How Wealthy UFO Fans Helped Fuel Fringe Beliefs

In a 2017 interview with 60 Minutes, Robert Bigelow didn’t hesitate when he was asked if space aliens had ever visited Earth. “There has been and is an existing presence, an ET presence,” said Bigelow, a Las Vegas-based real estate mogul and founder of Bigelow Aerospace, a company NASA had contracted to build inflatable space station habitats. Bigelow was so certain, he indicated, because he had “spent millions and millions and millions” of dollars searching for UFO evidence. “I probably spent more as an individual than anybody else in the United States has ever spent on this subject.”

He’s right. Since the early 1990s, Bigelow has bankrolled a voluminous stream of pseudoscience on modern-day UFO lore—investigating everything from crop circles and cattle mutilations to alien abductions and UFO crashes. Indeed, if you name a UFO rabbit hole, it’s a good bet the 79-year-old tycoon has flushed his riches down it.

But it’s also a good bet that Bigelow would see this differently. After all, both the media and Congress are now solemnly discussing a supposed massive UFO cover-up by the U.S. government. There’s even proposed legislation to open the X-Files! “The American public has a right to learn about technologies of unknown origins, non-human intelligence, and unexplainable phenomena,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York harrumphed in a recent public statement.

This legacy of plutocrat-backed fringe science comes as political partisanship, corporate propaganda, and conspiracy mongering continues to sow distrust in science. One lawmaker, Representative Tim Burchett of Tennessee, recently said, “The devil’s been in our way,” claiming a “cover-up” of UFO reports by military and intelligence agencies.

Such talk was once solely the domain of Internet fever swamps and late-night conspiracy- themed radio shows. Now it’s part of the political mainstream. This doesn’t happen without Bigelow (and other wealthy eccentrics) greasing the way with their fat wallets. For example, Laurance Rockefeller was undoubtedly the most prominent UFO benefactor in the 1990s. The wealthy heir financed numerous UFO panels, conferences and book-length reports that kept flying saucers in the public discourse.

From a scientific standpoint, all this money seems wasted on a zany quest that is akin to the search for Bigfoot or Atlantis. The same might be said of Harvard astrophysicist Avi Loeb’s recent hunt for evidence of extraterrestrial life off the coast of Papua New Guinea, which cost $150,000 and was funded by cryptocurrency mogul Charles Hoskinson. Loeb’s polarizing claims of finding traces of alien technology and of having a more open-minded and dispassionate approach to fringe science have garnered a truly staggering amount of media coverage, but his peers in the scientific community are rolling their eyes.

It’s the latest stunt by Loeb, who also helms a controversial UFO project and previously drew the ire of his colleagues with outlandish claims about the supposedly artificial nature of an (admittedly weird) interstellar comet. Steve Desch, an astrophysicist at Arizona State University, recently told the New York Times: “What the public is seeing in Loeb is not how science works. And they shouldn’t go away thinking that.”

True, but as communication researcher Alexandre Schiele wrote in a 2020 paper for the Journal of Science Communication, what people see about “science” is usually on TV, particularly via sensationalist programming on cable channels  such as Discovery and the misnamed History Channel, where viewers are “bombarded with aliens, ghosts, cryptids and miracles as though they are indisputable facts.”

Unfortunately, much of this nonsense has, at one point or another, been masked with an aura of legitimacy by prestigious institutions. For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology lent its imprimatur to an alien abduction conference in the early 1990s—which Robert Bigelow helped pay for. A generous benefactor to academia, Bigelow also gave millions to the University of Nevada during the 1990s to study supposed psychic phenomena, such as telepathy, clairvoyance and the possibility of life after death. (In recent years, the billionaire has turned his attention and money largely to the afterlife.)

Indeed, there is a long tradition of fringe science at prestigious universities. The dubious field of parapsychology, for instance, owes its existence to the decades of pseudoscholarship churned out at Duke and Harvard University–and financed by wealthy private patrons. Some of our most illustrious thinkers, such as the eminent psychologist William James, have fallen for it. Belief in Martians sprang in large part from a wealthy amateur astronomer, Percival Lowell, who built the observatory that still bears his name. A University of Arizona psychology professor attracted criticism in recent years for taking money from the Pioneer Fund, founded in 1937 by textiles magnate to promote the racist science of eugenics.

Eventually, this wacky stuff, be it ESP or UFOs,makes its way to Congress and the Pentagon. That’s how we end up with people in government-funded programs who claim they can bend spoons with their minds or walk through walls. And that’s how we end up with the Department of Defense giving Robert Bigelow $22 million from 2008 to 2011 to investigate UFOs, werewolves and poltergeists (seriously) on a Utah ranch.

This would be the same ranch Bigelow had already bought after reading a story in a Utah newspaper about how the property was teeming with UFOs, including one “huge ship the size of several football fields.”

Does this sound familiar? If so, that’s because in recent weeks, a number of similar hard-to-fathom, evidence-free UFO claims have echoed without challenge through the halls of Congress and all over television networks. Among the most eyebrow raising: tales of recovered saucers, hidden alien bodies, and a football field–sized UFO spotted over a military base.

Guess what: You can draw a line from these outlandish assertions to the vast repository of so-called studies once funded by Bigelow. In fact, some of the people he contracted to write them, such as astrophysicist Eric Davis, have acknowledged speaking (behind closed doors) with Congress.

To say UFO enthusiasm has swept Washington D.C. is not an overstatement. In recent years, there have been three Congressional hearings and two Pentagon task forces. NASA is about to deliver its own verdict after a year-long study. As Timothy Noah writes in the New Republic, “UFOs are fast becoming the most-studied topic in American governance.”

Perhaps, but Robert Bigelow will tell you that nobody has studied the topic more than him. He might be right. Whatever the latest UFO whistleblower says and whatever Congress turns up, you can bet that Bigelow already paid for it.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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