Misinformation needs no introduction. You’ve seen it around, and a lot of it piggybacks on fringe subject matter. Sensationalism is a staple of the UFO genre. It can be argued that has to be accepted as the case before meaningful discussion becomes possible.
I asked a few writers and podcasters familiar with UFOs and similar subject matter if they would share some thoughts on how we explore such topics without getting overwhelmed in false information. How do we know what’s true and what’s not? How do we keep an open mind without making ourselves vulnerable to lies, opportunists, and cult-like thinking?
Sarah Scoles is a science journalist and writer of many articles published at outlets such as WIRED Science and Popular Science. She is the author of the books Making Contact: Jill Tarter and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence and They Are Already Here: UFO Culture and Why We See Saucers. Sarah replied in response to my request for a contribution for this blog post:
A story is just a story. No matter how
compelling someone’s sighting or experience, it is just that: theirs. Human
minds and memories are fallible things, especially when they’re encountering
something outside their everyday experience, and regardless of their owners’
expertise or power. No one interprets or recalls sensory input objectively. So
as meaningful as a story may be to a person, that significance does not itself
constitute evidence that their interpretation is correct.
Second, consider the source. What organization
or individual made this information public? How do they stand to benefit from
its dissemination? What might their motivations be? Who pays ’em? How might all
of that affect their coverage?
Third, dig into the attribution. Are sources anonymous,
and do the authors give a justification for why, or describe the vetting that
ensures these mystery people are legit? Many mainstream publications have
public policies on the use of such sources (many independent sites do not—but
you can always ask). Even if the source is legit, ask what their motivation is for talking.
Next, look at how much the piece relies on the
word of its sources (turns out, people can say pretty much anything they
want!), versus harder, more verifiable evidence. For example “Aliens landed on
the White House roof, according to a guy who says he saw it happen” versus
“four people who described the same thing independently” versus “security
footage and genetic analysis” versus “a declassified document.”
Speaking of documents, do the
authors/producers link to documents they cite? If not, why not? Are these
primary sources? Whenever you can, get your own
hands on primary sources.
After all that, ask honestly if you’re falling
prey to confirmation bias: the tendency to seek out and interpret evidence in
favor of existing beliefs. Confirmation bias is a normal human flaw—we all
exhibit it! But by being aware of the tendency, you can step back and get a
more objective view.
Finally, be willing to change your mind in the
face of new evidence. If you’re interested in the out-there stuff, separating
the wheat from the chaff—not just dressing the chaff up fancy to look like
wheat—lets you focus on investigations more likely to lead to something real
and interesting…even if it’s not what you set out searching for.
Carol Rainey is an award-winning filmmaker and writer of diverse topics and formats. Her works include the article The Priests of High Strangeness: Co-Creation of the “Alien Abduction Phenomenon”. Carol wrote:
If you’re new to the field of ufology, welcome. You’re in for a tour of great mystery, intellectual challenge, and ultimate puzzlement. Sometimes answers to the UFO phenomenon’s biggest questions seem to be right around the corner, if you just push on and run hard with whatever evidence you’ve turned up. But the mystery won’t easily unveil itself to you or anyone else. The study of UFOs, which shares turf with all things paranormal, often presents in deceptive, elusive, and ambiguous terms.
That’s why people at all levels of experience can truly get lost in the material they encounter – whether at conferences, in phone calls with experts or celebrities, in talk with others intrigued by the field, and in the plentiful websites, blogs and books on the subject. During the 10 years I worked closely with one abduction researcher, shooting a film about his work, there were times when even my most rational self lost the ability to distinguish factual events from those that were fanciful or fabricated. What reality was I living in? That’s an extremely uncomfortable place to be in.
There are steps you can take, early on, in the interest of keeping yourself balanced and level-headed:
Bring along your own internal bullshit detector – and use it frequently. The UFO subject often tosses out speculation and hoaxes right from center field. Will you be able to spot them without falling into them?
Try the buddy system. Plan to go on your journey with someone whose perspective you respect, whose judgement you have reason to trust.
Begin learning about UFOs and sightings first, only later tackling abduction cases.
