UFO reports declining: Several social factors involved

An article in Gizmodo today focused on the question of why UFO sightings (reported to NUFORC and MUFON – the major U.S. organizations who record these claims) are in decline since 2012 – a 30 to 40 percent drop from 2012 to 2017. When Jennings Brown, the journalist, contacted me Friday to talk about it, a few things came to mind. In contrast to the opinion of one leader in the UFO community quoted in the piece, I refuse to cop out with an untested, unsupported sci-fi-inspired answer to this trend. I suspect the real answer is social and far more complicated than we can easily tease out.

The UFO organizations admit the decline. The trend is surprising because UFOs remain in the news and popular in media products. Reports of encounters with weird things tend to increase when the weird things get initial publicity.

More people are carrying digital cameras and video recorders at all times – the technology should enable us to get better evidence that strange things occur as described. But this hasn’t happened. The same argument can be made for any paranormal claim – ghosts, poltergeists, Bigfoot, lake beasts, various Fortean odd events, etc. This particular angle is a bit different. Even if you are driving along a road, glancing out the window late at night, or not a smartphone user (lots of older people are not), it appears that when you see a weird thing in the sky, you aren’t calling the self-named experts to report it as important. Why might that be?

There are three basic reasons I can list for the decline:

  1. People aren’t seeing UFOs. Do people not see lights in the sky because we are not looking up, not outside at all, or the light pollution is too bad?
  2. People assume it’s not a UFO or not worthy of talking about. They brush it off because they assume it’s nothing special or they can’t substantiate their claim with a picture or video. There may still be a stigma or it’s not worth the hassle to report.
  3. The report never makes it to the organization for other reasons. Witnesses don’t know of or don’t trust the organization enough to report it. UFO organizations have not exactly established themselves as credible outlets for research. Perhaps citizens don’t even want to call up their local police or the police don’t pass on the report.

I’m not a participant in UFO insider discussion circles, however, I can imagine a few social aspects that may be at play for this decline of reports based on social trends. As I told Gizmodo – this is a culture of “pictures or it didn’t happen”. I had a few experiences of my own where I didn’t pull out my camera because I was too busy staring at the perceived anomaly trying to figure out what it was. Suddenly, it was too late to snap off a shot. Perhaps people don’t want to face the inevitable question of “why didn’t you take a video?” Regardless, no point and shoot handheld camera is going to capture a clear, definitive record of a light in the sky. It’s not going to do justice to a black triangle or a speeding trail. UFOs as described today are not conducive to easy documentation. They aren’t a metallic ship hovering in the backyard like the decades past. Consider the much-hyped UFOs of the past few years looked more like fast-moving insects (which they actually seemed to be), flares, or “tic-tacs” (of the To the Stars Academy publicity releases).

The skies are busier than ever before with planes, helicopters, promotional lighting effects, flying paper lanterns, scientific measuring devices, fireworks, and drones. I’ve had what I’m fairly certain was a drone encounter myself at night. It was really weird. At first. What if most people just assume that the weird thing they see is a military test craft, drone, or new-fangled flying device instead of an alien craft? Or, what if they think there is no point in reporting it because no one will listen or the government is covering things up and hiding the truth? What if they think they are being pranked or spied upon? There’s no data on this.

Jan Harzon does MUFON no favors (though it’s already in the crapper on his watch with incidents of blatant racism and infighting) by saying that you can’t catch UFOs on camera because “UFOs are basically manipulating space-time. And when they do that, it requires a high electromagnetic field. That distorts the images.” Coming from a group that proclaims themselves as scientific, this is absurd, but not surprising because they have regularly been ridiculous. The leadership at MUFON is not scientific but way off into the fringes of reality. The disconnect is stark between their agenda to legitimize conspiratorial thinking, coverups and paranormal concepts to explain UFOs and that of their investigator who interviews the witness by the book to ask what she saw in the sky. MUFON seems intent on marching headlong into the paranormal dark corners. Science has failed them – there is no better evidence for UFOs as alien craft (from outside our space or dimension) than there was decades ago. So, they slip down the supernatural slope in order to retain their belief, invoking ideas that sound marvelous but can’t be tested. They promote a scary agenda of distrust and lies instead of one of inquiry and rigor. I wouldn’t call them if I think I saw a UFO either!

I would like to see a group seriously investigate witness reports without the warped agenda that MUFON has. It’s been demonstrated repeatedly that crowdsourcing of “baffling” cases can be solved in hours by those who know something about physics, aircraft design and technology, and how to look up the right stuff on Google. It’s not that difficult.

