To Go Where No One Has Gone Before: the SCU “Anomalous Aerospace Phenomena” Conference (AAPC) 2022 - Day One
Well, not quite. There have of course been conferences devoted to the topic of “anomalous aerospace phenomena” before–so the topic of the conference itself is not unique or unprecedented. What is unprecedented perhaps is what I consider to be the centerpiece of the whole conference itself, and that was the roughly three hour long presentation and ensuing Q&A conducted by the UAPx principal scientific team. Before we engage their (absolutely crucial and scientifically significant) presentation (which we will do in the last edition of this three-part series), let’s work through some of the conference as a whole. Writing this just at the close of the conference, I can say that it was really quite a success for the SCU (the “Scientific Coalition for UAP Studies”– an organization of which I am a nominal or “community” member).
The SCU is unique, being an incorporated nonprofit charitable organization largely run (in fact I believe only run) by unpaid volunteers who do what they do simply out of a personal commitment to the subject itself: the scientific engagement with the UAP phenomenon. Their primary function in practical terms is the organization of serious research projects devoted to detailed technical analysis of UAP cases for which there is a fair amount of good–and most importantly, analyzable–data. This research usually yields a substantive analytical paper, which is, as Executive Board members Robert Powell (a sometime discussant here) and Peter Reali (two highly trained professional engineers) inform us, sent through a peer-review process before it is finally published online (at their own website), freely accessible by anyone.
We should just pause for a moment to reflect on SCU itself. The kind of research activity and publishing they’re engaged in is to be celebrated, as it is really done as a kind of universal public service for all. Not to exaggerate, but I sincerely believe that the right way understand SCU’s significance is that what it does is done for the sake of advancing human knowledge about a phenomenon that, quite possibly, has profound significance for humanity as a whole–the significance, of course, being a function of what it is that we can come to definitively know about this most elusive of phenomena. SCU is attempting to produce that definitive knowledge. They invite anyone to participate, asking only their credentialed and capable members to become involved in the more serious of their research ventures (of which there are several, as they report in the conference itself). This seeks to ensure quality control for their central scientific task: producing peer-reviewed scientific analysis (and soon, we are promised, theory) of aspects of the UAP phenomenon (the ‘aspects’ qualifier is key, as I’ll explain later).
Given the demonstrated quality–and professional and intellectual integrity–of their existing output (which is, again, freely available to anyone for analysis and critique), and their own transparency in terms of research methods, processes and materials (both Peter Reali and Robert Powell are generous email correspondents, and are always very considerate and careful in their responses to my perhaps frequently dumb or bothersome questions), in my view SCU’s work in fact establishes the very “industry standard” (to lapse into corporate jargon) to which any UAP research that has scientific aspirations ought to be held. Currently, I can only claim that SCU’s work sets the standard for research that would present and analyze the non-first-person data (along with the usual eyewitness testimony) that might exist for any given UAP case, but which does not seek to offer any theoretical explanation, or try to draw specific conclusions from that data. SCU is very careful to avoid this (so far).
To repeat, SCU establishes the industry standard for UAP data presentation (which often involves trying to gather more of the relevant data that might not have been provided with the initial UAP incident report itself) and careful analysis of it. Indeed, for the cases they’ve published reports on, their work ought to in fact be viewed as the standard reference for these cases. This means, in very practical terms, that whenever anyone looks to critique any of the cases they’ve analyzed and published on, or who wants to repeat the tired universal explanations for all UAP/UFO encounters, that person is intellectually responsible for specifically addressing the work already done by the SCU. If they can’t, or don’t, then their criticism can’t really be taken seriously–much like how we expect anyone publishing a scholarly paper that attacks X is first held responsible for addressing the arguments already presented in the literature that defend or establish that X is true. We look forward to more theoretical work from SCU (posing explanatory hypotheses for the data they’ve looked at, and/or offering fleshed-out mathematical models of UAP observations, and other telemetry gathered, based on first principles), and hope that this parallels and follows up on their already outstanding existing body of work. It is this latter theoretical endeavor which is so far sorely lacking in the UFO/UAP literature as a whole (a point I make frequently in this blog). We expect SCU to produce equally industry standard-setting work here as well. Now, on to the conference itself...
