The Truth is Out There: A Q&A with Prof. Emeritus Ted Goertzel on the “Let’s Storm Area 51” Meme

It started as a joke. Or did it? Hmmm…

Weeks after a 20-year-old college student posted a Facebook event, “Let’s Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All of Us,” the post has taken social media by storm – fueling an otherworldly meme and more than one million RSVPs and counting to attend the Sept. 20 event.

Goertzel says that the UFO narrative attracted many people who hoped the UFOs would bring new ideas, new visions, and new technologies, such as a cure to cancer, an end to war, or travel at the speed of light.

So just what is it that fascinates people with Area 51, a highly classified U.S. Air Force facility in Nevada rumored to be the site of alien and UFO testing and storage? And what is it about conspiracy theories in general that capture people’s imaginations?

To unlock these answers, we turn to Ted Goertzel, a professor emeritus of sociology at Rutgers University–Camden and a research expert on the phenomena of conspiracy theories.

Because of the secrecy surrounding Area 51, it has become the subject of countless conspiracy theories. What is it about this facility that fuels speculation?

Area 51 is perfect because conspiracy theorists enjoy inventing speculative theories and challenging their critics to refute them. A top-secret military base is ideal for this kind of polemic because critics cannot get access to the base to refute things the conspiracists make up.

Refuting speculations is sometimes impossible because one can’t prove that something never happened. It may be possible to refute a specific piece of evidence, such as a fake video of an autopsy of an alien, but the conspiracy theorists can then just make another one.

Why are people drawn to conspiracy theories?

Some people are attracted to narratives about unseen, malevolent forces. They view the world as a struggle between good and evil. Conspiracy theories can also offer hope of revolutionary change, either brought about by the conspirators or by their defeat.

The professor emeritus says that Area 51 is perfect because conspiracy theorists enjoy inventing speculative theories and challenging their critics to refute them

The UFO narrative attracted many people who hoped the UFOs would bring new ideas, new visions, and new technologies, such as a cure to cancer, an end to war, or travel at the speed of light. But they have been a disappointment; none of this has happened.

Some true believers may think they can find some secret discoveries that the government has hidden away for some reason. Most probably just view it as a lark, but it could also attract some survivalists or militia members who really believe that the U.S. government is a malevolent conspiratorial force oppressing Americans.

Why do you think people have such fascinations with UFOs and aliens, and how do these fascinations fuel conspiracy theories?

Belief in aliens and UFOs has much in common with myths about angels and devils that people have enjoyed for centuries. As societies have become more secular, religious myths have been less persuasive and myths based on junk science have replaced them. New myths are needed because people tire of the old ones when they don’t come true.

As I noted before, the UFOs were expected to bring about utopian changes. Some people may really believe that the aliens have brought all kinds of exciting things, but that they are being hidden from us by the government.

While lighthearted, why do you think that the current social media meme, “Let’s Storm Area 51,” has gone viral like it has?

Goertzel notes how social media fuels conspiracy theories because it spreads them much more quickly than when people depended on mass media.

People are bored and enjoy poking fun at the scientific and technological elite. The towns around Area 51 have built tourist attractions with extraterrestrial themes. In many ways, this is a theme park experience. UFO enthusiasts need something more exciting to do than sit outside at night watching for lights in the sky.

How does the emergence of social media – and the ease by which people can communicate – fuel conspiracy theories?

They circulate much more quickly than they did when we depended on mass media. Success in the social media world depends on the number of clicks you get, and outrageous claims get clicks. To persist, however, a theme has to appeal to some emotional need; to something that people want to believe.

Anti-science theories, such as climate change hoax theories, the vaccines cause autism theories, the flat earth theories, and many UFO theories appeal to people who feel disrespected and manipulated by scientists and technologists. They want to assert that their beliefs are just as good as anyone’s, that everyone’s opinion is valid.

For instance, the theory that the Apollo moon landing was staged in a studio or that the earth is flat are easily refuted by anyone open to empirical evidence. Adhering to them asserts that you don’t care about scientific evidence, that you choose to believe whatever strikes your fancy. Anyone can look out of the window and see what the world is flat, why do we have to believe some scientist who says otherwise?

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