Monday, September 29, 2014

The full report of the 1970 American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics subcommittee

Hi all,

I have been spending some time recently, thinking about the number of scientific symposia which have been held on UAP, over the years; and of the professional bodies which have reviewed the topic.
A sub-committee of the AIAA examined the topic between 1967 and 1970, before releasing a statement. Thanks to a Melbourne based research associate, I recently acquired a copy of the three page statement, and found it worthy of sharing with readers.

"UFO An Appraisal of the problem.
A statement by the UFO subcommittee of the AIAA.

To gain a fresh and objective perspective on the UFO problem, the UFO subcommittee of the AIAA from its inception in 1967, decided to place specific, well-defined questions to UFO experts of high scientific qualifications but strongly divergent views. Surprisingly, the factual answers the subcommittee obtained in a series of interesting interviews were strikingly similar. Differences occurred in certain quantitative estimates and in the degree of emphasis but not in principle.

It was at the next step where the views began to diverge: subjective judgement as to the scientific significance of the problem and the need to pursue and explore it. Obviously, such opinion depends on the criteria applied by the individual, and much of the discord appears to be due to a lack of analysis of these criteria. It is at this stage where guesses and speculation creep into the discussion and lead to controversy.

In the opinion of the UFO subcommittee, such speculations are entirely premature and no position is absolutely defensible at this point in time.

This applies specifically to statements that the extraterrestrial hypothesis ("ETH") is "the least probable" or "the least improbable" explanation. National Academy of Sciences' review of the "Condon Report"; James E McDonald's statements. There is no scientific basis for assessing such probabilities at this time.

The subcommittee was greatly perturbed by the paucity of thorough scientific and technological analyses applied to practically all observations before the Condon study. The few often courageous efforts by individuals to come to grips with this problem should be viewed more from an aspect of focussing attention on the problem rather than of solving it, since there is little doubt that it takes more than a personal effort to investigate fully a problem of such complexity.

In the opinion of the committee, the Colorado university study, "Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects", (the "Condon  Report, Bantam Books, New York, 1969) at this time represents the most scientifically oriented investigation published on the UFO problem. Attacks directed against the study seem to over look the almost insurmountable difficulties which a short-time, one-shot project of this type faces: building up the multi-disciplinary, unbiased talent, accumulating practical experience, collecting hard information, sorting out the signal from the noise, applying the best analytical methods and writing and editing a report in less than two years.

To understand the Condon report, which is difficult to read due in part to its organisation, one must study the bulk of the report. It is not enough to read summaries, such as those by Sullivan and by Condon, or summaries of summaries, on which the vast majority of readers and news media seems to rely. There are differences in the opinions and inclusions drawn by the authors of the various chapters and there are differences between these and Condon' summary. Not all conclusions contained in the report itself are fully reflected in Condon's summary. For example, the optical/radar chapter contains the following statement on the Lakenheath case (1956):

The apparently rational, intelligent behaviours of the UFO suggest a mechanical device of unknown origin as the most probable explanation of this sighting. However, in view of the inevitable fallibility of witnesses, more conventional explanations of this report cannot be entirely ruled out.

On Colorado Springs case (1967);

In view of the meteorological situation, it would seem that AP (anomalous propagation) was rather unlikely. Besides, what is the probability that an AP return would appear only once and at that time appear to execute a perfect practice ILS approach.

Condon's own conclusions have been widely misquoted. He says:

"...scientists are no respecters of authority. Our conclusion that study of UFO reports is not likely to advance science will not be uncritically accepted by them. Nor should it be, nor do we wish it to be. For scientists, it is our hope that the detailed analytical presentation of what we were able to do, and of what we were unable to do,will assist them in deciding whether or not they agree with our conclusions. Our hope is that the details of this report will help other scientists in seeing what the problems are and the difficulties of coping with them.