The “Anomalous Aerospace Phenomena” Conference, held from the afternoon of June 3rd (Friday) to the afternoon of the 5th (Sunday), involved quite a spread of presentations: ranging from a somewhat dry military talk delivered by keynote speaker Lt. Graves (whose air-safety-focused presentation seemed to be struggling with introducing the aspect of artificial intelligence in the search for and cataloging of UAP), to the wild ride from UFOs to ESP, PK and the “woo-woo” side of things provided by the elder ufological luminary Col. John Alexander. All this, with even a stop-over for both a political science and international relations point of view, and some commentary on the science/ufology tension by a theologian and (from the looks of his attire during the closing panel on “Academia & UAP”) a practicing member of the (Episcopalian) clergy. This wide range of talks was interspersed with two data- and technology-focused presentations, the highlight here being, in my view, the presentation of “initial” preliminary findings by the UAPx team (led by Knuth, Szydagis, and Altman which we will briefly cover in the third of our three-part review series).
The conference–rightly in my view–eschewed the plenary v. concurrent sessions division, instead allowing their main speakers much more time for their presentations and the customary Q&A that follows. This format was broken only by two other conference modes: a few excellently populated panel discussions, and, for the online-only crowd (which was my position, for better or worse) a series of rotating networking sessions where one got to sit at a virtual “table” with other conference attendees and chat for a fixed amount of time (such restriction being annoying but efficient, since it allows for the convenience of having the system break you away from that person or topic you might not want to be cornered by for too long).
SCU chose to use the “Whova” (“hoo-vah”) conferencing app. I’d encountered this app before, when I attended the much more woo-woo’d “UFO Congress” (with something about it being international, I believe), organized by SCU Board member Alexander Rojas (and his wife) back in September of 2021. The problem with the app–as opposed to the much more limited Zoom, for example–was just a repetition of the problem with the ‘Net as a whole: infinite distractions, which are powerful if you’re not disciplined. While I have grown accustomed to my (undiagnosed) ADD, I still struggled to keep my focus on the presentations. But being at home, I could grab a chair and airplay on the big screen in the living room, go out to enjoy a pipe and stream on my big iPhone 13, or just cozy up to my 40-inch desktop monitor and adjust the browser so I had only the presentation and nothing much else going on besides. So, the versatility was good, and the community-engagement capabilities were nice–to know just that they were there. One virtue is that you can return to the conference virtual space itself, and re-watch anything from the conference the organizers put up (which is likely to be all the live presentations). Overall quite a satisfying experience…
I was disappointed, however, by the conspicuous absence of any serious philosophical voice amidst the crowd of generally excellent speakers. Since I’m nominally part of the organization, I only have myself to blame for not advocating for such–but whom to ask? Few philosophers who carry that name care to approach the subject (at least not openly–Michael Zimmerman, a well-known Heideggerian and ecologist, being a notable exception). And I am even fearful if they were to–philosophers tend to be a rather conservative and cranky bunch, at least those who have regular academic appointments. But if they were to move in to the topic having already accepted the existence of a truly anomalous set of phenomena which stretches if not entirely breaks conventional analysis–I would be delighted to see a cranky, conservative voice perhaps bringing us back down to earth (and I mean that will all ironies most definitely intended).
In the “profession” of philosophy as an academically-situated intellectual pursuit, there has been this unfortunate division (between the so-called analytic and Continental traditions) that derives from an even deeper division within the academy as a whole. And it has to do with science. The exact sciences in particular: they are supposed to provide an ideal epistemology. But is it possible to challenge this ideal epistemological status without tipping over into the irrational? Are other ways of knowing equal in power, in truth? Or so the dispute was to arise in the latter part of the 18th and into the 19th centuries, breaking into war in the 20th (there are many ironies in this statement, for it became apparent to some that while science was a boon for humanity, it also spelled doom: greater, more powerful wars in nuclear conflict to begin with ... and now we can add climate change to the litany of unfortunate consequences of our peculiar science/technology conjunction). We have here the divisive rift between the humanities and the sciences that has come to plague modern universities to this day. It is this division that was worming its way slowly into the AAP conference, likely unbeknownst to many of its participants. Indeed, it was perhaps the very conspicuous absence of bone fide philosophers that suggested it had already found its way into the SCU. Alexander Wendt even at one point felt his presence to be somewhat tangential, and said as much. What have the humanities to do with the science of UAP? Without engaging the question I have been insisting on (is a science of UAP possible?), we really will not be able to say...
The analytic tradition of philosophy (which sometimes traces its origins to Kant) has maintained a very close relationship to science, although it operates often with a kind of myth about what science is and how it works, when it is not specifically engaging the sciences or practicing scientists themselves. While the Continental tradition, on the other hand, has not really felt the need to position itself in relation to science, feeling that philosophy really is and can be treated as an epistemologically autonomous discipline in its own right, not answerable to science or its specific epistemology. Very frequently in analytic philosophy, one will see philosophers entering into the specific details of the sciences, or holding themselves accountable to them, often having themselves had some formal training in science. If science makes its appearance in Continental philosophy, it is frequently only treated from a distance, sometimes as one among any number of human cultural products to be read and interpreted textually. (It is a curious division, and one that has become blurred in recent years as more and more wish to specifically challenge it and with good reason: the division itself is rather artificial, even fluid.)
