Monday, October 05, 2020
No need to exaggerate numbers of UFO reports
Yes, Virginia, the number of UFO reports is higher during the pandemic.
As someone who has been studying UFO report data for many years, I have seen fluctuations in yearly and monthly trends, and changes in the characteristics of the objects reported over time. I have made this data available for anyone to examine since the late 1980s, and I have worked with investigators, researchers and organizations to publish an annual Canadian UFO Survey that tabulates and breaks down the data for easy consumption.
Rarely, however, have I been asked by media or journalists about my research. Pop culture dictates that media darlings attract more interest than anyone presenting facts and doing critical analyses.
But recently, I was asked about news stories that either suggest UFO reports have increased during the pandemic or that such an increase is “greatly exaggerated.” Which is right?
Since 1989, details about UFO reports in Canada have been solicited from all known and active investigators and researchers for analyses and comparison with other compilations. Before that time, individual researchers usually maintained their own files with little or no communication to others. Even today, it is known that some representatives of major UFO organizations often do not regularly share or share case data, and some parent organizations do not do much analyses with the data they do receive, although this is changing.
Ufology Research of Manitoba (now Ufology Research) conducts a systematic collection of raw UFO report data in Canada and prepares yearly reports for general circulation. We believe the dissemination of such data could be of great advantage to researchers in the hope of better understanding the UFO phenomenon.
Statistical studies of UFO data are not without their limitations and problems. Allan Hendry, formerly of the Center for UFO Studies, in his landmark book The UFO Handbook, pointed out flaws in such studies and asked: “... do UFO statistics represent a valid pursuit for more knowledge about this elusive phenomenon, or do they merely reflect frustration that none of the individual reports are capable of standing on their own two feet?” (1979, p. 269)
Hendry asked six questions of statistical ufology:
1) Does the report collection reflect truly random sampling?
2) Have the individual cases been adequately validated?
3) Are apples and oranges being compared? Are NLs necessarily the same kind of UFO as DDs?
4) Are differing details among cases obscured through simplification for the purpose of comparisons?
5) Does the study imply the question: “Surely this mass of data proves UFOs exist?”
6) Do the correlations really show causality?
The Canadian UFO Survey was undertaken with these and other critical comments in mind.
For the annual Canadian UFO Survey, UFO reports were obtained from contributing investigators’ files, press clippings and the files of the National Research Council of Canada (NRC). The NRC routinely received UFO reports from private citizens and from RCMP, civic police and military personnel. Included among the NRC reports are many observations of meteors and fireballs, and these had been added into the UFO report database since 1989. Many of the reports were obtained via email and online newsgroups, and when social media became widely used, reports have also been received via Facebook, Youtube and Twitter. Finally, some declassified documents of the Department of National Defence contain reports of unusual objects in Canadian airspace, and these also have been included in the database.
The number of UFO sightings officially reported each year in Canada throughout the past 25 years was initially comparatively small. In 1989, 141 UFO reports were obtained for analysis and in 1990, 194 reports were recorded. This yearly number has risen over the years to around 1,000 reports each year. As of 2019, the Canadian UFO Survey has run 30 years, 12 years longer than Blue Book officially existed, and has more than 21,000 UFO reports as data, several thousand more UFO reports than Blue Book itself.
As noted, one trend that I have been reporting on for a few years is that the number of UFO reports in Canada has risen steadily during the past 30 years, but may have plateaued in about 2013, remaining around 1,100 reports per year. The past few years has seen a definite drop in cases, and 2019 actually recorded only 849 reports.
[NB: As can be seen by the data and analyses presented in the annual Canadian UFO Survey, most UFO reports either have possible/probable explanations or have insufficient information for evaluation. Very few are left unexplained, and even these don't mean that aliens are visiting Earth.]
A graph of more than 30 years of data shows the general increase over time, as well as fluctuations and peaks in report numbers.
One aspect of the Canadian UFO Survey is that data are tabulated and the statistics run in the early part of the following year. Usually, results of the annual study are posted in about March of the following year. In 2020, for the 2019 survey, the pandemic delayed the production until the summer. The analyses of the 2019 data showed a decrease in the number of UFO reports over 2018, the previous year.
