A password will be emailed to you.

Seems the big headline to come out of this week’s release of United Kingdom UFO Files is: “UFO sightings may have been down to ‘X Files’“. The hypothesis inspiring these headlines is that UFO sightings rise dramatically when sci-fi movies or television shows hit the big time. With Reuters taking that line of attack, it’s ended up being the approach of most news outlets around the globe. Then, the meme jumped into the social networking, with retweets around the Twitter network of this ‘big news’:

A cluster of UFO sightings over Britain in 1996 may have had more to do with public fascination with TV shows like the “X Files” than extraterrestrial activity, according to files released by the National Archives on Monday.

Documents from Britain’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) indicated there were 609 UFO sightings in 1996, compared with 117 in 1995. This coincided with the rise in popularity of the X Files and the release of the alien blockbuster film “Independence Day.”

Except no, it wasn’t so much according to the files – rather, according to Dr David Clarke, a researcher into the UFO phenomenon who is acting as consultant to the National Archives for the file release. Dr Clarke voiced his opinion – whether an off-hand comment, or something he sincerely believes in, I’m not sure – and the papers have run with it.

Now first up – I highly respect David Clarke’s research, and efforts to gain access to historical documents regarding the UFO phenomenon. He approaches the UFO phenomenon in a hard-nosed and scientific manner, as it should be – he was a co-author on the excellent Channel Islands report. But this particular meme has got rather out of control.

Yes, I’m sure big TV and movie events contribute to some rises in sightings. But…

(a) It doesn’t explain the core phenomenon, which is a fairly common 5 to 10% of ‘unexplainables’. Serious UFO researchers have for a long time recognised that the vast majority of reports are ‘noise’ (see Mac Tonnies’ comments on this)

(b) The claim is based on a lot of sloppy post hoc thinking.

To follow up on the second point: surely if its true, the release of E.T. – perhaps the biggest alien contact movie of all time – would have resulted in a huge spike? Perhaps also Cocoon, which certainly featured the theme of UFOs coming and aliens making contact, and was a box-office hit? Big sci-fi movies are quite common – so if you want to prove this particular theory, it’s relatively easy. Find the spike, then find the sci-fi movie released that year – just ignore the dips in reports.

But it does pay to be a bit careful about it. For example, the claim that the massive spike in 1996 was supposedly due in large part to the release of Independence Day. A quick perusal of the international release dates for that movie shows that it was released in August 1996. Now, going through the Ministry of Defence files, I count around 500 pages of reports before the August 9 release of Independence Day in the UK…

So we not only now have UFOs, but we have people seeing into the future as well. Bonus!