Out There: Part 1

[Shaping of Beliefs]

A statistically-normal human baby becomes a philosophical realist at approximately six months old when there appears the feeling that something exists out there. Perhaps it’s the tendency of perceived patterns to change gradually in space and time that leads to the notion of object permanence, i.e. that things are believed to exist even while not being observed1. The achievement of such a mature philosophical stance is facilitated by genetically-determined developmental processes2 . For example, a pigeon, no matter how adult, with such a worldview has yet to be found. A few months later, the distinction between animate and inanimate objects becomes handy, and the theory of mind starts to emerge. A child finds it useful to attribute individual beliefs and desires to some of the objects in order to explain and predict their behavior3 . Yet, when the world is a flat disk sitting on top of giant whales, all these souls seem to live under a god, and heavens are for the afterlife.

Things changed when a history of astronomical observations and developed mathematics allowed us to replace the anthropocentric lullaby with the humbling idea of Earth being but a rural county in a vast universe. The Copernican heliocentric model suggested that multiple planets were orbiting around the sun, and for the first time in history provided scientific grounds for entertaining the possibility of life out there, i.e. the notion of cosmic pluralism. Jordano Bruno’s landmark speculation from 1584 demonstrates this idea: “Innumerable suns exist; innumerable earths revolve around these suns in a manner similar to the way the seven planets revolve around our sun. Living beings inhabit these worlds.4 The invention of the telescope allowed us to look closer at the celestial bodies and actually check them for the presence of living beings. Observations made between the 17th and 19th centuries seemed to confirm Bruno’s beliefs: the moon craters looked too perfectly circular and too large to be anything but cities and dwellings erected by technologically-advanced Lunarians. The patterns of Mars, as seen through poor telescopes, reminded people of water canals and artificial irrigation systems. Better technologies allowed us to turn down these speculations later, but the idea mysteriously kept captivating humans’ minds, which was reflected in the works of scientists, artists, and writers.

World War II and the Postwar Era brought new technologies that made aliens a somewhat practical notion. On February 20, 1947 several fruit flies blasted off the American soil aboard a captured V-2 German rocket. The rocket reached an altitude of 106 KM, only 6 KM above the so-called Karman line, frequently used as a boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space. The flies successfully parachuted and landed back in good health and, most likely, good mood, suggesting that the cosmic radiation wasn’t too dangerous. The era of space exploration was launched and “it became easier to imagine running into an extraterrestrial neighbor5 .

[UFO Waves]

It was June 24 the same year when an experienced pilot, Kenneth Arnold, was flying his plane over Mountain Rainier (Washington, US). He claimed to have noticed a formation of nine bright, disk-like objects moving in the sky at high speeds in a way a flat rock or a saucer would skip over water. The term flying saucer was picked up, and the context was set for the observers of mysterious things to speak up. Within a few days several similar sightings were reported, then more and more. Some of the cases described anomalous blips on radar scopes. Sensational reports on UFOs (unidentified flying objects) seemed to continue ceaselessly for several decades. Some years the number of cases ran into thousands, hence the term UFO waves was coined.

Very quickly American society was divided with regard to how to treat the phenomenon. Debunkers would lightheartedly discredit all the witnesses, while believers would fuel the hype and demand investigations. The interest from the latter was instigated by two main speculations circulating in society. First was the Soviets with their potentially more technologically-advanced aircrafts. Flying over the American land, such vehicles would most certainly pose a threat to national security. The second, intriguing idea was the extraterrestrial hypothesis, which could very well mean a threat too. This meant it was a task for the US Air Force. Unfortunately, one of the most disciplined and hierarchical institutions in the US appeared to be unfit to address the matter adequately.

During the period from 1947 to 1969, the US Air Force created four projects to address the UFO problem, with the most famous one being Project Blue Book. Their goal was to research the problem by collecting and analyzing UFO-related data, and to respond to the public interest. However, the absence of consensus about the topic on different levels of the Air Force hierarchy created confusion and a lack of coordination among their personnel. Each individual’s career was fully dependant on their immediate commander. Thus, instead of trying to provide investigation conclusions to the best of their knowledge, they had to report only “proper” research results. The other problems were secrecy and the two-faced attitude of the Air Force brass, i.e. “to publicly debunk and treat the matter lightly, and privately investigate, and take the matter seriously6 . This contributed to the distrust toward the official reports and became a source for conspiracy theories. The famous Roswell incident is a vivid example. A strange object resembling a “flying saucer” crashed in New Mexico just a couple weeks before Arnold’s sighting in 1947. The military recovered the object, but concealed all the details. Instead, they immediately announced that it was a conventional weather balloon, and only in 1990 revealed it was an American secret surveillance balloon.

[Researching UFO]

Hoping that scientists would do a better job at fixing the UFO problem, in 1966 the US Air Force decided to fund a team from the University of Colorado to conduct an independent study. Under the direction of the physicist Edward Condon, the committee worked for two years trying to collect and analyze the UFO material. The Condon Committee appeared to be not completely free from the problems characteristic of the US Air Force. Additionally, their expertise in science (and in physics in particular) provided little help when the phenomenon under question was almost entirely based on anecdotal evidence. “The trouble is that whatever the UFO phenomenon is, it comes and goes unexpectedly. There is no way of examining it systematically. It appears suddenly and accidentally, is partially seen, and is then more or less inaccurately reported. We remain dependent on occasional anecdotal accounts” (Isaac Asimov)7 . Such accounts should not be dismissed right away, since in this way even meteorites were once mistakenly rejected by astronomers. In order to evaluate the reliability of the reports, the scientists focused on the consistency of the materials, as well as the witnesses’ psychological integrity.

