“Of all the questions the Gallup pollsters have asked the American public, why have UFOs struck such a resonant cord with the average adult American?” This was a question asked by Allan Hendry, UFO investigator for the Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS) throughout the late 1970s, whose work alongside J. Allen Hynek resulted in his book, The UFO Handbook: A Guide to Investigating, Evaluating and Reporting UFO Sightings (Doubleday, 1979). Hendry continued to observe that, “It is true that the average individual is woefully ignorant of the way stars, aircraft, and balloons can manifest themselves. Yet so many of them have “flying saucers” registered in their subconscious and it is imprinted so strongly that there must be something about UFOs that has become important to our psychic makeup since the end of World War II.”
Many who become entangled in the slowly evolving quagmire that has become “UFOlogy” — that is, the effort toward scientific study of Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs), or, as I occasionally prefer, Unexplained Aerial Phenomena (UAP) — begin to get jaded, with time. This is because, despite hundreds (if not thousands) of books written on the subject of UFOs, and numerous studies conducted by scientific and investigative groups on both civilian and government levels, there appears to be no serious headway that has been made toward a consensus opinion about what “UFOs” — or at least those suggested by the “good reports” collected over the years — really are.
Perhaps a majority of those interested in the subject who advocate the existence of such anomalous aircraft gravitate toward an extraterrestrial theory of origin. However, this position remains controversial, due to a lack of physical evidence that conclusively helps make this determination.
Nonetheless, many leading UFO advocates (one, in particular, who is involved as a lobbyist to government on the subject, does come to mind here) would argue that there is no need for further “study” of UFOs at all; the data before us, scant though it may seem to any scientist, is already enough to have ushered in the era of “disclosure”, which replaces UFOlogy altogether.
This disclosure, roughly defined, is the notion of pushing for release of government data about UFOs that may be withheld from the public, and it has become fundamental to the majority of the work carried out by UFO researchers, advocates, and personalities in the broader field of modern “UFOlogy.” However, despite the passion and enthusiasm it has aroused in the UFO community for a number of years, there are a few reasons why it may not be the best focal point for obtaining knowledge about UFOs.
The Pitfalls of UFO Disclosure
The “disclosure” idea, and the social movement that has formed around it in recent decades, is not without merit. In likelihood, there certainly is some information on the UFO subject that is being withheld from the public. History shows already that groups like the CIA had secretly involved themselves in studies of unexplained aerial craft and other phenomena, while publicly downplaying the subject, for fear that knowledge of their role in ongoing studies might actually encourage belief in UFOs. As former CIA Chief Historian Gerald Haines has noted, this was considered undesirable at the time, since the CIA worried that rising interest in UFOs among the general public might foster social movements capable of destabilizing government authority (as had been a concern with many other, non-UFO social groups and movements, particularly throughout the 1960s and 70s).
Thus, there is some historical precedent for why governments have withheld UFO data. The disclosure movement is, however, a cause that is terribly lacking in some regards just as well; especially as seen by those within the UFO community who hope to apply scientific study to the UFO mystery. By this, I mean gathering reliable information (as well as finding better ways it might be gathered, with the help of new innovative technologies), and attempting to properly assess what that data yields.
This is not to detract from the idea of pressing for greater government transparency on subjects like UFOs. Nonetheless, a persistent danger exists in the presumption that such information exists, or that by lobbying for its release, something akin to an “Ark of the Covenant” for UFOlogy will be revealed, laying out plainly and for all to see the “reality” behind the UFO phenomenon… whatever that might actually be.
Put more simply, overconfidence in the assumption that government agencies already have the answers, and that UFOlogy is purely an aim toward gaining access to that information, may in fact be entirely counterproductive, should it end up being that either of the following is true:
- No such data exists in the possession of government agencies, or
- It does exist, but it is persistently withheld, despite political activism in relation to the UFO question.
I speak the above with full knowledge, of course, that many serious UFO researchers in years past have managed to garner new information through filing such things as FOIA requests; three individuals that come to mind here are Stanton Friedman, as well as John Burroughs and Nick Redfern, each of whom I have spoken with personally about this subject at some length.
Thus, the argument remains that scientific UFO research, which really is the simple definition of the term “UFOlogy”, is of great importance to the study of UFOs, if it is to be determined that there is anything more to the subject than the simple misidentification of prosaic natural and manmade phenomena, paired with a variety of factors that contribute to the ways humans interpret it on a case-for-case basis.
