Ending the prohibition of marijuana: An empirical approach
For a drug with zero fatalities and huge money-making possibilities, why is marijuana illegal in the first place? Author Johann Hari runs us through why he thinks it should be legal.
Johann Hari is the New York Times bestselling author of Chasing the Scream, which is being adapted into a feature film. He was twice named Newspaper Journalist of the Year by Amnesty International UK. He has written for many of the world’s leading newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, Le Monde, the Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, the New Republic, the Nation, Slate, El Mundo, and the Sydney Morning Herald. He was a lead op-ed columnist for the Independent, one of Britain’s leading newspapers, for nine years. He is a regular panelist on HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher. His TED talk, “Everything You Think You Know About Addiction Is Wrong,” has more than 20 million views.
Johann Hari: In the late 1920s a young man outside Tampa in Florida picked up an axe and hacked his family to death. His name was Victor Lacarta.
At that point cannabis was not illegal in the United States. And a man called Harry Anslinger had taken over the Department of Alcohol Prohibition just as alcohol prohibition was ending.
So he inherits this huge government department that has just lost the war on alcohol. It’s riddled with corruption, and he wants to keep it going.
He had previously said that cannabis was not dangerous, we shouldn’t worry about it. He suddenly decided that cannabis was the most evil—literally these are his words: “The most evil drug in the world.” He said it’s much worse than heroin. He said, “if Frankenstein’s monster met cannabis on the staircase it would drop dead of fright.” And he latched onto the case of Victor Lacarta.
With the help of kind of the Fox News of his day, which is called the Hearst Newspapers, he announced that ‘Victor Lacarta had smoked cannabis. That’s why he hacked his family to death with an axe. And this is what will happen if we allow cannabis to spread, and we need to ban and prohibit cannabis.’
It was in the wake of that case that cannabis was banned. Years later somebody goes back, a researcher went many years later, decades later, a researcher went back and looked at Victor Lacarta’s files. There’s no evidence he even smoked cannabis. His family had been told he needed to be institutionalized a year before because he was severely mentally ill, but they decided to keep him at home.
The origins of the war on drugs, which I wrote about in my book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, overwhelmingly looked like that.
If you’d asked me when I started to do the research for Chasing the Scream why was cannabis banned I would have guessed they would have given the reasons then that if you stop someone on the street now they would give, you know, we don’t want kids to use drugs, we don’t want people to become addicted. What’s fascinating is that stuff virtually never came up when they were banning cannabis, right, or indeed the other drugs. It was overwhelmingly a kind of racial panic and absurd hysterias about what was going to happen.
Now the one thing you can say in defense of the war on drugs and the war on cannabis in particular is we’ve given it a fair shot, right? The United States has spent a trillion dollars, it’s imprisoned more people than any other country in human history including Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China. It’s destroyed whole countries like Columbia.
At the end of all that we can’t even keep drugs out of our prisons, where we pay someone to walk about the wall perimeter the whole time. Which gives you some idea of how well we’re going to keep it out of a country with 2,000-3,000 mile borders.
There is an alternative for how we can think about cannabis. There are places that have legalized cannabis and we can see the results.
So I spent a lot of time in Colorado, in Washington state. I actually spent time in places that have legalized other drugs – heroin, for example, has been legalized in Switzerland with extraordinary results. There have been zero overdose deaths on legal heroin in Switzerland in the more than 13 years since they legalized.
But with cannabis specifically, again we can see the results. When you ban cannabis several things happen.
The first thing that happens is, you will have noticed, it does not disappear. It’s transferred from licensed legal businesses to armed criminal gangsters. Those armed criminal gangsters have to operate differently to a licensed business. So you will have noticed the head of Budweiser does not go and shoot the head of Heineken in the face, right? Your local liquor store does not send people to go and stab people in the local bar, right? Exactly that happened at the alcohol prohibition, right? I mean exactly that. And it ended the day alcohol prohibition ended.
Why? Because when you ban drugs they have to operate in an illegal market where there’s no – and I learned this from lots of drug dealers I spent time with for Chasing the Scream, not just for fun. Though there was some fun in there as well.
