Is the Truth About UFOs Out There?

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In the 1990s, the search for intelligent extraterrestrial life was a major cultural preoccupation. From X-Files to Independence Day, aliens were in the air. They may have been replaced by vampires on the screen, but belief in alien encounters hasn’t gone away. Recently the famous Google logo mysteriously morphed into a crop circle, a circular spacecraft hovering above a verdant field.

Candidate Dennis Kucinich talked about seeing an “unidentified flying object” during a 2007 presidential debate, and he’s not alone—even among politicians with presidential aspirations. Jimmy Carter famously reported sighting a UFO several years before he ran for president.

The odds an American adult reports having witnessed a UFO are 1 in 5.81. Men are more likely than women to report witnessing UFOs—1 in 5.59 men report a sighting, compared with 1 in 6.06 women. College-educated people (1 in 5.43) are strikingly more likely than those with no college education (1 in 7.04).

Not everyone who believes they’ve seen a UFO is convinced it is alien. According to an Ipsos/McClatchy poll, 52% of Americans believe in UFOs. But based on a separate study done by Baylor University, only 1 in 4.07 adults believes that “some UFOs are probably spaceships from other worlds.”

In the 1990s, that question of whether people who report alien encounters are describing actual events or something else—celestial objects they do not recognize or hallucinations produced by psychosis, trauma, or even dreams—divided two prominent academics. John Mack, a Pulitzer-prize winning author and professor at Harvard Medical School, spent over a decade studying 200 men and women who had reported such experiences and concluded that, in many cases, an actual encounter had occurred.

Carl Sagan, also a Pulitzer-prize winning author, and professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences at Cornell University, responded to Mack’s assertions by pointing out the anecdotal nature of the accounts and the absence of hard physical evidence. Sagan insisted the same rigorous standards should be applied to evidence of extraterrestrial life as to other areas of scientific inquiry—in part because, while he remained skeptical of existing accounts, he was excited by the possibility.

Sagan believed it was theoretically possible for life from other parts of the solar system to visit earth, just as he believed humans might someday soon set up shop far from home. In fact, before his death in 1996, he recorded a greeting for earthlings who would one day find themselves working on Mars.

The topic of UFOs is of extraordinary interest. As of August 2009, Britain’s National Archives had made available to the public more than 4,000 pages detailing hundreds of reported UFO sightings from 1981 to 1996, in response to requests for information. According to CNN, 90% of these sightings have been explained, but there are cases which remain mysterious. In the US, a 2005 documentary, “Dan Aykroyd Unplugged on UFOs,” features former NASA astronaut Gordon Cooper describing his own UFO sighting, along with the actor expounding on his fascination with accounts of alien encounters, including abductions.

A London insurance firm, Goodfellow Rebecca Ingrams Pearson, offers insurance protection for those worried they might be kidnapped by aliens. They temporarily stopped selling the policies in the wake of the 1997 mass suicide of the Heaven’s Gate cult outside San Diego. The cult’s members, who hoped to be transported by UFO to a circling comet, had taken out abduction insurance before killing themselves. According to The Guardian, the insurance company has sold more than 20,000 policies.

Many have decided it’s better to be safe than sorry: The Fire Officer’s Guide to Disaster Control, a training manual for firefighters, contains a chapter on UFO preparedness called “Enemy Attack and UFO Potential.” And astronomers at Nanjing, China’s Purple Mountain Observatory recently confirmed that an unidentified flying object appeared near the sun during a total eclipse on July 22, 2009 and was filmed for 40 minutes. This isn’t uncommon in Nanjing, however: another astronomer at the observatory reported that “UFOs visit the provincial capital every five or 10 years.”

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