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It’s time to take UFOs seriously. Seriously.

A giant metal sculpture of an alien stands outside a trailer in the desert.The “Area 51 Basecamp” event at the Alien Research Center in Hiko, Nevada, on September 20, 2019. | Mario Tama/Getty Images

Alexander Wendt is one of the most influential political scientists alive. Here’s his case for taking UFOs seriously.

The Pentagon recently released three videos of UFOs recorded by the Navy — one taken in 2004 and the other two in 2015. The videos, which first leaked a couple of years ago, show … well, it’s not exactly clear.

There are various objects — two of which look like aircraft — spinning through the sky and moving in ways that defy easy explanation. As the images bop across the screen, you can hear the pilots’ excitement and confusion in real time as they track whatever it is they’re seeing.

I’m not what you would call a UFO enthusiast, but the videos are the most compelling I’ve ever seen. They seem to confirm, at the very least, that UFOs are real — not that aliens exist, but that there are unidentified objects buzzing around the sky.

Now, do I think aliens are real? Yeah, probably. Are they flying spaceships into our atmosphere? Who the hell knows?

The best anyone can say is that there’s a non-zero chance that some of these UFOs were made by non-human hands, and that, I’d argue, is reason enough to talk about them. But it’s barely cracked the news cycle. Even in a pandemic, you’d think we’d have a little time for UFO talk.

So in an attempt to force a UFO conversation into the public discourse, I contacted Alexander Wendt, a professor of international relations at Ohio State University. Wendt is a giant in his field of IR theory, but in the past 15 years or so, he’s become an amateur ufologist. He wrote an academic article about the political implications of UFOs in 2008, and, more recently, he gave a TEDx talk calling out the “taboo” against studying UFOs.

Wendt is about the closest thing you’ll find to a UFO expert in a world in which ufology isn’t a real science. Like other enthusiasts, he’s spent a lot of time looking at the evidence, thinking about the stakes, and theorizing about why extraterrestrials would visit Earth in the first place.

In this conversation, which has been lightly edited for clarity, we discuss why scientists refuse to take UFOs seriously, why he thinks there’s a good chance ETs are behind the aircraft in those videos, and why he believes the discovery of extraterrestrial life would be the most significant event in human history.

Sean Illing

Do you believe in extraterrestrial life?

Alexander Wendt

Well, it’s kind of like asking if somebody believes in God. It’s just an odd question. I certainly believe that it’s very likely there’s extraterrestrial life somewhere in the universe, and I suspect even most scientists might agree with that now. The real question is, are ETs here? And that’s obviously a much more debatable question.

Sean Illing

Are they here?

Alexander Wendt

I think the odds are high enough that we should be investigating it. It’s as simple as that.

Sean Illing

Why would aliens conceal their existence? I know you have theories on this —

Alexander Wendt

It’s possible they’ve been here all along. And that’s something that I’ve been thinking about lately, which is a bit unsettling. Because it means it’s their planet and not ours. They could just be intergalactic tourists. Maybe they’re looking for certain minerals. It could just be scientific curiosity. It could be that they’re extracting our DNA. I mean, who knows? I have no idea. All I know is that if they are here, they seem to be peaceful.

Sean Illing

You’ve thought about this a lot, Alex. You must have a hunch as to which of those scenarios is most likely.

Alexander Wendt

I think if they are here, they’ve probably been here a very long time — that’s my guess. And, look, there are medieval woodcuts that seem to show UFOs. There are UFO stories in the Bible, apparently, or at least stories that are interpreted that way. So I think they’ve probably been here a long time if they’re here.

Sean Illing

We’re having this conversation because you’ve been very public about calling out a “taboo” against studying UFOs. What’s your claim here?

Alexander Wendt

It’s very simple. There are things going on in the sky that are strange and do not have an obvious explanation. These are UFOs, and like any other unidentified phenomenon, human beings are curious creatures and normally scientists will rush out to study whatever we find fascinating or puzzling. But in this case, scientists won’t touch it with a 10-foot pole. And that’s the taboo.

So even though the Navy is now saying, “Hey, we’ve got UFOs on film, here they are,” the scientists are still not going to study them. So there seems to be something blocking the scientific community from engaging this phenomenon, even though anything else even remotely this interesting would generate limitless research dollars.

