ASTOP: Modern Visitors From Other Worlds

Pseudoscience Fact Sheets.  In the late 1980s scientists associated with the Austin Society to Oppose Pseudoscience (ASTOP) created a collection of fact sheets on various pseudoscience topics. ICSA (then known as American Family Foundation) received permission to distribute these for educational purposes.

Complete list of fact sheets.

One of the best known of all pseudoscientific claims is that the planet earth is presently being visited by spacecraft from some other world. Various kinds of “evidence” are presented to back up this claim. First, it is claimed, thousands of people have seen things in the sky, which they could not identify or recognize. Second, several hundred people (called “contactees”) claim to have personally gone inside spacecraft and to have conversed with or to have been examined by the alien occupants; they offer no proof but their own testimony. Since neither reports of strange lights in the sky nor tall tales by strange people constitute valid evidence of anything, believers in this particular pseudoscience are also fond of claiming that “the government” has all the valid evidence but keeps it “top secret.” Sometimes it even is claimed that the government has hidden away crashed spaceships and the bodies of the occupants, or that the government itself has been “taken over” by aliens from another world.

Let us look at these claims in more detail. More than 90% of all sightings of “unidentified flying objects” are sightings of lights in the night sky. Furthermore, those reporting the sightings are not amateur astronomers or other people in the habit of scanning the sky every night, thus becoming familiar with what is there. Instead, they are people who have read about “flying saucers” in a newspaper, magazine, or book, or have heard about them on radio and T.V. Such people, on impulse, go out and look at the night sky — perhaps for the first time in years — and the first “unusual” thing they see becomes a flying saucer. Sometimes what is seen is described so inaccurately or vaguely that it is impossible to discover what the observer actually saw. But when it is possible to visit the scene and question the witnesses, a trained investigator can easily identify up to 95% of all sighted flying saucers as conventional objects. Sources of nocturnal lights which have given rise to such sightings include: planets (especially Mars and Venus) and bright stars (30% of all cases); advertising planes (20% of all cases); commercial and military aircraft (18%); bright meteors, meteor fireballs, and satellite re-entries (10%). Daylight reports of flying saucers are much rarer; they are almost always due to aircraft or weather balloons. Evidence that such sightings are due simply to the focusing of public interest on the sky (rather than being due to what is actually present in the sky) is provided by the so-called “Saucer Flaps,” periods when large numbers of reports come in within a very short time. (The reports stir more people to go out and look; the more people that look, the more reports that come in.)

The first flap occurred in the summer of 1947, after extensive newspaper publicity concerning the very first of all flying saucer sightings, by Kenneth Arnold near Mt. Rainier in June. The second and largest of all flaps occurred in the summer of 1952 following a Life magazine article (April 1952), which heavily favored the hypothesis that flying saucers were spacecraft from another world. Other flaps occurred in the fall and winter of 1957 (after the Russians launched the first earth satellite, Sputnik I); 1965-66, a period when there was a very heavy, almost continuous media publicity concerning flying saucers and contacted claims, the fall of 1969 (after the first manned moon landing); August 1973 (after a T.V. show about von Daniken’s “ancient astronauts”); and the summer of 1979 (another wave of media publicity). Sightings of flying saucers dropped to almost nothing during most of the period 1968-70, when the U.S. was deeply divided internally over the conduct of the war in Vietnam. The U.S. Air Force, which had routinely investigated sightings since 1947, took advantage of this lull to terminate its Project Blue Book and officially abandoned all interest in flying saucers.

During the official investigation of flying saucer sightings, there were three independent reviews of all the most impressive sightings to that date by panels of distinguished scientists. The first was the “Robertson Panel” in 1953. The second was a scientific review of Project Blue Book in March 1966. The third and last was the Condon Study conducted at the University of Colorado in 1968. There have been several other unofficial scientific studies of flying saucer reports, including a symposium sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in December 1969. All such studies have come to the same fairly obvious conclusion: there is not a shred, not the tiniest fragment, of hard physical evidence that the planet earth has ever been visited by a vehicle or other spacecraft manufactured on another world or piloted by creatures from another world.

