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Hynek's 'The Emerging Picture of the UFO Problem'

From: Moderator, UFO UpDates - Toronto
Date: Thu, 30 Jul 1998 08:36:56 -0400
Fwd Date: Thu, 30 Jul 1998 08:36:56 -0400
Subject: Hynek's 'The Emerging Picture of the UFO Problem'

Thanks to Francis Ridge <slk@EVANSVILLE.NET> & 'Jean' of
the Current Encounters List for the lead on the following.

There are many Web-impaired subscribers to UpDates - this
is mainly for them.



From: Brian Zeiler's 'Science, Logic, and the UFO Debate' site


The Emerging Picture of the UFO Problem
By Joseph Allen Hynek
Northwestern University
Evanston, Illinois

Presented at theAIAA 13th Aerospace Sciences Meeting Pasadena,
Calif., January 20-22, 1975


This paper intends to present the elements of the UFO problem,
today. Truly unidentified reports of events in the air, and
close to the ground, exist, events worldwide in origin and
appearing to fit a relatively small number of patterns. The
data, amenable to study of an interdisciplinary nature,
involving a number of scientific disciplines and probably
necessitating new departures in methodology, have been
imperfectly studied in the past and have been virtually ignored
by science. An increasing interest in, and open-mindedness
about the UFO phenomenon, whatever its cause, on the part of
established scientists and the educated public exists, and there
has been created a Center for UFO Studies, whose activities are
guided by a scientific board of established scientists in their
respective disciplines. The outstanding objective of the attack
on the UFO problem is the formulation of a hypothesis - or
hypotheses - that encompasses the established parameters of the
UFO phenomenon - no matter how far beyond the boundaries of
present day science it may have to be.

The contemporary picture of the UFO phenomenon that has at long
last emerged is that the UFO phenomenon is indeed a legitimate
problem for science, though to which discipline, or disciplines,
it rightfully belongs is a problem in itself; it seems clearly
to be an interdisciplinary problem, requiring an
interdisciplinary methodology. The available data are only
partly amenable to the strict experimental procedures of the
physical scientists; the data are observational data and not
laboratory and experimental, and hence are more akin to the
observational data of the astronomer than to the experimental
results of the physicist. Like the astronomer who must wait but
be ready when an event such as an eclipse or a fireball occurs,
the investigator of the UFO phenomenon cannot order events but
must wait for them, but he knows not where or when. But neither
the physicist nor the astronomer, unlike the biologist and the
social scientists, deal with phenomena that exhibit intelligent
behavior; the UFO investigator may be so confronted. If so, the
methodology of the behavioral sciences would thus be applicable;
indeed, of intelligent behavior on the part of the UFO can be
definitely established, elements of game theory may need to be
employed. It may involve the concept of "do they know that we
know that they know that we know". In any case, a flexible
methodology for this interdisciplinary problem is called for.

But one element that is common to all scientific endeavor is the
problem of signal-to-noise ration; in the UFO phenomenon this
problem is a major one. The UFO problem is, initially, a
signal-to-noise problem. The noise is, and has been, so great
that the existence of a signal has been seriously questioned.
Isaac Asimov, whom no one could accuse of lacking in
imagination, writes:

  "Eyewitness reports of actual space ships and actual
extraterrestrials are, in themselves, totally unreliable. There
have been numerous eyewitness reports of almost everything that
most rational people do not care to accept - of ghosts, angels,
levitation, zombies, werewolves, and so on... The trouble is,
that whatever the UFO phenomenon is, it comes and goes
unexpectedly. There is no way of examining it systematically. It
appears suddenly and accidentally, is partially seen, and then
is more or less inaccurately reported. We remain dependent on
occasional anecdotal accounts."

(in the December 14, 1974 issue of TV Guide, a media magazine
with a very great circulation and hence powerful in forming
public opinion.)

Here we see a very important part of the UFO problem, that of
the presentation of data to men of science, and to men, like
Asimov and others who excel in writing about science.