But whereas the analytic tradition never really challenges science in a fundamental way, it is the Continental tradition (starting at least with Kant) that has the resources and techniques of criticism available to it to offer a fundamental critique of science: one, I am proposing in these pages, that now has a very specific aim (unlike its abstractly critical aims we saw dominating the conversation in the 20th century). And that is to advance science beyond its materialist dogmatism (and at the same time to advance spiritualist or religious and mystical thought or the woo-woo beyond its dogmatic metaphysics) so as to be answerable to an entirely new phenomenon. It is a phenomenon I have labeled liminal precisely because it exists partly in the space of the scientifically known, but mostly within the space of the unknown. And it is far from clear whether science as we know it will survive, once we can begin to more adequately conceptualize this unknown.
It is therefore significant that the SCU announces itself as a “scientific” coalition–as opposed to what, exactly? Surely they meant to distinguish themselves, as they formed, from the quackery (quite frankly) and insufficiently serious approaches to the UFO phenomenon that plagued the literature almost from its inception (which still does to this day; anyone seems to be able to publish whatever they want on the subject–unlike, say, on gravity or the physics of the gluon). To call one “scientific” is already to attempt a signal of credibility to others, that it will be concerned with the measurable, the documentable, the statistical, the mathematical, and the calculable–in short: the physical and, to the extent it can meet certain criteria of admissibility, the psychological. To say that one is a “scientific” coalition is to say that one is concerned with the objective reality of something–whether it be physical or psychological. The first-person is, after all, objective too (what I like to call the objectivity of the subjective). And yet, what is remarkable about the UFO/UAP phenomenon, and the culture of study and interest that has grown up around it, is that it inevitably forces a confrontation between the physical and the psychological–or ‘psychical’–aspects of the problem.
But it was (and is) apparent that the SCU were not about to close down these more scientifically intractable aspects to the problem. It is, for this reason, a really remarkable organization, one sincerely open to the phenomenon in its many puzzling aspects, while also pursuing a relatively straightforward, level-headed analytical approach. I mean, what else can we do but do what we know how to do? We just hope we can be genuinely scientific enough to change according to the requirements the phenomenon imposes on us.While it is clear that the UFO or UAP is in many cases a definite ‘object’ of some kind (even if it’s a luminous orb), the percipients of those objects experience certain effects, and sometimes the object itself seems also to behave as if it were itself in possession of some subjectivity of its own–after all, vehicle-seeming structured objects meeting intercepting Navy pilots at their pre-arranged (and classified!) rendezvous coordinates out in the open ocean at altitude certainly would indicate some level of intelligent subjectivity controlling these objects. But how do we negotiate these subject-object relations?
A “science” is forced to obey the conventional paradigm which mandates a split of the phenomenon into each of these two sides (physical/psychical); but when it comes specifically to the subject-side–to the subjectivities involved–science starts to lose its moorings and go adrift on a sea of speculations … enter the woo-woo. Or, out of desperation to forestall the magical, the mystical, the woo-woo, it reverts again to a kind of materialism even in attempting to deal with the psychical: it reduces it to the psychological, and the psychological to something having to do either with the brain (if we want to go all the way down the road of conventional materialism), or “the unconscious”–or both. What can be done with this psychical aspect? Science is quick to fall back on its default materialist prejudices in order to prevent a spiritualism. It really is a mess. We can surely do better. (And part of what we are doing in this blog is to dig ourselves out of this mess.)
Curiously, the topic of debunking the physical evidence of UAPs was touched on variously during the conference though by no means very systematically, where the various epistemological subtleties of evidence evaluation are addressed and assessed ... something a philosopher would have been equipped to deal with. It was comfortably put aside (and not without some justification: at this point the preponderance of the evidence for the phenomenon’s reality is really on the side of the UAP analyst looking at the objective data available, whereas the burden of proof is now squarely on the shoulders of the doubting skeptic–quite a profound shift in itself). But the same was not explored for the psychological or psychical aspects of the UAP evidence whenever that issue reared its head (as it did many times during the course of the two-and-a-half days of talks). It was perhaps the 800lb little green man in the room. (Given some of the attendees, like Dr. Eric Davis, who has, along with Jacques Vallee, openly acknowledged this as an important aspect of the problem that needs to be carefully addressed, one can imagine that this 800-pounder was present at least in some minds.)