An illegal market could only operate through violence, right? You have no recourse to—If I go up here now and I try to steal a bottle of vodka, you know, the liquor store will call the cops. The cops will come and take me away. So there’s no need for that to be violent, to be intimidating.
If I go out of here now and try to steal a bag of weed from the people who sell it not so far away they can’t call the cops, right? The cops would come and arrest them. They have to fight me. Now you don’t want to be having a fight every day if you’re a dealer, so you’ve got to establish a reputation for being so frightening that people wouldn’t be so stupid as to come and fight you, right?
So this is the ratchet effect you get with prohibition. You create a market that can only be regulated by violence and where there’s actually premium on being the most violent person and the most intimidating person, where you have to be violent and intimidating to protect your market.
Now when you legalize that goes away immediately. Where is Al Capone? Does anyone even know the head of Smirnoff’s name? Everyone watching this knows Al Capone’s name. I bet nobody watching this knows the head of Smirnoff’s name. What changed? It’s not the drug. It’s the fact that it went from being illegal and therefor controlled by gangsters to legal and being controlled by legal and licensed businesses.
The second thing that happens, which is a slightly more wonky point but I think is really interesting and important, is that milder forms of the drug disappear.
So you often get people to say “Well, we can’t legalize cannabis because the cannabis people use today isn’t the cannabis people used in the 1960s, right? It’s much stronger.” It’s things like skunk and super skunk. That’s true, and it’s entirely the product of cannabis prohibition.
If you want to understand why you’ve got to understand something: Just before alcohol was banned in the United States the most popular drinks by far were beer and wine. After alcohol was legalized again the most popular drinks by far were beer and wine, as they remain today. And when alcohol was banned you couldn’t get hold of beer or wine anywhere. The most popular drinks were whiskey and moonshine. Well why is that? Why would banning a drug change the form of the drug? It’s kind of a rather prosaic reason.
Imagine we had to smuggle enough alcohol for your local bar from the Mexican border or the Canadian border, right. If we fill our wagon with beer we’ll get drinks for 100 people. If we fill our wagon with whiskey we’ll get drinks for thousands of people.
When you ban drugs there’s suddenly a premium on getting the biggest possible kick into the smallest possible space because it’s got to be smuggled, right?It’s got to be transported in secret. This happens with all drugs.
This is why cannabis has become much more potent.
The most popular form of consuming cocaine prior to it being banned was in tea—coca tea. You may remember a drink called Coca Cola. That really did contain exactly what it sounds like. They don’t exist anymore. What do you ever hear about coca tea, right? Coca Cola exists but it’s not what it was obviously.
The most popular way of consuming opiates by far was a drink called laudanum and something called Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup. It was small trace of opiates, right? Again they disappeared and the most popular form becomes heroin.
When you ban a drug only the most extreme forms of that drug become available.
Now most people who smoke cannabis don’t want skunk, right? Just like if I go into a bar around the corner from here today, probably very few people are going to be drinking vodka and no one is going to be drinking Absinthe, right?
If you’re concerned about the more extreme forms of the drug, which I think we should be with cannabis because there is – it’s not a huge relationship but there’s some relationship with dysfunctional behavior—Then you want to put a really high premium on getting milder forms of the drug available to almost all the users who want it, right?
So that’s another effect that happens with legalization. And you know, one of the things that’s so moving—everywhere I went where they moved beyond the war on drugs, from Portugal where they decriminalized all drugs to Switzerland where they legalized heroin for addicts, to Uruguay and Washington and Colorado where they legalized cannabis, the pattern was always the same.
It is super controversial at first and understand that people are really worried. And then they see the effects. It’s not a silver bullet. There’s still problems, but there’s such a significant improvement that the support massively rises.
So 55 percent of people in Colorado voted to legalize it in 2015. Today 70 percent of people support it. Governor Hickenlooper who opposed it now says it works really well. They’ve had a huge increase in tax revenue.
