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The real government conspiracy isn’t about UFOs

Three months ago, following last summer’s congressional hearings on UFOs, the Pentagon’s All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office issued a 63-page report evaluating almost 80 years of evidence. Its conclusion — not altogether surprising, given the name of the office — can be summarized as follows: Not much to see here. Please move on.

(The actual language from the report: “AARO has not discovered any empirical evidence that any sighting of a UAP represented off-world technology or the existence a classified program that had not been properly reported to Congress.”)

The Senate Intelligence Committee isn’t buying it. The Intelligence Authorization Act, which it passed this month, among other things calls for review of the All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office. The bill would also limit research into what are now called UAPs (unidentified anomalous phenomena) unless Congress is informed and add whistleblower protections for anyone who might wish to step forward and speak their minds.

Less plausible claims about UAPs have been achieving greater circulation in part because of the efforts of David Grusch, who testified before Congress last year about hidden alien bodies, crashed vehicles and secret conspiracies. Those claims, which primary witnesses have not corroborated, defy belief, and the ensuing controversy has helped make concerns about UAPs appear silly.

Nonetheless, the truth remains that there are systematic sightings and sensor data of fast-moving entities that the government cannot explain. You don’t have to think they are space aliens to realize that they are threats to national security. At the very least, the mere fact that some experienced military pilots entertain the more speculative alien-linked hypotheses suggests that the military is not processing information effectively. Does it make anyone feel better when reports from pilots are dismissed as crazy?

UAPs will remain an issue as long as China and Russia (and possibly other nations) remain national security threats, because the U.S. military will always want to identify possible entrants to its airspace. No report or bureaucratic process can make those concerns go away. And so there is a kind of paralyzed equilibrium, where a very strong force — the desire to know — has met an immovable object — a lack of knowledge.

In this sense, the frustration of the Senate Intelligence Committee — as expressed by its unanimous 17-0 vote — is understandable. The Pentagon’s report presents many of the weaker UAP allegations and notes that there is no serious evidence to back them up. And it simply dismisses some of the stronger UAP puzzles, such as the Nimitz or Gimbal incidents.

It is not until Page 26 that the report concedes: “A small percentage of cases have potentially anomalous characteristics or concerning characteristics. AARO has kept Congress fully and currently informed of its findings. AARO’s research continues on these cases.” Those sentences should have been on the first page, and then the report should have presented the evidence about those cases. If this were an undergraduate term paper, I would have given it a D+.

The chatter among insiders, some of which surely reaches senators, is that some of the data is very hard to explain. Some people, such as John Brennan, former head of the CIA, have even speculated that the available evidence might imply contact with a nonhuman civilization. Agree or disagree, the admission is a marker of our ignorance.

The conspiracy, to the extent there is one, is not to suppress evidence of different life-forms; it is to avoid admitting the embarrassing absence of any real answers. So at the very least, the Senate Intelligence Committee deserves credit for reopening the issue.

It can be hard to wrap your head around such huge questions. People are often more concerned with dismissing the possibility of alien life than with admitting the possibility of genuine uncertainty. And since even partial evidence of aliens might scare the public too much, there is an overriding incentive to keep matters under wraps.

When I think about all this, I try to keep two questions separate. First, is there a major puzzle to account for? And second, what is the best explanation for that puzzle? It helps to focus on the first question in isolation, since we can’t seem to keep our heads on straight when it comes to the second.

By admitting that there is a real puzzle to be solved, the Senate Intelligence Committee has moved decisively to answer the first question. Once we clarify exactly what the puzzle is, maybe we’ll be able to make some progress explaining it.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, a professor of economics at George Mason University and host of the Marginal Revolution blog.

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