What Is the Truth?


By Thomas E. Bullard


[Note: This is an edited, abbreviated version of an unpublished book by Thomas E. Bullard, Michael D. Swords, and others, tentatively titled The UFO Phenomenon.]

History was made one summer day two years after the end of World War II. Nine silvery objects gleaming in the afternoon sun astonished a private pilot, Kenneth Arnold, as they flew at extraordinary speed past Mount Rainier, Washington, “like saucers skipping over water.” Newspapers dubbed these objects “flying saucers” and tallied several thousand sightings over the next two weeks in June–July 1947. Flying saucers quickly entered both the common vocabulary and the popular imagination. Dismissed at first as a warm-weather craze, they confirmed their staying power by reappearing year after year, sometimes one here, one there, sometimes in great numbers, and all over the world. They became a common meme in movies, advertisements, jokes, cartoons, and toys, but the military did not laugh, and the public reacted with immediate curiosity.

Winston Churchill's 1952 memo on flying saucers.Over the years we have called them flying saucers, unidentified flying objects (UFOs), and unknown aerial phenomena (UAP), but by any name they have remained the best-known anomalous phenomenon of the past eight decades. Interest has surged and ebbed during this time, but it reached new heights after Navy pilots and radar operators reported a fast and maneuverable flying Tic Tac in 2004, while the public has learned of ongoing military sightings. A report from the US intelligence community to Congress on June 25, 2021, acknowledged 143 unidentified sightings since 2004. A Congressional hearing on May 17, 2022, raised the tally of unknowns to some 400. An old question has become new again: What are those things that trouble the skies and puzzle the minds of millions?

One person who asked this question was UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In 1952 he wrote, “What does all this stuff about flying saucers amount to? What can it mean? What is the truth?” Whether or not he was satisfied with the answers he received, others have shared his curiosity and come away dissatisfied with the explanations proposed. The reasonable initial assumption in 1947 was that the saucers represented a new type of aircraft, perhaps a missile or the anticipated supersonic jet. What really mattered was: Were they ours or a Soviet invention? Other answers insisted they were all misidentifications—just Venus, ordinary airplanes, balloons, mirages, and meteors transformed into something unusual by the desire to see a saucer. Psychologists and sociologists blamed Cold War nerves, mass hysteria, illusions, and delusions. The US Air Force pronounced UFOs to be a combination of errors, hoaxes, and excitement but nothing more, denying there was anything unusual to see even while their own personnel continued to report striking encounters.

An idea soon took hold with the public that UFOs were nothing less than interplanetary spaceships flown by aliens. This notion drew derision but also a large following that has endured, in part because Hollywood turned the idea into vivid imagery, also because convincing spokesmen like writer Donald Keyhoe and astronomer J. Allen Hynek espoused it. More vital still, grassroots interest sustained the subject even when the media and authorities ignored it. In the face of rejection and ridicule, countless people from all walks of life continued—and continue—to see aerial objects that do not fit any conventional boxes. For skeptics, all these reports mean that people fall easy prey to error and false belief. For others, the experiences are too real and strange just to fizzle out as mere mistakes.

These two positions predict opposing outcomes for where UFOs will land in the historical record. Will they survive only as a footnote, the story of a mid-century craze that outlasted its credibility and persisted for decades as a hollow and foolish belief, or will they prove to be one of the most momentous events of all time, the beginning of earth’s initiation into interplanetary society? The stakes are high since the truth will crush one passionately held belief, either the conventional status quo of established science or a new understanding of our place in the universe that has a power to change the world.

Both sides have dug in for long-term trench warfare and they wage it more often by debate than by scientific study, but UFO proponents no less than skeptics value the ways of science and crave its support. Most advocates, whether serious, superficial, or wingnut, want the UFO to be a physical object—something that, if you kick it, it goes clang. An inseparable corollary treats it as a machine produced by unearthly technology. The reports, the stories, and the popular image support these notions, but no physical evidence confirms them—no alien bodies, no landing on the White House lawn, no souvenir of undoubted extraterrestrial manufacture in hand. Most photographic evidence is, at best, ambiguous or beset with loopholes. Without irrefutable hard evidence, the existence of UFOs depends on reports, vast in number and attested by eyewitnesses whose word would stand tall in a court of law, but it’s still anecdotal testimony. Physical scientists and doubters alike often hammer down their arguments with dismissal of such evidence as fraught with shortcomings and worthless to establish the reality of unknown phenomena.

Despite these slippery foundations, proponents have promoted, argued, and defended the case for genuine UFOs in a published literature of enormous extent and an internet teeming with UFO-related websites. All this attention testifies to the popularity of the mystery, but the results are a mixed bag. We can read endless stories of dramatic sightings, chronological histories, case investigations, and even encounters with extraterrestrials. All of this is certainly impressive, if true—but therein lies the obstacle over which ufology so often stumbles.

For all its fundamental importance, establishing truth has remained an on-and-off, part-time occupation for UFO proponents. The rational and critical efforts to make sense of the data fall under a shadow of convoluted conspiracy theories, dubious claims, and questionable speculations. The investigators, researchers, journalists, historians, and scientists who treat the subject in good faith have to contend with writers and personalities who use UFOs for fun, profit, or promotion of some agenda without regard for facts or truth. UFO websites provide the ultimate Wild West environment where everyone can have their unchecked say, and claims buried deep in the Boot Hill of sound explanation resurrect again and again to haunt cyberspace with misinformation. No sheriff regulates this free-for-all, and caveat lector is the first and foremost law. Such an unruly atmosphere casts UFOs as a ludicrous diversion with no underlying substance, while low standards of evidence and arguments among ufologists themselves stigmatize their efforts as an amateurish waste of time.

Too much concern over the nature of UFOs is premature. We don’t know, but any meaningful understanding of what UFOs are depends on first knowing if they are. Some reports are undeniably impressive, their stories certainly exciting. They are still human accounts and subject to human fallibility, but the feeling is hard to shake that more than passing thrills and entertainment value underlie them, if only we could get at it. The skeptics of course disagree, but both sides often skip over the fundamental step of gathering the right evidence before the arguments and speculations begin. All too often, proponents eager to find aliens treat dubious reports as well-established facts, while skeptics committed to conventional explanations assign one to all reports whether it fits or not.

Indeed, “what is the truth?”