of a scientific problem, or whether any known phenomenon in nature is worth investigating. We think it is, but we recognize at the same time that the UFO problem may require expensive tools of technology. Therefore, the question of cost, priority and relative importance of this problem within the total spectrum of research cannot be overlooked.

The UFO Subcommittee feels that the ETH, tantalizing though it may be, should not be dragged into this consideration as it introduces an unassessable element of speculation: but the Subcommittee also strongly feels that, from a scientific and engineering standpoint, it is unacceptable to simply ignore substantial numbers of unexplained observations and to close the book about them on the basis of premature conclusions.

There is an interesting parallel between the history of the UFO problem and the history of weather modification ("rainmaking"). After almost 20 years of taboo by the scientific community, weather modification has now achieved scientific recognition due to the fact that some courageous, high-caliber scientists entered the arena. This has resulted in a revision of the viewpoint of the National Academy of Science.

The immediate question is how to attack the UFO problem without the pitfalls of past attempts. There is little doubt that the short-time, one-shot approach of an ad hoc team is neither promising nor economical. This is especially true if the study team decides - as the University of Colorado group did - to concentrate on current rather than past observations. As the UFO statistics show, this results in the devotion of precious time to investigating the noise, rather than the signal. It was mentioned earlier that the Colorado University study faced formidable odds because of the short duration of its contract. If the recommendation of the O'Brien committee to negotiate multiple contracts for continuing investigations had been followed, this dificulty would perhaps have been avoided. There is also little hope to expect a solution of the extremely complex problem by the efforts of a single individual.

The Subcommittee sees the only promising approach as a continuing, moderate-level effort with emphasis on improved data collection by objective means and on high-quality scientific analysis. This would eliminate the difficult problem of witness credibility. An economic and technically sound approach involving available remote-sensing capabilities and certain software changes will require some thinking on the side of the aerospace engineering community. Proposals along this line are already in the hands of the Subcommittee. The financial support should be kept at a moderately low level (It is estimated that a small fraction of the costs of the University of Colorado study would be required initially) until reevaluation of the situation allows another assessment. Without such an effort the controversy can be expected to suffer further polarization and confusion.

The Subcommittee feels that a strictly scientific-technological view of the UFO problem leads to this conclusion and that, for a technical committee, there is no need to stress the public and social aspects of the UFO controversy, which may have subsided only temporarily and will continue to clamor for a more conclusive and convincing answer. The Subcommittee is aware of several books on UFOs to be published in the near future. What is needed now is a moratorium in the UFO discussion - with an objective wait-and-see attitude on the part of the scientific and engineering community, the government, and the public.

The approach recommended by the committee requires not only the attention of the scientist and engineer, but also a readiness of government agencies to consider sound proposals in this field without bias or fear of ridicule and repercussion - or, as Condon expresses it, on an openminded, unprejudiced basis. This perhaps is our most important conclusion.

Finally, the Subcommittee believes the decision by the Air Force to divorce itself from the UFO problem should be completed by allowing the files to be archived by a civilian agency, either government or university, after proper safeguards for the protection of witnesses and their names as well as full declassification procedures.

This Subcommittee intends to publish additional information on the UFO problem in the AIAA journals to give the members of AIAA an opportunity to form their own opinion. This information will include typical examples of the so-called "hard-core residue" and some potential engineering approaches to a solution of the controversy.