The first important key to understanding UFOs is found in the class of phenomena known as paranormal. (Here's the second important key.)
What is the paranormal? You know what it is already. You've probably even had some experience with the world of paranormal phenomena. It is the world of telepathy, ghosts, ESP, out of the body experience, near death experience, clairvoyance, and so on. This is the stuff that has become the fodder for much material in the entertainment industry. Remember the movie The Sixth Sense with Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment? "I see dead people," the Osment character finally confesses. The little boy is aware of paranormal world phenomena: ghosts of dead people.
Perhaps you've had some paranormal experiences in your life similar to the following story a friend of your Assistant State Director told him. The friend was waiting to be picked up to go to his high school prom. Just before he was to leave, his mother rushed into the living room and pleaded with him to stay home that night because she had had a terrible premonition about an automobile crash that he would be involved in. He reassured his mother that he would be all right. But she insisted he stay home. He said "no" and went anyway. He was indeed involved in an automobile accident, but luckily his injuries were minor as were those of the others in the automobile. This is a classic paranormal premonition.
Paranormal Phenomena Part of UFOs
Many ufologists today understand that paranormal experiences are part and parcel of the UFO phenomenon. This generally came to be understood by American ufologists sometime in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Ufologists in the United Kingdom arrived at this somewhat earlier. Today, just how much paranormal world phenomena are accepted is dependent on the individual researcher. But most researchers agree that the more the UFO is studied, the more it seems to lead to the world of the paranormal.
Some ufologists think that the UFO is so much paranormal that there is practically nothing physically real about the phenomenon. Other ufologists think that very little of the phenomenon is paranormal. However, practically no contemporary ufologists think that UFOs and the apparent intelligence that guides them are completely limited to "physical reality" as that is defined and understood by modern science. The UFO phenomenon is not analogous to what human beings did in the 1960s and 1970s when the United States sent physically real human beings and space vehicles to the moon. The UFO phenomenon is not completely explained in simple terms as "space people" (extraterrestrials) from outer space, very much like us, coming to visit Earth. The UFO phenomenon is much more than that, and maybe not even that.
Academia Doesn't Like Paranormal Phenomena
When you try to study "paranormal phenomena" like a scientist or scholar or investigative reporter would, you immediately run into a problem (analogous to the UFO, actually). You quickly find out that the relevant literature, of which there is quite an abundance, is controversial. Oops! And you just wanted to know what to think about the subject. Innocent you.
You thought, well, every possible phenomenon is potentially imaginable and, therefore, might eventually be accessible to actual human experience. (This might not be true, however. There may be phenomena that somehow affect us through human experience, but which we cannot even imagine, and, therefore, will never be able to know. This is tricky stuff. Let's let it lie for now.)
In the world of human experience, everything seems to divide into "normal" and "paranormal." Here's the "oops" part. You will find that science and scholarship don't much like paranormal human experiences. You will find that, just like UFOs, mainstream science and scholarship has failed to study paranormal experiences and phenomena. Uh, oh! Hard work ahead. How do you figure out what to think if the scientists and scholars haven't done their jobs?
Impediments of Paranormal Phenomena Study
It turns out that not only is the whole field controversial because academia hasn't done its job, but also that there's an additional impediment. Believe it or not there is even a self-appointed watchdog, debunker group—The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI)—to help prevent you from getting at the non-controversial part of the findings in the world of paranormal study. Just great! You've got to get over two hurtles to find out what to think about the world of the paranormal.
But luckily, getting through the debunker hurdle is relatively easy for most people because it is pretty easy with a bit of study to see that they are extremists and not even comfortably accepted by the science and scholarship establishment. Once you get over the impediment of CSI-style extreme prejudice and debunking, you can study what scholars and scientists have actually done. First you do a literature search. But you soon see that paranormal phenomena are segregated into an intellectual ghetto.
Almost all the science and scholarship on paranormal phenomena is found in journals and books devoted entirely to that subject alone. You will look pretty much in vain in standard, establishment science and scholarship journals for studies and articles on paranormal phenomena. You will have to look mostly in the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, the Journal of Parapsychology, the Journal of the Society of Psychical Research, Psi Researcher, the Journal of Scientific Exploration, etc. Books that you find are generally by scholars and scientists who specialize in the paranormal. You survey this curious state of affairs and you reflect that, wait a minute, it is all just human experience whether it is "paranormal" or "normal," right? What is the big deal?! Why don't mainstream scientists and scholars study the paranormal like they do the "normal"?
