Why are Americans so obsessed with UFOs? Alien hunters weigh in

Do Congressional hearings on UFOs, and the constant stream of cultural products about aliens, show that Americans more obsessed with UFOs than other nations?
Paul Ratner
Illustration of a giant alien walking in New York Harbor.
Do aliens walk among us?

Pixabay / 12222786 

  • Americans, at times, seem particularly obsessed with aliens and UFOs (UAPs), compared to other nations.
  • While studies show the interest in UFOs is actually widespread around the world, there are some differences.
  • To explain why, we spoke with Professors Avi Loeb and Edward Guinan about UFO hunting.

Is there life on other planets? Are we alone in the universe or is it actually teeming with alien life and, if so, what does this alien life want from us? These types of questions have been intriguing humans for far longer than we may think.

In fact, the Syrian author Lucian of Samosata wrote what is often considered the first science fiction book in the second century AD. His “True Story” involved an interplanetary war being fought on the Moon. 

Arguably, no society appears to be as obsessed with alien encounters and UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects) as the United States. Americans love alien stories, pumping out an inordinate amount of cultural products dedicated to them — movies, books, tv, radio shows, podcasts, you name it. 

On July 26th, 2023, a whistleblower (a former Air Force intelligence officer) testified before the U.S. Congress that the Americans have had and longstanding program to capture and reverse engineer extraterrestrial UFOs.

Dedicated followers of UFOs

A 2017 Localities survey of 26,000 people in 24 countries, found that 61% of the people in the studied countries believed that there was some form of life on other planets, while 47% of them believed in the existence of intelligent alien civilizations in our universe. Around a quarter of those surveyed fully ruled out the possibility of aliens, and the rest said they didn’t know either way.

Interestingly, Russians (68%), Mexicans (61%), and the Chinese (60%) were actually more likely to believe in extraterrestrials than Americans (45%), according to that survey. 

A 2021 Pew Research Report, however, found the number of U.S. adults who believe in intelligent life on other worlds to be much higher, at 65%.

The experts weigh in

To investigate this further, Interesting Engineering talked to two experts in the field — Professor Avi Loeb of Harvard University and Professor Edward Guinan of Villanova University.

Astrophysicist Avi Loeb is well-known as one of the premiere alien hunters the world. He was in the news recently for claiming to find an interstellar object at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, and has argued that the 'Oumuamua object that passed by Earth in 2017 was potentially an interstellar spacecraft.   

Edward Guinan, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Villanova University, is a pioneer in astronomy and space science research who has a particular focus on the search for potential life on planets inside and outside our solar system. He also conducts research on Earth, studying extremophiles (organisms able to live in extreme environments) that serve as proxies for the life that might have developed on places such as Venus, Mars, and Titan. 

Americans are not alone

When asked via email whether Americans are particularly obsessed with UFOs, and if other nations share this passion equally, Professor Loeb confirmed that recent polls show about two thirds of Americans believing in the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence.

Loeb believes that this widespread belief, in turn, leads to “curiosity about UFOs”, which is further spurred on by science fiction stories. He added, “I do not think it is an American phenomenon but a human phenomenon. Of course, if people are fully occupied by economic or political matters, then [they] have no time left to entertain what lies beyond Earth.”

Professor Guinan agrees that Americans are not alone in their fascination with UFOs (or UAPs - “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.” He argues there is just as much interest in UFOs and UAPs in the majority of Europe, Russia, and China.

“While living in Iran back in the mid-70s and up to the present time. I was surprised by the interest in UFOs there,” he shared, adding, “So, I think that interests in UFOs are high in most countries. It's about time that the US has taken the study of UFO reports seriously and appointed a high-level panel to evaluate the recently released Pentagon data, reports, and videos.”

When asked to consider if he thinks America’s history makes it specifically focused on the UFO phenomenon, Professor Guinan pointed instead to American culture, especially to the popularity of science fiction books and movies since the 1940s. His own interest in UFOs and extraterrestrials goes back to his childhood, and was sparked by classic Sci-Fi movies such as "War of the Worlds", "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and "The Thing".

Professor Guinan also mentioned more recent movies like "Interstellar" and "Arrival” as normalizing the idea of interacting with aliens, and of TV series like "X-Files" as promoting “the existence of aliens and UFOs and cover-ups by various government agencies.”

Professor Loeb, however, is not such a fan of these types of stories, revealing “I do not like science fiction stories because their storyline often violates the laws of physics.”

Why are Americans so obsessed with UFOs? Alien hunters weigh in
Have science fiction movies and TV shows primed us to believe in UFOs?

Where is the proof?

On the question of whether we will ever find definitive proof for the existence of intelligent alien species, Professor Loeb was resolute, saying that we will, in part, “because I am engaged in the scientific exploration of interstellar objects.” He explained that, “this research path was never taken before the past decade and therefore there is a chance of finding low-hanging fruit.” He discusses the discovery of near-Earth interstellar objects from outside the Solar System in his new book "Interstellar.”

Professor Loeb also shared some details about these objects, saying that the first four discovered included two interstellar meteors, IM1 and IM2 (detected on January 8, 2014 and March 9, 2017), while `Oumuamua was detected on October 19, 2017, and Borisov on August 29, 2019.

Of these four interstellar objects, the first three “appeared anomalous relative to known solar-system rocks, whereas the fourth appeared as a familiar comet,” wrote Loeb, continuing that, “IM1 and IM2 exhibited the highest material strength among all meteorites in the CNEOS catalog of NASA, `Oumuamua exhibited a flat shape and non-gravitational acceleration with no detectable cometary evaporation.” 

He added that in June 2023, spherules were recovered from IM1. He revealed in a recent announcement that they are of interstellar origins. “Altogether,  the anomalies of`Oumuamua and IM1 hint at a possible technological origin for anomalous interstellar objects,” said Loeb.

Does UFO obsession influence science?

Ed Guinan's fascination with science fiction has certainly affected his work. He shared that watching the movie "The Thing" as kid influenced his decision to turn down a job working in Greenland near the North Magnetic Pole, because of the locations' association with the “nasty blood thirsty alien,” in the movie. 

Guinan teaches an advanced course in Astrobiology for Astronomy and Science majors at Villanova and plans to include a discussion of the recently released Pentagon 2022 Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) Report in his classes. He would also like to see students debating the issues. 

Looking closer at the report, he is not convinced that UFOs/UAPs are all alien spacecraft. “The NASA Kepler Mission discovered many of the 8000+ "exoplanets"—including many planets that are promising places for life to exist. But so far life has only been found on Earth. Even though there may be hundreds of millions of planets in the Galaxy with similar sizes and temperatures to the Earth, no radio signals from technological civilizations have been detected. Why?” 

Guinan’s explanation for this? “It may be that simple life (bacteria etc..) maybe be out there, but complex life that has advanced to the point of interstellar communication and space travel may be extremely rare.”

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