Making Sense of UFOs

Link to Google Doc

It has been a while since my last post, I have been busy trying to finish my thesis. Now that it is finished, I finally have time to dive into all the topics I want to write and learn more about. 

Therefore, I want to quickly comment on a recent trend which I find extremely interesting. In the two months that have passed since my essay on aliens and reasoning, talk about UFOs and aliens have increased by a lot. One of the main perpetrators in this is, not unexpectedly, Robin Hanson who has continued to explore both the implications of his model of Grabby Aliens and the taboos that surround theorizing about UFOs. 

But I also see more and more people, who have previously not been explicitly interested in either aliens or UFOs, comment on them. Further, more and more government officials, both former and current, have been expressing UFO-positive sentiments in interviews the past two years. One such example is former CIA director John Brennan, who in a podcast with the economist Tyler Cowen expressed that we are going to be seeing phenomenon we cannot explain. This is all evidence that the narrative on UFOs is shifting. From being a taboo topic, only seriously considered by conspiracists, to a topic that is seriously debated and talked about in media and the intellectual world. This narrative shift has been aided by the American government’s increasingly serious stance towards UFOs. In 2017, three declassified videos of unidentified aerial phenomena from the US Navy were leaked. At the same time, it was revealed that the Pentagon had a special task force for the investigation of such sightings. 

The changed narrative and the increased seriousness of the government are reasons to be excited for the coming report from intelligence agencies. Six months ago, the Pentagon and the US director of national intelligence were asked to deliver a report on unidentified aerial phenomena to Congress. The report is scheduled to be released in the coming month. 

I have no idea what to expect of the report, so I figured I will go through my thought process and my expectations below. For the below paragraphs, I define aliens as intelligent life that is not from earth. 

First of all, I think it is reasonable to have a very low prior for UFOs actually being aliens. There are two reasons for this. (1) The universe is vast and (2) aliens being in our solar system or close to it would likely be recognized before them coming here. This means that I believe it is more likely that we detect aliens far away before they visit earth. Metaculus currently has an open prediction on whether alien technosignatures will be detected before 2050, and the median prediction is a 5% chance of it happening. This is quite high, but technosignatures are also quite different from aliens actually visiting earth. Leaning on this and my current understanding of the available evidence, my prior is less than 1 in 100000 chance of UFOs being aliens. (On the other hand, I think it is highly probable that aliens exist in our or one of our neighboring galaxies.)

Given that the prior I have is very low, the evidence for UFOs being aliens would need to extremely strong for me to be even close to convinced that aliens have visited earth. Unfortunately, the evidence provided so far, in the declassified videos, have not been very strong. There are many possible explanations for the videos that have nothing to do with aliens. 

Still though, I expect that this report may bring some clarity into the investigations made by government agencies. It may even be that enough evidence is presented to warrant an update. If there are cases where intelligence agencies cannot come up with explanations, then I think that provides reason to update marginally in favor of aliens having visited earth. Still, not knowing how to explain a sighting of a UFO does not mean that it is an alien.

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