Returning to Allan Hendry’s book, he offers the following analysis of the term “UFO”, as well as what it means, and how this applies to the scientific study of unexplained aerial phenomena:
The definition of a UFO given here is quite unusual, really; unlike other definitions that say what an object is or what it is like, this one describes a UFO by what it is not, or not like. If UFOs are, in effect, “everything in the sky that we don’t understand,” then this suggests that the number of kinds of UFOs is hopelessly large. Is this the case in practice? If UFOlogy is composed of a chaotic jumble of dissimilar, unrelated events, then it can’t be amenable to study and therefore can’t really be a science.
This assessment, without additional context, may sound hopelessly bleak. Hendry, however, though very scientifically skeptical in his assessment of the subject, had not been a debunker of UFOs (and, in fact, argued against the ideology that, “if 90 percent of all UFO reports can be explained simply, then why not 100 percent?”). It is true that Hendry may have been more skeptical than many modern UFO proponents would have liked (a sentiment that was privately expressed to me by Stanton Friedman in early February, 2016). Still, anyone who takes time to read his comprehensive analysis of the subject, as presented in The UFO Handbook, must see that it is among the most thorough, non-biased scientific studies ever to have been presented on the subject; in fact, it may be the very finest instance of scientific UFO research, collected in a single publication.
On the varieties of the UFO experience — and the oft-asserted notion that the term “UFO” refers to all varieties of unexplainable aerial phenomenon, Hendry wrote that, “In the past, UFO theories have shared one thing in common: the reductionist opinion that all UFOs belong to one generic class, i.e. that all unexplainable accounts of flying objects, ranging from distant Nocturnal Lights to exotic encounters with UFO-nauts, share a common blanket explanation scheme.” Thus, the majority of Hendry’s book examines what UFOs are not, with detailed surveys that examine how easily (and consistently) common aircraft and other aerial objects or phenomenon have been misinterpreted by observers.
Of particular importance, however, is Hendry’s emphasis on the way that “flying saucers”, as a social meme, have broadly influenced people’s interpretation of unidentified objects seen in the skies, particularly at night. This has lead to a consistent trend toward assessment of natural or manmade things as being “UFOs”, “alien craft”, or other similar things. This is further carried over into close encounter reports, where many claims of interactions with UFO occupants (though not all of them, perhaps) seem to indicate fantasies conjured by the observer, in response to this ever-present “flying saucer” meme. Hence, the differences between reported experiences from one UFO case to the next are almost infinite in their variety, further complicating the serious scientific treatment and categorization of such data.
All of the aforementioned taken to mind, Hendry offers a number of breakdowns and designations, which include extrapolations on possible sources that may account for many UFO reports, while allowing for the possibility that a minority of these cases do involve exotic or as-yet unexplained phenomena.
Still, a lot has changed in the world since 1979. The proliferation of drone technologies have added to the number of things we see darting through the sky on a daily basis. Also, the prevalence of smartphones and other handheld devices have allowed for the effective containment of small UFO investigative facilities carried within one’s pocket, thanks to apps that range in focus from astronomy and star gazing, to oscilloscopes, police radars, and even satellite and aircraft tracking programs.
With the changing of times, the ways that UFOs are studied, and the designations applied to the collection of UFO data, must change as well. Yes, modern researchers must take into account the prevalence of drones operated both by civilians, as well as government agencies. This, in addition to a number of similar innovations since the beginning of the 21st century, all further complicate the way UFOs are studied, and what possible underlying sources they may have.
The prevalence of “IFOs” — that is, objects that account for the majority of UFO reports, but which can be ruled out as prosaic sources through careful scientific research — greatly informed Hendry’s work, and helped lead him to the novel concept of proposing what he called:
“…a non-extraordinary plan to account for UFO reports at least as well as others mentioned (these “others”, it should be noted, are the common sensational or extraordinary theories proposed by UFO advocates, in view of the seemingly exotic elements many UFO cases appear to represent.”
Thus, a “non-revolutionary, alternative UFO theory” is useful, because it helps whittle down the sensational claims that surround the majority of UFO research, and bring things down to a level that may allow scientific study to be useful in solving the broader UFO mystery (and none of this is to say that there cannot be an exotic or otherwise unusual explanation for some UFOs, but merely that we would better serve the subject by not assuming such a position from the outset, since the data may indeed reveal otherwise on down the road).
