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What’s Out There?

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  • Technology & Science
  • Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences

In June, a public report about unidentified aerial phenomena (UAPs), also known as UFOs, will be delivered to the U.S. Congress’ Intelligence and Armed Services committees. The document is expected to evaluate reported UAP sightings from U.S. military members and include analysis from the Pentagon. This news, recently featured on 60 Minutes, has fueled a flurry of speculation, excitement and conspiracies among the public.

But interest in UAPs is certainly not new. Curiosity around unusual objects in the sky spans decades and crosses political aisles. 

To help us unpack the science, politics and psychology of this phenomenon, we asked Pitt experts to weigh in. 

What astronomers say about the UAPs

Carlos Badenes, associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, stressed we cannot assume that sightings of unidentified flying objects means that there is life beyond our planet.

“When you have a list of 100 boring things that could be true, you don’t go to item 101,” he said. “Carl Sagan used to say that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, this is not extraordinary evidence. This is an interesting video of something—it might be a balloon it might be something else.” 

According to Badenes, who specializes in black holes, stellar astrophysics, supernova explosions and stellar binaries systems, the videos and images surfacing of supposed spacecrafts could be explained by simple physics: The images are captured by military aircraft that are moving quickly and photographing another quickly moving object, lending them an eerie but ultimately Earthly quality. 

Melanie Good, a lecturer who studies student attitudes and approaches to problem solving in physics and astronomy, added that images captured using infrared cameras can be distorted with false color. According to Good, these images and videos could be showing things such as electrical discharges in the atmosphere; various types of optical effects like aberration, reflection or tricks of perspective; interplanetary dust or meteors that Earth intercepts and burns in the atmosphere. 

“I don’t think there’s probably one explanation for every reported sighting. There might be various explanations that are altogether ordinary, really, and basically terrestrial,” she said. 

Both Badenes and Good have taught students who are curious about UFOs and they both approach the conversations with a passion about what we know already about the universe. 

“You really think the universe we have with the things that we know about it, is boring? It’s full of exciting stuff like, black holes and stellar collisions—and those things are real,” Badenes said.  

Good said that the desire to find new beings in the universe is human behavior she’s seen in and out of the classroom: “There’s often very natural explanations to these things, but wanting to believe in something extraterrestrial seems to be very tempting. The stars are not going to influence our behavior, but they may instill us with a sense of wonder to think about the size and scope of the universe.” 

Both noted that curiosity about the unknown can also create a pressure-cooker situation for members of the scientific community who feel a burden to make big claims that attract media attention. He cautioned that such actions can hurt the public image of science and lead to misinformation. 

On the congressional report itself, Badenes and Good are curious to see the final version and agree that this level of transparency from the U.S. government could help debunk belief that extraterrestrial life has visited planet Earth.

Does the UFO phenomenon reach across political aisles? 

Could a new, public report of documented sightings of unidentified objects bring Republicans and Democrats together? William Spaniel, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science, said that to understand the UAP sightings report, you have to look at political polarization in the U.S. 

Spaniel, who studies interstate conflict, nuclear weapons and terrorism, said party divides mostly stem from differences of opinion on domestic issues such as taxation and health care. Conversely, a matter of national security such as UAPs may be an issue for legislators to find common ground. 

Spaniel, like Badenes and Good, said the new report offers transparency, “The government can mitigate conspiracy theories by being more transparent but, if you give conspiracy theorists an inch, they might go a mile.”

Though the science is not settled on confirming what these unidentified objects are, Spaniel said that, from a security perspective, “It’s reasonable to describe them in terms of a national security issue and very reasonable for the government to fund the science to figure out these things.” 

The federal government may not be worried about extraterrestrial life, but there is reason to be on alert: “There’s always a risk out there that another country has gotten ahead of us with advanced technology or that we’re seeing a spacecraft of a foreign government.” 

Why do we want to love aliens? 

“Most people in the technical sense would agree there are flying objects that cannot be immediately identified,” said Marc Coutanche, assistant professor in Department of Psychology.

The cognitive psychologist, who studies how humans perceive, process and understand the environment, breaks down humans’ love of the extraterrestrial into three cognitive processes. 

First up is pattern recognition, which is when humans try to establish causality when they are processing something happening. In the case of UFO sightings, the images are often grainy or fuzzy and Coutanche said that humans are tempted to attach meaning to something open to interpretation. Usually, this is a very valuable cognitive process we use to process our intrinsically noisy environments. “However, in this context, that is being applied too readily,” Coutanche said. 

Second, humans want to assign agency and autonomy to things around them. Coutanche recalled an experiment in which robots were being tested for durability to explore rough terrain and researchers hit the machines to knock them off balance. This brought outrage from the public, because of their empathy and desire to assign agency and autonomy to the robots. In the case of unidentified flying objects, humans may want to assign something that is “controlling that object” instead of sitting with discomfort in the unknown. 

Lastly, he pointed to threat detection. According to Coutanche, humans are hardwired to detect and manage threats in our environment. 

“People who believe in conspiracy theories are more likely to do so when they’re in an anxious state and if they are in a group where they feel ostracized,” he said.

To obtain a safe and controlled environment, people may assign meaning or explanation to soothe themselves. However, people assigning too much meaning or being likely to believe in conspiracy theories could have a low threshold for detecting threats, he said.