Arm yourself with some deep reading in the literature of the field. There’s a surprising amount of it, including books by pilots, NASA engineers, psychiatrists, and military top brass. Recommended: Uninvited Guests: A Documented History of UFO Sightings by Richard Hall (1988), The Invisible College by Jacques Vallee (1975), The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry by J. Allen Hynek (1972), an astronomer and consultant to the Air Force. Early researcher John Keel offers fascinating takes on the phenomenon, as do books by Jerome Clark and The Trickster and the Paranormalby George Hansen. Eventually, you’ll want to explore work in anthropology, sociology, folklore, and religion. Start with The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by W.Y. Evans-Wentz.
After creating The Saucer Life for the last three years—and writing about flying saucer culture and other fringe topics for far longer—I’ve got several ideas about the best way to get started in studying these topics.
The most significant thing that has helped with the perennial problem of information (misinformation? disinformation?) overload is to go back to the beginning. No matter what the story or claim is (and no matter how authoritatively an author writes about it), you will be best served by finding as much of the original documentation supporting that story as possible. Only when you strip away the years, or even decades, of accumulated expert opinion and analysis can you get to the bones of an encounter or incident.
What does this look like in practice? The best example I have is John Keel and the Mothman complex of weirdness. While reading The Mothman Prophecies is an excellent thing to do, it doesn’t necessarily provide the most thorough understanding. Go back and check newspaper articles (there were a bunch).
Then, pair that with the documents available at johnkeel.com, which has an amazing array of Keel’s correspondence and notes from the time, years before he crafted The Mothman Prophecies. Will this tell you what the Mothman was? No. But it gives you a fuller perspective. Start there—get a grasp of the sources. Then, when you do engage with the small mountain of Mothman books and documentaries, you’ll have a sharper focus and a solid grounding in the facts.
So go back to the beginning. Obvious advice from a historian, but it’s the best way.
Jeb J. Card is a writer, researcher, and podcaster. His projects include In Research of… Podcast and his book, Spooky Archaeology: Myth and the Science of the Past. Jeb explained:
Some key aspects of understanding alternative worldviews or conspirituality:
First, understand the roots of these ideas. It is rare that an alternative concept has no ancestral roots. Many can be found largely recognizable in the later Victorian period (when many fields of science were beginning to professionalize). These notions in turn often have even older roots. To really understand claims about lost ancient knowledge and secret beings that provided it, one should look much deeper, through Theosophy, through the Renaissance fascination with hieroglyphs, through alchemy, back to the Classical fascination with Egypt as a source of knowledge. Seeing the same ideas emerge again and again puts a different perspective on them in the present, where the trappings of scientific inquiry are at times bolted onto much older concepts.
Second, listen to claims rather than trying to place them in your existing classificatory frames. You may think you know what a phenomenon is (UFOs are ET or UAVs, Bigfoot is a mystery hominin or mistaken identity, ghosts are souls or EM signatures or infrasound effects). Focusing on “is it this” or “is it real/not real” can overshadow organic aspects of claims and ideas. You may not like your Bigfoot to be with a UFO orb, or vice versa, but if that’s what a claimant says, then that’s what they say. A broader unobstructed view can put these notions into perspective, be it because you think they are part of some larger paranormal entity, or because they have similar social dynamics (strange knockings, non-human entities, objects flying through the air: Séance or Bigfoot hunt?).
Finally, don’t argue, describe. Descriptions and discussions of ideas, whether or not you find them credible, will do more to further your understanding and those of others, than yelling simple slogans on Twitter or getting into shouting matches.
Sharon A. Hill is the author of the book Scientifical Americans: The Culture of Amateur Paranormal Researchers (McFarland, 2017). Sharon contributed:
Paranormal and mysterious subjects are a tricky business. Forming thoughtful opinions about mysterious subjects takes considerably more commitment than searching the web and watching YouTube videos where about 75% of the content is shallow, promotional, and possibly made up.