Scientific efforts can be seriously hampered if the popular
image of a subject is grossly misleading. Funds can be curtailed
and good men of science who wish to give time to the subject are
apt to face misrepresentation whenever their work receives any
public attention. Ball lightning is just as much an unkown as
the UFO phenomenon, yet scientists can openly discuss these
"balls of light" but are likely to be censured if they talk
about similar unidentified lights which last much longer, are
brighter, and move over greater distances, but are labeled UFOs.
Proper presentation of the UFO phenomenon to the media may not
seem an integral part of the UFO problem, per se, but its
effects loom large.

The signal-to-noise aspect of the UFO problem is aggravated to a
high degree because the signal is a totally unexpected signal,
and represents an entirely new set of empirical observations
which do not fit into any existing framework in any of the
accepted scientific disciplines. One may even contemplate that
the signal itself signals the birth of a new scientific

I return to the out-of-hand dismissal of the UFO phenomenon by
persons like Isaac Asimov, in part, because of the poor
presentation of the data to such persons. This is an important
facet of the UFO problem itself and must be taken into account
if we are to make any progress with the study of the signal. An
analogy may be useful here: In the isolation of radium, Mme.
Curie was obliged to work through tons of pitchblende to obtain
a minuscule amount of radium. Yet there was no question of the
signal in the "pitchblende noise". The radioactivity of the
pitchblende was unquestioned. Let us suppose that instead there
had been a rumor - an old wive's tale, or an alchemist's story -
that there existed a miraculous unknown element which could be
used in the transmutation of elements, and which had miraculous
healing powers and other exotic properties. Would any scientist,
on the basis of such an alchemist's tale, have done what Mme.
Curie did to lift the signal out of the noise of tons of
pitchblende ?Hardly. Mme. Curie _knew_ that there was a signal -
it wasn't a rumor. And although the labor was immense, there was
a definite, scientifically accepted methodology for separating
the signal from the noise.

Now, in the UFO problem we did not know at the start that there
was a signal - there were merely tales, unacceptable to
scientists as a body. Only those of us, through a long exposure
to the subject, or motivated by a haunting curiosity to work in
the field and to get our hands dirty with the raw data, came to
know there was a signal. We _know_ that we cannot find a trivial
solution to the problem, i.e., a common sense solution that the
phenomenon is either entirely a matter of misidentification,
hallucinations, and hoaxes, or a known phenomenon of nature,
e.g., of a meteorological nature. We know that there exists a
subset of UFO reports of high strangeness and high witness
credibility for which no one - and I emphasize - _no one_, has
been able to ascribe a viable explanation. But the Isaac Asimovs
and the trained scientists, as well as large segments of the
public, do not know this. And we cannot expect them to know this
unless we present data to them properly, and thus provide
motivation to study the subject. We who have worked in the UFO
field are somewhat in the position of Einstein who wrote to
Arnold Sommerfeld in response to Sommerfelds' skepticism of the
General Theory of Relativity:

   "You will accept the General Theory of Relativity when you
have studied it. Therefore I will not utter a word in its

Emotional defense of the UFO phenomenon is pointless; the facts,
properly presented, must speak for themselves.

With the noise level so high, and with the popular
interpretationof UFOs as visitors from outer space rather than
simply what their initials stand for, _Unidentified Flying
Objects_ - an unidentified phenomenon whose origin we do not
know - it is very difficult for one to be motivated to study the

The noise in the UFO problem is two-fold. There is the obvious
noise, and also the more "sophisticated" noise, which might even
be part of the signal. The obvious noise is akin to that well
known to any scientist. An astronomer recognizes the noise of
errors of observation, of instrumental errors, or that
introduced by atmospheric distortion, by photon statistics, etc.

In our problem the noise is likewise comprised of errors of
observation (though to a much greater degree), but also to
wishful thinking, deliberate substitution of interpretation of
an event for the event itself, as, "I saw a space ship last
night" for "I saw a light in the sky last night", and the
totally extraneous noise of the unbalanced imaginations of the
pseudo-religious fanatics who propagate unfounded stories and
who uncritically accept anything and everything that appeals to
their warped imaginations.

Air Force Project Blue Book amply demonstrated the major and
obvious noise problem. Study of some 12,600 cases in Air Force
files showed that the great majority of initial reports - about
80% of them - proved merely to be misidentifications of common
objects or phenomena, other types of mistakes, and a few hoaxes.
This finding is fully substantiated by my own many years of
experience in the investigation of UFO reports, and by the
experience of serious investigators in various countries with
whom I have discussed this matter.

