Monday, March 18, 2024

No, the AARO report shouldn't make you more of a believer in alien visitors

When talking about alien visitation believers, Tyler Cowen is definitely one of the sharp ones.  He's a smart guy.  As far as I can tell, he never fell for Grusch and company's transparently absurd claims (which puts him one up on the New York Times).  He was also one of the few believers who caught the logical fallacy at the center of Harvard astrophysicist Avi Loeb's ʻOumuamua arguments.  In this crowd, he is definitely the leper with the most fingers.

This doesn't mean that Cowen's approach to the topic is free of motivated reason; it just means that his motivated reason is considerably more subtle and interesting.  His dismissive response to the AARO report ("a nothing burger") is a good place to start but first, a bit of context for those who came in late.

While we shouldn't underestimate the impact of sensationalistic popular pseudoscience from places like YouTube and the History Channel, the respectable case for extraterrestrial contact rests mainly on three pillars: declassified footage of anomalies observed by military pilots; claims from Harvard's Loeb that objects passing through the solar system or even entering our atmosphere were actually extraterrestrials spacecraft; and these statements by "whistleblowers" before Congress and in publications like the NYT.

In 2023, David Grusch, a United States Air Force (USAF) officer and former intelligence official, was interviewed by journalists and testified in a U.S. House of Representatives hearing. Grusch claimed that the U.S. federal government maintains a secretive UFO (or UAP) recovery and reverse engineering program and that it is in possession of "non-human" spacecraft along with their "dead pilots". In 2022, Grusch filed a whistleblower complaint with the U.S. Office of the Intelligence Community Inspector General (ICIG) to support his plan to share classified information with the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. He also filed a complaint alleging retaliation by his superiors over a similar complaint he made in 2021.

He claims to have viewed documents reporting that Benito Mussolini's government recovered a "non-human" spacecraft in 1933, which the Vatican and the Five Eyes assisted the U.S. in procuring in 1944 or 1945. Grusch claims that American citizens have been harmed and killed as a part of governmental efforts to cover-up that information. In response, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) stated that no evidence of extraterrestrial life had been discovered and that there was no verifiable information about the U.S. government or private aerospace companies possessing and reverse engineering any "extraterrestrial materials".

In a testimony given to the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Accountability in July 2023, Grusch repeated several of his claims under oath. Testimonies were also delivered by Ryan Graves, a retired fighter pilot, and David Fravor, a retired U.S. Navy commander, on their experiences related to UFOs. Grusch testified that he could not elaborate further in public, but offered to provide details to representatives in a sensitive compartmented information facility (SCIF).

While all the witnesses were from time to time a bit X-Files-ish, Grusch's charges were qualitatively different and far more serious.  Rather than saying that there are things going on that we can't explain, he claimed that not only were the explanations known, but that the government possessed definitive physical proof.  With that distinction in mind, take a look at Cowen's reaction to the report.

You’ll find plenty of (justifiable) claims that there are no dead bodies, no alien spacecraft have been recovered, no technology is being reverse engineered, there is nothing to Roswell, and so on.  ...  What you won’t find in this report is any mention of Nimitz, Gimbal, or any of the other more puzzling cases about observed objects — on multiple sensors with independent verifications — that defy current explanation ["Defy" is probably not the right word here, but we'll get back to this later -- MP].  No real discussion of the more serious pilot eyewitness reports (and no, these pilots are not saying they saw aliens, they are reporting they cannot explain what they saw).  ...

So overall there is no reason to revise whatever your current views might be, at least provided those views were not the crazy ones in the first place.  If anything, perhaps you should do a slight Bayesian update toward believing in a real puzzle, given that in a 45 pp. report the government is not willing to directly explain or even confront the most anomalous cases.

But as I just noted, Grusch's testimony was fundamentally different from that of Graves and Fravor,  They were pointing out a serious issue that required additional study. He was charging highly-placed government officials with engaging in a massive and probably criminal conspiracy. It was the latter that demanded an immediate investigation and comprehensive report.

