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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?