The secrecy with which the U.S. government and others conducted their initial UFO investigations, while understandable considering their worries that the objects were a national security threat, may have only made believers think there was something to hide.
This sort of actual, intentional secrecy is likely rare, but there are plenty of barriers to understanding that to the right (or wrong) mindset could read as suspicious. For one, many academic journals aren’t open access, so the layperson researching on Google likely wouldn’t be able to read the scientific studies for themselves. And even if they could, the statistical methods and jargon scientists use in their writing could be hard to parse.
For example, “in the natural sciences, the way you instruct is basically through mathematics, and forms of mathematics that are absolutely inaccessible to the vast majority of us,” Eghigian says. “That’s, I think, relatively natural. Perhaps it’s downright unavoidable. But for the general public, that impenetrability of being able to know how to look under the hood—that creates problems. That may not to us academics look like secrecy but to others it does seem like we have our own secret language.”
And then there’s the fact that if you were to ask a scientist about UFOs, or whether vaccines are unsafe, or how to explain a case of seeming telepathy, chances are they’d “consider it professionally silly to even engage in this,” he says.
Not that scientists should be under any obligation to re-consider ideas which plenty of study has already found no evidence to support. But if lay people are occasionally guilty of not trusting scientists, so too are scientists guilty of not trusting lay people. Interest in UFOs has been on the decline since the 1990s, once the Cold War ended and its attendant anxieties about nuclear weapons and surveillance faded a little. But the history of ufology offers some insight into the nature of this mutual mistrust, that could have implications for other forms of mistrust in mainstream science.
“Most ufologists have been especially sensitive to the fact that scientific cynicism toward them seems to point to a hierarchical asymmetry at work,” Eghigian writes.
People with any sort of scientifically unsupported belief—anti-vaxers, climate-change deniers, believers in ESP—may feel they’re not being heard, that their concerns aren’t being addressed. Scientists may feel that their concerns don’t deserve to be addressed, that giving any attention to these incorrect ideas gives them too much legitimacy. So the trust between science and the public can curdle in places.
As my colleague Emma Green smartly noted in her recent piece on anti-vaxers, mistrust in science can come from “the monolithic power of science as a source of cultural authority,” to say what is worthy and what is not worthy of attention, what is so and what is not so, what is right and what is wrong. Science is the best tool we have to make these kind of judgments, but it’s only a tool. It’s not a set of facts that are stamped “true” for all eternity. New discoveries can override old ones—there’s always the possibility that we can learn something new, and it will change everything. It's at least conceivable that someday there might be good evidence for out-there beliefs, like that aliens are visiting, or have visited, Earth—even though there is no such evidence today.
According to a 2015 Pew report, 84 percent of scientists reported as a major problem that the “public doesn’t know much about science.” That may be true, (though another 2015 Pew survey found that Americans did fairly well on a quiz of basic scientific concepts). But it’s also possible that some ufologists and others who mistrust mainstream science do understand it, they’re just hoping that it will eventually confirm what they already believe.