What UFO 'Encounters' Can Tell Us About Fake News and Climate Change Denial

A man out in the foggy wilderness is being abducted by a U.F.O. with a bright beam of light. C.J. Burton/Getty

People often mistake Kate Dorsch for someone who studies aliens. But Dorsch actually studies something else. A doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, she's been researching UFO reports collected by the U.S. government.

The Air Force began compiling these accounts during the early stages of the Cold War as part of a program called Project Blue Book. In 1966, it hired the University of Colorado to further investigate stories of alien "encounters" by ordinary Americans. Project Blue Book ended three years later, and the American Philosophical Society eventually archived part of the project in Philadelphia.

Three years ago, Dorsch, a historian, dug through the archives. She found bags of dirt from where flying saucers purportedly landed and even a piece of foil that someone said fell off a UFO. In the process, she discovered another story—one about the struggle between the UFO "witnesses" and the scientists who didn't believe them—a struggle that speaks to more recent debates over climate change and fake news.

In the archived accounts, Dorsch says, earnest believers in UFOs had trouble explaining what they saw—mysterious objects, bright lights and odd shapes in the sky. But the scientists involved in the project considered them crackpots and doggedly tried to negate the idea of flying saucers. Dorsch says she was struck by "how hard people work to...dissuade the gullible American public from believing in this."

But inside those responses, Dorsch also saw scientists trying to figure out how to communicate to laypeople. In the documents, for example, academics offered UFO witnesses better ways to tell their stories: Can you use this chart to tell us how bright the light was? What coin best describes the size of the object?

Meanwhile, the observers urged the scientists to take them seriously. "I saw this thing. I'm a trustworthy person. I'm not a drunk," Dorsch says many of these narratives indicate about the witnesses. "I'm educated. I'm an amateur astronomer."

The rift between debunkers and believers has its roots in the evolution of science. For centuries, scientific discovery was about simple observation: taking notes, making predictions—things that anyone could do. By the mid-1900s, science had fractured into subfields, each with its own requirements for expertise. Soon, an individual's knowledge was no longer an appropriate credential. Instead, people in the field judged one another based on the degrees they earned and the books they wrote.

That shift left people vulnerable to charlatans, people who fake their credentials and promote ideas that scientists consider incorrect. Snake oil is much more palatable when it's sold by someone whose name is followed with MD. Dorsch points to guests on the TV show Ancient Aliens who call themselves doctors and have a list of published books attached to their names. "There are people who feel like they're not being listened to by bodies in the establishment," she says, "and they're looking for someone to tell them that what they're feeling is real."

The division over what constitutes authority, Dorsch says, means people need to pay more attention to where they get their facts. "Who you trust," she says, "changes the information that you have."

It also leads people to seize any opportunity to crush opposing viewpoints. Take, for example, minor quibbles among scientists about climate change. Newer, more accurate ways of measuring and modeling temperatures make it look as if the planet has warmed more slowly than scientists expected. That sparked debates among scientists, but it didn't call into question the consensus about climate change. Yet some who were trying to disprove the consensus took the debate as evidence in their favor. Such a response "is a total corruption of exactly what the scientists were saying for decades," Dorsch says. "Once you set up criteria for what counts as fact, what counts as truth, someone will find a way to manipulate that."

The recent clashes over fake news and climate change denial bear a startling resemblance to the clash on display in the UFO archives. People don't like authority figures telling them they're wrong, and they don't like being ignored. "What is essentially on trial is...the qualifications of expertise," Dorsch says. "It's only a matter of time before someone comes along and says, 'I hear you.'"