How to Think About UFOs (Part 1)

My journey from skeptic to believer

This material will eventually become a book. I’m sharing my first draft in installments, as I write them.

Perry Willis
Perry Willis

In this installment: Prepare your amygdala – The Backfire Effect – Why UFOs are the most important issue in the world – Is ET visitation likely? – The skeptical arguments – The Phoenix Lights – The skeptical “explanation” – The real evidence – Out of the Blue and I Know What I Saw – The Phoenix Mothership – Stanton Friedman – the Orion Project – How relativity both helps and hinders

Prepare your amygdala to encounter new ideas!

The amygdala is the part of your brain that controls your impulse for fight or flight. It signals adrenaline secretions in response to threats. Alas, these reactions were born in an environment we no longer occupy. Our ancestors spent roughly…

  • 94,000 years as hunter-gathers,
  • 6,000 years as mostly farmers,
  • Only about 100 years living in highly technological cities.

It’s only recently that our problems of daily life became less physical and more intellectual. This means our brains are unlikely to be optimized for our current living conditions. Something called the Backfire Effect is evidence for this. Here’s the problem…

Our amygdalas treat differences of opinion as if they are physical attacks.

When people disagree with us our bodies secrete adrenaline, preparing us to fight or flee. It’s well known that adrenaline degrades thinking. This makes it hard for us to evaluate new information that conflicts with our current beliefs. That’s not a problem when our beliefs are correct, but it’s crippling when our convictions are wrong. Our brains backfire against facts and arguments we don’t like. And the better those facts and arguments are the stronger the backfire is.

Let’s assume that YOU are absolutely right about everything. Now imagine how harmful it is that billions of other people can’t appreciate your wisdom because too much adrenaline surges through their arteries. Can we do something about that?

How to tame the Backfire Effect

Simply knowing that your brain behaves this way is part of the solution. Having this knowledge allows you to engage your prefrontal cortex to control the reaction. Constantly ask yourself…

  • Do I need adrenaline in this situation?
  • Do I need increased strength and speed to evaluate what I’m reading, seeing, or hearing?
  • Is it helpful to degrade my thinking by secreting hormones designed to cope with physical danger?

The answer is clearly no, so what can you do instead?

Breath deep every time you feel inner-tension.

Self-interrogate. Question your reactions. Remind yourself that you’re in no physical danger. Do this often enough and your amygdala will rewire itself (brain plasticity). You’ll react more calmly to new ideas and disagreements. The more you practice this, the more it will become second-nature. You will experience fewer adrenaline surges in response to disagreement. Calm, rational thought will become as natural to you as speaking English. You will realize that changing your mind is fun and productive. You can then model this new found power to help others achieve the same goal.

So carve a new groove. Become less reactive and more reflective.

None of this means you’ll agree with anything you read below. Just don’t let adrenaline be your guide. One other idea will be useful…

The UFO mystery is severable. You can separate (sever) some claims from other claims. You can be skeptical of some while accepting others. The important thing is to educate yourself about the subject. Delve deep. Be critical and acquisitive at the same time. Ready, set, go…

I think UFOs are the most important issue in the world.

Project Blue Book Special Report 14I think this because “misidentification” and “hoax” cannot account for all UFO sightings. Even skeptics agree that about 5% of UFO cases cannot be given conventional explanations. But the Air Force’s Project Bluebook Special Report #14 revealed that the true number, as of 1952, was at least 20%, and likely to be even higher. Indeed, this report (which was never shown to the public) found that the better the evidence was the less likely the case was to be a misidentification or hoax. This leaves only three possible explanations for the unexplained cases…

  • Some humans have incredible technology that they’re hiding from the rest of us.
  • There’s some defect of the human mind that has caused millions of people to hallucinate large structured craft with extreme performance capabilities over a period of 70+ years.
  • Some UFOs are extraterrestrial visitors

If the first possibility is true then we need to find out who these super-powered humans are, and get them to share their knowledge with the rest of us. If the second idea is true then we need to learn what’s causing these mass hallucinations (and how they sometimes manage to leave radar traces and photographic images!) But if the third hypothesis is true then we need to learn…

  • Who these creatures are
  • Where they come from
  • How they do what they do
  • What their intentions are
  • Why they don’t interact with us.