Indeed, there seemed to be psychological and sociological aspects at play. A single UFO report would first be covered in the press, which would then be followed by several more sightings and so on, until a whole wave was produced. Eventually an official reaction would take place, damping down the panic, until the next event. The narratives were highly contagious as well. A ufologist’s book from 1980 mentioned humanoid bodies found near Roswell. It’s only after that, that many “witnesses” started making claims about alien bodies8 .

The shortcomings were on both sides. The documents on the investigations, conducted by the US Air Force and the University of Colorado, suggest what some of those biases were:

Wishful seeing (a.k.a. wishful thinking) may make one perceive something that might be pleasing to experience9 . Given that information can spread exponentially in a society, this alone seems capable of producing the waves.

Selective perception makes one ignore everything not fitting their understanding of the world, which is thus believed to be random noise. There were many lousy attempts to explain away certain cases with atmospheric phenomena. While many sightings were indeed caused by them, careless argumentation produced screaming mistakes that made the public lose faith in the intellectual ability of scholars6 .

Tagging one as a lunatic and dismissing an observation as brain glitches, is a temptation difficult to resist if the story doesn’t fit one’s beliefs. Many UFO debunkers would place every witness of strange things in the crackpot category6 . As unproductive as it was, this attitude also put unbiased researchers at risk of social and professional ridicule, thus decreasing the chances to understand the problem.

Had such problems been effectively addressed, the panic and the information vacuum would probably have been mitigated. In 1968 the Condon Report demonstrated that the majority of cases could have a trivial explanation. No scientific value behind the sightings was established. The mainstream explanation for the sightings was something vaguely defined as mass hysteria. However, the public remained sceptical of the methods and the conclusion. New technologies, the ongoing space race, the SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) project, and simple curiosity kept feeding the public’s imagination for many years, engraving aliens in the human culture.

[Historical Note]

Strange apparitions in the sky were abundantly recorded in art, mythical narratives, and historical documents during the pre-scientific era. Back then they were to mean spirits and divine intervention. The UFO culture allowed enthusiasts to look at historical documents in a different light.

The 4000-year-old artwork on Australian rocks depicts cloud and rain spirits Wandjina10. According to the aboriginal mythology, called Dreamtime, they live in the sky and punish people from time to time. For modern people these bigeyed humanoids may look as if they wear space suits. Along with other artifacts, this gave rise to the Ancient Astronauts folk theory. The idea suggests that intelligent extraterrestrials have been visiting Earth throughout human history and heavily influenced our cultures and technologies.The Japanese narrative “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”11 from 10th century tells about a Lunarian girl found in a glowing bamboo. She is later taken back home to the moon by other Lunarians on a round flying machine.A comet flying over Arabia in 1479 was depicted in Portents and Prophecies by Conrad Lycosthenes12. However, the image resembles a space rocket, rather than a comet. In his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 731 AD, an English monk Bede describes a bright object descending from heaven. It hovered over the monastery striking the monks “with great terror and amazement” and flew away back to the sky13.


1“Object permanence,” Wikipedia, last modified January 21, 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Object_permanence.
2Anne Fernald and Daniela. K. O’Neill, “Peekaboo across Culture: How Mothers and Infants Play with Voices, Faces, and Expectations,” in Parent-Child Play: Descriptions and Implications, ed. Kevin MacDonald (New York: State University of New York Press, 1993).
3Mike Angerbauer, “Egocentrism and Animistic Thinking,” Infant and Child Development, last modified October 31, 2009, https://psy3215.wordpress. com/2009/10/31/egocentrism-and-animistic-thinking/
4Albert W. Bettex, The Discovery of Nature (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965), 341.
5“Top 10 Biggest Moments in the Search for Aliens,” Science Channel, accessed December 9, 2016, http://www.sciencechannel.com/topics/aliens-space/7-ufos-andthe-race-to- he-cosmos/.
6Diana Palmer Hoyt, “UFOCRITIQUE: UFOs, Social Intelligence, and the Condon Committee” (master’s thesis, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 2000).
7Isaac Asimov, “The Rocketing Dutchman,” The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, February 1975, 123.
8Erich Goode, “Roswell Revisited: The Mythogenesis of Crashed Space Ships,” Psychology Today, last modified May 22, 2012, https://www.psychologytoday.com/ blog/the-paranormal/201205/roswell-revisited.
9David Dunning, Emily Balcetis, “Wishful Seeing: How Preferences Shape Visual Perception,”  Current Directions in Psychological Science 22, no. 1 (2013): 33.
10Wandjina at Mt Elizabeth, 2014. Photograph courtesy of Robyn Jay, https://flic.kr/p/nXW4DA.
11 Kakuzo Fujiyama, “They All Gazed With Tearful Eyes at the Receding Princess,” in The Japanese Fairy Book, ed. Yei Theodora Ozaki (Westminster: Archibald Constable And Co. Ltd., 1903), 118.
12 Arabian comet from Lycosthenes’ Portents, 1557. Photograph courtesy of Australian Museum, https://australianmuseum.net.au/image/lycosthenes3.
13 Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans. Thomas Miller, (Cambridge, ON: In Parentheses Publications, 1999).

Sergey Zobnin is a second year PhD student. When he does not stick electrodes into brains, he practices martial arts, does programming, watches sci-fi movies about aliens, or simply dresses up as one.