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Is It Aliens? A Science Writer On UFOs and Her Visit to Area 51

Are aliens out there observing us? If they're not, why has the Pentagon released videos of "unidentified aerial phenomena?" What's going on at Area 51, anyhow?

By
Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
7-minute read
Episode #379
area 51

I sat down for a chat with Sarah Scoles. She's a science writer and the author of They Are Already Here: UFO Culture and Why We See Saucers. Sarah's written for many publications like Scientific American, The Verge, Vice, Science, and Outside. Not only has she written about UFOs and the people who are fascinated by them, but she's also visited, Area 51, a highly classified US Air Force base in Nevada that lies at the center of many a UFO conspiracy theory.

Of course, if you'd like to hear the interview, click the audio player above or listen on your favorite podcast platform.

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So just a few weeks ago, the Pentagon released—or I should say rereleased—three videos of what they call "unidentified aerial phenomena." These were videos taken by military pilots of strange things in the sky. What are we looking at? Are we looking at aliens?

I would say there is no evidence to support the hypothesis that we're looking at aliens, but the bottom line is that we don't know what we're looking at. It's possible someone somewhere in some government agency knows what we're looking at, but we definitely don't.

And as far as we know, the department of defense classifies these things as unidentified.

I presume for your book you've read thousands of pages of unclassified government documents on UFOs. If these videos aren't evidence for UFOs, is there anything else to suggest we've found evidence?

I think what's intriguing about government studies of UFOs is that they've had investigations programs off and on for decades.

Most of the [UFO sighting] reports you can solve have been solved. But in every study, there has been some portion that remains unidentified.

And most of the [UFO sighting] reports you can solve have been solved. They are things like Venus, or spy planes, or atmospheric phenomena. But in every study, there has been some portion that remains unidentified. And that is not evidence of aliens. It's partly evidenced that for a lot of these settings, we don't have enough data to determine what they actually are or are not. So it's possible they have an explanation that's super normal and we just don't have enough data to know what that is.

You touched on this in the book. It does make sense that people remain suspicious of what the government may or may not be telling us because [our government does have] these official programs, as you just mentioned, to study unidentified aerial phenomena. Which makes sense! Of course, the military would be interested in these things. And so it does seem like there's a disconnect between suggesting that to think these are somehow extra-terrestrial is ridiculous [when our government is putting] a bunch of money and energy behind investigating them.

Right. There is an anthropologist whose work I read, named Diana Palmer Hoyt, who said something along the lines of, in public, we're going to downplay this thing and tell people not to pay attention. And then in private, we're going to spend all this money investigating, which as you said, of course, makes people suspicious—if internally you seem to be taking something seriously and then externally you say, ‘Oh, it's just Venus.’

I think the big thing is people truly do see things that they can’t identify in the sky. But going from that to "aliens built them and are piloting them" is a really huge leap.

But I think the big thing is people truly do see things that they can’t identify in the sky. But going from that to "aliens built them and are piloting them" is a really huge leap that there's not any evidence to support besides the fact that some of these things are cooler than we think human technology is.

Right. And you can be intrigued and interested in UFOs but not necessarily think they are driven by alien beings, right?

Yeah, absolutely. The best UFO investigators, I think, stay what I call agnostic. Lots of them don't hold in their hearts any specific hypothesis about what they are. They're still just trying to gather enough data to even figure out anything about what's going on. And in all likelihood, lots of things are going on. Like, there is weird atmospheric stuff, and there are classified planes that we don't know about, and there are weird drones and then .0000001 maybe there are aliens. But we can't rule in or out any of those right now from what's in these videos.

So I have to say, I was incredibly creeped out by the foreshadowing that you do in the book because it came out in March and you have some quotes about ... let's see, I wrote one down. “The world has seemed more full of this feeling than usual recently, as we wonder if we stand on the precipice of some dystopian moment.” Hello, look around! I'm [recording this episode while] hiding in a closet because we're all hiding from my family.

But you were getting at the fact that part of our interest in UFOs and the sort of longing for these to be extraterrestrial in nature is the idea that soon the world will be different. We're hoping for a change that would be drastic in order to get us out of whatever our current situation is.

We take all of our anxiety ... about things like elections and pandemics and project them far out into space into something that is a little less scary.