These tensions were clearly evident throughout the conference. The physicists were clearly comfortable with their “hard” data. The political scientists (well, actually just one: Prof. Alex Wendt of Ohio State–who positioned himself, in one telling moment at the end of the conference, as being “orthogonal” to the rest of the predominantly “hard” science crowd) were comfortable with their “soft” human data, their social-structural principles or institutional interpretations. The military-intelligence analysts with their hard-ish data, mined for national security (or “threat”) actionables. And finally the (very) soft humanities represented by the one practicing theologian (who writes widely on science, ethics and society).
Col. Alexander was perhaps the true outlier here, straddling in a sense all these concerns at once–a figure who therefore represents, we may say, the ideal here: segregating, as he did, the harder science aspects from the “softer” woo-woo while at the same time recognizing the latter as a valid phenomenon that needs to be integrated in some as-yet unknown way with the more physical aspects of the phenomenon. Despite Alexander’s perhaps questionable speculations on the integrative possibilities here (how exactly to integrate the physical and the psychical?–quite a hard question, and one that preoccupies us variously in this blog), he really stood out as both a relic of a perhaps bygone era (of exploratory openness), and, ironically, a model for the future we could emulate as UAP researchers–a kind of futural renaissance hero of sorts…
It is hard to bring such an academically diverse crowd together–yet everyone seemed to be unified in not only their shared respect for the “hard” sciences, but their belief that a hard scientific approach is crucially necessary but painfully lacking. The center did manage to hold throughout the conference–quite an accomplishment given that ufological matters tend to attract lots of dogmatically fundamentalist “believers” (or just plain kooks) that can easily sabotage the serious in favor of their desire for religious or spiritual fulfillment (not that there’s anything wrong with that, as the saying goes; to paraphrase Proverbs from the Good Book: there’s a time for everything–and sometimes not a time for your spiritual needs to be met).
There was, as to be expected of any substantial conference, some unevenness–despite each speaker being individually good within their respective domain. We had Lt. Graves, but in the next days almost all strict academics–at least one of whom (as we explain below) briefly raised the sensible question that wasn’t being carefully addressed: aren’t governments and civilian research organizations acting at cross-purposes–especially when it comes to UAP-related research? This is surely a worthy subject to be dealt with carefully and systematically–and to be done by someone independent of the government itself.
I will admit to being cranky during Lt. Graves’ presentation, since I couldn’t really appreciate what he was trying to accomplish. I am more acculturated to strict academic presentations in which one’s thesis is outlined, defended, and then reassessed in light of objections–a format that really didn’t exist in this conference, and one perhaps that’s more appropriate to the kinds of theoretical philosophy and philosophy of science conferences with which I am familiar.
I couldn’t quite understand why Graves was the keynote, either. His talk was on a relatively mundane subject that seemed somewhat tangential to what the conference ended up being about anyway: the measurable physical characteristics of “anomalous aerospace phenomena” (AAP now?), the potential national security (or, for Alex Wendt, the socio-political) implications of such phenomena should they be deemed technological in nature, and openly acknowledged as such (which is Wendt’s particular concern as we’ll see in part two of our series), and the emergence of interest in the phenomenon within mainstream academia. What had Graves to do with any of this?
Working from Graves’ posted abstract, his talk would involve how the “USG [U.S. Government] could increase the investigatory power behind UAP”. Except for the odd syntactical structure (instead of “investigatory power behind UAP”–are UAP investigating us? I guess, but that’s likely not what he means; it should read “how the USG could increase its capability to investigate UAP”), Graves was concerned that the USG simply isn’t keeping pace with “peer nations” or even our own (non-governmental) industry–certainly a valid point to make. But isn’t it well known how lethargic the USG is? How slow its bureaucracy is to respond to the new (especially when that new is a liminal phenomenon just at the threshold of acceptability)? Isn’t it more interesting to explore the conditions–social, political, historical, economic–that have landed the US in the position (if this is what Graves wanted to say) of resting on its laurels, a superior military and economic power too set in its ways to give a damn about UAP or to try seriously to crack the mystery? Graves’ talk just gave me the sense of “sure, you’re right, but it’s the government, and things won’t change easily, so let’s move on, quickly”. After all, seven decades later and all we have is some bureaucrat putting up poor video and claiming “we don’t know what it is” (in the most recent Congressional “hearing”).
Aside from this, Graves’ presentation seemed to be filled with lots of jargony expressions (“scalable problem-solution paring”) that might mean something to those in the know, but which, when you trim it away, simply belies, I think, a lot of (perhaps naïve) idealism (“IF this were so, THEN so and so would happen”). It was idealism that seemed to be dressed in language that made it appear as if there’s a concrete plan-of-action ready to convert desire into design. Maybe–I’m just not the one to assess whether Graves really has something here, or not.
