Common Sense About UFOs

by Col T.M.P (Paddy) Stevens, S4 (Air), Ministry of Defence, February 1979.

Crown Copyright – Ministry of Defence

Colonel Patrick Stevens, Royal Marines 45 Commando, circa 1964

Colonel Patrick Stevens, Royal Marines 45 Commando, circa 1964

What is a ‘UFO’?

Some people claim there have been sightings of ‘UFOs’ all over the world, and that the numbers are increasing and run into tens of thousands or even millions.

It depends what you mean by a UFO! ‘UFO’ means an Unidentified Flying Object, something seen in the sky which cannot immediately be identified. There is no doubt that there are many strange phenomena, reported by calm and responsible people. But they have ordinary explanations. These ‘UFOs’ are certainly not ‘alien space craft’ – which is what all the talk about ‘UFOs’ suggests. There is no evidence that our planet has ever been visited by a single space craft from a distant civilisation, let alone the great numbers suggested.

Things in the sky

Some of the things seen in the sky are so strange that few people could be expected to recognise them:

Fireballs. Huge quantities of ‘space debris’, dust and larger material, drift around the solar system and may enter our atmosphere. Fireballs (much larger than meteorites or ‘shooting stars’) may be the size of a house; they blaze brightly and may change colour, and perhaps break up with fragments seeming to circle down or fly ‘in formation’. Some are so bright that they look close when they are really far beyond the horizon.

Fireball meteor over San Francisco October 2012

Fireball meteor over San Francisco October 2012

Satellite debris. Thousands of man-made satellites and pieces of rockets etc orbit the earth; about 600 re-enter the atmosphere every year, and when they break up and burn the appearance can be astonishing.

Ball Lightning is a curious electrical phenomena, when a glowing ball of gas drifts near the ground or along power or telephone cables or even high in the air. There is a reported case of ball lightning drifting inside an aircraft at altitude.

Sun-dogs are reflections of the sun from layers of ice crystals in clouds, akin to seeing one or more strange and sometimes indistinct glowing objects drifting in the air. ‘Moon-dogs’ are similar.

Strange lights in the sky - ball lightning? Will o'the wisp? UAP? (credict:

Strange lights in the sky – ball lightning? Will o’the wisp? UAP? (credict:

Meteorological Balloons. The Meteorological Office alone releases 50 balloons a day, which may expand to 40 feet diameter and rise to 100,000 feet and be seen after dark still glowing in the sun and blown about by high winds. Many other organisations use balloons, some much larger.

Many other phenomena get reported as ‘UFOs’. There are hot air balloons, dust devils, debris carried on the wind; St Elmo’s Fire, Aurora Borealis; aircraft lights or landing lights; aircraft seen from unusual angles often lead to UFO reports; car headlights on distant hills, and lights on distant towers; meteorological searchlights; planets (particularly Venus, because it appears early and low in the sky) and even the moon have been reported as UFOs. Flocks of birds have been reported as UFOs; large luminous swarms of the spruce budworm moth may be reported as UFOs; ‘lenticular’ clouds. There are reflections when looking at the sky through glass, and phenomena generated within the eyeball, and many others. It is impossible to list all the possible ‘UFOs’, there are simply too many.

Lenticular cloud UFO (courtesy of

Lenticular cloud UFO (courtesy of

Some people protest that pilots and other responsible people could never report planets or other everyday sights as ‘UFOs’ but there are recorded cases of this. Ordinary things can be misinterpreted when seen unexpectedly and briefly, particularly in unusual atmospheric conditions and with distortions of lights. With mirages (which occur in the sky as well as the desert) familiar things can be totally unrecognisable. And there are optical illusions: one scientist describes how, despite years of experience watching satellites, he finds it difficult to escape the illusion that the stars are dashing past stationary clouds.