I don’t know enough about this sliver of our pop culture to expound more. But it’s interesting to think about. Are UFOs on the decline in the public consciousness? How are the ideas changing? Has the concept of alien visitation (with belief at 26% of the population) been diffused by the internet and media so that people no longer need to report it to an organization? Or are these paranormal concepts coalescing and moving away from the purview of authorities altogether?

Chime in if you know some other influencing factors.

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11 thoughts on “UFO reports declining: Several social factors involved

  1. The so called UFO phenomenon is a social and cultural phenomenon. As such, UFO sightings decline when the society changes. That is, people do not perceive “strange” things in the sky as alien ships as often as they used to because folklore has changed as the society changed. Folklore in society influences peoples thinking and perception. One day UFO sightings will be just as rare as claims of sightings of goblins are today.

  2. Lots of good questions here for some social scientists. There was a time when many police Depts. passed reports on to MUFON and latter NUFORC, maybe they’re not doing it anymore. I do know that UFO reports to local planetariums and observatories here in Central Pa have virtually ceased, compared to what used to happen more than a decade ago. Maybe “Uforia” has finally peaked, with obsessives now on the Internet. – Bob Young

  3. I agree on the changing folklore. That’s a given. But this is about seeing lights and literal flying objects they can’t identify in the sky which people have always claimed to see. There has been much said about the concept of lights and visitations interpreted long ago as angels, and fairies, now aliens and ultraterrestrials. FLying things have also been viewed in various ways depending on the time. The interpretation is sociocultural but the physical descriptions (particularly of lights) can be quite similar through time. People also still report goblins, notably in Zimbabwe, and post YouTube videos of fantastic creatures in their neighborhood. This stuff may fade out of fashion but it doesn’t totally go away. I see no trend that UFO sightings will ever be rare as there will always be actual things in the sky to misinterpret.

  4. Regarding reporting to police and local scientists. I thought of that too, Bob. There certainly might be something to that. I agree it’s almost certainly a social thing, and has nothing to do with, say, aliens not really caring to visit anymore, which is one conclusion I didn’t include for obvious reasons.

  5. I think the declining reports of UFO sightings can be attributed to most of them now accumulating in my dear neighbor’s smart phone.

    As bright and generous as she is as a neighbor and friend, she tends to see any bright light in the sky as a mystery…and unfortunately I get barraged in emails and poolside discussions with the images she has collected. Fortunately, we have “agreed to disagree” after a moderately uncomfortable discussion where I pointed out the various aberrations and distortions that occur with any lens (be it camera or human eye) chromatic, comatic, spherical, astigmatism, field curvature and so on. Things came to a head when I mentioned the word ‘pareidoeila’ and she thought I meant ‘paranoia.’

    One night, after I sounded skeptical about a particular bright light in the sky that supposedly was following her, we agreed to take her Jeep out in the neighborhood for a “proving run.” After 30 minutes, I honestly and quietly observed that all I could see was the same bright light in about the same spot, depending on which street we turned onto. I did admit that the light appeared to rise, minutely, when we pulled over on a side street and viewed it against a particular tree branch. As with all the photos and videos she had shown me, I pointed out that taking photos and videos on her cell cam while dangerous driving around the city was not exactly scientific observation…not matter how many blurry, streaky, images she collected (and there are hundreds).

    I suspect Sharon’s third point is the operative one here: she doesn’t report the various following lights, drones, and mysterious aircraft dropping leaflets (which I explained as the aicraft’s aft light or anti-collision tail light) to police because, as she says, she “is not trying to prove anything.” She just finds them “curiously unexplainable” and is looking for some kind of back-up or confirmation that something strange is going on out there.

    At one point she sent photos to a university research lab (through a 3rd party) and the results she reported to me (through a 3rd party) was that the prestigious lab “could not explain” the photos.

    So, rest easy scientifical Americans: the UFOs are still being recorded and are safely stored in my neighbor’s Jeep-ready smart phone.

  6. Yes, there will always be actual things in the sky to misinterpret. But I don’t think they will be misinterpreted as extraterrestrial ships as much as they used to, which may cause the whole UFO phenomenon to fade away ( even though it may not fade entirely ). Maybe people will interpret things in the sky more correctly, just as people nowadays correctly interpret stones, bushes, trees and branches seen at night as stones, bushes, trees and branches instead of as goblins, fairies, etc.

  7. I see no trend that UFO sightings will ever be rare as there will always be actual things in the sky to misinterpret.

    And the occasional ACTUAL Weird Ones.

  8. Maybe the whole UFO folk mythology has reached a stable plateau and there is nothing more to add to it?

    Or the passive fatalism that comes with Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory?

  9. And the occasional ACTUAL Weird Ones.

    Which sightings are the actual weird ones?

  10. Or nobody can look up from their smartphone screens long enough to actually SEE a UFO…

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