From the introduction. [Emphasis added.]

The goal of this report is not to prove or disprove any particular belief set, but rather to use a rigorous analytic and scientific approach to investigate past USG-sponsored UAP investigation efforts and the claims made by interviewees that the USG and various contractors have recovered and are hiding off-world technology and biological material. AARO has approached this project with the widest possible aperture, thoroughly investigating these assertions and claims without any particular pre-conceived conclusion or hypothesis. AARO is committed to reaching conclusions based on empirical evidence.

So, to put it bluntly, Cowen argues that we should be more likely to believe that aliens are behind UAPs based on the fact that a government report didn't go out of scope to discuss the phenomena (even though they've been discussed elsewhere). 

Cowen singles out "Nimitz, Gimbal" so let's take a look the Pentagon UFO videos.

Science writer Mick West writing for the Guardian.

But my experience with the Chilean UFO immediately suggested a more mundane explanation: the infrared glare from the engines of a distant jet. Some investigation confirmed this was a very likely hypothesis. I looked up the camera’s patents; these revealed a de-rotation mechanism used to correct for “gimbal roll”, which would inevitably mean glares would rotate in the manner seen in the video. This is also probably why the navy gave it the code name “Gimbal”, rather than, say, “Flying Saucer”.

Other, less impressive videos (which UFO buffs also describe as being remarkable) have quickly succumbed to analysis. “Go Fast” was not actually going fast, and was consistent with a balloon drifting in the wind. “Tic Tac” did not show a craft moving like a ping-pong ball, but instead looked more like a distant plane with the apparent movement caused by the camera switching modes and performing gimbal rolls. “Green Pyramid” looked like “the best UFO footage of all time” for two days, then I pointed out it looked exactly like an out-of-focus airliner shot in night vision with a triangular aperture.

West again, this time quoted in Scientific American.

In recent years, both NASA and the Department of Defense have shown renewed interest in unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP). Some of this increased scrutiny has indeed been enlightening: “The recent UAP reports that came out in January … they listed a whole bunch of new UAPs, and the vast majority of the ones that they identified were balloons, simply because it’s such a common thing to be in the air,” West says. Among the UAPs that were actually full of hot air, it’s possible that some were performing surveillance on behalf of other countries. This explanation is much more likely than extraterrestrial activity.


People arguing that these videos can't be explained by mundane factors often rest much of their case on the reliability of the military pilots who made these reports. Astronaut Scott Kelly's comments are relevant here.

(Seriously, you need to watch this.)

The thing to remember here is that we are talking about anomalies, million-to-one events that are not unexpected when you look at the numbers.  It's a bit like a royal flush.  You would be surprised to see one in person, but not for them to show up occasionally in Las Vegas given that the number of games being played every year. Likewise when you consider all of the missions the military flies (and we're talking about over a decade's worth in the case of these videos), we expect to see a few freak events. Not only have there been explanations proposed for pretty much everything we've seen, but the frequency of freaks doesn't seem that far off from what we would expect.


  1. I really have no idea, but I'm guessing that with Cowen it's a mix of traditional science-fiction UFO fandom--the same sort of thing we saw back in the 1970s with people wanting to believe in ESP, Noah's ark, ancient astronauts, dolphins that talk, etc.--and a current feeling on Cowen's part that believers in space aliens are potential political allies. Maybe it's the idea that it's a government or media coverup, along with the general feeling that people who are against the government and the news media will support lower taxes and less business regulation? I'm not sure. In any case, I'm not saying that Cowen's openness to the space-aliens idea is insincere, just that it can be more pleasant to be open to ideas that are supported by your political allies.

    - Andrew

  2. I've noticed that neither scientists nor connoisseurs of fringe groups are even batting an eye at this round of UFOlogy. But although we've seen it all before, a generation or so has passed since it got any mainstream traction, which helps various politicians and reporters think they are seeing something new.

    This led to my favorite line on the subject, Kenneth Hite's observation that "credulous dupes are a renewable resource."