The US Department of Defence is about to tell the world what America really knows about UFOs (spoiler alert … aliens have never been here). Writer at Large Neil Mackay uncovers the lies, hoaxes, mistakes and madness which explain why millions of us around the world believe ET is really amongst us

THE myth of UFOs is the world’s foundational conspiracy theory – from it, all the madness of the 21st century flows: QAnon, chemtrails, the New World Order, the Illuminati, 5G, even the ludicrous ‘hollow earth’ theory. Think of a crazy belief system, and it probably wouldn’t exist in its current form without the prototype UFO conspiracy theory.

Belief in alien visitations is so pervasive throughout the Western world that the Pentagon – the US Department of Defence – is about to release a wildly anticipated report into what the American government knows about UFOs. Expect to see it before the end of this month. Even though leaks indicate that – obviously – there’s never been any proof that aliens have visited Earth, prepare for global hysteria when the papers are released, and the inevitable claims of cover-up from legions of conspiracy theorists around the world.

Although, UFO obsession may seem relatively harmless – unlike QAnon, believing in grey aliens abducting Wisconsin farmhands isn’t a gateway drug which sets a person on a path to attacking the Capitol Building, for instance – the craze does have a dangerous effect in the modern era.

The voluminous and widespread misinformation passed of as ‘truth’ today, thanks to the endless peddling of falsehoods about UFOs, is toxic to debate in all its forms. If nonsense around UFOs goes unchallenged, then we’re on a slippery slope to any fantasy being allowed to slip into the bloodstream of public discourse without it being dismantled by proof, science, reason and common sense.

With truth an increasingly diminished currency in the digital age, it’s important to anatomise what really lies behind the UFO conspiracy theory and how it’s become so embedded in our culture – particularly if the US government is about to stoke the phenomenon on a global scale within days.

CONFESSIONS OF A UFOLOGIST

Writer and academic Neil Nixon is one of the UK’s leading Ufologists – an expert in UFO phenomena. At 61, he’s been studying UFOs his entire adult life. He’s also a thorough sceptic. His new book UFOs, Aliens and the Battle for the Truth is required reading for anybody who wants to understand why millions of people around the world believe aliens have either visited Earth or are here already.

“There’s explanations,” he says. “There’s meteorological explanations, there’s misidentification, there’s sightings of military hardware, there’s hoaxes, and there’s psychological explanations as well. But what there isn’t so far is proof that what’s being seen is extra-terrestrial.”

HeraldScotland: Ufologist Neil NixonUfologist Neil Nixon

That doesn’t mean every single strange sighting of unusual lights in the sky has been explained yet. But it does mean that there’s zero proof of any otherworldly explanation. A weird light does not equate with an alien visitation – and there’s plenty of quite prosaic explanations for such phenomena as we’ll see. Nixon points out that leaks relating to the Pentagon’s forthcoming UFO report show the US government is likely to say that there’s “phenomena out there which are baffling, but they’re very much of the opinion that it’s not extra-terrestrial”.

With no little irony, Nixon notes that the release of the Pentagon UFO report was ordered by Donald Trump. Clearly, if there’s anyone on Earth who might know if aliens had landed it would be the American President, and if there’s one person who held that office and might blab to the world that little green men really had visited Earth, then it would be the previous incumbent of the White House. Trump’s silence is probably the surest proof yet that no alien has ever come next or near the third rock from the Sun.

THE TRUTH IS OUT THEREYOU JUST DIDN’T LISTEN

The Pentagon report isn’t the first time that America or Britain has declassified intelligence relating to UFO sightings. The US General Accounting Office (GAO) declassified what the American government knew about the infamous Roswell case in the 90s. As a reminder: if UFOs are the archetypal conspiracy theory, then Roswell is the archetypal UFO event.

The myth goes that in 1947 an alien spacecraft crashed near Roswell, New Mexico. All sorts of claims were made: dead ETs were found and autopsied, alien technology was recovered and reverse-engineered. It set the scene for countless sci-fi tropes. At the time, it was quickly asserted that the UFO was in fact a crashed weather balloon. The explanation cut no ice, though – soon the government was believed to be engaged in a massive cover-up.

When the GAO released its report in 1994, the cause was indeed a weather balloon – however, it was a weather balloon from Project Mogul, a top secret military testing operation using high altitude balloons for espionage and surveillance. With the Roswell event taking place at the start of the Cold War, the US military at the time wasn’t about to release information disclosing secrets, and that reluctance simply fed the conspiracy theory. It’s a pattern that repeats itself many times: military silence fuelling ET paranoia.

