Why UFOs Will Never, Ever Go Away

Hint: It's not because of Hollywood, the History Channel or sci-fi shows.

A good buddy of mine who is a clinical psychologist sent me a text this week:

Psychedelics and UFOS. Inflection point, my friend. Buckle up.

He was referring to two topics that, in recent years, have often been in the news: The growing field of psychedelic drug research and mysterious unidentified flying objects.

My friend believes that the professionalization of psychedelic drug research (for psychotherapeutic treatment) and the surge of UFO-related articles in serious journalism outlets is reflective of society’s changing attitudes to subjects that were previously thought of as fringe. There may be some truth to this. But only one of these topics is being reinvented via legitimate science and is thus deserving of all the attention. The other is a construction of unwarranted media hype—the latest iteration of a periodic, decades-old story fueled by irresponsible journalism.

If you’re not sure which topic to take serious, follow the science—not the media coverage.

For starters, top scientific journals are publishing peer-reviewed research into the therapeutic benefits of psychedelic drugs. Additionally, as the New York Times noted recently:

The nation’s top universities are racing to set up psychedelic research centers, and investors are pouring millions of dollars into a pack of start-ups.

Some leading institutions, such as Johns Hopkins, had already laid the groundwork for this development.

There is nothing remotely comparable in the world of so-called UFO research, which remains wholly dominated by anecdotal reports of flying saucers and alien abductions. In terms of actual research, there have been a number of half-baked initiatives in recent decades funded by Robert Bigelow, the billionaire UFO enthusiast, but none of his findings were ever made public, much less published in a reputable journal.

Moreover, there are no universities and few credentialed scientists willing to investigate mysterious orbs in the sky, cattle mutilations, or crop circles—all facets of “UFOlogy” for decades.

So if there is no factual evidence underpinning this “high strangeness” (as UFO buffs term it) and no legitimate scientific studies underway, then how have UFOs suddenly become such a high profile news story, featured often on cable news shows (especially Fox News) and prominently in the pages of the New York Times, and of late, The New Yorker? What’s the peg for all these straight-faced stories?

Before I get to that, it’s important to note that UFOs are always in the news. I’m interested in why this is, so I have a daily Google News alert that makes me aware of an assortment of stories every day. Here’s a tiny headline sampler from Tuesday: “British Woman Claims She Has Been Abducted by ‘silver-colored’ aliens Over 50 Times” (News 18); “Fleet of UFOs? String of Lights Baffles Residents, Bugs Astronomers” (KJZZ.com); “For UFO Hunters, the Owls Aren’t What They Really Seem” (Vice).

You get the idea. The thing to understand about UFOs is that they have long been a media staple. Sure, the topic goes in and out of vogue, but like poltergeists and Bigfoot, UFOs are always great story chum. In the mid-2000s, Peter Jennings did a two hour prime-time special titled, “Seeing is Believing.” A decade earlier, highly watched news shows helped fuel the Roswell myth. (For the uninitiated: UFO lore has it that an extraterrestrial spaceship crashed outside Roswell, New Mexico in 1947 and that an alien body was recovered by the U.S military. ) As scientist Robert Park noted in his excellent book, Voodoo Science: The road from foolishness to fraud (published in 2000), the contrived Roswell narrative was a media gold mine.

The unverified accounts spawned a string of profitable books, and were shamelessly exploited for their entertainment value on television programs and talk shows-even serious ones, such as CBS's 48 Hours, then hosted by Dan Rather, and CNN's Larry King Live.

There’s a good argument to be made that UFOs would never have lodged themselves into the American mind were it not for shoddy and sensationalistic media coverage. Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) in 1966, journalism professor Herb Strentz lamented that newspaper stories on UFOs were frequently “speculative, misleading and inaccurate.” (That year, a Gallup Poll found that 96% of Americans had heard or read something about UFOs.) The ubiquity of “flying saucers” in the media led MIT physicist Philip Morrison to say: “It is a social phenomenon of journalism and television.”

This is the conclusion that Strentz and Philip Hutchison reached in a meticulous 2019 paper published in American Journalism. The two journalism scholars did a historical analysis of U.S. reportage of UFOs from 1947-1967. This was the dawn and golden era of “flying saucer” sightings (first reported 1947). A comprehensive survey of press coverage during this formative period led Strentz and Hutchison to conclude that UFO news stories were driven by shallow, single sourced accounts in local newspapers that failed to provide necessary context. They write:

As a result, UFO reportage remained reactive and focused on breaking news versus assimilative or in-depth reporting. Pervasive human interest stories and headlines about ‘little green men’ further obfuscated the situation.

These local newspaper squibs combined with wire service reports that were often picked up by national newspapers, creating dynamics that “produced the illusion of a national trend,” the authors write.

Of course, other factors helped capture the public’s imagination. As Strentz and Hutchison note, the entertainment industry was quick to seize on UFO reports:

By the early 1950s, flying saucers and stories of extraterrestrial Earth visitors were common offerings in cinema, broadcast media, comic books, comic strips, novels and toy merchandising…Among the many flying saucer toys marketed during that era, the world-famous Frisbee flying disc stands out as perhaps the most enduring artifact.

These developments point up the “symbiotic relationship that conjoined news and entertainment industries during this era,” the authors write in their paper.

