Sunday was the 66th anniversary of the Roswell Incident—July 7, 1947 —when something unidentified crashed at Roswell, New Mexico, probably a weather balloon or secret Air Force project. Whatever it was, it was hailed at the time and since as a flying saucer piloted by space aliens.
On Monday, Google celebrated the event with a Doodle—one of the cute interactive graphics it swaps for its famous logo. Click the Doodle, and you could help a little alien find parts for his crashed flying saucer. Mainstream news outlets dutifully reported on the Doodle, and Roswell, and UFOs.
Harmless fun, in one sense. But also indicative of the credulous free pass the media extends toward UFOs, echoing and amplifying the baseless belief that they are visitors from outer space.
They're not, though the media very seldom bothers to explain why they're not, and why it's important to defend that reality. I did so nearly 20 years ago in my book, "The Alphabet of Modern Annoyances," an argument that, alas, is as necessary now as it was then, and needs no updating. This essay is quite long—a chapter in a book—but compared to the endless attention the press gives UFO sightings, year in and year out, it is brevity itself, and will put the phenomenon in a new light. If you read it with the open mind that UFO believers are always demanding, you'll never view flying saucers or the people who believe in them quite the same way again.
Pick a premise: (a) there are billions of people on earth and a surprising number of them are capable of spectacular acts of deceit, gullibility, greed and idiocy; or (b) space aliens have been hovering around the periphery of human affairs throughout history, kidnapping people, conducting strange experiments and delivering messages of monumental urgency and importance.
No one who believes the first statement—and I don't think a more self-evident observation can be made—can possibly believe the second. The belief that Unidentified Flying Objects are some sort of shy emissaries from outer space—bees from Mars, preinvasion scouts from Alpha Centauri, whatever--is just one of the many clods of pseudoscientific nonsense regularly flung into the face of the public. Time travel, reincarnation, telekinesis, ESP, numerology, astrology, and a variety of other carny tricks and cargo-cult delusions are embraced by an ignorant few and then widely disseminated via the credulous modern media.
Belief in UFOs represents the epitome of these misreadings of reality, however. No other folk belief, except perhaps astrology, gets such serious play in the mainstream press. No other cooks up so much ridiculous nonsense and serves it as scientific method. No other group of adherents is so vigorous in promoting its worldview of unexamination and ignorance.
I was compensated for the chunk of my life wasted studying UFO literature by the number of howling boners liberally scattered throughout it. There was the "noted metallurgist" in Robert Loftin's book, Identified Flying Saucers, who examined fragments of a UFO and pronounced them pure magnesium ("a laboratory rarity," Loftin pants). This certainly sounds impressive, and magnesium is used in aircraft parts, because of its lightness. But always in alloy -- pure magnesium, just like pure anything, is not structurally strong (that's why you don't see 24-karat gold rings). Pure magnesium also melts at 1200 degrees F. and has an affinity for bursting into flame. All told , probably not the material a clever space alien would use to build a craft to go hurtling higgly-piggly through the atmosphere.
Then there was the unnamed scientist who told Frank Scully, in his Behind the Flying Saucers, that the crashed UFO he had personally examined was 99.99 feet long, with all other dimensions being multiples of nine feet. The aliens obviously had a 9-based system, the scientist concluded. Neither the scientist—if he existed—nor the author questions how this alien 9-based system happened upon the anachronism of English measurement, however.
But this is digression. The danger in dealing with the subject of UFOs is the constant temptation to address specifics, to slip into the mire of UFOlogy, a field as graceful as its name. There are so many claims, each one spurious in its own unique way—whether a vision, a hallucination, a lie or some other thing—that the moment they are challenged, individually, one is overwhelmed and defeated.
"Proponents of such claims compile almost endless files of UFO sightings and other UFO-related phenomena," writes Terrence Hines, in his valuable book Pseudoscience and the Paranormal. "The skeptic is then told that unless he can explain away every single report, the theory that UFOs are extra-terrestrial craft must be true."
