By Simon, Armando
Skeptic (Altadena, CA) , Vol. 16, No. 4
FOR OVER A HALF CENTURY THE IDEA THAT THIS planet has been host to regular visits from extraterrestrials piloting sophisticated vehicles has been considered seriously by some, and viewed with humor or ridicule by others. No one questions that UFOs exist in the strict sense that there are "Unidentified Flying Objects." That these objects represent the vehicles of extraterrestrial intelligences (ETIs) is where most scientists express skepticism. But why is an unidentified flying object automatically thought of as an alien spacecraft?
The answer to this question is a psychological concept known as a "mental set"--an instantaneous mental process whereby a neutral stimulus is interpreted according to previously relevant information available to the observer. An early classic experiment with mental sets involved showing two circles joined by a straight line to volunteer subjects (actually, it was a long list of figures, but we will focus on just this one). Two different groups of subjects were shown an object described by the experimenters as either a "barbell" or as "eyeglasses" Days later, the subjects were called back and asked to draw the figures from memory. Those subjects who had been told that they had seen a drawing of a "barbell" drew a long, thick interconnecting line, while those who had been told that they had seen "eyeglasses" drew a short, thin line as if they were connecting two lenses of a pince-nez. (1)
The relevance of the mental set phenomenon to UFO sightings should be obvious. Roughly 95% of all supposed sightings of interplanetary flying saucers and flying discs from 1947 to 1967 have been universally admitted to be either natural phenomena or manmade craft. The same is true for sightings of interplanetary UFOs from 1967 to the present--that is, even UFOlogists agree that 95% of all UFOs have terrestrial explanations. (2) So they must hook their entire extraterrestrial hypothesis on the 5% of unexplained anomalies.
Consider as well that more often than not it is simply a luminous flying object of indistinct shape that is seen, and almost always at a great distance. Even by the eyewitnesses' own testimony, nowhere is there any machinery visible. Nor is there any machine-like sound. It is almost as if the luminous blob was a Rorschach inkblot. Yet, invariably, the "flying saucer," or "craft," is said to have "maneuvered," "landed," "taken evasive action," or otherwise "responded" in an apparently intelligent fashion. (3) Why should this be?
I think that many observers of the UFO/flying saucer field would agree that to a very large extent such interpretations are due to widespread exposure to science-fiction films, television shows, documentaries, magazine articles, books, and the like. Countless fictional films and stories representing UFOs as interplanetary vehicles have created a mental set of UFO = ETI. In a previous work, I analyzed commercial films from 1900 to 1969 whose subject matter was interplanetary travel. (4) What I found is that fictional designs of interplanetary spaceships matched contemporary cultural ideas of what such a craft should look like. For example, during the early 1900s, a large capsule inside a gigantic cannon was the concept, following the launch method in Jules Verne's imaginative novel From Earth to Moon. From the 1930s through 1969, tubular rockets were the extraterrestrial vehicles of preference, patterned after rockets such as the V-2 and Saturn V. After 1947, along with the tubular rockets, oval discs also became prevalent. I also found that an increase in such films seemed to parallel an increase in sightings, with movie themes often mirroring the concerns people expressed regarding the flying saucers they thought they saw.
The UFO mental set is very much in evidence in the changes the media made to Kenneth Arnold's description of his famous UFO sighting, often cited as the start of the modern UFO era. Arnold spotted objects that he described as "oblong," adding that they "moved like a saucer would if you skipped it across the water" He was subsequently misquoted by an Associated Press reporter as having seen "flying saucers," which he later corrected, noting: "They said that I'd said they were saucer-like. …