The Pentagon finally released its hotly-anticipated briefing on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena. As expected, it provided little new information, saying only that there were a number of unexplainable observations. Sarah Scoles, author of the book They Are Already Here, that examines the culture and motivations behind ufology, joins the show to provide critical context. Why did it come about? What are the motivations of the people who pushed for its release? And how should we approach extraordinary claims with little information?
Mat Kaplan: Welcome, everyone. It is time for the July 2021 Space Policy Edition of Planetary Radio. I'm Mat Kaplan, the host of PlanRad, Planetary Radio. Here is the Senior Space Policy Advisor, the Chief Advocate for The Planetary Society, Casey Dreier. Casey, great to be talking to you again.
Casey Dreier: Hey, Mat. Happy summer, for at least us in the northern hemisphere and, I guess, happy winter for those in the southern hemisphere.
Mat Kaplan: Hey, it's solstice wherever you are on the pale blue dot, right?
Casey Dreier: There you go.
Mat Kaplan: We have a special conversation today, and it is extremely timely because of something that has just been released. First, give us a little tease of what is just ahead in this interview that you conducted.
Casey Dreier: We are delighted to have Sarah Scoles, who's a science journalist and author of the book, They Are Already Here: UFO Culture and Why We See Saucers, which I thought was a really interesting take on the motivations and people who really pursue ufology, which I believe is quite relevant right now as this episode is going to be talking about this Pentagon, Department of Defense report on UAP, Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon, that a lot of people I or you are jumping maybe a little too eerily to conclusions about the implications of this.
Casey Dreier: She will be joining us. We'll go through her book. She has been writing about this topic and understands and knows a lot of the people who've been showing up in this discussion in the last few years, and we traced through the context and history of why we got to this report, where it came from, who's pushing it to be released, and then also, of course, talking about its implications.
Casey Dreier: We actually recorded our conversation before the report was released. We had seen hints of what was going to be in there. The report has subsequently come out. It does not change at all, I don't think, in any major way the outcome of our conversation, but it's something that you're welcome to read. We link to it in the show notes here for this episode.
Casey Dreier: What I really want to impart today is not necessarily going through some attempted debunk one-by-one everything on there. There are people online who will do that for you, but really try to think about how to approach claims like this more broadly when people make them, how to train your brain to think critically about things you may want to be true, how to spot any red flags or people jumping to conclusions or people pushing an agenda I think is really important for all of us, particularly in an age when an information, basically, costs no money to disseminate.
Mat Kaplan: Casey, as you know, I was listening in as you talked with Sarah, and I want to say I hope with some humility, I think that Planetary Society co-founder, Carl Sagan, would have been very pleased with this conversation. It accomplishes exactly what you were talking about just now.
Mat Kaplan: Before we get to it, you didn't think we were going to let you get away without a little bit of a plug, right? Planetary.org/join. We hope that if you are listening to this, if you are enjoying the Space Policy Edition, and if you're not already a member of The Planetary Society, please take a look there. I'm a member, Casey is a member. You're going to see a lot of stuff that are we up to, a lot of the stuff that we can only do with the support of our members. We hope that you will consider becoming one of them. Again, planetary.org/join.
Casey Dreier: Well, in particular, Mat, the fact that we promote the search for life, very relevant to today's discussion, but I'd say in a more active method, we're not just waiting for weird things to be reported. We're supporting active efforts by scientists in a scientifically rigorous way to seek out life beyond earth, to look for biosignatures, technosignatures, and to try to attain, if it's out there, this fundamental revolution in our understanding of ourselves, about our place in the cosmos, and about what else is out there.
Casey Dreier: You and I, honestly, we've talked about this and all of our colleagues. Probably want nothing more out of our careers than to in some way assist in what could be one of the most profound discoveries in human history. I want nothing more for that to be true and this is why we have to be so profoundly careful and rigorous when we evaluate things that we want to be true. This is why, in a sense, we have this very, for all of its flaws like any institution, the process of science as humanity as refined it over the last 400 years works really well.
Casey Dreier: You and I can meet each other in person now because we have vaccines as a product of that 400 years of scientific process, and that process involves open debate, sharing of data, rigorous analysis of that data, and free access to that data. This is where you see, I think, the validity and importance of this broad global scientific process to understand the potential for life elsewhere, and that's how we need to approach any evidence very rigorously.
Mat Kaplan: Well said, Casey. I know I have met, you have met and talked with so many hundreds of scientists who cannot wait to answer that greatest of all questions or maybe both of the questions that our boss Bill Nye likes to ask, "Where do we come from and are we alone?" I think maybe everybody feels that way, and maybe that's why these topics become so inordinately popular, but we have to remember what our co-founder said as well, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."
Casey Dreier: That's about true. I think it's simultaneously buoying for me to see how many people are interested in this, but then I just personally sometimes get frustrated at people who, I think, have a predisposed outcome in mind, pushing a narrative to jump to say that these types of, basically, highly ambiguous signals are therefore evidence of, basically, this very big claim that there's alien life visiting us, not just out there, but here now shadowy, in a way.
Casey Dreier: I've thought about this. I talk about this with Sarah a little bit about why that bothers me in some way, and you'll probably here this throughout the conversation. Maybe to illustrate this, I actually wrote to a journalist, who I just won't name, a few years ago, who was promoting an interview they had done with a very prominent, completely bought in UFO person. I found that upsetting in a sense because they wouldn't do the same for someone who promoted the antiscience of denying climate change, and I was very surprised at their response, which was, basically, very confrontational, "Well, what if you're the one who's wrong?"
Casey Dreier: It's like, "You're the one making the claim. You're the one who needs to ..." If you're saying that this is the case, let's expect some very aggressively positive evidence for something as opposed to this classic switcheroo in terms of how people, it's like a rhetorical trick in terms of how they manipulate public opinion, which attack an existing structure, create doubt in non-experts, and in that realm of doubt, almost like a virus, insert their own idea into that doubt as the answer, but if you notice very carefully, they have never provided at any point positive evidence for their claim in that process. They've only worked to undermine your confidence in the established viewpoint. You see this in anti-vaccine stuff. You see this in anti-evolution. You see this in anti-climate change. It's the same playbook. I think you see this with people's claims with UFOs being alien spacecraft.
Casey Dreier: There's no yet any positive evidence for supporting that hypothesis. There is only ambiguity that then they insert their preferred outcome. That's why I find, I think, this whole media approach to this as this harmonious fun, in a way, it's troubling in a sense that it's promoting an anti-scientific approach to the world, and I'm not saying it can't necessarily be the case, but I need way, way, way more evidence for something, which we just do not have.
Casey Dreier: So, I think the very likely outcome is that if you just look at what has happened already, the most likely outcome is that there's probably a mix of, and this is what the Pentagon reports, a variety of probably very practical explanations that are probably complex because, by definition, these are weird occurrences that are self-reported, could fall prey to any manner of fallibility, instrumentation issues, uncertainty, complex, unusual intersections of all of those. It doesn't mean it has to be that way, but I feel that the most likely explanation is these very prosaic and not as fun outcomes.
