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Bugged by UFOs

by Steven Novella, Nov 12 2012

UK UFO enthusiasts recently called a meeting to discuss the future of the UFO movement, specifically whether or not there is going to be one. Numbers of groups and members are plummeting as enthusiasm for talking about the latest Chinese lantern to be misidentified as a flying saucer is waning.

If history is any guide this is just a temporary generational downturn, and interest in UFOs will eventually rebound. It is possible, however, that the most recent decline is more than just the usual cycle. Perhaps the internet has changed the game, allowing for rapid turnaround of possible UFO stories. Before the ink would be dry on traditional print media, the new social media can debunk UFO stories and nip them in the bud.

Here is an excellent example: Mile High mystery: UFO sightings in sky over Denver. The beginning of the news report (it is just crappy local news, but it’s a Fox affiliate which means such stories can be picked up nationally) has all the red flags for sensational mystery mongering:

Strange objects caught on camera flying over the city and nobody can explain it.

We first learned about these sightings when a metro area man, who does not want to be identified brought us his home video. He captured the images on his digital camera from a hilltop in Federal Heights looking south toward downtown Denver.

He said, “The flying objects appear around noon or 1:00 p.m. at least a couple of times a week.” The strangest part is they are flying too fast to see with the naked eye, but when we slowed down the video, several UFOs appear.

The objects are not so strange, they actually are not appearing “over” the city, and there are probably millions of people who can explain it. The fact that the source of the video of the “UFOs” would not be identified is a problem. Finally we learn that no one actually saw the UFOs – they were only noticeable after reviewing the video, which itself is a red flag that perhaps this is a common video phenomenon, not an uncommon UFO phenomenon.

Take a look at the video and try to figure out what it is before reading further.

OK – everybody now… it’s bugs.  This bug-UFO is especially bad because on some of the shots the insect actually hovers and moves around like an obvious insect. The videographer did not notice them because they were small fast-flying insects. Or perhaps they did notice the insects, but did not connect them to the unfocused black dots buzzing about on the video. It is also possible they know exactly what they are, but is just pranking  the local news station (hence the anonymity).

One or two shots in there are probably birds. You can see an apparent wing flap. Birds and bugs are common sources of UFO artifacts in the video age. They are small objects close to the camera that will appear as out-of-focus dots and streaks that can be mistaken (by the willful or truly incurious) for objects that are large and farther away. The fact that no one saw them live and there was no radar tracking should be a clue, but for the believer can just add to the mystery.

The lameness of this video being presented in breathless terms as a compelling UFO might have something to do with the declining interest in UFOs. Anyone with a genuine interest – enough to join a UFO group and try to find real evidence that UFOs are visiting ETs, would probably get tired of all the bugs and lanterns after a while. The classic cases like Roswell can only be picked over so many times.  The signal to noise ratio in UFO reporting has always been low (I would argue, zero) but now there seems to be a high incidence of truly worthless evidence.

Another way to look at this is that as cameras and videos have become ubiquitous, one would think that if UFOs were a real alien phenomenon we would start to see an increasing amount of genuine and compelling digital evidence. This has not occurred, and rather we have seen an increase in low quality noise, like bugs, birds, and lanterns. As digital technology has advanced we have also seen an increase in digital fakes, but the same technology allows for their identification.

The internet makes all this happen very quickly. By the time someone sees a video online and then tells their friend about it, someone else in their group is likely to point them to a response video in which the source picture or video that was manipulated was found, revealing the whole thing as a fraud. This rapid turnaround means that when talking about such things in your social group it pays to be skeptical, otherwise you are likely to be on the embarrassing end of an exposed hoax or mistake. After a couple of episodes of being proved immediately and objectively wrong, many people might think, “Hmm…perhaps I should check this out on Snopes before I tell my friends we finally made contact with aliens and look like an idiot again.”

Being internet savvy is now part of being socially savvy, and being skeptical is an essential part of being internet savvy.

This is, at least, an optimistic view of things. I don’t think there has been a fundamental change in human nature, and interest in UFOs is not going to disappear. Perhaps it has moved a bit more onto the fringe. It can survive in the conspiracy community, like a virus that can survive in a non-human population only to return when resistance is low or it has mutated a new strain.

The equation has changed, however. Access to information has increased in amount and speed, allowing for rapid crowd sourcing of new claims. We are much less dependent on traditional media for our information, and stories can barely take root before they are destroyed by accurate information.

Fox31 and everyone involved in this story should be embarrassed by the sloppy and sensational reporting.  Because of the internet, they will be.