Out With the Old: A New Classification System for UFOs
Over the last several years, my attitudes toward the UFO subject have changed greatly. At the outset, my own neophyte views fell very much in line with generally accepted attitudes: UFOs were probably evidence of alien visitations. With time (and with virtually no evidence of what could rightly be considered “extraterrestrial”), my skepticism grew, and I began to consider alternatives to the extraterrestrial hypothesis that might still account for some UFO reports, in addition to whether much of the phenomenon could have terrestrial origins (these were among the themes I presented in my book The UFO Singularity, although at best, I now consider the book a thought experiment on hypothetical relationships between UAP and other similar phenomenon, compared with things like artificial intelligence and emergent technologies of the next few decades. While of some merit, the book no longer presents my best assessment of what UAP may actually represent).
My present hope as a UFO researcher, coming into fruition mostly over the course of the last three years, has been to propose a new set of designations for UFOs, which involve possible origins of various UAP that are subject to scientific inquiry, given our current level and understanding of applicable science and technology. These will incorporate new sources of possible UFO sightings (such as drones), as well as the reformulation of older elements, with consideration given to new technologies and innovations. My reason for wanting to do this is twofold:
- New technologies, as well as new scientific discoveries, have helped broaden the range of possible sources for UAP since the day of Allen Hendry and J. Allen Hyenk; the kinds of “IFO” sources they were comfortable working with have also broadened to include things like drones.
- The previous classification systems first employed by J. Allen Hynek were too general, even for the period in which they were created; by today’s standards, they no longer appear to present a workable criteria for many modern UFO reports (we’ll expand on this in a moment).
Hence, I argue that a “modernized” UFO classification system, which draws from the sort of crude classification system first employed by J. Allen Hynek, should be instituted. Of his original classification framework, Hynek wrote in The Hynek UFO Report that, “A number of years ago I devised a simple classification system based solely on what was reported as observed and not on any preconceived idea of what the actual nature of UFOs might be. It was purely an observational classification system, much like an astronomer might used to classify the different types of stars or a zoologist different types of beetles that he came across in his explorations.”
Hynek’s observational classification system was composed of the following: What Hynek called Nocturnal Lights, followed by Daylight Discs. For instances where radar data corroborated a sighting, Hynek employed the term Radar Visuals, and for observations that occurred close at hand, Hynek used a three-tier grouping called Close Encounters (CEs), which accounted for a UFO observed from close enough to discern relative detail (CE I), a UFO observed interacting physically with its environment in some way, and possibly leaving residual evidence (CE II), and a UFO observed along with its apparent occupants, or entities otherwise associated with the object (CE III). In later literature, two additional observational classes were instituted after Hynek’s passing; these include cases that involve some apparent mental or physical transport of an individual between locations in conjunction with a UFO observation (CE IV), and a disputed fifth category (CE V) that may involve UFO physical injury cases (as proposed by Jacques Vallee), or human-initiated interactive encounters with UFOs (as proposed by Steven Greer).
As we already see with the differing opinions about what constitutes the “CE V” cases, a number of other issues arise from these early classifications. Namely, the fact that Hynek’s term for “Daylight Discs” borrowed from the heavily-inferred “flying saucer” meme that became popular after the famous Kenneth Arnold sighting of 1947. Even Hynek, as did Hendry after him, noted that the term “Daylight Discs” actually referred to any number of different types of objects — not just “discs” — as they appeared when observed in the daylight. These ranged from actual discs, to egg-shaped objects, cylindrical craft, and a host of other shapes.
There are many UFO reports that have described little more than amorphous illuminations, whether seen by day or by night; the primary difference here being that a nighttime observation would presumably leave far more to the imagination than a daylight observation. Imagine some vague, luminous form observed in the night sky; it is easy to see that this may in fact represent any number of things, perceived only by the apparent presence of lights. Do these lights envelope the object, or merely represent fixed points on a much larger craft? If two parties were to see the exact same amorphous, luminous object, with one group observing at night, while the other observed it during partly overcast conditions in afternoon daylight, one could easily guess that the interpretations of this hypothetical object might vary greatly. Introduce a small group of these lights, rather than a single luminous orb, and the nighttime watchers might consider them lights along the perimeter of a larger craft, while our afternoon observers would liken it instead to a small “fleet” of orbs flying in formation.