Casey Dreier: So, this is why I'm caring about it and, again, why it's in the policy show because they've asked the Pentagon to do this now. They're spending US taxpayer dollars on this. Bill Nelson, the administrator of NASA, said he's going to ask people at NASA to study these problems, too. These are time of civil servants. They can't be spent doing something else. This is a policy issue now.
Casey Dreier: We need to say, "Is this a valid or how important is this versus all of the other things we could be doing?" This is why we need to approach this in a very rational, skeptical perspective.
Mat Kaplan: I also hate to hear it referred to as a matter of right and wrong or what if you're wrong. This is a question of the critical approach to any kind of claim, whether it is extraordinary or fairly mundane, and our ability to think about these things in the way that has been so successful, proven so successful over time, and that is the way of science. Casey, I think you've prepared us for this great conversation.
Casey Dreier: I'll get off my soapbox and now let Sarah start talking, but I just wanted to set the context of why we're spending an episode on this.
Mat Kaplan: Our brain is on and ears open as we begin to listen to the conversation that Casey Dreier had just a few days ago with Sarah Scoles, and we will see you on the other side.
Casey Dreier: All right. I'm here with Sarah Scoles, the author of They Are Already Here: UFO Culture and Why We See Saucers. Sarah, thanks for joining the Space Policy Edition today.
Sarah Scoles: Thanks so much for having me.
Casey Dreier: I normally don't talk about UFOs on the Space Policy Edition, but it's become, in a sense, a policy issue with an upcoming report that we're waiting for still as we record this from the Department of Defense analyzing their past research on Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon I guess is the current parlance. You've done a lot of reporting and thinking about this topic. How have we gotten to this situation? Why are we waiting for this report, and where did that come from?
Sarah Scoles: Yeah. The full story of how we got here goes back more than a decade to the 2007-2008 timeframe when Senator Harry Reid along with a couple of other senators helped lead an initiative to get this research program called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program funded, and there's a lot of debate about what this program actually was or wasn't, but the latest word from the Pentagon is that it was a program to research advanced aerospace vehicles to potentially determine if there were any foreign technologies that represented a leap ahead version of our own technology and to create a center of expertise for examining advanced aerospace capabilities out to the next 40 years.
Sarah Scoles: As part of that, according to the latest Pentagon statement, the contractor, which was Robert Bigelow and Bigelow Aerospace advanced studies, who some of your listeners probably know has funded or built inflatable space habitats, researched different technical areas related to advanced aerospace vehicles, produced a bunch of reports, and then it went quiet for a number of years until 2017 when the New York Times published a big article that I believe was called Glowing Auras and Black Money, which was all about this program, this what we call AATIP, Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program.
Sarah Scoles: They portrayed it as strictly a UFO research program aiming to find out what UFOs were, which is not how the Pentagon portrays. This led to a slow bubbling up of interest first among the public and the press, and then now among people in congress about how often military service members and military installation see these Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, whether or not they represent a threat and what we should do about them. This report that's coming out is the culmination of that very long answer to your question.
Casey Dreier: The report itself, too, is a function of this snake eating its own tail aspect of this because from the New York Times stories and from this growing media coverage, more senators like Marco Rubio from Florida, Republican Florida, put it into the Defense Authorization Bill last year that the Department of Defense should release this report, right? So, this is a mandated report from congress, right?
Sarah Scoles: Yes, that is correct. They want to draw together sources of information about these UAP from the Navy, from the FBI, from other observation platforms, and then both bring together and standardize the reports themselves and then a way to gather future reports, but it seems like people like Marco Rubio heard about this because of the public interest, and then became interested in it themselves, and then brought it into things like the Defense Authorization Act.
Casey Dreier: There's so much to unpack here. So, thanks for summarizing this quickly because your book covers a big portion of this, this history of Harry Reid and Robert Bigelow, also from Nevada, his home state. It was difficult. There's so many names and so many interested parties feeding into this, but something that struck me was most of the people pushing this narrative of this various aspects that vary, everyone has a slightly different narrative, there's these many orthodoxes that, I guess, as you can imagine within this umbrella of ufology or however it's really categorized, they're already decided on what there are, right?
Casey Dreier: Harry Reid is convinced that there's aliens. Robert Bigelow is convinced there is aliens behind these things. Even one of the authors of that New York Times article, what was her name? Leslie Kean was also convinced previously that there's aliens. So, these aren't just open inquiry from open-minded people. These are people really pushing an agenda that they got then into, it seems to me, a broader public discussion that lacked that context, that they had this agenda, that they had already decided what these were, then pushing these stories out in this like, "Well, we're just asking questions," kind of a situation. Is that an accurate way to characterize a lot of these individuals?
Sarah Scoles: I think so. I mean, with the caveat that I am not a mind reader, it does seem like a good idea.
Casey Dreier: Well, that's a different aspect of ufology.
Sarah Scoles: Right. Yeah. Absolutely. We can get into consciousness studies anytime. No. I think that the longstanding connections to and interest in what UFO people call the extraterrestrial hypothesis for UFOs was an undisclosed part of a lot of people who have been pushing this agenda, and that, actually, they do try in polite public spheres to distance themselves from that. That's part of the reason that we are talking about this with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and as a national security threat. You can remove yourself from the alien idea when you talk about things, and in that way, it becomes a policy problem, it becomes a contract problem and a reporting problem, but, yes, behind the scenes and on UFO podcasts, they will a little bit.
Sarah Scoles: I mean, people like Robert Bigelow will just come out and say, "I think aliens are here on earth," which I do believe that he had said in several public forums, but other people will say, like you said, "We're just asking questions. We're just presenting this agnostically, but then there are things like Leslie Kean sits on the board of a UFO data gathering and advocacy organization and behind the scenes that does seem to be a lot of belief in the alien hypothesis or the extraterrestrial hypothesis.
Casey Dreier: So, she's, I'd say, one of the primary characters and she, again, was the author of that New York Times article that, really, I think, elevated this into broader public discourse. There's another individual that I just want to mention for listeners who want to be aware and skeptically follow a lot of these claims who worked at the Department of Defense, who retired in 2017 and was the key source, really, for that 2017 article. Can you talk a little bit about him, where he's coming from, and what he claims to have participated in at the Pentagon?
Sarah Scoles: Yeah. I believe you're talking about a man named Luis Elizondo, who has worked in counterintelligence and counterterrorism for a number of years for the Department of Defense, and first came forward a little bit before the New York Times articles, but the New York Times article was when most people started to pay attention saying that he was the director of this AATIP, this UFO or not research program, and that part of the reason that he retired in 2017 and went public was the people within the Pentagon were not taking this threat and UAP themselves seriously enough, and so he wanted to bring it to the public and make it a big matter so that people would pay attention.