How the UFO Myth arises

There have always been strange things to see in the sky. Since World War II there has been the development of powerful rockets, and voyages to the moon and planets. There has also been a rapid growth of science fiction, where space ships can be switched to ‘inter-stellar drive’ and can cross the two million light years to Andromeda Galaxy in a flash. Some people accept the delightful fantasies of science fiction as proven fact and interpret almost any phenomena in our skies as ‘alien space craft.’

What happens is something like this. Somebody reports a strange sight in the sky. The custom is to call it a ‘UFO’ – which in a sense it is, unidentified and looks as if it is flying. But in the next breath it gets called a ‘flying saucer’, for which there is no evidence at all. A moment later it becomes an ‘alien space craft.’  The words ‘UFO’ and ‘alien space craft’ have been firmly implanted and readily spring to mind when anything strange is seen.

A 'UFO' as imagined by the tabloid media (courtesy Huffington Post)

A ‘UFO’ as imagined by the tabloid media (courtesy Huffington Post)

Thus genuine reports of curious phenomena, anything from space debris to St Elmo’s Fire or a mirage, get lumped together as if ‘UFOs’ were a single class of objects in the sky which must be explained by a single cause. The enthusiasts collect all these ‘UFO reports’, and a large collection of completely unrelated phenomena gets turned into ‘thousands of alien space craft.’

The Strange Stories

But how does one explain some of the stranger stories, for example of people who claim they have actually seen or even met ‘aliens’? One would like to see really convincing evidence, but none can be produced. People really do have hallucinations. There are also the excited tales of the gullible, and the embellishments of the born story-teller. Ufologists accumulate ‘UFO sightings’ as if sheer numbers constitute proof. Naturally some people murmur ‘where there’s smoke there’s fire’. All that is happening is that the UFO industry is making a great deal of smoke to the confusion of common sense and their own substantial profit.

There is also a wide variety of hoaxes, both aerial and on the ground. Some of the stories do not add up: two UFO researchers described on TV how one Saturday evening a huge glowing space craft flew so low over West London that they could see the top – but no-one else in London saw the ‘UFO’!

A study by Colorado University examined two famous ‘historical’ cases of UFOs. One ‘ufologist’ referred to a papyrus found among the Vatican papers of a Professor Tulli describing flying saucers during the reign of the ancient pharoah Thutmose III. The alleged papyrus could not be traced, but evidence in the translation suggested a fake and so did enquiries at the Vatican Museum. Several ufologists quote a manuscript vividly describing ‘UFOs’ at Byland Abbey in Yorkshire in 1290 AD: the Colorado study reported this as a recent hoax by two schoolboys.

One famous ufologist described as ‘one of the most remarkable and unexplained mysteries of modern times’ the case of a battalion of the Norfolk Regiment kidnapped by a UFO in a cloud during the 1915 battle of Gallipoli: the official records show that the men were killed fighting and their bodies were recovered later. Because of these and many similar cases one must suspect that ‘ufologists’ accept UFO stories without sensible scrutiny.

The legend of the 'battalion that vanished' at Gallipoli is a well-known UFO legend...but is completely untrue (credit:

The legend of the ‘battalion that vanished’ at Gallipoli is a well-known UFO legend…but is completely untrue (credit:

Among the thousands of UFO reports there are inevitably some difficult to explain, because the description is vague or the evidence remote, perhaps coupled with unusual atmospheric conditions and even coincidence of different and unrelated phenomena.

Some people argue that the burden of proving that these are NOT ‘aliens’ lies with the cynics. If one accepts that there are natural explanations for most sightings, it is an enormous and irrational jump to claim that the residue of difficult cases constitute ‘alien space craft’ when there is no evidence at all that they are.

Radar. People tend to believe that radar reports of UFOs constitute some special kind of scientific ‘proof’. Radar is as fallible as the human eye, and many technical problems produce false echoes; a well-known one is ‘anomalous propagation’ where the pulses bounce off layers in the atmosphere and the radar, pointing skywards, may show echoes which in fact are ships. When there are reports of simultaneous visual and radar sightings of UFOs, people suspect that this constitutes absolute proof; but detailed examination is needed to determine whether the visual and radar reports actually relate to the same phenomena.