The purpose of making strange claims and telling spooky stories is primarily to evoke an emotional response. It’s a secondary reaction to wonder if they are true and accurate. Listeners usually absorb what they see and hear and don’t apply too much critical thinking. Rationality ruins the magic and can create social pitfalls as a consequence of uncovering (deliberate or inadvertent) lies and deception. Curtailing logical rigor is essential to the process of promoting the strange idea. The researcher who is after the best answers must push against this flow of dramatic, exaggerated, repeated, or manufactured details and be committed to recognizing the lure of the fantastical to avoid being sucked in. This takes a considerable amount of experience and background knowledge – about perception, psychology, and persuasion – that most people will not gain until pondering and examining for years the human aspects that affect valid observations.
There are two crucial keys to developing thorough understanding of a controversial subject, both of which are inherent in the methods of scientific research:
1. What is the foundation that exists already? Find out about the earliest ideas in books or media and from where those concepts were pulled. Gain familiarity with the roots of the subject that existed pre-Internet, when there was a worthier effort put into scholarship and publishing. If you have no insight into the core writings and history of the subject, time and effort will be wasted, you will be confused and misinformed, and ultimately, will not succeed in gaining meaningful findings.
2. Know the arguments from all sides. That means diligently examining the ideas against the popular notions of the subject. For example, the best documented cases will have skeptical commentary. These perspectives keep you tethered to reality, even if you don’t accept a specific argument as valid. These two practices will help you build a filter for discerning useful information from garbage and experts from pretenders.
James Carrion is a writer, researcher, and former International Director of the Mutual UFO Network. He has authored multiple articles, papers, and books, including his latest, The Roswell Deception. James contributed:
UFOs and Magical ThinkingIf you are interested in the subject of UFOs but feel overwhelmed with the conflicting information you hear from the mainstream media, entertainment TV channels, UFO organizations, and the Internet, you are in good company. How is it possible to constructively learn more about this subject without going down a conspiracy rabbit hole from which you may never emerge? The answer in two words is “Critical Thinking” – the analysis of facts to form a judgment. But whose “facts” should you analyze as many of the public sources I just mentioned all tend to portray their UFO assertions as facts?Well let’s start with this fact. No human has ever presented public unequivocal evidence of a UFO artifact of extraterrestrial origin. Sure, many have claimed to have handled, tested, and warehoused such artifacts, but unlike human space debris that you can observe firsthand yourself at the Smithsonian Aerospace Museum, you cannot yet see or touch incontrovertible UFO physical evidence.But wait, how about the alleged “real” UFO artifacts in the possession of the US government? Until these “artifacts” are on public display, you may just as well believe that the US government also has the Ark of the Covenant warehoused away somewhere. In other words, it is all magical and wishful thinking until you can observe the physical authenticated evidence for yourself. In that respect, the “reality” of UFOs is similar to the reality of Bigfoot, suffering from the same lack of incontrovertible physical evidence. Until a Bigfoot body can be shown to the world, it is just another conspiracy, kept alive by magical thinking.Magical thinking is based on belief – an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists. It does not equate to truth but just the possibility that something may be true – like the existence of fairies, leprechauns and the Loch Ness monster. And therein lies the issue – most of the UFO information you are bombarded with from the aforementioned sources are based on beliefs and suppositions and not on hard evidence. If you allow yourself to forego unequivocal proof and settle for belief and magical thinking, then you have already gone down a conspiracy rabbit hole and no amount of logical persuasion may extract you from that orifice, even when presented with hard evidence to the contrary.Falling into UFO “Belief” may be fulfilling to some as it meets some innate psychological need, the same way that for Q-Anons, belief in a persona named Q exposing the diabolical cabal behind the “Deep State”, provides “meaning” and a sense of “order” in a complex and chaotic world. But allowing yourself to indulge in these fantasies may have a detrimental effect both on your mental wellbeing as well as the relationships with your families and friends. Magical thinking is a thirst that can never be quenched. I am not dissuading anyone from being curious about the subject of UFOs, but instead to approach the subject with a skeptical open mind that doesn’t accept someone else’s “facts” at face value, but questions their assumptions and suppositions and demands hard unimpeachable evidence.