Sean Illing

Is this some kind of conspiracy of silence? How does a taboo like this take hold in the first place?

Alexander Wendt

We argued in our 2008 academic paper that the modern state is what we call anthropocentric. Basically, that means human beings are sovereigns. In ancient times, it was the gods or nature that was thought to rule over everything. Now it’s human beings. And this principle is embodied in the state. And if you call that into question, if you call into question that the state is not the only potential sovereign here, the whole legitimacy of the state is called into question. So the whole worldview of the modern state is very vulnerable to the UFO question. You can’t even ask the question because it raises the possibility that there could be ETs here. And that would just blow everything wide open.

Sean Illing

That’s an argument for why states might not be interested in this question, but it doesn’t explain why non-state actors or the private sector isn’t particularly eager to study this.

Alexander Wendt

Now, that’s a very good point. In our paper, we only dealt with states. What’s interesting lately is that states seem more willing to engage with this than scientists. I think there’s a hubris in the scientific community, a belief that human beings are the most intelligent species on this planet, and it’s very hard to come to grips with the idea that if there are aliens here, they’re obviously much smarter than we are.

I’ve received a lot of emails from individual scientists in response to my TEDx talk. And all of them said the same thing, which is, “Thank you, we wish we could study this, but we can’t because our lives depend on getting grants from the government and other research institutes, and if anybody gets worried that we’re interested in UFOs, boom, they won’t get a cent and their careers will be in the tank.” But I still think most scientists believe this is all nonsense anyway, and that’s frankly disappointing.

Sean Illing

I think there are other explanations here, but we’ll get to that. First, let’s talk about these Navy videos. What do you think you’re seeing when you watch these?

Alexander Wendt

The first thing I’d say is that it doesn’t matter what I think because I’m not a scientist, right? I don’t know what’s on those videos. But to me, I listened to the pilots, to their voices, and I trust them much more than I would trust myself. And they’re clearly seeing something extraordinary. Now, whether it’s alien life, who knows? It’s a plausible explanation. My point is that we should be agnostic about this and simply study it scientifically. Let’s do the science and then we can talk about what we found. Until we’ve done that, it’s all bullshit.

Sean Illing

Is it possible that there is no real taboo and that the lack of rigorous study has more to do with the limits of the field or the paucity of evidence than anything else?

Alexander Wendt

Well, it’s true that the evidence we have is very vague. Most of it is anecdotal. It’s not scientific. A lot of it is eyewitness reports. On the other hand, the evidence has been going on for many decades. It’s very consistent, in many ways. It’s all over the world. There’s a huge number of cases and there is physical evidence in the form of videos or radar accounts. And when that evidence comes from the US Navy, it’s safe to say that it’s legit and not doctored.

Sean Illing

But what would a science of UFOs even look like? How do we study empirically something for which there’s so little empirical evidence?

Alexander Wendt

Like Elizabeth Warren says, I have a plan for that.

Sean Illing

Great, let’s hear it.

Alexander Wendt

About five years ago, some colleagues of mine and I formed a nonprofit called UFO data. And the objective we set for the nonprofit was to create a ground-based network of surveillance stations that would monitor the sky 24/7 with cameras and various other technologies, looking for UFOs. Anything comes along, boom, the cameras start snapping pictures or radar or film until the UFO passes. The technology is very sophisticated now and very cheap.

Sean Illing

I don’t quite understand the need for that. There are thousands of satellites and radar systems operating all over the world at every moment, surveilling and recording and tracking. An obvious question is, why are there not more sightings? Why is there not more evidence? Why are there so few compelling pieces of evidence?

Alexander Wendt

I think part of the problem is that a lot of the parameters of these technologies that we use to look for asteroids and meteors and all these other things are such that UFOs may not be within those parameters. And so they’ll just be discarded as noise or unnoticeable junk. So that’s one explanation for why we see less than we might.

Secondly, no one has bothered to actually look for UFOs. We’re looking for ETs around distant stars, we’re looking for comets, we’re looking at all kinds of other things in the atmosphere. No one, as far as I know, is seriously looking for UFOs. But to me, it doesn’t really matter why we don’t see more. What matters is those three videos that the Navy released. I defy anyone to watch those and come away thinking there’s nothing there worth investigating. Those pilots who spent thousands of hours in the sky, who are flying the most sophisticated machines in the entire world, are seeing something that they have never seen before and are completely blown away by it.

