Yes, I have it on good authority, UFOs do exist! However, all this means is that there are objects, apparently flying, which have not been identified; it does not necessarily mean that they come from outer space, with or without aliens aboard.

The term ‘flying saucer’ was first used in 1947 when Kenneth Arnold, flying his small plane in Washington State, spotted some strange, round objects travelling at great speed in between the peaks of the mountains.

Thousands more reports of strange objects in the sky quickly followed, and the UFO craze was underway.

It has been possible to explain the great majority of UFO sightings: meteors, weather balloons, aircraft (including secret military aircraft) from odd angles or in strange lighting, birds, lightning balls, the planet Venus through fuzzy light, satellites, hoaxes and so on.

Some sightings, however, have not been so easy to explain, and so, as good scientists, we have to continue to keep an open mind.

Most astronomers seem to agree that the nigh-inexpressible vastness of the universe makes it likely that we do have company out there; that there could even be a great many other planets with intelligent life.

But what do we really know about it?

There are two types of approach to this:

UFOS AND
ALIEN ABDUCTIONS
There is nothing wrong with science fiction. Some of our most wonderful achievements first made an appearance in science fiction stories.

 

And there is nothing wrong with science fantasy, as long as we see it for what it is, and don’t start believing it’s real.
On the one hand we have scientists using the most advanced equipment possible to search the depths of space for the faintest signal of any kind, the merest hint of contact or communication.   At the other end of the spectrum are those who firmly believe that aliens are in regular contact with us, abduct people regularly and have even impregnated some of our women!
This approach can be seen in the fictional film ‘Contact’ (based on a book by Carl Sagan) (1) which explores the conditions necessary for extra-terrestrial life to exist, the science of space travel, how other worlds could possibly go about making contact with us and so on.    
  It is of course theoretically possible that alien beings travel many billions of miles to visit us, but it seems unlikely.

No one knows how many stars there are in our galaxy, the Milky Way. Estimates vary between 100 billion and 400 billion. And how many galaxies in the universe? About 140 billion. That makes 100,000,000,000 multiplied by 140,000,000,000 stars, and probably a comparable number of planets!

So the chances of life out there are certainly good, but for all practical purposes it seems safe to say that we are alone.

Aliens could of course be good, as in the film ET, or they could be very bad, as in the book War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells.

Should we be relieved or sorry that a visit is unlikely?

(If it turns out that some alien civilisation has invented a way to travel faster than the speed of light, or to make use of worm-holes or other short-cuts through space, then the authors will have to eat their words!)

  Distances are just too great.

The astronomer Carl Sagan has calculated that if there is life on other planets, they are likely to be on average about 200 light years from each other, and a similar distance from us. How far away is this? It is a distance so vast that it is really beyond our conception (bearing in mind that it takes light one second to travel the equivalent of 7.5 times round the earth).

     
Hoaxes
As mentioned above, hoaxes can explain some but not all UFO sightings. The study of hoaxes can shed light on how big stories can grow from small beginnings.
   
One hoax was carried out as a prank by schoolboys in America in 1966.
  They obtained some surplus weather balloons and over a period of time would release a balloon with a lighted red flare hanging from it. As the UFO reports came in, they ranged across blinking lights, multi-coloured lights, a flying saucer with a searchlight trained on the ground and an object with ray-like spokes. (2)
Roswell
One of the most famous incidents occurred at Roswell in America, where a flying disc was reported to have crashed in 1947. The wreckage was made up of foil, string, tape, rubber etc., and was soon identified as the remains of a weather balloon. More recently it has been revealed to have been a U.S. spy balloon. Despite this the legend has grown that the debris was from a space craft and that alien bodies had been recovered. In 1995 British television viewers were stunned to see film of an autopsy on one of the ‘aliens’ from Roswell. It was claimed that the autopsy was secretly carried out and filmed by the U.S. military in 1947. A rubbery, alien-looking body is being cut open by hooded figures dressed in white. Many thought that this was proof that the U.S. government had been covering up and lying about the existence of UFOs. Where does the evidence lead us? Joe Nickell, who is both a private investigator and a stage magician, set about investigating the alien autopsy. Experts from many fields were asked to examine the film. Firstly, the pathologist was holding the scissors incorrectly and proper autopsy procedures were not followed; the film’s security markings turned out to be fake; the ‘scalpel’ used to cut into the body was a special effects knife, and so on. With these and other clues Nickell declared the ‘autopsy’ to be a hoax. (3)
 
ALIEN ABDUCTIONS
If the first-hand reports are to be believed aliens from outer space have been entering people’s bedrooms at night, carrying them up against their will to a spacecraft on beams of light, and performing surgical operations on them before returning them to their beds! The ‘victims’ feel as though they are biological specimens. There is sometimes communication between humans and aliens, and time sometimes seems to stand still.
   
Tens of thousands of people in the United States alone believe they have had experience of alien abductions over the past 30 years. Can they all be lying or deluded?

Many of the abductees give every appearance of being honest and intelligent people.

So what on earth (so to speak) can be going on?

   
A couple of case studies may shed some light on the phenomenon...    
Betty and Barney Hill
In September 1961 Betty and Barney Hill were driving down a deserted road. Betty noticed some strange lights in the sky, so they stopped the car, got out and studied the object through binoculars. Betty thought it was a UFO but Barney thought it might be a plane. On the way home they began to hear beeping noises and to feel very tired. Other strange things happened and their sense of time was distorted. They both found the experience very traumatic.

