The Search for UFOs May Reveal Something More Valuable | Opinion

NASA, the most revered name in American science, recently announced they were convening a commission to investigate Unidentified Areal Phenomena (UAPs). The announcement made headlines because, unless you're a defense analyst or an air-traffic controller, there's only one reason to be interested in UFOs/UAPs, and that's aliens.

America's "space agency" picking up the UFO ball was bound to raise eyebrows and concerns for NASA's reputation. But if it's handled well, the commission could do more than shed much-needed light on UAPs. It could also give Americans a masterclass in the most basic, most important, and unfortunately, most boring topic in science: Standards of Evidence. They are the key to knowing if we are alone in the Universe or not.

The existence of life on other worlds is one of humanity's oldest and enduring questions. As a scientist who studies life in the universe, I get to see firsthand how after all those millennia of simply arguing over the question, we're finally poised to get answers. Those answers, however, have nothing to do with UFO/UAPs.

Instead, in the wake of radical discoveries of "exoplanets" orbiting distant stars and new technologies for observing those exoplanets, we astronomers believe we're ready to go life-hunting. The new telescopes we're launching now, and designing for the near future, will be able to detect biosignatures. Biosignatures occur when a distant planet is clothed in a biosphere whose life alters the host world's atmosphere in detectable ways. These new telescopes could also search for evidence of technological civilizations (i.e., technosignatures) like industrial chemicals in an exoplanet's atmosphere. The road to finding these signatures of life, intelligent or otherwise, will be long, but the remarkable fact is we are finally ready to get started.

SETI
The Very Large Array Observatorium in New Mexico is one of the places where scientists are working to find extraterrestrial life with the help of radio waves. plus49/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images

But as exciting as this prospect is, we won't ever be able to claim we've found life without those all-important Standards of Evidence. And it's those standards, stated clearly and followed precisely, that have everything to do with UFOs and NASA.

To see the importance of standards of evidence, let's take an example from my team's work. If my colleagues and I want to claim we've found a signature of industrial chemicals — and hence a civilization — in light coming from a distant planet, we expect the rest of the research community will come after us with the big guns drawn. Every aspect of our data — our evidence — will be poured over and torn apart. Did we use the telescope correctly? Did we mis-identify the atomic physics that created the signature? Most importantly, have we convincingly eliminated the many more mundane ways that our signal might arise? Only if our evidence passes those standards, which have been carefully formulated and codified by the entire research community, can we continue with our claim of finding alien life.

But when it comes to UAPS/UFOs there are no such standards. It's just a free-for-all. To date, there is simply no data — no evidence — strong enough to link them to alien life. Fuzzy videos and personal narratives, as engaging as they may be, are simply not enough to support such an extraordinary claim. They don't even come close to the standards used anywhere else in science, including the search for bio and technosignatures. Unfortunately, the history of UFOs is fraught with true believers remaining adamant that any evidence is enough because they already know. That is not how science can work in any field.

In the wake of the recent government reports and hearings, it does appear that something has been seen in the skies requiring an explanation. That explanation is far more likely to involve natural, or defense-related sources than an alien visitation. But there is no way to know until you do the work properly. That's what science is all about. That's what those standards of evidence are all about.

The real opportunity lying in the proposed NASA study is not just about what it finds. Instead, it's about showing the American people how NASA, and science in general, goes about the business of finding. Showing people how science and those Standards of Evidence work in a transparent way, and on a subject everyone is interested in, could be a powerful moment. It could also help highlight on how far we've come in the scientific search for biosignatures and technosignatures, a search that, unlike UFOs, is directly related to alien life.

There are dangers, however. In public discourse, as in science, the signal can get easily get lost in the noise. The mere fact that NASA, the space agency, is taking on the subject may be enough to reinforce the unfounded link between UAPs and aliens in many people's minds. The agency will have to walk a careful line between investigation/education and keeping far from the hall of mirrors that characterizes UFOs with its conspiracy culture. But the blessing of science is learning how to change your mind. The NASA study could show what an unbiased investigation looks like since its those kinds of studies that let science work so profoundly in our lives. You can't say beforehand where such an investigation will lead, but using those critical standards of evidence, you can know how to carry it forward.

Adam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester. A self-described "evangelist of science," Adam regularly writes and speaks about subjects like intelligent life forms in the universe, high-energy-density physics, space exploration and missions, climate change, and more.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.