The ratio of 4:1 seems to be sort of an invariant; it was
present in the early Project Sign report (1949) and has been so
far, present down the years since then. The high noise is a
betenoir for the makers of catalogues of UFO reports; clearly if
80% of the raw reports represent noise, very little of
consequence can be extracted from such extensive lists unless a
mechanism is employed to upgrade the original basic data. Dr.
Saunders, from whom we shall hear later, and who has done
extensive work in the production of the voluminous UFOCAT, is,
of course, well aware of the high noise level and has made
provision in his coding system whereby cases having a high
degree of probability of being 'signal', can be extracted from
the noise. Less scientifically oriented investigators or
organizations may not be fully aware of the strong dilution
factor the noise level represents.

The obvious noise inputs can be allowed for; it is the data
input which may or may not be noise that remains to vex us.
Take, for example, close encounters in which physical effects
and craft occupants, respectively, are reported. Project Blue
Book considered all of these as noise, dismissing the first
almost always as a "hoax" and the second as "psychological".

But were they all hoaxes or the products of unbalanced minds?
Today, with a far larger data base than was available to Blue
Book (for not only a great many UFO reports in this country
never made their way to Blue Book, but the flow of foreign
reports, gathered by UFO oreanizations and investigators in many
other countries also largely by-passed Blue Book), we recognize
the self-same patterns occurring today as were reported in the
1950's. It has become increasingly harder to dismiss these
reported patterns. Some of what many of us regarded originally
as noise may even prove to be part of the signal!Take, for
example, the reports from widely scattered regions of the globe,
of the seemingly paranormal aspects of some UFO reports. These
"contactee" cases have generally been regarded even by seasoned
UFO investigators as crackpot emanations. Could they, however,
possibly be part of an extremely complex signal that our culture
does not know how to interpret?

All of this, of course, complicates our assessment of the UFO
problem. But it does remain, foremost, a signal-to-noise ratio
problem. Let us therefore acknowledge the noise and its
ubiquitous presence, and turn to the main elements of the
emerging picture of the UFO phenomenon.

The aspects of the UFO problem and the scientific objectives
relating to them are, in my opinion, these:

(1) _Truly unidentified reports of events in the air or close to
    or on the ground exist._

To deny this would be tantamount to saying that we, as
scientists, understand everything that happens in the sky, in
the air, and on the ground. (We don't understant ball lightning,
for example!)A large percent of these sightings have been
popularly termed UFOs, and also popularly interpreted most
frequently as evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. Such an
interpretation is obviously unwarranted without a detailed study
of the content of reports of unidentified sightings. It is
essential to establish with a high degree of probability, if not
with certainty, the characteristics, both specifically and
statistically, of the content of these unidentified sightings,
for the contents of the reported sightings constitute the UFO
phenomenon. For, the "U" in UFO simply means unidentified, and
may cover a wide range of unrelated causes.

(2) _Those sightings termed UFO sightings represent a phenomenon
    that is worldwide and appears to manifest in a relatively
    small number of patterns of appearance and behavior._

These patterns are being well delineated by UFO investigators
and some are the subject of later papers in this program, and so
I will only broadly summarize them, based on my own work in the
subject. The content of the most reliable reports, as judged by
the caliber of the witnesses, describes, on a global basis,
apparently physical craft which have the following properties:
they can maneuver with ease in our atmosphere, they appear
largely unaffected by gravity and the inertial properties of
matter (as exhibited by the ability of hovering a few feet above
the ground or high in the air with seeming little effort, and
the ability to accelerate, often noiselessly, at incredible
rates by ordinary standards). They appear capable of detection
by radar on occasion, as attested by some of the best accounts
which involve radar confirmations of visual sightings, and vice
versa. At night they are primarily visible by self-generated
light and only secondarily by reflection, and virtually all
colors of the spectrum are reported, with a change in color
often observed as the UFO accelerates.

