(The Hill) – Interesting. Frustrating. Potentially even “credible.”
But nothing that science can work on in its current form.
That was how physicists and astronomers interviewed by The Hill described recent allegations that the U.S. government has been hiding evidence of multiple alien crash sites.
To take those claims beyond buzzy conjecture, the country needs a plan to acquire more hard data, scientists said.
On Wednesday the House Oversight Committee will hold controversial hearings about “unidentified aerial phenomena,” or UAP.
Those hearings will focus on eyewitness accounts by U.S. military pilots of what have appeared to be strange craft moving in ways that known human technology cannot, and on the broader claims of a cover-up made by former Air Force and intelligence official David Grusch.
The hearings are part of a broader — and unusually bipartisan — congressional mainstreaming of a long-taboo question: Has the U.S. military made contact with craft or creatures from another world?
In July, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation that would require the Pentagon to release any information it has gathered around contact with “non-human intelligences,” among other UAP.
But as an old scientific saying goes, the plural of anecdote isn’t data — and scientists told The Hill that the trouble with all these claims by Grusch and others isn’t that they’re impossible.
It’s that while they are compelling, they give the scientific apparatus almost nothing to work with.
In June, Grusch told NewsNation that as an official with the Defense Department’s National Reconnaissance Office looking into UAP, he became aware of a secret “crash retrieval” program to which he was denied access.
“These are retrieving non-human origin technical vehicles, you know — call it spacecraft, if you will — non human, exotic origin vehicles that have either landed or crashed?” Grusch said.
Beyond his own status as a decorated veteran and former intelligence officer, Grusch was unable to provide any hard evidence for his claims — though he says he was shown classified documents, he has not released them.
But he said the Pentagon has up to a dozen alien spacecraft — complete with the bodies of pilots.
When Grusch’s interview first aired, one prominent astronomer described his immediate response as “frustration.”
“It’s so exciting, but it’s another example of personal testimony, and nothing beyond that,” said David Kipping, an astrophysicist at Columbia University who specializes in the search for life on worlds around other stars.
Congress is right to be intrigued, Kipping said. Grusch’s claims built on years of leaked Pentagon videos and eyewitness accounts of what appear to be aircraft behaving in bizarre and even otherworldly ways.
These have attracted attention at the highest levels of Congress and the Defense Department for decades: In 2017, the New York Times released evidence of a secret Pentagon UFO-spotting program begun at the behest of onetime Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada.), and in 2020, the Pentagon itself released three grainy videos of UAP.
These are part of a larger investigation within the military, which included an unclassified 2021 report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
“In a limited number of incidents, UAP reportedly appeared to exhibit unusual flight characteristics,” officials from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence wrote in that report — though they emphasized that natural explanations existed.
And a 2023 follow-up to that report identified more than 170 instances worthy of further study — including some which “appear to have demonstrated unusual flight characteristics or performance capabilities.
All that, Kipping said, suggests that “something strange is going on.”
As a member of that internal UAP Task Force, Grusch is “a credible source,” Kipping added.
“There’s no reason to believe [he] is lying or disingenuous.”
But after 70 years of UFO culture wars, conspiracy theories and cynicism, “it is not enough to move the needle to have another anecdotal account,” Kipping said.
The questions Americans should ask about allegations of possible alien contact are the same ones they should ask of any new and dramatic claims, said Melissa Finucane, a sociologist at the RAND corporation and vice president of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“The first question I asked myself is: What is the motivation of the communicator sharing this information? Why are they sharing it? Do they have training or expertise? Could they have a bias?”
“And who benefits if we don’t apply a rigorous, systematic scientific approach to the claims?”
Finucane said other important questions about new claims are whether they’re “transparent” — arising from a public data set that scientists can double check — and whether they stem from sufficiently “independent” sources to rule out the risk of cross-contamination — or collusion — which could make claims less credible.
On almost every front except (possibly) the question of personal credibility, Grusch’s and the Pentagon accounts offer the same scientific problems inherent to anecdotes or isolated reports, scientists told The Hill.
