A purported photo of a UFO, released in 1957 by the Aerial Phenomena Research Organization, a now-defunct UFO research group active from 1952 to the late 1980s. Photo via Getty Images.
At a time of ongoing, slow-moving apocalypse and increasingly violent political division, it’s reassuring to know that Americans may, one day soon, finally band together to admit that aliens are real. A new poll from the public opinion polling company Gallup shows that the number of Americans who think UFOs could be literal alien craft from outer space has substantially increased, especially among people with college educations.
“These sightings were, I think, very intriguing” to the public, Lydia Saad told Motherboard. She’s the director of U.S. social research, and was referring to the ongoing UFO renaissance, which began in earnest in 2017 when the New York Times released a blockbuster report on the Pentagon’s Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, which had been secretly investigating reports of unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAPs, for years. In 2020, the Navy finally formally released three UFO videos first made public by the Times and former Blink-182 frontman Tom DeLonge’s To the Stars Academy. (Also in 2020, Christopher Mellon, the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, who’d gone on to work for To The Stars, claimed he’d been the source who gave those videos to the Times. Mellon said he received them from a Defense Department Deep Throat who handed them over in a Pentagon parking garage.) In 2019, the Navy began formulating new guidelines for its pilots to report UFO sightings, signaling a move to destigmatize them. And in June of this year, another long-awaited Pentagon report concluded that a small number of craft that have been sighted “appeared to display unusual flight characteristics or signature management.” The Pentagon concluded that those craft will require further scientific research to understand or explain them.
All of this is to say that UFOs have been in the news, and people reading that news might reasonably conclude there’s more here than necessarily has an earthly explanation, Saad said. “There’s certainly a credible basis in those reports and the way they initially came out. If you’re someone who would like to believe in UFOs, you say, ‘Here’s some evidence.’ It’s not just unreliable reports.”
Gallup has been on top of the silent, hovering, Tic-Tac shaped UFO trend for several years: In 2019, due to a substantial increase in public interest, they decided it was time to ask Americans about them for the first time in decades. The new 2021 poll results, which were shared exclusively with Motherboard last week, are based on one question. As Gallup phrased it, it read: “Which comes closer to your view: some UFOs have been alien spacecraft visiting earth from other planets or galaxies, or all UFO sightings can be explained by human activity on earth or other natural phenomena?”
The results show that most Americans are in fact still skeptical that UFOs have an unearthly origin. But that’s changing fast. “When asked which of two theories better explains UFO sightings,” Gallup wrote in a news release, “41% of adults now believe some UFOs involve alien spacecraft from other planets, up eight points from 33% in 2019.” Half of Americans are still skeptical of that premise, saying all UFO sightings can be explained by human activity or natural phenomena. (Nine percent of those polled refused to guess, likely because they were, one must firmly conclude, of alien origin themselves and unwilling to give the game away.)
The new poll results also showed that the belief that alien craft have visited Earth have risen slightly more among certain sectors of the population, namely men and people with at least some college education. “We saw an eight point increase overall, which is significant, and it’s driven by people who have had some college,” Saad said. “My interpretation is that is they may be more familiar with the news; college educated people are more likely to read the news in newspapers and online, so they are more likely to have been exposed to this news.”
There is, of course, still reason for extreme caution here. The world of UFOs has always been rife with government misinformation, flim-flam men with stratospherically tall tales, misdirection, and general semiotic chaos. (The science writer Sarah Scoles has cautioned against what an Atlantic headline termed “The UFO Trap,” where media outlets display less skepticism or rigor when it comes to UFO reporting.) But the poll results, according to Saad, appear to show a clear indication of the ways in which American beliefs around aliens and UFOs are changing, which is significant in itself.
“This is such a hot button issue, I think it’s important that we know where the public stands on it,” she said. (Gallup, she pointed out, has also polled the public on whether they believe crystals have healing powers, as well as heaven, hell, the devil, and paranormal beliefs.) Overall, she said, polling on “fringe” topics serves to help us understand “the spiritual life of humans as well as their work and family lives.”
The increase means that Gallup will likely ask about again in the near future “either on an every two-year cadence,” Saad said, or sooner “if something big were to come out either way.” Right now, she said, referring not necessarily to aliens who walk among us and patrol our skies, but to our evolving belief in the same, “I have every confidence that what we’re seeing is real.”