Sarah Scoles: Actually, most recently, he has been, I don't know if threatening is the word, but threatening to run for a seat in congress to further more attention to the UAP agenda. The problem with this claim is not undisputed. The Pentagon has maintained for a long time that he either had no responsibilities with AATIP or had no assigned responsibilities, and it's hard to reconcile how someone can be the director of a program and also have no assigned responsibilities. That's unresolved like, "What was he doing there? Who is being disingenuous and how?" It's, I think, an unresolved question.
Casey Dreier: One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you, I mean, in addition to your book, you had some good Twitter threads about identifying, again, these common individuals, common between reporting articles and coverage on 60 Minutes or on TV that they're continually being presented credulously without any of this important context, that their claims are being allowed to stand without any pushback. For our listeners, why is this an important context for interpreting claims by these individuals about the role and importance of these UAP studies?
Sarah Scoles: So, I think when you have a small group of people pushing for the same thing, in this case UAP investigation or what some in the UFO sphere might call disclosure from the government about what it really knows, but it's just a few people and their backgrounds are either disputed or undeniably associated with aliens driving spaceships. That obscures how large a thing we're talking about, how common are UAP sightings among military members or otherwise, how big a problem do they represent, and also how much interest is there actually within congress or other parts of the political sphere because when it's just a few people, they can appear very loud and get a lot done, and it can still be just like three guys in a backroom. I think that that is important to understand.
Sarah Scoles: I don't know. As a journalist, I always think it's important to question people's motives. Why are people bringing information forward and why now I wish I had the answers to those questions, but I think from a policy and budget perspective, if you make something like UFOs or UAP into a national security threat like what do we do when there's a national security threat, we give people money to make it less threatening. So, I think we should be questioning whether that is part of what is going on.
Casey Dreier: Yeah. A dollar spent cannot be spent twice, right? So, for every dollar spent on studying UAPs, that's not going to something else. I just found this so fascinating, in a sense. You talk about motive. I think motive is just so important as a contextualizing piece of information. These individuals maybe honestly really believe what they're saying, but, also, it's a lucrative thing to be known for this, too. What was this organization? The To the Stars organization that I think both Kean and Elizondo now belong to. Can you talk a little bit about the role of the To the Stars group?
Sarah Scoles: Sure. Leslie Kean wasn't part of it, I don't believe, but Elizondo was.
Casey Dreier: Oh, my mistake.
Sarah Scoles: No, it's fine. Yeah. This is a tangled web, but To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science or TTSA is an organization founded by the rockstar Tom DeLonge, formerly of Blink 182, to both produce entertainment, books, movies, music related to UFOs, and then also create what he called a community of interest for investigating UFO reports in a more systematic way and helping bring forward more documents and videos from government studies.
Sarah Scoles: This organization was formed in 2017 close to the time that Luis Elizondo came forward and talked about this UFO research program, AATIP. Luis Elizondo was, I believe, the Director of Global Security for them at the time. I'm not sure what that means, and it also involves a number of other high level people like a former Lockheed Martin Skunk Works executive, and Christopher Mellon, who used to work high up in the intelligence sphere. So, there was this very shiny sheen of credibility to the organization.
Sarah Scoles: It was the organization that published on the same day that the initial New York Times story came out, the now famous videos Gofast and Gimbal are what they are called off, the ones that get played over every news story. That organization has-
Casey Dreier: The two floating blobs, yeah.
Sarah Scoles: Correct. Correct.
Casey Dreier: The blobs that are floating against the back sky. Yeah.
Sarah Scoles: Exactly. Yeah. So, you're familiar with them. Yeah. It's fallen apart a little bit recently. Elizondo recently departed saying that they were focusing a little too much on the entertainment, and he actually recently formed his own company or is part of a new company called Skyfort, which is some UFO think tank. So, there's just a whole lot going on here. I don't know if that was an intelligible summary. Yeah.
Casey Dreier: Well, let's just jump back out and let's just rephrase where we are because I think it's so easy to go down, and this is what's so fascinating to me is, again, this fractalizing nature of various organizations and individuals that are part of this, but, fundamentally, we have, it seems to me that a handful of influential individuals who have basically stated or seem to very strongly believe in a preordained outcome of what these UFOs are, that they are extraterrestrial, they're alien intelligence or somehow, and they've used their positions of authority and influence to push their perspective into a more credible domain of public discourse via the New York Times, New Yorker 60 Minutes talking about these issues and creating it in the context of a national security issues, which then everything becomes easier to argue for, and then using that, in a sense, to push this broader narrative of aliens, basically.
Casey Dreier: This is what I meant by the snake eating its tail. It's like Harry Reid mandated, he gave the money to the Pentagon to start doing the study in the first place and then basically promotes the fact that when the New York Times talked about that the Pentagon did it and say, "See how important this is that even the Pentagon is studying this," which then begets more studies, and then more people taking it seriously, even though it wasn't like the Pentagon was just saying, "Oh, we're really freaked out about this. We need to do this. We're asking for this money." No. They were mandated to do so, right?
Casey Dreier: So, I keep thinking of when you said this. It gives the impression that it may be a broader movement than it actually is. I just think about social media, where a small number of very noisy people can seem like they're speaking for a ton of people just because our brains shortcut the idea that easy accessibility is this. It means that there's a lot of credibility behind it or if we can easily recall something, it must be really true or have heft, right?
Casey Dreier: So, people who can hack their way into our consciousness or our brains merely by speaking about it incessantly or loudly misrepresent the breadth and scope of this movement or-
Sarah Scoles: I think that's very accurate. I think something that just further reinforces that is that journalists are particularly prone to live inside of that echo chamber, especially online, where there's just this small number voices saying this thing, but they're on Twitter all day and they are seeing this and seeing it replicated, and then one person, maybe they work at the New Yorkers. There was just recently a very large story in the New Yorker about UFOs and they're seeing this sound in fury coming from a few people. They write a story. Other journalists see that, see how popular it was, decide to do their own thing, and then that also feeds on itself, and creates a whole other way, which then creates the perception that even more people are interested, and this is an even bigger threat. So, it's just exponential, I guess.
Casey Dreier: I feel like it's almost become weirdly fashionable amongst certain circles to be very open-minded to what these UFOs are, and I'm thinking about people like Ezra Klein or Tyler Cohen or other influential thought leaders in these somewhat, I hate to use the word elitist spheres of cultural discourse, but they're influential, right? Suddenly, it's become like, "Well, look how open-minded I am. Maybe there are aliens. How fun would that be?"
Casey Dreier: I think that's what starts to bug me, starts to drive me a little nuts, and maybe we should just state our incoming biases right now. So, I'll go first and say that I don't think there's good evidence that these are anything that important. At best, they're either highly misinterpreted standard phenomena or classified or secret aerial vehicles from other advanced nations or even our own.
Casey Dreier: In prep for this, of course, I read Carl Sagan's Demon-Haunted World, which I thought put this whole thing to bed 25 years ago about what UFOs are, but I think this is a good point of clarification. He says, "I'm often asked, 'Do you believe in UFOs?'" and he says, "I'm always struck by how the question is phrased. The suggestion that this is a matter of belief and not of evidence. I'm almost never asked, and this is the key question, 'How good is the evidence that UFOs are alien spaceships?'" That's the question. That's what the claim is, but that's not what's being answered. So, that's where I'm coming from. So, why don't you state your incoming assumptions into this whole discussion?
