1 UFOs exist -- about that we all must agree. As long as humans have gazed heavenward, we have seen inexplicable objects. In the early 1800s, scientists debated the nature of what we now call meteors. In 1947, Kenneth Arnold saw nine objects darting about Mount Rainier, the report that gave birth to modern stories of flying saucers. In Paranormal America: Ghost Encounters, UFO Sightings, Bigfoot Hunts, and Other Curiosities in Religion and Culture (New York Univ.; paperback, $20), we learn that almost one in five Americans claims to have seen something in the sky that they could not identify.
Despite the prevalence of such sightings, though, witnesses are usually the butt of jokes. Christopher D. Bader, F. Carson Mencken and Joseph O. Baker, the authors of "Paranormal America," offer a possible reason for our dismissive attitude. Believers tend to be unmarried men of limited economic means -- the stereotypical yahoo, seeing the world through beer-bottle glasses. But this fascinating book calls into question that easy explanation. The authors convincingly show that believing in flying saucers or some other paranormal subject -- Bigfoot, ghosts, astrology, psychics -- is not fringe at all. More than two-thirds of Americans accept the reality of at least one such phenomenon.
2 Leslie Kean's book UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record (Harmony, $25.99) presents flying-saucer reports from a host of credible observers, pilots, soldiers and politicians. Believing in UFOs is a rational response to the world as it is experienced. Perhaps our jokes, then, stem from lack of understanding -- or fear.
But even if we admit the existence of unidentified flying objects, we must also acknowledge that we have no idea what they are. This ignorance has several causes: Some UFOs might be human-made objects that an observer doesn't recognize; others might be atmospheric anomalies that science has yet to explain; they might also be secret military technologies. And, of course, UFOs might be extraterrestrial vehicles . . .
In the absence of a definitive explanation, UFOs have become ensnared in the language of mythology. A dozen years after Arnold's sighting, the psychologist Carl Jung proposed that UFOs symbolized a wish that the gods, having departed from this violent world, were returning. More often, UFO stories suggest something about the witness's relationship to the government.
That is certainly the motivating theme of Kean's unpersuasive book. An investigative reporter, Kean argues that a fearful U.S. government relies on propaganda to downplay the existence of UFOs. Too many reputable people have seen UFOs, she argues, and the objects' physical characteristics make it hard to conclude anything except that they are visitors from outer space. She acknowledges that the government did study the phenomena from 1947 to 1969, and she suspects that a secret cabal may continue the research, but she insists that the official position has been to ignore UFOs or "influence mass media and infiltrate civilian research groups for the purpose of debunking UFOs." Kean attributes this response to the enormous psychological difficulty of accepting that there might be life on another planet and the government's fear of conceding its own impotence.
3 In Mirage Men: An Adventure Into Paranoia, Espionage, Psychological Warfare, and UFOs (Skyhorse, $22.95), veteran UFOlogist Mark Pilkington allows that some UFOs might come from other planets, but he argues that the vast majority of the mythology is spread by tellers of tall tales -- what he calls mirage men. And the mirage men par excellence are government agents, masters of disinformation. His prime example is Richard Doty, a former member of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations who, in the 1970s and '80s, spread wild tales of secret government contacts with aliens, stories that have since become canonical for UFO believers. "Mirage Men" occasionally devolves into conspiracy-mongering, with government agents behind every rock, but ultimately it is persuasive, if not definitive. In Pilkington's telling, UFO stories are "weapons of mass deception," used in bureaucratic battles to discredit competing agencies or protect real secrets. This is the stuff of normal power politics. But, as these books show, the government's powers are not limited to raising an army or collecting taxes. Our fantasies, too, are subject to its machinations.