No matter how many specifics are disproved, there is always more evidence. Prodded by the persistent, fearful mooing of the public, the United States Air Force examined 12,000 reported sightings in its Project Blue Book. Over 90 percent of these sightings were found to be the results of various prosaic causes. Yet the ever expanding UFO community pointed hysterically to the cases that couldn't be readily explained as proof extraterrestrial spaceships are real.
To provide a metaphor: it is as if I set myself the task of finding out what sort of entity leaves behind the beer bottles discarded on my block every week. With hard work, fingerprinting, surveillance and the like, I might be able to track down many of the various bums, college students and bikers who dropped them in a given period. But there would always be a few bottles I could not trace to their source. Would I then conclude: (a) these bottles were left by bums, college students and bikers whose identities I cold not discover or, (b) since I could not tie them to human sources, these bottles obviously were not left by earthly agency but must have been planted by the Zygorthian Space Raiders from Rigel 7?
Ironically, the very massiveness of the evidence presented by UFO apologists is what undermines their case. To accept their testimony, the UFOs are spheres, discs, cylinders, doughnuts, cubes, crescents. They glow or are dark. They are any color of the rainbow or translucent. They have jets of flame or none. They roar. They are silent. They are inches wide or hundreds of miles across. Their occupants are short, tall, human, not.
Again, the choice is one of two conclusions.
Perhaps a vast armada of spacecraft of every known geometric shape and possible physical configuration piloted by a galactic United Nations of infinitely varied life forms, is sniffing about the planet in a way that is both ubiquitous and subtle -- the answer the UFOlogists heartily endorse.
Or, gee, maybe people are imagining all this. Perhaps the entire thing is due to innocent fantasy, brain fever and mendacity—the answer the makes sense to the rest of us.
UFOlogists howl that this is impossible—that any phenomenon attested to by so many people has to be real. But as Hines points out, the millions of children who believe in Santa Claus do not, by weight of numbers, wish him into physical being.
The most annoying thing about UFOlogistsis that, even if their premise were true, their approach is moronic. If I believed in the existence of visiting spacemen, I don't think my mind would be absorbed with the specific dimensions of their ships and what color the running lights were. UFO literature might betray a whiff of charm if it occasionally paused to contemplate the stupendous philosophical ramifications of intelligent life from outer space pressing its face against our windows all the time. But instead, the field is given over to paranoiacs and frustrated engineers, conjuring up conspiracies, drawing schematics of nonexistent propulsion systems and compiling pointless data, like those lunatics one sees carrying little pads and writing down the license plate numbers of parked cars. Speculating about the exact form of a spaceship glimpsed in the sky is something like critiquing the plot of a porn movie—a possible path of inquiry, yes, but missing the point entirely.
So we must try to keep to the big picture. Though UFOs are a dry well for scientific insight, they are a rich source of societal study. Just as predictions of the future are valuable, not for their success as augury, but for how they reveal the cultural fears of a given moment, so UFOs are not a view of the galactic but a peek below the rock of humanity.
The current fascination with UFOs began in 1947, when a private pilot named Kenneth Arnold reported nine strange objects he described as flying "like a saucer skipping over the water" near Mount Rainier in Washington State. Usually overlooked is the fact that Arnold had penned an article on UFOs for Fate magazine the year before, establishing a suspicious progression common to UFO fanatics: (1) first becoming interested in the subject and, (2) then encountering UFOs.
Soon people were seeing UFOs all over the country—hundreds of reported spacecraft. The immediate dilemma then facing UFO supporters was, given the frequency of UFO sightings, why weren't they being quickly accepted as commonplace normality? Why was something so manifest to those who believed so rebuffed by a chunk of the population?
The answer, maintained then and now by UFO advocates, is a secretive and coercive government. Fearing "panic," the government, in league with the scientific establishment, conspires to suppress and discredit the mountains of evidence proving that UFOs flit about the globe like so many Luna moths.
