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The UFO Phenomenon

Why do so many people assume that UFOs are extraterrestrial ?

July 17, 2023 · Comment icon 12 comments

UFO means 'unidentified flying object'. Image Credit: Pixabay / danielarealpeg
Sociologist Barry Markovsky explores why it is not unusual for people to equate the term 'UFO' with 'alien'.
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 resurface that these things are not of our world, or that the U.S. government has some stored away.

I'm a sociologist who focuses on the interplay between individuals and groups, especially concerning shared beliefs and misconceptions. As for why UFOs and their alleged occupants enthrall the public, I've found that normal human perceptual and social processes explain UFO buzz as much as anything up in the sky.

Historical context

Like political scandals and high-waisted jeans, UFOs trend in and out of collective awareness but never fully disappear. Thirty years of polling find that 25%-50% of surveyed Americans believe at least some UFOs are alien spacecraft. Today in the U.S., over 100 million adults think our galactic neighbors pay us visits.

It wasn't always so. Linking objects in the sky with visiting extraterrestrials has risen in popularity only in the past 75 years. Some of this is probably market-driven. Early 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 prior near Roswell, New Mexico. The only evidence ever to emerge from this story was a small string of downed weather balloons. Nevertheless, the book coincided with a resurgence of interest in UFOs. From there, a steady stream of UFO-themed TV shows, films, and pseudo-documentaries has fueled public interest. Perhaps inevitably, conspiracy theories about government cover-ups have risen in parallel.

Some UFO cases inevitably remain unresolved. But despite the growing interest, multiple investigations have found no evidence that UFOs are of extraterrestrial origin - other than the occasional meteor or misidentification of Venus.

But the U.S. 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 spacecraft. And in June 2023, an otherwise credible Air Force veteran and former intelligence officer made the stunning claim that the U.S. government is storing numerous downed alien spacecraft and their dead occupants.

Human factors contributing to UFO beliefs

Only a small percentage of UFO believers are eyewitnesses. The rest base their opinions on eerie images and videos strewn across both social media and traditional mass media. There are astronomical and biological reasons to be skeptical of UFO claims. But less often discussed are the psychological and social factors that bring them to the popular forefront.

Many people would love to know whether or not we're alone in the universe. But so far, the evidence on UFO origins is ambiguous at best. Being averse to ambiguity, people want answers. However, being highly motivated to find those answers can bias judgments. People are more likely to accept weak evidence or fall prey to optical illusions if they support preexisting beliefs.

For example, in the 2017 Navy video, the UFO appears as a cylindrical aircraft moving rapidly over the background, rotating and darting in a manner unlike any terrestrial machine. Science writer Mick West's analysis challenged this interpretation using data displayed on the tracking screen and some basic geometry. He explained how the movements attributed to the blurry UFO are an illusion. They stem from the plane's trajectory relative to the object, the quick adjustments of the belly-mounted camera, and misperceptions based on our tendency to assume cameras and backgrounds are stationary.

West found the UFO's flight characteristics were more like a bird's or a weather balloon's than an acrobatic interstellar spacecraft. But the illusion is compelling, especially with the Navy's still deeming the object unidentified.
West also addressed the former intelligence officer's claim that the U.S. government possesses crashed UFOs and dead aliens. He emphasized caution, given the whistleblower's only evidence was that people he trusted told him they'd seen the alien artifacts. West noted we've heard this sort of thing before, along with promises that the proof will soon be revealed. But it never comes.

Anyone, including pilots and intelligence officers, can be socially influenced to see things that aren't there. Research shows that hearing from others who claim to have seen something extraordinary is enough to induce similar judgments. The effect is heightened when the influencers are numerous or higher in status. Even recognized experts aren't immune from misjudging unfamiliar images obtained under unusual conditions.

Group factors contributing to UFO beliefs

"Pics or it didn't happen" is a popular expression on social media. True to form, users are posting countless shaky images and videos of UFOs. Usually they're nondescript lights in the sky captured on cellphone cameras. But they can go viral on social media and reach millions of users. With no higher authority or organization propelling the content, social scientists call this a bottom-up social diffusion process.

