UFOs are back in the skies over America. Did they ever go away?

Donald Clarke: There are few more durable conspiracies than those surrounding visitations from outer space

Welcome back to a less threatening school of conspiracy theory. Remember a time when nutcases had to gather their photocopied delusions into loosely bound samizdat volumes. There were no Facebook huddles. There were no Reddit meet-ups. You had to visit similarly deranged maniacs and write their fantasies into your stupid little exercise book. They were the days.

UFOs are back. Or did they ever go away? Have the lizard people been around us all this time while the government aided their assimilation into respectable society. Huh? Huh? Can I interest you in my, erm, independently published book on The Great Visitation and The New Galactic Order.

It has been decades since we have had so much conversation about Unidentified Flying Objects. Recent sightings of mystifying shapes over the US and Canada have caused hitherto hermitic cranks to return blinking into the moonlight with the gimlet stares of millennial prophets. The Americans have shot down four flying objects in two weeks. One was confirmed to be a Chinese balloon, but, at time of writing, mystery still surrounds the other three. “I’ll let the intel community and the counter-intelligence community figure that out,” Glen VanHerck, the US general in charge of such stuff told the world. “I haven’t ruled out anything.” Oh god, don’t say that. Don’t say you haven’t ruled anything out. That is all maniacs require to conclude the streets will soon be alive with squid-headed Zorboids.

There are few more durable conspiracies than those surrounding visitations from outer space. As is the case with most such mania, perfectly reasonable objections to this nonsense are dismissed by employing the wretched converse to Occam’s Razor. That reliable old dictum, credited to the eponymous 14th-century theologian, suggests we should always favour the explanation that invites the fewest assumptions or complications.

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Let me dream up an example from the thinnest air. Let us say an important fellow is, in the mid-1960s, being driven through a big American city – Dallas sounds about right – when the back of his head is blown off. A rifle owned by an aggrieved crank is found in that man’s workplace, one window of which overlooked the car’s path. The suspect is later arrested in suspicious circumstances. Nobody need consider men opening unneeded umbrellas, or suspicious smoke around tufty vegetation or vagrants lurking by nearby railway sidings. It sounds very much as if we have our lone gunman. (This is just a story, you understand.)

At about the same time as our imagined yarn was playing out, tabloid magazines were cottoning on to reports of visits from distant worlds. The explorers had a particular penchant for inserting probes into farmers from the American Midwest. More than a few were said to have hairless bodies and huge catlike eyes. But here is the thing. Nobody ever managed to catch a decent photograph of spaceship or passenger. Distant cigar-shaped lights that could be anything from helicopters to photographic abnormalities appeared in The Daily Lunatic. The few images of supposed aliens were even less convincing.

Given what we know about the logistical difficulties involved in travelling from other galaxies and noting the suspicious lack of any evidence, any sensible fellow will apply Occam’s Razor and conclude that the stories are a mass of pranks, frauds and delusion. Sadly, however, Occam’s converse was too often applied. There once was verifiable evidence, but the government covered it all up. Everyone is in league with everyone else. And so on.

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In 1964 Richard J Hofstadter published an influential essay entitled The Paranoid Style in American Politics. The author was principally concerned with less outlandish, more earthbound conspiracies, but it is worth noting that the unexpected rise of right-wing Republican Barry Goldwater was a trigger for Hofstadter’s piece. In later years, Goldwater himself took an interest in UFOs. Hmm? Coincidence? Makes you think, doesn’t it. Where is that emoji of the sceptic suspiciously cradling his chin?

By the 1970s, that postwar paranoiac construction had hardened into an alternative orthodoxy. Erich von Däniken’s enormously popular book Chariots of the Gods? convinced millions that aliens had visited ancient civilisations. Fictional works such as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind worked from the assumption that authorities really would conceal signs of visitation. In the 1990s The X-Files built an enormous spidery narrative around more malign clandestine collaboration with the invading Other. The real enemy was our own overlords.

One could argue that – the odd death cult noted – the belief in constant alien visitation is less harmful than delusions about killer vaccines, “faked” climate change, rigged elections or secret world government. Maybe we should welcome them back. But one silly delusion can lead to a less silly delusion to one that genuinely threatens the wellbeing of your neighbour.

Don’t be Fox Mulder. Be Dana Scully. Before she got sucked into the baloney.