NASA's public meeting on the study of UAPs wasn't really about offering revelations around extraterrestrial life. But the scientific literacy it advanced was far more important.

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In a four-hour public meeting on Wednesday, May 31, NASA gathered a team of scientific experts to discuss the role of the US civilian space agency in monitoring and analyzing Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena (UAPs). Associate Deputy Associate Administrator for Research Daniel Evans chaired this conversation, which he described as the “first deliberative actions” for a team that will release further findings in a few months. He highlighted that the openness and transparency of this dialogue was an important part of scientific process: one that would hopefully clarify the importance of this research for state security, as well as for the pursuit of greater knowledge about the natural world.

Of course, from the comments running alongside the YouTube broadcast, you know full well what most people were tuning in for: a definitive answer about UFOs, an older term for UAPs that has become synonymous with “aliens”. (Another older term was Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon, but this has been updated to broaden our inclusion parameters for unidentified events.)

What instead emerged from this four-hour deep dive was a clear attempt at improving scientific literacy: by outlining actual UAP incidence rates, highlighting technological limitations, calling attention to social and political limits on research, and discussing the very nature of the data under evaluation.

There were a few reasons for this focus, among them the unfortunate reality that researchers who take on this field of study, as Evans and Associate Administrator Nicola Fox emphasized, have been the subject of extreme harassment campaigns. These harassment campaigns don’t just hinder the work of current scientists, but also cultivate a culture of stigma around reporting UAPs in the first place. This is a stigma that the team hopes its more transparent approach to the topic will help to dispel.

Maturity is a rare attribute in our current infotainment moment, but a welcome one. So let’s take a look at some of what this team actually reported, and how it offers a pathway to improved scientific literacy going forward.

While we work to improve a general understanding of statistics and probability, this NASA-based research team is doing something equally ambitious: laying down a foundation of serious study into UAPs.

Key takeaways from the first public meeting

UAP sightings reviewed by this committee come from unclassified data. UAP sightings are not classified simply because of image contents. Rather, some UAP images are classified because of the sensor platforms used to gather this data. Issuing UAP data from certain sources could compromise key components of the state’s security network. This is a critical distinction, because a key component of UFO conspiracy theories holds that the government is actively withholding UAP data to keep people from learning “the truth”.

The more mundane reality is that security considerations factor heavily into information gathering practices, and not just to protect fighter jets and ground-based military equipment. As Director Sean Kirkpatrick of the All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO) later stressed, the US has the largest “collection apparatus” on the globe, and it could point those sensory devices all across the US to help optimize scientific data used in UAP research. However, doing so would mean compromising privacy in civilians’ backyards: also not ideal.

By using only unclassified data for its research, even if this body of data often includes low-quality images, the team was also better able to uphold its guiding principles of openness and transparency, and to collaborate with scientists across the globe. Anyone can visit Data.Nasa.Gov to review its open data.

UAPs are rare, but important to review not just for the possibility of extraterrestials, but also with respect to state security from other, terrestrial threats.

Although the agency receives anywhere from 50 to 100 new reports of UAPs every month, only 2 to 5 percent of the overarching data set is “possibly really anomalous”, according to Kirkpatrick. If that number seems imprecise, it’s only because most of the data has not been effectively calibrated to date. One major task for the team will be to help clarify standards for data inclusion going forward, based in part on the variable quality of initial sensory equipment.

In 2021, the Pentagon released a report exploring how low-integrity data complicates its ability to evaluate reported UAP sightings. Of 144 cases, 143 were generally explainable with terrestrial sources, but due to the quality of the data they could not all be definitively described as such. Only one incident remained more significantly inexplicable. In 2022, the Pentagon’s report included 510 sightings, including 366 from after the creation of AARO in July 2022. Of these, 171 remain “uncharacterized and unattributed”, and are of concern to the organization because the majority take place in restricted airspace, and otherwise present a possible threat to flight safety.

The team offered anecdotes to illustrate the difficulty in analyzing UAPs. A classic example in astronomy comes from a kitchen microwave that Australian scientists were using to heat their lunches, and which for a time was giving false readings that seemed to be arriving from outer space. (PhD student Emily Petroff clued into what was really happening when she noticed that the signals were only appearing during business hours.) Another anecdote came from former astronaut Scott Kelly, who thought he had seen a UFO while flying over Virginia Beach. It was, in fact, a Bart Simpson balloon. The light had played tricks on him during an earlier flyby.

Research equipment is both wide-ranging and still limited in scope, and the fragility of international partnerships complicates its use. Far from UAPs being a field of research simply dedicated to looking for evidence of extraterrestrial life, the work done by UAP data assessment teams has significant implications for US military readiness in a world of international conflict.

However, this dual mission complicates matters on two fronts. First, when military forces are involved, there is significant pressure for researchers to rule definitively on UAPs that might reflect a more imminent terrestrial security risk. This pressure heightens institutional stigma about the utility of this research, if it cannot be rushed to yield definitive results for the US Armed Forces faster. AARO has had to advocate from its outset for an approach to UAP research that does not rely solely on the Department of Defense, but rather includes a much more robust and open-data-set-oriented collaboration between AARO, external academics, external intelligence communities, and other civilian public offices.

Secondly, global collaboration is a challenge for precisely those military motivations underpinning a significant portion of UAP research. When UAPs emerge in areas with fraught political arrangements with the US, it is a far more difficult task, scientifically, to acquire all the necessary intel required to rule definitively on the provenance of any given anomaly. Our ability to more effectively address the possibility of extraterrestrial life is significantly compromised by all our terrestrial conflicts.

Broader takeaways

The key scientific literacy question here comes down to confidence intervals. Scientists will err on the side of caution, noting that from the data they have on hand (often grainy, and often ill-defined in contrast to the object’s backdrop) there is a limit to how much they can rule definitively on any given UAP’s origin. Calibration between different data sets is also still a work in progress, especially when dealing with sensory equipment that only has a military/defense objective, and thus has not undergone the same rigor of scientific testing needed for researchers to rule out other possibilities from a well-established normative baseline.

But in a culture of widespread scientific illiteracy, the mere implausibility of ever ruling with a high degree of confidence on many cases in past data sets creates room for imaginative possibilities. The unscientific nature of those alternatives, though, comes from the very fact that many will leap from a low-confidence assessment of a possible weather balloon (for example) to a much more definitive assumption that it “must be aliens”. Such leaps of logic are detrimental to more comprehensive scientific study: both on the surface, and for what they yield in the way of ensuing harassment for active researchers in the field.

While we work to improve a general understanding of statistics and probability, though, this NASA-based research team is doing something equally ambitious: laying down a foundation of serious study into UAPs, which by outlining the weaknesses in current data collection methods might offer us our best chance at far more comprehensive data sets going forward. We may never be able to resolve all the anomalous data presently on file, but in keeping with the ever-self-correcting nature of the scientific method (as evidenced in public meetings like these, and in the promised report to follow later this summer), we might just be able to hope for a more empirical resolution to these pressing human questions down the line.

For anyone disappointed by the lack of grand conclusions about the existence of alien life, do consider Jonathan MS Pearce‘s latest publication, written in collaboration with Dr. Aaron Adair. Aliens and Religion: Where Two Worlds Collide won’t offer more answers than NASA currently can about the Big Question, but it’s a much more well-rounded imaginative playground, with respect to considering the cultural and theological implications of super-sentient life ever showing up on our pale blue dot.

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.

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