Sarah Scoles: Sure. I agree that I don't think that the videos even show anything necessarily very exciting. I think there've been a number of credible explanations of them as conventional aircraft seen weirdly or camera effects or balloons or things like that. So, to me, they themselves do not seem like something to get that worked up, but show something to investigate. I'm not opposed to investigating it and figuring out what they are.
Sarah Scoles: I think that a lot of what gets people fired up also is the witness testimony and that we forget that all human beings, including military pilots are fallible and subject to our own brain's perception, capabilities, and then also cultural biases, which we have going in.
Sarah Scoles: So, yeah, I think people do see things they can't identify, but the most likely explanations are things, like you said, weird effects, conventional aircraft, advanced aircraft of our own or something foreign, even commercial drones. I reserve a small percentage possibility that there's something truly strange going on just because I don't think I can rule that out 100%, but I also agree that I see something I can't explain, therefore, aliens is an extremely large leap. I always say if you're going to say that, I'm going to need some positive evidence in the direction of aliens, not just like, "I don't get it. Therefore ..."
Sarah Scoles: To also comment on your point earlier about the way that it is fashionable for journalists to be like, "Well, I don't know. Maybe. What if aliens ..." I think people who maybe aren't used to thinking about these topics at all or in a skeptical way hear somebody at the Pentagon say essentially like, "Yes, that's a UFO. UFOs are real," and because UFOs are so associated with aliens in our popular culture, they think the Pentagon is saying, "Yeah. Maybe aliens are real," when that's not what they're saying at all. UFOs are real in that people see things they themselves can't identify, which is not new or exciting particularly.
Casey Dreier: Right. Yeah, I mean, because that's a huge leap, and this is always what drives me crazy. This is, I think, a common approach to all sorts of I would group this with anti-science, fundamentally, arguments. It's always this two-step, where the small group of people who have an agenda against the established understanding of the universe and so on, whether it's vaccines work or climate change is happening or UFOs are just whether balloons, they'll attack and create uncertainty just by attacking, attacking, attacking the established norms, create uncertainty among non-experts. Then in that uncertainty, like a virus, they'll just insert their own answer as the explanation, but as you said, having no positive evidence for that as being the answer.
Casey Dreier: So, merely by creating uncertainty, they can insert this answer and then suddenly we're like, "Well, maybe it is aliens," when in reality, they've done nothing to actually give that positive evidence. So, I was trying to think about why this upsets me to some degree. You talk about this in your book, too, that there's a slightly self-defeating attitude about this from the scientific community and others to be dismissive of studying UFOs, which I want to explore with you, but the whole time I was like, "Why does this irritate me so much that I have to talk about UFOs?"
Casey Dreier: I think it's because of that anti-science aspect of it, that this is another expression of a furthering or ongoing attack on the scientific process and the established scientific systems that we've set up, right? What you see in these organizations, they're setting up these alternative scientific-ish groups, who claim that they're following some of the scientific inquiry, the methods of scientific inquiry to adapt or to cloak themselves in that credibility, but in reality, they're approaching every single piece of data with a preordained outcome or with this expectation of what is true and what isn't, and then looking for things to support that.
Casey Dreier: That's what is troubling to me to see this furthering anti-science approach. Talk about in your book why is that self-defeating from a public communications standpoint if I find those just irritating.
Sarah Scoles: It is problematic that a lot of the way that people from inside UFO world come at this as unfalsifiable. If you take there's some recent reporting from New York Times of reporting an early look or an early account of what might be in this forthcoming report, and in the news story, they say, "There's no evidence it's not aliens," and I'm like, "Well, yeah."
Sarah Scoles: Then that goes further that when the report comes out, if it doesn't say anything about aliens, people on the inside can say, "It's a coverup. They don't want you to hear about it." There's just not a way to win the argument, but I think that is part of why ufology has continued for so many decades just by the paucity of hard evidence is because once somebody believes something, you can't prove it wrong, and it veers into that kind of conspiracy.
Casey Dreier: Do you think journalists should be required to take basic Physics, college level Physics before they can become journalists? I feel like so many of this credulity is because people don't have a basic grasp of how nature works. If you just even have a basic understanding of how big the universe is, as you said, I don't want to sound like I'm completely dismissing this, but I put the chances at very small given the fact that, and I wrote about this on The Planetary Society the other week, asking us to believe that some of these things are actually aliens as the answer to what a UFO is.
Casey Dreier: You're not actually just saying that that is a claim, but then you start saying, "Well, by the way that they move, by the way that they've come here," you're asking to say, "Well, they're probably defying Physics as we understand it, too." So, you're not just making a claim about aliens, you're making a claim about we fundamentally, profoundly misunderstand how the world works that we don't realize yet, and that's a much, much bigger claim, really, when you start thinking about the implications of it, right?
Casey Dreier: If journalists who write about this had realized that, "Okay. They're probably making claims that the conservation of energy isn't right," then that seems like a less likely answer to the data that we see.
Sarah Scoles: Also, that should be even bigger news.
Casey Dreier: Yeah. Yeah.
Sarah Scoles: Yeah. No. Something that an editor of mine pointed out when I was first starting to write about UFOs in terms of the meta science thinking behind all of this is that the difference saying, "Let's investigate this as something that's not aliens versus something that is aliens," is that we have theoretical frameworks for how does a drone move, what is the physics of an aircraft. We don't have any theoretical framework for the hypothesis that this is aliens, and I think that if journalists did have more scientific training to understand the difference between having a philosophical and principled underpinning for the hypothesis that you're putting forward is actually important.
Sarah Scoles: You can't just make things up because you don't understand them, but, I mean, I have an answer to the Physics question on journalists. I haven't actually taken a journalism course, so I don't know if I should tell journalists to take Physics courses, but I think at least maybe critical thinking courses. I think because UFOs have been in history just such a silly fun weird topic that's mostly anecdotes, people are covering them that way now, even though it has become a story that's about intelligence government contracting budgets. It's a very earthly story, but I feel like journalists are still covering it like, "Wow! I stepped in my backyard and saw something weird," with that level of due diligence.
Casey Dreier: For most part, journalists wouldn't entertain really rabid anti-climate change opinions bubbling up into their news stories, right? So, that's what, I think, I don't feel like there's enough of an appreciation for. This is another, in general and for a lot of people, this is just another expression of anti-scientific thinking that all placed together, right? So, the more you're talking about UFOs, you're opening the door to a lot of weird things, whether or not it's fun, right? I think that to me is what really troubles me from a lot of the credulous media reporting that I've seen about this.
Sarah Scoles: Right, right. Even aside from just strictly anti-scientific thinking, it's also a big gateway into general conspiracy culture because it's, yeah, it's an easy slide from maybe the government is hiding things about aliens to lizard people in congress or-
Casey Dreier: QAnon.