Hypnosis... and an incredible story comes to light
Betty began to have recurring nightmares about being abducted, and Barney suffered from stress and panic attacks. After three years they decided to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Simon, who used hypnosis to try to find the source of their problems. It seemed to work, and under hypnosis Betty began to tell the incredible story of how they had been taken out of the car by some strange looking men, and up a ramp into the spacecraft. The aliens performed various tests on them including the insertion of a needle into her navel, which was painless. The aliens did not understand English very well and certain words mystified them. They laughed at Barney taking his false teeth out. (4)

 
The doubts creep in
Not surprisingly Dr. Simon had his doubts about the Hills’ story. He strongly suspected that the source of the story was Betty’s dreams. There were many inconsistencies in her story, which were characteristic of nightmares. Barney remembered far fewer details than Betty but what he did remember conflicted with her account in several ways. Dr. Simon’s report suggested that the fantastic abduction story was more imaginary than factual, but this did not stop the newspapers from running it on their front pages. Not surprisingly the incidence of alien abductions began to multiply from that point onwards.
   
Interestingly, Betty Hill later began to have doubts about her own experience, and to develop a more sceptical approach.
  In her book ‘A Common Sense Approach to UFO’s’ (5) she recalls the following incident at a party at her house. A hypnotist offered to uncover the guests’ alien abductions. The guests laughed since they all knew they had never been abducted. A woman volunteer was put into a light trance and questioned. To everyone’s astonishment she began to recall being taken on board a UFO, being made pregnant and giving birth to a ‘big, fat baby girl’. Later the UFO came back and took the baby away. None of this was true, so what had made her imagine it? It turned out that the woman had had a big baby doll at the age of five, which had disappeared one day. Its name was the same one she had used in the trance.
    At the time of the Hills’ experience hypnosis was thought to be an effective way of unlocking memories in the human mind. It was thought that when we suffer from a terrifying experience, our brain might try to protect us from memories of it by blocking them out of our conscious mind. The hypnotist then tries to probe and bring out these unconscious memories. The problem with this method is that the interviewer could easily end up suggesting what the patients should remember rather than allowing a free recall.
The fish-shaped UFO
The next example has no easy explanation. Two men reported seeing a large group of people standing like zombies around a fish-shaped UFO in the centre of a remote town. Then an hour and a half simply ‘went missing’, which is common in abduction experiences (assumed to be the time it takes for the aliens to take the victims to their spacecraft and carry out their investigation), and the next thing the men recall is the group of people dispersing to their homes. The story received much publicity, and seemed more credible because the men’s stories matched each other. (6) When investigators finally tracked down the town, however, they were unable to find anyone with any recollection of the incident. There are several possible explanations for this: (a) The onlookers all stayed mum because they didn’t want too many sightseers in their town. (b) The onlookers were all brainwashed by the aliens into forgetting the whole experience. (c) One of the two men hallucinated and the other just went along with it. (d) The two men were hoaxers and did it for a laugh or a bet. What do you think? Do you go for a ‘worldly’ or an ‘other-worldly’ explanation? Some ‘victims’ of abductions have turned out to have had an obsessive interest in UFOs, or to be prone to fantasy, or to be suffering from some kind of drug withdrawal, and so on. Others have appeared to be perfectly normal.

Bear in mind (i) that hypnosis is based on the power of suggestion and (ii) that patients under hypnosis may not be able to tell the difference between fact and fantasy. In this way false memories may be planted, and for this reason testimony given under hypnosis cannot be used in court. (See also altered states of consciousness below)

Altered states of consciousness
Although difficult to prove, many scientific researchers believe that altered states of consciousness of one kind or another could play a part in many abduction experiences. This means that our brain changes in the way it sees, feels, thinks etc., for example when we dream, enter a ‘trance’ or come under the influence of drugs. One such altered state of consciousness, referred to as sleep paralysis, has proved a productive line of research in recent years (e.g. Blackmore).(7) This is a feeling that your body is paralysed, and occurs during that ‘twilight’ state when you are half awake and half asleep. As many as 34% of children and 46% of adults in the U.K. have reported experiencing sleep paralysis at some time.

Sometimes this is accompanied by hallucinations, strange noises or voices, feeling as though your body has changed size or position, seeing unusual lights or patterns, a feeling of flying etc. Not surprisingly the combination of paralysis and hallucination can be terrifying. Different people and different cultures tend to interpret these experiences in different ways. In Britain ghosts and spirits are more popular than extra-terrestrials when trying to explain our experiences during sleep paralysis. But where aliens and UFOs are continually in the public eye, as in America, they are more likely to get the blame.

Postscript
A survey carried out on 1,359 U.K. adults in October 2012 by Opinion Matters found that:
  • 52 percent of the population in the U.K. believe that UFO evidence has been covered up because widespread knowledge of their existence would threaten government stability
  • One in 10 people has reported seeing a UFO
  • A quarter more men than women claim to have seen UFOs
  • 20 percent of respondents believe UFOs have landed on Earth
  • More than five million British citizens believe the Apollo moon landings were faked
These differences are highly significant in themselves since they suggest that abduction experiences depend more upon our interests, experiences and expectations rather than any actual, objective events. It is significant that alien abductions tail off strikingly once you cross the Mexican border.  

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