“There’s nothing hard there,” David Spergel, an astrophysicist and the head of NASA’s internal advisory team on UAP.
Gruch’s claims, Spergel said, offer “no locations, no sites. It’s reports of reports.”
If the military does have such data, they need to release it, said Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb.
“If there are really objects from beyond earth, they should be shared by all humans. You can turn it into a matter of national security — ‘let’s have an advantage compared to other nations’ — but this is completely inappropriate.”
“If you do this, then you are not a true scientist,” he said. “You are a politician.”
But it’s also possible, Loeb conceded, that Grusch is wrong — that he is lying or was himself misled, possibly in an attempt to cover up secret (but very human) weapons programs.
“It’s hearsay. It could be fabricated; or it could be that some sections developed special weapons that they don’t want us to think the U.S. has.”
The broader problem with all eyewitness UAP accounts — even those from the military — is that “we have no idea what the false alarm rate is,” said Kipping of Columbia.
Kipping’s point is that some amount of mistaken identity is a constant feature of human life, and that when people encounter unexplained phenomena, they tend to slot it into culturally familiar categories.
This, he noted, is why UFO sightings are a largely American phenomenon — in the U.K., where he comes from, people are more likely to think the anomaly they saw was a ghost.
Kipping explained that even in a world without alien visits, pilots will still see unexplained phenomena sometimes — some of which they will report, and some (presumably smaller) portion of which will remain unexplained.
And without understanding how common the “anomalous phenomena” reported by pilots are, and how often they turn out to truly be unexplainable, we can’t really know how significant the Pentagon’s leaked videos really are.
If sightings of anomalies that ultimately prove to have other explanations happen “once a century, UAPs are really interesting because the recent sightings are way above baseline,” Kipping said.
“But if the number of mistakenly-identified UAPs is comparable to the number that we’re actually seeing, then we’re done — then none of them are likely, legit, and it’s probably just a sequence of errors.”
The 2021 Pentagon report similarly complains that data from fighter jet cameras and spooked pilots raises questions it cannot provide answers for.
The conclusion that without a comprehensive data-set, there’s no way to answer the question of how unusual the findings are has groups both public and private debating how to put such records together.
Spergel’s group will likely advise NASA to invest in gathering UAP data that is “well-calibrated, verifiable and testable” if it is to have any hope of making sense of the reports, he told The Hill.
Meanwhile, public and private institutions are working on a broad-based new push to get data related to extraterrestrial life — from new monitoring programs to “space archeology” and the U.S.’s own interstellar research mission — that might allow scientists to draw usable conclusions about both UAP and the possible existence of alien life.
Grusch’s claims that the government has sufficiently intact spacecraft for federal agencies to have pulled technology — and the remains of pilots — from them is plausible on at least one level, said Kipping, the Columbia astronomer: Intelligent alien life forms, if they do exist, may have reason to come to Earth.
Kipping said that if he were an extraterrestrial biologist studying Earth, this would be a great time to do so. “We face many existential threats, with problems like nuclear disarmament, climate change, transition to AI — so there are things about coming now that might make sense.”
Looking outward, Kipping added, that’s where he would want to check out: civilizations on the precipice and how they transition — or fail.
“If you’re going to monitor [our] planet at any time in its entire history, this is the most interesting,” he said.
And if aliens did want to study Earth at this “special phase in our development”? They wouldn’t have much choice but to send a ship, Kipping said.
In support of this point, he noted that earthbound scientists are trying to send a probe to the nearest solar system — the Breakthrough Starshot initiative — in part to investigate whether an apparently rocky, earthlike planet, there is in fact as friendly to life as it seems.
As a scientist who looks for alien life in the cosmos himself, Kipping is very aware of the shortfalls of using a telescope to do so. To remotely view the surface of another planet from light years away would require a telescope “larger than a star” — in which case, he noted, the subjects would be able to detect it reflecting light back at them.