Sarah Scoles: QAnon. I mean, you do see very rabid thin groups online that are growing and also growing more violent in their verbiage in a way that I find disturbing. We're in a war for disclosure. Somebody said, a famous UFO person said recently, "We're not going to stop until the body is at the floor," and there's just this tribal violent mentality popping up that I think you do see with a lot of other conspiracy theories.
Casey Dreier: I was going to ask this later, but it's relevant now. How much of this growing recent trend do you think is related to being stuck at home online for the last 15 months with COVID because that's sometimes the explanation for things like QAnon and people just being way ... Everyone's now way too online, particularly people who had the luxury to work from home in the last 15 months. So, do you think being stuck and not being able to go out people were able to get more into UFO stuff as this rabbit hole conspiratorial, gamified, self-satisfying explanation because they're doing this personal journeys into these worlds together. It seems like it would be related, but I guess this predates it, though, fundamentally.
Sarah Scoles: Yeah. It just really starts to swell more in the past 18 months or so than it did even back in 2017 when the first article came out. I think it's likely that part of it, I think, likely part of it is also the coordinated push from a small group of people that happened at around the same time as that.
Sarah Scoles: Then I think also there's a recurring trend in the waves of UFO interest in that they tend, UFOs tend to be of public interest during times of turmoil on earth, and in times of fear of outsiders, fear of technology, fear of where the world is going. That makes sense to me in terms of how the human psyche works. You project your fears onto something that seems to be invading that you don't understand that is maybe a little more, I mean, it's less scary than a virus at least to me. So, I think maybe we're seeing part of the historical cycle play itself out again.
Casey Dreier: Well, it's less scary because it has purposeful intent versus being a random pointless destructive virus that just happen to evolve or something like that, and just tear through everybody. I mean, that's the fundamental commonality between many conspiracy theories, that there is actually a highly ordered world out there that isn't random and pointless, that it has meaning in a way.
Casey Dreier: You talk about this to some degree in your book that relationship between ufology, sorry. Ufology, is that the right way to say it?
Sarah Scoles: People say it both ways. I say ufology, but other people say ufology, I think. You can have artist license.
Casey Dreier: My podcast, I'll call it ufology, and its relationship to religion, the way, again, that people talk about being believers, finding that community in finding these fellow believers, and things that are non-falsifiable. You pointed out you weren't the first to make that connection, but what was your experience as you started to study the culture of people who are really into this, and what is the intersection of this religious aspect?
Sarah Scoles: To give where credit is due, the first time I encountered a robust interpretation of this was from a guy named Chris Rutkowski, who was Canada's UFO guy, who compiles all of the UFO reports from across Canada, but he wrote an essay all about the ways that modern ufology is like religion. The idea that there is something out there, speaking of the extraterrestrial version of UFOs, that is more advanced than us, but cares enough to do something like come to our planet, and is either, depending on who you ask, out to help us figure out climate change and not nuclear bomb each other to death or to Independence Day invade us. That's a lot like Old or New Testament God that has that watch over appeal.
Sarah Scoles: I mean, I think it also taps into a lot of questions that are at least traditionally spiritual, if not religious like, "What really is the universe? How did it get here? How did we get here? Are we alone?" Those are also scientific questions, but a lot of people think of them spiritually.
Sarah Scoles: So, a lot of people who don't find meaning in traditional religion can find similar whole fields by ufology, and then the groups that come together in communities and now also online, form a really cohesive cultural identity together as believers and with each other that I think church also feels for some people.
Sarah Scoles: Then also from the conspiratorial mindset perspective that you were talking about earlier, another aspect of it I think is not just the universe or the world is ordered and there are these patterns here and you are the ones who's making sense of them. I think it's also you see conspiratorial belief a lot among people who may feel disenfranchised in one way or another like, "Yeah. The world is ordered. There's all these plans going on, but you are not a part of them. It's these other people conspiring to do this thing, and you are left out, and that's why things aren't as good for you as the way that you would like them to be." I imagine that's a feeling that a lot more people had in the past year and a half than did before that.
Casey Dreier: That's a good point.
Mat Kaplan: Much more of Casey and his guest, Sarah Scoles, is just a minute away.
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Casey Dreier: Tell me about some of the people that you interviewed for your book. Is this where you're drawing these types of interpretations of their experience from because you went, you put yourself out there. You went to Area 51 or near it, I should say. You went to Roswell. You went to meet with a lot of the people who are actively trying to investigate a lot of these UFO claims. So, tell me about some of the people you met and what kind of common characteristics or qualities that they shared that drove them to investigate these.
Sarah Scoles: I mean, I think for a lot of people on the more believer end of things, the thing that they have in common often is a personal experience with seeing a UFO that was meaningful to them, that then led them to a community. I think about there's a woman here in Colorado where I am. Her name is Katie Griboski, and she's one of the lead UFO investigators for the mutually UFO network here in Colorado, which just if you see a UFO and you want to report it, you can report it to this group and move on and then someone like Katie will go investigate it.
Sarah Scoles: So, she had had experiences in her childhood that she couldn't explain and they came back to her as an adult, and she wanted to dig in to them more. So, she went to MUFON's training and then also found this whole group of people who was interested in this thing that had been meaningful to her. You can go to these meetings and hear about other things that people have seen as a judgment-free space to share your experiences.
Sarah Scoles: On the slightly more skeptical but interested side, I think of people like the guy I just mentioned, Chris Rutkowski, who these are people who are interested in UFOs as much as a human phenomenon, as whatever else they are, and are interested in the historical cycles and historical documents and, yes, individual cases, but interested in putting them in context.
Sarah Scoles: I think those people, what unites them is seeing it as a mystery that you could investigate forward that will just provide endless research rabbit holes for you, which I get that. That's my job is research rabbit holes. So, I think the believer side on average may be things they have this mystery explained and they hold the secret knowledge and then the skeptical side of things, "This is a fun thing that I can dig in to for the rest of my life."
Casey Dreier: How did you end up going down this rabbit hole because you mentioned this earlier, your background isn't ... You have scientific training and you went to school for, what is Physics or Astronomy or both?
Sarah Scoles: Both.
Casey Dreier: Yeah. They tend to go together. I'm guessing from what you've already said that you didn't come in to this thing like, "Well, I've got to check out this UFO thing. There's something here," but it seemed like you were interested in the people and motivations of people who were. So, how did you find yourself in Area 51 and Roswell and talking to some of these individuals tracking down these claims?
Sarah Scoles: Yeah. It started for me, I think, the same time a lot of people's interest in UFOs started, which was in 2017 when the big New York Times story came out. I was reading it and I just thought, "There's something that's not adding up here. This should be ...If what they're saying is true, that's very interesting, and it's very huge, but some of the sourcing and reporting on this seems a little thin to me.
Sarah Scoles: There was a part in the story like Robert Bigelow had pieces of a crashed UFO that he was modifying a building to investigate and the pieces of the UFO maybe had medical effects on people and I was like, "Well, you can't just say that. You have to prove it to me."
