The UFO Trap

Whenever UFOs make the news, standards of skepticism start to slip.

Illustration by Erik Carter

UFOs can be fun. See: the official sign on the road near Area 51, which dubs it the Extraterrestrial Highway. UFOs can be weird. See: E.T. phoning home with a MacGyvered communication device. But UFOs are also a national-security story, a government-contracting story, a conspiracy-culture story, and a technoscientific story. They are a human story.

This month, the director of national intelligence, in consultation with the secretary of defense, is supposed to submit a report on unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP, the polite acronym for UFOs) to two congressional committees. This government report, the kind of tedious document most people usually ignore, has fanned UFO fervor—you can find it behind a glossy New Yorker cover, between the tick-ticks of 60 Minutes, among the pages of The New York Times and Politico. Also: everywhere else.

If this spike in UFO interest plays out like previous ones, as journalists tackle what people usually perceive as an unserious topic, standards will sag. Already, some coverage has lacked the nuance that the current evidence warrants. UFOs—so fun! so weird!—have left many journalists saying “Wow, really?” to power. Reporters have taken sources at their word without corroborating data, let documented contradictions slide by, and glossed over the motivations of both outside agitators and government insiders. Reports of UFOs always come with a dearth of information; right now, we need to weigh what little we have carefully and stick to the standards of skepticism that we would apply to anything else.

As the Battlestar Galactica quote goes, “All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.”

The UFO in its modern form, says Kate Dorsch, a historian of science at the University of Pennsylvania, is a phenomenon of the postwar era, a time of technological military wonders: submarines, jets, planes, missiles, computers, and, of course, The Bomb. “Never before has humanity been able to so immediately and unquestionably destroy itself,” Dorsch told me. In the midst of that high-tech fear, in 1947, a pilot named Kenneth Arnold spotted nine objects he couldn’t identify, flying over Washington State at seemingly fantastic speeds.

The United States military worried that the objects were a Russian threat. And, when other ufological observations soon followed, it started Project Sign, a UFO-investigation program that morphed into Project Grudge and then into the more famous Project Blue Book. But UFOs have “never been a central preoccupation of military officials,” Greg Eghigian, a historian at Pennsylvania State University, told me. “Militaries have typically very, very quickly come to the conclusion that this stuff does not pose a threat to national security.”

News organizations, too, have treated UFOs lightly. In a 2019 American Journalism article, the communications scholar Phillip Hutchison and the journalism professor emeritus Herbert Strentz analyzed UFO coverage from 1947 to 1967. Back then, Strentz says, much of the coverage was of individual reports, published in local papers, that would go out on the wires to the rest of the country. Newsrooms might initially write them off as flimsy and unsubstantiated. But then a juicy report would drop somewhere else in the country, and “local news barriers and news judgment would drop the gates and now welcome previously rejected reports to join in the fun,” Strentz says. The researchers found, looking at the body of mid-century coverage as a whole, that “when judged against the professional standards of the era, UFO coverage often was superficial, redundant, silly, and poorly coordinated.”

But silliness wouldn’t have sat well with some of the people closest to the military’s UFO programs. After his work on those military investigations concluded, one of the projects’ leaders wrote a book in part about the lack of resources and support dedicated to military UFO research.

A similar sequence of events can be observed in recent times. Drone technology is newishly proliferating. Great-power competition is back in fashion. And a former Defense Department employee named Luis Elizondo emerged in 2017, and began telling reporters that he had run a UFO research program whose implications the Pentagon didn’t grasp. “How is it that the narrative hasn’t changed in 70 years?” Dorsch thought when she first heard that news.

The 21st-century version of this saga began, arguably, later in 2017, when The New York Times published a story about the Pentagon’s “mysterious U.F.O. program,” the private contractor that carried it out, and two Navy videos featuring UAP. The Times story set off a round of breathless coverage of the government’s tacit interest in—wink—UFOs. If these stories did not outright say the word aliens, many indulged in what-if-ing, while glazing over the limits of the actual facts available. And many included the same sources, played mostly the same footage, and told the same essential story.