He did, importantly, make mention of, but did not really elaborate on, the use of AI in UAP investigation–and this is something we have to think very critically about (as we will see later, the incisive and sharp-witted Dark Matter physicist and UAPx team investigator Matthew Szydagis is well aware that AI needs human intervention at crucial stages of the investigation). His point in mentioning the use of AI in UAP investigation seemed to be that this is an example of where and how the government is lagging behind industry and ally (or adversary).
On the whole, I just didn’t think this to be an appropriate talk at a conference organized by a scientific coalition for UAP studies. It really did not do much to advance the discipline (such as it is). It certainly did not appear to merit the keynote of such a conference. Indeed, the talk in a sense was not specifically about the UAP at all: it was primarily about government disinterest, torpor, etc. for an important phenomenon that represents a potential “threat” in various ways (if only in terms of air safety)–a well-worn topic. Again, this just didn’t seem to be pointed in the direction of advancing the study of UAP itself; if anything, it was a call for more government action, more investigation. (Or maybe the FAA should be asked to consider issuing an airworthiness directive for the UAP?)
But we have to ask the question that was hard to ask in a room filled with people who have a vested interest in military or government engagement with the UAP phenomenon: is this a good thing? Isn’t getting the government to be more concerned, more involved and more active in UAP investigation likely to be a Pyrrhic victory? We’ve already seen how it is: now there will be more attention focused on what events they do record, and the classification firewall will now be likely more pronounced because of this renewed focus. The relevant agencies have already told us what’s going to happen–they’re going to keep classifying much of the information obtained during UAP encounters. Surely Col. John Alexander, along with many others at the conference, were right to protest government “over-classification”, but is this complaint enough? Where do we draw the line, and who gets to draw it?
I’m afraid the Reganite expression “government is the problem” may be exactly right when it comes to an open, free and democratic engagement with the UAP phenomenon. But the government has the serious, expensive and dynamic equipment for rapid study–not civilian agencies. What we need to be thinking about isn’t just how to get government off its proverbial ass to tackle the UAP issue appropriately and “keep pace” with “peer nations” and industry, and to keep pilots safe ... although I have to challenge Graves on precisely this point. (For example, do we really think that these UAP, if they are intelligently controlled, hyper-advanced craft, are in danger of hitting our aircraft? It seems unlikely. The point is weak and unconvincing; the evidence we have seems to argue for another conclusion: these objects are capable of anticipating and maneuvering in ways we simply can neither understand nor replicate, and are easily avoiding our aircraft by virtue of their own aerospace sophistication. The only issue is the reaction of pilots to these frequently disconcerting UAP episodes. But how frequent are such episodes? Exceedingly rare, in fact. Given their extreme rarity I’m willing to bet governments aren’t easily going to take the flight safety thesis very seriously—and it would not be unreasonable to do so.)
We need to be forming, instead, independently funded and operated civilian agencies–like a mobile CERN for UAP scientific study–with multiple, rapidly deployable materiale, even conducting extensive open-ocean surveying missions that put large platforms of equipment, including deployable aircraft, within regions known, statistically, to be UAP hotspots (starting of course with the Catalina Islands in Southern California). With rapidly advancing drone technologies, we surely can develop sophisticated, quickly-deployable sensor aircraft capable of engaging in the kinds of cat-and-mouse we’ve seen happen with military aircraft and UAP. Perhaps we could even combine advances in robotics and AI to develop highly technical civilian drones capable of interacting in some minimal way during an extended UAP event. It’s a question of money (as Col. Alexander rightly pointed out numerous times in his Magical Mystery Tour), and of course the government seems to have buckets of it (in the form of liquid cash)–at least when they want to have it. Surely, though, there’s plenty of cash to be had from outside government. I mean, we’re a capitalist mega-economy, right? (Elon Musk anyone?) But then we’re down the funding rabbit hole, one that exists within the toxic dynamics of capitalist competition–a whole other topic we might pause to reflect upon…
So, Graves just didn’t seem to be the right keynote–especially since he didn’t engage his own experiences with the anomalous objects he saw! I guess he’s tired of talking about it; and who can blame him, really, especially considering today’s miasma of endless social media streams, posts, and scrolls which have endlessly repeated his story (remember, he’s the guy who, while piloting his jet over the ocean during combat exercises, saw a cube-in-a-sphere whizz by).
And so the keynote, as it was the opener, just left us hanging…
(To be continued in the next post.)