Sarah Scoles: So, I started going through that article just trying to prove or disprove things that were in there about this Pentagon UFO research program and the claims that were made in the article. As part of that, I talked to historians who say a UFO is an anthropologist who study believe in UFOs and then also a few people who are more on the inside of ufology, who've been studying it for a long time, and I just realized there was this whole world of people who are interested in UFOs from a lot of different perspectives, and not necessarily from the perspective of being convinced that there are aliens on earth.
Sarah Scoles: I was like, "I want to know what motivates, especially the people who don't believe aliens are here, to nevertheless investigate this thing that might not actually be that interesting at all. What compels people to dedicate this lives to something that might just be essentially thick. So, I took a bunch of road trips after that. Yeah.
Casey Dreier: Yeah. I mean, it was fascinating reading about that, that personal journey, literally, that you had in that book. I want to just plug the book. I think you gave a really sympathetic treatment of a lot of these individuals, and I found that really interesting just to see these really honest profiles, in a sense, of these individuals. You're not just dismissing out of hand, you really did a nice job, I think, flushing them out and their motivations and what they're trying to do, and rarely do you see ones that are just purely, it seems like, motivated by opportunity or greed. A lot of these, particularly at these nonprofit groups who are seeking out claims, they're just personally really committed or intrigued by this.
Casey Dreier: What struck me is that, again, they're applying what they consider to be a scientific process a lot of the time. I keep going back, again, to whether we need more rigorous scientific training for every high school student or something like that. They're using, in a sense, this established authority of science, but not quite implementing it correctly the way that you really need to do it. Would you say that a lot of them feel like they are being scientific in how they approach these claims?
Sarah Scoles: Yeah, I would. I think in the book I mostly tried to talk to people who were working in this field in good faith and weren't the hoaxers, the people just out for money, just regular people, but they don't have scientific training and we don't expect me to be able to be a plumber or something. It is something that requires knowledge of how to do it, and I think a lot of people at groups like MUFON are putting forth a good faith effort toward being scientific, but that they don't always know exactly what that means, and that it means things including you can't go in knowing what you want to find out. You're supposed to go in not having a predetermined outcome in your mind.
Sarah Scoles: Ufology has a complicated relationship with science in that people who research UFOs both revere science and want to replicate it, but then also think it's wrong, it's limited, people are biased, and they don't know the limits of their own knowledge and shoo the tradition scientific fields because it doesn't accept ufology.
Sarah Scoles: Then also, if somebody has a PhD in Physics and they want to come speak at MUFON, they're like, "Look at PhD. That's awesome." So, it's a push and pull there. Yeah.
Casey Dreier: They'll selectively embrace the authority when it's convenient a lot of the times.
Sarah Scoles: Yeah. I mean, the same thing actually happens with people in the military and intelligence communities when it doesn't agree with what they say the military and intelligence communities are hiding information and are bad, and then when they come and say something that they want like, "We're going to produce a UFO report," or "I used to work for the Pentagon," then, "That's great. Please come in to our circle."
Casey Dreier: You mentioned something that you also discuss in your book that I actually found a really interesting critique from the ufologist of this epistemological limit or limitation that they are critiquing the modern scientific community. If you can't engage with these broader ideas, can you even really say that you can test for them or if you're limiting yourself to what you consider real, are you closing off potential areas of useful inquiry?
Casey Dreier: I actually found that the most convincing argument about how to approach things like this in the natural world. I don't know if, necessarily, I want to have a formal branch of ufology at the double S or something. I'd say there's a point to that. If you really limit yourself as to what you will test for, you will just, by definition, not be looking for things in certain areas, but that's a philosophically very difficult problem to solve. How do you make that choice about where to put in your scientific efforts in research dollars?
Sarah Scoles: Yeah. It is a good question. I mean, I do agree to some extent with the critique that just as UFO people shouldn't go in with a predetermine outcome that it's aliens, perhaps scientists shouldn't go in and say, "I know, for sure, these are the things it's not and I'm not even going to look at them." I think I do agree with that. Yeah. I mean, it's been hard enough historically for something like SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence to prove that that's a worthwhile thing to be doing. I would argue it's much more likely to produce results than studying UFOs, but because it is still, nevertheless, so unlikely and how do you convince the scientists that what they want to do is study craft in the air that might be like a radar air, I don't know.
Casey Dreier: Yeah, because, again, it's this balance of once that time is spent or the dollar is spent, it's gone, right? You can't get those back. So, you have to make these ultimately zero sum decisions based on what seems to be a valid line of inquiry. That's never a perfect answer to that. Again, touching on this idea of going in to these questions, I forget who coined this phrase, "You want to be open-minded, but not so open-minded that your brain falls out."
Casey Dreier: I almost feel like by having such a dismissive tone and felt this as a subtext in your book, the scientific establishment by completely denying or ignoring this topic enables the subculture to exist without using good scientific methods, right? You even mentioned this in your book about studies showing if you want to disprove conspiracies, it's actually really difficult to do so by just saying it's wrong, by debunking. It's actually not a very effective way to do it.
Casey Dreier: Do you have an opinion? What should be the professional scientific society's approach to things like these? Should we embrace a little bit of it to encourage better scientific methods and to add some credibility to when they say or to when they likely would say that there's not much to this or does that only empower people who have this predetermined answer to what this data is?
Sarah Scoles: That is hard. I think I'll start with agreeing with what you said about how pushing it out or dismissing it does just result in leaving only people who are professional scientists at the table, and it's something that anthropologists call boundary work, scientists determining what is acceptable science and what is not, and when something goes beyond the bounds of traditional acceptable science, who you're left with are the people who are not that, and then they feel an antagonistic feeling to the people who are at the science table, and then also are left without necessarily the tools to do something more scientific.
Sarah Scoles: I mean, I think I don't know is the real answer, but I think not to draw another parallel to SETI because I'm weary of always drawing alien parallels, but something that people like Jill Tarter have been proposing is taking data that already exist from telescopes doing mainstream traditional astronomy and looking for anomalies that could be signals of an extraterrestrial intelligent civilization. You could do something similar for UFOs, and I think that is part of what will come out of this forthcoming report is taking signals intelligence and data from remote-sensing platforms and pilots and combing through it and looking for things that are unidentified trying to identify them, but maybe not explicitly dedicating separate resources to looking for UFOs, but using what's already out there and keeping an eye out for UFOs, I think, is maybe a good middle ground.
Casey Dreier: Right. Yeah. I mean, I guess you can say given the fact that it's probably very unlikely that these are actually aliens, that should then drive how much resource. Given that it's extremely unlikely probably shouldn't put a ton of money into it because it's unlikely to, given what we know about the natural world, which could change, but given everything we know, that seemed like a good way to maybe inform some of these priorities.
Sarah Scoles: Definitely. Yeah.