Since the fall of 1966, aviation and space writer Philip J. Klass has had a standing offer of $10,000 to anyone who can provide any meaningful evidence that the earth has been or is being visited by alien spacecraft; he still has his money. Tabloid newspapers such as the National Enquirer have made similar offers; no evidence has come forth. Could it be that no evidence exists?

It should be stressed that scientists find nothing offensive, disturbing, or impossible about the idea of visitors from other planets. In fact, it is scientists who have done the most to convince the general public that such a thing is possible. But there is a big difference between something being possible and something actually taking place! Scientists must point out that there is no evidence whatsoever that such visits have ever happened.

The “contactees” (people claiming to have met and talked to alien visitors) are perhaps more baffling than lights in the night sky, but perhaps less baffling when one sees how their bank balances increase after their claims are publicized. The first and best known of all contactees, George Adamski, went from being a dishwasher in a hamburger stand to millionaire status within a few years of the publication of his first book of “revelations” gleaned from telepathic conversations with “Masters of Wisdom” from Venus and Saturn. Adamski’s first score (or so) of imitators have had varying degrees of success. The better-known ones such as Betty Hill have also become quite wealthy from sales of books based on their “experiences.” None of these people offer any evidence that their reported experiences ever took place.

Reports of crashed flying saucers, to date, have all been hoaxes. The earliest, from which all the others are simply rewritten, was a hoax perpetrated on show business writer Frank Scully by two con men who were trying to drum up business for their oil-drilling scam, in the course of which they bilked hundreds of thousands of dollars out of farmers and ranchers all over the Southwest, and who were ultimately sent to prison. (Their oil-finding “equipment” was supposedly from the crashed saucer!)

Many photographs and even movies of alleged “flying saucers” exist. A few show obvious natural phenomena: a milling flock of seagulls, the rising moon, and distant aircraft. The majority, however, display images that could readily have been fabricated by a 10-year-old child (and in some cases were fabricated by 10-year-old children!). There is not a single photograph from all the thousands of sightings of unidentified flying objects since 1947 that provides evidence that anyone has photographed any actual flying object not previously known to science.

Claims that real evidence does exist, but is kept top secret, cannot be taken seriously. How can anyone believe that a government agency could have successfully kept such a secret for 40 years — through eight different presidential administrations? Jimmy Carter, in particular, was a firm “believer” in flying saucers, but he found no evidence in the archives of any governmental agency — open or secret — to support his beliefs. Could it be that no such evidence exists?

The idea that the earth is now being visited by wise and benevolent beings from other worlds is a very attractive one; it is a pseudoscientific rewrite of the ancient religious theme of intervention by gods in human affairs. It is an attractive and not impossible idea, but it is not a fact.



References for further reading 

1. The UFO Verdict: Examining the Evidence, Robert Sheaffer, Prometheus, New York, 1979.

2. UFOs Explained, Philip J. Klass, Random House, New York, 1974.

3. The UFO Handbook, Allan Hendry, Doubleday, New York, 1979.

4. UFOs, A Scientific Debate, Ed. by Carl Sagan and Thornton Page, Cornell, New York, 1972.

5. The World of Flying Saucers, D.H. Menzel and L.G. Boyd, Doubleday, New York, 1963.

6. Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects (The Condon Report), Bantam, New York, 1969.

7. Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, E. J. Ruppelt, Doubleday, New York, 1959.

8. “Flying Saucers 30 Years On,” Ian Ridpath, New Scientist, July 14, 1977.

9. “The Failure of the Science of UFOlogy,” James Oberg, New Scientist, October 11, 1979.

10. “The Great Hudson Valley UFO Mystery,” Glenn Garlik, Discover, November 1984, pp. 18-24.


ASTOP – The Austin Society to Oppose Pseudoscience – has prepared fact sheets on various pseudoscience topics for the benefit of teachers and others interested in promoting critical thinking. Dr. Rory Coker, Professor of Physics at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of this fact sheet. The International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA), a professional research and educational organization concerned about the harmful effects of cult involvement, prints and helps distribute these fact sheets. Because ASTOP fact sheets seek to stimulate critical thinking, rather than advance a particular point of view, opinions expressed are those of the authors. A list of available fact sheets can be obtained by contacting ICSA (