Ufology is the study of reports, visual records, physical evidence, and other phenomena related to unidentified flying objects (UFO). UFO reports have been subject to various investigations over the years by governments, independent groups, and scientists. However, ufology, as a field, has been rejected by modern academia and is considered a pseudoscience.
The term derives from UFO, which is pronounced as an acronym, and the suffix -logy, which comes from the Ancient Greek λογία (logiā). An early appearance of this term in print can be found in the article “An Introduction to Ufology” by Ivan T. Sanderson, found in Fantastic Universe magazine’s February 1957 issue (Vol. 7, No. 2), which closes with this direct plea: “What we need, in fact, is the immediate establishment of a respectable new science named Ufology.” Another early use of the word was in a 1958 speech given at the opening of The Planetary Center, a UFO research organization near Detroit, Michigan. Another early use, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, one of the first documented uses of the word ufology can be found in the Times Literary Supplement from January 23, 1959, in which it writes, “The articles, reports, and bureaucratic studies which have been written about this perplexing visitant constitute ‘ufology’.” This article was printed eight years after Edward J. Ruppelt of the United States Air Force (USAF) coined the word UFO in 1951.
The modern UFO mythology has three traceable roots: the late 19th century “mystery airships” reported in the newspapers of the western United States, “foo fighters” reported by Allied airmen during World War II, and the Kenneth Arnold “flying saucer” sighting near Mt. Rainier, Washington on June 24, 1947. UFO reports between “The Great Airship Wave” and the Arnold sighting were limited in number compared to the post-war period: notable cases include reports of “ghost fliers” in Europe and North America during the 1930s and the numerous reports of “ghost rockets” in Scandinavia (mostly Sweden) from May to December 1946. Media hype in the late 1940s and early 1950s following the Arnold sighting brought the concept of flying saucers to the public audience.
As the public’s preoccupation in UFOs grew, along with the number of reported sightings, the United States military began to take notice of the phenomenon. The UFO explosion of the early post-war era coincides with the escalation of the Cold War and the Korean War. The U.S. military feared that secret aircraft of the Soviet Union, possibly developed from captured German technology, were behind the reported sightings. If correct, the craft causing the sightings were thus of importance to national security and in need of systematic investigation. By 1952, however, the official US government interest in UFOs began to fade as the USAF projects Sign and Grudge concluded, along with the CIA’s Robertson Panel that UFO reports indicated no direct threat to national security. The government’s official research into UFOs ended with the publication of the Condon Committee report in 1969, which concluded that the study of UFOs in the previous 21 years had achieved little, if anything, and that further extensive study of UFO sightings was unwarranted. It also recommended the termination of the USAF special unit Project Blue Book.
As the U.S. government ceased officially studying UFO sightings, the same became true for most governments of the world. A notable exception is France, which still maintains the GEIPAN, formerly known as GEPAN (1977–1988) and SEPRA (1988–2004), a unit under the French Space Agency CNES. During the Cold War, British, Canadian, Danish, Italian, and Swedish governments have each collected reports of UFO sightings. Britain’s Ministry of Defence ceased accepting any new reports as of 2010.
Status as a field
Ufology has generally not been embraced by academia as a scientific field of study, even though UFOs were, during the late 1940s and early 1950s, the subject of large-scale scientific studies. The lack of acceptance of ufology by academia as a field of study means that people can claim to be “UFO researchers”, without the sorts of scientific consensus building and, in many cases peer review, that otherwise shape and influence scientific paradigms. Even among scientifically inclined UFO research efforts, data collecting is often done by amateur investigators.
Famous mainstream scientists who have shown interest in the UFO phenomenon include Stanford physicist Peter A. Sturrock, astronomer J. Allen Hynek, computer scientist and astronomer Jacques F. Vallée, and University of Arizona meteorologist James E. McDonald.
As a pseudoscience
Ufology is characterized by scientific criticism as a partial or total pseudoscience, a characterization which many ufologists reject. Pseudoscience is a term that classifies studies that are claimed to exemplify the methods and principles of science, but that do not adhere to an appropriate scientific method, lack supporting evidence, plausibility, falsifiability, or otherwise lack scientific status.
Gregory Feist, an academic psychologist, proposes that ufology can be categorized as a pseudoscience because its adherents claim it to be a science while the scientific community denies that it is, and because the field lacks a cumulative scientific progress; ufology has not, in his view, advanced since the 1950s. Rachel Cooper, a philosopher of science and medicine, states that the fundamental problem in ufology is not the lack of scientific method, as many ufologists have striven to meet standards of scientific acceptability, but rather the fact that the assumptions on which the research is often based are considered highly speculative.
Stanton Friedman considers the general attitude of mainstream academics as arrogant and dismissive, or bound to a rigid worldview that disallows any evidence contrary to previously held notions. Denzler states that the fear of ridicule and a loss of status has prevented scientists from publicly pursuing an interest in UFOs. J. Allen Hynek also commented, “Ridicule is not part of the scientific method and people should not be taught that it is.” Hynek said of the frequent dismissal of UFO reports by astronomers that the critics knew little about the sightings, and should thus not be taken seriously. Peter A. Sturrock suggests that a lack of funding is a major factor in the institutional lack of interest in UFOs.
Scientific UFO research suffers from the fact that the phenomena under observation do not usually make predictable appearances at a time and place convenient for the researcher. Ufologist Diana Palmer Hoyt argues,
The UFO problem seems to bear a closer resemblance to problems in meteorology than in physics. The phenomena are observed, occur episodically, are not reproducible, and in large part, are identified by statistical gathering of data for possible organization into patterns. They are not experiments that can be replicated at will at the laboratory bench under controlled conditions.
On the other hand, skeptics have argued that UFOs are not a scientific problem at all, as there is no tangible physical evidence to study. Barry Markovsky argues that, under scrutiny by qualified investigators, the vast majority of UFO sightings turn out to have mundane explanations. Astronomer Carl Sagan stated on UFO sightings, “The reliable cases are uninteresting and the interesting cases are unreliable. Unfortunately there are no cases that are both reliable and interesting.”
Peter A. Sturrock states that UFO studies should be compartmentalized into at least “the following distinct activities”:
Field investigations leading to case documentation and the measurement or retrieval of physical evidence;
Laboratory analysis of physical evidence;
The systematic compilation of data (descriptive and physical) to look for patterns and so extract significant facts;
The analysis of compilations of data (descriptive and physical) to look for patterns and so extract significant facts;
The development of theories and the evaluation of those theories on the basis of facts.
Denzler states that ufology as a field of study has branched into two different mindsets: the first group of investigators wants to convince the unbelievers and earn intellectual legitimacy through systematic study using the scientific method, and the second group sees the follow-up questions concerning the origin and “mission” of the UFOs as more important than a potential academic standing.