"If they agree with our conclusions, they will turn their valuable attention and talents elsewhere. If they disagree, it will be because our report has helped them to reach a clear picture of wherein existing studies are faulty and incomplete and thereby will have stimulated ideas for more accurate studies. If they do get such ideas and can formulate them clearly, we have no doubt that support will be forthcoming to carry on with such clearly defined specific studies. We think that such ideas for work should be supported.

Therefore, we think that all of the agencies of the federal government, and the private foundations as well, ought to be willing to consider UFO research proposals along with the others submitted to them on an open-minded, unprejudiced basis. While we do not think at present that anything worthwhile is likely to come of such research each individual case ought to be carefully considered on its own merits."

Condon's chapter "Summary of the study" contains more than its title indicates; it discloses many of his personal conclusions. Making value judgements was no doubt one reason why Condon was asked to handle the project. One is happy to obtain the judgement of so experienced and respected a man; but one need not agree with it. The UFO subcommittee did not find a basis for his prediction that nothing of scientific value will come of further studies.

In reviewing the material accumulated to date, the subcommittee found an exceedingly low signal-to-noise ratio, as illustrated by the statistics of the Air Force's Project "Bluebook" quoted in the University of Colorado study, which showed 3.3% unidentified observations (253 out of 7741 available at that time *) This figure is frequently disputed, but its order of magnitude (5%) appears to be correct, taking all available reports into account. The fact that the Condon study itself arrives at  a much higher percentage of unexplained cases -namely, at about 30% (35 out of 117) - is primarily due to the preselection of specific cases for investigation. The precise figure is hard to assess, for the Condon report does not lend itself easily to this type of analysis, the same cases being treated often in different sections and under different identifications. (*The final figure, according to our information appears to be 701 out of 12,618 or 5.5%.)

It has been variously estimated that the reported cases, approximately 20,000, represents only 5 to 15% of the total observations, since most observers do not go to the trouble of an official report or fear ridicule. In turn, various polls suggest that 3 to 5% of the US population claims to have seen UFOs. It follows, then, that the available reports which can be classified as "unidentified" represent a very small percentage of all UFO sightings on the one hand, but not a negligible number of observations.

It is interesting that, contrary to public opinion, the estimated percentage of "hoaxes" is likewise small (less than 5%) and that the great majority of UFO sightings can be explained by known phenomena (about 75%) while 15 to 20% contain insufficient data. In other words, what may appear to the untrained observer as strange and inexplicable is in most cases known and explainable.

Taking all evidence which has come to the subcommittees' attention into account, we find it difficult to ignore the small residue of well-documented but unexplainable cases which form the hard core of the UFO controversy. They represent only a small fraction of the 'unidentified' cases and are characterised by both a high degree of credibility and a high abnormality ("strangeness" in Hynek's terminology.) Although none of them offers to our knowledge quantitative recordings by calibrated instruments for permanent inspection, they are often called "hard cases."

The subcommittee has tried to explore the nature of this hard-core residue and found estimates to vary between 10 and several hundred cases; depending in part on a subjective judgement as to the criteria for a "hard case." High credibility is generally accepted for observations by multiple independent sensory systems (reporting by multiple independent operators) or both; high abnormality or strangeness, when no known natural phenomena whatsoever seems to fit the observation. It is clear then, that the hard-core residue represents less than 1% of the total available reports.

Those used to working under controlled laboratory conditions find it difficult to consider seriously any observation which is not available in recorded form for qualitative inspection. As a matter of fact, they make this a criterion for a 'hard case." On the other hand, there are those , including some members of the subcommittee, familiar with the intricacies of research in the complex and uncontrolled laboratory of the atmosphere, who find this less of a deterent. They discover parallels between the UFO problem and certain atmospheric phenomena which fall in the class of rare events. A rare event always involves at first a question of the reality of a qualitative observation. Later, scientific investigation, usually combining statistics and physics, resolves this question one way or the other.

Although the University of Colorado deals only with a small fraction of the existing observational material (less than 15%), it offers itself enough substance of the described sort, especially if additional information extracted by MacDonald is added to some of the cases. In fact, the subcommittee finds that the opposite conclusion could be drawn from its content, namely that a phenomenon with such a high ratio of unexplained cases (about 30%) should arouse sufficient scientific curiosity to continue its study.