I interviewed one former police officer and he told me a story about this that really stayed with me. One day in the 70s he was staking out a dealer in a car park in Wayne in New Jersey in plainclothes.
And a kid came up to him and said, “Hey mister, will you go into that liquor store and buy me some booze? I’m not allowed to, I’m too young.” He was like a 12 year old or something. And he said “No, get out of here.” So the kid walked over to the drug dealer and bought some drugs from him instead.
And he had this kind of epiphany. He was like “Oh, actually legalization, a legal regulated system puts a barrier between children and drugs that does not currently exist.” If you’re a parent who doesn’t want your child to smoke cannabis (and if you’re a parent you shouldn’t because there is evidence that it can impair development for teenagers), you want to put a really high premium on getting cannabis out of the hands of armed criminal gangs who don’t care whether the customers are 13, 30 or 80 and getting it into the hands of licensed legal regulated businesses who have something to lose.
This is why in Colorado all the research shows there’s been a really significant fall in cartel and organized crime activities since they legalized. There’s been a fall in teenagers using—It was already quite low, but it’s fallen. There’s been a massive increase in tax revenue. You know it’s not perfect. There are some things I would have tweaked in the Colorado legalization but, you know, you can tweak a legal market. We don’t have any power over an illegal market. There’s nothing we can do about it, right.
At some point the president of Switzerland Ruth Dreifuss when she made the case to the Swiss people for legalizing heroin— and she’s one of the great heroes I’ve ever met in my life—She explained to them, “You know, when you hear the word legalization you picture like anarchy and chaos. What we have now is anarchy and chaos! We have unknown criminals selling unknown chemicals to unknown drug users all in the dark all filled with violence, right? Legalization is the way we restore order this chaos.”
At some point we have to look at the results.
It’s worked incredibly well, and let’s look at the places that are maintaining a criminal war on cannabis. How well is that working out for you?
Author Johann Hari makes a great case for the legalization of marijuana. Not only would it create a new stream of tax revenue, but it would substantially lower the crime rate and practically kill the black market overnight. One has to ask, especially after watching this video: for a drug with zero fatalities, why is marijuana illegal in the first place? Johann Hari's latest book is Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions.
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Scientists do not know what is causing the overabundance of the gas.
- A new study looked to understand the source of methane on Saturn's moon Enceladus.
- The scientists used computer models with data from the Cassini spacecraft.
- The explanation could lie in alien organisms or non-biological processes.
Something is producing an overabundance of methane in the ocean hidden under the ice of Saturn's moon Enceladus. A new study analyzed if the source could be an alien life form or some other explanation.
The study, published in Nature Astronomy, was carried out by scientists at the University of Arizona and Paris Sciences & Lettres University, who looked at composition data from the water plumes erupting on Enceladus.
The particular chemistry, discovered by the Cassini spacecraft which flew through the plumes, suggested a high concentration of molecules that have been linked to hydrothermal vents on the bottom of Earth's oceans. Such vents are potential cradles of life on Earth, according to previous studies. The data from Cassini, which has been studying Saturn after entering its orbit in 2004, revealed the presence of molecular hydrogen (dihydrogen), methane, and carbon dioxide, with the amount of methane presenting a particular interest to the scientists."We wanted to know: Could Earthlike microbes that 'eat' the dihydrogen and produce methane explain the surprisingly large amount of methane detected by Cassini?" shared one of the study's lead authors Régis Ferrière, an associate professor in the department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona.
Earth's hydrothermal vents feature microorganisms that use dihydrogen for energy, creating methane from carbon dioxide via the process of methanogenesis.
Searching for such microorganisms known as methanogens on the seafloor of Enceladus is not yet feasible. Likely, it would require very sophisticated deep diving operations that will be the objective of future missions.
So, Ferrière's team took a more available approach to pinpointing the origins of the methane, creating mathematical models that attempted to explain the Cassini data. They wanted to calculate the likelihood that particular processes were responsible for producing the amount of methane observed. For example, is the methane more likely the result of biological or non-biological processes?