HeraldScotland: A 'UFO' sightingA 'UFO' sighting

SECRET MILITARY HARDWARE

Many sightings of supposed UFOs have turned out to be glimpses of test aircraft in development. Stealth aircraft for example were – like all cutting edge military tech – developed in absolute secrecy. Their flight patterns, speed, the way Stealth aircraft were picked up on radar – or sometimes not picked up on radar despite been seen by members of the public – all seemed utterly out of the ordinary. When reports of strange craft in the skies emerged, the military once again couldn’t hold up its hands and say ‘don’t worry it’s not aliens, it’s just us developing a deadly weapon against the Soviets’.

Nixon says the same goes for other aircraft like the Blackbird – a long-range, high-altitude Mach 3+ strategic reconnaissance plane. When it was in development, says Nixon, “the Blackbird produced UFO reports from civilian radar operators as they didn’t realise there was an American military craft which could move that fast – it flew higher and faster than any aircraft of its generation”.

Recent famous footage showing fast moving objects in the sky caught on US airforce cockpit cameras is more than likely state of the art military drones that were still in development.

Sometimes misidentification isn’t down to secret military hardware, but just confusion by civilians about aviation. The famous Phoenix Lights in 1997 were widely sighted and reported as UFOs. In reality, the lights were caused by an aircraft dropping flares at night near a military base in Arizona.

WEIRD WEATHER AND STRANGE STARS

The other big reasons for misidentification are weather, natural phenomenon, and stars and planets. Take the famous Hessdalen Lights – a site of strange observations in the sky over Norway. It’s not alien craft, that’s for sure. Scientists hypothesise that large deposits of the rare element Scandium in the area are causing combustion of hydrogen, oxygen and sodium. Don’t forget, we may feel today’s science is hugely advanced but in truth it’s still in its infancy – we only developed airplanes in the early 1900s, and penicillin in 1928. There’s vast amounts about the world that we still don’t understand and won’t for generations.

Less than a decade before he became US president, Jimmy Carter reported seeing a weird light in the sky over Georgia. Carter had been trained in nuclear physics yet found himself baffled – along with other eyewitnesses. It turns out, once you examine the sky on the night in question, the weird light was actually Venus – the planet has made umpteen walk-ons as a UFO thanks to folks who don’t know the first thing, like most of us, about astronomy.

A HISTORY OF HOAXES

There’s also plain old hoaxing. The Hudson Valley UFO incident, says Nixon, “is still recorded as a true UFO event but the reality is … it was a bunch of amateur pilots deliberately creating a hoax. It was a pretty open secret”. Perhaps, the most famous of all UFO hoaxes is ‘the alien autopsy’ video.

Sometimes there appears to be a crossover between the misidentification of technology that’s in development and hoaxes. Back in the late 19th century there was spate of sightings of ‘phantom airships’ across the western world. The sightings took place at a time when the public knew that early flight was being developed (the Zeppelin was patented in 1895) but not yet achieved.

Nixon says the airship sightings reveal how many of these unexplained events occur at ‘cusp moments’ when there’s public excitement about an as yet unseen technology. The UFO craze kicked off in the early days of developing space flight. Perhaps some 19th century sightings were of prototype airships, perhaps others were by ‘fantasy prone’ figures – who we’ll hear more of shortly. The most likely explanation though is hoaxes by disreputable journalists.

Nixon says culture also shapes UFO reports. Until the mid-70s, sightings of ‘aliens’ came in all shapes and sizes, after Steven Spielberg’s ET and Close Encounters films, however, aliens suddenly took on their current guise known as ‘the greys’ – clearly influenced by the creatures Spielberg imagined.

HeraldScotland: A typical alien imageA typical alien image

FAIRY FOLK AND FANTASISTS

Of all the probable causes of UFO sightings, it’s the psychological explanation which is the most intriguing yet unexplored. Folklorists have compared medieval cases of reports of people being abducted by fairies with current alien abduction claims. The two phenomena are almost identical in terms of the stories told by ‘victims’. Individuals are taken away, usually at night, often from their bed. Strange beings talk to them and impart arcane knowledge.

There tends to be unwanted physical contact such as sex with a fairy creature or medical experiments by aliens. Time often passes at an irregular rate, and there’s – clearly – no proof it ever happened once the ‘victim’ has ‘returned’. Every culture throughout history has some sort of variant of these ‘fairy abduction’ stories. It’s a phenomenon that’s always been with us and some alien sightings may very likely be the latest, modern iteration.

What causes people to believe such things, though? Nixon, who’s married to a psychotherapist, says one likely explanation is the ‘Fantasy Prone Personality’. The condition isn’t yet recognised officially by psychiatry but scientific research is currently ongoing.

The hypothesis is that there are people – usually of quite low self-esteem – who are exceptionally prone to vivid daydreaming which they can sometimes mistake for reality, perhaps when they enter a dissociative or fugue state. They’re not lying – like the hoaxers – they actually believe the stories they tell, nor are they officially ‘mad’. If the personality disorder is ever officially recognised it could go a long way to explaining many bizarre ‘paranormal’ claims.