Right off the bat, it begins to make logical sense to do away with the entire concept of “Daylight Discs”. We also see that it may be important to draw distinctions between objects seen in daylight hours that are structured-looking “craft”, versus those which are merely luminous phenomena that may otherwise resemble the “Nocturnal Lights” Hynek originally designated. Based on our earlier examples, we might do well to introduce separate designations for the nocturnal and daylight luminous phenomena as well, based on the likely differences in the ways each may be interpreted based on visible conditions.
At the time Hynek began to devise his initial classification system, military bodies in the U.S. government and those elsewhere around the world gave far more credence to the UFO situation (as made obvious by Hynek’s work as a scientific advisor to the USAF’s UFO study program, Project Blue Book). Hence, UFO incidents that occurred in close enough proximity to military installations, airports, or aircraft in flight might be able to produce radar information to corroborate visual sightings. While still relevant today, the lessened interest by military bodies in the UFO subject, paired with a range of new technologies that may serve as useful ways to corroborate visual sightings, presents a case for modifying and expanding Hynek’s “Radar Visual” category as well.
While a close-hand UFO observation (CE I cases, generally recognized as being within 400 feet or less) may provide useful data, such observations in the past have failed to provide significantly useful new data about UFOs in the broader sense. Additionally, the Vallee definition for a CE V case would appear to be very similar to Hynek’s CE II classification, in that each presents evidence of physical interactions between the UFO and its surrounding area (by area, here I also mean any individuals operating in that space). Given this criteria, CE IV might also qualify, in that a person being transported between locations also infers that the UFO has interacted with its physical environment and those within it.
Lastly, while UFO literature from the last several decades reveals a plethora of case studies that purport to involve interactions with UFO occupants, many researchers today will recognize that such claims have seen a sharp decline since the 1990s. Whether this is due to cultural factors, changes in belief systems, or some other stimuli (or the lack thereof) remains undetermined. Regardless, the marked decline in exotic UFO craft and occupant cases that once littered the UFO journals and publications is a noteworthy observation (for additional commentary on this apparent decline, and why some think UFOs may soon be a “dead subject”, see here, here, here, and here).
Now that we have observed the problems with the older classification systems, in addition to having noted certain changes in the way the UFO subject is being studied in the present day, I have assembled a new classification system, which I feel is more efficient, in addition to being less reliant on the prevalent memes and staples from the UFOlogy of yesteryear (things like “flying discs” and “abductions”).
This new proposed classification system is as follows:
- Nocturnal Luminous Phenomena
- Daylight Luminous Phenomena
- Aerial Craft or Structured Objects
- Objects Corroborated with Radar, Satellites, Photos, Video or Smartphone Apps
- Objects that Interact Physically with Individuals or the Environment
- Objects Accompanied by Beings or Apparent Operators
I expect, with time, that many of these designations and guidelines may change, or will otherwise be met with challenges; such is always the case, as we have seen, when new data forthcoming presents a case for re-thinking old ideas.
In order for the proposed classification system to be effective, I feel it is also pertinent to have a filtering system, through which possible IFOs (Identified Flying Objects, to borrow Hendry’s term) may be easily grouped and discerned, at least in the majority of cases. Using a filtering system in this way will help prevent the absent-minded collection of endless reports of lights seen at night, or of vague descriptions of structured objects seen by day. As Hendry and the CUFOS had done in the late 1970s, proactive research that involved phone calls to local airports, Air Force Bases, National Weather Service centers, advertising plane companies, and other sources of useful information will nearly always reveal a common source behind some otherwise strange-sounding UFO reports.
