Most of us still call them UFOs—unidentified flying objects. NASA recently adopted the term “unidentified anomalous phenomena,” or UAP. Either way, every few years popular claims emerge that these things don’t exist in our world, or that the US government has some in storage.
I am a sociologist who focuses on the interplay between individuals and groups, especially regarding shared beliefs and misconceptions. As to why UFOs and their alleged occupants attract the public, I find that normal human perceptual and social processes explain the UFO buzz as much as anything in the sky.
Like political scandals and high-waisted jeans, UFOs wax and wane in the collective consciousness but never disappear completely. Thirty years of polling has found that 25%-50% of surveyed Americans believe that at least some UFOs are alien spacecraft. Today in the US, over 100 million adults think our galactic neighbors are visiting us.
It’s not always like that. Linking celestial objects with extraterrestrial visits has grown in popularity over the past 75 years. Some of this is probably market driven. The first UFO stories boosted newspaper and magazine sales, and today they are reliable clickbait online.
In 1980, a popular book called “The Roswell Incident” by Charles Berlitz and William L. Moore described an alleged flying saucer crash and government cover-up 33 years earlier near Roswell, New Mexico. The only evidence that emerged from this story was a small set of downed weather balloons. However, the book coincided with a resurgence of interest in UFOs. From there, a steady stream of UFO-themed TV shows, films, and pseudo-documentaries piqued the public’s interest. Perhaps inevitably, conspiracy theories about a government cover-up are on the rise.
Some UFO cases inevitably remain unsolved. But despite the growing interest, many investigations have found no evidence that UFOs are of extraterrestrial origin—except for the occasional meteor or mistaken identification of Venus.
But the US Navy’s 2017 Gimbal video continues to appear in the media. It shows strange objects filmed by fighter jets, often interpreted as evidence of alien space vehicles. And in June 2023, a credible Air Force veteran and ex-intelligence officer made the astonishing claim that the US government is storing large numbers of crashed alien craft and their dead occupants.
Human factors that contribute to UFO beliefs
Only a small percentage of UFO believers are eyewitnesses. Others base their opinions on the horrific images and videos that circulate on social media and traditional mass media. There are astronomical and biological reasons to doubt UFO claims. But less often discussed are the psychological and social factors that brought them to the fore.
Many people want to know whether or not we are alone in the universe. But so far, the evidence of UFO origins is unclear. Because of the ambiguity, people want answers. However, being too eager to find answers can bias judgments. People are more likely to accept weak evidence or fall prey to optical illusions if they support preconceived beliefs.
For example, in a 2017 Navy video, a UFO can be seen as a cylindrical plane moving rapidly in the background, spinning and running in a manner unlike any terrestrial machine. Analysis by science writer Mick West challenges this interpretation using data displayed on a screening screen and some basic geometry. He explains how the movements attributed to the blurry UFO are an illusion. This comes from the trajectory of the plane relative to the object, the quick adjustment of the belly-mounted camera, and misconceptions based on our tendency to think that the cameras and background are stationary.
West found that the flight characteristics of the UFO were more like a bird or a weather balloon than an acrobatic interstellar spacecraft. But the illusion is compelling, especially since the Navy considers the matter unknown.
West also responded to a former intelligence official’s claim that the US government has crashed UFOs and dead aliens. He emphasized caution, because the whistleblower’s only evidence was that people he trusted told him they had seen alien artifacts. West noted that we’ve heard this sort of thing before, along with promises that proof will be revealed soon. But it will not come.
Anyone, including pilots and intelligence officers, can be influenced by the social perception of things that aren’t there. Research has shown that hearing from others who claim to have seen something unusual is enough to prompt similar judgments. The effect increases when the influencers are numerous or higher in status. Even recognized experts are not immune to misjudging unfamiliar images captured in unusual circumstances.
Group factors contributing to UFO beliefs
“pics or it didn’t happen” is a popular expression on social media. True to form, users have posted countless shaky images and videos of UFOs. They are usually nondescript lights in the sky captured by cellphone cameras. But they can go viral on social media and reach millions of users. When there is no higher authority or organization pushing the content, social scientists call it a bottom-up social diffusion process.
In contrast, top-down diffusion occurs when information originates from centralized agents or organizations. In the case of UFOs, sources include social institutions such as the military, individuals with large public platforms such as US senators, and major media outlets such as CBS.
Amateur organizations also promote active personal involvement with thousands of members, the Mutual UFO Network being one of the oldest and largest. But as Sharon A. Hill points out in her book “Scientific Americans,” these groups apply questionable standards, spread misinformation and gain little respect within mainstream communities. in science.
Both top-down and bottom-up diffusion processes can combine into self-reinforcing loops. The mass media spread UFO content and sparked worldwide interest in UFOs. More people are pointing their cameras at the sky, creating more opportunities to capture and share amazing indoor content. Poorly documented UFO photos and videos have circulated on social media, leading media outlets to capture and republish the most interesting ones. Whistleblowers emerge from time to time, fanning the flames with claims of secret evidence.
Despite the trouble, nothing comes of it.
For a scientist familiar with the issues, the doubt that UFOs carry alien beings is completely separate from the hope of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Scientists engaged in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence have many ongoing research projects designed to detect signs of extraterrestrial life. If intelligent life is out there, they will likely be the first to know.
As astronomer Carl Sagan wrote, “The universe is a big place. If it were just us, it would seem like a terrible waste of space.”
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