It’s the plot of almost every thriller you’ve ever seen: Some brave renegade uncovers a nefarious plot and sets out to expose it. But first he must outmaneuver the faceless conspiracy that’s trying to silence him—and might even threaten his life. Who is pulling the strings in this shadowy cabal? Why, it’s high officials in our own government! And they’ll stop at nothing to keep their dark secrets safe.

That’s pretty much the scenario that played out in the House Oversight Committee on July 26. The committee was investigating long-running allegations about “UAPs,” or Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena (you aren’t supposed to call them UFOs anymore—even though most people do). The hearing didn’t lack for drama: Former U.S. intelligence official David Grusch testified that, yes, the U.S. government is in possession of multiple UAPs. In fact, Grusch went on, we’ve collected “nonhuman biologics” from these crashed crafts, Americans have been injured by them, and our own government is trying to cover the whole thing up, sometimes violently.

There was a part in the drama for U.S. officials, too. No, not the shadowy-cabal types; they were offstage. I’m talking about members of Congress who fancy themselves Mr.-Smith-Goes-to-Washington-style truth-tellers who sought the spotlight. The committee’s ranking member, Robert Garcia, a Democrat from California, set the tone, promising that the committee would cut through the “harassment” and “intimidation” that have kept potential whistleblowers silent. The outrage was bipartisan: “It is unacceptable to continue to gaslight Americans into thinking that this is not happening,” Florida Republican Representative Anna Paulina Luna said in an opening statement. Though not a member of the committee, Florida’s Matt Gaetz attended the hearing and stated that an Air Force pilot had shown him a picture of a mysterious “orb” with characteristics that do not “attach to any human capability, either from the United States or from any of our adversaries.”

It’s all quite thrilling. And yet, like the latest Dan Brown novel, or the umpteenth Bourne sequel, the supposedly shocking disclosures at the House UAP hearing had a familiar ring to them. In addition to Grusch, the committee heard from two former Navy pilots involved in two famous UAP incidents that occurred in 2004 and in late 2014–early 2015, respectively. Those cases have been widely discussed, with skeptics pointing out a variety of mundane explanations for the anomalies the pilots had observed. Grusch, however, is a relatively new face on the UFO scene. A former official with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, he served as a representative to the Department of Defense’s Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force (UAPTF), one of a series of investigative bodies looking into the spate of UAP reports.

Grusch popped up on the radar several weeks ago when he announced he’d filed a whistleblower complaint alleging that the U.S. government is hiding UFO evidence from Congress and the public. In a series of interviews with NewsNation and other outlets, the former intelligence officer began making his incendiary claims. “We are definitely not alone,” he said. But in fact, many of Grusch’s claims are long familiar to UFO fans and skeptics alike. For example, he has said that “the earliest case” he was briefed on involves a UFO that crashed in Italy in 1933 and fell into the hands of Mussolini. But you don’t need to be an insider to know that story; it has circulated in UFO-enthusiast circles for two decades. In Grusch’s version, the pope got involved and the craft was somehow smuggled to the U.S. after World War II. (You’ll have to check with Dan Brown for the details.)

Grusch joins a list of ex-government employees who claim inside knowledge of our nation’s UFO secrets. These former officials often work with a loose network of “UFO experts” and credulous journalists who amplify their claims. Lately, some supposed insiders have approached the (normally hard-headed) journalist Michael Shellenberger, supporting Grusch’s claims and saying they’ve seen “credible” evidence that our government is hiding UFOs. This kind of talk is catnip for a certain type of politician. The late Senator Harry Reid of Nevada was a longtime UFO buff. Recently, Florida Senator Marco Rubio has spoken out against alleged government cover-ups and expressed concern that whistleblowers “are fearful of harm coming to them.”

There’s one thing missing in all this recent UFO fervor: evidence. Despite the excitement around Grusch’s testimony, even he admits that he’s never seen a single scrap from a crashed UFO. He’s only heard “reports” from unnamed people who say they have. The insiders who’ve approached Shellenberger and others also remain nameless. The evidence they claim to have seen? We’ll have to take their word for it. The fact is, in more than 70 years of public fascination with the idea of alien visitors, no one has produced the tiniest piece of tangible evidence. Elaborate tales of alien visitation hang on nothing but blurry images of distant lights in the sky.

What about all those spooky videos shot by Navy pilots, including the 2004 “Tic Tac” case? In a September 2001 Tech Commentary column entitled “The UFO Report and What It Didn’t Find,” I discussed how enticing footage from military cameras usually has boringly mundane explanations: The objects in question generally turn out to be stray balloons, distant civilian air-craft, or visual distortions within the camera systems.

No amount of debunking can disprove the idea that aliens are among us. I think there probably are other intelligent species in the universe; we can’t rule out the possibility that they might pay us a visit someday. And I’m not suggesting that pilots who see strange phenomena are making it up. In fact, I support Congress’s efforts to make it easier for military personnel to come forward with odd observations without fear of hurting their career. What I am saying is that when we see a tiny bouncing dot on a video shot from a fighter jet, our first assumption shouldn’t be, “Ah ha! It can only be aliens!”

Any student of elementary logic knows the concept of Occam’s razor: if there are competing theories explaining a phenomenon, we should lean toward the simplest. In other words, we should be wary of explanations that require elaborate, fantastical, or supernatural forces. It’s a good rule to keep in mind whenever people bring up UFOs. Although, considering the futuristic nature of UFO claims, perhaps we need a more high-tech tool. Call it Occam’s laser. If we take Occam’s laser to the latest round of UFO claims, we can start with some simple questions:

First, if a pilot spots something hard to identify, which is more likely: It’s a camera glitch or a mundane bit of aerial trash, or it’s a super-advanced spaceship from a distant civilization?

If aliens are visiting us, how come they never show themselves clearly? On the other hand, if they’re try-
ing to hide, why can’t they stay completely out of sight?

Why are the vast majority of UFO sightings in North America and Europe, regions where the UFO obsession is strongest? Why do UFOs so rarely show up in Africa or China?

And what’s with all the crashing? These aliens know how to zip across millions of light years, but they can’t avoid flying into mountains?

Grusch says that the U.S. has a dozen crashed craft and that private contractors are trying to reverse engineer the technology. Such an effort would involve thousands of people. And not one of those people ever took pictures or smuggled out a bolt made of super-duper galaxy metal?

UFO fans have answers to all these questions, of course. But those answers are always stories, theories—methods of analysis that are closer to mythology than science. The aliens are studying us, waiting until humans are ready for the mothership to land, we’re told. Insiders can’t show us the evidence because the U.S. government has a team of agents ready to assassinate anyone who spills the alien beans. Meanwhile a few former government employees get famous peddling shopworn tales of UFO labs. And members of Congress get to be heroes standing up for “whistleblowers” and fighting supposed cover-ups. We’ve seen this movie before. Call me when there are some facts.

Photo: AP Photo/Nathan Howard

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