As reported in Britain’s The Telegraph this week, a number of organizations devoted to investigating unidentified flying objects are either disbanding completely or turning their attention to other paranormal pursuits. Said Dave Wood of the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena: “It is certainly a possibility that in ten years time, [UFOs] will be a dead subject.”
Once, I was a true believer that extraterrestrials were visiting our planet. Compared to, say, believing that leprechauns are hoarding their gold at the end of a rainbow, alien visitation is downright plausible. Mathematically speaking, there’s a good chance other worlds speckled throughout the universe have incubated intelligent life. Maybe some of those worlds have dodged asteroids long enough for their inhabitants to become technologically capable of traveling between the stars. Maybe that’s a Star Trek fantasy, but it’s far less fantastical than another Star Trek notion: that the primary fashion of all Milky Way species is some variation of a polyester jumpsuit.
So, why is interest in UFOs waning? According to Wood, his organization’s open UFO investigations have dropped 96% over the past 25 years. This despite the fact that millions of people walk around every day with point-and-shoot cameras built into the phones they carry in their pockets and purses. If a flying saucer from Zeta Reticuli were to zoom past the White House, it’s a good bet there would be crystal clear, 1080p video posted to YouTube within minutes. And it’s an even better bet that at least one of the comments will simply read, “Meh.”
The ubiquity of digital photography has led to a few interesting discoveries. For example, we now know that weddings, where just about everyone is peering through a viewfinder, suffer from a plague of fainting spells. This is the kind of hilarious documentation that would have been far more difficult to capture in the analog days. Yet compelling UFO photos and videos are on the decline, and so is interest in them.
It’s possible the aliens have simply become bored with us and moved on to civilizations with more entertaining reality TV. But David Clark, UFO adviser to Britain’s National Archives, believes this decline is not because of an overall decrease in UFO sightings, but because the huge influx of obviously fake or easily explained photos and videos has turned more and more people into UFO skeptics. “There are so many fakes on YouTube and elsewhere,” Clark says, “it would be easy to dismiss the whole subject out of hand.”
When all of us are touching up vacation shots in Photoshop and using iMovie to cut together footage of our babies dancing, we’re becoming more and more savvy about image manipulation. Faking a UFO photo has always been pretty simple, but now laypeople are more capable of spotting a hoaxer’s techniques. Though, as our recent UFO photo contest proved, the best fakes still require talent.
While interest in UFOs may not be able to sustain several organizations devoted to their study, we’ll probably never see an end to sightings of strange lights or objects in the sky. But according to The Telegraph, Clark fears that any potential valid UFO photo in the future might not receive the attention it deserves in these disinterested times. He compares this possibility to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. (Side note: It’s terrifying to think that this may have been a common enough practice to become a cliché.) Maybe so. But crowd-sourced skepticism, while not perfect, can only be a positive thing for anyone interested in UFOs. If a photo of an alien spacecraft is real, it should hold up to as much scrutiny as both experts and amateurs want to pile upon it.
Brian Thompson is the Outreach Coordinator for the James Randi Educational Foundation