Again, these are videos released by the Navy, and so I’m inclined to believe what I’m seeing. What’s striking is that the objects don’t behave like natural phenomena. One of the objects rotates as it’s flying against the wind, which is not normal. And the pilots are clearly under the impression that these objects are under intelligent control.

Sean Illing

Are you persuaded at all by some of the non-ET explanations? For instance, that some of the UFOs are actually weather balloons or drones or shadows of aircraft above and that what appear to be advanced maneuvers are really just the product of infrared glare or camera angles or eyewitness errors.

Alexander Wendt

I think the majority of UFO reports probably have conventional explanations like that and they’re just misidentifications by observers on the ground. That’s probably the majority of cases. So it’s really the hardcore minority cases that don’t have those kinds of obvious explanations. And that’s where we have better physical evidence, or authoritative sources, like the military. And it’s really easy to throw out skeptical possibilities. But I look at those videos and they don’t look fake to me at all.

Sean Illing

No, they don’t.

Alexander Wendt

The pilots clearly don’t think so, either.

Sean Illing

Tell me the truth: You think it’s aliens, right?

Alexander Wendt

I think so. If I were placing a bet, I guess I would say 51 to 49 in favor of ETs. But it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the opposite were true. Again, we haven’t done the science.

Sean Illing

That’s a big number, Alex.

Alexander Wendt

It is.

Sean Illing

To say that something is hard to explain is not to say that it’s inexplicable, though. It’s entirely possible — likely, even — that there’s a simple account of these encounters and we just don’t have it yet. What’s the Occam’s razor explanation for these UFO sightings?

Alexander Wendt

To me, the Occam’s razor explanation is ETs.

Sean Illing

Really?

Alexander Wendt

It explains all the cases just like that. And you don’t need a whole bunch of different theories or assumptions for all these different phenomena, right? Because the phenomena are different. But I guess I don’t see a competing explanation of any kind that would explain some of the stuff that we either have on film or the pilots have seen. And, again, why didn’t the military come up with these alternative explanations? They must have thought about them and concluded it doesn’t fit the data.

Sean Illing

I’m not sure that’s right. They may have a strong hunch but simply can’t prove it, so it remains officially “unidentified.” We can definitely say that the chances that aliens are involved is non-zero, but beyond that, I have no idea.

Alexander Wendt

That’s pretty close to my position.

Sean Illing

But a weather balloon or malfunctioning radar systems or just eyewitness mistakes seem like much simpler explanations.

Alexander Wendt

But you’d have to explain why multiple instruments were all malfunctioning in the same way at the same time. You’ve got multiple jets up there, you’ve got radar on the ships down below tracking at the same time. You’ve got communications going on with people on the ships and the planes and the guys in the planes. So whatever explanations people do offer, they’ve got to fit the data.

It doesn’t look like that was a weather balloon that those guys were seeing. I assume professional fighter pilots are pretty good at spotting and recognizing weather balloons, and surely that’s a common occurrence. It’s easy to be a skeptic here, I get that. All I’m saying is that there’s enough here to justify the science. The puzzle is that we’re not doing the science. To me, that’s the essential phenomenon that’s of interest.

Sean Illing

Why should scientists care about UFOs? Why should philosophers care? Why should anyone care?

Alexander Wendt

Because if ETs were discovered, it would be the most important event in human history.

Sean Illing

Why?

Alexander Wendt

If it became known, it could be a very dangerous event in the sense that we might see a collapse of state authority. We might see chaos. The possibility of contact with a civilization that has vastly more knowledge than we do is exciting and terrifying and unpredictable.

Sean Illing

I mean, isn’t that a case for putting our heads down and minding our fucking business? Stephen Hawking famously warned humanity about the perils of first contact with an alien species. “If aliens visit us,” he said, “the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.”

Was he wrong?