They found that the data from Cassini was consistent with either microbial activity at hydrothermal vents or processes that have nothing to do with life but could be quite different from what happens on Earth. Intriguingly, models that didn't involve biological entities didn't seem to produce enough of the gas.
"Obviously, we are not concluding that life exists in Enceladus' ocean," Ferrière stated. "Rather, we wanted to understand how likely it would be that Enceladus' hydrothermal vents could be habitable to Earthlike microorganisms. Very likely, the Cassini data tell us, according to our models."
Still, the scientists think future missions are necessary to either prove or discard the "life hypothesis." One explanation for the methane that does not involve biological organisms is that the gas is the result of a chemical breakdown of primordial organic matter within Enceladus' core. This matter could have become a part of Saturn's moon from comets rich in organic materials.
It marks a breakthrough in using gene editing to treat diseases.
This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.
For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.
The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.
The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.
One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.
Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.
Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).
Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.
A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.
We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.
"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.
What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.
The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.
A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.
This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.
If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.
Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.
"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."
A global survey shows the majority of countries favor Android over iPhone.
- When Android was launched soon after Apple's own iPhone, Steve Jobs threatened to "destroy" it.
- Ever since, and across the world, the rivalry between both systems has animated users.
- Now the results are in: worldwide, consumers clearly prefer one side — and it's not Steve Jobs'.
A woman on her phone in Havana, Cuba. Mobile phones have become ubiquitous the world over — and so has the divide between Android and iPhone users.Credit: Yamil Lage / AFP via Getty Images.
Us versus them: it's the archetypal binary. It makes the world understandable by dividing it into two competing halves: labor against capital, West against East, men against women.
These maps are the first to show the dividing lines between one of the world's more recent binaries: Android vs. Apple. Published by Electronics Hub, they are based on a qualitative analysis of almost 350,000 tweets worldwide that presented positive, neutral, and negative attitudes toward Android and/or Apple.
Steve Jobs wanted to go "thermonuclear"
Feelings between Android and Apple were pretty tribal from the get-go. It was Steve Jobs himself who said, when Google rolled out Android a mere ten months after Apple launched the iPhone, "I'm going to destroy Android, because it's a stolen product. I'm willing to go thermonuclear war on this."
Buying a phone is like picking a side in the eternal feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys. Each choice for automatically comes with an in-built arsenal of arguments against.
If you are an iPhone person, you appreciate the sleekness and simplicity of its design, and you are horrified by the confusing mess that is the Android operating system. If you are an Android aficionado, you pity the iPhone user, a captive of an overly expensive closed ecosystem, designed to extract money from its users.
Even without resorting to those extremes, many of us will recognize which side of the dividing line that we are on. Like the American Civil War, that line runs through families and groups of friends, but that would be a bit confusing to chart geographically. To un-muddle the information, these maps zoom out to state and country level.
If the contest is based on the number of countries, Android wins. In all, 74 of the 142 countries surveyed prefer Android (in green on the map). Only 65 favor Apple (colored grey). That's a 52/48 split, which may not sound like a decisive vote, but it was good enough for Boris Johnson to get Brexit done (after he got breakfast done, of course).
And yes, math-heads: 74 plus 65 is three short of 142. Belarus, Fiji, and Peru (in yellow on the map) could not decide which side to support in the Global Phone War.
What about the United States, home of both the Android and the iPhone? Another victory for the former, albeit a slightly narrower one: 30.16 percent of the tweets about Android were positive versus just 29.03 percent of the ones about Apple.
United States: Texas surrounded!
Credit: Electronics Hub
There can be only one winner per state, though, and that leads to this preponderance of Android logos. Frankly, it's a relief to see a map showing a visceral divide within the United States that is not the coasts versus the heartland.
- Apple dominates in 19 states: a solid Midwestern bloc, another of states surrounding Texas, the Dakotas and California, plus North Carolina, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island.
- And that's it. The other 32 are the United States of Android. You can drive from Seattle to Miami without straying into iPhone territory. But no stopovers in Dallas or Houston – both are behind enemy lines!
North America: strongly leaning toward Android
Credit: Electronics Hub
Only eight of North America's 21 countries surveyed fall into the Apple category.