In contrast, top-down diffusion occurs when information emanates from centralized agents or organizations. In the case of UFOs, sources have included social institutions like the military, individuals with large public platforms like U.S. senators, and major media outlets like CBS.

Amateur organizations also promote active personal involvement for many thousands of members, the Mutual UFO Network being among the oldest and largest. But as Sharon A. Hill points out in her book "Scientifical Americans," these groups apply questionable standards, spread misinformation and garner little respect within mainstream scientific communities.

Top-down and bottom-up diffusion processes can combine into self-reinforcing loops. Mass media spreads UFO content and piques worldwide interest in UFOs. More people aim their cameras at the skies, creating more opportunities to capture and share odd-looking content. Poorly documented UFO pics and videos spread on social media, leading media outlets to grab and republish the most intriguing. Whistleblowers emerge periodically, fanning the flames with claims of secret evidence.

Despite the hoopla, nothing ever comes of it.

For a scientist familiar with the issues, skepticism that UFOs carry alien beings is wholly separate from the prospect of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Scientists engaged in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence have a number of ongoing research projects designed to detect signs of extraterrestrial life. If intelligent life is out there, they'll likely be the first to know.

As astronomer Carl Sagan wrote, "The universe is a pretty big place. If it's just us, seems like an awful waste of space."

Barry Markovsky, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Sociology, University of South Carolina

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Read the original article. The Conversation

Source: The Conversation | Comments (12)

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Recent comments on this story
Comment icon #3 Posted by Cho Jinn 5 months ago
I mean, if Mick West says so, it's gotta be true.
Comment icon #4 Posted by Gilbert Syndrome 5 months ago
It doesn't appear that it was the author's intention to explain any UFO sightings, he only briefly described the assessment of another individual on the subject of one case.  He's basically just highlighting the myriad issues with the entire subject of UFOs and how the general public's perceptions of them are largely based on questionable sources when it really comes down to it. I agree with him. 
Comment icon #5 Posted by Gilbert Syndrome 5 months ago
The same can be said for all of these whistleblowers, rock stars and random-ass YouTubers who feel that every light in the sky is an extraterrestrial spacecraft. 
Comment icon #6 Posted by Cho Jinn 5 months ago
Indeed, perhaps we should treat everyone, including contrarians, critically.
Comment icon #7 Posted by Golden Duck 5 months ago
If you wish to discuss people that's your choice; but, it says more about you. If you prefer to talk about ideas follow the example of Michael Faraday... I hold my theories on the tips of my fingers, so that the merest breath of fact will blow them away.
Comment icon #8 Posted by Cho Jinn 5 months ago
A person’s ideas are an extension of the person?  Maybe get a new avatar.
Comment icon #9 Posted by quiXilver 5 months ago
Why do people assume anything?  Probably because it's fast and easy...  doesn't mean it's always wrong, but seemingly more prone to it. I expect folks assume because fast thinking, aka belief thinking that feels good is seductive in the extreme and is endlessly defensible by the reactionary mind through quick little lymeric like sound bytes.  What seems right and feels good is readily believed, then any notion of questioning it is usually disregarded in favor (of how it's always been).  Belief thinking is not the same animal as coordinated, systemic and critical thinking which requires eff... [More]
Comment icon #10 Posted by iAlrakis 5 months ago
Well, when you see something that's clearly not a weather phenomenon but really a flying 'vehicle'.  You can assume it's man made but why is it so different from the every day things?  If it's man made why isn't everything like this?  If it's man made but a deep black project nobody will say anything about it so the only logical conclusion you're left with is that it must come from other intelligent life.  
Comment icon #11 Posted by Golden Duck 5 months ago
Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.
Comment icon #12 Posted by Earl.Of.Trumps 4 months ago
Why do so many people assume that UFOs are extraterrestrial? ----------------- It's a knee-jerk reaction to these UFO's performing in ways that are well beyond the capability of our best crafts.  Someone had to ask? . 

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