The X-Files, Economics Edition: A Guest Post

Peter Leeson is the BB&T Professor for the Study of Capitalism at George Mason University. He is particularly interested in the economics of 18th-century pirates, as reflected in his forthcoming book “The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates.” His other interests include dominoes and U.F.O.’s. With such an odd and diverse portfolio, he is a natural fit with Freakonomics, and he has agreed to guest-blog here this week. This is his first of three posts.

Flying saucers and little green men? The idea that extraterrestrials might be visiting earth became popular in the U.S. at least 60 years ago. But over the last several months, a series of U.F.O.-related events — impressive enough to catch even the most hardened skeptic’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 U.F.O. really did crash in the infamous Roswell, N.M., incident in 1947. Mitchell’s comments came only a few months after the British Ministry of Defense released its “X files” to the public, documenting U.F.O. sightings going back to 1978.

Could the tools of economics help us get to the bottom of the U.F.O. phenomenon? That’s what fellow economist Claudia Williamson and I are hoping in our latest project that uses economics to analyze 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. The figure below plots total U.F.O. sightings in the U.S. for each state (per 10,000 residents) between 1997 and 2007 against total Bigfoot sightings in each state (per 10,000 residents) for the same period.


The relationship is strong and positive. States with more U.F.O. sightings also have more Bigfoot sightings. In fact, six of the top ten U.F.O. 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 U.F.O.’s 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 U.F.O. 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 U.F.O. sightings too. Whatever more mundane factors may be driving Bigfoot sightings are likely driving U.F.O. sightings as well.

A believer might point out that the top ten U.F.O. and Bigfoot states are all “great outdoors” states — states with lots of sightseeing, and therefore lots of opportunities to observe U.F.O.’s 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 U.F.O. phenomenon’s legitimacy.

There’s something to this response, but I don’t think it saves the U.F.O. phenomenon from additional doubt. First, although sightseeing may be more prominent in some states (on the surface at least), this wouldn’t explain why U.F.O.’s (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 ten U.F.O. and Bigfoot states share more in common than ample sightseeing opportunities. For instance, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and Colorado — both U.F.O. 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 (at least from this economist’s perspective) potentially most critically, tourism is an important industry in nearly all major U.F.O. and Bigfoot states. States with more frequent U.F.O. and Bigfoot “visits” attract curious tourists who bring their wallets with their curiosity. (Note: the pizza joint in the picture below is in Portland, Ore., a top-three U.F.O. state.) This may provide an incentive for locals to “see” U.F.O.’s and Bigfoot more often.


I’m curious as to what others think may be responsible for the U.F.O./Bigfoot relationship. I should point out that, despite nearly all my friends’ ridicule, I’m open-minded about the possibility that both Bigfoot and U.F.O.’s exist. Skeptics and believers: what say you?

Don Mills

Sorry, Silas (posting #70) -- your ignorance of UFO witnesses is profound. I don't know of any studies of Bigfoot witnesses, but mostly, "UFO hunters" don't come up with the goods; UFOs are much more likey to be chance observations. And probably one of the commonest comments by people who report them is, "I've never believed in UFOs, but ...".

A US Air Force study showed that the most puzzling UFO reports came from people who had good technical backgrounds (especially pilots, but also scientists). Usually, the witnesses had gone through the "escalation of hypotheses," from attempts to identify what they were seeing with known phenomena, to the realisation that the phenomenon they were seeing didn't match with anything they knew about.

This doesn't mean that they reported "airborne craft", alien or otherwise, only "unidentified aerial phenomena" (to use a synonym for UFOs) that exhibited very puzzling behaviour. And, of course, despite Professor Leeson's comment (and my own earlier), many of them are seen in broad daylight, not "against the night sky".

Those who are interested may want to follow up by reading the USAF-funded Condon Report ( Skip Condon's "Summary and Conclusions," which utterly fail to reflect the fact that over 50% of the cases investigated by the scientific team remained unidentified. Get to the meat of the report, written by the field investigators themselves -- such as, "this is the most puzzling and unusual case in the radar-visual files. The apparently rational, intelligent behavior of the UFO suggests a mechanical device of unknown origin as the most probable explanation of this sighting ... There is a small, but significant, residue of cases from the radar-visual files ... that have no plausible explanation as propagation phenomena and/or misinterpreted man-made objects."

