just asking questions

How the Pentagon Can Improve the Way It Studies UFOs

The Very Large Array observatory in New Mexico, which scientists are using to seek extraterrestrial life in the universe with the help of radio waves. Photo: Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images

After a long wait and lots of wild speculation, the Pentagon finally released its report on everything the government knows about unidentified flying objects last Friday. Unsurprisingly, the contents were a bit underwhelming. Of the 144 UFO sightings analyzed — most from the past two years, after the Navy and Air Force revamped their unidentified aerial phenomena reporting process — security officials could only provide answers on one sighting. The object in question was a big, deflating balloon. “The others remain unexplained,” the report states.

It’s an apt metaphor for those who hoped the report might offer hints about extraterrestrial life, or at least details on some spiffy new technology from Russia or China. But this isn’t the government’s final word on the subject: The report also states that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Defense will update Congress within 90 days on how they intend to improve their UFO reporting strategy and implement new technology to better understand the strange objects in the sky.

Dr. Avi Loeb, Harvard astrophysicist and the founder of the Black Hole Initiative, hopes this moment can serve as a reset for our approach to UFOs, allowing the U.S. to start putting science ahead of politics. Earlier this year, Loeb chatted with Intelligencer about his hypothesis that ‘Oumuamua — the first known interstellar object detected near Earth — could be an extraterrestrial spacecraft. With the release of the Pentagon report, Loeb has been advocating for the government to take a more scientific approach to its own study of UFOs. In an interview this week, Loeb laid out some recommendations for the government’s next steps, whether the objects turn out to be terrestrial threats or, as he put it, evidence that there are “smarter kids on the block.”

The Pentagon’s report was short on answers. Do you think that’s just the nature of the subject or the result of the Navy and Air Force only starting to apply a scientific approach to UFOs in the past two years or so?
You know, if you go to a shoemaker, you don’t expect the shoemaker to bake cakes that would be very tasty, right? This is a military organization that came up with the report, which was then digested by the political system of Washington. These are not scientists, they were not trained as scientists. The shoemaker is not trained to be a baker. You cannot expect people who were on the Senate Intelligence Committee to make assessments that are scientific. It’s just not their profession. And there’s also been a reluctance within the scientific community to deal with the data, which is not a healthy situation. I say let’s change that and fund a research program that aims to clarify the nature of these objects. Any answers you can think of would be of great interest to society.

Also, if you look at the history of science, many times the anomalies, things that do not quite match up with what we expect, are the avenues by which we discover new things and make new realizations. The best example is the discovery of quantum mechanics a century ago.

The government said it will update Congress within 90 days on plans for improving its data-collection efforts on UFOs. What do you think that might entail?
We need better data collected by scientific instruments. The cameras on airplanes were not designed for this purpose. They were put on an airplane expected to participate in combat situations. They were not designed to be optimal for identifying UFOs. They should select cameras and other instruments that are ideal for this purpose and have nothing to do with a battlefield — but for scientific purposes much better-suited.

You can also connect them to wide-field telescopes that give you a much broader and different view of what you’re looking at. And then, the data would be fed not into human eyes, as in the case of the pilot looking at the screen. It would be fed directly into a computer system that goes through the data in an automated way so you’re not sensitive to human judgment. Then you look at the sky for a long time and try to figure out if there’s anything unusual. That’s my plan, that’s my hope.

As a scientist, what do you think of skeptics like science writer Mick West, whose general argument is that the images we see in the military UAP videos could easily be the result of mis-calibrated instruments or camera distortions?
He can argue that forever, I don’t care. I get funded to do the experiments where I get better data. He’s welcome to analyze this with me. If he wanted to deal with data that is credible, that is open, and that is scientific in nature, he would be welcome … Having him shout, No, it’s nothing interesting doesn’t benefit anyone because he doesn’t have access to all the data; much of it is classified. What would promote the discussion is better information.

Do you see any potential pitfalls in the government’s strategy for getting to the bottom of these incidents?
Well, people may ask, “What is the cost?” If it costs tens of millions of dollars to figure it out, is that a lot of money? How does that compare to a single F-17? It’s so important for society to know the answers. We need to collect the evidence, that’s it. That’s the practical path forward. Without prejudice, let’s figure it out and find the answer and report back.

Do you think it’s realistic to expect that the government will say, “Let’s approach this as a scientific project first?”
This is a political question: Will people do the right thing? That’s a tricky question because these politicians aren’t scientists; they are driven by other interests; they have to worry about their image, their constituents. It might well happen if their constituency wants it, or for some other strange motive — not necessarily scientific reasons.

These questions can be answered without politics if there is private-sector funding. Nobody can put blinders on our eyes and say, “You’re not allowed to look at the sky.” So why rely on politicians?

But if Washington really wants to establish it, we could have a federally supported center that looks into [UFOs], composed of scientists and not just bureaucrats. I’m just a little pessimistic because everything is very slow over there. But if they do, I’d be glad to serve — let’s put it that way.

How the Pentagon Can Improve the Way It Studies UFOs