Where are the ‘Aliens’ Hiding?

Our own galaxy is so vast that it would take 100,000 years to cross it even if we could travel at the speed of light; other galaxies are millions of light years away. Even at the speed of light it would take over four years to travel here from the nearest star; and any ‘aliens’ might live far beyond that. Certainly there is no evidence of an ‘alien civilisation’ anywhere in our own solar system.

Thus any ‘aliens’ would have colossal distances to cross. Now, there is a strange thing about the large number of sightings claimed. To put it simply: if these ‘aliens’ prefer to keep out of sight, the number of reported sightings must be a small proportion of the actual ‘flights’ they make, which must therefore run into millions a year; if they do not mind being seen one would expect unmistakable appearances.

But the evidence does not match either answer. Why has not a single artefact been found, no broken pieces or objects from space craft? Why have there been no unmistakable photographs of space craft, in these days when so many people carry cameras? Why has there been no corroborative evidence on radar for this huge number of movements? Why has Jodrell Bank radio telescope, watching the sky for over 30 years, not seen a single phenomenon that might be an alien space craft? Why has there been no approach to Governments?

The Lovell radio-telescope at Jodrell Bank, Cheshire, UK. No UFOs sighted despite 65 years of searching the skies (courtesy

The Lovell radio-telescope at Jodrell Bank, Cheshire, UK. No UFOs sighted despite 65 years of searching the skies (courtesy

Any why this huge number of visits to our planet, over such vast distances, to no apparent purpose? At best it seems wasteful. If the ‘aliens’ have an advance base in our solar system, where are they? It can no longer be claimed that they are hiding on the other side of the moon (an earlier explanation), so it is now claimed that they are hiding in the depths of the sea, or in a huge hole near the North Pole leading into the hollow earth, or that they are ‘paranormal’ and come from ‘other space-time continua’. The explanations get ever more fantastic.

The ‘Great Cover-up’

UFO enthusiasts are aware that, if there were visits by alien space craft such as they have suggested, these must have come to the attention of Governments. Because Governments deny any knowledge of ‘alien space craft’, UFOlogists claim that many world Governments have conspired for 30 years in a great ‘cover-up’ to conceal the presence of aliens!

A frequent claim is that the United States Government leads the cover-up. In fact in 1968 the United States Air Force commissioned the University of Colorado to do a thorough and independent study into the phenomena of ‘UFOs’. That very substantial and detailed scientific report was published, and it concluded: “Nothing has come from the study of UFOs in the past 21 years that has added to scientific knowledge.” The findings were endorsed by a panel of the National Academy of Sciences. We are advised that nothing since then has caused the US authorities to change their views.

In January 1979 Lord Strabolgi, speaking on behalf of the British Government, gave a categorical assurance that there was no ‘cover-up’. He pointed out that a visit by ‘aliens’ would be one of the great events in history. And that if there was anything in the stories about UFOs we would expect the scientific community as a whole to be devoting much effort to studying them or making contact with supposed aliens, and they are not. Any idea of a conspiracy of silence belongs, Lord Strabolgi suggested, ‘to the world of James Bond.’ There is simply nothing to cover-up.HouseofLords

The idea persists that the Ministry of Defence has an organisation which secretly investigates UFO reports. In fact MoD merely passes any UFO reports to the operations and scientific staffs to see whether they contain any information of defence interest.

Occam’s Razor

This is a primary argument against people who invent the hypothesis of UFOs to explain perfectly ordinary phenomena. The phrase was applied to the philosophy of William of Occam (circa 1290 to circa 1349) which in essence said ‘entities must not be multiplied without necessity’. In ordinary language this means that theories which need to elaborate in order to explain phenomena for which there is a simple explanation are probably wrong. In other words: there are perfectly sensible explanations for UFO phenomena so why seek fantastic explanations bordering on the magic?

