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Thursday 18 January 2024

Unidentified Doesn't Always Mean Anomalous

How It Works magazine, November 2021

Just over ten years ago, in a post called Anomalous Progress, I bemoaned the fact that "there’s been no perceptible progress in understanding anomalous phenomena in the last 20 years". Having closely followed ufology during those 20 years, this lack of meaningful progress was something I found genuinely depressing. As I said in that earlier post, I wasn't talking about superficial "progress" in terms of the evolving sophistication of the UFO sightings themselves (which undeniably did occur), but tangible progress in understanding what was behind them.

So it's heartening to see how the situation has improved in the decade since I wrote that post. First there were the so-called "Pentagon UFO videos" released from 2020 onwards, as summarised in the text box above (extracted from a longer cover feature I did for How It Works #157 back in 2021 - you can still buy an electronic copy of it for just £3.99). Soon after that came the setting up of the Pentagon's All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office, followed by NASA's Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena Independent Study Team. As regards the kind of "genuine progress" I was hoping for, the latter is particularly significant because (despite what some people believe) NASA is a purely scientific organization, not a military one. An added bonus for me is the fact that the NASA team was chaired by David Spergel, who I used to know (I'll come back to that later) - so I know he's a first-class scientist and not a mere bureaucrat.

With the renewed interest in UFOs - or UAPs as they're often known in official circles - I've been seeing more about the subject in the media, and something has just dawned on me which (in all the decades I've been interested in UFOs) had never occurred to me before. An assertion you often see, made equally by UFO believers and open-minded investigators, goes something like this:

The great majority of UFO reports, when subjected to thorough examination, turn out to be natural phenomena, human-made technology or hoaxes. But there's always a small number of cases that can't be ascribed to these categories, and so remain unidentified.

Now, there's nothing wrong with that statement as it stands. But many people saying or hearing it (including myself, until recently) understand it to mean that those few remaining cases have been proven not to be natural phenomena, human-made technology or hoaxes. By definition, therefore, they must be anomalous - i.e. either alien spacecraft or some exotic or paranormal phenomenon. But is this really true?

The answer depends on the quality of the data. If you have high-definition video, together with multiple independent eyewitness reports, a precise record of the time and location, and maybe radar data as well, then yes - if it still defies explanation it probably is a genuine anomaly. But most UFO sightings aren't like that. If you can't ascribe an obvious explanation to them, it's most likely a consequence of poor quality data. It's true they remain "unidentified", but that's not the same as saying they're anomalous. To give an extreme example, if you see a single black pixel in a single video frame of the daytime sky, then it may well be "unidentified" but it's highly unlikely to be "anomalous". It's more likely to be an insect or an instrument glitch.

When the military first started using the term UAP, it stood for "Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon", which - as a purely descriptive term - is a definite improvement on UFO for "Unidentified Flying Object". If you see something in the sky that you can't identify, how do you know it's a "flying object"?  That's a form of implicit identification in itself, since it rules out misidentified astronomical objects or unusual meteorological phenomena. But now UAP seems to have morphed into "Unidentified Anomalous Phenomenon", which - in light of what I've just said - is a backward step, because it misses the point that "unidentified" may simply result from poor quality data.

If you think about it, "Unidentified Anomalous Phenomenon" is a pretty sloppy term. I mean, it implies you could have an "Identified Anomalous Phenomenon", which is a contradiction in terms. I hope it wasn't my former colleague, David Spergel, who came up with it! If you look at his Wikipedia page, you'll see that he "went to the University of Oxford as a visiting scholar in 1983, where he studied with James Binney." A little later, in 1984-86, I worked for James as a postdoctoral research assistant, and saw David on several occasions when he came over from the States during that period (the work I did at Oxford was an extension of Spergel's). As proof that I'm just one degree of separation away from NASA's top UFO expert, here's an excerpt from James Binney's bibliography that has my name at the top and Spergel's at the bottom:



Kid said...

I'm interested to know, AM, whether you believe that there are actually alien life forms who have visited Earth, or are you an 'agnostic'? Maybe you've said before, but if so, I can't recall reading it. In my own case, I'm not quite sure what I believe. (Apologies if that's a weak comment, but I try to show support for your blog even when I don't have anything meaningful to say.)

Andrew May said...

Thanks Kid - I don't think that's a weak comment at all. In a sense I'd just echo your "I'm not quite sure what I believe" - not because I haven't thought about it, but because I view all the claims and speculations more in terms of how interesting I find them, rather than how credible they are. If I was put on the spot, I'd say that (a) some of the more puzzling UFO sightings and reported encounters may well be genuinely "anomalous" or paranormal, but probably nothing to do with intelligent extraterrestrials; (b) some of the alleged government cover-ups and conspiracies are almost certainly real, but most likely only hiding secretive human-built technology; (c) it's statistically quite likely that aliens (in person or via robotic probes) have visited the Earth or its vicinity in the past, but that was probably thousands or millions of years ago.

Colin Jones said...

I've witnessed only one strange event in the sky but it probably had a perfectly rational explanation. About 20 years ago on a summer evening around sunset I saw a brilliant flash of light low in the western sky. At first I was astonished because I'd never seen anything like that before but after a few moments I realised it must have been sunlight being reflected off a satellite in orbit or even the International Space Station (at the time the sun had only just set and it wasn't dark yet). If I was the type to believe in UFOs I might have jumped to a different conclusion!

Andrew May said...

The ISS or a satellite is an excellent guess, Colin, as that's exactly the situation when they're most easily visible - when it's just got dark at ground level, but the Sun is still shining on objects a few hundred kilometres up in Earth orbit. That could apply to an alien spaceship too, of course, but all things considered that's a little less likely! These days it's always possible to check satellite visibilty at your location on websites like