The UFOs are capable of physical effects: they are reported to
leave ''landing marks'' or other physical evidence of their
proximity, such as rings or other types of imprints on the
ground, plant life is withered or blighted, they are capable of
being recorded photographically, capable of influencing animals
(it has frequently been reported that attention to the presence
of a UFO was first given by animals), and physiological effects
on humans have been frequently reported, e.g., temporary
paralysis and blindness, headaches, nausea, but permanent or
fatal damage has been rarely reported.

The question of whether the UFO phenomenon is a manifestation of
some type of intelligence, whether extraterrestrial,
"meta-terrestrial", or indeed some aspect of our own, is a
critical one. Certainly, in those close encounter cases in which
creatures or occupants, ostensibly the pilots of the craft, are
reported, intelligent behavior of some sort seems obvious. Even
if the occupants are robots, a more distant intelligence is
implied. The almost universally reported response to detection
by these occupants is an important part of the picture; upon
detection the creatures are reported to disappear quickly and
take off. Except in certain cases, there appears to be no desire
for any involvement with the human race.

The non-occupant cases, ranging from lights seen at night (whose
behavior, general appearance, and trajectories do not conform to
obvious explanation), to the metallic looking discs frequently
reported in the daytime, to the domed, portholed craft reported
mostly at night, all exhibit behavior which can be characterized
as intelligent as contrasted to random-walk behavior.

The very peculiar property of the UFO, and one which has caused
many to dismiss the entire subject, is the extreme localization
of the phenomenon in space and time. "Why didn't more people see
what so-and-so reported ?" is frequently asked. The answer is
probably two fold: It has been the experience of most
investigators that close encounter cases manifest preferentially
in relatively isolated places, away from dwellings and
installations frequented by humans. This is evident from a study
of specialized catalogs of these events from which as much noise
as possible has been vetted. One might be tempted to say of such
cases that a sort of "avoidance principle" has been followed,
but much more study is needed to firmly establish this point.

Secondly, why UFOs are not seen by large groups of people, or
sequentially by independent groups of people along the
trajectory of a UFO, is simply that vertical rather than
horizontal trajectories are greatly favored. Recently, it was
pointed out on a popular TV broadcast that when a particularly
bright meteor occurred it was seen by large groups of people,
photographed by many, and its trajectory accurately traced. Why
is this not the case of UFOs?This was the famous case of a
bright daylight fireball that travelled almost horizontally,
miles high, acrosh several states, and crossed areas of high
summer tourist density (camera equipped!). UFOs, however are
most frequently reported as descending at a steep angle,
hovering for a few moments, and then taking off again on a
nearly vertical trajectory. Coupled with the appearance in
generally isolated regions this offers a resonable explanation
of the paucity of witnesses.

The majority of the sightings are at night, and, as Vallee and
Poher have shown, if rectification for mankind's sleeping habits
are valid, the majority of events (but not sightings) occur in
the very early hours of the morning.

All in all, the emerging picture of the UFO problem revolves
about the equally emerging picture of the UFO phenomenon as one
that represents a set of entirely new and empirical observations
which our present scientific framework is severely strained to
encompass. Instead, the hovering, the rapid accelerations, and
the apparently effortless maneuvers of the UFOs clearly imply a
far advanced technology - if, as UFO investigators tend to
agree, the reported events do represent signal and not noise.

(3) _The UFO phenomenon has been ignored or very imperfectly
    studied by the scientific fraternity._

I believe this has largely been due to the poor presentation of
the subject matter. It could hardly be expected that the
scientific fraternity could have been self-motivated to study
UFO reports in the face of the extremely high signal-to-noise
ratio and the poor ''sponsorship'' of the subject. In TV
parlance, the program has had a bad sponsor. It was presented
mostly in tabloids, in pulp magazines, and in the sensational

(4) _UFO data are amenable to study of an interdisciplinary
    nature, involving a number of scientific disciplines and
    probably necessitating new departures in methodology._

We do not know to whom the UFO problem really belongs - to the
physical scientist, to the sociologist, or to tbe psychiatrist.
We know only that it exists. Radar returns and other physical
effects of the UFO phenomenon including photographs, are
obviously susceptible to laboratory and other physical analysis.