[London, England]



Accurate or not, those inclined to believe an odd sighting in the forest is big foot, I would imagine, are the same who would explain strange lights in the sky as a UFO and visa versa. Simply put, UFO hunters are bigfoot hunters, too.

Don Mills

I have followed the UFO phenomenon for several decades, but only passively in recent years. Also, I moved "temporarily" from New Zealand to London 4 years ago, leaving my reference materials behind. But (leaving aside the "Bigfoot" relationship, and see Chuck Field, #54, re that), my memory tells me that an apparent high inverse correlation between number of UFO sightings and population density was first demonstrated (by Aime Michel? Or Jacques Vallee?) for French sightings from the 1950s. Similar results were shown for Italy in the 1960s (though later studies seemed to show the reverse), for Sweden round about 2000, and for Canada a year or so later. There's a map at , from the J Allen Hynek Centre, which can be interpreted as showing the same phenomenon for the USA: more UFO sightings from low-population regions than from high-population regions.

In all these studies, the uncertainties are high. How thoroughly have the reports been investigated to eliminate "conventional" explanations? Is it possible to plot sightings by relative "strangeness", rather than simple location? (Vallee and Poher, I think, performed a couple of studies showing that 70% of close encounters took place in isolated areas.) Are the plotted locations those of the phenomena, or those of the witnesses, and if the latter, how far away was the phenomenon and in which direction? To what extent do the plots depend on vagaries of reportage by local media? Are UFOs more likely to *occur* in low-density areas, more likely to be *seen* there, or more likely to be *reported* there? Is any correlation a mere sociological phenomenon, or perhaps simply related to the relative ease with which the night sky can be seen, away from cities?

Also, there are contrary studies; Nick Pope reported that a plot of UK sightings reported to the UK Ministry of Defence showed that they concentrated in areas of *high* population density. Similar results come from Italy. But the same questions apply to these studies as to the others.

Perhaps, as I suspect, the quality of the data is actually so poor that more research on this specific apparent phenomenon would be a waste of time. Or perhaps, nihil desperandum, more research is needed.


-- Don Mills [London, England]



Is there any data on other kinds of sightings in the more religious states or densely populated states? It would be interesting to see if Angels or images of Jesus replace Bigfoot sightings and UFOs.


Re: Dominic Poulin (#28), I'm always amused when observers on the ground can "calculate" the speed of objects in the air. They invariably do so without any instruments or sighting tools, and without knowing the size, altitude, or distance of the objects.

Something going 8,000 mph is going 133 miles per minute or 2.2 miles per second. 10,000 mph is 167 mi per min or 2.8 mi per sec. Now on the open ocean -- with no visibility obstacles -- sighting from horizon to horizon is c. 16 miles. Thus, an object moving at 2.2 mpmin, passing directly over the observer, would take 7 seconds; at 2.8 mpmin it would take less than 6. I defy anyone to be able to say they'd have been able that accurate a measurement, if such an object suddenly came streaking across the sky.

Note this is a best-case scenario which allows maximum observation time and maximum ability to measure, with no obstructions. If the object did not go over the observer, this means a lower time to observe it, possibly much less. Also, if the object changed its flight path, measuring would be complicated all the more. On land, observation time is reduced by buildings, trees, hills, whatever happens to be around because of the reduction of horizon-extent.

I grew up near an airport and know how difficult it is to gauge speed and distance of flying objects. Commercial planes going at the same cruising speed of 600 mph can appear very differently from the ground, depending on their size and altitude. I've also seen things like C-5's taking off from Westover AFB, which appear to be just hanging motionless in the air (while they are not the swiftest of planes, they are actually moving rather fast anyway) -- an illusion caused by their immense size.

Not to mention that, if such an object were to come into view, it would take time to register it and begin to process it mentally -- and accurately. Are a couple seconds enough? I have no idea, but somehow, I wonder if the odds are against it.

At any rate, "eyeballing" velocity of objects which appear suddenly at speeds of 8k to 10k mph appears, in my experience, to be all but impossible. What I suspect is that these objects are actually moving much slower, but the suddenness of their appearance and the brain's frequent inability to correctly judge distance, size and altitude, makes one conclude they're going faster than they actually are. In other words, the ultra-high speed is merely an illusion.



