Written by Julie Beck (Atlantic)
The history of ufology shows the complex psychology of fringe beliefs.
In a recent paper published in Public Understanding of Science, Greg Eghigian, an associate professor of modern history at Penn State University, traces the history of ufology and its relationship with mainstream science, arguing that the mistrust between the two was not because ufologists were ignorant about science. And his analysis holds lessons for understanding other beliefs that run counter to scientific evidence.
“These folks were trying to do what scientists do,” he says. “They were trying to model and mimic all the trappings of scientific practice.”
But from the beginning, mainstream science was not welcoming to hypotheses about UFOs, especially not that they could be extraterrestrial in origin. When the first reports of disks and strange lights in the sky appeared in the years after World War II, several governments did collect and analyze these stories. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency theorized that they could be foreign weapons, or maybe a mass hysteria, (“midsummer madness,” officials said in 1952) that could be another kind of security threat.
A few academics engaged with the UFO question (the University of Colorado psychologist David Saunders came up with a widely-used coding system, for one), but not many. For the most part, academia saw the study of UFOs as illegitimate.
This viewpoint was solidified when a University of Colorado commission on UFOs released a report in 1968, writing “nothing has come from the study of UFOs in the past 21 years that has added to scientific knowledge.” After that, though not solely because of it, the U.S. Air Force stopped studying UFOs, and with the notable exception of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), the natural sciences mostly left aliens alone, too.
“It’s a good question to ponder,” he says. “Offhand my initial instinct would be to say that all it did was to reinforce a sense of frustration.”
“I do think it’s very interesting,” he adds, “that the phenomenon of talking about alien abduction by and large really only takes shape and gets any kind of momentum in the 1970s and 1980s … Once academic science starts to talk about believers as subjects for experimental investigation or clinical analysis that’s when you start to see more strings of reports of alien abduction, which tend to involve what? Human experimentation.”
So while it would be wrong to say that ufologists were anti-science, they had plenty of reason not to trust scientists and scientific institutions. Being written off as delusional, and only interesting because you’re delusional is surely frustrating. And the “institutional isolation” of ufologists, Eghigian writes, “has only served to reinforce their view that academic and political authorities are, at best, narrow-minded or, at worst, engaged in a deliberate attempt to hide information.”
The secrecy with which the U.S. government and others conducted their initial UFO investigations, while understandable considering their worries that the objects were a national security threat, may have only made believers think there was something to hide.
And then there’s the fact that if you were to ask a scientist about UFOs, or whether vaccines are unsafe, or how to explain a case of seeming telepathy, chances are they’d “consider it professionally silly to even engage in this,” he says.
Not that scientists should be under any obligation to re-consider ideas which plenty of study has already found no evidence to support. But if lay people are occasionally guilty of not trusting scientists, so too are scientists guilty of not trusting lay people. Interest in UFOs has been on the decline since the 1990s, once the Cold War ended and its attendant anxieties about nuclear weapons and surveillance faded a little. But the history of ufology offers some insight into the nature of this mutual mistrust, that could have implications for other forms of mistrust in mainstream science.
“Most ufologists have been especially sensitive to the fact that scientific cynicism toward them seems to point to a hierarchical asymmetry at work,” Eghigian writes.
According to a 2015 Pew report, 84 percent of scientists reported as a major problem that the “public doesn’t know much about science.” That may be true, (though another 2015 Pew survey found that Americans did fairly well on a quiz of basic scientific concepts). But it’s also possible that some ufologists and others who mistrust mainstream science do understand it, they’re just hoping that it will eventually confirm what they already believe.