Mar 03 2011

UFO Files Released

The UK has recently released some of its files on unidentified flying objects – UFOs. It does not appear that there is anything shocking in the reports. In the end it seems like the release will result in just another round of news headlines with “UFO” in the title, but nothing else.

The documents do provide further evidence for what I call the psychocultural hypothesis. UFO sightings and encounters are certainly an interesting group of phenomena – but are they evidence of anything alien. Many people I talk to (including a documentary producer just recently) are left with the sense that there must be something going on. No explanation seems satisfactory to explain all the accounts, and there is a residue of unexplained reports.

This is the “where there is smoke there is fire” argument. But I think it misses an important question – there may be fire (a phenomenon) but what kind of fire? I think the fire is a multifaceted psychocultural phenomenon.

What I find most fascinating is that we are living through the formation of a modern mythology. We can see the mythology evolve, and there is ample documentation of the process. The psychological aspects of the mythology are also well documented. Perception is flawed and lends itself to false positives – to seeing patterns that are not real, or to misinterpreting mundane stimuli as something bizarre. Disconnected lights may be mentally joined into a large ship, for example. Distance, size, and velocity can be grossly misinterpreted. Perception is contaminated by expectation. And then memory can be distorted through contamination, suggestion, and just morphing over time to embellish an event.

There are also specific neurological phenomena, like hypnagogic hallucinations – waking dreams that can be interpreted as alien abductions.

Into this mix are deliberate hoaxes, including faked videos and picture, models of spacecraft, and false reports of abductions.

These neuropsychological phenomena interact with the evolving cultural beliefs in alien visitation – including the typical design of the spacecraft. Images of spacecraft were common in science fiction, and ultimately settled on the “flying saucer” archetype. The term “flying saucer” was famously coined by a journalist who misinterpreted the reports of pilot Kenneth Arnold, who described boomerang shaped ships skipping across the sky like saucers. Other ship types are reported, but the flying saucer shape remains dominant.

Ideas about the aliens themselves also evolve over time, as any cultural idea might. In the 1940s and 50s aliens were mostly from Mars or Venus and were distinctly humanoid. A variety of other creatures were then reported, but eventually reports began to settle on the little gray alien with large black eyes. Joe Nickell documented the progression of alien reports over time, showing how initial variation eventually evolved into the little grays.

Overall we see a cultural pattern of a new idea emerging, and then spreading and becoming popular, even being retrofitted into previous reports. Alien abductions became popular after the Betty and Barney Hill affair. Decades after the Roswell incident, the little gray aliens were added to the story, without any evidence of contemporary reports. Alien implants make an appearance, and then become part of the standard alien encounter tale.

The details of the alien story are now so thoroughly embedded in the culture that pretty much everyone knows them. They are in cartoons, advertising, television, and movies. Even if you have no interest in the topic at all, you will be familiar with the basic details of the alien mythology.

The end result of all this is that reports of UFOs, aliens, and encounters of one kind or another are common and caused by a variety of phenomena. No one explanation will cover it all. Given the number of reports it is also likely that not every single report will be able to be explained in detail. There are just too many quirky and unusual things that can happen to result in a sighting or encounter, and the evidence might not be available to uncover the specific cause. In other words – one would expect a residue of unexplained reports even in the absence of aliens.

The new released documents fit well into the psychocultural hypothesis of UFOs – a hodge podge of hoaxes, vague sightings, and misinterpreted natural phenomenon all being interpreted in line with the evolving cultural mythology of alien visitation.

What is lacking is the one thing that is incompatible with the psychocultural hypothesis (at least as an exclusive explanation) and which would favor the alien hypothesis – actual material evidence of anything demonstrably alien. Even after decades of reports, with multiple governments involved, there is still lacking any smoking gun evidence of alien spacecraft, aliens, or any alien phenomenon. As the BBC reports:

At the end of the discussion the government spokesman Lord Stabolgi summed up what remains the official position now.

“There is nothing to convince Her Majesty’s government that there has ever been a single visit by an alien spacecraft. As for telling the public the truth about UFOs, the truth is simple.

“There really are many strange phenomena in the sky, and these are invariably reported by rational people. But there is a wide range of natural explanations to account for such phenomena.”

The UK government, apparently, was not impressed by the evidence. And neither am I.