UFO books of the 1950s usually begin with elaborate declarations about governmental conspiracy, a thread that remains unbroken to this day. Five of the six headlines on the cover of the spring, 1995, issue of Unsolved UFO Sightings refer to governmental cover-up.
One can only yearn for a government as swift and effective as the one inhabiting the lush dreams of the UFOlogists. The CIA that dithered blithely while Aldrich Ames was spooning Russian caviar from the ashtray of his Jaguar is transformed into a finely tuned Gestapo, dispatching mysterious "men in black" to swoop down on UFO crash sites, confiscating evidence and terrorizing witnesses. NASA, whose top brass can't even work out a system to inform its own upper echelons of the agency's multitudinous blunders before they appear on the front page of the Washington Post, suddenly has the discipline of the Illuminati, concealing the ancient ruins discovered on the moon.
And geez, not to get into rebuttals again, but why? Given NASA's current state—lashed to the block, listening to the ax being honed—if it had a shred of evidence, a funny-shaped rock, a bit of metal, anything to imply that a civilization had once been on the moon, as many UFO fanatics insist, NASA officials would be in front of the Senate Appropriations Committee in a heartbeat, waving the artifact like a flag.
(Of course, the nimble paranoid mind will point out that these outward signs of incompetence are only further proof of conspiracy. How could such ostensibly vital federal agencies be so consistently inept, if not to conceal their ruthless efficiency regarding their real interest, UFOs? The only cogent reply to this line of thinking is to place your thumb against your nose, wiggle your fingers and go: "Phbblffbblft!")
The skeptical UFOlogist, were such a thing possible, might also ask himself why, if the government is so closely guarding UFO secrets, do those secrets always seem to fall so quickly in to the hands of UFO magazine and its advertisers? Why are they able to hawk costly books, pamphlets and videos exposing the verified reality of literally any inane premise the human mind can conceive? (My favorite is the joint Nazi-Japanese UFO flight to Mars during World War II. As if they didn't have more pressing concerns at the time.)
Given the energy spent debating what the U.S. Government knows about UFOs, I would be so bold as to suggest that it is anti-government paranoia, and not any deep interest in extraterrestrial life, which really is the driving force behind the entire UFO phenomenon. Howard Blum, in setting his premise for his 1990 book Out There, unconsciously reveals his priorities when he asks: "Was the government back in the UFO business? Had they found anything? Was there life in the universe?"
UFOs can be seen as a poignant symptom of frightening political times, meshing nicely with the Red scare, McCarthyism, polio, the H-bomb and other dark cultural markers of the 1950s. "The next war will be an interplanetary war," said General Douglas MacArthur in 1955, a statement which at the time was an expression of optimism. Mac noted that, after the arrival of doom from the skies, "nations of the world will be forced to unite."
More than anything else, belief in UFOs is both a tiny rebellion against a menacing system and a terrified bleat of hope that some responsible party will show up quick and fix everything before it's too late. UFOs are the equivalent of the naval officer in white who appears at the end of Lord of the Flies—civilization and authority arriving at the last moment.
"Now that science has run amok and is threatening us with atomic annihilation it does seem reasonable to expect that if ever another intervention was needed, the time would be now," writes Desmond Leslie betraying the wish fulfillment common to UFO believers. The Venetian who George Adamski said contacted him in 1952 was there out of benevolent concern over radiation which, coincidentally, was worrying people on earth too.
"On his face there was no trace of resentment or judgment," Adamski writes. "His expression was one of understanding, and great compassion; as one would have toward a much beloved child who had erred through ignorance and lack of understanding."
How nice—here to help, and not a touch of blame. Adamski, a California handyman, was the first person to report contact with an extraterrestrial, and he set the stage for the thousands of claims that would follow and—incredibly—be given serious consideration in our day by those who should know better.
