Monday, June 25, 2007

60 Years of UFOs: The Success of an Idea

June 24, 1947

Yes, we all know. Kenneth Arnold with the Flying Saucers in the Private Plane.

Nothing wrong with it. Its an important part of cultural history.

But I get tired of hearing and telling the story. As Richard Dolan makes clear in his UFOs and the National Security State, vol 1., while Foo Fighter were something of a curiosity, ghost rockets in 1946 were anything but quaint or forgotten lore, they were the center of serious international concern and diplomacy. And the cases that are identified with UFOs started rising in quantity almost a month before Arnold's sighting.

There are plenty of good reasons to look back at that time. I think it is very important. But another "raise the glass" to Arnold's saucers, I just can't do it.

What I can do instead is note the vibrant success of the whole idea, sixty years on. A quote from a Wired magazine Arnold-60 retrospective got me thinking

"But never have flying saucers been a bigger part of the zeitgeist than they are now."

I initially scoffed at the notion, then I thought about it some more. The issue still gets overt government attention, whether to open files to the interested public or to continue investigating (as the UK does) . Reports of UFO sightings are made on a daily basis, though one must generally look to interested parties who collate reports to know this. And as strange as it sounds, some in the press give it at least a modicum of respect. For example, one wholy unscientific way to gauge this is using Google Trends, the search engine's tool that shows the amount of searching done on a topic. For example, lets pit UFOs against some other Spooky topics (click on the image to enlarge it).

I know we could use other terms for all of these four biggies, but these are the terms most likely to be used in the media. Ghosts beat out the other three dramatically in general searches by the public. But we have to assume this includes all sorts of uses of the word, since it is a common noun used in many ways. But for the sake of our unscientific argument, lets assume that applies to news stories as well. That's the interesting thing. The spread between "ufo" and "ghost" in the news media is much narrower than it is for the general public, and at times "ufo" eclipses "ghost." One could suggest, again on data that need more examination to really mean something, that the news media actually has a soft-spot for UFOs, as in Keith Olbermann's recent take on the reports of mile-wide UFOs over the English Channel.

I'm not sure why that is, because there isn't enough data yet. Most polls and studies show a college degree increases the likelihood of believing in paranormal or other similar topics, though a relatively recent survey of Oklahoma college students has extraterrestrials (not exactly UFOs, but close enough for most people) not doing so well in comparison with ghosts and psychics. Brenda Denzler's ethnographic work in Lure of the Edge (see book ads in sidebar) notes that education is much higher amongst those in the UFO community than in the general American populace. While academia largely ignores the subject, with the exception of Contactees and increasingly abduction, the media and communications professionals that attend these schools, and their peers in other fields, do not.

Beyond the media, much has been made of the decline of traditional UFO groups and organizations. But it has become clear that this is not due as much to lack of interest as to technological change, specifically the internet. As Brown notes in his book on Ghost Hunters of the South (also in the sidebar), none of the groups he interviewed existed before 1991, and he believes this is directly tied to the rise of the internets. And ghost hunting can be an inherently social activity, with organized hunts taking place on scheduled days planned in advance, occurring in groups, and having an element of fun. By contrast, most ufological activities cannot boast such appeals, and for this reason the field has a significant "loner" aspect (not antisocial, but the activities are often those of an individual, not a group) to it outside of the conferences.

Of course, the image of the UFO and its occupants is now a standard part of our cultural vocabulary now, to the point that the symbol can be used to reference outer space or related topics without any intended tie-in to UFO reports and the like. The UFO isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

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