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When Daniel Drezner wrote about UFOs in 2019, he worried the column could tank his credibility, both as a professor of international politics and as a columnist.
He said the evidence had been mounting for a while. Among the most striking: a video showing a Navy fighter jet locking onto a mysterious target streaking across the sky as a pilot incredulously asked, "What is that, man?”
The video is authentic, the Navy said without offering an explanation.
That video helped prompt Drezner to join an increasingly mainstream group of academics, journalists, intelligence officials and politicians who say acknowledging UFOs exist doesn't mean embracing conspiracy theories or even believing in extraterrestrial life.
Though UFOs are often synonymous with aliens in pop culture, those who study the phenomenon say UFOs should be understood by their literal name: unidentified flying objects. Once identified, they may have a mundane explanation – weather balloons, drones or the planet Venus.
For now, some sightings don't have widely accepted explanations, including examples documented on camera, by multiple witnesses and with radar. Those most concerned about the phenomenon say some sightings suggest advanced craft performing maneuvers that should not be physically possible.
The view has been further bolstered by comments from high-level figures, including former President Barack Obama, who acknowledged that "there is footage and records of objects in the skies that we don't know exactly what they are. We can't explain how they move, their trajectory."
That's led Drezner to conclude more bluntly: “What I do know is that UFOs exist … we can’t ignore this any more,” he said.
An unclassified Pentagon report on UFOs is soon headed to Congress.
“There’s no question anymore that UFOs are real,” author and independent journalist Leslie Kean told USA TODAY. Kean has co-written several New York Times articles on UFOs. Those reports, which included footage confirmed by the Navy, helped inspire a recent surge in the public's UFO interest.
After studying the phenomenon for more than two decades, Kean said she's open to connecting UFOs with extraterrestrial life, but she's quick to distance herself from conspiracy theorists. The people who have researched UFOs the most tend to be "agnostic about what they are," she said.
She described the connection between UFOs and extraterrestrial life as an easy one for people to make, aided by decades of films and books on the subject. She hopes the growing interest in the topic will prompt study from scientists who may offer other explanations.
The subject is one of mankind's favorite fascinations. History, and Wikipedia, are replete with UFO sightings, dating back to 1440 B.C. when "fiery disks" were allegedly seen over the skies of Egypt, though some have come to doubt the papyrus the sighting was written on.
Fast-forward 3,000 years, and hundreds, if not thousands, of sightings have been chronicled. Most end up on the scrap heap of galactic research, explanations ranging from fireflies on windshields to crop dusters in the high sun to the Aurora Borealis on a clear night.
But some sightings endure to challenge imagination and explanation, such as the "Gorman Dogfight" of 1948, when an Air Force captain said with certainty he sighted and aggressively pursued a UFO in the skies over Fargo, North Dakota, before the mysterious craft went into a steep vertical climb that outmaneuvered his P-51 Mustang aircraft. A year later, the Air Force concluded the pilot had been chasing a lighted weather balloon.
In recent years, "the issue itself has acquired a level of credibility," Kean said, citing a variety of reasons. Politicians from both parties have expressed national security concerns. The videos published by the Times provided new evidence. Pilots began talking on the record about their experiences.
Even so, people pushing for more study of UFOs still face stigma. When Luis Elizondo told "60 Minutes" this year that the government has been studying UFOs, Bill Whitaker reminded the former Pentagon official, “It sounds nutty, wacky.”
“I don’t care about the stigma and taboo,” Elizondo, former director of the Defense Department's Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, told USA TODAY. There's “something in our skies … that we don’t have an answer for."
Skeptics say evidence and experience suggest the concern about UFOs is overblown. “There’s all sorts of things we don’t understand,” Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, told USA TODAY.
He noted, for example, that some rules of physics have been called into question by new research without a public outcry. It's not alarming to acknowledge humans encounter things they don't understand, he said.
Shostak said a number of UFO sightings don't yet have adequate explanations, but whatever the explanation is, it’s probably less interesting than an alien invasion.
Some videos might seem more fantastic then they really are because of processing artifacts, optical illusions and focusing issues, a USA TODAY opinion piece argued.
Although Shostak researches the possibility of extraterrestrial life, he said it's most likely found among the stars, not floating in our skies.
UFO sightings have been happening for decades and don't appear to endanger the public or cause harm, he said: “They are irrelevant … they don’t change the daily news at all.”
Even if a fantastic explanation for UFOs exists, it would probably be an uphill battle to convince many people to believe it, according to Gleb Tsipursky, who holds a Ph.D. in the history of behavioral science and has written about cognitive biases and truth in politics.
The public tends to reject concepts that challenge the status quo, Tsipursky said. It's the same reason it took so long for many people to realize that COVID-19 was a historic pandemic and why so many people dismissed Donald Trump's viability as a politician: “What doesn’t fit our worldview gets filtered out," Tsipursky said.
Elizondo is quick to connect UFOs to other paradigm-shifting discoveries that started at the edges of society and met with pushback and mockery. Albert Einstein met resistance to his theories, which redefined our understanding of space and time, Elizondo noted.
Every time we think we understand nature, “we’re proven wrong," he said.
"The universe is constantly revealing herself."
Contributing: Dustin Barnes and Mike James, USA TODAY; The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: UFO sightings spark concern from more than just conspiracy theorists