UFOs are real but that doesn't mean we've been visited by aliens

Commentary: The Pentagon's upcoming UFO report has people excited about alien spacecraft, but don't expect to meet extraterrestrials anytime soon.

Jackson Ryan Former Science Editor
Jackson Ryan was CNET's science editor, and a multiple award-winning one at that. Earlier, he'd been a scientist, but he realized he wasn't very happy sitting at a lab bench all day. Science writing, he realized, was the best job in the world -- it let him tell stories about space, the planet, climate change and the people working at the frontiers of human knowledge. He also owns a lot of ugly Christmas sweaters.
Jackson Ryan
5 min read

We've been Naruto-running headfirst into an extraterrestrial epidemic. A much-anticipated unclassified report, expected to be delivered to the US Congress by Friday, has sparked renewed interest in UFOs, alien visitation and government cover-ups. The report, written by a crack team of experts from the Pentagon, the FBI and the Office of Naval Intelligence, is expected to feature evidence of "unidentified aerial phenomena," or UAP. 

So, aliens are back in vogue, in a big way. Their popularity is approaching levels not seen since the "Storm Area 51" raid of 2019, when a viral Facebook event became a meme and turned the town of Rachel, Nevada, upside down

Jump on social media and you'll find an endless stream of grainy video evidence and wild theories trying to explain exactly what UAP are. Planes? Balloons? Drones? Some even suspect life from other planets.

Our appetite for aliens has only ramped up during 2021. On April 30, The New Yorker ran a piece about the Pentagon taking UFOs seriously. On May 16, an interview with Lt. Cmdr. Alex Dietrich, a US Navy fighter pilot, aired by US news program 60 Minutes, discussed firsthand evidence of her strange encounters with unidentified flying objects. 

The stories keep coming as we approach the release of the unclassified report. With each new headline, mundane truths get buried with hype about aircraft performing impossible feats of physics suggestive only of extraterrestrial tourism. We're taking an inch-long flying saucer and running an intergalactic mile.

Maybe you heard that former US President Barack Obama said "there's footage and records of objects in the skies that we don't know exactly what they are" resulting in headlines like "Barack Obama just said something *very* interesting about UFOs." Perhaps you saw UK publication The Telegraph report on May 21 that "the Pentagon thinks UFOs may exist after all," claiming the US government is now "taking aliens seriously."

Media coverage might be ramping up, but are we getting any closer toThe Truth?

"I think the media is giving it vastly more interest than it deserves," said Mick West, who debunks conspiracy theories at his website Metabunk.com and has analyzed the leaked UFO footage. 

"There really isn't any high-quality evidence."

Expectation vs. reality

I'm not here to tell you to stop believing in UFOs. Au contraire! Unidentified flying objects are real. That's a fact. There's no need for further discussion. 

The issue is UFOs -- "things in the sky we can't explain" -- have become synonymous with alien visitation. Many dictionary definitions include reference to extraterrestrials under "UFO." It's probably time we updated those definitions.

There's absolutely no doubt the Pentagon investigated UFOs and UAP in the past. It ran a covert program between 2007 and 2012 that has since been disbanded. The Office of Naval Intelligence continued to investigate UAP and, in August last year, the Department of Defense announced it had established a UAP Task Force.

Considering unidentified aerial phenomena might pose a problem for national security, that's a smart thing to do. Defense agencies across the globe are concerned UAP might be spy planes from a rival nation, for instance. Investigating any reports makes perfect sense.

"UAPs represent a real issue in terms of airspace incursions, drones and the challenge of identifying things that are too far away," West said. 

But there's a gaping chasm between seeing something in the sky that you can't explain and believing it comes from another planet. 

And yet, more and more publications are seriously entertaining the idea of E.T. without rigorously evaluating the available evidence. In a not-an-April-Fools'-Joke piece earlier this year, the Washington Post published a column that suggested "perhaps we need at least to consider the possibility that these UAPs might also be extraterrestrial in origin."

These types of claims make the scientific method look pointless and provide a false balance.


Remember the monoliths? That wasn't aliens.

Tim Keller

As far as we can tell, there's no life in the solar system (despite what some Mars fanatics might have you believe), and right now there's no evidence of life outside it, either. 

There are some tough questions here: Where did the spacecraft come from? How did they get here? Why didn't we see them arrive? Why are they here? Is there any evidence in other countries? What are these aliens trying to do? Is our entire understanding of the laws of physics broken? 

Despite our ever expanding stockpile of camera phones with triple-digit-megapixel resolutions and zooms, we're still relying on grainy footage from years ago, captured by Navy vessels off the coast of wherever to provide the strongest evidence for aliens? Baloney. Codswallop. 

If aliens are visiting here now, in the 21st century, someone would have stumbled upon unexplainable debris somewhere in the desert and been vaporized by the latent gamma radiation contained within. Or there'd be a children's birthday party in Passo Fundo with shaky-cam footage of them strolling by a window. 

And speaking of parties, no, I am no fun at them.

Where are you?

I'm not here to tell you to stop believing in E.T. 

Science is about accruing evidence with repeated observations. Ideas must be testable. It's perfectly reasonable to call for further investigation into UFOs or UAP, but our current understanding of the universe should lead us to believe there's some pretty simple explanations for them. 

West, the skeptic at Metabunk.com, has provided a trove of reasoned arguments and analysis of the UFO videos, including the two videos reported by The New York Times and another dropped by To The Stars Academy, an organization founded by Blink-182 singer Tom Delonge. He explains them succinctly, suggesting the Tic Tac-shaped objects could be balloons, distant planes and infrared glare from engines. And more recent reports of "pyramid UFOs" in the sky were shown to likely just be planes, too.


Tom Delonge, pop punk royalty and also very into aliens.

Jeff Kravitz/Getty

There are detractors, of course. UFO enthusiasts, West says, are often very passionate and don't like their experiences being questioned. His investigations into other conspiracy theories, such as those surrounding chemtrails, haven't received quite as much heat. "I've got far more hate from bits of the UFO community than from any of the other conspiracy theories," he said.

"Even the flat-Earthers are nicer."

We've seen the grim consequences of misinformation and pseudoscience during the pandemic. Overhyped media reports that lend legitimacy to bunk science have led to real-world consequences. 

Belief in alien UFOs might not seem, on the surface, as dangerous as the discredited belief vaccines cause autism, but as theories pick up steam, they can mutate into something more troublesome. Just look at Pizzagate.

Nevertheless, the Pentagon's report is just a few weeks away. The "truth" will be out there -- in your Twitter feed, on your news apps and playing on your local TV station. Will it prove we're not alone in the universe? I doubt it, but the headlines might make you want to believe.