As I remember Las Vegas in the 1990s, alien conspiracies were about as hot as the summer sun. My parents frequently tuned in to TV shows like “Roswell” and “The X-Files”, one of the state highways outside of the city was renamed “The Extraterrestrial Highway”, and the minor league baseball team in town became the “51s.” However, Nevada wasn’t always at the center of an alien conspiracy. The attention began in earnest after a short interview on a local TV station in 1989. Investigative reporter George Knapp presented viewers to an anonymous man, revealed in later interviews to be Bob Lazar, who shared an extraordinary story.
As Lazar told it, he was hired through a contractor in 1988 to work at a secret military base known as Area 51 (Corbell, 2018). This area, a secluded and well-guarded military zone located at a dry lake bed named Groom Lake 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, had been long been a site of frequent U.F.O. sightings and suspicion (Prothero, 2017). On his first day, Lazar was taken to a mysterious complex of hangers south of Groom Lake called S-4. After going through intense security, signing documents allowing his home phone to be monitored, and waving his constitutional rights, he was shown a flying saucer and told his task was to reverse engineer the alien anti-gravity technology. There were nine saucers overall, and several of them were functional. He was then given documents with explanations of the extraterrestrial origin of the craft and drawings of alien pilots. He claimed to make a total of ten trips to the site during which he learned about the existence of stable “element 115,” the source of gravity for the propulsion system, and saw a glimpse of a small, gray alien with a large head standing between two men dressed in white coats. Convinced that concealing advanced technology and proof of alien life was a crime against science and humanity, Lazar shared his experiences with close friends and family and took them to see the flight tests. After a series of events leading to his dismissal from the facility, Lazar began to fear for his life and came forward to Knapp to tell his story (Jacobson, 2011).
In the months that followed the initial interview (the first of several), the secrets at Area 51 became a global phenomenon. Area 51 and Bob Lazar’s story have become part of a wide-ranging conspiracy: that the government, either the United States or a globalist “New World Order,” has alien technology and pilots hidden in a secret testing facility. Others take this belief further and claim that aliens live in the surrounding towns and instruct government pilots in exchange for humans as test subjects in scientific experiments (Knight, 2003). If these extraordinary claims were substantiated, they would shatter much of what is generally believed to be true about the U.S. Government, alien life, and technological capability. Nonetheless, an incredible number of people currently believe in these conspiracies and related ideas. For example, a poll in 2013 showed that about 91 million Americans (29%) believe that alien life exists and 66 million (21%) believe that the government covered up a U.F.O. crash at Roswell in 1947 (Public Policy Polling, 2013). Further, a recent documentary about Area 51 and Bob Lazar’s story indicates sustained interest in the truth at Groom Lake (Corbell, 2018).
As exciting as the possibility of anti-gravity spacecraft in Nevada might be, no physical evidence has ever been produced to validate Lazar’s and others’ claims about Area 51. In fact, Lazar’s story has drawn intense skepticism from the beginning. Many of the claims about his education and work experience, including his time at MIT, Caltech, and Los Alamos National Laboratory, cannot be verified (Jacobsen, 2011). He has also been criminally involved several times, including a 1990 conviction for aiding a prostitution ring (Bates, 1990) and a guilty plea in 2007 for shipping restricted chemicals across state lines (US Consumer Product Safety Commission, 2007), raising questions about his character. Possibly just as concerning, Lazar admits to using hypnosis to recall memories of his experiences at Area 51 in the new documentary (Corbell, 2018). Conversely, the U.S. Government has released troves of documents about the military base at Area 51 in the last decade which acknowledge the existence of the base (Kramer, 2013) and describe the purpose of the facility as a testing site for nuclear weapons and stealth American aircraft. In her book, Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base, Annie Jacobsen interviewed 19 men who served on the based secretly for decades as well as 55 other military and intelligence personnel with knowledge of the operations of the base who all corroborate the declassified information (Jacobsen, 2011).