Adamski unknowingly reveals the giddy mindset in which people start seeing saucers:
Winter and summer, day and night, through heat and cold, winds, rains, and fog, I have spent every moment possible outdoors watching the skies for space craft and hoping without end that for some reason, some time, one of them would come in close, and even land.And then they came! How coincidentally cool! Adamski later claimed to have traveled with the UFOs to the moon, Venus and Mars (those who believe most fervently in UFOs have the convenient ability to summon them like faithful dogs).
While believed at the time, Adamski is dismissed by current UFOlogists as being overly fantastic for modern tastes. Looking back on visitation reports of past decades, the accounts of alien contact do seem strangely culturally specific. Aliens never land and warn us that we must save string. Rather, their concerns always resonate with earth troubles. By the 1970s, the aliens were worried more about pollution than radiation, and their homilies were about saving the environment. In the 1990s they are hot to conduct sex experiments, as if advanced cultures would cross intergalactic space to cop a feel. Soon the aliens will be reported delivering messages about the unstable dollar, and that, for a while, will convince certain people.
The idea that UFOs represent some sort of mass psychosis was suggested fairly early on by Carl Jung, the psychoanalytic pioneer, who was so taken by the UFO question that he wrote a charming little book about it, published in English in 1958 as Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies.
Jung called UFOs a "visionary rumor" and compared the sightings to crowds witnessing the Virgin Mary at Fatima. He is an example of how the sharpened mind and the slack-jawed believer can view the same evidence and draw completely different conclusions. UFO proponents comb history of anything they can use to prop up their sagging premise, dragooning vague Aztec paintings and super-heated Vishnic mythology to prove that UFOs have hung around in the shadows throughout all history.
Jung takes the same material—the tales of floating eyes, burning orbs, hovering bloody crosses—and sees, not documentary snapshots of unfiltered extraterrestrial reality misread by the yokels of the day, but evidence of a deep human yearning for signs and reassurance from the skies, a need now dressed in modern clothing.
"It is characteristic of our time that the archetype ... should not take the form of an object, a technological construction, in order to avoid the odiousness of mythological personification," he writes. "Anything that looks technological goes down without difficulty with modern man."
In other words, while a lonely sheepherder in the twelfth century might interpret the visions he's been having as "angels," nowadays those circles of light and voices from trees are apt to be mentally repackaged into glowing mother ships and chatty alien homunculi with big heads.
Tying UFOs into the rich tradition of human self-delusion also explains how the phenomenon has outlived Cold War paranoia By constantly upping the ante—first sightings, then discovery of crash sites, then face-to-face encounters, then trips to outer space, and finally the present carnival atmosphere of sex probes and Nazi saucers—the UFO cult moves forward by sheer momentum, building on the popularity of former claims, a formula eerily reminiscent of previous spasms of unfounded belief.
Consider the evolution of UFO culture in the light of philosopher Loyal Rue's description, in his book By the Grace of Guile, of how public desire for Christian relics exploded midway through the first millennium:
By the early fifth century, however, the demand for relics had gone upmarket as reports circulated about remains from more distinguished saints, such as the head of John the Baptist and the body of St. Stephen. Response to the "discovery" of these relics was so intense that even more spectacular finds followed: the staff of Moses, manna from the wilderness ... Jesus' milk teeth, his umbilical cord, the foreskin from his circumcision, and so on. The only limitation on discoveries appears to have been the imagination of the discoverer. Inevitably, of course, problems of duplication arose. At least three churches claimed to have the head of John the Baptist, and eventually there were enough fragments of the cross about to build a battleship, and enough of the virgin's milk to sink it.As with UFOs, there was a fierce debate about the authenticity of these relics, with pesky questions popping up, such as how Mary Magdalene came to be buried in France.
One asset unavailable to the fifth-century Catholic Church but enjoyed now by UFO faithful are the media, which do much to keep the myth of UFOs alive.
Jung has a valuable insight about the press. Noting how a distorted news account claiming that he believed in the extraterrestrial reality of UFOs "spread like wildfire from the far West around the earth to the far East," Jung expresses quaint nineteenth-century amazement that his measured denial of the story garnered almost no notice.