17 Responses to “Bugged by UFOs”

  1. Trimegistus says:

    I think interest in UFOs is also starting to capsize under the weight of the massive conspiracy superstructure necessary to maintain belief in UFOs as alien spacecraft. In order to believe lights in the sky are spaceships, you pretty much have to believe that all the world’s governments have been collaborating in hiding that fact for at least half a century — which then implies that the Cold War, the Vietnam conflict, the two Gulf Wars, the fall of the Berlin Wall, 9/11, etc., were all events staged by some massive meta-conspiracy which controls the world and all media sources except those run by UFO buffs.

    This also relates to the rise of messianic-style politics in America: since so many people view Obama as a revolutionary, transformational figure — a secular Redeemer, so to speak — they cannot simply say “he’s part of it, too.” Which means they basically have to jettison the conspiracy theory, and ultimately that means giving up on UFOs as alien spaceships.

    Testable hypothesis: in the next few years, most UFO theorizing will be from the conservative/Christian end rather than the liberal/New Age end.

    • Daniel says:

      It would be pretty odd if UFO theorizing came from the “Christian end”. I would think that fundamentalist Christians giving credence to UFOs as extraterrestrial spacecraft would be an admission that their view of creation is incorrect.

      My guess is that it’ll still come from the usual suspects. If a true UFO believe has to choose between the existence of extraterrestrial visits and their love of all things Obama, they’ll choose the little green men every time.

      • Trimegistus says:

        Daniel: You’d be surprised. There is a subset of the UFO community who consider them to be part of the End Times, either as messengers of God or deceptions of Satan. Remember, not all Christians are Creationists, even among the roll-your-own fringe denominations.

      • David Hewitt says:

        In the 1970’s there was a movement called “Mark Age” (I think) that touted the belief that Jesus, St. Paul, and a few others were orbiting Earth in a spaceship. I am not sure why they were doing this, but there you are.

    • Nyar says:

      Thank Iblis for term limits, so that we can have seperation of church and state again in 2016.

    • Beelzebud says:

      Everything has to be partisan…

    • Rohan says:

      Above article writer, writing STRONGLY suggest he is suffering from “Ostrich Syndrome”

  2. Deen says:

    I hope you’re right, but I’m slightly more skeptical that the internet’s insta-debunk properties are changing the game that much. After all, those debunkings can be attributed to nefarious conspiracies just as quickly, while the internet also makes it easier for the conspiracy theorists to find others willing to confirm their beliefs.

  3. Max says:

    There are more digital hoaxes now, like the Jerusalem UFO. My concern is that skeptics get so used to debunking digital hoaxes and videos of insects, that they’ll forget about hubcaps on a string.

  4. Max says:

    Things will get more interesting by 2015, when Congress mandates integrating unmanned aircraft into the National Airspace System.

    • Max says:

      When people get used to various drones flying around everywhere, the number of UFO sightings might decrease, while more flying objects that aren’t drones would be mistaken for drones.

      • BillG says:

        The refinement of drone technology combined with it’s increasing use will likely attract the conspiracy theorists and the paranoid herd into a whole new direction.

        Out with chemtrails and black helicopters, in with robotic insects, which may have the potential rebelion and delusion of many.

  5. C. Van Carter says:

    Convincing nearly everyone they don’t exist is a huge victory for the Saucer People.

  6. RoboSapien says:

    I disagree that UFOlogy will make a resurgence based on the fact that in pre-internet days it was too easy to woo the unexposed with all of the “evidence” for UFOs simply because information didn’t travel. Nowadays, info gets around so fast that they will eventually run out of uninitiated people, anyone they try to sell crazy to will likely already be jaded and bored of hearing these stories.

  7. Phil says:

    There’s a long term loss of interest because the more people there are with mobile phones, the fewer the legitimate recordings of UFOs.

  8. Loren Petrich says:

    Or maybe UFOlogy is going out of fashion. That seems to happen with various pseudoscientific fields. Read Martin Gardner’s Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, and see what has stayed popular and what has not from 1953 to 2012.

    Dianetics: Yes, as the Church of Scientology.

    Wilhelm Reich’s Orgone Therapy: No, it’s now an obscure bit of altmed.

    Creationism: Yes.

    Velikovskyism: Yes, though not as much as the late 1960’s – early 1970’s, when his followers claimed that his work was vindicated by spacecraft observations.

    Hanns Hoerbiger’s Welteislehre (his Velikovskyish Cosmic Ice Theory): No, it appears to have no online following.

    I’ve lost patience here.

  9. H2 says:

    I’ve noticed a marked drop in ufo books in UK bookshops, since the early/mid 1990’s when ufo interest was apparently peaking. Back then, there was usually a ufo dedicated shelf and dozens of titles. Today, you’d be lucky to find a single ufo book in your local bookstore (although other fringe subjects – ghosts,afterlife,crystals,chakra etc – remain popular).

    From a recovered Timothy Good victim.