In 2019, the public opinion polling company Gallup decided to directly ask the American public about their experiences with UFOs again, for one simple reason: semi-credible evidence of their existence was back in the news.
"Between the 'Storm Area 51' phenomenon and the New York Times articles about the Navy changing its protocols for pilots reporting unidentified things in the air—there was news of pilots seeing bizarre planes traveling at at hyperspeed—maybe we're at the point where some of this is getting more credence," Lydia Saad told VICE, recalling what she was thinking at the time.
Saad is the director of U.S. Social Research for Gallup, and she oversees polls about a lot of things that don’t involve aliens. But in 2019, she advocated for asking about them again, reasoning that the amount of UFO news flooding the atmosphere might have changed people's opinions. (She's not a believer herself, she said: "I'm boring.") The company conducted two surveys, in June and August of that year. They found that a majority of Americans—60 percent—think UFO sightings can be explained by human activity or natural phenomena. But a full 33 percent think otherwise, saying they believe some UFO sightings can be attributed to alien visitation.
"This group is potentially sympathetic to those who want to uncover what the government knows about alien landings, once and for all," Saad wrote at the time.
Those numbers were particularly high in the West, where 40 percent of residents believed some UFOs can be attributed to aliens, compared to 32 percent of residents in the East and South, and 27 percent in the Midwest. People in the West were also slightly more likely—20 percent—to say they'd seen UFO themselves, versus 12 percent in the East and 15-16 percent elsewhere.
Saad hesitates to say precisely why that regional difference exists, but she does have some theories. "The home of Area 51 conspiracy is the West, so perhaps there's more talk and awareness," she said. She also proposed another theory, laughing: "They have better visibility in some of those Western states than we have out East. It's hard to see the stars out here in Connecticut."
"I wouldn't want to say conclusively," she added.
The polls related to a question that has a long and somewhat delicate history at Gallup: As part of their mission of tracking public opinion over time, researchers have to figure out when so-called fringe beliefs become un-fringe enough to ask about. Gallup was created in 1935, which means it’s had a front row seat for some of the hottest hysterias and most fervent public policy debates of the 20th century. Three years after they opened their doors, Orson Welles' War of the Worlds aired; Gallup found that about 70 percent of those surveyed knew it was a play, while another, highly unsettled 30 percent thought they were listening to a real alien invasion.
Gallup also periodically does a survey about paranormal beliefs—the last time was in 2005—which covers people's feelings about things like ghosts and ESP. It also asks pretty routinely about a few, conspiracy-tinged topics, like whether Americans believe there was more than one shooter involved in JFK's assassination. All of it, in Saad's estimation, has shown that the American public is receptive to the unknown. "A certain percent of people believe in a lot of things," as she put it. "People aren't straitlaced or very literal. There's quite a lot of openness out there to things that we cannot see."
That's especially true for UFO's, one of the oldest, most popular "alternative" belief systems there is. UFOs entered the broader public awareness around the 1940s, with the mysterious "foo fighters" that hung in the sky during World War II, the Roswell incident, and a string of UFO sightings across the country throughout the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s—some of which, the CIA finally acknowledged in 1993, might have been government agents flying secret spy planes.
The first time Gallup polled Americans about what they then called "flying saucers" was in 1966, when 91 percent of the people they polled said they'd never seen one. (Five percent said they'd seen one; and four percent hadn't heard the term "flying saucer.") In 1996, the company tried again: "Have you, yourself, ever seen anything you thought was a UFO (unidentified flying object)?" Disappointingly, 87 percent of participants said no, while a more interesting 12 percent said yes, and 1 percent, intriguingly, said they weren't sure or refused to answer.
The pollsters put the saucers to rest for the time. More than 20 years went by. And then things got publicly, visibly weird, to the point where the Navy created a new protocol for pilots to report sighting, and the Pentagon has had to acknowledge they have top-secret video of a particularly infamous UFO incident that occurred off the coast of San Diego in 2004, between Navy pilots aboard the USS Nimitz and something that looked like an enormous Tic Tac, moving in baffling ways.
Saad said Gallup will likely only keep polling Americans about UFOs on a "very occasional" basis, since they're not a "core topic" like politics or economics. Gallup is admirably careful about phrasing: The June 2019 poll doesn't ask if people who have seen a UFO believe it was piloted by an alien, only if they've ever seen one. "They might think it's a drone or a military jet," she said. That's why the company conducted a followup poll in August, to clarify what people believed the craft might be; at that point, they discovered 33 percent of those surveyed thought some of the UFOs might be the result of alien visitation.
For the people who had seen a UFO, she added, they didn't do a followup question asking what it might be: "It was… a little too deep in the weeds," she said, after a slight pause. "And you won't get enough people for that to be a reliable estimate in a single survey. You'd need to double that to feel you're getting a margin of error up there that was reportable."
But she also believes there's enormous value in asking about "alternative" belief systems, particularly since they can often reveal they're not so alternative after all. With the JFK assassination, for instance, a majority of people surveyed over the last 30 years tend to believe there was more than one shooter.
"When you get into the Kennedy assassination, you're intersecting not just with kooky conpiracy theories," Saad said, "but the fact that people don't trust the government to tell the truth. That's been an ongoing dimension of public opinion."
In the end, Saad said, "Being exposed to polling—it makes you empathetic to the public." Everyone, she said, "has their reasons" for holding a so-called alternative belief, be it personal experience, distrust of the government, or something else. "If you meet one person who believes in something for odd reasons, it doesn't mean that's everybody. I'm more interested in learning what people believe and probing why."