No-one should doubt that there are many remarkable things to see in the sky, and that these are reported by responsible people. But there are common-sense explanations. The trouble is that the name ‘UFO’ sticks. ‘I have seen a UFO’ has a hidden suggestion that it might be an alien space craft. All it really means is that the observer may have seen a fireball or satellite re-entry or a lenticular cloud or one of literally dozens of other phenomena.

6 Responses to Common Sense About UFOs

  1. J.R. Murphy says:

    Stevens seems to have a less solid understanding of the UFO phenomena than most well-read ufologists, beginning with how the term UFO was meant to be interpreted for the purpose of official investigation. It has never been meant to designate “something seen in the sky which cannot immediately be identified”. It was meant as a designation for something that doesn’t conform to any known natural or manmade object or phenomenon. There is plenty of evidence to substantiate this interpretation in official USAF documents, most notably AFR 200-2, February 05, 1958. There is also ample evidence in standard usage in the English language that the word UFO is meant to convey the idea of something extraordinary, usually an alien craft. So let’s bury this ill-informed notion that vague lights off in the distance qualify as UFOs. They don’t. It’s a misapplication of the term by those who are less informed.

  2. Alan says:

    “Evidence of standard usage” is not a very convincing argument for the existence of UFOs when clearly so far there are no sightings that would not conform to any known natural or manmade object or phenomenon. Standared usage is not required. A clear definition is required. I commend “something seen in the sky which cannot immediately be identified” (by the observer) as perfectly adequate.

  3. USI Calgary says:

    A “perfectly adequate” definition for the word UFO would not facilitate the confusion that “something seen in the sky which cannot immediately be identified” does. Many people cannot immediately identify a whole range of things, including birds, aircraft, planets, stars, and other natural and manmade objects and phenomena. Virtually all those things were excluded from the official definition of UFO by the very people who created the term, the USAF, specifically AFR 200-2, February 05, 1958.

    Besides that, the idea that is conveyed, either literally or by inference, intentionally or otherwise, in virtually every instance where UFOs are being discussed, is the idea of some sort of alien craft. So the definition “alien craft” is a more accurate definition. It also does what a good definition is supposed to do, which is to It define UFOs by what they are, not what they aren’t, and although it leaves room for investigation, it leaves no room for confusion about what it is that is being investigated.

    Last but not least, the use of vague definitions that dance around the core issue diminishes the experiences of witnesses who know they saw some sort of alien craft, not merely some vague object they couldn’t immediately identify. Vague lights off in the distance that could be almost anything aren’t UFOs. They’re just vague lights off in the distance. There’s a vast difference between them and a large metallic disk being chased by a military jet.

  4. nsurround says:

    Unfortunately Mr. Stevens dogmatic approach and believe system is present throughout his post. If one was being scientific at all one would at least have an open mind. Not so it seems with his arguments. I am very suspicious when someone tries to account for everything with what is supposedly known to be known. That closes the door on the unknown or what could be known. It is fine to be skeptical but not at the expense of what is possibly the truth. Many humans want desperately to believe the universe revolves around them. That some God made it for them. That if ET(s) exist at all they must think and behave like us. Why can’t they land on the White House lawn? This is a very foolish argument and one that so many skeptics follow.

  5. I have seen more than 1,500 UFO’s, so any person who claims to be an expert and is skeptic to me about UFO existing is a joke! No offence to wanna be experts who claim UFO probably do not exist, but how can you be experts when you are wrong?

  6. trev says:

    I’ve seen a UFO with my own eyes, a flying saucer that looked much like the illustration in this article (the one imagined by the media). I know, for sure, without any shadow of a doubt, that these things absolutely do exist, and no one can ever tell me otherwise. So nice try at debunking the phenomenon, but you don’t fool me!

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