However, by summer 2020, there were stories in media that UFO cases had increased during the pandemic, while others said they had not done so. I decided to look at the first half of 2020 for case numbers to supplement the 2019 results. I was surprised to find that the claims of an increase appeared true.
A comparison of MUFON report data for Canada during the first half of 2020 with that of the same period in 2019 showed a distinct increase.
Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Total
2019 16 28 21 10 25 25 125
2020 23 24 35 46 43 25 196
There were 71 additional cases in Canada reported to MUFON between January and June of 2020 than in 2019, or an increase of about 57 per cent.
Yet in an article in Astronomy magazine it was argued that the increase in UFO reports during the pandemic is “greatly exaggerated.”
When overall MUFON UFO data was examined, it was found that:
There were about 3,800 cases reported between January and late September of this year, which is a roughly 20 percent increase compared to 2019.
This was for all UFO reports, both national and international, and for all reports submitted during that time, not just occurring during that specific period.
Steve Hudgeons, MUFON international director of investigations, was quoted in media:
“It's not really that alarming. It fluctuates a lot,” says Hudgeons, who admits to fielding many questions about the subject this year. “I wouldn't say there’s a large increase at all.”
But they say that level of annual variation is normal for their dataset. And, in fact, reported cases have mostly been declining in recent years.
There’s no question that annual UFO report numbers go up and down from year to year. However, even 20 per cent could be significant. And more than 50 per cent of an increase in the case of Canada appears significant. Why would Canada be different?
The writer for Astronomy magazine also looked at UFO reports as noted in the database of the National UFO Reporting Center (NUFORC), which is another source of data for the Canadian UFO Survey.
“…most of the news stories written about the rise in sightings have taken their numbers from another online reporting site called the National UFO Reporting Center. Like MUFON, they've been collecting accounts of UFO sightings for nearly half a century, largely through a phone hotline and, in recent decades, an online form.
“Back in April, they [NUFORC] received more than twice as many reports compared to the same month the prior year. But those numbers happened at the height of lockdowns, at the same time a sensational news story was published in The New York Times that revealed previously classified footage of UFOs captured by American fighter pilots. But soon after, their reported sightings returned back to 2019 levels-which were significantly less than they were just 5 to 10 years ago.”
The implication here is that the NYT story precipitated the rise in UFO reports in NUFORC’s database. The problem is that this is very selective.
Let’s look at the NUFORC data for the first six months of 2020 versus 2019:
Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Total
2019 349 219 328 389 543 477 2305
2020 604 604 808 1036 556 359 3967
As noted in the Astronomy article, April reports in 2020 for NUFORC were very high compared with 2019, in fact not just “more than twice as many” but closer to three times as many. And yes, that was the month that a public relations firm helped advance the US Navy media story about the USS Nimitz UFO videos.
But as can be seen in the full data, the increase in UFO reports in 2020 began in January, with almost twice as many that month, and nearly three times as many in February, all before the media blitz in April.
If you look at NUFORC data in January to June 2020 compared with the same time period in 2019, there is an increase of about 72 per cent.
Now, have UFO report numbers fallen back to “normal” levels since then? Yes. But was there an increase in UFO report numbers during the pandemic? Maybe.
Lockdowns in Canada did not occur until March 2020. During than month and April 2020, MUFON UFO report numbers in Canada increased from 35 during the same period in 2019 to 89 in 2020.
But the NUFORC data showed large increases in UFO reports beginning in January, long before the reality of the pandemic was really felt in the USA. So it would not seem that the increase during the first quarter of 2020 had anything to do with the pandemic.
Rutkowski hopes the reason there’s a spike in UFO sightings during the pandemic is because Canadians are getting outside more, working from their backyards and appreciating nature.
“It’s a beautiful sky out there and there’s lots of opportunities to see some things,” he said.
Note that my explanation has nothing to do with aliens or extraterrestrial spacecraft, although the Astronomy article mocked UFO sightings in the context of wishful UFO fans reporting “alien encounters.”
The facts are that UFO report numbers have increased during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether there is a causal relationship between the pandemic and objects observed in the sky remains to be seen. (Pun intended)