I am confuzzled by the 'these are the least religious states' :)
Wouldnt the reverse be more logical? After all, people who believe in burning bushes and mysterious appearances of stone tables on mountaintops be more inclined to see things not immediately believed by others?
Secondary, the Netherlands, one of the least religious countries in the world (if not THE least), has had not a single sighting of Bigfoot ;)
(nor any homegrown monsters, Nessies, Yeti's or the likes) - and to my knowledge does not have an abonormally high UFO sighting rate.

Personally? I think that there is life out there, but I dont believe that such life, had it developed the possibility for transstellar travel would then hide out in the Great Outdoor states...


You have a theory that fits the facts nothing else.

I could just as easily have a theory that aliens are studying bigfoot.

Or that UFOs are alien teenagers that are parking in the backwoods of the universe.

Or that if you see bigfoot or UFOs your mind becomes more able to see extreme things.

There are many possibilities that would fit the facts. Most likely you have spurious correlation.

Thomas Strenge

What a fun post. :-) Though a skeptic myself, there is another possibility for the correlation. What if Big Foot is a space alien who visits Earth to go for a walk (and tease us simple humans)? That would explain why you see UFOs wherever you see Big Foot. There are similarities between Big Foot and Star Wars Wookies. Maybe life does imitate art? ;-)


Quick question:

The comments I wrote yesterday weren't posted. Were they overlooked, lost in cyberspace or unworthy of being posted?



Oh, NY Times? Plural of U.F.O. is U.F.O.s, not U.F.O.'s. Don't be silly.


I wish to use the Chewbacca defence.

karyn frost

that pizza sounds so good right now. i grew up near Roswell and the alien decor is very popular! they should add "Yeti-Spaghetti" to the menu!!

Dominic Poulin

I was open-minded to both UFO and sasquatch existing. Then this summer for the first time I saw two UFOs travelling fast in the early morning sky above St-Lawrence river. I had a good vantage point along the river at Trois-Pistoles (the river is 50 miles wide at that level) and I calculated roughly the speed of these two UFOs to be about 8000 to 10000 miles and hour. This told me they were not F-18s in fact!

I thought the sasquatch had more chances to exist than UFO, and now I do not really know! I saw no sasquatch but the reality of an undiscovered hominoid species was more likely to me than UFOs.
After all, scientists find each year about 1000 new species of plants, birds, monkeys and other living creatures on this amazing planet, so why not accepting as probable that an unknown "hominoid" (bigfoot is closer to humans in its morphology than to apes, so it could be called an hominoid for the moment until proven wrong) has always inhabit the earth along Homo Sapiens Sapiens! Homo Neanderthalensis buried his deads, Homo Habilis had discovered fire, and Homo Erectus lived concurrently with Homo Sapiens, so perhaps the sasquatch, call him "Homo Americanus" or Homo Canadiensis if you wish, being so strong and omnivorous, survived the glaciations and migrated from Asia along the Bering peninsula when it was an ithmus in the late Eocene or early Pleistocene, and settled in the Rockies, before venturing elsewhere in the USA. Being already on top of the food chain, it did not evolved into a smarter hominoid like Homo Sapiens who evolved into Homo Sapiens Sapiens (the one who went to the moon...).

Existence of the sasquatch is very plausible when one studies the subject instead of simply discarding it and calling all witnesses fools, without any knowledge of the subject!

If this link between the two phenomena interests some readers, then they should read Budd Hopkins books, a serious and knowledgeable UFO researcher. I do not know which one (Intruders? or perhaps the book about the New-York state event, Linda Cortile's NY abduction book?). He hypothesizes at one point that the UFO passengers build underground bases in areas of sasquatch habitat (deep forests, mountains) so that people would stay away from these areas because of bigfoot presence, and therefore their bases would remain undetected by humans. He uses the examples of Mount St-Helens and NY state Hudson valley as areas of bigfoot and UFO reports. Hudson valley is also close to a US military base. So perhaps you should link the three and plot the relatioinship??

