In UFO circles, much fuss has been made about a recent response by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to two petitions on extraterrestrial/human communications, posted on a government website. Phil Larson, who was tasked to respond, has been accused of everything from lying, to cover-ups, to gross incompetence. But the real problem lies with the inappropriate and fundamentally flawed content of the petitions themselves -- not with the government reply to them. The critics seem to have lost sight of what the petitions actually said and did not say, while insulting and lashing out at Larson.
One petition asks the Obama administration to "immediately disclose the government's knowledge of and communications with extraterrestrial beings" and the other to "formally acknowledge an extraterrestrial presence engaging the human race." The former asks for congressional hearings about "this subject" (communications with ET) while the latter requests the release of documents about "this phenomenon" (an extraterrestrial presence). Thousands of people signed on to the assumptions that extraterrestrial beings have been secretly talking to our government or somehow are involved with the whole human race. Try thinking about these bizarre and murky statements from the perspective of a scientifically-oriented government official. How is he to make sense of such absurd requests?
Neither petition had anything to do with the subject of UFOs, as properly defined; no request for data on UFOs was included. And, chances are, Larson knows very little, if anything, about the evidence for UFOs. Like most government scientists, he likely dismissed the subject long ago as baseless and therefore irrelevant to space policy, and has never looked into it. Consequently, it's entirely logical that Larson would not make the leap from the question of extraterrestrial communications to the issue of physical unidentified flying objects. Did the petitioners not expect that their requests would be taken at face value?
Without asking for acknowledgment of evidence for UFOs, you can't slam Larson for not providing it. He addressed the petitioners' concerns with an update on the current status of the scientific search for extraterrestrial life: "The U.S. government has no evidence that any life exists outside our planet or that an extraterrestrial presence has contacted or engaged any member of the human race. In addition there is no credible information to suggest that any evidence is being hidden from the public's eye." The "any evidence" here refers specifically to evidence of ET interacting with humans, not to evidence for UFOs. Within the realm of science and logic, his statement happens to be true. Unfortunately, the badly worded petitions asked for the wrong thing -- something obviously impossible for the White House to deliver. And, sadly for all of us, the subsequent attacks on Larson's statement (called "a travesty against the public" by one leading UFO researcher) will not serve to motivate officials to help our cause.
It's important to realize that these two petitions received attention only because they acquired the requisite 5,000 signatures (now the minimum is 25,000) along with hundreds of others. Larson's response does not represent some kind of formal government statement on the UFO issue -- far from it. Larson simply provided an obligatory scientific response to citizens seeking an announcement of contact with extraterrestrials. The significance of his statement should not be blown out of proportion or spun as something that it is not.
I would like to share some comments from government insiders whom I asked to read the petition about an "extraterrestrial presence," since this one garnered the most signatures. Ed Rothschild, principal with the Podesta Group, a leading government relations and public relations firm in Washington, is "a seasoned veteran at strategic communications" with "dynamic experience in both Congress and the public interest community," according to the firm's website. Ed has provided assistance to my group, the Coalition for Freedom of Information, in the past, and is an expert at positioning the UFO issue in Washington. His response to the petition is as follows:
Those who claim that extraterrestrials are here are simply propagating nonsense -- a non-scientific belief that defies credibility. This is counter-productive and undermines efforts to get serious government attention for the issue of the existence of life beyond our solar system. I can't imagine this silly statement would go anywhere except into government office waste baskets.
The only way to approach the issue of unexplained aerial phenomena in Washington and expect results is to present the facts and seek a legitimate inquiry into the small percentage of well-documented cases worthy of serious investigation. The approach represented by this petition has been shown many times before to be a failure. Further, those propagating this nonsense choose to make outrageous claims simply to get media attention, rather than focusing on the hard work that science requires.
Nick Pope, who worked for the UK's Ministry of Defense for 21 years and was in charge of the government UFO project in the 1990s, also has serious concerns:
Any statement that implies the government is lying is going to be counter-productive. When someone accuses you of being part of a cover-up, you can't and don't engage with them. I got this sort of thing all the time at the Ministry of Defense, and no meaningful dialogue was possible with such people. I simply gave them a polite brush-off, and I understand exactly why this is necessary within government. To get results, a constructive request should stress the reasons why the phenomenon is worthy of official investigation.