31 responses so far

31 thoughts on “UFO Files Released”

  1. mindme says:

    It seems to me these “disclosures” are a cost saving move. I’m given to understand the cost of trying to meet every freedom of information act type request is prohibitive. It’s much more cost effective to simply put it all out there. Undoubtedly since there’s no smoking gun evidence the true believers will still insist upon “true” disclosure.

    Hopefully this type of paper shuffling helps a cash strapped UK.

  2. Skeptical Atheist says:

    Interesting. I have another way of seeing this UFO phenomenon, whether they are really from another galaxy or merely peoples imagination, I think there is a reason for the popularity of UFO sightings, these UFO’s serve as a reminder that all of us are one and interconnected. We are all Spiritual Beings having a human experience. We are all one, there is only one force that runs through the fabric of the universe and that force is Love.
    Love is the force that spins the planets around the sun.
    Love is the force that embraces us when we leave the physical world.

    “I look upon death to be as necessary to the constitution as sleep. We shall rise refreshed in the morning.”
    Benjamin Franklin

    Love and Peace πŸ™‚

  3. Heinleiner says:

    Oh good, I was waiting for the now-obligatory skeptical atheist post.

  4. bob_plotkin says:

    When you look at how recent UFO’s have entered into our writings (see it kind of becomes obvious that this is a recent phenomena.

    One would think that flashing lights in the sky would attract a lot more attention in the 1800’s when, well, there were NO other lights in the sky. Yet – not until the 40’s did we start to see reports of this.

    I am sure it is just a coincidence that UFO sightings and the introduction of commercial aviation and jets are so highly correlated in our history….

  5. AttacusAtlas says:

    Cut it out Skeptical Atheist, we all know you’re really Deepak Chopra.

  6. gr8googlymoogly says:

    Its amazing what you can learn by reading these postings!!

    All along I thought momentum, gravity, and General Relativity accounted for the way the planets ‘spin’ around the Sun. Now, I come to find out it is Love!!

    I wonder, does this new ‘Love’ theory prove life in solar systems around other stars? There are planets spinning around those stars. Are there aliens there that are loving those planets?

  7. gr8googlymoogly says:

    bob_plotkin, good point.

    Also, as mentioned by Phil Plait (BadAss-tronomer!!) – the lack of UFO reports from astronomers is telling. These people spend most of their lives looking at the sky. You’d think that, if there were aliens visiting, astronomers would account for the lion’s share of the reports.

  8. eean says:

    dunno about fire, but here’s the smoking gun for Steve’s hypothesis:
    the first known depection of a flying saucer, on a scifi magazine in the early 30s before all the UFO reports.

  9. canadia says:

    I’m really beginning to wish that Skeptical Atheist would just go and get his own blog to spout his irrelevant and nonsensical platitudes.

    In no way can being abducted and probed by aliens, as a hallucination or not, be interpreted as a spiritual experience leading to the realization of oneness and love. Unless, of course, involuntary rectal insertions is the universe’s idea of “love.”

    On a more rational note, Steve, even if “smoking gun” evidence existed (and I have no reason to think that it does), what possible reason would any government have to make such knowledge public? There would be innumerable military, scientific, and political reasons to keep such a secret, but I can’t think of any to publicly announce it.

    You can of course argue that the government isn’t competent enough to keep secrets, but some of the intelligence agencies have good track records with that.

    Isn’t it logical to assume that unless aliens start floating around in plain sight, any evidence that existed would be carefully guarded by state powers?

  10. PScott says:

    Eean– where did you read that the cover you linked to was the first saucer description/illustration?
    Did you find evidence of this elsewhere?
    As a bit of a sci-fi geek, I’d love to know if this is accurate.
    In War of the Worlds the alien ships were tripods, and the landing vehicles were cylindrical I think. Anyway, great find.

  11. eean says:

    just wikipedia sorry πŸ™‚

    of course war of the worlds… that artist even did a cover for it (just only tripods). of course HG Wells was already a classic in the 30s. so flying saucers may have been an established part of the genre by the time people started seeing them in the sky.

  12. PScott says:

    Then there’s the reputed “Nuremberg UFO incident.”

  13. Skeptical Atheist says:

    AttacusAtlas I am honored that you associated me with the lovely Deepak Chopra. I love and adore Dr.Chopra, he spreads love and peace and teaches us that the Universe is fundamentally loving.
    Don’t get me wrong our physical bodies will die but our soul’s never will.
    We are eternal beings of light.
    By the way if you are unable to have an erection please follow this advice from Dr. Chopra :

    Canadia I am sorry I didn’t mean to imply that frightening hallucinations are an expression of Love.

