12 UFO Myths Scientists Wish You Would Stop Believing
There are all sorts of things flying around the universe that we earthlings haven't yet figured out how to identify.
MYTH: A flying saucer landed at Roswell, New Mexico
Back in 1947 when rancher Mac Brazel found mysterious debris (including rubbery material, sticks, and metallic-looking fabric) in his field, he showed it to the sheriff, who called the nearby Roswell Army Air Field. An investigator from the base called the crashed object a “flying saucer,” which got printed in the local newspaper and jump-started conspiracy theories that are still debated today. The next day, the War Department in Washington published a statement calling the object a weather balloon, but UFO buffs were skeptical, and they weren’t wrong that the government was covering something up—though it wasn’t an extraterrestrial visit. In 1994, the Pentagon finally declassified its files on an initiative called Project Mogul, an effort to spy on Soviet nuclear tests that involved sending 700-foot-long balloons high into the atmosphere equipped with radar reflectors and sonic equipment—and that’s what landed in Brazel’s field near Roswell more than 70 years ago. Many UFO enthusiasts still don’t believe it: “Prosaic stimuli can trick people’s brains into perceiving really weird things,” says James Oberg, a space journalist, and historian and former NASA engineer (and self-proclaimed “lifelong space nut”).
MYTH: But, wasn’t there a film of scientists conducting an autopsy on an alien from the Roswell crash?
In the mid-1990s, a 17-minute film surfaced that was said to show an autopsy of one of the aliens retrieved from the 1947 crash near Roswell. Most people were sure it was a hoax at the time, and eventually, the special effects artist who created it admitted as much.
MYTH: There was a mass sighting of a UFO flying over Arizona in 1997
For sure, hundreds of people saw an unusual pattern of lights over Nevada, Arizona, and Mexico on a spring night in 1997. They were described as forming a V shape and hovering or floating overhead for five to ten minutes. Over the next few months, as the “Phoenix Lights” story gained steam, with photos and videos making their way into the national media and UFO enthusiast circles, the Air National Guard spoke up, saying it had dropped flares during nighttime exercises. “Human perceptual processes react to sudden unusual visual stimuli by pulling up past experiences and filling in the gaps,” Oberg says. That’s why so many people were unwilling to believe they’d seen flares—their brains had already turned the unusual sight into a V-shaped UFO.
MYTH: Hundreds of people saw UFOs flying over Russia in 1967
The Arizona incident wasn’t the first mass UFO sighting—in the fall of 1967, there was a rash of reports over southern Russia, coming from all sorts of witnesses including rural villagers, commercial airline pilots, and astronomers in observatories. They all saw crescent-shaped glowing objects, and alien fever struck the country. “It actually was the forward-thrusting braking rocket plume of a test flight of a Soviet space-to-ground thermonuclear warhead delivery system,” Oberg says. The government was conducting secret tests, and, Oberg says, “once Moscow officials realized the witnesses were actually providing detailed performance descriptions of… their treaty-busting first-strike weapon, they terminated all media coverage of the sightings.” You’ll get spooked reading about these UFO sightings that no one can explain.
MYTH: When lots of people see a UFO, it must be an extraterrestrial visit
As the Phoenix Lights and Russian mass sightings show, lots of people agreeing they saw something unusual does not necessarily mean they saw something that was sent or piloted by extraterrestrial visitors. Oberg says that known events like a satellite reentry, which can cause a swarm of fireballs, often are interpreted by a diverse group of uninformed witnesses in similar ways; they all think they’ve seen “a large structured object with lights mounted on it.”
MYTH: Area 51 is where the government stashes alien remains and crashed spaceships
We actually don’t know what’s hidden on the military base known as Area 51 in the Nevada desert, because it’s top-secret. It started as a test site for high-altitude U-2 bomber planes in the 1950s, when Roswell fever was still rampant—commercial pilots who saw the U-2s flying above 60,000 feet were reporting UFOs left and right, but the U.S. government wasn’t explaining what they’d seen because of the project’s secrecy, according to Popular Mechanics. Since then, the site has been used for testing other experimental aircraft and possibly advanced weapons and military equipment, but that’s just one of the 10 things the government doesn’t want you to know about Area 51.
MYTH: The government hides UFO evidence from us
Well, this appears to be true, in the sense that the governments of the United States and Russia, at least, have historically preferred their citizens to believe that extraterrestrials have visited than to fess up and describe the top-secret military maneuvers that look so much like UFOs. But last year, the Pentagon admitted that it had funded a program called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program for several years, with the purpose of investigating reports of UFOs, including the videos of an object followed by Navy fighter jets over California from 2004. Although no one’s come up with an explanation for the object, Oberg says we shouldn’t automatically conclude that it’s an alien visitor. “The ‘residue fallacy’ of UFO arguments is: We can’t explain it; therefore, it’s a miracle.”
MYTH: Aliens have mutilated livestock
Cattle and sheep have been attacked in fields since humans started keeping them for agricultural purposes, and all evidence points to regular old predators as the most frequent perpetrators. Before farmers started blaming UFOs, they worried about mythical beasts like the chupacabra.
MYTH: Aliens built the great pyramids at Giza
Nope. There are people who argue that because we can’t figure out how the ancient Egyptians built them, they must have been created by extraterrestrial visitors. That’s the same mistake we make if we assume a bright light in the sky without a clear explanation must be a UFO. While archaeologists haven’t figured out just how it was done, the pyramids were tombs for the pharaohs and are covered with inscriptions and artwork depicting life in ancient Egypt. You’ll also want to check out the 13 weirdest things archaeologists have ever found.
MYTH: Aliens make circles in farm fields to send humans a message
Crop circles were first reported in the United Kingdom in the 1970s—they started out simple (just a circle) and became increasingly complex, to the degree that some represent fractal patterns or illustrate mathematical equations. While simple circles can be caused by diseased grain or weather anomalies such as waterspouts, these more sophisticated patterns are clearly created by someone on purpose. In many cases, humans have admitted to making them as hoaxes, but some remain unexplained. Is it possible that intelligent aliens are passing the time by visiting Earth to stomp patterns in farm fields?
MYTH: Astronauts have encountered UFOs in space, but aren’t allowed to talk about them
Did Buzz Aldrin see a UFO on his way to the moon in 1969? Almost certainly not. “As a space program veteran, I’m dismayed by how ordinary scenes from space are portrayed as UFO-related on the Internet,” Oberg says. “Stories have circulated for years that astronauts have encountered UFOs but are sworn to secrecy. I’ve dug deeply into those stories and they are either silly media misunderstandings or deliberate media hoaxes.”
MYTH: Extraterrestrial life doesn’t exist
Just because they believe there are simple explanations for many of the unexplained phenomena that UFO enthusiasts see as proof of alien visitors to Earth does not mean that skeptics don’t believe in extraterrestrial life, or even in intelligent alien visitors. “I can’t think of any reason why numerous intelligences can’t be thriving and moving throughout the universe, even nearby, with motivations and attitudes towards us far beyond our ability to comprehend,” Oberg says. “My skepticism of modern ‘ufology’ is derived neither from its goals nor its theoretical foundation, but from its demonstrated inability over the decades to separate the wheat from the chaff.” Definitive proof one way or another on whether aliens exist, however, is just one of the 15 science mysteries no one has explained.