Why Flying Saucers Succeeded

And got renamed UFO's

Over the centuries, many people have seen mysterious or seemingly mysterious aerial and celestial objects, but only since the late 1940's has there been a sort of pseudoscientific cult of them. In particular, that did not happen with these waves of UFO sightings:

But it did with flying saucers, which date back to Kenneth Arnold's famous 1947 sighting. I think that there are at least two reasons.

(1) Magazine editor Ray Palmer, sometimes called "the father of flying saucers". In the 1940's, he was editor of science-fiction magazine Amazing Stories, and he attracted a lot of attention to it by running the Great Shaver Mystery as nonfiction. A certain Richard Shaver claimed to have gone into some big caverns where nasty troublemaking "Deros" live, complete with returning from them in one piece. It turned up later that he was in a mental hospital the whole time, hospitalized for paranoid schizophrenia. The Deros were likely projections of his mental illness. The more mature science-fiction fans howled, but these stories helped the magazine's circulation. Ray Palmer evidently learned a lesson: sensation-mongering sells.

When his superiors decided to cancel future articles of this series, Ray Palmer moved on and founded "Fate", a magazine about paranormal stuff, including lots of stuff on flying saucers. One of its first issues had an article on Kenneth Arnold's famous 1947 sighting. In that magazine, Ray Palmer helped keep the flying-saucer issue going, complete with championing the extraterrestrial-spacecraft hypothesis. He thus succeeded twice with his sensation-mongering.

(2) The United States Air Force's interest in flying saucers, out of concern that they might be secret Russian airplanes and balloons. Some of the USAF's investigators apparently came to believe in the extraterrestrial hypothesis for them. However, the USAF tended to be publicly dismissive about flying saucers, something that did not square with rumors of what was going on behind the scenes there. That eventually led to the coverup conspiracy theory, and we can credit aviation journalist Donald Keyhoe with being a big early advocate of it. In 1950, he published an article and a book "The Flying Saucers Are Real", advocating that theory. The article appeared in an issue of "True" magazine, and that issue became one of the biggest-selling ones in that magazine's history. The USAF continued to keep interest in flying saucers alive by its investigation of them, and by its renaming of them as "unidentified flying objects" or UFO's.

That was good for UFOlogists, because it was a more sober-sounding name than "flying saucers". Consider UFOlogist Desmond Leslie in his coauthored book Flying Saucers Have Landed (1953):

Ever since the cliché ‘Flying Saucer’ was coined, the greatest and most exciting mystery of our age has been automatically reduced to the level of a music hall joke. The comics of Vaudeville and the comedians of State and Science banded together, most successfully, to encourage humanity in its oldest and easiest method of escape—to laugh at what it does not understand.

The UFO myth also grew in other ways, incorporating crashes, friendly contacts, and abductions.

Charles Fort

Related to UFO's is Charles Fort (1874 - 1932) was a paranormalist who liked to collect news stories of odd events and concoct theories for them. He thought that mainstream scientists were insufferably smug know-it-alls who ignore valuable data. He titled one of his books The Book of the Damned, because it was about data "damned" by mainstream scientists. This data included sightings of odd aerial objects or UFO's.

It's not clear how seriously he took his theories, since he apparently never tried to make them coherent, thus contradicting himself quite a lot. Were his theories a form of entertainment for him?

From Martin Gardner's Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science:

Fort himself must have known that this line could be drawn. He explains carefully in one of his books why he has neglected Santa Claus. "I am particular in the matter of data, or alleged data," he writes. "And I have come upon no record, or alleged record, of mysterious footprints in snow, on roofs of houses, leading to chimneys..." The lack of data, then, must have had a bearing on the probability that Santa Claus existed, and Fort was willing to "exclude" Santa Claus on that basis.

And there is the hilarious section of Wild Talents in which Fort rejects the newspaper account of a dog that said "Good morning!" then vanished in a thin, greenish vapor. It was not the talking that bothered Fort—he had many clippings about talking animals. It was the vanishing in the thin, greenish vapor. "You can't fool me with that dog story," he says. But he makes clear that he only draws the line because everybody has to draw lines somewhere. He was careful not to say the line was justified in terms of truth and error.

Charles Fort had many followers, and they continue to the present day as "Forteans", complete with Fortean societies. Investigation of several notable paranormal phenomena uses Fortean methods, whether ultimately derived from Charles Fort's work or independently invented:

As to what Charles Fort might have thought about flying saucers and UFO's, we can only guess. But I will do so.

Flying saucers? I love it! I love it! I love it! UFO's? Unidentified Flying Objects? Sounds like some name that some plodding bureaucrat would invent. But I enjoy watching those pompous know-it-alls admit that they don't know everything.

Back to my UFO index page