Casey Dreier: Maybe that might help temper some of these more anti-scientific lines of inquiry as an example if they're not seen as the subjugated group that is being denied the truth or something like that. It almost breeds that contempt for scientific establishment that then allows it to metastasize on its own outside of that completely, but it is a difficult problem and, already, research dollars are so limited, particularly for civilian science, that it becomes very difficult to say, "We have these much more promising lines of inquiry that are likely to show us some results or benefit that deserve funding instead."
Casey Dreier: You and I don't need to figure out the actual policy solution to this on the fly right now, but I think it's a really interesting question.
Sarah Scoles: We could, we could, though. Yeah, I mean, I think, I mean, if you strip it also of the alien context and there are incursions happening where they shouldn't of very terrestrial craft that we don't know what they are, I think that's worth knowing also, and is probably likely to get many more research dollars than figuring out if they're aliens, so that's a whole other-
Casey Dreier: Well, that's where this interesting intersection of national security comes in and that reflexive secrecy from the national security state almost enables and you point out, sometimes encourages the more UFO alien interpretation as a cover or as a useful distraction, maybe it's not so top down, but it's a useful distraction from maybe a highly capable Chinese hypersonic aircraft or something coming in to US airspace.
Sarah Scoles: Yeah, and that has happened in the past also with US classified projects like when the US was working on the U-2 spy plane back in the mid 20th century. People would see those and report them as UFOs, and that at least wasn't discouraged because then if somebody says, "I saw a UFO," you're not going to go looking for a classified imaging aircraft. You're going to leave it alone, and the aliens are going to be like, "That person's crazy. I'm going to leave that alone." So, it does provide useful cover, whether that's official or not. Yeah.
Casey Dreier: Yeah, and, again, breeds conspiracy theories because of that national security aspect of secrecy. So, this upcoming report from the Department of Defense will have a classified section on it. Regardless of what the public one will say, the fact that there's a classified section will then enable people to continue their preexisting beliefs no matter what because they'll just claim whatever is in that classified section even ... So, it almost requires this intersection of legitimate terrestrial aerospace secrecy, enables this conspiracy line of thinking and there's no way out of that, really, unless we just come really, really open with a lot of our national defense stuff.
Casey Dreier: There is an argument, I'd say, and we've gone through in previous disclosures of trying to declassify stuff from the '40s and '50s that clearly aren't relevant anymore but are treated as such is because that's the attitude in the national security state.
Sarah Scoles: Yeah, definitely. I mean, you can see that going on in the ... We don't need to fully get in to the Roswell case, but the Roswell happened in the '40s, an alleged crash of something, and it was only in the '90s that after some political pressure the federal government agreed to release everything it had on Roswell, make all the files public, write a report, do interviews, specifically, to engender trust and say, "Look, we've got nothing to hide here. Here's everything that went on. Here's the real declassified program that it was," and it didn't work. Roswell is still here with us as a flying saucer myth. So, I think you're right that-
Casey Dreier: To be clear, yeah, it wasn't aliens, right?
Sarah Scoles: No. It was a high altitude balloon that was designed to look for nuclear tests called Project Mogul and it crashed.
Casey Dreier: You have a good little story, again, in your book about how the story evolved over time, too. The story of that was first reported, changed, and even the people who claimed to be there, their memories were reinforced. They're beliefs changed about what happened over time, too, and what we know as the Roswell story didn't even really firm up until decades later.
Sarah Scoles: Right, right. Yeah. It wasn't until the '80s that it even really reentered public consciousness at all and spiraled from there. So, yeah.
Casey Dreier: That reminds me of another intersection that I just want to just mention real quick that struck me from the aspect of your personal exploration of some of these places, which is there's a strong local capitalism or local economy motivation to encourage these types of thinking as a tourist function for these generally small economically depressed towns, talking about other inadvertent reinforcements of these types of anti-science messages. It's like, "Well, it can be pretty lucrative for a small town in New Mexico to really talk this up and encourage this type of thinking to get people to come and check it out."
Sarah Scoles: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, Roswell doesn't have a whole lot else going on, but they have a festival and tourist stores and visitors. Yeah. I mean, the state of Nevada put up an extraterrestrial highway sign on the road next to the border of Area 51. A lot of people don't go there, but, I mean, we all live in a capitalist society, and people are going to capitalize on whatever notoriety their place has. I think that goes back to the idea that UFOs are just fun. What's the harm here? We can all have fun on extraterrestrial highway. I'm not saying I agree with that. I'm saying that's part of the thinking. Yeah.
Casey Dreier: No. That's the claim. Yeah. Well, that's a good note I find so interesting thinking about incentives and incentives don't have to be conscious or mandated by an individual or top down. Incentives can just be from the frameworks in which we inhabit. Incentives for self-promotion and boosting local economies, incentives for self-promotion for stroking your own ego or getting attention that maybe has been denied to you over the years, incentives for finding community and loneliness and finding meaning and structure to the work. All of these things seem to just intersect in interesting ways in this whole topic.
Casey Dreier: I think that is always, to me, the context that is missing when we too credulously talk about these topics, about why we do. This is why, again, I like your book because it really added that context for a lot of the motivations and incentives for a lot of these people doing things.
Casey Dreier: Maybe as we start to wrap up here, how would you recommend or maybe just talk about how you approach these claims. One thing I didn't want to do is specifically try to debunk these videos because there are people like Mick West on the internet who just do this really, really well, but there's always going to be new claims coming out. Something I'd really wanted to share with our listeners and talk about is what's the best way or how do you approach claims like these from a general sense? What's your toolkit used to evaluate and be skeptical but not completely close-minded in a way that would turn people off?
Sarah Scoles: I think I usually try to go back as much as possible to whatever the primary source is. So, if I'm reading a story about a new UFO video or a new claim, I will see where it looks like they got their information. So, if the New York Times says, "We heard from an official who had seen this briefing," I'm like, "Well, that's extremely secondhand because this person saw a document. You haven't seen it, and he's then relaying it to you," and so then I would be skeptical of that claim because was their memory perfect? Are they being honest? What are their motivations?
Sarah Scoles: So, yeah, I try to see where whoever is telling me something got their evidence and then go back to that source. I'm not saying don't read news stories because I read them and I do think people should read them. I think we should all be skeptical of them. I think, also, people should always be skeptical of first-person claims about UFOs because that is most of the evidence that we have for what goes on, and this is not an insult to anybody. It's just how human brains work. We are not perfect rememberers or perceivers or interpreters.
Casey Dreier: People used to denounce witches and burn them on first-person accounts, and I think we can fairly claim that they were wrong about their accounts, right?
Sarah Scoles: It was not a good time in history. Yeah. So, I do think, and the approach I shared in my book was to be respectful of people's first-person experiences that I think are meaningful to them, but to not take them as gospel even if they are important people who make claims. I don't believe anything anyone just says. That's my personal policy. UFOs are not.