Critical thinking is an important mindset to cultivate as one enters into research of any kind. Despite what we as humans want to know, however, our desire to learn more about the unknown is driven by how far we are willing to open our imagination, rather than our restraining faculties of reason or critical thinking. As our imagination grows parallel to access to new information, so too grows the threat that if something exists, even as an idea, it can be exploited, to a very large scale. And as more and more we become an interconnected society, keep in mind that what we experience as researchers today once existed only in the imagination of someone else’s science fiction. With a background in IT and a passion for high strangeness that has transcended the Dewey decimal system, I say to anyone seeking to learn more about the weird: become a student of science fiction and learn to think like a hacker.
Simple confidence and behavioral exploits once recognized by stage magicians and skeptics of the late 19th and 20th centuries taught in handbooks and methodologies for learning deceptions toward a “critical thinking” toolbox are horribly outdated, as they seem to lack this one notion:
If it exists, it can be exploited.
I’ll say it one more time:
If an idea exists, no matter how innocent, it can and most likely will at some point in time be exploited.
Welcome to Social Engineering 101.
Always question the behaviors and motivations of anyone claiming to be an authority, cultivating an audience, or cult following, but do the legwork before making broad based assumptions.
Avoid presenters and information sources with narcissistic tendencies, especially if they seem to marginalize others or have no problem supporting those who exploit their audiences.
Become a student of human behavior and learn how to think like someone distributing misinformation or disinformation. (See: motivations.)
Consider no “reliable source” an authority, no matter who they say they are or how romantic the story.
Watch and read as much golden age science fiction as you can, especially B-movies. It can be both fun and educational.
Draw the line with fascists or anyone that knowingly and willfully supports them.
As you might interview people on sensitive topics, treat them with great care especially pertaining to their own stories, alleged encounters, and beliefs, however verifiable. Nobody starts life believing in anything until they’re the product of an environment, a culture, or a society. Make every effort to understand the origins and cultural issues which plague topics of high strangeness, particularly Eurocentric anthropologic or folkloric perspectives.
Realize at the core of every movement is the opportunity for an exploit, even if it involves people who seem to be genuine.
Someone who is very good at deception will blur the lines between fiction and reality, often presenting nuggets of truth to a larger unverifiable claim.
Become familiar with principles of psychological operations, games (i.e. – ARGs) and learn how people and groups of people are targeted and exploited, whether motivations seem clear or muddy.
And finally, take an oath of ethics to intentionally do no harm and seek to minimize harm, always.
I’ve always been interested in the weird. Some of my earliest memories include weird happenings that would fit in any modern experiencer’s account. When I was 10 I had what I’ll call my first sighting.
My mom came rushing into the house, absolutely ecstatic, claiming there was a UFO down the
road and we had to go see it. Being curious, my brother and I loaded in the car with our mom
and we took off to investigate this mystery. It wasn’t long before we found it. There in the sky, lit
strangely, and traveling slowly and silently, was a large white oval. It was traveling right above us
on the busy road. In that moment my entire world outlook shifted, and while I’d had other
strange experiences that pre-dated this, I knew this was an important moment.
Then, silently it started to turn, it’s shape changed. It made a slow wide arc above us
on the crowded Central Florida thoroughfare and we saw it change shape. The words Coca-Cola
were emblazoned upon its side. We had been chasing the Coca-Cola blimp. Up until this point
I had seen plenty of blimps, the Goodyear blimp was a mainstay in Central Florida. But, I had
never seen one directly from behind, at dusk, and that was key.
This experience taught me a valuable lesson that I continue to carry with me. There is indeed
wonder and mystery in the world. However, we must be cautious before assuming concrete
conclusions about the reality of such events. Since then I’ve seen many other truly fantastical
things that I may never be able to explain. In light of this experience though, I’ll be extremely
careful before attempting to define them prematurely. In closing, stay curious, driven, and open, but above all: if you think you know what something is, be willing to be wrong.
Thank you very much to all who generously contributed to this blog post. I appreciate each of your time and attention.
And thank you for reading. The time and attention of readers is appreciated as well.
Let’s do our parts to try to keep the path to truth as unobstructed and accessible as possible. It’s up to each of us in our own ways.
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