Jul 01 2014

Distribution of UFO Sightings

Scientists often take an epidemiological approach to a phenomenon to discover clues about its cause and nature. This is not limited to medical diseases, the basic concept can apply to any episodic event.

Take UFO sightings – the phenomenon in question is people reporting that they saw something unidentified in the sky. We can generate some basic hypotheses about factors that might influence UFO sightings: the presence of objects to be observed, viewing conditions, number of people available to make observations, and priming (the idea of UFOs in the culture, say following a movie about UFOs or a case reported in the media).

As reported by The Economist, the National UFO Reporting Center has released statistics on UFO sightings by state and by time of day. The Economist has conveniently placed this data in an infographic, depicted above. They helpfully labeled the three periods of the day as working hours, drinking hours, and sleeping hours. As you can see, UFO reports peak during the drinking hours.

I am going to assume the article is tongue-in-cheek, but it is being spread around social media, sometimes in a manner that seems credulous.

I don’t doubt the data itself, but the labeling of the chart amounts to begging the question – calling the evening hours the “drinking hours” makes certain assumptions about cause and effect. A far simpler explanation for the peak of sightings in the evening is that night-time conditions are more conducive to seeing unidentified lights in the sky, and people are still awake.

The article cheekily states that aliens don’t disturb us while we sleep (don’t tell that to people who experience hypnagogia and interpret the experience as an alien abduction), but obviously people are simply not in a position to make observations while they sleep.

Therefore we don’t need to invoke alcohol consumption at all to explain the pattern seen in this data.

There are, however, patterns in the UFO data that likely do provide genuine clues as to the nature of the UFO phenomenon. For example, UFO sightings tend to cluster near airforce bases. The US military, in fact, investigated sightings (because they were worried they were Soviet activity) and concluded that many were sightings of US spy planes.

UFO sightings also coincide with satellites, with the appearance of Venus in the sky, and with popular reports of UFO sightings. The recent popularity of floating lanterns has led to UFO sightings.

There is also a relationship between the details of UFOs and popular culture. People often report flying saucers, because that’s what UFOs are supposed to look like. There is an interplay between fiction and popular culture, each reinforcing the other. There is no particular reason to believe that alien spacecraft would resemble a flying saucer, and it would be quite a coincidence if they did.


Tomorrow, July 2, is UFO day, celebrating the anniversary of the alleged Roswell saucer crash (which really was nothing but a balloon and corner reflector spying on Soviet nuclear testing).  Proponents want to raise awareness of UFOs. I think that’s a great idea – it’s an interesting psychological and cultural phenomenon.

As long as that awareness is honest about the state of the evidence and the most likely explanations for alleged UFO phenomena.

I don’t think that intoxication is a significant contributor to UFOs, and I don’t think The Economist was seriously suggesting this either. But there are plenty of terrestrial phenomena that can account for people seeing things they can’t readily identify, and there is no evidence that demands an extraterrestrial explanation.

I’m always open to such evidence. Whenever I write about UFOs, believers appear in the comments claiming that such evidence exists – but they can never produce it. Ever.

7 responses so far

7 Responses to “Distribution of UFO Sightings”

  1. Newcoasteron 01 Jul 2014 at 1:17 pm

    The part that UFO believers always seem to forget is that the “U” stands for unidentified. They use the term as if UFO means alien spaceship.

    My sense is that UFO’s are currently at a low ebb in popularity, “ghost” hunting and “psychics” seems to be all the rage on cable TV these days.

    Today is July 1, Canada Day, so while I’m watching fireworks later tonight, which occurs during “drinking hours”, I’ll be alert for any UFO in the sky.

  2. Sylakon 02 Jul 2014 at 12:23 am

    @Newcoaster : indeed The term UFO have been totally misused to a point you can’t use it in its proper meaning anymore. In french it is the same, the term is OVNI: Objet volant non-identifié. But it has almost lost all its meaning as a acronym and became a word by itself. You say Ovni and people think aliens.

    I have a friend, who is totally in alien belief, he also belief a lot of other woo ( less than his girlfriend who think microwave are evil, but still use her cell phone), and ghost stuff. He his super convince that him and his family have lived a Aliens related even, I don’t know what it is, he never told me, but he his sincere. But the Problem is, his evidences are just memories. Once he posted on Facebook that video of the deluded Canadian ex-minister as evidence. Of course it is nothing. A believer talking about his belief is no proof.

    It is a funny subject, I love to debunked Roswell. Couple of years ago, the French Science magazine “Science et vie” made a dossier to debunking the myth, it a was nice piece.

    Also I would like some opinion. I’m I wrong? Personally, I think that it will be very hard, even for a super advanced civilization, to come here undetected. The massive quantity of energy require to go FTL, warp or to bend the space, will generate massive amounts of radiations of all kind : infrared, light, gamma rays. In the game Mass Effect they explain why the Normandy was stealth, because he was storing its Heat inside itself ( until a certain limit, where you have to vent it). Because a ship in space is a Massive spot of heat, Like a huge infrared spot light. With all our telescope and satellites watching the sky in all range of the electromagnetic spectrum, it will really hard to miss anything coming super fast toward us, or just Warping, teleporting near us.
    the stealthly approach will probably be for them to slowly crawl their way hear taking years to do it, ad still we would spot a ship a lot easier than Rock, since it emits heat.

    That’s on point the movies Independence day Got right at least.

  3. Bill Openthalton 02 Jul 2014 at 8:07 pm

    The Economist was poking fun at the UFO believers, and it is indeed amazing to see how people can believe so passionately in something so patently silly.
    Once a belief is accepted, usually during childhood, it’s intrinsic believability ceases to be considered. Catholics think the “virgin birth” is totally plausible, while everyone else thinks it’s grotesquely absurd. The angel Moroni is moronic to all but the Mormons (and to think Romney might have been president, shudder), and Illuminati believers think the rest of humanity delusional.
    Humanity’s ability to believe the unbelievable is a valuable society building tool, but leads to the most egregious excesses. This is why debunking nonsensical beliefs remains so important. Of course, we need to do the science, but it is an illusion to think people will abandon foolish beliefs by themselves. Even when the knowledge is there for all to see, many will fall for, and cling to, disprove beliefs.

  4. Bill Openthalton 02 Jul 2014 at 8:08 pm


  5. jt512on 02 Jul 2014 at 9:53 pm

    Any speculation about the clustering of sightings in the western states? Location of air force bases? Clearer skies? More pot smokers?

  6. ChrisHon 03 Jul 2014 at 1:26 am

    “Any speculation about the clustering of sightings in the western states?”

    More tall mountains, which cause the formation of lenticular clouds.

  7. ChrisHon 03 Jul 2014 at 1:35 am

    Here is a link from the Bad Astronomer:

    By Googling with the terms lenticular, clouds and UFO you can find lots of great images. In the city where I live (but not my house 🙁 ) one can find views of Mt. Rainier, other volcanoes like Mt. Baker, the Cascades and the Olympics. On a rare clear day it is not uncommon to see these clouds near a tall peak.

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