Casey Dreier: Yeah, and that adds, I think, to what I've encouraged our listeners and members of The Planetary Society and it's to also then respect the science that we do have. No one claims that we have a perfect understanding of it, right? Science is making a working model of the natural world, and we continuously improve that working model, but that doesn't mean that it's fundamentally flawed. I think we have a lot of good practical evidence that our understanding of various aspects of the cosmos work pretty well. Even things like Newton's laws of gravity, they're not fully correct, but they're not completely wrong. They were refined with Einstein's general relativity, but that doesn't mean they were completely missing the mark about how things move and what they did, right?
Casey Dreier: The process of advancing science, generally, it's levels of improvement and refinement, not throwing everything out about what we know in order to say that that was completely wrong, that it has no value. I think that's where having that basis in physical understanding or basic physics just says, again, when you're making claims about things in the physical world, if you start requiring those things to fundamentally break our understanding of the physical world, you're actually making bigger and bigger and bigger, you're chaining up your unlikely and unlikely and unlikely claims together.
Casey Dreier: It's not saying that it can't be true, but it's saying it seems very unlikely given what we know and just how big the cosmos is, how little we've seen of actual technosignatures or biosignatures using the telescopes that we've had. All of that adds up to say that the hypothesis of, to go back to Carl Sagan's original point, "What's the evidence for that these are actual alien spacecraft? Very little." The best we can say is that we just don't know what some of these are, which is the answer to a lot of things, right?
Casey Dreier: You're talking about first-person experience. You have a point in the book. Can you share your, as we close here, your first-person experience with the UFO outside of Area 51? I want you to say while it was happening what that felt like.
Sarah Scoles: Yeah. So, as I was driving to go camp outside of Area 51 just in the closest town on my way in, I saw above me three or four orange spheres just appear in a shape that look like they were lighting a saucer and they appeared. They floated there, and then they disappeared, and then as I drove on, I kept seeing more of these, and I was like, "Wow! No wonder people say they see UFOs out here." These things look just like a classical flying saucer. They appear, they disappear, they have shapes.
Sarah Scoles: I have my own biases so I didn't think that they were flying saucers, but I also had no idea what they were. I thought it was really exciting. It was very cool. I was seeing something maybe a few dozen people spread throughout that valley were seeing at all, and it felt like a special show, and I had special knowledge and maybe it was there for me. So, I get the appeal of seeing something, and then, yeah.
Sarah Scoles: The next day I met up with a guy who lives in Rachel, Nevada, close to Area 51, who's been investigating it for 20 years, and he told me, "Oh, yeah. The first time I came here, I was on top of a mountain. I saw the exact same thing. I thought that aliens are real. Here's this flying saucer," and then he discovered that it is flares. It's military flares where jets are flying doing practice exercises and one of them shoots a fake missile at the other and that other lets out a flare to distract the missile. So, they're just doing exercises, but it looks very incredible. Three lights in the sky in the shape of a saucer, your brain makes it into a saucer because that's what everybody said in movies and folks in TV is supposed to happen. So, it was cool, and I'm glad I got it explained. That's my summary.
Casey Dreier: What I was fascinated about in the book you talk about the ... I was fascinated by your personal experience and the elation, then to almost like a disappointment when you learned the reality. I think that's a very telling component to this, that the reality seem to be deflating almost to what that very special experience that you had.
Sarah Scoles: Right. Yeah. Absolutely, because it wasn't even a cool classified aircraft that I was seeing. It was just a flare. It was old and boring.
Casey Dreier: Yeah, and I think you talked about this. You alluded this a little bit in your book, too. A lot of these things are happening out in these vast empty deserts at night. You even had another experience of this where you hiked into the solar observatory that had been closed down for somewhat banal reasons, not related to aliens, and your experience hiking through it at night, you're worried or slightly anxious about being there at night and it wasn't comfortable. Then you woke up and it was daytime, and you saw it's the same place, but, suddenly, in that information, it was a very different personal experience you had with it.
Casey Dreier: It just reminded me about, again, the very human aspect of this going back to these first-person accounts. People who tend to be in these big open spaces pressed up against this brilliant night sky and the ego dissolves almost a little bit against this information, then when you see something strange, that emotional experience that seems to become a valuable thing or a precious thing then if you get it explained seems to be this unsatisfying context to what was a very personal positive experience.
Sarah Scoles: Yeah. I think that that is correct. I think it's a step that a lot of people don't take when they do see something or aren't able to say because there's not enough data for them to figure out what they did.
Casey Dreier: Yeah, but given the choice, which one would you want? You probably want the special one.
Sarah Scoles: Yeah, I do. No. I want the explanation. I want to be disappointed. Yeah.
Casey Dreier: If your lizard brain was making the choice, you would want the special thing, right?
Sarah Scoles: Oh, sure. Absolutely.
Casey Dreier: This difference between this experiential knowledge and this more abstract intellectual knowledge, our brains are structured to really like or prefer, you get more endorphins or whatever kind of happy brain chemicals off of that personal experience. I think that's a really interesting aspect of this that so much of it is this relationship, ultimately, of your small self to the seemingly big and mysterious unknown and there's attraction to that almost at this deep level.
Sarah Scoles: Yeah. I mean, I think that it's also something that a scientist can identify with the bare feeling of that. I think that's the feeling a lot of astronomers get thinking about the universe itself or a night sky without a UFO in it, just there's this big awesome, awful, wonderful, scary, weird thing that is the whole universe, and I think that that is a feeling that people get when they see a UFO, but maybe we could just stick to also just the night sky instead.
Casey Dreier: There's enough wonder out there that we've confirmed is very likely real that we can all embrace. Sarah, I want to thank you for joining us today on the Space Policy Edition. Sarah's book and I recommend it is They Are Already Here: UFO Culture and Why We See Saucer available wherever books are sold. So, Sarah, thank you again.
Sarah Scoles: Thank you.
Mat Kaplan: Author Sarah Scoles talking with Casey Dreier, the Senior Space Policy Advisor for The Planetary Society, who is, of course, with me right now to help close out this Space Policy Edition. Casey, another terrific conversation.
Casey Dreier: Thank you, Mat, and, of course, I appreciate Sarah taking the time. She's quite in demand right now. She's been studying this topic before it was cool, and I think has a lot of really good insight, again, into this broader cultural perspective of why people engage with this. So, I really did enjoy her book and I hope you enjoyed listening to her perspective on things.
Mat Kaplan: Much more great stuff coming up in future Space Policy Edition conversations. I know that Casey is working on a great one for next month, the August SPE. In the meantime, of course, Planetary Radio will be there for you every week with a new episode every Wednesday. We hope you will visit us. Take a listen at planetary.org/radio or wherever you are hearing this podcast, wherever great podcasts are heard.
Mat Kaplan: Thank you so much and once again, if you are not a member of The Planetary Society, please take a look at planetary.org/join. See what awaits you as someone who backs this program and everything else that we do at The Planetary Society. Thank you so much for listening. Casey, thank you again. Have a great month.
Casey Dreier: Thanks, Mat. I'll see you in July.
Mat Kaplan: That is once again the Senior Space Policy Advisor and the Chief Advocate for The Planetary Society. I'm Mat Kaplan. We will see you soon. Ad astra.