Until spectrograms of nocturnal lights are obtained, and
accurate measures of angular accelerations, trajectories,
sounds, and of colors and color changes become available, less
precise methods, akin to those used in the piecing together of
intelligence data, must be employed. Statistical methods, as
those already used by Poher, Saunders, and Vallee, can be
powerfully employed.

As long as our primary data are presented in the form of witness
accounts, one has the same problem, for instance, as does the
investigator of air crashes when questioning witnesses, or a
detective investigating a suspected case of arson. It is
becoming abundantly clear that in the UFO problem, the
methodology must be adapted to the phenomenon, and not the
phenomenon to a particular methodology.

(5) _There is an increasing interest in, and an open-minded
    attitude toward, the UF0 phenomenon. whatever its cause, on
    the part of established scientists and the educated public._

A very interesting aspect of the emerging picture of the UF0
problem is the incrcasing willingness of scientists and
technical persons to enter into discussion of the UFO
phenomenon, even though conducted on the controversial level. An
increasing number of knowledgeable persons no longer dismiss the
subject as sheer nonsense and as being in the same category as
witchcraft, demonology, werewolves, etc., although one still
finds serious books on UFOs shelved in libraries and bookstores
under "Occult", "Mysticism", and "Science Fiction."

(6) _There has been created a Center for UFO Studies, a free
    association of scientists motivated by their common interest
    in the UFO problem._

The Center was established to fulfill three main functions.
First, to provide a focal point for the efforts of those
scientists who have become intrigued by and concerned about the
UFO problem and wish to contribute their expertise in their
respective disciplines to an attack on the problem; second, to
provide a locus for those who wish to obtain authoritative and
reliable information about the UFO phenomenon, documents,
reports, etc., which are not easily available elsewhere; and
thirdly, to provide a place where people who have had a UFO
experience can report it without fear of ridicule and where they
can feel that such a report can contribute to a scientific
approach to this problem.

The Center is not open to general membership, for obvious
reasons, but does have the status of a not-for-profit
corporation, and as such, can accept contributions that are
tax-deductible. It openly seeks financial support so that it can
support and publish the research of its scientific members,
maintain a library, organize symposia, and act as a "clearing
house" for inquiries from other scientific bodies and from the

(7) _The outstanding objective in the attack on the UFO problem
    is the formulation of an hypothesis, or hypotheses, - no
    matter how far reaching or how much in apparent conflict
    with the present day scientific concepts such hypotheses may
    have to be - that will encompass the patterns of UFO
    behavior that have been established by the most careful

Given the elements of the present picture of the UFO phenomenon,
it is clear that any viable hypothesis that meets these picture
elements satisfactorilly will be, according to present views,
"far out". There have been other times in the history of science
when striking departures from classical concepts were necessary.
Since new hypotheses must in some way use present knowledge as a
springboard, it is a sobering thought to contemplate that the
gap between the springboard of the known and a viable UFO
hypothesis might even be so great as to prevent the formulation
of an acceptable hypothesis at present. Thus, for example, only
a century ago, an inconsequential period of time in total
history, the best scientific minds could not have envisioned the
nuclear processes which we now feel certain take place in the
deep interiors of stars. The question of energy production on
the sun capable of maintaining the sun's prodigious outflow of
energy for hundreds of millions of years - a time perioddemanded
by the fossil history millions of years - was simply not
answerable by any hypothesis conceivable to the scientists of a
century ago. It is indeed sobering, yet challenging, to consider
that the entire UFO phenomenon may be only the tip of the
proverbialiceberg in a signalling an entirely new domain of the
knowledge ofnature as yet totally unexplored, an unexplored and
as unimagined as nuclear processes would have been a century

It is necessary to be aware of this possibility but it should
not cow us into hopeless inactivity. There may be viable
hypotheses which can be couched in present terms. The UFO
phenomenon exists, and this fact alone should represent a
challenge to science and not a roadblock. We have a
responsibility as scientists to support those who accept this
challenge even though we may not ourselves be inclined to pursue
the matter. In any event, ridicule of those who do consider this
subject should not enter, for ridicule is certainly not a part
of the scientific method.

It is to support these scientists who have become intrigued by
the challenge of the UFO phenomenon that the Center for UFO
Studies has been created, and the scientific board of the Center
welcomes your interest and cooperation.