How Camera Phones Killed Alien Abductions and UFOs

On the anniversary of Roswell, remember that the truth is not actually out there.

Asking someone if they believe in aliens might seem like an innocent enough question, but it’s actually really loaded. Believing in the possibility of extraterrestrial life existing somewhere is definitely not the same as believing in abductions, flying saucers, and government cover-ups. As many UFO fans celebrate the anniversary of Roswell, consider this: How come there have been fewer reports of flying saucers and alien abductions in the age of the camera phone?

Many true believers of little grey aliens consider July 8, 1947, to be a seminal moment, as it was the official date of the so-called “Roswell Incident.” According to lore, alleged real aliens crashed in Roswell, New Mexico, and were quickly hidden by the U.S. government. If you believe that alien visitors did in fact crash-land on U.S. soil on that date, that’s okay. But consider this: Most of the eye-witness accounts of the Roswell crash are not only contradictory. They also don’t provide any kind of scientific body of information for any one study. In his 1975 essay, “The Rocketing Dutchman,” Isaac Asimov elucidated the problem with considering only eye-witness accounts as “proof” of flying saucers. “Eyewitness evidence by a small number of people uncorroborated by any other sort of evidence is worthless,” Dr. Asimov wrote. “There is not a single mystical belief that is not supported by numerous cases of eyewitness evidence.”

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As Asimov explained, real scientific inquiry requires impartial data. Of course, devotees and fans of The X-Files who have mistaken it for a series of non-fiction documentaries will tell you that the lack of evidence supports the existence of a cover-up. Asimov calls this kind of circular argumentation “one of the chief delights of the intellectually feeble.”

In recent years, the phenomena of a flying saucer sighting and alien abduction accounts have been viewed more soberly as sociological human quirks rather than fuzzy science fake news. Writer Jack Womack explained that his collection of UFO ephemera and cheekily titled 2016 book Flying Saucers are Real! were an attempt to catalog the beliefs of those obsessed with outlandish accounts.

“I can study TB without catching it, preferably,” Womack explained. “And I can be a student of the Bible without being a Christian.” Womack’s work on cataloging writing about flying saucer obsessions in the 20th century is exhausting. Recently, Inverse got back in touch with the author to discuss this important Roswell anniversary. This led to an important and relevant insight: “Going by both research and empirical observation, the number of UFO reports dropped off significantly in the early 21st century,” Womack said. He attributes this, at least partially, to the rise of camera phones.

Which makes sense. Arguably, the Eighties and Nineties were the peak of UFO interest in the United States. Proof? The vast majority of famous books published about UFOs and government cover-ups — most notably The Roswell Incident by Charles Berlitz and William L. Moore — were published in these two decades. And yet, once every regular citizen had a camera on them at all times in their phones, reports of UFO sightings suddenly dropped off. Did the aliens get camera-shy?

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In 2012, Joe Nickell and James McGaha outlined their theory of “Roswellian Syndrome” for the Skeptical Inquirer. Nickell and McGaha echo sci-fi author William Gibson’s observation that flying saucer theories are meme-like, insofar as they will experience a media bandwagon period, as well as a period of not being so interesting to the mainstream. They also predict that a reboot of everyone you know suddenly believing in Roswell is coming, too.

Basically, because it hasn’t been hip to believe in abductions for a while, this can cause these kinds of beliefs to come back with a vengeance. “During a period of submergence, the mythologizing tendency has been at work followed by a reemergence—rather like a new, more virulent strain of a virus.”

Nickell and McGaha point out that contemporary “UFOlogists are always looking for a Holy Grail case to verify their belief.” And the problem there is that a holy grail could easily exist. If only those abducted by aliens would remember to get a clear image of saucer men captured on their iPhones.