The 1990s were a high-water mark for public interest in UFOs and alien abduction. Shows like “The X-Files” and Fox’s “alien autopsy” hoax were prime-time events, while MIT even hosted an academic conference on the abduction phenomenon.
But in the first decade of the 21st century, interest in UFOs began to wane. Fewer sightings were reported, and established amateur research groups like the British Flying Saucer Bureau disbanded.
In 2006 historian Ben Macintyre suggested in The Times that the internet had “chased off” the UFOs. The web’s free-flowing, easy exchange of ideas and information had allowed UFO skeptics to prevail, and, to Macintyre, people were no longer seeing UFOs because they no longer believed in them.
Data seemed to back up Macintyre’s argument that, when it came to belief in UFOs, reason was winning out. A 1990 Gallup poll found that 27 percent of Americans believed “extraterrestrial beings have visited Earth at some time in the past.” That number rose to 33 percent in 2001, before dropping back to 24 percent in 2005.
But now “The X-Files” is back, and Hillary Clinton has even pledged to disclose what the government knows about aliens if elected president. Meanwhile, a recent Boston Globe article by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie suggests that belief in UFOs may be growing.
She points to a 2015 Ipsos poll, which reported that 45 percent of Americans believe extraterrestrials have visited the Earth.
So much for reason.
Why does Western society continue to be fascinated with the paranormal? If science doesn’t automatically kill belief in UFOs, why do reports of UFOs and alien abductions go in and out of fashion?
To some extent, this is political. Even though government agents like “Men in Black” may be the stuff of folklore, powerful people and institutions can influence the level of stigma surrounding these topics.
Sociologists of religion have also suggested that skepticism is countered by a different societal trend, something they’ve dubbed “re-enchantment.” They argue that while science can temporarily suppress belief in mysterious forces, these beliefs will always return – that the need to believe is ingrained in the human psyche.
A new mythology
The narrative of triumphant reason dates back, at least, to German sociologist Max Weber’s 1918 speech “Science as a Vocation,” in which he argued that the modern world takes for granted that everything is reducible to scientific explanations.
“The world,” he declared, “is disenchanted.”
As with many inexplicable events, UFOs were initially treated as an important topic of scientific inquiry. The public wondered what was going on; scientists studied the issue and then “demystified” the topic.
Modern UFOlogy – the study of UFOs – is typically dated to a sighting made by a pilot named Kenneth Arnold. While flying over Mount Rainier on June 24, 1947, Arnold described nine disk-like objects that the media dubbed “flying saucers.”
A few weeks later the Roswell Daily Register reported that the military had recovered a crashed flying saucer. By the end of 1947, Americans had reported an additional 850 sightings.