Flash forward to recent years and it appears that little has changed. A case in point: The herd-like media frenzy that followed a thinly-sourced, over-hyped 2017 New York Times story about a “shadowy” UFO Pentagon program. It originated as a tiny pet project of then-Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev) in 2008 and was somehow contracted to Robert Bigelow (surprise, surprise) via the Pentagon. When the project was discontinued in 2012 after initial funding ($22 million) ran out, a career counterintelligence officer named Luis Elizondo purportedly took over the initiative and continued, on his own accord to investigate UFO encounters in restricted military airspace.

That was the essence of the credulous, widely circulated Times story, which had been brought to the paper’s attention by Leslie Kean, a UFO lobbyist who once blogged about UFOs for the Huffington Post. Somehow, Kean had convinced seasoned NYT editors (or they convinced themselves) that this was a big front page scoop. She even got to share a byline on it. That editors don’t take the story seriously can be inferred by the lack of follow-up reporting by reputable national security reporters at the Times and elsewhere.

Oh sure, there were subsequent human interest stories about Elizondo, the supposed Pentagon whistleblower and his adoring, Bigfoot-hunting sidekick, otherwise known as Tom DeLonge, former front man for the pop-punk group Blink-182. (How DeLonge got caught up in the this murky saga is a story unto itself, best told another day.) And yes, the Pentagon has acknowledged that the ten second grainy videos of darting objects were captured by actual U.S. Navy pilots. But as Matthew Rozsa wrote in Salon last year, there isn't any evidence “that these objects are of extraterrestrial origin, or that they defy any existing laws of physics that might hint at their development by a more scientifically advanced species.” Rather, as science communicator Brian Dunning says in the piece:

To understand the videos, all you need to do is ask any fighter pilot familiar with the FLIR [forward-looking infrared] camera system. What looks like great speed and wild maneuvers is just a common optical illusion combined with the effects of the FLIR's gimbal and glare filter.

Or you could ask an aerospace industry expert, someone intimately familiar with the technology. But that seems to be asking a lot of CNN, Fox News, CBS, ABC and NBC, whose reporter asserted in one segment that “fighter pilots are saying they have come across things that appear to be breaking the very laws of physics and no one can explain what these things are, where they come from…”

In fact, there are only several fighter pilots who say this—one of them, in particular, who has made a name for himself with his appearances on TV and at UFO festivals.

Think about it for a minute: Since 2017, there have been hundreds of breathless news reports about physics-defying UFOs that keep penetrating U.S. military airspace and in virtually all these stories we see the same small circle of individuals pushing this narrative. (That, too, is a story for another day.) Rarely, if at all, do these news reports present rational explanations from other fighter pilots or aviation experts.

Incredibly, for a story with such massive national security implications, nobody on the aviation/aerospace or intelligence community beats at the Times has been assigned to pursue it. That should tell you something.

Why does that matter? Because this entire bogus narrative derives from the sketchy front page 2017 NYT story on the Pentagon’s “mysterious UFO program.” It spawned a media juggernaut that led to 1) a silly History channel show about menacing UFOs, starring Elizondo, the former Pentagon counterintelligence officer and his sidekick and, 2) a narrative parroted all over the media that mysterious (gulpotherworldly) UFOs have been encroaching U.S. military airspace (and even disabling our nukes!). Never mind that this is an old, deeply absurd narrative that UFO worry warts have been harping on for many years. Somehow, it’s been successfully recycled into a recurring segment on Tucker Carlson’s show and the basis for a recent New Yorker feature titled, “How the Pentagon Started Taking UFOs Seriously.”

You want to know why the Pentagon isn’t actually taking UFOs seriously? Because no defense reporters at the Times, Washington Post, or Wall Street Journal are writing about why the Pentagon is taking UFOs seriously. It’s a non-story.

Again, I ask you to consider the notion that gravity-defying UFOs are repeatedly penetrating restricted military airspace. Does that pass the smell test to you? And if it does, and you really think this is happening, why aren’t defense journalists, including those at the aerospace/aviation trade publications, sniffing out this story?

After all, they have a great peg: Last year’s creation of a Pentagon task force “to improve its understanding of, and gain insight into, the nature and origins of UAPs [unidentified aerial phenomena].” Understandably, the establishment of such a task force implies that UFOs are, in fact, posing a threat to national security. Otherwise, why bother? Perhaps the Pentagon’s internal watchdog will shed light on this.

Meanwhile, it is unfortunate that skilled reporters on the intelligence and defense beats have not stepped in to provide clarity on this purported UFO national security threat. Their conspicuous absence has allowed a parade of goofy UFO news stories to go largely unchallenged since 2017, stories imbued with the veneer of authority because they have been advanced by a few former government officials (chiefly Luis Elizondo and Chris Mellon) and fuzzy Pentagon pronouncements. That these two former government officials play up the ET angle and still manage to persuade mainstream media to carry their message without any real scrutiny is a sad commentary on journalism.

As I have written elsewhere, it’s “the news media that keeps the specter of extraterrestrials alight in our skies and minds.” Yes, Hollywood movies like Independence Day and Men in Black tap into an ingrained pop culture motif, but it’s because of bad journalism that UFOs truly never, ever go away.