This week the Trump Administration opened a new office called Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) so Americans could report victimization at the hands of what Immigration and Customs Enforcement called “criminal aliens.” The office, and its 1-855-48-VOICE hotline for reporting “alien” crime, are widely seen as part of a propaganda effort aimed at depicting immigrants as violent and dangerous. (VOICE officially targets “illegal aliens,” but Homeland Security secretary John F. Kelly said that the perpetrators were “often” in the U.S. illegally, leaving room for legal immigrants, students, and tourists to be included, too.) Anyway, the internet was unhappy with the rather transparent attempt to create a climate of fear (real crime rates among immigrants, legal and illegal, are lower than for the general population, according to the FBI), so many did the most logical thing and took the government literally. They started calling in reports of UFO sightings, space alien abduction, cattle mutilations, etc. After all, they’re “aliens,” too. ICE was not amused.
“Their actions seek to obstruct and do harm to crime victims; that’s objectively despicable regardless of one’s views on immigration policy,” an ICE official said in a statement reported in The Atlantic.
Actually, it’s pretty much the opposite. It’s using one dumb idea to demonstrate the vile underpinnings of another, and that is hardly despicable. If the government truly cared about crime victims, it would put its money into providing actual victim services at the local level, where they are needed, rather than creating a flashy hotline to garner ecstatic headlines on Fox News, talk radio, and the right-wing blogosphere. You will note, for example, that the government placed this office within ICE rather than the Justice Department, and limited its efforts helping victims connect to local resources only to crimes committed by immigrants. Apparently other types of crime are unworthy of the same extraordinary outreach.
But the calls reporting UFO activity did remind me about a story that ran in the New York Times this week about a Syracuse couple who have taken it upon themselves to develop an index of UFO sightings in the United States, grouping reports geographically and by shape of object for the years 2001 to 2015. There are 371 pages of charts and graphs, but no narrative account. The book is called U.F.O. Sightings Desk Reference, and it contains data collected by MUFON and NUFORC. The authors are Cheryl and Linda Costa. The former you will remember as the local alternative newspaper UFO columnist. The other is a longtime devotee of the International Fortean Society, according to the author notes included in the book. Both claim to have had several UFO encounters.
Compare their self-descriptions to how the New York Times described them: “The authors are Cheryl Costa, 65, a former military technician and aerospace analyst, and her wife, Linda Miller Costa, 62, a librarian at Le Moyne College and a former librarian at the National Academy of Sciences, NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency.” The Times wants to minimize their involvement in fringe causes to grant them greater credibility.
While the book seems at first glance like a worthy endeavor, there are of course a number of problems that stripping the data to charts and graphs does not solve. First, because it starts with the assumption that reports of observations of any object in the sky fall under the rubric of UFOs, it means that the data almost certainly contain misidentified aircraft and astronomical events and some outright lies. This would distort the resulting charts without some methodology for sorting out what we mean by “UFO.” In the book, the authors, in a weirdly casual way, state that they believe that “like under 6%” of their data actually refer to extraterrestrial spacecraft. They note that they made no effort to vet the reports because to do so would take too much time, and they blamed the government for being “unwilling to take responsibility” for evaluating whether a given UFO sighting refers to alien spacecraft. So what is the purpose of the book? “We note that short of solid CSI evidence, eye witness (sic) testimony can get you convicted in any court in the country.” On one page they both concede that their data is at least 94% noise, and that they haven’t attempted to vet any of it, but that it is enough to “convict.” Awesome.
The Costas include several pages describing themselves as “outraged” at the government and at elite scientists for failing to take UFOs seriously, and they explain that they prefer to surf the internet for UFO reports than to investigate whether any of them can be confirmed with evidence.
According to the authors, UFO sightings have spiked dramatically between 2001 and 2015, rising from 3,479 to 11,868. In the very last line of the article, the Costas reveal the most important point: “In the end, the Costas noted, the spikes may have a lot to do with media coverage.” In other words, when cable TV starts in on a wave of UFO shows, like in 2004-2006 and again from 2010-2014, more people report seeing UFOs. What a shock. The Costas say they are doing “scientific work,” but the problem is that the “data” that they collected tell us nothing about what is or is not flying around in the sky. Because it is simply a chronicle of witnesses’ self-reports, it only tells us what people think they are seeing, where they think they are seeing it, and how many people are envisioning alien spacecraft in various shapes, sizes, and colors. It is a chronicle of psychology, perhaps, but not a useful set of data on what flying saucers are doing in our skies.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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