UFOs: worth your government's time?

It's election time in the old US-of-A, time for everybody with a beef or special interest to try and get their own particular hot-button placed on the national control panel. There are all the perennial favourites- gun control, abortion, immigration, gay marriage- that haunt the electoral agenda. But this year, if a collection of pilots and former governent officials have their way, presidential candidates will be debating the merits of studying unidentified flying objects. The so-called 'November 12'  group made a public call yesterday for the government to re-open the investigation of UFO's in America. Of course, flying saucers-as-politics has a proud pedigree in the United States. Allegedly, both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan have seen UFO's of their own, and democratic presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich was roundly mocked for describing his UFO experience during a live debate.  While not the best campaign strategy, Kucinich did make an excellent point:

"You have to keep in mind that Jimmy Carter saw a UFO, and also that more people in this country have seen UFOs than I think approve of George Bush's presidency."

Zing!

UFO's are unquestionably a part of contemporary pop culture, but do they deserve their own government investigation? They did in 1952, when the USAF began Project Blue Book to look into the flying saucer phenomenon. Over its 17 year history, Blue Book looked into nearly 13,000 UFO reports. Their final conclusion was simple: there was nothing extraordarinary or paranormal about UFOs, and that further investigation was unlikely to yield any useful data. Reasonable, but tragically blind to how this kind of cautious skepticism from the government invariably ends up fuelling 50 years of conspiracy theories and X-files episodes.

But the November 12 group have taken an interesting tack. Astute to the unique preoccupations of the post 9/11 world, they are casting UFOs as a national security issue:

"Especially after the attacks of 9/11, it is no longer satisfactory to ignore radar returns ... which cannot be associated with performances of existing aircraft and helicopters."

It is all too easy to dismiss UFO enthusiasts as nuts, mostly because many of them are indeed bat-shazbot insane. Likewise, the majority of UFO sightings can be chalked up to (human) aircraft, weather balloons, atmospheric phenomena, meteors, and a dozen other decidedly non-sexy explanations. Nevertheless, there remain several, well-documented sightings that have never been explained. I'm not suggesting we are being visited by aliens from other worlds, but I have to think a lot of sightings are made by genuine, well-meaning people who have legitimately experience something that they can't identify. So, the challenge is to satisfactorily explain what these folks are seeing, and not dismiss them out of hand as loonies. The refusal to investigate comes off as secretive, and ends up fueling the oh-so irritating blather of conspiracy theorists. And, on the off chance it turns out we're not alone in the infinite blackness of space, then I's sure as hell want to know about it.

So yes, please investiagte UFO sightings. It doesn't have to be a Majestic-12 type cloak-and-dagger deal, marshalling massive resources that could be going elsewhere. Rather, the governments of the world should examine, in good faith and on a case-by-case basis, the more credible sightings and make their conclusions public. If more than one person saw it, and the person making the report isn't wearing a "I left my heart in Roswell" T-Shirt, then it's probably worth looking into. Ultimately, it's about a government listening to its citizens and responding to their concerns, which is more or less what a good government should be doing anyway.

There is an enduring appeal to the whole 'are we alone?' question, particularly when it revolves around alien creatures crossing the unfathomable expanses of space to check out our humble species. Now, I've never seen a UFO. But if I did, I'd like to think my government wouldn't treat me like a maniac. And that the aliens were friendly and somewhat adverse to whole 'probing' thing.

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A large pie-plate somewhere over America.