The Mass Panic Over ETs Myth

UFO Mythology Meets History – Would people really freak out when they learn that ETs are real?

Accompanying the rise of public awareness of UFOs in the late 1940s was the idea that people will panic in the streets at the idea that there are extraterrestrials. This assumption is still a frequent part of conversations about UFOs and is central to multiple narratives about the phenomena, in particular the Disclosure narrative. But would there really be a mass panic when we learn that we are not alone in the universe?

The media sensationalized (lied about) what actually happened. (Source: public domain)

Reasons to Believe No

Exhibit A for the mass panic idea is the reaction to the infamous “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast of 1938. Orson Welles and his radio theater company adapted H.G. Wells’s Martian invasion novel and presented it as a realistic but fake news broadcast. On that night, the day before Halloween, some people did panic, unfamiliar with the relatively new medium of radio and the idea of a fictional news broadcast. However, the commonly believed idea that the broadcast caused mass panic is false. The level of panic was greatly exaggerated the next day by the newspaper industry in their eagerness to cast aspersions on the radio format. Later research has shown that the sensationalized stories of mass panic were false. Even those who believed the radio show was really about a real extraterrestrial invasion didn’t panic but responded sensibly and rationally.

Scientific studies have shown that incidents of mass panic are relatively rare. Mass panic is rare even when people are under military attack. When war or disaster strikes, people will act to save the lives of themselves and those around them far more often than flying into a destructive panic. People do behave irrationally in response to things that they fear, but we’d be hard-pressed to find incidents in which events led to significant, widespread mass panic. (Further Reading: An overly long but good discussion of the mass panic myth.)

So Why the Myth?

There’s a great line, “A person is smart, people are dumb.” Yes, it was said by a fictional character in a comedy movie (Men In Black), but it expresses a grain of truth. An individual, left to their own devices, will usually respond rationally to situations. Individuals swayed by the crowd are more likely to do something stupid. People can be swayed by propaganda and peer pressure to do things they wouldn’t do on their own. Perhaps this explains the myth that people will panic when we learn that extraterrestrials exist. But again, history shows that even in incidents when large crowds are subjected to stress, mass panic is rare. The conventional wisdom that “people are dumb” may apply to TV shows and elections, but there’s no reason to think people will have a mass freak-out when extraterrestrial life is discovered.

The mass panic myth may come from the military. The military mindset tends to reduce things to simplistic power relations–who’s stronger, who’s weaker. It is plausible that within the military establishment the idea would develop that those outside the military are too weak to handle the existence of extraterrestrials. Therefore, if (and that’s a big IF) the military knows that there is an extraterrestrial presence on Earth, they might assume the weak civilian public can’t handle that fact. If the military assumes the public can’t handle the truth and would react with destructive mass panic, the military would suppress that truth. That’s internally logically consistent, and, hence, a possibility.

Another possible source for the mass panic myth is the UFO community attributing it to the military. Their idea that fear of mass panic is the reason that the military is covering up the ET presence is central to some UFO theories. For the same reason, it is also part of the Disclosure narrative that the government and military will eventually admit an ET presence. There is no solid evidence that anyone has definitive knowledge that extraterrestrials exist, much less are visiting our planet. That in turn means that there’s no solid evidence that the military is covering up anything to prevent mass panic. Doesn’t mean they aren’t engaged in a cover up, but even if they aren’t, it’s convenient for some UFO theories to include the mass panic idea. UFOlogy is not strong in realistic thinking.

What Will Happen When We Discover ETs?

Nobody knows, but given human history, the reaction will be varied, not monolithic, and there’s no reason to believe there will be mass panic. I am reminded of a science-fiction novel I read as a teenager. I forget the title, but it was about first contact with an intelligent extraterrestrial species that occurs off-Earth. A single human female space explorer runs into a single member of an insectoid race (shown on the cover). What I do strongly remember is the conclusion of the novel. After communication between the two species is established, and I paraphrase: “between the two species, the scientists share knowledge, the philosophers find new ways of thinking about philosophical problems, and the religious and atheists find, in the other species, those who share similar beliefs, and all are satisfied.”

I found that conclusion to be realistic. People being people, they will adapt to the new reality of the existence of extraterrestrials. It is what people do. It is what people have always done. When it’s proven that we aren’t the only intelligent species in the universe, some people will be excited, some will be frightened, and some will hate it. It’s what humans do. There won’t be mass panic.

If anyone out there does have proof of extraterrestrials, and is suppressing this information because they think people can’t handle this truth, I say: stop being so condescending. Tell us the truth. We can handle it.

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