One thing appears totally unlikely; sasquatches travelling on UFOs; if both "critters" exist and subjects are related, sasquatches are more likely to be used as non-volontary guardians of the UFO areas. A not-too-evolved hominoid cannot be responsible to build UFOs, it does not fit the profile, and is way too big to travel aboard UFOs, or Boeings for that matter!

Interested readers may also look at the BFRO reports (Bigfoot Researchers Organization web site "") in the area of St-Andrews military base. A lot of bigfoot have been spotted close to this base, in the desert!! But they show different behaviour in that area, their eyes appear blue in the dark, and their gait are different than elsewhere, so perhaps the aliens have built some robots in a bigfoot image to keep their bases secret, and then we should look at the possibility that there is really an alliance of some sort between the US government and the aliens, and that they have their respective bases close to one another. So much for the "government for the people" then, if your government hides everything fun from you! "We the people" has become over the years: "We the illuminati (those who know)", and give to the others "panem and circentes!"

Do not reveal my name herein; I might receive the visit of some Men in Black! Statistics and economics can really put you in trouble; you do not know where to stop when you started!



Am I the only person who tends to hear and see things that I cannot readily identify when I leave my familiar densely-populated urban environment?

I remember how terrified I was the first time I heard a deer "scream" in the woods. I can assure you, that strange shriek filled my mind with at least a dozen horrible images. However, not one of them was of a deer signaling that a predator was near.

There is a reason we tell ghost stories when we go camping (other than because there is nothing else to do at night in the woods).

Dominic Poulin, PhD

Read this on UFOs...


Referring to past comments,

1) regarding UFOs and Bigfoot: Not only is there a correlation belief in and reports of encounters with UFOs and Bigfoot, but there is plenty of credible testimonial evidence supporting the link. (Far too much to go into here, but pertinent. See, for instance, the book Psychic Sasquatch.);

2) and, regarding UFOs in the age of digital photography: For whatever reason, many witnesses don't even think about snapping a picture until the event is over. On the other hand, we certainly have surpluses of intriguing drawings, photos, and videos to consider....


Historical research in the field of unidentified flying objects also shows another very strong the number of well documented U.F.O sightings increase, the number and intensity of debunking attempts soar as well. The results of Freedom of Information requests and other research over the last 50 years clearly documents numerous attempts by the military and clandestine services to dismiss, ridicule, hush-up and explain away the possibility that very advanced, intelligently controlled objects are routinely flying through our airspace and there is nothing we can do about it. While at the same time, the research shows that the problem has and is being covertly studied with great intensity by the same groups.

Why not take a shot at downplaying the most recent wave by poking fun at the entire problem by tying it to Yeti and wrapping it in a psuedo-economic analysis? It's still not going to make the reality of the problem go away though, is it?


Dominic Poulin, PhD

Now you are getting there, both Quanta and especially "Ourgovernemntbelieves ..." -what a strange name-. Why is it in our societies that many citizens see things clearly and can't do much about our governments? Perhaps we should start considering that bipartism is not a good political system, as huge interests in our societies control both parties, decide who get to be the nominees in both parties, support both of them and live with the election results very well!

Americans, be against personal gun control, against the microchips on credit cards, governments cards, elector cards, citizen cards, against any attempts by your governments, in the name of others, to control who you are, what you do, and what you decide. Ask your government to reconcile the defense spending and to make an audit report public to the PEOPLE on the use of the billions for the defense programs and really unaccounted for, for the holes in spending barely touched by the GAO, write to your representatives and ask them to be accountable and open to the people for the government spending and the actions of the CIA, NSA, Air Force security, and other agencies which exist without YOU THE PEOPLE knowing even their names and existence! Force your representatives to be open and accountable, and above all force your soldiers to work for the people. Irak was invaded supposedly because of the presence of arms of mass destruction, and then we found out that these arms did not exist at all, after the war! Only Powell had the guts to resign for what he believed in, but we carry on, and you accept that, you do not empeech your president, and a lot of folks even consider voting for his party again... Incredible. You are the laughing stock of the world, perhaps you should bring back a Ross Perot or some independent intelligent fellow who would work for THE PEOPLE for a change.
Force your government to tell you the truth about UFOs, and, regarding the sasquatch which, I do not believe represents a problem, at least some scientific studies paid by the government should be undertaken seriously. I do not believe the sasquatch is in any manner an out of worldly creature, it is an hominoid with 10% of man's intelligence, but UFOs are really a puzzled presence. They are the living proof that the Air Force cannot enforce their mandate to protect American sky, and therefore they hide the truth to the PEOPLE; I believe once we find out who and what UFOs are, it will be too late. I have absolutely no confidence in our leaders to take our best interests.
Ask FEMA to explain why they are spending billions to build 300 secret concentration camps in the USA. And for whom?
Again, explanation of correlation between the two subjects will be clear, if there is really a correlation and not a coincidence, once we know what these two phenomena represent. This beeing said, I will study this relationship by documenting myself, because I am surprised to see that a lot of people believe there is really a psychic or out-of-worldly aspect to the sasquatch. I do not know it frankly. An ape is an ape is... an ape!


