Reasonable Doubt

America’s Enduring Obsession With UFOs

How the media keeps extraterrestrial infatuation top of mind

Published in
10 min readFeb 4, 2019
Illustration: Darren Oorloff

NNear the end of 2018, a startling claim made international headlines: “Pilots report seeing ‘very fast’ UFO above Ireland,” CNN reported. “If it wasn’t aliens, what was it?” The Washington Post asked.

News of the unidentified flying object flew across the globe like a meteor, which is what the mysterious entity most likely was, according to aviation and astronomy experts. As is often the case, that tidbit was buried at the bottom of most news stories.

UFO sightings are reported to local authorities or volunteer UFO groups with varying degrees of fanfare. A recent visit to the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) website features sightings logged from Canada to Mississippi. A pilot in Alabama reported seeing an “oddly shaped circular object” in 2017. A camper in Idaho spotted a “massive triangular craft” last summer.

People who claim to see UFOs are typically adamant about what they witnessed, though most space experts are unconvinced. “No serious astronomer gives any credence to any of these stories,” astrophysicist Martin Rees notably said in 2012. He’s right. UFO reports can be attributed to commercial or military jets, weather balloons, an odd cloud formation, a comet, or Venus (under certain atmospheric conditions, the planet can appear as a fast-moving, bright halo). Some intrepid photographers have even confused insects flying around a camera lens for alien aircrafts.

The truth is, the number of reported UFO sightings have actually “fallen significantly in recent years,” says Peter Davenport, director of the Seattle-based National UFO Reporting Center, whose organization keeps a monthly tally. Sightings have fluctuated for decades, peaking in 2014 with 8,619 documented reports of UFOs. In 2018, 3,236 sightings were recorded.

America’s fascination with UFOs, however, isn’t going anywhere, much to the chagrin of scientists who thought we’d left our collective extraterrestrial frenzy behind decades ago. Since the first publicized UFO sighting by a private pilot named Kenneth Arnold in 1947 — he reported spotting “nine bright saucer-like objects” while flying his plane in Washington state…



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