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The UFO Phenomenon: Science, or Conspiracy?

In the modern lexicon used by most non-fringe writers today, the subject of UFOs would generally be referred to as a “conspiracy theory”. The general attitude behind this presumption holds that UFOs, if they exist, are something most “believers” presume to be extraterrestrial visitors; an unlikely possibility that, in order to remain unsubstantiated, would almost have to rely on world governments maintaining a degree of secrecy on the matter.

Thus, to believe in UFOs almost requires one to find acceptance with other fringe areas of thought just as well; such things as a “shadow government”, and equally-shadowy scenarios where the “real truth” about our universe is kept from the general public by those in authority. In other words, there would seem to be hardly any way the subject of UFOs can be discussed in a modern context, without an air of conspiracy eventually entering the discussion.

Interestingly, most writers and researchers within the UFO field have been accepting of the idea of a conspiratorial angle relating to UFO studies. Arguably though, these individuals would dismiss the notion (and perhaps rightly so) that the insinuation of a “conspiracy” is necessarily something that reduces the credibility of a pro-UFO argument. As historian Richard Dolan has noted, the usage of the term conspiracy theory actually has a history in the intelligence community; more specifically, the term began to see popular use in the years following the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, which became useful in marginalizing theories about the incident that fell outside the findings of the Warren Commission and its official report.

Decades ago, for the subject of UFOs to be referred to as a “conspiracy theory” might have seemed strange. However, in modern usage it is all too common to find articles in which terms like “UFO conspiracy theorists” are thrown about (in fact, I can think of one notable instance where Mysterious Universe was actually referred to as a “conspiracy theory website”, as stated by a writer for Snopes.com. Although some conspiracy theories are discussed here, I would also argue that a broad range of non-conspiratorial subjects are addressed here too).

A Culture of Conspiracy

In Michael Barkun’s book, A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America (University of California Press), the author makes many examples of conspiratorial thought within UFO studies and belief. In the excerpt below, one of the most convoluted and polarizing situations in UFO history, which involved the controversial MJ-12 papers, are discussed, in relation to how the debate over their legitimacy has helped foment further advocacy for a conspiratorial nature to the broader UFO phenomenon:

In the years since the MJ-12 papers became widely known, they have taken on a life of their own. Additional, related documents periodically appear, some as recently as 1998. Just as with the Kennedy assassination, MJ-12 has generated a cottage industry of commentators, authenticators, and critics. More broadly, MJ-12 laid the foundation for elaborate conspiracy theories by suggesting that UFOs were of extraterrestrial origin, that the federal government was aware of them as early as the late 1940s, and that a secret bureaucracy had been created to study and control the situation. These claims allowed some ufologists to shift from observation of flying saucers to attempts to unravel alleged government machinations. The proliferation of MJ-12 documents and theories not only identified the enemy as a segment of the government, but— inasmuch as this “secret government” was supposed to have hidden all relevant information— allowed great latitude in what might be “revealed.” It mattered little whether publicly available evidence confirmed a claim; its author could always respond, “The government knows it, but won’t tell you.”

Perhaps it could be argued, without sensationalism, or even the insinuation of “fringe” ideas, that publicly available evidence does exist which seems to confirm — if not that UFOs as an extraterrestrial or other exotic technology do exist — that government agencies have at very least maintained an interest in the subject.

In many cases, this interest likely has had more to do with how belief in the subject might be controlled or influenced. For instance, if we accept the most widely-agreed upon explanation for the aforementioned MJ-12 affair — one in which the papers were determined to be forgeries aimed at misleading elements within the UFO community — it would certainly seem that we do not, therefore, acknowledge that the majority of the ideas expressed within the documents were legitimate. Nonetheless, if we recognize the broader context in which the alleged “leak” of those papers occurred, involving numerous similar UFO misinformation campaigns directed at notable researchers within the community, we do begin to see that government agencies played a clear role in the affair. More specifically, Richard Doty, who had been an AFOSI Special Agent at the time, had worked to assist with the careful presentation of information pertaining to UFOs to researchers that included Paul Bennewitz and a number of others, aimed at misleading and, thus, discrediting them.

Former AFOSI Special Agent Richard Doty

Former AFOSI Special Agent Richard Doty

What I’ve presented here might be viewed as a justification, by some, for belief in conspiracies among the UFO community. To the contrary, this argument merely illustrates the way the “conspiracy theory” terminology and its related stereotypes have helped marginalize the UFO advocacy groups over time, despite the fact that historical precedent exists for actual “UFO conspiracies”, and even some degree of government involvement in them. However, it could be further argued that in a broader assessment of UFOs, a general belief in conspiracies among its proponents does not render any significant benefits.

Because of this, I have long argued the necessity for a more scientific and, when warranted, skeptical outlook on the phenomenon, applied by independent researchers and investigative organizations alike. In my recent essay, “Toward a Better UFOlogy: Applying Science to the Study of UAP“, I presented a number of reasons why the research community might benefit from less focus or adherence to the idea (or politcal movement, essentially) of UFO disclosure; in equal measure, I present a newly updated system of classifications for various UFO types, and finally, a set of “filters” for helping identify various unidentified flying objects, with the aim of being able to help observers make reasonable identifications of various conventional aircraft, objects, and natural phenomena that often lead to UFO reports. In my view, the proper ability to assess information in the truly “unidentified” UFO reports would help reduce our data set to a much smaller number of reports; the very best of these may then begin to represent a much clearer picture of what some UFO technologies (if they are indeed technological) actually are. 

In the end, if we are to ask whether UFOs are a matter of science, or one of pure conspiracy, there may not be any pure distinction. The UFO subject is inevitably linked to conspiracies, both of the real kind, and of the variety implied through popular terminology. However, despite the persistence of conspiracies in relation to all this, in order to reliably move forward in our understanding of this subject is to attempt to apply science to it; while UFOs may never fully escape the stigmas of fringe belief, they nonetheless represent a subject that could benefit from, and perhaps even be beneficial to, science.

Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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