"UFO" and "Unidentified" are unclearly defined

The term UFO has two separate meanings.

The more formal meaning is exemplified by Wikipedia's definition:

An unidentified flying object (UFO) is any perceived aerial phenomenon that cannot be immediately identified or explained. On investigation, most UFOs are identified as known objects or atmospheric phenomena, while a small number remain unexplained.

The more casual meaning, that a lot of people seem to use in practice, including on this site, is: an extra-terrestrial spacecraft visiting from another planet.

As a skeptic, this means my default position is both "Of course UFOs exist! I have seen them myself!" and "Of course UFOs don't exist. It is a very extraordinary claim and the evidence for it has been very, very ordinary - mainly relying on a false dichotomy that if it isn't explicable it must be some proponent's pet unfalsifiable theory." depending on the definition used.

(Some people use the term "Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP)", e.g. the US's UAPTF - I assume it is an attempt to both avoid this confusion, and an acknowledgement that some of the phenomena turn out neither be objects nor flying.)

To make matters worse, whether an object is unidentified is largely a point-of-view issue. I might see a light in the sky I can't explain. An astronomer next to me may instantly recognise it as Venus. If I don't ask the astronomer, it is still a UFO to me. If I do ask the astronomer, and then don't believe their answer, it is still a UFO to me.

Definition problems lead to confusing questions:

Here are some examples of questions where the glib answer is "Yes, I can say it is a UFO, by the formal definition, even before I have read the details."

Here are some examples of questions where the answer is "Depends what you mean by unidentified"

What can we do?

I am more than happy for questions where people want to test the notable claims of ufologists. Not only are they on-topic, the natural phenomena answers (where appropriate) can be quite interesting.

But the claims, as worded by the OPs, tend to be all over the place, subject to glib answers, subject to speculative guesses, and sometimes set up to allow believers to dismiss rational answers.

Is there some sort of structure/guidelines/editing we can provide to make these questions higher quality? What makes a UFO question a good UFO question?

  • Wondering whether this is really bona fide 'just'/only about UFOs or the site in general for many and most topics? The later seems in need of reiteration as well? Commented Dec 23, 2021 at 14:35
  • @LangLаngС: i am not sure what your question means. What needs reiteration? I was particularly focussed on UFO questions because it is an area where the ratio of unclear:clear questions is high, and I want to have a better approach to fixing the questions and helping the believers (and others) understand what is needed to make an answerable question.
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Commented Dec 26, 2021 at 8:06
  • "As a skeptic, this means my default position is" seems to influence/if not determine too much how questions are treated, in general. Too often these 'default positions' (differing from user to user, but each one has its own) mean 'this is' either 'ridiculous', 'should not be given a platform' etc. 'Nice' examples are climate, 'rona, gender, politics in general. Memory feels like those topics always get too much DVs and unwanted comments (feels, as comments are eventually deleted). UFOs are "on-topic", but so are the other Qs, and the offers here might fertilise handling of these other Qs Commented Dec 26, 2021 at 10:14
  • I've seen some of those posts and wasn't sure if the question is "is this photograph unadulterated" (irrespective of what phenomenon is behind the image) a question just on the provenance of the image or "is this an image of an unusual object in the sky" for which answers would go into what was the cause behind the images. Either might be on topic, but the answer approach will differ.
    – Dave
    Commented Jan 6, 2022 at 17:40
  • @Dave: Some, I suspect, are a result of trying to make the question answerable on this site. Some, I suspect (perhaps too cynically) are based on a false dichotomy - there are photos of alien craft and there are hoax photos - it must be one or the other.
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Commented Jan 10, 2022 at 5:44

1 Answer 1


The claim must be specific and have an objective answer.

Here are some types of claims, in roughly increasing order of strength, along with specific criteria we can evaluate for them:

  1. The video/photo is "authentic" - it has not been deliberately manipulated by some sort of editing, post-processing, or through the use of practical or special effects.
  2. The video/photo is accurate - it has not been altered as a result of optical distortions or other camera-related issues such as lens flare.
  3. The video/photo depicts some specific, documented phenomenon such as ball lightning or a spy plane (but not something previously undescribed in the literature, such as an alien spaceship). This is unusual because ufologist claims, in my experience, tend to rule out well-documented explanations rather than claim that they apply, so you're more likely to see the inverse - that is, the claim will be that the video or photo does not depict some specific phenomenon (typically accompanied with some scientific or scientific-sounding rationale for why the phenomenon would not have resulted in such an image). However, you might also see the positive form of this claim arise when a non-ufologist writes a "no, that's not a UFO" rebuttal elsewhere on the internet, and then a ufologist comes here questioning the rebuttal.
  4. The video/photo is as yet unexplained by any phenomenon - one or more identified, scientific experts, who have domain expertise in evaluating aerial, meteorological, and/or astronomical phenomena, have publicly stated that we (the human race) have no explanation for the video/photo, and no other experts with a similar level of domain knowledge have said otherwise. In both cases, such claims must be peer-reviewed or otherwise subject to editorial control in order to count.

We should note that #4 is a very different sort of claim to the first three. The first three types are claims about the photo or video itself, which in principle could be verified or falsified by anyone with the appropriate expertise. On this site, an answer to #1-3 would need to quote someone with appropriate credentials, but that's just because we don't do original research here. But #4 is a different kettle of fish, because it is inherently a claim about what experts say, rather than a claim about the universe that experts might happen to weigh in on.

I'm not sure that #4 is appropriate for this site, because the definition of "domain expertise" is malleable. Are ufologists domain experts? I would tend to assume that they are not, because their claims will generally not be peer reviewed, but I'm sure they would say this makes me biased against them. On the other hand, a group of ufologists could review each others' work, and call that "peer review," so that's probably not a very helpful distinction anyway.

We have plenty of questions of types 1-3 already, not related to UFOs. Claims which are unambiguously one of those three types should be allowed, in general, but claims of type 4 need to be very clear about the exact type of "domain expertise" which they are expecting to see. For example, a question asking "Has NASA publicly stated that [photo] is inexplicable?" would be on-topic if notable (that is, if you can find somebody claiming that NASA actually said that), but a vaguer "Is [photo] inexplicable?" would be off-topic because "inexplicable" just doesn't have a reasonable objective definition without further specification.

Meanwhile, here is the strongest ufologist claim that you're likely to see:

  1. The video/photo actually depicts extraterrestrial life or a vessel operated by extraterrestrial lifeforms (i.e. aliens from outer space).

This is very similar to #3, except that nobody knows anything about aliens (astrobiology is a highly speculative branch of science), so it's less clear that this is an answerable question. That is, it's not very likely that you'll be able to find sources to support such a claim. However, it can be falsified if you can find a reliable source that says "no, this isn't aliens, because we can demonstrate that it's [something else]," or even "it must be something else, because if the depicted object is an alien spaceship, it would violate [some specific law of physics]" (e.g. because the object is moving too fast or accelerating in implausible ways), so I'm tentatively inclined to allow this sort of question. What's important is that this does not devolve into a disguised version of claim #4. If you can falsify aliens, you're not required to offer an alternative explanation, because that would make it a claim of type 4, not a claim of type 5.

We should, of course, make sure that the source is actually making a claim of type 5, and not a claim of type 4. Type 4 claims are rather common in some pseudoskeptical communities (not just ufology - you can find some variation of "nobody can explain this" in many different conspiracy theories and other woo), but for the reasons discussed above, they are (in most cases) not specific enough to be on-topic here. We must not read more into the claim than what is actually there.

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