Then issue seems to boil down to the question: Are we justified to extrapolate from 0.99 to 1.00, implying that if 99% of all observations can be explained, the remaining 1% could also be explained, or do we face a severe problem of signal-to-noise ratio (order of magnitude 10-2)?

In the opinion of the subcommittee this question must be asked critically and objectively in each individual case. In cases which do not fit the extrapolation alternative, the further question should be explored, "Do they evidence common attributes?" It appears to the subcommittee that the University of Colorado has made no serious attempt in this direction.

It is obviously difficult to reach a consensus on what constitutes a hard case, it appears even more difficult to find agreement on the advisability and importance of continued research. As mentioned earlier, it is at this point where the controversy often becomes heated because criteria for such assessment are not well-defined.

Earlier, Condon' statement was quoted that "Clearly defined, specific studies..should be considered and supported." In this conclusion he calls attention to "important areas of atmospheric optics, including radio wave propagation, and of atmospheric electricity in which present knowledge is quite incomplete. These topics come to our attention in connection with the interpretation of some UFO reports, but they are also of fundamental scientific interest, and they are relevant to practical problems related to the improvement of safety of military and civilian flying."

The subcommittee finds this statement of the Condon report a better criterion for support of UFO-related studies than the claims by some ETH proponents that UFO research deserves maximum support as long as there is a ghost of chance that UFOs are extraterrestrial  vehicles, or the opposite claim that proof for the ETH must be provided before serious consideration of the UFO problem is justified. Both opinions strike the subcommittee as unwarranted.

We have already expressed our disenchantment with arguments about the probability of the extraterrestrial origin of UFOs, since there is not sufficient scientific basis at this time to take a position one way or another. However, in view of the infancy of our scientific and technological knowledge (approximately one century), the subcommittee would agree with this statement by Condon "We must not assume that we are capable of imagining now the scope and extent of future technological development of our own or any other civilisation, and so we must guard against assuming that we have any capacity to imagine what a more advanced society would regard as intelligent conduct." On the other hand, we find no convincing basis for his statement, "It is safe to assume that no ILE (intelligent life elsewhere) from outside our solar system has any possibility of visiting Earth in the next 10,000 years." (When does the counting start?)

The question arises whether there is a need at all to speculate on a specific hypothesis such as ETH, in order to decide on the significance of a scientific problem, or whether any known phenomenon in nature is worth investigating. We think it is, but we recognise at the same time that the UFO problem may require expensive tools of technology. Therefore the question of cost, priority, and relative importance of this problem within the total spectrum of research cannot be overlooked.

The UFO subcommittee feels that the ETH, tantalising though it may be, should not be dragged into this consideration as it introduce an unassessable element of speculation; but the subcommittee also strongly feels that, from a scientific and engineering standpoint, it is unacceptable to simply ignore substantial numbers of unexplained observations and to close the book on them on the basis of premature conclusions.

There is an interesting parallel between the history of the UFO problem and the history of weather modification ("rainmaking"). After almost 20 years of taboo by the scientific community, weather modification has now achieved scientific recognition due to the fact that some courageous high-caliber scientists entered the arena. This has resulted in a revision of the viewpoint of the National Academy of Science.

The immediate question is how to attack the UFO problem without the pitfalls of past attempts. There is little doubt that the short-time, one-shot approach of an ad hoc team is neither promising nor economical. This is especially true if the study team decides - as the University of Colorado group did - to concentrate on current rather than past observations. As the UFO statistics show, this results in the devotion of precious time to investigate the noise, rather than the signal. It was mentioned earlier that the Colorado University study faced formidable obstacles because of the short duration of its contract. If the recommendation of the O'Brien committee to negotiate multiple contracts for continuing investigations had been followed, this difficulty would perhaps have been avoided. There is also little hope to expect a solution of this extremely complex problem by the efforts of a single individual.

