Jason Goodwin: ‘We have dropped the UFOs and the phantom social workers, just as we once dropped the fairies’

Our spectator columnist comments on the decline of UFO sightings, suggesting that it's much more likely that we've stopped paying attention than that the little green men have stopped visiting our planet.

According to The Times, reports of UFO sightings have fallen off a cliff. Except for a stalwart in Cardiff, who still observes and reports lots of them, very few people these days are calling the police to ask about strange lights, odd shapes, unexplained noises or burn marks on the grass. The article claims that camera phones mean that people no longer see things that aren’t there, but I’m not sure about this.

Cameras aren’t everything. As someone who once spent an evening at Prussia Cove with a woman who worked for the US Post Office and whose eggs, unfortunately, had been harvested by aliens, I believe in keeping an open mind.

Before UFOs, people saw fairies. Whereas everything about UFOs is metallic, slick, automatic and hypermodern, the Little People were small versions of country folk, with caps and bright eyes and high-pitched chatter. Metal is sometimes invoked against them.

Crop circles.

Crop circles in Utah.

Although people described fairies and UFOs in different terms, they experienced them in a very similar way: full of strangeness, tricks of time and scale and occasional menace. William Blake, as a child, witnessed a fairy funeral and fiddlers sometimes testified that their better tunes came from fairy encounters.

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A famous sighting of translucent fairy girls sitting on leaves was captured on camera in the 1920s and convinced Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was grieving for a son lost in the First World War. The Cottingley Fairies were later revealed as a hoax, but as fairy sightings declined, UFO sightings increased. I would be wary of writing them off.

Newspapers are hardboiled institutions, which deal with events and causes in their own way. The Times, no doubt, subscribes to the Whiggish, Darwinian myth of progress, buttressed by a materialist view of the universe. Materialists believe that the universe and everything in it, including our minds and imagination, the dreams of cats and dogs and our conception of a God, is composed of chemicals and atoms arranged according to immutable physical laws.

‘Eventually, everything will be explained’

There is no purpose behind any of it. Scientists can gradually scrape away at the layers of ignorance, according to this view, so that from learning that the Earth moves around the Sun, we are now able to detonate hydrogen bombs and create life-saving drugs. More knowledge leads to less superstition, and, eventually, everything will be explained and no one will have any more delusions or visions.

That is a widespread belief and it satisfies some people, although leaves others feeling adrift in a cold, uncaring cosmos. Of course, it isn’t quite true. There are many things that may never be open to explanation or proved beyond doubt.


One of those things is consciousness, why it exists and where it lies. Belief is another. The Times assumes that UFO sightings are in decline because people have been given smarter tools for debunking them, but you could argue that most people these days are so busy looking at their phones, their satnavs or their smart watches that they simply don’t look up much and fail to see what’s going on. You might as well suggest that UFOs have grown weary, or wary, of coming to see us. It’s hard to be 100% certain.

It might be that we, ourselves, are between metaphors. We have dropped the UFOs and the phantom social workers, just as we once dropped the fairies; something else, some other crowd delusion, or apercu, is just around the corner.

I hope it’s not any worse than fairies. W. B. Yeats wondered about it, too, a century ago. ‘Things fall apart,’ he wrote in his The Second Coming. ‘And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Jerusalem to be born?’