Dominic Poulin, PhD

The essence of being openminded is to accept to study a subject and some data with an open attitude, without paradigms, and without knowing where this search will bring you. UFOs and sasquatches are not like religions; you do not believe or not believe in them. I do not believe in UFOs, I just know they exist. Religion is the art of believing without proof, while the sasquatch research is to study proof without asking yourself if you believe or not; from the data you can put an hypothesis on the table and try to prove it right or wrong. This is different than believing. I am always worried about people who believe without studying (I do not mean about religion, which, again, is different). I believe in evolution and found Darwin's theories of evolution interesting. I am not a creationist. Talking about Bigfoot (what a stupid name by the way, I prefer sasquatch, a coastal Indian -Salish- name meaning: "Wild man of the forest"), there appears to be several varieties of humanoids around the globe, mainly one giant man-apelike creature called sasquatch in Canada, yeti in Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan, bigfoot in the USA and skunk ape in Florida (another ridiculous name; why is it always the US researchers who make the others blush...) and the Australian Yowie are all similar in size and appearance. It exists in China where scientists study it, and in Russia. In China they tend to believe it is the Gigantopithecus Blackii, and ape, rather than an hominoid. Perhaps simply because the Gigantopithecus remains were found in China and its existence proven like the Neanderthalensis existence in Germany and Europe. In Russia they now tend to hypothesize that the sasquatch is really a Neanderthalensis who evolved in a bigger beast to face his cold habitats (look for the Bergman equation explaining why the beings are bigger in cold areas).

There are also small humanoids looking like Cromagnon men of about three feet high, called Jujungu (or is it Junjugu) in Sumatra (look at the report on National Geographic Network web site) and another name I forgot in Australia. These small hominoids are not seen in Canada nor in the USA, they inhabit jungles. At one time earth was inhabited by Homo Erectus, Homo Neanderthalensis, Homo Sapiens, Homo Habilis, Gigantopithecus Blackii (that was an ape, nor an hominoid) and other similar creatures that evolved separetely. We have fossils for all of those. So Homo Sapiens became the more intelligent (although sometimes we wonder...) of them all and prospered. The others either disappeared or still inhabit deep forests while watching us. There is place on this earth for several hominoid species. This will be really interesting to study once they are proven to exist. Unfortunately we might have to kill one and bring it back to NY, NY, before sientists accept to study them at last! Strange that Americans seem to grasp and understand only the beings they can kill!! It is not: "He thinks therefore he is" any more, it is more like: "I killed it, therefore it lives!!". (think hard about this one folks...)

Look at and start with the international sightings, the thread by an Australian professor Neil Frost, about the Yowie inhabited close to his secluded chalet, that he calls affectionately Fatfoot by sarcasm towards the US appellation of bigfoot. And also look at this scientist trying to hypothesize the origin of the sasquatch. Interesting stuff.

Coming back to statistics, you can take a lot of variables and try to correlate them and find some coincidences that you cannot explain. The fact that two variables seem to be corelated does not prove that they are really related, until we can explain why. It is not really scientific as an approach since you do not first state an hypothesis. In the case at hand though, well they may be a relation between BF and UFOs, but it is too complex to find with available data, and as long as your government hides everything about UFOs to its people, you cannot really progress, you are left in the dark. You should do something about your form of government before total fascism gain control of the Americas. At least here we are trying...


Alistair Morley

Take the logs of your data on both axis: your variables are ln-normal distributed and you need to correct for this in order to use regression.

It will incidentally improve your R^2.