What UFO ‘Encounters’ Can Tell Us About Fake News

Meghan Bartels

Displayed with permission from Newsweek

People often mistake Kate Dorsch for someone who studies aliens. But Dorsch actually studies something else. A doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, she’s been researching UFO reports collected by the U.S. government.

The Air Force began compiling these accounts during the early stages of the Cold War as part of a program called Project Blue Book. In 1966, it hired the University of Colorado to further investigate stories of alien “encounters” by ordinary Americans. Project Blue Book ended three years later, and the American Philosophical Society eventually archived part of the project in Philadelphia.

Three years ago, Dorsch, a historian, dug through the archives. She found bags of dirt from where flying saucers purportedly landed and even a piece of foil that someone said fell off a UFO. In the process, she discovered another story—one about the struggle between the UFO “witnesses” and the scientists who didn’t believe them—a struggle that speaks to more recent debates over climate change and fake news.

In the archived accounts, Dorsch says, earnest believers in UFOs had trouble explaining what they saw—mysterious objects, bright lights and odd shapes in the sky. But the scientists involved in the project considered them crackpots and doggedly tried to negate the idea of flying saucers. Dorsch says she was struck by “how hard people work to…dissuade the gullible American public from believing in this.”

But inside those responses, Dorsch also saw scientists trying to figure out how to communicate to laypeople. In the documents, for example, academics offered UFO witnesses better ways to tell their stories: Can you use this chart to tell us how bright the light was? What coin best describes the size of the object?

Meanwhile, the observers urged the scientists to take them seriously. “I saw this thing. I’m a trustworthy person. I’m not a drunk,” Dorsch says many of these narratives indicate about the witnesses. “I’m educated. I’m an amateur astronomer.”

The rift between debunkers and believers has its roots in the evolution of science. For centuries, scientific discovery was about simple observation: taking notes, making predictions—things that anyone could do. By the mid-1900s, science had fractured into subfields, each with its own requirements for expertise. Soon, an individual’s knowledge was no longer an appropriate credential. Instead, people in the field judged one another based on the degrees they earned and the books they wrote.

That shift left people vulnerable to charlatans, people who fake their credentials and promote ideas that scientists consider incorrect. Snake oil is much more palatable when it’s sold by someone whose name is followed with MD. Dorsch points to guests on the TV show Ancient Aliens who call themselves doctors and have a list of published books attached to their names. “There are people who feel like they’re not being listened to by bodies in the establishment,” she says, “and they’re looking for someone to tell them that what they’re feeling is real.”

The division over what constitutes authority, Dorsch says, means people need to pay more attention to where they get their facts. “Who you trust,” she says, “changes the information that you have.”

It also leads people to seize any opportunity to crush opposing viewpoints. Take, for example, minor quibbles among scientists about climate change. Newer, more accurate ways of measuring and modeling temperatures make it look as if the planet has warmed more slowly than scientists expected. That sparked debates among scientists, but it didn’t call into question the consensus about climate change. Yet some who were trying to disprove the consensus took the debate as evidence in their favor. Such a response “is a total corruption of exactly what the scientists were saying for decades,” Dorsch says. “Once you set up criteria for what counts as fact, what counts as truth, someone will find a way to manipulate that.”

The recent clashes over fake news and climate change denial bear a startling resemblance to the clash on display in the UFO archives. People don’t like authority figures telling them they’re wrong, and they don’t like being ignored. “What is essentially on trial is…the qualifications of expertise,” Dorsch says. “It’s only a matter of time before someone comes along and says, ‘I hear you.’”

Did you like this? Share it:
Posted by on March 2, 2018. Filed under COMMENTARY/OPINION,Science. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry
Back to Main Page

6 Responses to What UFO ‘Encounters’ Can Tell Us About Fake News

  1. Michael John Scott Reply

    March 2, 2018 at 4:47 pm

    This is really a fascinating read and one which every enquiring mind should devour. I get this, and I get it completely, although I admit I am a believer in alien life, even though I’ve never experienced anything to lead me to believe that beyond the sheer volume of observer accounts which cannot be denied.

  2. Rachael Reply

    March 2, 2018 at 6:56 pm

    I saw a UFO once but no one believed me then and I doubt anyone would believe me now. I’ll be fake news.

  3. Glenn Geist Reply

    March 3, 2018 at 10:37 am

    When i was in college, I saw this glowing thing in the sky. It seemed to be hovering, but drifting slowly. Eventually it descended and I followed in in my car, slowly realizing it was not a large thing high up, but a small thing and as it landed on someone’s front lawn it revealed itself as a hot air balloon made from a dry cleaner bag, some soda straws and birthday cake candles. But hey, it was unidentified, flying and an object.

    For me it’s not about the question of whether high-tech aliens exist, but about what I see as the impossibility of interstellar travel. The amount of energy needed to bring something much more massive than a subatomic particle to near light speed and then down again isn’t obtainable and even then we’d most likely be talking about thousands of years or much more transit time and the process would be apparent as whatever it was decelerated from millions of miles per hour. It would be brighter than the sun and use more power.

    It’s possible that people have been seeing things in the sky forever, but minds fill in the blanks and after we learned to fly we began to stop seeing them as ghosts or gods or witches and saw flying machines.

    It’s also puzzling that “aliens” would keep puttering around without apparent purpose for half a century and it’s simply hilarious that we would believe in aliens that look like little people and would abduct and probe and run away. For now, hysteria and deceit, illusion and delusion and wishful thinking tell the story. I sort of agree with Steve Hawking – if they made such an impossible, enormous effort to come here, they would have a purpose and likely a purpose we would not like but quickly experience.

  4. Neil Bamforth Reply

    March 3, 2018 at 5:23 pm

    I read some theory years back that ‘the missing link’ as that bit of human evolution is called was down to aliens.

    Apparently they artificially inseminated some ‘ape women’s and humanity was born.

    Half alien half ape.

    Must be the alien half that’s ducked everything up as apes are cool

  5. Neil Bamforth Reply

    March 3, 2018 at 5:24 pm

    Fucked auto correct not ducked for fucks sake!!!

  6. Glenn Geist Reply

    March 4, 2018 at 9:42 am

    Ockham told us to stop inventing things to support conjecture, but that seems to be the basis for everything from religion to politics. It’s 100% clear that the genomes of apes are nearly identical to ours and are not the products of alien insemination. The possibility of alien insemination is not there and this thing started as a way to get around evolution. You see god was an alien and. . .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.