    Love is the fabric of the cosmos, Love is what we are made of. Love is what embraces us when we shed our physical bodies and merge with the loving light of God/Universe.
    Death is not the end, Life/Love is eternal.
    Love and Peace my dear friends πŸ™‚

  14. HHC says:

    SA, if A. Atlas truly has a Close Encounter of the Chopra Kind, may I suggest you hold your loving knees tightly together so that you don’t Release the UFO.

  15. Skeptical Atheist says:

    HAHAHA, you are funny HHC. Humor is good for your Soul.
    I hope you are following Dr.Chopras advice on Erection protection. Is it helpful?
    May you be blessed with the ability to have a perfect erection for a long, long time to come.

  16. BillyJoe7 says:


    “Isn’t it logical to assume that unless aliens start floating around in plain sight, any evidence that existed would be carefully guarded by state powers?”


    Good one canadia.
    Yeah…and the witnesses are all being held prisoners in Area 51.


  17. eiskrystal says:

    Love is the new quantum.

  18. SteveA says:

    Canadia: “Isn’t it logical to assume that unless aliens start floating around in plain sight, any evidence that existed would be carefully guarded by state powers?”

    Why would anyone logically assume that?

  19. Skeptical Atheist says:

    Who cares about UFO’s anyway, even if they were real what good can they be, what if they are meat eating predators, or what if they are angry Atheists coming to tell us that there is no Life After Death.
    Please stop worrying about UFO’s, I hope it turns out to be a huge prank.

    Whatever it is if they do exist than we have to embrace them as Brothers and sisters, because:

    We are all one, Love is all there is.
    Love and Peace πŸ™‚

  20. government coverup – it depends on exactly what we are talking about. First, why would the government be in a privileged position to encounter and contain any alien contact? They could get lucky, I guess. I doubt they have some kind of rapid response team just for UFO encounters. What about the other governments of the world? Why would the aliens allow their presence to be covered up? If they did not want to be found, they wouldn’t, and if they wanted their existence known, no earth government would stop them.

    The bigger the UFO phenomenon is the more difficult it would be to cover it up, especially across the decades and administrations. The US simply does not have a government infrastructure build for long term massive secrets.

    You also have to hypothesize that every politician who would have been in a position to be privy to such information did not think the public should know.

    And your question is premised on the concept that the government is getting access to alien technology – but why? That’s a huge assumption. I don’t by the notion that alien craft would be crashing every second Tuesday. This seems highly implausible, given the state of technology we would be talking about.

    When you dig into the details, it is difficult to weave a situation in which one or more governments are maintaining a long term coverup of extensive alien contact without letting any definitive evidence sneak through.

  21. chaos4zap says:

    I once read in Skeptical Enquirer about the fallacy of “misplaced rationalization” (I believe that was it). Basically, it is the idea that before you try and assign a cause to a phenomenon, it must first be sufficiently demonstrated that the phenomenon exists. It’s a very basic concept and I’m always reminded of it when I see the UFO reports. Last night I saw Brian Greene do a lecture and while he was signing my copy of his book, I asked him if he believed we were being visited by aliens. He gave me the possible, but not probable response. I told him he is my man; I’ll take him over Michio Kaku any day. (with all due respect to Kaku, who I do admire for his ability to communicate very complex concepts)

  22. canadia says:

    I’m wasn’t talking about anything so Hollywood. Maybe NASA sees something, or maybe they find some tiny piece of evidence, a scrap or fragment or something. I’d have a hard time believing that if for any reason they did find it, it would end up anywhere other than deep in some warehouse.

    I also was not alive during the cold-war era, but i had the impression that UFO investigation was a higher priority back then, if only to see if it was the soviets. If governments were doing anything to look for this stuff, I assumed it would be back then.

    I do not think that any government has access or has had access to alien technology ever. Every technological advance ever has a clear lineage in terms of previous ones. Alien-acquired tech would stick out like a sore thumb. Nor do I think that aliens have ever “visited” earth and shook hands or taken pictures of anyone.

    My point was that if there was some tiny but conclusive or even suggestive piece of evidence, it seems likely that if a state-level power found it, they would have no reason to release the knowledge to the general public.

  23. Alien visitation is inherently improbable. The energy requirements are literally astronomical, and the cost vastly outweighs any practical benefit of the trip.

    I’ve covered the subject in a series of posts on my blog:

  24. BillyJoe7 says:


    “He gave me the possible, but not probable response. I told him he is my man;”

    Youy still have the wrong man.