There is also vast evidence that politicians, bureaucrats, and soldiers, all of whom nominally work for us, know things about this subject that they will not share. This knowledge could even include some of the technology that people report as UFOs. We need to discover what they know, and why they keep it hidden. Most importantly…

We need to re-establish control over our supposed servants! The tail needs to stop wagging the dog!

Bear down on why this is important. The stakes are enormous!

  • If some humans have advanced technology, then we should have access to it.
  • If millions of people are hallucinating then the human race is insane, and we need to find a cure.
  • But, if there are ETs visiting us then we have some big questions to answer. For instance…

Why are the ETs not interacting with us?

Do they have nefarious plans? If so, given their great powers, why have they waited nearly a century (or more!) to act? Or…

Is there something wrong with humans that keeps the ETs at bay?

If so, we need to learn what that “something” is, and take steps to correct it. Are we being quarantined? Observed? Do the aliens have a Prime Directive of non-interference with primitive cultures? If so, what can we do to become less primitive and more worthy of interaction? This is important because…

We want their technology!

Our hypothesized ETs can travel between the stars. They can seemingly control or influence gravity and inertia. Their vehicles can hover, travel at high speeds, turn at right angles, and create no sonic boom. The energy density required to perform these tricks must be immense! They certainly aren’t using gasoline! Some super-powered energy technology seems to be at work. Well…we want those powers too! But our motivations aren’t merely material…

We also want to learn about our interstellar neighbors!

  • How many intelligent cultures are there, and where are they located?
  • How many of them are visiting us?
  • How big are their planets? What do they look like?
  • Do they have emotions like ours?
  • How do they reproduce?
  • Do they have art, and if so, what’s it like?
  • Do they have similar notions of physical beauty and sexual attraction?
  • Do they have religion? Did some ET Christ die on an ET cross? Is there an ET Shiva, Mohamed, or Buddha?
  • Do they have government? What kind?
  • How long do they live?
  • How old are their cultures?
  • Did they once wage war? Do they still? How did/do they avoid self-extinction?
  • Do they experience xenophobia? Can we be friends?
  • What, in general, do they know that we do not?
  • What can we do to improve ourselves?
  • Are there things we know that they don’t?

Interstellar relationship could provide the answers to many questions, and be the cause of many more. One thing is sure, getting to know the ETs wouldn’t be boring. And if they are dangerous we’re certainly not going to protect ourselves from that by not knowing about it!

So what do I think about these questions?

I’m about to tell you, and then conclude this article by describing my plan for finding out the real answers. Every opinion I’m about to express is provisional. These are my best guesses based on the available evidence. I will surely modify them in the future as I have in the past. Currently…

I think ET visitation is very likely

The great Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Enrico Fermi, did the math. He calculated…

  • How many intelligent civilizations there should be in our galaxy
  • The average age of these civilizations
  • The amount of time it would take them to migrate through the galaxy

From this he concluded that the ETs should be here already, and in great numbers. So where are they?

This analysis is now famous. It’s called the Fermi Paradox. The ETs should be here, but they aren’t. Why? Could it be they don’t exist? That’s certainly what I thought for most of my life.

The skeptical case against the ETH (Extraterrestrial Hypothesis)

I am a philosophical skeptic. I think…

  • There are more ways to be wrong than right
  • We must hold our beliefs provisionally, and constantly test them
  • Big claims require big evidence

This is why I rejected the idea that UFOs are ETs.

  • I imbibed the lessons of the Fermi Paradox (or thought I did).
  • SETI (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) was finding no ET radio signals.
  • I discounted all UFO sightings as misidentifications or hoaxes.
  • I thought the distances between the stars were too great to cross.
  • The ETs were not here.
  • I suspected we were probably alone in the universe.

Of course, my position was self-contradictory. Fermi had argued that the distances could be traveled. I accepted Fermi’s argument. So why was I also claiming it couldn’t be done? I now recognize that two factors were at work in my mind…

The secular-atheist-skeptics were my tribe, and my tribe rejected the possibility that UFOs could be ETs. Much of their reasoning was sound, so long as I didn’t look at the evidence too closely, or think about it too deeply. The Backfire Effect took care of the rest. Tribal loyalty teamed-up with my amygdala to protect me from looking closer and thinking deeper. And yet…

Skepticism has been defined as a provisional approach to claims.

