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Do extraterrestrials exist? We don’t need a government report to answer that

Polls show most people don’t believe in UFOs, but they do think aliens exist out there

A patron passes a painting inside the International UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell, N.M. in June 1997.
A patron passes a painting inside the International UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell, N.M. in June 1997.
Eric Draper, Associated Press

Perhaps no one should be surprised that the recently released government report on UFOs reached few firm conclusions, other than to suggest that the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force that wrote it might do better if it had more money for “research and development.”

“Give us more money” could be the motto of any government agency or task force, especially at a time when dollars along the Potomac seem to flow from a tap.

The public may have some conclusions of its own.

One is that, if the many pilots reporting unidentified objects are, in fact, seeing aliens from another planet, these are beings who clearly don’t want to interact with us. All that zipping around like supersonic mosquitoes at a picnic doesn’t seem to have much point to it.

Also, we might be more inclined to believe if someone could capture a video that looked a little clearer than a prenatal ultrasound, circa 1980.

Which isn’t to say Americans are completely cynical on the subject.

Nor is it to discount the human yearning for greater understanding among the endless sea of stars and planets that fill space. That yearning seems far deeper than our distrust of government bureaucracies.

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke is often, and likely erroneously, credited with saying, “Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”

One image captured by the Hubble telescope — easy to find with a Google search — contains an estimated 265,000 galaxies, each one teasing us not only with what is visible, but with what is not: countless planets orbiting stars.

Is it possible to believe Earth, alone, has the right mix of temperature and elements to sustain life? If so, what does that mean?

Conversely, if we accept the mathematical likelihood that life exists elsewhere, the questions are endless. They have captured minds for decades, and likely much longer.

Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wrote earlier this year in a New York Times op-ed about growing up in tiny Searchlight, Nevada. “People who live in rural America, away from the light pollution of the major cities, can gaze at the night sky and see the marvel of the Milky Way and more,” he said.

“In Searchlight, I spent many evenings in my youth lying on an old mattress gazing up at the endless, starry heavens. It was a rare night I didn’t see a shooting star. The shimmering expanse filled my eyes and sparked my imagination.”

As Senate majority leader, Reid helped initiate and fund the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program to investigate reports of UFOs.

“I have never intended to prove that life beyond Earth exists,” he said. “But if science proves that it does, I have no problem with that. Because the more I learn, the more I realize that there’s still so much I don’t know.”

And that may be the pull that lures us, relentlessly, to follow strange lights in the sky.

Public opinion has remained fairly consistent through the years on the existence of so-called flying saucers. People are, generally speaking, skeptical.

Back in 1938, after Orson Welles aired “War of the Worlds” on the radio, depicting an invasion of space aliens, Gallup did a poll to determine how many people thought the broadcast was real, rather than fiction. According to a book on the broadcast by Brad Schwartz, about 27% said they were extremely frightened by it.

That compares favorably with a 2019 Gallup poll on UFOs, which, 81 years later, found only 33% saying some of the things seen by modern pilots were alien spacecraft, and 60% saying they were all either natural phenomena or attributable to human activity.

That’s a higher degree of belief than was uncovered in a newly released poll conducted by Scott Rasmussen for the Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics, which found that only 22% of Utahns believe the sightings are of extraterrestrial life, with 57% saying there must be a logical explanation and the rest believing they have to do with some top-secret project.

So, are we nonbelievers? Do we really think we’re alone amid all those flickering lights in endless space?

Hardly.

Gallup got a more profound result in 2019 when it asked whether people believed in life elsewhere in the universe, independent of UFOs on Earth. It found 75% saying yes, with 49% believing that life consists of “people somewhat like ourselves.”

I’m guessing no government task force, no matter how much funding it gets, will change that.