Jun 26, 2021 - Science

Why UFO sightings are here to stay

Illustration of a poster of a UFO hovering over a landscape with copy that reads, "I Believe". 

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The U.S. government's hotly anticipated report on UFOs does not lend any credence to the belief that intelligent aliens have visited Earth. But that idea is in many Americans' heads, and it's there to stay.

The big picture: People want to believe.

  • Early accounts of the report even suggested that it would not claim that these objects are alien in origin, but that didn't stopped the speculation that these UFOs — or unidentified aerial phenomenon (UAPs), in military speak — could be proof of intelligent alien life come calling.
  • Some experts worry that the release of the report will just continue to fuel conspiracy theories and anxiety for years to come.

What's happening: The public version of the UFO report, which Congress demanded last year, found no evidence that aliens were responsible for any of the UAPs investigated.

  • However, the investigators weren't able to find explanations for all of the reports they looked into, leaving the door open for more conspiracy theories to develop.

Why it matters: Instead of tamping down anxieties and conspiracies, it's possible the release of this report will actually stoke them even if it says they're unfounded.

  • With this report, the government is "telling people that there is something that is potentially threatening. They're also telling people that they were lied to for 80 years," psychiatrist Ziv Cohen told Axios.
  • "I think the problem is when the government tells you that [they] were lying to you, then that makes people naturally think, 'Are they telling us the truth now?'"

Between the lines: Much of the public interest around UAPs recently was stoked in 2017 when the New York Times published a widely read story about a Pentagon program to investigate UFOs.

  • Since then, new videos and eyewitness accounts have continued to stoke the public's imagination about what these UAPs could be.
  • After years of dismissiveness, the Defense Department has suddenly started taking UFO sightings much more seriously, at least publicly.
  • "I would say that from 2017 to now has been like one large, cresting wave to the present and the forthcoming report, and then within that, there are lots of little smaller, ups and downs," Sarah Scoles, author of the book They're Already Here on UFO culture, told Axios.

Reality check: There are plenty of scientists searching for life out there in the solar system and universe, but the scientific quest to find life somewhere out there has nothing to do with UFOs or UAPs.

  • NASA's Perseverance rover on Mars now is searching for possible signs of past life on the Red Planet, while the agency plans on sending new missions to Venus in the coming years that could tell us more about its habitability in the past and even present.
  • Researchers focusing on SETI — the search for intelligent life — don't assume that aliens with faster-than-light technology have visited us. Instead, they search the skies for radio waves that technologically advanced civilizations could have produced and inadvertently sent into space.
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