Articles of faith – things that can’t be examined – are not allowed, supposedly! So I should have thought about and removed the contradiction in my Fermi Paradox stance. Sadly, it took a long, slow, four-step process to achieve this.

Step one: The Phoenix Lights

I was standing outside my townhouse in Alexandria, Virginia looking up at the Hale-Bopp comet. My girlfriend called me back inside saying there was a giant UFO over the city of Phoenix. That got my attention and took precedence over the comet. I went back inside.

I’m pleased to say that I didn’t fear the possibility that I might be wrong about UFOs. The Backfire Effect might have taken hold had I been discussing the issue with another human being. Ego-involvement could have doomed me before I even looked at the evidence. But I had no such adrenal reaction as I watched the news report on TV.

My behavior was in marked contrast to how Isaac Asimov responded in a similar situation. Asimov tells the tale in Chapter 24 of his In Joy Still Feltautobiography, In Joy Still Felt. His daughter called him outside to see a UFO. He ran out terrified that he might have to change his public stance on the issue. What he saw in the sky increased his terror. It was a long, silver, cylindrical object that was definitely not a plane. Was it an alien spacecraft? Slowly, as the vehicle turned, his fear subsided – it was the Goodyear blimp.

My own response was completely different. I looked at the arc of lights over Phoenix without any concern. I noticed their size compared to the city below. I noticed that the level of the lights remained consistent. This was not a string of balloons. Balloons (or even drones) would drift relative to each other. I felt in an instant that the ETH (Extra-Terrestrial Hypothesis) was the best way to explain what I was seeing. But this opinion didn’t stick.

Step two: The Air Force flares and the intransigence of the human mind

I was a very busy person in those days. I was running the national Libertarian Party out of the Watergate Building in Washington, DC. That work took all my time and attention. I didn’t have much mind-space for pondering the implications of the Phoenix Lights. And so, when the Air Force “explained” that the lights were really flares they had dropped, I quickly accepted it, even though I had already analyzed and rejected a similar possibility. Flares would tend to drift relative to each other, just as I had argued would be the case with balloons. This did not happen with the so-called Phoenix Lights. They remained in a fixed pattern. Sadly, I accepted the flares explanation anyway. I was proving to be a case study in the frailties of the human mind…

  • I accepted the Fermi analysis that interstellar travel was possible, but I also maintained the contradictory position that the distances were too great.
  • I realized that the balloons would drift relative to each other, but neglected to realize that the same would be true of Air Force flares.

My mind simply returned to its dogmatic slumber at the first available chance. The supposed Air Force flares provided that opportunity.

Step Three: Out of the Blue and I Know What I Saw.

Out of the BlueSeveral years later I happened to turn on the TV at the right time to catch two documentaries that would change my life. They ran back-to-back on the History Channel. Out of the Blue came first, and I Know What I Saw followed it. They were by the same producer and used a lot of the same material. Both made a profound impression.

I was forced to confront the fact that thousands of witnesses saw not just lights over Phoenix, but an actual structured craft in which the lights were embedded. I learned for the first time just how vast the craft was – its wings stretched between two mountain peaks of known distance. It was probably more than a thousand feet wide. One witness said it was so large we could park our entire fleet of B1 bombers on it. This could not be a hallucination. The misidentification and hoax hypotheses did not apply. It could not be flares or balloons or planes or drones. It was not a meteor or a comet or the planet Venus. It could not be human.

I think only one incontrovertible instance of ET visitation is needed to confirm the ETH, and the misnamed case of the Phoenix Lights meets that criteria for me. We need to bear down on the reasons for this…

There is no known (or reasonably hypothesized) method of mental contagion that could cause thousands of people in different parts of Phoenix (and much of Arizona) to see the same vast craft floating silently through the sky.