Millions of people, including Bob Lazar and the producer of the recent documentary about him, continue to believe that the U.S. Government is involved in an alien conspiracy. It should be noted that the military has been highly secretive about any operations at the facility and only confirmed its existence five years ago. In addition, there is some evidence that the military may have fueled suspicion (or at least permitted the stories to be propagated) about alien aircraft in order to distract from their real operations (Jacobsen, 2011). However, with so much contradictory evidence available now, several cognitive errors seem to be at play in their commitment to this belief. First, scientific inquiry has established that our systems of perception and memory make consistent errors. Lazar (assuming he’s not completely fabricating his whole story) and those who claim to have seen alien spacecraft in Nevada likely saw something, but the human visual system predictably sees patterns with incomplete information. Further, confirmation bias makes it more likely to see and understand things in a way that confirms a previously held belief, such as the conviction about a government conspiracy already. Lazar could have worked at an Area 51 facility, but what he perceived is dependent on what he wanted to see. Second, memory is malleable, and the fact that Lazar and many other believers in alien encounters undergo hypnosis to remember their experiences raises concern about the origin of their claims. Third, Lazar and other firm alien believers have spent much of their time, money, and reputations to uncover the truth about this base. With any belief that involves high expense, cognitive dissonance makes it incredibly difficult to leave that belief behind when confronted with other information.
Like any conspiracy theory, the social context is an integral part of the belief formation. Fears about alien visitations and government conspiracies to hide them came about in the 1940s and 50s when lives were being uprooted and vanished by violent governments and new technology. The Cold War that followed was a time when governments operated in the dark and concealed military programs. In the face of misinformation and death, a person can feel powerless and alone. However, belief in conspiracies can provide a tempting escape, social support from other believers, and superiority over those who “can’t see.” It is often difficult and painful to gather substantiated evidence and reevaluate your own convictions, yet the decision to believe requires nothing but the conviction to do it.
Barring an actual alien invasion, Area 51 will likely remain a source of secrecy and conspiracy. With modern fears about new technology, corrupt governments, and continued clandestine operations of our military, it is no wonder to me why people hold fast to the allure of alien secrets. Those who do accept that premise may accuse me of simply believing the government’s narrative so I can maintain the illusion of comfort in my life. In fact, this isn’t true at all. I do believe that a government conspiracy is happening: a conspiracy by malicious governments around the globe to stir up misinformation about aliens, vaccines, fluoride, and reptilians to distract us from the very real ways they are killing and taking advantage of vulnerable people in pursuit of power.
Bates, W. “Judge Gives UFO “Witness” Lazar Probation on pandering charge”. (1990, August 21). Las Vegas Review Journal. p. 2c.
Corbell, Jeremy Kenyon Lockyer (Director). (2018). Bob Lazar: Area 51 and Flying Saucers [Motion Picture]. United States. Available on Amazon Video.
Globalcities. (2017). Majority of humanity say we are not alone in the universe. Retrieved March 27, 2019, from https://www.glocalities.com/reports/majority-of-humanity-say-we-are-not-alone-in-the-universe.
Jacobsen, A. M. (2011). Area 51: An uncensored history of America’s top-secret military base. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.
Kramer, M. (2013, August 17). Newly Declassified Map Reveals Area 51 Exists. Retrieved March 27, 2019, from https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/08/130816-area-51-space-ufos-nevada-cia-declassified/
Knight, P. (2003). Conspiracy theories in American history: An encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO.
Prothero, D. R. (2017). Area 51: what is really going on there? UFOs and U-2s, aliens and A-12s. Skeptic (Altadena, CA), (2), 42.
Public Policy Polling. (2013, April 2). Democrats and Republicans differ on conspiracy theory beliefs. Retrieved March 27, 2019, from https://www.publicpolicypolling.com/polls/democrats-and-republicans-differ-on-conspiracy-theory-beliefs/
US Consumer Product Safety Commission. New Mexico Company Fined, Ordered To Stop Selling Illegal Fireworks Components. (2016, August 22). Retrieved March 27, 2019, from U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission website: https://www.cpsc.gov/Newsroom/News-Releases/2007/New-Mexico-Company-Fined-Ordered-To-Stop-Selling-Illegal-Fireworks-Components/