- The U.S. and Canada lean Android, while Mexico goes for the iPhone.
- Central America is divided, but here too Android wins hands down, 5-2.
Europe: Big Five divided
Credit: Electronics Hub
In Europe, Apple wins, with 20 countries preferring the iPhone, 17 going for Android, and Belarus sitting on the fence.
- Of Western Europe's Big Five markets, three (UK, Germany, Spain) are pro-Android, and two (France, Italy) are pro-Apple.
- Czechia and Slovakia are an Apple island in the Android sea that is Central Europe. Glad to see there is still something the divorcees can agree on.
South America: almost even
Credit: Electronics Hub
In South America, the divide is almost even.
- Five countries prefer Android, four Apple, and one is undecided.
- In Peru, both Android- and Apple-related tweets were 25 percent positive.
Africa: watch out for Huawei
Credit: Electronics Hub
In Africa, Android wins by 17 countries versus Apple's 15.
- There's a solid Android bloc running from South Africa via DR Congo all the way to Ethiopia.
- iPhone countries are scattered throughout the north (Algeria), west (Guinea), east (Somalia), and south (Namibia).
Huawei — increasingly popular across the continent — could soon dramatically change the picture in Africa. Currently still running on Android, the Chinese phone manufacturer has just launched its own operating system, called Harmony.
Middle East: Iran vs. Saudi Arabia (again)
Credit: Electronics Hub
In the Middle East and Central Asia, Android wins 8 countries to Apple's 6.
- But it's complicated. One Turkish tweeter wondered how it is that iPhones seem more popular in the Asian half of Istanbul, while Android phones prevailed in the European part of the city.
- The phone divide matches up with the region's main geopolitical one: Iran prefers Android, Saudi Arabia the iPhone.
Asia-Pacific: Apple on the periphery
Credit: Electronics Hub
Another wafer-thin majority for Android in the Asia-Pacific region: 13 countries versus 12 for Apple — and one abstention (Fiji).
- The two giants of the Asian mainland, India and China, are both Android countries. Apple countries are on the periphery.
- And if India is Android, its rival Pakistan must be Apple. Same with North and South Korea.
Experts point to the fact that both operating systems are becoming more alike with every new generation as a potential resolution to the conflict. But as any student of human behavior will confirm: smaller differences will only exacerbate the rivalry between both camps.
Maps taken from Electronics Hub, reproduced with kind permission.
Strange Maps #1096
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A new government report describes 144 sightings of unidentified aerial phenomena.
On June 25, 2021, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a much-anticipated report on UFOs to Congress.
The military has rebranded unidentified flying objects as unidentified aerial phenomena – UAPs – in part to avoid the stigma that has been attached to claims of aliens visiting the Earth since the Roswell incident in 1947. The report presents no convincing evidence that alien spacecraft have been spotted, but some of the data defy easy interpretation.
I'm a professor of astronomy who has written extensively on the search for life in the universe. I also teach a free online class on astrobiology. I do not believe that the new government report or any other sightings of UFOs in the past are proof of aliens visiting Earth. But the report is important because it opens the door for a serious look at UFOs. Specifically, it encourages the U.S. government to collect better data on UFOs, and I think the release of the report increases the chances that scientists will try to interpret that data. Historically, UFOs have felt off limits to mainstream science, but perhaps no more.
Three videos from the U.S. military sparked a recent surge in interest in UFOs.
What's in the UFO report?
The No. 1 thing the report focuses on is the lack of high-quality data. Here are the highlights from the slender nine-page report, covering a total of 144 UAP sightings from U.S. government sources between 2004 and 2021:
- “Limited data and inconsistent reporting are key challenges to evaluating UAP."
- Some observations “could be the result of sensor errors, spoofing, or observer misperception."
- “UAP clearly pose a safety of flight issue and may pose a challenge to U.S. national security."
- Of the 144 sightings, the task force was “able to identify one reported UAP with high confidence. In that case, we identified the object as a large, deflating balloon. The others remain unexplained."
