Last week’s US congressional hearings on unidentified anomalous phenomena (UAPs), more popularly known as UFOs (unidentified flying objects), were unusual even by the standards of US politics — in both content and style. Not only did members of the military and intelligence community claim, under oath, that truly inexplicable events occur on a regular basis, but members of Congress from both parties treated them with respect.
In all, the proceedings restored my faith in one of my favourite maxims: Sincerity is the most underrated motive in politics. The hearings themselves send the signal that it is OK to talk and even speculate about this topic — and may even help us get closer to the truth.
That is not to say that I believed everything I heard. I do not think that the US government has the remains of alien spacecraft, for example, including some alien bodies, as claimed by retired Air Force Major David Grusch. But the rest of the evidence was presented in a suitably serious and persuasive manner. It is clear, at least to me, that there is no conspiracy, and the US government is itself puzzled by the data about unidentified anomalous phenomena.
Repeated UFO sightings
The most notable claim from the hearings, including from former F-18 Navy pilot Ryan Graves, is that there have been repeated sightings of highly unusual craft over eight years or more — confirmed by a mix of consistent radar, infrared and eyewitness data. These craft, some of which take the shape of a sphere encompassing a cube, can both hover and move very fast without any visible signs of propulsion.
Of course, there will always be people who lie, suffer from delusions or are otherwise unreliable. But none of these claims is news to those of us who have been following the UAP debate, and it is striking that none of the elected officials in the room challenged the Graves claims. (There was, in contrast, pushback against Grusch’s claims.)
Members of Congress, to the extent they desire, have independent access to military and intelligence sources. They also have political ambitions, if only to be reelected. So the mere fact of their participation in these hearings shows that UFOs/UAPs are now being taken seriously as an issue.
The Pentagon issued a statement claiming it holds no alien bodies, but it did nothing to contradict the statements of Graves (or others with similar claims, outside the hearings). More broadly, there have been no signs of anyone with eyewitness experience asserting that Graves and the other pilots are unreliable.
As is so often the case, the most notable events are those that did not happen. The most serious claims from the hearings survived unscathed: those about inexplicable phenomena and possible national-security threats, not the hypotheses about alien craft or visits.
The US military is a huge bureaucracy that is programmed to respond to potential national-security threats. If so many insiders believe that the US does not control its own airspace, and in the proximity of its own military equipment, that is a crisis of sorts, even if those insiders are misunderstanding the data.
More surprises could be in store
The system will not do nothing indefinitely — and these hearings are best understood as an attempt to do something. Some people in government had the idea that hearings would be useful, and no one had a better idea. If you listen to the beginning of the hearings, you will hear a good articulation of the position that possible national-security and aviation-safety threats cannot go forever uninvestigated. It is striking how often the discussion turned to national security.
Every now and then, it’s appropriate to take the government literally.
I suspect that, from here on out, this topic will become more popular — and somewhat less respectable. A few years ago, UAPs were an issue on which a few people “in the know” could speculate, secure in the knowledge they weren’t going to receive much publicity or pushback. As the chatter increases, the issue will become more prominent, but at the same time a lot of smart observers will dismiss the whole thing because they heard that someone testified before Congress about seeing dead aliens.
I am well aware that many people may conclude that some US officials, or some parts of the US government, have gone absolutely crazy. But even under that dismissive interpretation, it is likely that there will be further surprises.
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.