Alexander Wendt

My feeling is that if they’re here, they’re almost certainly peaceful, because if they were not peaceful they would have wiped us out a long time ago. They can probably do it very quickly. So my assumption is they don’t mean any harm. But it’s still the case that society could implode or destabilize as a result of colliding with ETs.

Sean Illing

That’s a big assumption. If they are here, they might be peaceful, sure. But they might also be on a scouting operation. They might be looking for holes in our defenses, weaknesses in our societies and in our physical bodies. The point, obviously, is that we have no freaking idea. So maybe that’s the case for following Hawking’s lead here, right? Maybe it’s best to not go poking about for superior life.

Alexander Wendt

I’ve thought about this, and I worry less about poking around and getting conquered and more about the potential realization that these things are here and then an internal implosion of our society. So I worry about my fellow human beings more than I worry about the aliens. So I guess in that sense, I disagree with Hawking’s premise that they’re out to get us. But sure, it’s possible they’re on a surveillance mission. But people have been reporting UFOs for at least 80 years, and that’s a really, really long surveillance mission. And also, why would they want to conquer us? That’s like us conquering ants.

Sean Illing

If some of these UFOs are the products of alien life, why haven’t they made their presence more explicit? If they wanted to remain undetected, they could, and yet they continually expose themselves in these semi-clandestine ways. Why?

Alexander Wendt

That’s a very good question. Because you’re right, I think if they wanted to be completely secretive, they could. If they wanted to come out in the open, they could do that, too. My guess is that they have had a lot of experience with this in the past with civilizations at our stage. And they probably know that if they land on the White House lawn, there’ll be chaos and social breakdown. People will start shooting at them.

So I think what they’re doing is trying to get us used to the idea that they’re here with the hopes that we’ll figure it out ourselves, that we’ll go beyond the taboo and do the science. And then maybe we can absorb the knowledge that we’re not alone and our society won’t implode when we finally do have contact. That’s my theory, but who knows, right?

Sean Illing

It’s an interesting theory, and as likely as any other, but Hawking’s theory is every bit as plausible —

Alexander Wendt

That’s right. But people have speculated that any civilization that’s able to travel between the stars would have to become nonviolent, because they would never survive long enough if they’re violent among themselves to actually reach a point where their technology was that sophisticated. And human beings don’t seem to be as violent as we used to be, so there’s that.

Sean Illing

I’d say our institutions have evolved and the incentives guiding our behavior have evolved, but I don’t think we have. I think human beings are as nonviolent as their circumstances allow them to be.

Alexander Wendt

That’s fair.

Sean Illing

If there’s a non-zero chance that aliens are real and they know we’re here, it’s crazy that governments aren’t more concerned about the dangers. We’ve all seen the same movies. How do you explain the apparent indifference here?

Alexander Wendt

For governments, there’s no real upside to talking about this. They can’t control this. If there are ETs, they don’t have the power to do anything about it. They’re helpless in the face of ETs. And there’s a big downside risk of social chaos, loss of authority, loss of control and all that. So I think governments have lots of reasons to let a sleeping dog lie, which is why the Navy’s thing is so surprising in a way.

Sean Illing

Maybe several governments already know of ETs and aren’t revealing that knowledge for all the reasons you suggest.

Alexander Wendt

I’m a strong disbeliever in any kind of conspiracy argument. I don’t think there has ever been a conspiracy to cover up the truth that we know that aliens are here. At most, we’ve covered up the fact that we have no idea what’s going on.

Sean Illing

What’s the argument or the piece of evidence that gives you the most pause? What makes you think there’s nothing here?

Alexander Wendt

That’s a good question. That I don’t have a good answer shows my bias in a way. I guess I’d like to see more videos of the sort the Navy just released. It’s likely they have other videos they haven’t released. So I guess I would like to see more physical evidence. I suppose that’s my answer: The thing that gives me the most pause is that we have so little evidence.

Sean Illing

You said a minute ago that we might be in a pre-contact situation in which ETs are gradually acclimating us to their presence. If that’s true, what should we be doing to prepare for whatever comes next?

Alexander Wendt

Actually, that’s the next article I would like to write. I don’t know what the answer is right now. I only write articles where I don’t know the answer ahead of time. But I guess I will say this: Montezuma could’ve prepared a lot better for Cortes than he did, had he only known Cortes was coming.


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