It Goes Back to the European Enlightenment
To explain this great divide, which is especially bad in America, you have to go back into European history. In the Eighteenth Century in England, France, Italy, and what became Germany, some great thinkers were busy developing the very idea of a purely rational understanding of "nature," people, and their cultures. The real beginnings of modern day science and scholarship were well underway. One of the key notions these thinkers (Voltaire, Rousseau, Newton, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, Boyle, and many others) hit upon was the idea that notions from the sphere of religion were not necessary to explain natural world phenomena.
For example, to them, it was no longer necessary to assume that spiritual beings were invisibly pushing a cannon ball through the air so that it would continue to move and hit its target. It was only necessary to apply Newton's laws of motion and gravity to perfectly well calculate and predict where a cannon ball would land. These thinkers created the modern world's thinking about how the world works. It works through purely rational means (cause and effect), much of which today is understood through ordinary mathematics and science.
And this notion of the power of rationality — along with many mechanistic and materialistic assumptions — has completely permeated the modern mind, so much so that religious notions of a hidden spiritual world are thought to be by many, many mainstream scientists and scholars thoroughly outmoded at best and just plain silly at worst.
Baby Thrown Out With Bath Water
For the rational understanding of the world of the paranormal, there is a problem. In principle, there is no conflict between rational thinking and paranormal phenomena. Rational thinking and methodologies can be applied perfectly well to paranormal phenomena. The problem is that this has not been done systematically by establishment connected scientists and scholars. So, what went wrong?
In retrospect today, we can see that Enlightenment era thinkers threw the baby out with the bath water. They threw out religious/paranormal phenomena along with all the old religious assumptions and thought (dogma and doctrine) that went along with them in the days before the Enlightenment. Today, we are still living with the consequences of this grave error. In principle, there is no difference between paranormal experiences and normal experiences.
Although it is true that paranormal/religious experiences and phenomena tend to be transient and difficult to perceive, this in no way excuses establishment science and scholarship from avoiding the subject. Today many physical processes, accepted without doubt as truly existing, are very transient and difficult to perceive. For example, extremely sophisticated experimental setups are required to detect many elementary particles. Billions of dollars have been spent on high energy physics by the American and European science establishments. So we know that establishment science will spend grandly on elusive phenomena. This can also be done with paranormal world phenomena, too. Only the will is lacking.
Progress in Paranormal World Knowledge
Today, paranormal world phenomena are indeed studied in a scientific and scholarly way, but since the funding for this kind of study is very limited, the study tends to be associated with a few scholars and scientists who have enough tenure to risk their reputations being associated with this field. Gary Schwartz at the University of Arizona is an example of a brave academic trying to do good science in the area of paranormal studies. Ufology's best known current academic is probably history professor David Jacobs. Before his tragic death by a hit-and-run driver in England, Professor of Psychiatry John Mack at Harvard University was ufology's best known academic. They are few and far between. Ufology, especially, is like touching the proverbial third rail. This is no wonder after the academic hatchet job done on ufology in the 1950s and 1960s by intelligence establishment-connected academics like Donald Menzel, Harlow Shapley, H.P. Robertson, Edward Condon, and others.
Study of the paranormal along with some fine theoretical thinking thrives in the field of transpersonal psychology today. However, much of this study is not affiliated with establishment academia. Since scholars interested in the paranormal have been systematically shunned from establishment academia, they have tended to form their own schools and associations, for example, the Association for Transpersonal Psychology and the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology. Even in the field of transpersonal psychology, the idea that UFOs should be considered for study came along slowly, and it was only in the 1990s that UFOs started to become a reasonably well accepted part of the field. You can see this in the work of a leading light in transpersonal studies: Stanislav Grof. Only in the 1990s in his books do we see UFOs show up as a transpersonal world modality of experience. His books from earlier decades do not treat the UFO even though UFOs have been around since the late 1940s.
Study of UFOs Leads to Study of Paranormal
A close study of UFOs leads naturally to the study of the paranormal which includes religious phenomena (not religious dogma, but religious phenomena). The UFO is bound up with these fields. Ufologists J. Allen Hynek and Jacques Vallee understood this when they wrote their book The Edge of Reality in 1975. You cannot really understand UFOs without a serious study of the paranormal, too. So, get crackin' and start here.