“Who Believes in Roswell?”

November 14, 2011

What has come to be known as “the Roswell Incident”—the alleged mid-1947 retrieval of a crashed flying saucer and its humanoid crew from the desert near Roswell, New Mexico—continues to be controversial. It is the Holy Grail of UFOlogy, and many believe the truth is being covered up by a government conspiracy. However, skeptics cite evidence that what really crashed on Max Brazel’s ranch was a secret U.S. spy-balloon array from Project Mogul (an attempt to monitor Soviet nuclear tests). Only later were alien bodies added to the story, through repeated hoaxes, proliferating urban legends, and the confabulated memories of aging witnesses.

Now journalist Frank Borzellieri has waded into the controversy with a new approach. For his Masters thesis at Fordham University, he determined to conduct in-depth research into the question expressed in the title of his resulting book, Who Believes in Roswell?, subtitled, Discovering the Profile of the Roswell Believer (New York: Western Academic Press, 2011, 160 pp.).

The results are illuminating. People who believe in the Roswell myth, compared with those who do not, tend to be less well educated, for example. As Michael Shermer observes: “This finding completely makes sense. Educated people across the board are less religious, less likely to believe in the paranormal, ESP, and conspiracy theories. All of the survey findings over the past 25 years on ESP find a reverse correlation with education. As education goes up, the belief in those things goes down” (p. 47).

Roswell believers are also more likely to be superstitious; religious (particularly Catholic); politically conservative, or—especially—apolitical; non-white; over 65 years old; born in the United States; residents of small towns (rather than cities or suburbs); believers in psychic powers (“a remarkably high difference” from skeptics); believers in spirits of dead loved ones (over three times as credulous); and believers in extraterrestrial contact (ten times more likely to believe); among other findings. Interestingly, there is no statistical difference in Roswell belief between men and women.

Among particularly interesting findings is that “The more knowledge one has about the Roswell incident, the more one is likely to believe the alien version of Roswell.” Whereas Friedman attributes this to people learning “the facts,” I attribute it to the preponderance of non-skeptical—even fraudulent—information on the incident, noting that “skeptical books” about it “don’t sell well” (pp. 28-35).

These few highlights do not do justice to Borzellieri’s efforts. Those interested in the Roswell myth—especially those concerned about the public’s propensity to hold bizarre conspiracy-theory beliefs—should quickly add this valuable book to their library. (For more on the Roswell Incident itself, see my “Return to Roswell,” Skeptical Inquirer, Jan./Feb. 2009, pp. 10-12.)