In light of recent reports in the New York Times and the Washington Post that unidentified flying objects which ‘defy the laws of physics’ are regularly being spotted by pilots in US military airspace zones, it’s time to revisit the ever-fascinating subject of alien contact.

UFO sightings are often dismissed as the delusions of paranoid conspiracy theorists, despite the fact that leading scientists take the concept of alien contact very seriously. For astronomers, the notion that we are not alone in this universe isn’t outlandish at all – in fact, leading researchers hold regular international workshops to posit as to why we haven’t made contact with aliens already.

Despite theoretical support for the notion of alien contact, the stigma surrounding UFO sightings has reportedly dissuaded military personnel from reporting their experiences, who officials say are worried about the impact reporting might have on their careers.

But if scientists back the idea that these objects could have an extra-terrestrial origin, why the stigma?

Why has alien contact turned into a punchline, not a possibility?

UFO sightings have been dated back to as early as 1440 BC, when ancient Egyptians recorded the observation of ‘fiery disks’ hovering in the sky. Three thousand years later, in 1561 AD, this mass sighting of strange unidentified objects in the sky over Germany was reported, apparently engaged in an ‘aerial battle’.

Celestial ‘battle’ over Germany in 1561, as recorded in a news notice in the same month

These sightings may well just be celestial phenomena that people didn’t have the tools to understand at the time- or, as some people suggest, a form of religious propaganda. But from the late 19th century onwards, when religious sentiment in Europe and the United States started to wane, extra-terrestrial stories started getting even wilder. People weren’t just reporting UFO sightings, they were starting to claim that they’d actually been abducted.

Betty and Barney Hill were a couple who reported the first widely publicised alien abduction.

For a long time, the public – along with the scientific community – held the consensus that alien abductees were suffering from a strange form of insanity. However, studies have found that abductee claimants are no more likely than other members of the public to suffer from diagnosable mental illnesses.

John E. Mack, former head of psychiatry at Harvard medical school, conducted a series of investigations into alien abduction claims late in his career. He didn’t think aliens were actually physically abducting people in the way that we would understand it – but nor did he believe they were simply ‘making the stories up’. Rather, he believed that alien abduction cases challenge our very distinction between what is ‘real’ and what is ‘imagined’.

Yes, I take these peoples’ stories seriously. Yes, I think that they are telling the truth.

Now, does that mean that the whole thing is literally of our physical world and is going to conform to the requirements of proof of our classic western scientific methodology?

Probably not. We need a more complicated ontology to grasp it.

– John E. Mack

Mack draws a parallel between the shamanic experiences described in indigenous cultures throughout the world and alien abduction claims. Rather than being mere fabrications, he argues that extra-terrestrial are transcendental experiences – like Native American ‘vision quests’ – that are spiritual and transformational in nature, drawing on the technology-oriented cultural narratives of the modern age. They may not be ‘real’ in the Western philosophical understanding of what reality is, but that’s not to say they’re not real in another sense.

For his research on abductees, Mack was subjected to a confidential investigation by Harvard University, on the basis that:

To communicate, in any way whatsoever, to a person who has reported a ‘close encounter’ with an extraterrestrial life form that this experience might well have been real … is professionally irresponsible.

The investigation drew outrage from members of the academic community, and Mack was ultimately exonerated by Harvard. Their decision to investigate him, despite his rigorous academic approach to the issue, reveals the power of the stigma around extra-terrestrial research.

The UFO sightings reported in the New York Times and the Washington Post may well have some earthly explanation – they might be advanced drone technology, for example – but they also might be evidence of something more mysterious. If we let fear and prejudice dictate our responses to reports of the strange, the foreign and the otherworldly, we could potentially be missing out on the most illuminating scientific discoveries of the millennium.

For instance, if extra-terrestrial life does exist, it’s not an entirely far-fetched idea that it might first make contact semi-psychologically, à la the film Arrival.

Strange, extra-terrestrial phenomena has been reported for thousands of years. Rather than dismissing it outright, let’s keep our minds open… the truth might be stranger than we can comprehend.