The X-files economics

The X-files economics
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First Published: Wed, Sep 03 2008. 10 28 PM IST
Updated: Wed, Sep 03 2008. 10 28 PM IST
Flying saucers and little green men? The idea that extraterrestrials might be visiting earth became popular in the US at least 60 years ago. But over the last several months, a series of UFO-related events — impressive enough to catch even the most hardened sceptic’s attention — have burst onto the scene.
In late July, respected Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell publicly announced that Pentagon officials confirmed for him that aliens exist, that they have visited earth, and that a UFO really did crash in the infamous Roswell, New Mexico, incident in 1947. Mitchell’s comments came only a few months after the British ministry of defence released its “X files” to the public, documenting UFO sightings going back to 1978.
Could the tools of economics help us get to the bottom of the UFO phenomenon? That’s what fellow economist Claudia Williamson and I are hoping in our latest project that uses economics to analyse the American flying saucer phenomenon.
We’re still in the early data collecting stages of our project; but in doing so we’ve come across an intriguing pattern. States with more UFO sightings also have more Bigfoot sightings. In fact, six of the top 10 UFO and Bigfoot states are the same: Washington, Oregon, New Mexico, Alaska, Wyoming and Colorado. Two states, Washington and Oregon, are among both categories’ top five.
If you’re like many people, you may think it’s at least possible, though perhaps very unlikely, that UFOs are real. When it comes to Bigfoot, on the other hand, you’re quite certain he’s not real. If this is you, how should the pattern in this figure influence your beliefs?
At first blush, I think it should reduce your confidence in the validity of the UFO phenomenon. The data suggest that alien spacecraft and Bigfoot tend to visit the same states with similar relative frequencies. Since you think Bigfoot sightings are bogus, this should raise red flags about UFO sightings too. Whatever more mundane factors may be driving Bigfoot sightings are likely driving UFO sightings as well.
A believer might point out that the top 10 UFO and Bigfoot states are all “great outdoors” states — states with lots of sightseeing, and therefore lots of opportunities to observe UFOs if they’re real, and apparently to mistake bears for sasquatches as well. So the pattern in the figure need not increase doubts about the UFO phenomenon’s legitimacy.
There’s something to this response, but I don’t think it saves the UFO phenomenon from additional doubt. First, although sightseeing may be more prominent in some states, this wouldn’t explain why UFOs (airborne craft seen against the night sky) tend to be observed in the same places that Bigfoot (a woods-inhabiting creature seen mostly only in daylight) sightings occur — even if both phenomena are “real.”
Second, a number of the top 10 UFO and Bigfoot states share more in common than ample sightseeing opportunities. For instance, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and Colorado — both UFO and Bigfoot hot spots — are among the least religious states in the country, which might impact their citizens’ likelihood of “seeing” both phenomena.
Finally, and potentially most critically, tourism is an important industry in nearly all major UFO and Bigfoot states. States with more frequent UFO and Bigfoot “visits” attract curious tourists who bring their wallets with their curiosity. This may provide an incentive for locals to “see” UFOs and Bigfoot more often.
I’m curious as to what others think may be responsible for the UFO/Bigfoot relationship. I should point out that, despite nearly all my friends’ ridicule, I’m open-minded about the possibility that both Bigfoot and UFOs exist. Sceptics and believers: what say you?
Edited excerpts. Peter Leeson is professor, George Mason University. Comments are welcome at
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First Published: Wed, Sep 03 2008. 10 28 PM IST