"As the behavior of the press is a sort of Gallup test with reference to world opinion, one must draw the conclusion that news affirming the existence of UFOs is welcome, but that skepticism seems to be undesirable," he writes. "To believe that UFOs are real suits the general opinion, whereas disbelief is to be discouraged."
Bingo. We hear so much about UFOs—from patently false Weekly World News photos of the president shaking hands with little green men to unsubstantiated claims by the unlettered—because UFOs are news.
"Where UFOs are concerned, it is almost impossible to distinguish the editorial policies and ethics of the New York Times or the Washington Post from those of the National Enquirer or the Midnight Star," writes Hines, citing embarrassing examples of gullible press sensation. "The most absurd UFO reports are accepted at face value and published as news stories. Attempts are seldom made to verify the truth of the report or to seek comment from skeptical investigators."
This is terrible for several reasons. First, most people, in their secret hearts, wish these stories were true—that we were indeed being visited by our benign brethren from other worlds. I certainly do. If nothing else, it would cut the ennui layering our lives. To spark even a brief, irrational hope, based on the warblings of fakes and psychotics, is cruel.
Second, these reports tend to reinforce belief in UFOs among the unscientific and the impressionable. This can't help them, and makes the world seem even more dismal than it already is for the rest of us. One likes to take pride in one's fellow citizens, and not be reminded that they are, in the main, dupes and boobs capable of believing anything. It bodes ill. If a significant portion of the population is willing to discard the known scheme of the universe based on some odd lights somebody else saw at night, what hope do we have that the population will—oh, for instance—cling to its civil rights in the face of the coming storm of conservative reaction? Not a lot, I'm afraid.
And finally, UFOlogists are insulting. Nonbelievers are accused of being a dull herd grazing contentedly on the status quo, unwilling to look up from our feedage to acknowledge the wonders streaking by in the sky, despite the frantic pleadings and pointings of our intellectual betters. The scientific community, which at the advent of UFOs was burying its head in the sand of nuclear physics, electronics, computer science, genetics and space travel, is constantly tarred by the UFOlogists, smug and secure in their private phantasm, as reactionaries, in league with those who doubted the reality of meteorites, bacteria and heavier-than-air flight. UFOs give open-mindedness a bad name.
Like many annoyances, the UFO funhouse is an endless maze that one could become lost in, if it weren't ultimately so tedious. This observation, the most elegant and compelling refutation of UFOs that I know of, comes from Dr. Frank Drake, an astrophysicist who spent thirty years straining to hear an intelligent peep out of the infinite cosmos through increasingly massive international radio-telescope efforts. To his credit, Drake's lack of catching so much as a "Hi" from outer space has neither dimmed his belief that one day the greeting will come, nor inspired him to start manufacturing faux greetings, as so many others seem so eager to do.
In his book on the patient search for extraterrestrial life, Is Anyone Out There? it takes Drake less than a paragraph to neatly demolish the entire mass of UFO literature over the past half century:
When I talk to contactees who claim they're been given information by occupants of UFOs, the material turns out to be totally uninteresting. It is never anything that we didn't already know, and usually consists of blandishments of friendship and goodwill. This is what makes every story ultimately unbelievable, because if a civilization could master interstellar travel—something that is beyond even my wildest dreams right now—wouldn't they have the most striking news to report?Should the day come when an alien spacecraft lands on earth and its occupants emerge to tell us things, the things they tell us, whatever they are, won't be boring. What they have to say will come as a surprise, and a bigger one that can be cooked up by the arid imaginations of housewives in Nebraska. The aliens will not have crossed the vastness of interstellar space to shake hands and wish us a good day.
If not—if the arrival of alien life will offer nothing new, but only serve to reflect back at us our own neuroses, social fears and sexual anxieties—then what's the big fuss about? If space aliens are going to turn out to be the same ooo-scary monsters we've been watching in the movies all these years, they might as well stay home.