Bearing this in mind, the following designations of UAP constitute circumstances that range from little-understood natural phenomena, to manmade aircraft, and even some speculative technologies for which a good amount of data exists to support a basis for their existence; psychological interpretations of possible UAP are also considered. These are all areas where science, if applied in a proper, discerning manner, may yield new results or confirmations, in addition to helping understand their relationship to the study of unexplained aerial phenomena:
- Atmospheric / Meteorological
- Refractions / Mirages / Illusions
- Biological (birds, insects, etc)
- Misinterpretation of prosaic occurrences
- Delusions / Fantasies
- Mental Disorders
Manmade Non-Vehicular Aerial Objects
- Satellites / International Space Station
- Rockets / Fireworks
Drones / Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)
- Civilian UAVs
- Military UAVs
Conventional Manmade Piloted Aircraft
- Hobbyists / Inventors
- Misidentification of Known Commercial or Military Aircraft
Experimental / Secret Government Aircraft or Technologies
- Secret / Undisclosed Military Aircraft
- Privately Funded Research & Development Operations
Note the inclusion of a “Biological” subcategory within the designations for “Natural Phenomena” listed above. Implausible though it may seem that a bird or an insect might be mistaken for being a UFO, this often does occur in photos and video. It happens when a much smaller creature in flight passes near the camera’s lens, giving the appearance of a larger, faster-moving object further off in the distance (for an example of this, see this link at Unknown Country). Adding further confusion is the fact that under some circumstances, physical characteristics of a fast-moving object or animal may be distorted in photos and videos, as with the so-called “rods” that result from traces of the wingbeats of insects as recorded by interlaced video systems.
Also note that the designations presented in the category system above do not include such things as “alien craft”, “strange humanoids,” “inter-dimensional phenomena”, or other presently unproven or speculative sources for UAP reports. The reason for this, rather than to eliminate any possibility of the existence of such things, is because in the event that all of the above can be ruled out, then all we are left to consider, with any certainty, is the presence of some “unknown.” In order to extrapolate further upon the possible source of the resulting “unknown,” we would require more data… but we must reach that point first.
At the present time, despite the kinds of “evidence” the UFO community has offered over the last several decades, little has been forthcoming that would satisfy the biologist, chemist, or physicist. Granted, this is not to say that some evidence does not warrant further review; merely that no such evidence appears to offer irrefutable “proof” of an anomalous source behind UAP reports, at least at present. Perhaps this will change in the future, either with the acquisition of new data, or with the utilization of new technologies that may help us learn new things about existing evidence on hand.
The Merits, and Problems, With “Modern Skepticism”
My views presented here are, I feel, necessarily skeptical, and hence it may seem questionable why one of such disposition would seek to further commune with the broader “UFO Community” today; a community whose greatest names and personalities largely still champion the extraterrestrial hypothesis, or at least some variation of it.
The reason, to me, is very simple: I can respect, communicate, and interact with people who do not share my own ideas. Despite my skepticism, I have been shown great respect by many within the UFO community, and have made lasting friendships with many people whose own ideas about the phenomenon differ greatly from my own.
Conversely, in my personal experiences, I have found that my interactions with those who identify with the ideology of modern skepticism are not as warm or friendly; while this is not always the case, often, the modern skeptic will shun anyone that is willing to give consideration to the notion that there may be more to the world than any of us are presently aware (Hendry might have identified these individuals as the “why can’t we just debunk 100% of all UFOs?” crowd).
Modern skepticism can, I think, be summarized in many instances as an ideology, around which a social movement has been built — one that, today, also runs tangent with atheism — in addition to a paradoxically evangelical attitude about the supremacy of science above all other forms of knowledge.
Obviously, science and, more importantly, the scientific method, rest at the cusp of what I seek to address in the present missive. Hence, in pointing out the adoption of a dogmatic “scientism” amidst the modern skeptic movement is not to detract from the proper applications of science by any means. Neither is it meant to disregard skepticism, when applied scientifically, rather than as part of an ideology one adopts, or in order to garner favor from others within any proposed social movement which modern skeptics might seek to join. These are elements that I feel, unfortunately, do inform the minds of many modern “Skeptics”, which has led them to the dismissal of a wide range of beliefs and disciplines; no less unfortunate among these than the current conflict surrounding physicists, and their disregard for philosophy (for more on this, see my article here).
To the contrary, I hope to instill in the mind of the reader that proper adherence to scientific methodology, and a reasonable, open-minded skepticism, will be of great benefit to the study of UFOs. To quote the notable skeptic Gary P. Posner, M.D. (someone whose views toward the UFO subject, though often different from my own, I certainly do appreciate), “The great irony is that we ‘skeptics’ are the open-minded ones. As certain as we may be that UFOs are not ET… we are capable of — indeed committed to — changing our minds, should compelling evidence be brought to the fore.”
Perhaps with careful thought, analysis, and an equal willingness to be open-minded in our skepticism, science can help us move forward toward a better UFOlogy than we have seen in years past… and with it, perhaps more answers than we have managed to attain previously, as well.