    Green’s response might be more reasonable than Kaku’s, but that does not make it reasonable by scientifiic standards.
    There is no evidence for alien visitation and loads of reasons why it is not happening. By Green’s standard, you might as well believe that faeries visiting the bottom of your garden is possible.

  25. BillyJoe7 says:


    Oh well, we’re talking about a mountain and you’re talking about a grain of sand. Nevermind then.

    “I also was not alive during the cold-war era, but i had the impression that UFO investigation was a higher priority back then, if only to see if it was the soviets.”

    You have that backwards.
    Ufologists attempted to persuade the public that the USA government saw UFO investigation as a priority but, in fact, they were actually keeping an eye out for possible soviet missile launches.
    (Of course, because it was meant to be a covert operation, they would not have been in a position to deny the ufologists’s claims.)

  26. andyo says:

    Gotta give those aliens a break. They don’t even know why they’re here.

  27. chaos4zap says:


    Really? I think possible, but not probable is as honest a statement (by scientific standards) that one can give. Nothing is ever 100% and there is always a possibility, no matter how slim, that anything is true or false (even if you have lots of evidence to the contrary) It is true that once things reach a certain probability, we talk about them as if they are absolutely true, but no matter what, there is always a possibility it is wrong. This is why it is meaningless, in the technical sense of the question, to ask if something is possible. From a technical standpoint, I do have to admit that it is possible that fairies are in the garden, bigfoot is out there and we just haven’t found unicorn’s yet, but these things are so improbable that for practical reason, we just say they aren’t there. Wording a response as “possible, but not probable” is a fairly clear way to say “yeah, sure it’s possible to some degree…but that is irrelevant for practical reasons and there is no reason to think that’s the case” Sure it might sound a little wishy-washy but I’m not sure how one could be more honest.

  28. Albert Ramos says:

    Mr. Novella: I am glad to meet your acquaitance. The NYC Skeptics mentioned your name and I am honored to post a response. here.

    In 2008, republished in 2010, I wrote “How Modern Society Invented UFOs.” There are various conclusions that I draw. The overall theme that stands out is that UFOs and alien abductions are a myth that reflect today’s times. I suppose I am proponent of the Psycho-cultural Hypothesis, a perspective I just recently learned about.

    All myths were created to explain reality based on society’s historical circumstances and culture. The UFO myth is no exception. Not only has secularism emerged, the post WWII world brought on fears, anxiety, and uncertainty. For some UFOs serves as an alternative view to understand today’s times.

  29. chaos4zap says:

    @Albert Ramos,

    I would agree that UFO lore has evolved with our culture, media portrayal, etc… but I’m not sure what you mean by UFO’s serving as an alternative view to understand today’s times? I’m not sure how a belief in UFO’s would help anyone understand anything about our times (unless the theory is that aliens are not just visiting, but interacting and having some sort of direct impact on our lives). I think in specific cases (such as with sleep paralysis, waking dreams, etc…) the UFO, or at least abduction, stories may be people attempting to explain a phenomenon that is unusual and could be frightening if one did not understand what was really going on, but I’m not sure how the idea that aliens are flying around, occasionally crashing and mutilating cattle would really help anyone understand and make sense of anything about today’s times. Maybe I am misunderstanding you, but I just thought I would throw my opinion out there.

  30. Albert Ramos says:

    Hey chaos4zap: Thanks for your reply. Perhaps, “alternative view” may not be an appropriate term. I did borrow such a term from a historian who wrote the history of religion in the U.S. from WWII to the present. He discussed UFOs as a new religious belief system. He labeled UFOs as an “alternative” belief system apart from old time religion. In short, my book “How Modern Society Invented UFOs,” talks about the complete myth of alien visitations. I break the myth down into various themes and attempt to demonstrate how they reflect today’s culture. It’s a skeptical-sociological approach to UFOs. In the end, the UFO myth developed as we entered into modern society, a new era of secularism. Simply stated, the uneasiness of scientific materialism was manifested through the UFO myth.

  31. Ted N. says:

    Regarding all those conspiracy theories about UFO, government cover up and the like, i just wonder, who in his/her right mind would ever dare cover up, conceal one of our greatest discoveries (if not the greatest!) and the answer to mankind’s most crucial question (“Are We Alone?”), namely the absolute, present and …flying evidence of the existence of other, alien, intelligent life forms??

    It makes no sense.

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