Nixon speculates there could also be some connection between ‘Fantasy Prone Personality’ and historic reports of demonic possession. “We’ve come a long way from casting out demons to understanding Tourette’s Syndrome. The same symptoms today are diagnosable,” he says.

There’s no one unifying explanation for UFO sightings, says Nixon. Instead there’s a series of reasons why people report seeing unusual phenomenon in the sky, some of which interlink and overlap.

“If anyone comes to me saying they’ve the single, definitive explanation, I just don’t believe them,” says Nixon. The phenomenon is much too complex to be explained by a solitary answer - which accounts for its durability as a conspiracy theory.

UFOS AS THE NEW RELIGION

There may also be some connection to religious and mystical experiences. Clearly today, only religious believers would accept that Old Testament prophets really spoke to God and saw angels. Nixon wonders if there might be a correlation, in terms of mental health, between seeing aliens and meeting divine beings. “These mystical experiences are common to humanity,” Nixon says, “what’s not common is how we interpret them.”

As the years have passed, the belief in UFOs has morphed into something with much deeper meaning for many. To Nixon, Ufology has become not just a global conspiracy, but it’s now “a religion and a myth” as well as a commercial goldmine.

“It provides an explanation for people’s sense of powerlessness,” says Nixon. It also builds a sense of belonging among folk who might otherwise find it hard to fit into conventional society. “It’s a very tolerant community for people who are terminal outsiders,” Nixon adds.

Like religion, the money that can be made also explains some of the con artists associated within the field.

For many, UFOs provide meaning in a meaningless world. It appears to answer every question and doubt a believer may be troubled by – from who created humankind (aliens of course) to what happens after death (we go to the ‘mother planet’).

Similar to religion, the UFO phenomenon has holy sites – like Roswell; sacred objects – all those photographs of lights in the sky; and revered books – usually written by those con artists. There’s even ‘religions’ associated with UFOs. Cast your mind back to 1997, when dozens of members of the Heaven’s Gate UFO cult committed mass suicide.

In some cases, the religious aspect and the con-artistry overlap too. Nixon references the Aetherius Society, a British religion based around UFOs set up by a man called George King in the 1950s. “King was a taxi driver who planned to start his own religion because he was done with driving a taxi,” says Nixon.

MODERN PARANOIA

Nixon also believes that UFOs play into our very modern sense of paranoia. “It’s no accident,” he says that America’s obsession with UFOs intensified in the 1970s. “It’s post-Watergate,” he adds. “If the government is corrupt to that level then you can’t trust anybody and a lot flows from that.”

Nixon says: “UFOs fill a need in people’s lives. Ufology lends itself to everything from a complete paranoid conspiracy to a complete cosmic worldview … The whole point of Ufology is that it’s close enough to be believable but far enough away that you can never quite touch it. It won’t fall apart on you.”

That allows believers to latch on to competing theories which should cancel each other out. Some believe aliens have landed and our governments are secretly working with them, others believe that we’re reverse engineering technology from crashed space-ships. Both can’t be true. For Nixon, UFOs are the ‘Ur conspiracy theory’ – the original, the first, the best.

SO IS INTELLIGENT LIFE OUT THERE?

What’s needed, feels Nixon, is a healthy injection of academic inquiry. But academics have mostly stayed clear of the study of UFOs as it’s seen as professional suicide. That leaves the field open to the unreliable and the unscrupulous. It’s a subject crying out for more “critical minds,” he says. Nixon believes that if academic rigour were applied to UFO sightings, humankind might speed up scientific discoveries about nature and how planet Earth operates in ways we still don’t fully understand.

Sceptic though he is, Nixon isn’t a Richard Dawkins. He doesn’t want to humiliate those who believe in the UFO myth and rub their noses in the truth. In fact, he’s quite fond of them.

“If I succeeded in convincing one of them that they’re wrong, I wouldn’t improve their lives,” he says. Broadly, his attitude seems to be: if believing in UFOs gives people hope, then good luck to them. In turn, UFO believers don’t hate Nixon, they “tolerate” him as a benign critic.

Like many people today, although Nixon doesn’t believe UFOs have visited Earth he thinks the smart money is on life – intelligent or not – existing somewhere out there in the vast infinity of space. The chances of even single-celled life out there is basically a mathematical certainty now given the number of ‘Earth-like’ planets being discovered.

However, Nixon also believes that one of the “biggest inhibitors” to humanity ever discovering intelligent life is that any alien civilisation which reaches an advanced stage will probably destroy itself before it can make contact with us – either through war or “exhausting its resources and polluting itself out of existence”. There’s lessons for life on Earth there as well, for sure.

Nixon says he’d “love to be wrong” about everything to do with UFOs – because if one day aliens did really land on Earth it might be the moment which saves humanity from itself. “It would be the most unifying event the world could possibly imagine,” he says.