Watch the skies! — and keep your terminology correct

I googled ‘crackpot UFO books’ and this picture of the cover of one of the books someone one gave me in middle school came up.
I’ve been a science fiction fan for Longer than I can remember, thanks to my mom being a big sf fan who read whatever she was reading at the time aloud to me from the time I was an infant. And so from a very early age I was familiar with the idea that there might be life on other planets. Was it something like we saw in movies like Forbidden Planet or The Day the Earth Stood Still? Or was it something more like The Blob? Or—as I read more science fact articles and the like—it began to seem much more likely that if we encountered alien life, it was going to be something like single-cell life living in the soil of Mars or under the methane clouds of Saturn’s moon, Titan. Which may seem less exciting than saucers descending on various national capital cities, but would be a pretty big deal for science!

During my late elementary and middle school years, because of my interest in science fiction, lots of people who weren’t very versed in the science part of sf always assumed that I believed that UFO sightings were always proof of aliens buzzing the planet. And just as more than one adult in my life felt compelled to loan me a copy of Chariots of the Gods—other books about flying saucers, alien abductions, and the like would be handed off to me when it would turn up in a pile of used books and the like. Including, yes, the one pictured above.

And the sorts of adults who would grab such a book with the intention of giving it to a kid they knew are exactly the sort who do not listen when to that kid when they try to explain that this isn’t really the same thing.

But I’m going to try to do the equivalent type of explanation about a related issue that came up in the news this week.

A whole lot of people on social media were sharing this headline: Pentagon declassifies Navy videos that purportedly show UFOs. And a lot of those people were making the same snarky comment, pointing out that since the videos show something that is unidentified, that it is incorrect to say “purportedly.” Because everyone knows that UFOs are unidentified.

That isn’t correct, for two reasons.

First, true the initialism UFO is from the phrase “unidentified flying object”, but you have to look at the entire phrase. It’s not just any unidentified thing. It is an unidentified thing which is flying, and the most common definition of flying is “the action of guiding, piloting, or travelling in an aircraft or spacecraft.” The next most common definition is “move through the air with wings or other propulsion.” In other words, it’s a loaded term. The other issue is the word object, “a material thing (that can be) seen or perceived.”

Which is one reason why the term used by scientists and aviation experts and military analyst use to describe things like those shown in the three de-classified videos is “unidentified aerial phenomena.” Because we don’t know if it’s a physical object, and we don’t know that it is actually being propelled. Some of the unidentified phenomena could be rare electromagnetic phenomena that is visible to human eyes or cameras and registers are radar and similar devices as if it is a physical thing. We really don’t know.

The other reason why using the term “purportedly show UFOs” is because not all readers interpret the collection of letters UFOs as the initialism I mentioned above. As more than one science writer I read back in the day liked to point out, a lot of enthusiasts and crackpots are convinced that the object is not unidentified at all.

But it isn’t just the crackpots and alien enthusiasts. Language isn’t logical. Human brains don’t process language like an algorithm acting on a string of numbers. I’ve pointed out in other contexts that “any sequence of one or more sounds or morphemes (intuitively recognized by native speakers as) constituting the basic units of meaningful speech used in forming a sentence or sentences in a language.” UFO isn’t just can initialism, it’s a word. Think of it that way for a moment, as if it were spelled euephoe. Words have multiple meaning, not simply one. Sometimes one meaning is much more prevalent than others, and sometimes not.

Again, lots of people think of a euephoe as a physical machine designed by someone to propel itself through the sky. And a substantial fraction of them think that it comes from another world.

Headline writers have to take into account various common meanings of words.

Other news sites used UFO in their headlines, and once you get into the article it is clear that they are using it as a synonym for unidentified aerial phenomena. Which is a legitimate choice, though one I’m less sympathetic to.

Even though I am not an enthusiast who believes that aliens from across interstellar space have been regularly visiting us, I have to acknowledge that there are people who do. But I also have to acknowledge that even among those who think anyone who believes in the possibility of life on other planets is just like the crackpots, the term UFO means a physical machine that came to Earth from somewhere else and was built by someone. So I think the headlines that used the word purported got it right.

But it’s language. So there’s never only one right way to do something.

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