Q: I heard you on an episode of the StarTalk Radio Show, and host Seth Shostak asked why governments around the world would hide evidence of extraterrestrial life. You mentioned that the reason conspiracy theorists often give—to avoid mass panic—was absurd because polls show that many people (about a third) already think aliens exist. But if the government admitted extraterrestrial contact, that still leaves two-thirds of the people who would panic. Isn’t that a significant number?
— Jorge C.
A: The above query echoes one I’ve often encountered when dealing with people who are convinced that governments around the world are engaged in an astonishingly effective and sustained effort to hide evidence of UFOs, alien bodies, crashed saucers, advanced technologies, and so on. Believers have spent decades marshalling a superficially impressive list of alleged coverups: Area 51; crashes at Roswell, Aztec, and other places; the alien base at Dulce, New Mexico; “disappearing” alien implants; Men in Black who have threatened, paid off, silenced, or killed thousands of eyewitnesses; and so on.
All in service of … what, exactly? Why would the government go to such an extensive effort and expense trying to keep hundreds of thousands of people across the globe involved with NASA, the Air Force, the Pentagon, the FBI, and so on—along with all their current and former counterparts in dozens of other countries—from simply acknowledging what many people already assume to be true: that aliens exist?
The percentage of people who believe in extraterrestrial life varies by time, question phrasing, and poll; on StarTalk, I had referenced a 2005 Baylor Religion Study reporting that about a third of the public believes in UFOs (for an in-depth examination, see Paranormal America by Christopher Bader, Joseph Baker, and F. Carson Mencken). More recent polls suggest that the percentage has increased; for example, a 2017 poll from research and consulting firm Glocalities found that “sixty-one percent of people believe that there is some form of life on other planets. Seventeen percent rule this out and only 22% say that they don’t know. Forty-seven percent of people believe in the existence of intelligent alien civilizations in the universe. Twenty-six percent rule this out and 28% say that they don’t know” (https://tinyurl.com/y9um7ymc).
If that’s correct, then surely 61 percent of the public would not be “panicked” to find out that they’re right about the existence of alien life. So that leaves 39 percent, as the numbers break down above, who don’t already think alien life exists. (The UFO conspiracy doesn’t suggest that the public would panic only if aliens were known to be present and active here on Earth—instead of merely existing somewhere “out there”—though a 2017 Chapman University survey found that 35 percent of those polled believe that extraterrestrials have indeed visited Earth.)
But just because a person doesn’t believe that something is true doesn’t necessarily mean that they would panic if they found out they were wrong. After all, people discover they’re mistaken in their beliefs (on subjects both minor and major) all the time, and it doesn’t send them into spirals of panic, hysteria, or existential despair. Of course revealing the “truth” about aliens need not involve introducing the Martian ambassador to the world or displaying the Roswell crash victims at the Smithsonian; it could simply be displaying messages received by SETI from other worlds.
Those who don’t think alien life exists might in fact be delighted at an official acknowledgement that extraterrestrials have been contacted. Or they may be indifferent, or they might indeed panic. The response would not only vary by individual but also depend on many factors ranging from how closely the alien life resembles us to whether we are greeted with gifts or War of the Worlds–style glowing beams of destruction. For the sake of argument, let’s say that the public’s reactions are evenly divided among those responses. Of the 26 percent of people who “rule out” the existence of intelligent alien civilizations, that means that only 8.6 percent of the people would panic, while 91.4 percent of the world would not.
Least I Could Do
So the question remains: Why would the world’s governments put so much effort into preventing a possible social disruption among a small minority of people? In 2017 and 2018, millions of people took to the streets protesting Trump administration policies, racial injustice, economic conditions, sexual harassment, and other issues in cities around the world. In some places, the military has been called out to keep the peace; how much more disruptive to public order and government stability would revealing the existence of aliens be? Governments can’t even control small-scale panics within their own borders—rumors of nuclear war, for example, or Ebola outbreaks—so why would aliens be any different?
While governments surely would prefer not to have their citizens panic, preventing public panics does not seem to be a high priority for the government in America or anywhere else. The U.S. government couldn’t even prevent an employee of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency from sending out an emergency alert mistakenly warning of an incoming ballistic missile attack in January 2018—at a time of escalating tensions between the United States and North Korea. For nearly forty minutes, Hawaiians panicked and took shelter, before the public was notified that it had been a false alarm. Around the world there are far greater threats to public order than people panicking over a formal admission that aliens are real.
The UFO coverup conspiracy would have to span decades, cross international borders, and transcend political administrations. It’s one thing to say that a given president, or even a country, might be able to successfully hide evidence of a crashed saucer, extraterrestrial technology, or bodies. But it’s quite another to claim that all of the world’s governments, in perpetuity, regardless of which political party is in power and even among enemies, have colluded to continue the coverup.
Robert Sheaffer, author of Bad UFOs and a former Skeptical Inquirer columnist, told me:
It’s an article of faith among many UFO proponents that the U.S. government knows that UFOs are alien craft and that they even have debris from crashed saucers, but they keep it all highly classified. Hence there is a big push for so-called “Disclosure,” when the government will supposedly reveal all it knows about extraterrestrials. But if UFOs are prone to crash now and then, as they allegedly are, there is no reason to think that the U.S. is the only government in the world to be hiding alien secrets. Does Canada possess UFO secrets? Does the United Kingdom? France? Germany? Japan? Russia? China? The conspiracy would have us believe that all the major world governments, which can agree on nothing else, have all agreed to keep their secrets about extraterrestrials well-concealed.
The American intelligence community unanimously concluded that the Russian government has in recent years invested considerable time and effort in sowing fear and discord among Americans using social media. However, if this UFO conspiracy theory is true, the Kremlin’s biggest weapon might merely be admitting that aliens exist. Israel and Iran want to blow each other off the face of the Earth but have secretly agreed to make sure people in other countries don’t learn about UFOs? The irony, of course, is that even if the world’s governments had proof of alien life and agreed to release it, the conspiracy theorists would just call it a “false flag” program of disinformation and demand to know what they’re not being told.