At this point, the fact that a Pentagon program called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP) once existed has been well established. Beyond that, some of the key details are still contested, in flux, or, remarkably, undetailed—question marks that a lot of coverage skips over entirely or treats with a light touch.

Elizondo, for instance, is widely credited in the media as AATIP’s director; the Pentagon has said that he had no assigned responsibilities for the program. Elizondo recently filed a complaint with the Department of Defense’s Office of Inspector General “claiming a coordinated campaign to discredit him for speaking out,” according to Politico. The Pentagon also once asserted that AATIP did not research UFOs; it now says that the program sometimes used UFO reports in pursuit of broader weapons-research goals, but it emphasizes that “the examination of UAP observations was not the purpose of AATIP,” according to a statement I received. Neither the Pentagon nor Elizondo has provided enough evidence to back up a definitive account, says John Greenewald, the founder of the Black Vault, a depository of declassified government documents. Greenewald has filed scores of Freedom of Information Act requests related to AATIP and for more historical UFO-centric documents, and has published a book about the government’s documented dealings in the topic. And he recently received documentation, via FOIA, suggesting that the Pentagon could have deleted, as a matter of course, Elizondo’s email records, which might have helped resolve at least some of the contradictions.

A story that takes this muddiness, and so the topic, seriously will mention such conflicts and complications. It might also mention the more down-to-earth hypotheses for videos and images, or the fact that the Pentagon’s definition of UAP, according to the spokesperson Susan Gough, is simply “any aerial phenomena that cannot immediately be identified.” (That immediately could be doing a lot of work.) Other coverage has dug into the origins of AATIP, the connections among and the longtime paranormal enthusiasm of major players, and the money involved in the form of political donations and a private UFO research and entertainment company.

See an article that includes none of that information? Clicker beware. Many UFO stories accept what “serious people” say on faith, falling prey to an “appeal to authority”—taking the person’s identity as evidence that their claim is true. Consider, for example, the 60 Minutes segment on UAP in which host Bill Whitaker interviews Christopher Mellon, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for intelligence. “So it’s not us, that’s one thing we know,” said Mellon, meaning that certain UFOs spotted by military personnel were not U.S. technology. “We know that?” Whitaker asked. “I can say that with a very high degree of confidence in part because of the positions I held in the department, and I know the process,” Mellon responded, and the segment moved on. Scrutinizing such details is complicated, and it takes time. It’s much easier to stop at fun and weird, and in the case of the current rhetoric, spooky-scary. And keeping it simple makes for a better story, in the traditional sense of the word. Journalists, Eghigian said, “are interested in finding a way to make everything come together in a nice, neat little bundle … Nuance is often a victim in that process.”

But keeping the nuance could lead to investigations of bigger questions, and more context. People have seen classified aircraft in the past and concluded that they had witnessed a “UFO”—are they doing that now? Talking about a threat can result in funding—who would benefit from that? Why are onetime insiders coming forward? Why did the Pentagon release those videos in 2020? And why is the new report coming now?

These questions and potential answers merit serious coverage. So do UAP themselves: After all, “unidentifieds” regularly zipping into U.S. airspace would be a real national-security problem. The forthcoming report is an opportunity for journalists and the broader public to question both the government and those who question the government, to stare down the available data and make logical, justifiable conclusions—even if that means accepting that they actually won’t be conclusive, as early coverage (based on the anonymous word of officials who have been briefed on the report’s findings) indicates.

That’s usually the way it goes with UFOs, whose allure persists, though the objects themselves—whatever they are—always disappear. When Eghigian thinks about UFOs, he often considers the difference between riddles and mysteries. Riddles are puzzles that can be solved. Mysteries are meant to remain as such. “You just constantly revisit them like scripture, for new inspiration, for new messages and understandings,” he said. “For a lot of people, UFOs are mysteries, and they need to stay mysteries. And they will.”