A lot of scholars who study UFO belief have noted that in times of terrestrial turmoil, UFO belief kind of turns itself up just like religious belief because we're looking to distract ourselves from a problem or to something that might be some kind of higher power. And maybe also—especially with this latest stuff, which people are talking about as threatening—we take all of our anxiety ... about things like elections and pandemics and project them far out into space into something that is a little less scary, maybe, than a pandemic.

What would it mean for us if aliens showed up … if they're not already here?

I think first it would make us feel really special that if the universe is so big, and we don't know how much life there is (or is not) out there, that these aliens picked Earth out of all the trillions of planets to come to. That would make me feel pretty special. And also like, why? Why here? 

Space is really, really empty.

It is really, really empty.

And we are a tiny rock.

That's one of the biggest scientific arguments against UFOs as big alien spacecrafts—space is so empty. We're a tiny rock. Why would anyone spend their time crossing space at all? 

In your deep dive into UFOlogy, can you tell me about some of the characters that you've met, the people that you've met along this journey to write your book?

I think one of my favorite people was a guy named York Arnou. He lives in a town called Rachael in Nevada, just outside of Area 51. And he doesn't really believe aliens are on Earth at all. And he definitely doesn't believe anybody's hiding their bodies in Area 51. But he went out there more than 20 years ago to try to find out if that was true. And he just became so enamored of the desert and of all the military technology that he basically abandoned his life in the city to move out to this tiny dusty town outside of Area 51 and just drive around the borders all day, trying to figure out mysteries. And I respect that.

Awesome. Yeah, not too far from, maybe, a science-writing journalist.

Yeah, exactly. I identified with his quest for sure. Another person who I really enjoyed getting to know was named Annie. She works at a tourist place in Colorado where I live called the UFO Watchtower. Annie's kind of a believer in UFOs and aliens, but she spends her days inside this tourist attraction where people just stop by and stand on a platform and look for UFOs and look at the sightings of other people. It's really just kind of a cool communal place for people who are casually interested or total skeptics or total true believers to get together and hang out in the mountains. And I liked that too.

 

Do you think that this rerelease of these videos from the Pentagon is somehow foreshadowing? Are we going to see more of these? Are they trying to prepare us for something? Or is it just, you know, government's gonna government?

I think on some level government's always gonna government. On the other hand, they did release these and they didn't have to. My sense of things is that they seem very worried about these aircrafts that they can't seem to identify, and they talk about them like drones, for the most part. They don't talk about aliens. It doesn't seem like they think they're aliens. They're just worried that there are unauthorized things coming into their airspace. And I think they maybe want to be more public about that so that whoever it is driving stuff that's not supposed to be there will cut it out because they know that the government knows now.

There's a lot of people, especially on the internet, who think that this is the beginning of what UFO advocates called disclosure, where the government is going to release all its UFO secrets

And so that's my sense, but I mean, there's a lot of people, especially on the internet, who think that this is the beginning of what UFO advocates called disclosure, where the government is going to release all its UFO secrets and we're going to find out all the crazy things that we never knew before. I think that's unlikely, but I guess we'll, I'll just have to wait and see.

Yes, we will have to wait and see. Thank you for coming to talk UFOs and UFOlogy with me. I do have to ask you before you go—because my students would be very disappointed in me if I didn't—how was your visit to Area 51?

Area 51 is now one of my favorite places on the planet. Although, obviously, I didn't actually go inside [a highly classified military installation]—I just hung out outside.

Area 51 is now one of my favorite places on the planet.

I just loved it. It was like a pretty desert with a bunch of abandoned mining tunnels that you could go unsafely into. And then when it gets dark, the military is testing very cool things that you can't see.

We saw a bunch of jets doing flare exercises. So, they kind of chase each other and drop these bright orange flares that just look like they're hovering and weird shapes. And then we also saw this kind of fleet of many, many tiny white lights that were arranged into a very neat matrix that kind of just all moved in unison across the sky and then disappeared.

Now that sounds like they're messing with us on purpose.

I know! In the past, they have. Some of the old-timers will talk about trying to make their maneuvers look like what people think flying saucers look like so that they can create their own little UFO story. So, there’s maybe a little bit of that going on.

Well, thank you so much, Sarah. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with us. Everyone should check out Sarah's book They Are Already Here.

Thank you for having me.

About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.