The subcommittee sees the only promising approach as a continuing, moderate-level effort with emphasis on improved data  collection by objective means and on high quality scientific analysis. This would eliminate the difficult problem of witness credibility. An economic and technically sound approach involving available remote sensing capability and certain software changes will require some thinking on the side of the aerospace engineering community.

Proposals along this line are already in the hands of the subcommittee. The financial support should be kept at a moderately low level. (It is estimated that a small fraction of the cost of the University of Colorado study would be requires initially) until re-evaluation of the situation allows another assessment. Without such an effort the controversy can be expected to suffer further polarisation and confusion.

The subcommittee feels that s strictly scientific technological review of the UFO problem leads to this conclusion and that, for a technical committee, there is no need to stress the public and social aspect of the UFO controversy, which may have subsided only temporarily and will continue to clammer for a more conclusive and convincing answer. The subcommittee is aware of several books to be published in the near future. What is needed now is a moratorium in the UFO discussion - with an objective, wait-and-see attitudes on the part of the scientific and engineering community, the government and the public.

The approach recommended by this subcommittee require not only the attention of the scientist and engineer, but also a readiness of government agencies to consider any proposals in this field without bias or fear of ridicule and repercussion- or, as Condon expresses it "on an openminded, unprejudiced basis." This perhaps is our most important conclusion.

Finally the subcommittee believes the decision by the Air Force to divorce itself from the UFO problem should be completed by allowing the files to be archived by a civilian agency, either government or university, after proper safeguards for the protection of witnesses and their names as well as full declassification procedures.

The subcommittee intend to publish additional information on the UFO problem in the AIAA journals to give the members of AIAA an opportunity to form their own opinion. This information will include typical examples of the so-called "hard-case residue" and some potential engineering approaches to a solution of the controversy.


To me, the key points of this reports are:

1. There is a small residue of well documented, unexplained cases.

2. The best criterion to support UFO related studies is the possibility of advancing our knowledge of some atmospheric optics and atmospheric electricity.

3. Don't waste precious time on the noise - hone in on the signal.

4. We need improved data collection and higher quality analysis of this data.

The French 3AF SIGMA2 technical group has recognised point three by stating they will focus on "unsolved cases", e.g. GEIPAN type D.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this interesting and cogent review.
    I was reflecting on if we have made any significant progress in more than 40 years since this report was written.
    Perhaps...the wider theoretical context has certainly moved on (the relatively early appearance of life on earth, our growing knowledge of extremophiles and potential habitats (indeed the emergence of exobiology as a field), and still controversial possibilities such as panspermia and convergent evolution all influence the scale of the paradox in Fermi's famous quote.
    Interstellar travel remains beyond us but theoretical developments have moved on considerably since 1970 and it is difficult to justify a claim that such travel is impossible.
    Our understanding of the range of available exoplanets had developed not just in actual detection terms but also in a greater appreciation of the availability of deep time for the potential emergence if ETC...

    All the above is purely circumstantial though...

    Since 1970 we have seen the first coherent theoretical model for the UFO phenomenon (Hill, 1995) linking their characteristics to mainstream physics. We have a far greater data set including access to rare cases with significant hard quantitative data ( the USS Gyatt case from 1964 is just one example) and countries outside the English speaking world, perhaps particularly France, have contributed to provided quantitative data.

    Our understanding of misidentifications has improved, with new phenomena such as earthquake lights and meteor related plasmas being proposed. The Hessdalen study has contributed to our understanding in this regard.

    Controversially the small core or very hard cases we now have quite good data for provide a primae facie case for a technological basis for these cases. But that is a logical positivist approach and that is not sufficient to be conclusive. Highly controversially I would suggest that some small parts of the Ramey memo allow quantitative analysis which supports the read proposed by Rudiak for very small sections of the document. If that can be demonstrated to arrive at a more general consensus within the ufo logical community (there is no point hoping for a change if view more generally) I would argue that we would then have a quite decisive result.