And what about members of Congress? The best I could do is approach a high level Hill staffer with knowledge of this issue, who wishes to remain anonymous. He works for a member from a relevant committee. "As is often said, politics is the art of the possible. Overly broad statements and fantastical claims of cover ups serve only to poison the well for anyone interested in advancing any subsequent suggestion for research or review of policies. Enthusiasm and conviction is no substitute for reason and evidence."
Scientists are a difficult bunch to convince. Yet theoretical physicist Michio Kaku acknowledged on national television that the strongest UFO cases cannot be explained and appear to defy the laws of physics. But when asked if this confirms that there is extraterrestrial life, Kaku replied "No, we don't have that smoking gun" yet. Astronomer Derrick Pitts was swayed by the same evidence, accepting it because it did not involve "fantastic claims of alien visitation."
Clearly, we can't make the leap from the existence of unknown airborne objects, for which we have proof, to claims of extraterrestrial communications, which can't be proven, if we want to appeal to scientists. Neal Lane, Rice University professor of Physics and Astronomy, was the director of the OSTP under President Clinton. "Implausible explanations for UFOs such as this one, made by enthusiasts and conspiracy theorists, are not effective in approaching government," he explained after reading the petition. "A strong case has already been made for a new U.S. role in cooperative investigations of UFO phenomena, involving U.S. cooperation with other countries in investigating the credible reports and making the results public." That "strong case" is the one I am proposing as an alternative rallying point, because it is steadily gaining the support of many key players who know how government works.
Despite our own personal beliefs about alien spaceships, extraterrestrials, or government cover-ups, we have to adopt a strategy that will work. Our assumptions and conclusions are completely irrelevant -- and can be harmful -- to this process. It is crucial to realize that the vast majority of U.S. officials are both uninformed about and uninterested in UFOs. And if they are open, they are so afraid of ridicule that they have limited capacity to act. We have to educate them by presenting refined, concise, and well-documented official data on the UFO phenomenon. Timing is important, too; unfortunately, an election year is not the time to attempt this.
An effective strategy involves establishing the fact that a UFO, by definition, is simply something unidentified (the acronym does not mean "alien spacecraft"); it helps to use the acronym UAP (unidentified aerial phenomena) whenever possible. The agnostic position, the scientifically sound one, acknowledges the accumulated evidence of an extraordinary, physical phenomenon but recognizes that we don't yet know what it is. Secondly, we need to provide a reason that government should care about UAP, such as pointing out that we could be vulnerable to exotic foreign spy planes or drones if we ignore reports; that these objects raise significant air safety issues; that we're losing potentially valuable scientific data about the nature of this recurring phenomenon. Thirdly, we have to invite government to engage in an investigation because we need its expertise, making its participation sound necessary and beneficial, rather than being accusatory.
Specifically, we need a small government office to serve as a U.S. focal point in the investigation of carefully selected cases, in cooperation with the international community. A staffer would have immediate access to all pertinent data and witnesses when investigating a UFO incident, working in conjunction with a qualified civilian oversight board. This proposal has received the support of generals, former and current government and military officials, scientists, and many other VIPs from around the world.
John Podesta, President Clinton's former chief of staff who served as co-chair of Obama's transition team, has been one of the more public proponents of what he calls "a new way forward." Labeling himself a "curious skeptic," he wrote in 2010 that "It is definitely time for government, scientists, and aviation experts to work together in unraveling the questions about UFOs that have so far remained in the dark." He says that the plan for a small U.S. government agency is "an idea worth considering."
Former Arizona Governor Fife Symington witnessed a spectacular UFO event while in office, but felt he had to keep that secret until ten years later. He knows from experience that change in government policy is desperately needed, and in response, he has publicly urged establishing this office, as have those in charge of government agencies investigating UAP in other countries.
I have gathered a powerful coalition of high level government, military and scientific experts who support a rational, scientific approach to the UFO problem, as outlined here. We are all fortunate that such respectable figures have offered advice on how to frame this sensitive issue and work effectively with our government. Doesn't it make sense to take our cues from them? I invite all of those who are serious about UFOs to align themselves with this well-tested, productive approach. Once we have even the smallest change in the official position -- such as acknowledgement that UAP are worthy of investigation -- the door is opened. After that, anything will be possible.