Claims that people merely saw Air Force flares are absurd and insulting. Such flares fall to the ground at different rates of speed. They do not hover indefinitely, or fly across the sky for hundreds of miles in a uniform pattern. The Phoenix Lights were seen across the whole of Arizona from Nevada to Mexico. Flares do not do that. The flares explanation does not match what people saw. And the Air Force’s attempt to pass this silly idea as the truth is itself suspicious.

What people saw was a real craft of tremendous size, power, and capabilities.

Such vehicles do not sprout into being fully formed. They are built by intelligent creatures. The Phoenix Mothership (a better name) also used physical and technological principles currently unknown to us.

  • It emitted no reaction mass.
  • It had no visible means of propulsion or support.
  • It was silent.

No human technology can do any of these things (or if it can, then our political rulers have some explaining to do). Therefore…

The Phoenix Mothership was not of this world, and, by definition, extraterrestrial.

The two documentaries I watched on the History Channel also presented good evidence I know what I sawabout other cases. I woke up. My brain turned on. I started pondering the implications. I was forced to conclude that…

  • People are not hallucinating structured craft with extreme performance¬†capabilities.
  • The extreme performance attributes these vehicles display rule out both hoaxing and misidentification.

But I still had much to learn.

Step Four: Stanton Friedman

I needed a guide. Someone I could trust. There was a lot of woo-woo in the UFO field. I needed someone who was clearly not a nut. I had previously read J. Allen Hynek’s great book, The UFO Experience. Hynek was a credible scientist who probably knew more about the subject than anyone else. I had to take seriously the fact that he had gone from skeptic to believer as he learned more. But he was dead. I needed someone alive and current whom I could turn to when new data arrived. A friend suggested I read Flying Saucers and Science by Stanton Friedman. I did.

It was one of the greatest intellectual experiences of my life.

Stanton FriedmanFriedman (now deceased) was a nuclear physicist who had worked on many highly classified projects for the government. He was clearly qualified to discuss scientific topics. His book forced me to confront my self-contradiction with regard to the Fermi Paradox. He pointed out that a fusion rocket could constantly accelerate at 1g for long enough to approach the speed of light. I already knew this from my past reading about…

The Orion Project

This was a 1960s government effort to build a nuclear rocket that could constantly accelerate at 1g. Velocity is constant speed, while acceleration is increasing speed. Acceleration mimics gravity, so acceleration that equals earth’s gravitational pull is referred to as 1g.

The Orion Project was making good progress until it fell victim to nuclear non-proliferation treaties. The British Daedalus Project was a similar idea. So a constantly accelerating nuclear rocket was something that we primitive humans could probably do on our own, without any need for advanced ET technology. This is important because…

The theory of relativity both hinders and helps interstellar travel

Relativity places an upper limit on how fast massive objects can move. They can approach the speed of light, but not exceed it. This would seem to reduce the prospects for interstellar travel. Who wants to spend multiple years locked up inside a tin-can? However…

Once you approach the speed of light relativistic time dilation will shrink a journey of 20-light-years to a mere six months of experienced time. In other words…

Twenty years would pass back on the home planet, but only six months would pass for the people on the rocket. Human travelers spent more time than that traveling around the world on sailing ships during the Age of Exploration. So that amount of shipboard time could surely be endured for interstellar journeys, especially given that normal planetary gravity would be mimicked by the constant acceleration.

It’s also possible that the loss of 20 years back on the home planet could matter little to some ETs. If their cultures are millions of years older than ours, they may have achieved radical life extension long ago. Twenty years could seem like nothing to them.

Stanton Friedman also pointed out that a bubble of interstellar space with a radius of 20-light-years would contain thousands of stars, and potentially scores of civilizations.

I had to admit it. Interstellar travel was possible. It was even likely. So there was no longer any reason to believe that ETs could not be here.

  • The Phoenix Mothership had shown me that they probably are here.
  • Stanton Friedman had reminded me that such journeys were possible even with current human knowledge.

This meant I could drop my contradictory stance on the Fermi Paradox. The question was no longer, where are they, but rather, why are they here, what are their plans, what technology are they actually using, and why don’t they communicate with us?


More installments coming soon! Please subscribe to my free email newsletter so you won’t miss them.¬†

Suggested reading:

Flying Saucers and Science by Stanton Friedman

Suggested viewing:


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