An illustration represents sighter jets intercepting a UFO, or 'unidentified aerial phenomenon.' Image: KTS / Science Photo Library via AFP

Has extraterrestrial life visited us? Perhaps. We don’t know. But we’re about to get a lot more information.

The US government, as viewers of the TV series The X-Files might suspect, has long been collecting images and other data about flying objects that it cannot explain. Next month, it is set to release its findings on “UAP,” or unidentified aerial phenomena, a name-change from unidentified flying objects, or UFOs, to de-stigmatize the subject.

The release, curiously, was written into the last Covid-19 spending bill under then-president Donald Trump. Buried in the legislation’s more than 5,500 pages was a provision for the country’s director of national intelligence and its secretary of defense to work on detailing everything the government knows about UAP, also called “anomalous aerial vehicles,” and release this to lawmakers in 180 days.

The clock started ticking down on December 27.

It’s unclear how much information the US actually will release, but recent disclosures imply that it has a trove of data on flying objects that seemingly defy the laws of physics as we know them. Of course, the government could just refuse to disclose anything, but that would only encourage more conspiracy theories.

Let’s take a quick step back to establish context. There are, to be sure, a great many claims about UFOs that are hoaxes. And many ancient claims can be explained away by modern science, such as in our understanding of atmospheric and optical phenomena.

But since the 1940s, there has been a large increase in the number of UAP reported worldwide that have remained unexplained. Many of these have occurred in the US. Part of the reason has been the secret development of military aircraft. Thus the US – especially during the Cold War – has been highly secretive over any data purportedly about UAP.

But in the last five years, something has changed in how the US government deals with UAP.

In 2017, The New York Times published a well-sourced article about the Pentagon’s Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program – a project with a $22 million budget. The report confirmed several rumors of UAP observed by pilots of American military aircraft and even included videos of encounters.

In one of the most famous, from 2004, flyers on two navy fighter jets from the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier encountered an unknown object off the coast of San Diego. The object, which is said to have resembled a flying Tic Tac candy, albeit one the size of a commercial plane, performed seemingly impossible aerial maneuvers, such as descending tens of thousands of feet in the blink of an eye.

Since then, the US military has released more videos of UAP observed from military aircraft and installations. Congressional representatives also have been getting more active on the issue, which is why the Defense Department will be releasing more information about the full extent of its knowledge.

The question is, if the information confirms what conspiracy theorists have long suspected, what happens next?

Ezra Klein, an opinion columnist at The New York Times, suspects that the government won’t release everything it knows about UAP for one simple reason: It would collapse public trust.

“Governments would be seen as having withheld a profound truth from the public, whether or not they actually did,” Klein wrote. “We already live in an age of conspiracy theories. Now the guardrails would truly shatter because if UFOs were real, despite decades of dismissals, who would remain trusted to say anything else was false?”

There is only one problem with this otherwise sound assessment. Many people already suspect that governments around the world have been withholding knowledge about UAP. It’s a notion driven by the mainstream media and includes hundreds of different conspiracy theories, from speculations about the notorious Area 51 in the Nevada desert to the claim that the US government was involved in trying to reverse-engineer alien technology.

The release of videos thus far from the US government of unexplained or explainable flying objects only strengthened what so many already believe.

Far from leading to a massive revolt against the government, the real challenge is how we should respond to information about such phenomena. For if there is any truth to the idea that extraterrestrial life has visited Earth, it’s not for any one individual government to decide how to proceed. It would be an issue for all humanity. This could break down barriers between nations if handled correctly.

And therein lies the caveat. Our societies and governments aren’t structured to handle such a reality. We have designed societies to handle threats and respond defensively.

Our track record of cooperation on major issues, from climate change to the Covid-19 pandemic to simple border disputes, is shoddy. How are we meant to come together and possibly approach the matter of extraterrestrial life? Which, if true, would overturn everything we’ve thought about ourselves?

Perhaps the best way to greet the UAP revelations from the US government – if such information were to confirm the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence – is to start a new conversation about the woeful state of our collective, Earthly humanity. For if other beings have been making contact, this could be just the thing to usher in a new moment of collective humanity.

Or maybe not, given the woeful state of human history. Either way, pencil in the date June 25 in your diary.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Joseph Dana

Joseph Dana is the senior editor of Exponential View, a weekly newsletter about technology and its impact on society. He was formerly the editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab exploring change in emerging markets and its global impact.