Of all the people in the world who've claimed to have had UFO sightings or encounters, academics don't seem like the likeliest bunch — but a new survey shows that even they've seen things they can't explain.
In a surprising new study, which surveyed tenured and tenure-track faculty across 144 US universities, one in five academics admitted that they've observed something that could fit the US government's definition of an Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon (UAP).
Published in the journal Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, the survey asked academics around the country and across disciplines open-ended questions about whether they or people close to them had "ever observed anything of unknown origin" that would fit the US government's definition of an unidentified aerial phenomenon (UAP), which are broadly described as "airborne objects not immediately identifiable."
Just under one-fifth — 18.9 percent — of respondents said they saw something that fits that definition.
While it's a surprising result, delving into the numbers a little paints a different picture. For one, the response rate of the emailed survey was extremely low.
Only about 1,500 out of the nearly 40,000 academics who received the email responded, suggesting the results could be skewed significantly toward respondents who felt strongly about the topic and likely aren't generalizable, something the researchers admitted themselves in the paper.
Nonetheless, the study is a fascinating glimpse into the persistent taboo surrounding the topic of UFOs, which government agencies including NASA are starting to address head-on.
Though there were some unsurprisingly tongue-in-cheek responses — one person reportedly wrote back that "tenure might be tricky" for the team behind the survey — there were also some shockingly candid responses to the open-ended questions about faculty experiences, too.
"My entire family and I witnessed a UFO around 1976," one respondent wrote. "It was over our house in the rural northeast [state redacted]. Two of my siblings saw it, while the rest of us in the house felt it shake and heard a loud noise. We were eating dinner and the shaking was so intense that we all ran outside."
Another said that although they'd had two UFO sightings, they no longer told people because "they thought I was crazy or lying."
"So now I’m silent," the respondent added.
But does the data really show that every fifth professor out there believes in UFOs? Not really, and as the researchers argue themselves, that would be beside the point.
Especially given the stigma associated with the topic, the researchers admitted in their paper that "the results are preliminary" since many academics may have thought that the survey was spam.
"Most faculty reported some degree of curiosity about the UAP/UFO topic, perhaps suggesting they were more open to participating and less inclined to think the survey was spam, thus introducing bias," the researchers wrote.
The overwhelming majority of respondents also reported at least some level of skepticism.
"This survey was an exploratory study on a topic that to our knowledge has never been investigated," the paper reads. "The purpose was to take the pulse of faculty on a subject that continues to grow in mainstream society."
Very few respondents said they were "not at all aware" of the growing media coverage of UFO sightings in the news, especially ever since the New York Times published a front-page report about the Pentagon's secretive UFO program.
The study is a fascinating look into the stigma surrounding the topic of UFOs — and the researchers are hoping to set the stage for a productive conversation.
"Given that faculty in our sample think academic evaluation of UAP and related research are important, we hope that this study adds credibility to discussing the topic openly," said co-author Bethany Bell, associate professor at the University of Virginia, in a statement.
"Without engaging in a conversation about what is occurring in our federal government, how can faculty begin to evaluate information related to this topic?" she added.
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