- “Some UAP many be technologies deployed by China, Russia, another nation, or non-governmental entity."
UFOs are taboo among scientists
UFO means unidentified flying object. Nothing more, nothing less. You'd think scientists would enjoy the challenge of solving this puzzle. Instead, UFOs have been taboo for academic scientists to investigate, and so unexplained reports have not received the scrutiny they deserve.
One reason is that most scientists think there is less to most reports than meets the eye, and the few who have dug deeply have mostly debunked the phenomenon. Over half of sightings can be attributed to meteors, fireballs and the planet Venus.
Another reason for the scientific hesitance is that UFOs have been co-opted by popular culture. They are part of a landscape of conspiracy theories that includes accounts of abduction by aliens and crop circles. Scientists worry about their professional reputations, and the association of UFOs with these supernatural stories causes most researchers to avoid the topic.
But some scientists have looked. In 1968, Edward U. Condon at the University of Colorado published the first major academic study of UFO sightings. The Condon Report put a damper on further research when it found that “nothing has come from the study of UFOs in the past 21 years that has added to scientific knowledge."
However, a review in 1998 by a panel led by Peter Sturrock, a professor of applied physics at Stanford University, concluded that some sightings are accompanied by physical evidence that deserves scientific study. Sturrock also surveyed professional astronomers and found that nearly half thought UFOs were worthy of scientific study, with higher interest among younger and more well-informed astronomers.
If astronomers are intrigued by UFOs – and believe some cases deserve study with academic rigor – what's holding them back? A history of mistrust between ufologists and scientists hasn't helped. And while UFO research has employed some of the tools of the scientific method, it has not had the core of skeptical, evidence-based reasoning that demarcates science from pseudoscience.
A search of 90,000 recent and current grants awarded by the National Science Foundation finds none addressing UFOs or related phenomena. I've served on review panels for 35 years, and can imagine the reaction if such a proposal came up for peer review: raised eyebrows and a quick vote not to fund.
A decadeslong search for aliens
While the scientific community has almost entirely avoided engaging with UFOs, a much more mainstream search for intelligent aliens and their technology has been going on for decades.
The search is motivated by the fact that astronomers have, to date, discovered over 4,400 planets orbiting other stars. Called exoplanets, some are close to the Earth's mass and at just the right distance from their stars to potentially have water on their surfaces – meaning they might be habitable.
Astronomers estimate that there are 300 million habitable worlds in the Milky Way galaxy alone, and each one is a potential opportunity for life to develop and for intelligence and technology to emerge. Indeed, most astronomers think it very unlikely that humans are the only or the first advanced civilization.
This confidence has fueled an active search for extraterrestrial intelligence, known as SETI. It has been unsuccessful so far. As a result, researchers have recast the question “Are we alone?" to “Where are the aliens?" The absence of evidence for intelligent aliens is called the Fermi paradox. First articulated by the physicist Enrico Fermi, it's a paradox because advanced civilizations should be spread throughout the galaxy, yet we see no sign of their existence.
The SETI activity has not been immune from scientists' criticism. It was starved of federal funding for decades and recently has gotten most of its support from private sources. However, in 2020, NASA resumed funding for SETI, and the new NASA administrator wants researchers to pursue the topic of UFOs.
In this context, the intelligence report is welcome. The report draws few concrete conclusions about UFOs and avoids any reference to aliens or extraterrestrial spacecraft. However, it notes the importance of destigmatizing UFOs so that more pilots report what they see. It also sets a goal of moving from anecdotal observations to standardized and scientific data collection. Time will tell if this is enough to draw scientists into the effort, but the transparency to publish the report at all reverses a long history of secrecy surrounding U.S. government reports on UFOs.
I don't see any convincing evidence of alien spacecraft, but as a curious scientist, I hope the subset of UFO sightings that are truly unexplained gets closer study. Scientists are unlikely to weigh in if their skepticism generates attacks from “true believers" or they get ostracized by their colleagues. Meanwhile, the truth is still out there.
This article has been updated to clarify that the report was produced by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.